Friday, December 28, 2018

The Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking 2018 - Part 2

So was Santa good to you all then?  Finished all the turkey and ready for a bit more reflection on 2018 with Blues Enthused?
One of the highlights of the second half of the year was a first visit to the Carlisle Blues Rock Festival back in September, for two out of its three days.   A brilliantly organised affair, it was blessed with a cracking bill, the Saturday night topped off by a set from Thorbjorn Risager & The Black Tornado that was a hit from the minute their guitars starting cranking out the riff to ‘If You Wanna Leave’.
Thorbjorn Risager rocks the flat cap look
Carlisle also offered a first chance for me to see the Chris Bevington Organisation, who offered up one of the most straight ahead, good-time albums of the year, with the rocked up blues outing Cut And Run.  A 9-piece outfit featuring horns, keys, backing singers, and the kitchen sink, they pulled together great songs, quality musicianship and a great sound, in an album that crackled with enthusiasm from start to finish on tracks like 'It Ain't Easy'
Worth noting for their willingness to do something a bit different in the album stakes were Big Boy Bloater, with Pills, and Jawbone, with their self-titled debut album.  The Bloat fella’s album may not be solid gold – there are a couple of misfires, for my money – but with his rough-edged rock’n’roll, rougher-edged voice, funny lyrics and penchant for B-Movie tales, as well a neat line in Nick Lowe-ish country fare, he’s still a breath of fresh air - see what you make of 'Friday Night's Alright For Drinking'.  And Jawbone are similarly refreshing, as they take a late Sixties Big Pink vibe and transplant it to 21stCentury Britain, with a heap of strong songs, contrasting lead vocals from Marcus Bonfanti and Paddy Milner, and a readiness to let Milner’s piano set the tone as much as Bonfanti’s guitar.  They also have a nice way with a lyric, as '2 Billion Heartbeats' demonstrates.
Right now there are a host of great female roots music artists out there in both Britain and America, and one of the standout albums of the year came at the hands of one of them – Kansas City’s Danielle Nicole, who released her second solo album Cry No More back in March - and picked up a Grammy Award nomination for Best Contemporary Blues Album at the tail end of the year.  No sign of her coming to Europe for live dates in the near future though – unlike Shemekia Copeland, Ana Popovic and Samantha Fish, who are all going to be within hailing distance for me in the same week in May!  Never mind, here's Ms Nicole casting a 'Hot Spell'.
A new find for me on the female singer front this year was Tierinii Jackson, of Memphis-Southern Avenue, who delivered a crackling performance at the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival in the summer.  If Vintage Trouble are your kind of band, then you may well enjoy Southern Avenue, although they also stir a spoonful of gospel into the mix.  Here they are getting funky on ‘Rock Steady’, with Tierinii Jackson in typical Little Miss Dynamite form.
Danielle Nicole has a quiet evening in
based soul-blues outfit
On the book front, this year I’ve been working my way through Stuart Cosgrove’s ‘Soul Trilogy’, comprising Detroit 67Memphis 68, and Harlem 69.  The books cover a lot of ground, such as the development of Motown and Stax, and key events in black culture like the Detroit riots, the assassination of Martin Luther King, and the emergence of the Black Panthers.  But much of the pleasure is to be found in the characters Cosgrove turns up, many of whom are unfamiliar.
In the latest book it’s interesting to come across someone like Betty Mabry, who was married to Miles Davis for a term, a friend of Jimi Hendrix, and by the sound of it an all-round cross-cultural phenomenon.  A catwalk model, club owner, songwriter and singer, Cosgrove paints her as a forceful, networking catalyst in the emergence of jazz-rock and fusion.
Or there’s King Curtis, a workaholic sax player, band leader, arranger, musical director and talent scout, who I must confess I’d never heard of before, but whose mid-Sixties band The Kingpins at one time or another included famed drummer Bernard Purdie, and the still developing Hendrix.  Here they are cooking up a 'Memphis Soul Stew'.  It says something about Curtis’s status that for a while the Kingpins were apparently Aretha Franklin’s preferred backing band.
And with the death of Aretha earlier this year, that seems like a good point at which to close the lid on 2018.  So here is the Queen of Soul, doubtless an inspiration for some of those singers listed above, showing how it’s done on ‘I Never Loved A Man The Way I Love You’.

You can find Part 1 of the Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking here.


