Sunday, January 27, 2019

Listened to lately - Karen Lawrence and Blue By Nature, Neil Warden, and Head Honchos

Karen Lawrence and Blue By Nature – Best Of Live

If you like Sari Schorr when she’s in R’n’B mode, then Karen Lawrence should be right up your street. Oddly, Best Of Live is actually a selection of 8 remastered tracks taken from a 1998 album titled Live At The Lake, and clocking in at a mere 34 minutes it certainly isn’t an exercise in self-indulgence.
The opening ‘It’s All About You’ is symptomatic of what’s to follow, with a chugging rhythm
carried by the bass, while two guitars play off rhythm and lead against each other, and Lawrence shows off her convincing vocal chops.  Once upon a time a backing vocalist for both Aerosmith and Jeff Beck, she may be a blues bawler, but in a singing rather than shouting vein.
Her quality is also evident on the following ‘Another Day, Another Mile’ where she brings personality to the lyrics while the band demonstrate how well honed they are, the rhythm swinging on another slice of good time boogie while the guitars trade licks.  And the same is true of the later ‘I Had It All Wrong’, a tough and funky affair powered by kickass drumming, while Lawrence brings twists and turns to her delivery, fairly spitting it out at times.
Other highlights include the soul ballad ‘Fun And Games’, a torch song with the feel of, say, ‘Dark End Of The Street’, on which Lawrence does a pretty good job of conveying heartache. And there’s ‘It’s Been So Long’, which brings more variety to proceedings as it opens up slinky but gradually builds up to a steam conclusion, in a transition well worked by all concerned.
If you fancy a bit of an R’n’B party, albeit a brief one, Karen Lawrence makes for a pretty good hostess.

Neil Warden – Canalslide Blues

For anyone whose curiosity was piqued by my glowing comments about the Neil Warden track ‘The Alchemist’, when reviewing the recent Jock’s Juke Joint Volume 4 compilation, here’s some more of Mr Warden’s work for your consideration.
This four track EP from last year, recorded at Canalside Studios in Edinburgh – the pun in the title will explain itself – again shows off Warden’s ability to paint in music, as it were, or perhaps to provide the instrumental soundtrack for an unseen movie.
Opener ‘The Road Home’ is typical of what he has to offer with the singular style of his Weissenborn lap steel guitar.  One one level it’s simple, built around a repeated theme, but the overall effect is wistful, with a touch of a Celtic feel, and evoking open spaces with a sense of stillness amid the fading light of the Scottish gloaming.  It may not sound much like
Mark Knopfler’s music for Local Hero, but the mood is similar.
‘Canalslide Blues’ itself feels like it is improvised around a central theme, falteringly going in search of an enigmatic melody that’s just out of reach, while on the closing ‘Dust Bowl’ Warden’s slide playing quivers and shivers through a repeated refrain, conjuring up images of tumbleweed blowing through the desert.
Neil Warden gets down to al fresco Weissenborn work
In between, the seven minutes of ‘Mantra’ isn’t so gripping – meandering and less melodic, with fewer points of traction for the listener.  All in all though, Canalslide Blues is another illustration of Neil Warden’s out of the ordinary talents.

Head Honchos – Bring It On Home

Hailing from Indiana, Head Honchos are headed by the father and son twin guitar attack of Rocco Calipari Sr and Rocco Calipari Jr. And when I say attack, I mean it. These guys may give the occasional nod to funk or soul, but at the end of the day they’re in the business of blues rock.
Now, I’m partial to a bit of heads down, no nonsense boogie myself, but over the thirteen tracks on Bring It On Home the Caliparis and their gang – about whom I’m afraid I have no further information – seem to be stuck in a single, high-revving gear. Okay, maybe two gears.
‘Not For Me’ kicks off the set with hammering drums, growled staccato vocals and the two guitars going at it, with a so-so wah-wah solo, and from there on they scarcely pause for breath until, rather late in the day, closing track ‘Soul Free’ provides some relief as they swing their way around an easy-going riff.  But boy, could I have done with some more variation in style before then.
There’s maybe a hint of the Allmans about the guitar riff on ‘Come Strong’, and the drums may be toned down by the merest fraction, but it doesn’t really stray from their basic template.  ‘Next To You’ has a strutting riff and slide guitar, but Rocco Sr's vocals are pitched at the same level as on everything else, and the drum assault doesn’t let up. ‘Fire On The Bayou’ may suggest that they’re in the market for a serving of funk, but it lacks the loose-limbed subtlety of The Meters’ original, even if some organ playing introduces a touch of much-needed dynamics. By the same token ‘That Driving Beat’ reaches for horn-driven soul-funk, and is actually quite likeable, but suffers from the air of relentlessness that pervades most of what’s on offer.
A cover of ‘99½ Won’t Do’ finds things toned down half a notch, with some wonky guitar effects thrown into the mix, but you’d be hard pressed to recognise its ancestry as a Wilson Pickett hit. But bizarrely, when they then trot out ‘Going Down’, a tune that begs for a crunching approach, they don’t absolutely put the hammer down.
Don’t get me wrong, Bring It On Home isn’t a bad album, and these guys can certainly play.  But they really should learn how to turn down the heat so that not every ingredient ends up overcooked.