Monday, December 24, 2018

The Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking 2018 - Part 1

“When I was 56 . . . it was a very good year,” Frank Sinatra didn’t sing.  All the same,  I reckon 2018 has been a damn good year for music.  
Blues Enthused doesn’t really go in for baubles and charts, rankings and ratings.  Some albums will resonate with you forever, some gigs will blow your mind.  But other musical moments give you just the pleasure you’re looking for on a particular day, in a particular place.  Like a butterfly, they may not last, but they’re still thesound that captures your attention, right there and then. How do you put a number on that?
Still and all, it’s nice to reflect on a few things that stand out, as we approach the end of the
year. So here are a few highlights of mine – what were yours?
Ian Siegal in everyday lounge wear
The most singular blues roots album of the year, to my mind, came from that incorrigibly engaging curmudgeon Ian Siegal, with All The Rage.  As stiletto-sharp lyrically as ever, he skewered the Trumpian zeitgeist in a number of songs, including opening track ‘Eagle-Vulture’.  But the album also had songs of a warmer, less edgy nature, like the funky ‘Sailor Town’, with its curious yet uplifting refrain, “Everybody skate backwards”.   And if that wasn’t enough, on his Spring tour promoting the album I caught him delivering a barnstorming performance in Edinburgh.
All the same, that wasn’t the most soul-shaking live show of my year.  That honour goes to Little Steven and The Disciples Of Soul in Whitley Bay back in July.  You can see good gigs by bands you love, but now and then there are nights when they hit the ball out of the park, and this was one of them.  As I said at the time, if you didn’t come out of this gig punch drunk from smiling, what do you want from life?  Steve and the gang have Blue-Ray product from the Soulfire tour coming out in the New Year, but in the meantime here they are doing ‘Bitter Fruit’ in Liverpool.
An honourable mention in the live stakes goes to King King, also in Whitley Bay back in May.  But in all honesty Alan Nimmo’s crew were transcended this year by the unexpected autumn revival of the Nimmo Brothers with – well, with his brother Stevie.  On home turf in Glasgow, they could have played the Take That songbook and gone down a storm.  Well, maybe not, but in any event they didn’t take any chances and delivered a stonking set of twin guitar blues-rock.  Here they are showing their more sensitive side though, with 'Waiting For My Heart To Fall'.
The Nimmo Brothers - "Hey Stevie! Did we leave the oven on?"
Also on the podium in both the album and live show stakes are The Temperance Movement.  An idiosyncratic bunch, they can conjure up The Faces and The Black Crowes, but most of all they’re themselves.  And their uniqueness is captured most of all in the madcap form of front man Phil Campbell, a jumping jack of a live performer who combines the energy of Jagger with the rasping rock’n’soul vocal chords of Rod Stewart.  And that mixture of the original and the familiar extends to their 2018 album A Deeper Cut, which is right up there with the best of the year in my book.  They conquered the bizarre snowstorms of March as well, with a belter of a show at the Barrowlands in Glasgow.  I’ll be catching them again in February, supporting the mighty Blue Oyster Cult, who I haven’t seen since the Seventies.  Can’t wait!  Meantime, here they are doing 'Built-In Forgetter' in the relatively tame environment of a TV studio.
Now, Ian Siegal may be inclined to compliment his audience on having good taste rather than settling for “shoddy rock music”, as he did in Edinburgh.  But I grew up listening to straight up hard rock, and I’m still partial to someone who can rock a power chord.  Which brings me to Wayward Sons, who sure as hell rock, but aren’t at all shoddy.  The creation of one time Little Angels main man Toby Jepson, their show in a small but packed club in Edinburgh back in April was electrifying.  They could be the road not taken by Def Leppard after their second album High’n’Dry - an adventure in high voltage melodic rock with the feel of an uncut diamond.  Check out this wacky video of 'Until The End', and you'll see that they're also tremendous fun. More to come from them in 2019, I'm thinking.
So there’s a few things for you to chew on after your turkey.  Better than watching the Queen's Speech, I reckon.  There’ll be more from Blues Enthused before the New Year, but in the meantime, Merry Christmas one and all!

You can find Part 2 of the Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking here.

Saturday, December 22, 2018

Starlite Campbell Band - Bannermans, Edinburgh, 19 December 2018

My other half didn’t make it to this gig.  She’d gone out for lunch with a pal, and come down with a dose of vino excessivus. Which was a pity, because her absence depleted the audience for the Starlite Campbell Band by about 5%.  But you know what?  The small audience didn’t matter.  Not one bit.
Why is this?  It’s because the Starlite Campbell Band go the whole nine yards, that’s why.  They deliver good songs with great musicianship.  And they put on a show, regardless of the paltry audience.  Clad all in black, guitarist Simon Campbell has a penchant for a bit of Ian
Simon Campbell - "It's Edinburgh in December, it's night,
and I'm in a cellar. And I'm wearing shades.  Let's rock!"
Anderson style arm waving while he’s singing, for one thing.  And he and his bassist missus Suzy Starlite bop around the stage like a couple of unselfconscious, if not entirely sprightly, 20-year old rockers.
The set is drawn largely from their 2017 album Blueberry Pie and Simon Campbell’s solo stuff, in particular his 2011 solo debut ThirtySix.  It’s Sixties-style British blues fit for the 21stcentury, with sharp lyrics, and it’s great fun right from the rocking opener ‘Brother’, with sizzling guitar from Campbell over bubbling bass from Starlite and punchy drums from Steve Gibson, all the way through to the end of a near two hour performance.
Along with newly-flown-in-from-Spain keys man Gabriele Del Vecchio, they conjure up twitchy funk on the well-constructed ‘Preacher Of Love’, with its ‘Heartbreaker’-style riff. Campbell isn’t frightened to go for it, ripping out chords over a subterranean rumble of bass and whacking floor toms on ‘I Like It Like That’, before embarking on an adventurous guitar wig-out.  And then he goes and delivers an intro to the slow blues of ‘Cry Over You’ that is pure Gary Moore at his most restrained.  It’s a typically clever arrangement, to which Campbell adds a devastating solo, full of light and shade.
And so it goes on, through song after song.  Starlite is a damn fine, supple and grooving bassist, who legend has it only picked the damn instrument up four years ago.  Witty lyrics are scattered around liberally, and Campbell weaves guitar sorcery hither and yon to which Gibson adds sharp percussion accents.  And Del Vecchio, god bless him, without the benefit
of any meaning rehearsal, gets drawn into an entertaining bout of extemporised guitar/organ interplay on the smoky Sixties style blues of ‘Misgivings’. They even manage to get all spangly Beatle-ish on the brand new song ‘Take Time To Grow Old’.
Campbell and Starlite - mad for it
Down the stretch there’s old-fashioned boogie with picked guitar on ‘Hot As Hell’, a cover of Free’s ‘Mr Big’ on which Starlite gets a featured spot on which she does justice to Andy Fraser on a twangy bass feature.  There’s their latest digital single ‘Heart Of Stone’, which has a grinding ‘Green Onions’ groove laced with stinging injections from Campbell.
And then – and then, folks – they close out with ‘Walkin’ Out The Door’, the opening track from Blueberry Pie.  And this slice of mid-Sixties style soulful blues, with some wah-wah atmospherics, gradually morphs into Led Feckin’ Zeppelin, the riff tipping the hat to the likes of ‘How Many More Times’ while Starlite channels John Paul Jones with an increasingly mountainous bass line.  And Campbell goes into mad axeman mode, conjuring up a howling guitar interlude with the aid of an old-fashioned echoplex box of tricks – real analogue tape, boys and girls – ahead of an echo-laden solo.  Greta Van Fleet eat your juvenile hearts out.
You probably think I’m making this up, that I had a few too many Christmas sherbets and lost touch with reality.  But I’m not and I didn’t.  This was the real deal, scintillating stuff, delivered to 20 odd people. Simon Campbell and Suzy Starlite are mad for the music, and mad for each other – and their enthusiasm is infectious.  This tour’s just about done, but if you find them coming your way in the future - go see ‘em.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Listened to lately - Ana Popovic, Amanda Fish, Broken Windows and Suzie Vinnick

Ana Popovic – Like It On Top

Outstanding.  If what you’re after is power chords and shredding, then move along, nothing to see here, ‘cause there ain’t none of that on this album from Ana Popovic, largely co-written with, and produced by, Keb' Mo'. More fool you though, because this is, like I said, outstanding.
What we have here is a collection of slinky funk that melds the Pointer Sisters’ ‘Slowhand’
Ana Popovic - Look, no hands!
with Macy Gray’s debut album, but delivered by a gang of blues maestros.  And lyrically, whereas Macy Gray was all edgy, manic sexuality, Popovic is confident, knowing womanhood.
The title track features Robben Ford, who I guess is responsible for the top quality lead guitar, and probably contributes to a jazzy, “everything falls apart” moment. The funkiness is ramped up on the likes of ‘Sexy Tonight’, a Kenny Wayne Shepherd composition on which he contributes both guitar and vocals on an excellent bout of punch-packing bump’n’grind. And ‘Funkin’ Attitude’ has the sassiness you might expect from the title, with squealing guitar, out of the ordinary backing vocals, and some Stevie Wonder-ish keyboards in the margins.
This is nothing though, compared to ‘Slow Dance’.  Here we have a delicious turn around the floor, and an interior monologue in which the female voice explains that her dance partner, the poor schmuck, should absolutely not regard her as a sure thing.  It’s a dreamy affair, with a breathy vocal and almost whispered guitar, set to a lilting tempo.  Perfection.
That may be the peak moment, but other highlights include ‘Virtual Ground’, a less-is-more exercise with supple drums, a Steely Dan sheen, and sprinkles of guitar fairydust from Popovic, and the laid back, bluesier ‘Brand New Man’, with a sizzling guitar solo that’s made to sound effortless.  And just for a bit of variety there’s ‘Matter Of Time’, a stripped down blues with minimalist guitar that folds some slide into the mix, and nothing else but voice and tapped percussion.
There’s more besides, but if you’ve listened to that lot the message should be clear – it’s the songs, stupid!  And if I’d collared this when it was released in September I’d have drooled over it at greater length.  Like It On Top is, frankly, one of the best albums of a very good year.

Go to Ana Popovic's website for details of tour dates in Britain and Europe in 2019.