Friday, January 18, 2019

Sugaray Rayford - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 15 January 2019

So here’s a question for you folks.  When was the last time you heard a singer announce, before a note has been played, that “We’re gonna get butt naked about 10 songs in”?  Not an everyday occurrence is it?  But what this gig demonstrates is that Sugaray Rayford is not your everyday live performer.  Oh no. He’s a colossus.
When he’s finished warming up the packed crowd with a getting-to-know-you preamble, and his band get down to business, it’s with crunking funk guitar from Alastair Greene, a gut-thumping backbeat from drummer Lavell Jones, honking horns and whatever else they can
Sugaray checks if Edinburgh is on the soul train
chuck in as a platform for Sugaray to get to hollering – and boy does he holler, like a soul locomotive. Not only that, but when Greene rips into a screaming solo, and Drake Shining takes over with rattling piano, the Sugar fella likes to get his groove on.  We are talking about a seriously big black dude – and he will not object to that description – who likes to get on down, and wants the audience to get down with him.  As he says, this is not a concert, this is party time.
If you want a blow by blow, track by track account, then go find another reviewer.  But there’s strong evidence for Sugaray’s assertion that he has a band who can play anything he wants at the drop of a hat.  One minute they’re playing something as mainstream as ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’, but with a whacking horn sound, and throbbing keyboard runs from Shining ahead of a freshly-laid-this-morning organ solo.  The next minute, just to make a point it seems, they deliver a slab of floor-shaking reggae.  And then, for no apparent reason other than that the big man fancies it, they launch into ‘Comfortably Numb’, with Shining delivering most of the vocals, and Greene going for broke on an eardrum melting solo.
For the most part though, it’s a feast of funk, soul and blues – I was going to say a diet, but that’s not a word that fits in the same sentence as Sugaray Rayford.  I reviewed his stylish album Southside a few years back, but didn’t foresee the degree of energy that he musters on stage from listening to that recording.  The reason, I think, is that digital ones and zeroes, or flimsy magnetic tape, simply do not have the capacity to capture such a huge personality.  Whether it’s the big fat soul groove of ‘Blind Alley’ (at which point I notice a woman in a parka and big scarf, dancing but somehow not melting), a rollicking ‘Beans And Cornbread’ with walking bass from Alan Markel, or an explosive version of ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries’ (“Ready for something soft?” he asks beforehand), they’re all driven along with the force of an avalanche, with Rayford’s rich, mountainous, soulful voice to the fore.
On a slow blues he resumes after an instrumental solo without the aid of a mic, and goes walkabout in the audience, out the door and into the front bar, singing all the way out and back.  But then it’s back to top gear with Al Kooper’s ‘Nuthin’ I Wouldn’t Do (For A Woman Like You)’, with a great horn riff and a cracking little solo from Alastair Greene, before they close out with ‘Cold Sweat’, the chemistry between the band as they funk it up to a drum-thrashing finale – and still leave room for a mellow interlude, and a sax showcase from Aaron Liddard when he too ventures offstage to cook up a call and response passage with the crowd.
As Steve Van Zandt would put it, “Gabeesh?”  You get the picture?  Sugaray Rayford is a Blues Award nominee for BB King Entertainer of the Year, and no wonder. Frankly I think they should just hand it over now.
Earlier that same evening, I arrived in time to stand at the doorway of the already jammed
Bourbon Street 5 set light to 'Matchbox Blues'
ballroom, and catch another outfit in the middle of a damn fine reading of ‘As The Years Go Passing By’, with a rather cooler and younger black dude catching the mood nicely on vocals.  This was support band Bourbon Street 5, and the singer was Emmanuel James Mathias.
Their delivery of the Fenton Robinson classic is in keeping with a set of old-fashioned electric blues revolving around the likes of Bobby Bland’s ‘I Wouldn’t Treat A Dog The Way You Treated Me’, a trio of Albert King tunes including a strong version of ‘Matchbox Blues’, and their own, well-penned ‘Heart Mending Blues’.  They combine in a satisfyingly tight-but-loose sound, underpinned by the supple rhythm section of Rod Kennard on bass and Stuart Spence on drums.  Guitarist Louis Crosland is an effective foil for Mathias’ spot on phrasing and interpretation, extending himself with some well-judged soloing without ever becoming aimless, while Guilhelm Forey on keys proves adept at switching from jazzy little piano soloing to soulful swells of organ on ‘Matchbox Blues’.  It’s all good stuff, and the rousing reception they got was well deserved. Their contribution to the night could be easily forgotten in the wake of the Sugaray experience, but I look forward to seeing more of them.