Amanda Fish – Free

In case you didn’t know, Amanda Fish is the big sis of Samantha Fish.  But if you’re expecting them to sound like two peas in a pod then think again.  Sure, there are a few blues rock songs here that could easily have fitted into Sam’s early albums.  ‘Not Again’ for example, with its ominous, throbbing riff; the intense, heavy and gritty ‘Going Down’ – nothing to do with Freddie King, folks; and the moody, back-to-basics ‘Bullet’, But vocally Amanda has much more in common with fellow Kansas City soul-blues singer Danielle Nicole – and Danielle Nicole at full throttle at that.
And indeed there are a couple of Nicole-like outings of muscular, funky soul early on.  But the second half of the album underlines Fish’s lung power even further.  ‘You Could Be’ starts off slow and steady, with just piano and voice, before taking off into power ballad territory.  ‘Here We Are’ ratchets that up further, slow and tense to begin with, but with good use of dynamics and peppered with slide guitar en route to a big crescendo.  But this all just warming up for ‘Don’t Mean A Thing’, a song of agonised relationship betrayal that features some truly gut-wrenching vocals, leading up to a Holy Moly moment in which Fish’s singing takes on full force gale proportions.
She isn’t a one trick pony though, and the best thing here is in a different vein.  ‘The Ballad Of Lonesome Cowboy Bill’ is the kind of blues-country crossover Shemekia Copeland does so well, a well-crafted tribute to the disappearing wild characters of late night American radio, founded on acoustic strumming but with excellent slide colouring that may well be down to Bob Margolin, who guests on the track.
Contrastingly, ‘The Bored And Lonely’ is an edgy affair that draws a line back through grunge to Noo Yoik New Wave aesthetics.  And then to close Fish flips from that to a soulful piano and vocal intro on the title track, and then as Chris Hazelton’s organ swings into earshot it explodes into a full-tilt gospel workout.
Free is probably a bit overlong, and could do with a couple of its twelve tracks being trimmed to give it more focus.  But with all the material penned by Fish, who also plays bass throughout as well as contributing various guitar, piano and mandolin parts, this second album suggests there could be a lot more to come from her.

Broken Windows – Songs By Liz Jones

Having scribbled a few words recently about a support slot performance by Broken Windows, and referenced their contribution to the Jock’s Juke Joint Vol.4 compilation, I thought I’d take the opportunity to say a bit more about their album, released earlier this year.
Broken Windows aren’t a blues band, though they’ll play a blues now and then.  What they are is something fresh and singular, revolving around the songs and voice of Liz Jones.  If you want a comparison, then KT Tunstall might be a reasonable touchstone at times, or Nerina Pallot perhaps.  Or maybe neither - you choose.
Broken Windows - not a blues band, just a shade of blue
Songs like the eponymous ‘Broken Windows’, with its subtle, smoky opening, and ‘Dangerous Game’, incorporate elements of jazziness, not least in the sometimes ultra-bendy bass of Rod Kennard, and the swing of Suzy Cargill’s percussion which, augmenting Marc Marnie’s drumming, often gives a Latin feel to proceedings.  In turn that gives licence to guitarist John Bruce to explore some Santana-esque sounds, as on the ‘Sambi Pati’-like guitar figure of ‘Make My Night’, over some sweet acoustic strumming and smoochy singing from Jones.  He brings some similarly clear-toned soloing to ‘No Gold’, a showcase for the subtle phrasing and variety in Jones’s singing, as she draws out the sensitivity of the song.
Jones has a way with an intriguing, intimate lyric, as on ‘Wild’, which plays off acoustic jangling against Cargill’s rhythms, until the rhythm section sidles into play in readiness for a jazzy fiddle break from Andrew Hennessey. ‘Stay’, with its line about "When I wake I see your naked shoulder", is a sunny and energetic affair, and reminds me of the softer side of the Faces, of all people, while ‘Roll Me In’ starts in restrained, dream-like fashion, with moody keyboards from Ali Petrie, before changing gear into an up-tempo middle section featuring bursts of scrabbly guitar licks from Bruce.  Must confess I haven’t entirely unpicked those lyrics yet, but I’m working on it.
Fittingly though, the final word goes to Jones, with the delicate intertwining of voice and sparse acoustic guitar on the brief and contemplative ‘Wise’.  As the originator of this album she deserves a round of applause for coming up with such an interesting batch of songs, inspiring the rest of her Broken Windows gang to do them justice.

Songs By Liz Jones is available on digital download from Bandcamp, via www.lizjonessings.co.uk.

Suzie Vinnick – Shake The Love Around

I’m indebted to fellow blogger Rocking Magpie for putting me onto this album by Canada’s Suzie Vinnick, released earlier in the year.  If you like the way Bonnie Raitt ranges across blues and country-ish roots music, then you may well like this.
Vinnick has a characterful voice, that carries the day nicely on the opening track ‘Happy As Hell’, in conjunction with a shuffling intro and twiddly blues riff, before bass and vocal harmonies are gradually added to the mix.  The other side of her Americana style is on
show in the following ‘The Golden Rule’, a folky affair that brings to mind Joni Mitchell, with a catchy melody, some sweet falsetto phrases from Vinnick, and a lyric reflecting on social justice – or the lack of it.
The best song here though, is ‘A Hundred And Ten In The Shade’, which is set in the cotton fields and manages to convey the sense of sweltering heat with its lazy tempo and cicada-mimicking percussion – and again a perfectly pitched vocal from Vinnick.
It’s indicative of Vinnick’s range that she can bracket that with ‘Watch Me’, all guttural guitar riff and real bluesy feel, and ‘Crying A River For You’, a spare and convincing love-and-regret song delivered over pattering drums.  And she’s more adventurous still on ‘The Danger Zone’, a downbeat blues about a “world in uproar”, cleverly arranged for just voice and bass.
Things maybe get a bit samey as the album progresses, though a touch of accordion brings some variety to ‘Beautiful Little Fool’, along with a sparkling guitar solo.  The good stuff outweighs those reservations though, and Shake The Love Around is yet another in this year’s growing pile of keepers.



Saturday, December 15, 2018

Nine Below Zero - Stramash, Edinburgh, 13 December 2018

Christmas is coming, innit? It’s time for a party, and Nine Below Zero are just the band for the job.  There’s eight of them crammed onto the Stramash stage, but they still deliver a good-time cracker of a performance, mixing originals and covers and blending blues’n’soul styles with consummate ease.
They open up with a breakneck version of ‘Tore Down’, with stinging guitar from Dennis Greaves, followed by the good-time soul’n’r’n’b, which are good pointers to their origins as fired up, New Wave-ish rivvum’n’bloozers.  And the set duly includes rollicking readings of
The girl said, "Don't play that song" guys!
‘Hootchie Coo’ and ‘Got My Mojo Working’, the smash’n’grab of ‘Three Times Is Enough’, the big gritty riff of ‘Soft Touch In A Hard World, and the Jam-like closer ’11 Plus 11’ to cover that side of their repertoire.
They have a likeable way with pree-zen-tashun as well.  Greaves may play a rather battered-looking red Tele, but he’s turned out all Mod-like in black shirt, skinny white trousers, and a cream-coloured long coat, while Mark Feltham on harp is all in black, with shades and a smart black titfer for good measure.  And the sharpness extends to the repartee.  Early on Greaves demands that the crowd squeeze forward “close enough so I can smell ya”, before expressing disapproval of a punter’s apparel. “You’re wearing the wrong t-shirt,” he says, deadpan.  “It says Dr Feelgood.  That’s like going to a Tottenham match wearing an Arsenal match.  Wrong.”
Geezer-ish isn’t their only modus operandi though.  Their version of the classic ‘Don’t Play That Song (You Lied)’ is itself a classic, singer Charlie Austen doing a wonderful rendition of anguished youthful heartbreak, with the counterpointed backing vocal from Feltham of the “darling I love you” lie.  It’s one of those perfect, hurt-ridden soul songs, and they do it justice.  As they also do the smooth, slow funk of ‘You’re Still My Woman’, with a trumpet solo from Paul Jordanous, and the later ‘Never Too Late’.  On the latter Feltham delivers a magnificently sweet, bird-like harp solo, which Greaves follows with pinging, popping guitar, before Mickey Burkey weighs in with a witty drum solo – although, brevity being the soul of wit and all that, sixteen bars less would have been just dandy.  And they delightfully sunny on the much more English, Kirsty McColl-like ‘Do We Roll’, with Austen again supplying the vocals.
But if it’s blues you want they’ve got it, notably on ‘Riding On The L&N’, where the quality of Burkey and his rhythm partner Ben Willis leaps to the fore, the latter whacking out tremendous bass runs.  And that’s just the foundation for a wild Feltham harp solo, some big
Greavesie goes for searing
sax from Chris Rand, and some rock’n’roll geetar from Greaves – a good precursor to their version of ‘Rockin’ Robin’.  ‘Stormy Monday Blues’ is a more subtle affair, with some wonderfully churchy keys from Andrew Noble – for a very tall man remarkably invisible in a corner at the back – before they build to a crescendo on which Greaves delivers a searing solo.
Fun is their trademark though, and they close their main set with a suitable knockout punch in the turbo-charged form of Wilko Johnson’s remarkably ska-like ‘Twenty Yards Behind’. In the hip-hop parlance of yer modern yoof, I think the right word to describe Nine Below Zero would, aptly, be “cold”.
Support band Delacroix fit the bill nicely too, parcelling up some tight and sturdy R’n’B that’s solid on all fronts.  Tomlin Leckie is an engaging front man with a good voice, bobbing and weaving and playing with a smile on his face as he switches between harp and rhythm guitar. They deliver an energised reading of ‘Crossroads’, driven along by impressively punchy drums and grooving bass. The soulful slowie ‘Sarah Smiles’ has a catchy descending riff, and if Harry Higgs overplays a bit on his guitar solo then he redeems himself later with a smarter, more dynamic effort on ‘Blues With A Feeling’.  He and Leckie also contribute a convincing guitar/harmonica face-off on the venerable ‘Shake Your Hips’, peaking with a clever discordant harmonised moment between them.  I liked ‘em.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

Jock's Juke Joint Volume 4 - Various Artists

Happily, the first thing to be said about this latest selection of tunes from a range of Scottish blues artists is that they all pass muster - no duds, and with a pleasing degree of variety on display.  Several of the acts featured have been covered at Blues Enthused before as well, so watch out for the links below to learn more.
But to begin at the very end, the least blues-like and most astonishing offering here comes in the form of Neil Warden’s album closer ‘The Alchemist’.  With his Weissenborn lap steel guitar to the fore, over dreamy soundscapes courtesy of Stuart Mitchell, the veteran Edinburgh guitarist delivers an instrumental that comes over like a cross between an Arabic
Neil Warden - prepare to be astonished
version of ‘Cavatina’ and Angelo Baddalamenti’s theme for Twin Peaks.  Calling this atmospheric is like saying Usain Bolt is a bit nippy – listen and be struck dumb.
The opening track is an entirely different kettle of fish, in the form of ‘Too Many Guitars To Give Up Now’, the title track from the latest album by Andy Gunn.  A slice of good-time boogie infused with the spirit of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’, it references Gunn’s youthful discovery of “Jerry Lee, Little Richard, Fats Domino” as it barrels along with handclaps, rocking piano, and a fizzing solo from Gunn.  Its closest relation here, stylistically, is the rockabilly-leaning ‘Pebble By Pebble’ from Used Blues, an energetic romp garnished with shots of blues harp from front man Andy ‘Honeyboy’ Smith to complement the guitar of Jim Gardner.
Of a trio of R’n’B tracks scattered across the album, Five Grain Whisky’s ‘Sidewinder Blues’ is the pick of the bunch to these ears.  The rasping voice of Alex More is to the fore, sounding like he’s woken up from a long session on the aforementioned hooch as he snarls that “You’re lower than a snake’s belly-oh”.  It’s likeably simple, swinging and well-constructed, with a pleasing organ solo from Marty Wade.  ‘Temporary Man’ from Chasin’ The Train doesn’t have quite the same vim, but it sets off imaginatively with an intro of crackling vinyl grooves and slide twangery of ‘In My Time Of Dying Man’ proportions, before settling into a lively chug-a-boogie topped off by a biting guitar solo from Rory Nelson and wailing harp from Bob Clements.  Redfish add a convincing Stax soul twist to the formula
Redfish - not immaterial men
on ‘Immaterial Man’, riding along on a bobbing bass line from Rod McKay.  Fraser Clark’s organ playing fits the bill, though lacking the St Vitus Dance visual dimension of his live performance, but this leaves more room to admire the slithering, jabbing quality of Martin McDonald’s guitar.  And there’s a suitably soulful quality to the vocals of Stumblin’ Harris, on a song that here and there reminds me of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland and ‘Stormy Monday Blues’.
There’s a different brand of soul in evidence on ‘I’m The Boss’, by Melissa Kelly & The Smokin Crows, one of a clutch of songs from outfits led by female singers.  Think ‘Think’ - in the sense that Kelly manages to produce a convincing Sixties sound in the vein of Aretha Franklin, full of parping horns and funky riffing as a foundation for Kelly’s energetic vocals – including a fresh-out-of-the-box whoop near the end.  The Lynsey Dolan Band offer an alternative proposition on ‘I Won’t Bring You Bring Down’.  With the light vibrato of Dolan’s vocal, a lush sound with piercing guitar from Gavin Bussey, and a yearning chorus laden with harmonies, it would do a good job as the closing theme to a movie romance.
Broken Windows, featuring singer-songwriter Liz Jones, produce something more personal with the song from which they take their name.  Is it blues?  No. Does it matter?  Same answer.  Across seven minutes ‘Broken Windows’ is a captivating affair, with Jones communicating intriguing imagery with sensitivity against a backdrop of subtle shadings from the rest of the band. It’s a rich rhythm section, with Marc Marnie’s drums augmented by
Broken Windows' Liz Jones gives it big licks
Suzy Cargill’s percussion and some bendy fretless bass from Rod Kennard.  Meanwhile John Bruce, a guitarist more often to be found playing straight up R’n’B or late Sixties American rock, explores a different palette that leans towards a Carlos McSantana vibe, and with Ali Petrie on keys the whole crew give the track a rousing crescendo.
Glasgow-based Aussie Charlie Marshall is a firecracker of a singer and frontwoman, and with the 45s serves up an animated, sassy performance that conjures up the ambience of an old-time N’Awlins speakeasy, drawing on the horns of Gordon Dickson and Fenwick Lawson, jungle drum rhythms from Michael Harrison, and jazzy piano from Tim Brough. The thing is, this is just a vignette of what Charlotte Marshall & The 45s can deliver – see them live to get the full effect.
Also in a New Orleans vein is ‘Velvet Windows (Treme Trippin’), from London-based Wily Bo Walker. A rich gumbo of a tune, it features Walker’s gravel-voiced storytelling over funky bass from Tommy Rhodes, tripping drums from Max Saidi, a battery of horns, keys colourings from the ubiquitous Stevie Watts, and some neat guitar from Mike Ross.  All told a minor work from Walker perhaps, but still a satisfying one.
Strolling a less rumbustious path are the Simon Kennedy Band, and Al Brown & The Blue Lighters. Kennedy’s ‘All Or Nothing’ ambles in on a ripple of piano and bursts of organ, and builds to an anthemic chorus given a gospel swell by some uncredited female backing vocals, while Kennedy adds some understated guitar licks wherever it takes his
Firecracker chanteuse Charlotte Marshall
fancy, ahead of a tasteful solo.  Meantime Al Brown is smoother than a silk stocking on the aching heart blues of ‘Caller Unknown’, as restrained a piece of bluesery as you’re ever likely to find, with some ooh-ooh-ing backing vocals reaching towards doo-wop territory.
Mike Bowden and the A917 Band offer a different form of subtlety with the semi-acoustic sounding ‘Poor Man’.  It’s plaintive and beguiling, understated but resonant, with an earworm of a chorus and a subtly Latin rhythm courtesy of the wonderfully named Big Vern on percussion. In it’s simplicity, ‘Poor Man’ is another of the standouts of the album.  Stoney Broke, alias multi-instrumentalist Jake Scott, is still more acoustic, a warm and dreamy affair with a nice melody and a well-judged electric guitar solo that complements the song.
Also stripped-back, but in a different fashion, is the Delta stomp of Andrew Robert Eustace’s ‘Broken Down And Beat’.  With a hypnotic groove, Eustace’s growling voice, a brittle guitar solo and a catchy chorus, it's one of the highlights of his album Stories.  And as old-style Mississippi as it may sound, the steady grind of it provides a curious link to the alt.blues of Black Cat Bone and Full Fat.  The former capture their lead-heavy, grungy blues rumble well on ‘Morning Light’, with groaning vocals and howling harp from Ross Craig over a dirty, fuzzy bottom end.  Full Fat don’t demonstrate quite the same raw conviction, but the trio’s ‘Temper Temper’ still has an offbeat, discordant energy that shows promise.
So there we have it – 18 tracks that show off a variety of contemporary sounds from artists with a Scottish connection, tracing their roots to the blues to a greater or lesser degree.  Get yourself along to Jock's Juke Joint, find your own favourites, and go explore!

Sunday, December 2, 2018

Jonathon Long - The Long And The Short Of It

Let’s face it, this album from Louisiana’s Jonathon Long is going to get attention because it represents the first bash at producing by the increasingly popular Samantha Fish, whether listeners know much about the Long fella or not.  And it would be easy to assume that because it’s self-titled, it’s Long’s debut recording.  Easy, but wrong.
The thing is, Jonathan Long is undergoing a kind of metamorphosis, because he’s had two previous albums, under the moniker Jonathon ‘Boogie’ Long - 2012’s  Jonathon Boogie Long & The Blues Revolution, and in 2016 Trying To Get There.  And the new outing marks an evolution in his sound, focusing a bit more on the Americana leanings that were evident on a few songs on his earlier releases.
"So you discovered my alter ego, huh?"
As Long himself puts it, "There was a time I played a lot of shuffles, but now I'm in a different blues genre,  I've been Boogie since two years old, and now it's time to be just Jonathon Long."
Those two earlier albums must be pretty duff then eh?  Wrong again.  To these ears they stand up really well beside his latest effort.  So this piece isn't just a review of the new album, though we'll get to that in a minute. It's more of a general introduction to Jonathon Long for the uninitiated - of whom I was one until recently.
Let's start with the fact that that he's been in the game since he was a kid.  According to an article on a website from his home town of Baton Rouge, Long quit high school in 2003, aged just 14, to go out on the road as a bass player with a band - his parents having to grant partial custody to the band leader to allow Long to travel across the state line.
All growed up now, he's a burly looking guy who would look right at home in a classic Southern rock band - or maybe showing up at the CMA Awards.  And with his Louisiana accent his voice is a natural for songs on the new album like 'Shine Your Love' and 'The Light', that lean in the rootsy direction of, say, Chris Stapleton or Patrick Sweaney.
The former opens with sparse strummed guitar and light, sensitive vocals, before picking up a head of steam topped off with one of Long's typically impressive guitar solos.  The latter features a keening vocal over a train-like rhythm, with twinkling guitar in the background, and a different style of solo in which he plays off against the fiddle playing from Michael Harvey which decorates the track throughout.  Meanwhile 'The River', on which Long duets with his producer Sam Fish, is a spacious, dramatic slowie garnished with slide guitar, that builds to a crescendo over which Fish sprinkles her own brand of vocal stardust.
Across 11 tracks occupying just 38 minutes, Long still manages to pack in plenty of great guitar work across a range of material, whether it’s the shimmering effort that tops off the staccato riff and big chorus of opener ‘Bury Me’, or the elegant solo that colours ‘That’s When I Know’, with its strong melody, four-on-the-floor strut, and deep bass from Chris Roberts.  (Fish contributes guitar to both of these, by the way, which I reckon accounts for the intriguing array of buzzing, humming, squiggling background noises filling out the sound on them.)  And on the closing ‘Pray For Me’, the bluesiest outing here, a tough, ringing riff and stomping rhythm section lay the foundations for a punchy solo that I’d bet Long will dial up even more live.
It’s not all about the guitar though, because as a songwriter Long likes to explore different styles. There’s a country rock vibe to both ‘Living The Blues’ and ‘Natural Girl’, the former a stinging reflection on financial hardship, and the latter a breezy affair powered by crunching guitar chords, featurin a high-revving belter of a solo from Long, swirls of organ, and beefy drums from Julian Civello, all in the service of describing the kind of girl who probably drives a flatbed Ford in Winslow, Arizona. ‘This Road’ is more of a Southern rock thang, with a solid riff, a slide solo and expansive drums – and room to grow live, I’m thinking.
More daringly, there’s room for the boozily humorous ‘Pour Another Drink’, with barroom piano from an anonymous keys contributor, and the warm jazziness of ‘Where Love Went Wrong’, which is rhythmically subtle and shows off warm guitar tones on a solo played over acoustic strumming.
There’s no denying the quality of these songs, or Long’s quality as a guitarist.  And Sam Fish, together with recording engineer Michael Harvey, also deserves credit for a strong, clear sound on her first outing at the helm.
Revolution come, revolution go
I must admit though, I miss the warm funkiness evident some of the time on Long’s earlier albums. Don’t get me wrong, there was still variety in his material back then, but there was a backdrop of those blues shuffles referred to earlier. As he said in an interview with Country Roads magazine back in 2012, "When you come to see me live, expect blues-rock, face-melting.  When you listen to my music from the studio, you're hearing me as a singer-songwriter."
I dare say he's toned down the face-melting since then, but the opening track of that debut album, 'Bad Day', is a good example of what Long had going in the studio, with strutting chords heralding a first sizzling solo on an unhurried affair, his vocals a languid drawl over a laid back, shuffling rhythm.  At the other end of the the album, closer 'Mr Mister' has busy drums from Terrance Houston and rumbling, jazzy bass from Zachary Matchett, allowing Long the freedom to chuck handfuls of sparkling guitar over the top, before closing out with a chunky riff.
There are Southern rock stylings to both 'Do Right Woman' and the fun 'Goin' Somewhere', the latter featuring plenty of guitar embroidery, building up to some extremely nimble-fingered fretwork on the solo itself.  Contrastingly, his reading of 'Catfish Blues' is slow, relaxed and subtle, with good phrasing and dynamics in his vocal.  'Lonesome Road', on the other hand, foreshadows the Americana aspects of the new album.
Long's songwriting range is most evident though, on the wit and imagination of 'Floating With My Baby'.  Honest to god, this could be a song from some movie musical ready to be turned into a standard by Frank Sinatra - except delivered by a grooving blues band.  Long's guitar is jazzy, Houston's drums swing along behind the beat, and there are great bass lines from Matchett.  And these are some of the characteristics that make Long's earlier stuff different - a liking for swing and syncopation, allied to Long occasionally singing in a lower, more relaxed pitch.
What you also get from Long across all three albums is the ability to pack a lot of content into relatively short songs, while keeping them coherent.  So on the two and a half minute title track of Trying To Get There, fired by a stop-time riff, he drops in a neat middle eight that creates extra dynamics, done with ease and no fuss.  There are some more of those country-ish tracks too, with 'Crescent City Girl' a forerunner of 'Natural Girl' on the new album - maybe a bit by-the-numbers, but with a strong chorus and a nice ending on which Chris Roberts' bass is a good foil for Long.  'Go Out And Get It', meanwhile is a slow-ish number with country-style lyrics, kept simple but musically amusing,  with offbeat drums from Jay Carnegie this time, and Long's guitar tracking the vocal melody here and there.
A bit of face-melting, perhaps?
On the other hand, 'Call The Preacher' is essentially straight ahead R'n'B, but Long's soloing fireworks go fine until he goes a bit large on a trilling guitar trick that crops up a little too often - and if I do have a criticism of these earlier albums, it's that here and there - not often - Long overplays a bit.
'I'm A Fool' is one such instance, but I'll forgive him because otherwise it's a classy soul ballad with a good melody, well sung and with a burst of should falsetto along the way.
So here's the point.  Jonathon Long's new album may represent a sharpening of focus, but it's not a one-trick stylistic pony.  And beyond that, his earlier recordings suggest still more strings to his bow, as both a songwriter and a player.  Hell, his Facebook page lists influences as broad as Joe Bonamassa, Steve Vai, Robben Ford, Eric Gales, Jill Scott, Stevie Wonder and Rascal Flatts.  I'd wager that he can draw on all of that range to put on a live show that can turn a few heads.  He's touring in the States just now as support to Samantha Fish - so when's he coming this side of the pond, so we can see if I'm right?

Jonathon Long is available on Wild Heart Records.