Sunday, January 13, 2019

JP Soars - Southbound I-95

Well, this is fun.  Florida-based JP Soars has received a 2019 Blues Award nomination for Blues Rock Artist, which seems like an odd category choice to me, but Southbound I-95 is certainly an entertaining album that deserves attention.
Not that you’d guess this from the opening track ‘Ain’t No Dania Beach’, I suspect.  A rather corny paean to the said seafront, Soars’ vocals sound like he’s maybe been overdoing some of the ‘erb mentioned in the lyric.
On the following ‘Sure As Hell Ain’t Foolin’ Me’ though, Soars’ vocals find a gravelly, characterful sweet spot, that had me scratching my head for who I was reminded of.  After a bit of pondering, I concluded it was Matt Isbell, of Memphis’s Ghost Town Blues Band, and in fact the GTBB sound is a good reference point for much of Southside I-95 – which is a good recommendation for starters in my book. And ‘Sure Ain’t Foolin’ Me’ is a good example of the grooving funk-blues Soars can deliver, with sharp lyrics, horn punctuation and subtle organ from Travis Colby adding richness to the mix.
JP Soars chooses a big yellow one from his guitar locker
The title track though, is indicative of how Soars can vary the menu.  It’s a road song, and a Dick Dale surf guitar extravaganza, full of ringing chords and whammy bar action, laid out over an offbeat rhythm.  At the other end of the other album there’s another blast from the past with ‘Go With The Flow’, an instrumental that reaches back to Cab Calloway era stuff, with jungle drums whacked out on floor toms – a bit inconsequential in the end, but amusing enough.  But with Soars toting all sorts of guitars in the course of the album, the variety on offer reflects the breadth of his musical interests.
More mainstream are ‘Shining Through The Dark’ and ‘Satisfy My Soul’, the former conjuring up a warm, relaxed and optimistic vibe, with a soulful sax intro and perfectly judged guitar tones, and the latter a Stax soul belter, simple and straightforward over a snapping beat, with a jangling riff and squealing sax solo from Sax Gordon. And both tracks also feature spot on backing vocals from Teresa James into the bargain.
In between, ‘The Grass Ain’t Always Greener’ is a snappy bit of rock’n’roll, with bar-room piano from Colby, a stop-time riff, and honking sax, while ‘Arkansas Porch Party’ provides a breather in the form of a lightweight, acoustic instrumental of a country-ish blues hue.
If it’s yer actual blues you’re after, ‘Born In California’ is a more stripped back affair, with rasping slide guitar and vocals as gritty as the childhood hard times described in the tale of being raised in Arkansas, where the singer had “no money, but I sure had a lot of love”.  And if that smacks of Mike Zito on a good day, ‘When You Walk Out That Door’ is a slow blues straight out of the BB King playbook, with a bitter lyric and exquisite guitar work, peaking in an expansive solo that’s well worth the time devoted to it.
After that, Soars elects to take another musical detour, with three songs of varying degrees of Latin ingredients.  ‘Deep Down In Florida’ swings in a Mexican-sounding fashion, aided by woozy horns, while ‘Across The Desert’ is a melancholy instrumental that goes exactly where it says on the tin, with laid back twanginess, and harp accompaniment from Lee Oskar, set to a Latino rhythm.  And ‘Dog Catcher’ rounds off the triptych with something best described as salsa-blues, in a jaunty and lyrically wacky affair that smacks of the Mavericks here and the Allmans there.
The slower ‘Troubled Waters’ has a Beatle-ish air to it, and along with ‘Dania Beach’ is pretty dispensable fare on an album that has plenty enough variety across the other material.  But hey, that’s just my take on it.  I strongly recommend you take a trip down Southside I-95, and find out for yourself what it has to offer.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

Listened to lately - Eric McFadden, Mike Sponza, and the Allman Goldflies Band

Eric McFadden – Pain By Numbers

I’m liking this.  With his scratchy voice, and often equally scratchy, squalling guitar, Eric McFadden’s primary setting is rugged post-British Invasion American rock.  But there’s more to the San Franciscan than that.  I’m smelling the late Sixties.  I’m smelling Creedence, peace and love, and jam bands.  Or maybe I'm on completely the wrong scent!
If ‘While You Were Gone’ is a bluesy stomp, with a squealing guitar solo, then ‘Love Come
Eric McFadden doesn't it do it by the numbers
Rescue Me’ is an uplifting, post-Beatles response to the oddity and despair of some biblical episodes, with surging, gospel-like organ from producer Tab Benoit (whose presence is itself an encouraging sign) and scurrying bass from Doug Wimbish.  ‘The Girl Has Changed’, meanwhile, is pumped up, champing at the bit R’n’B.
‘Fool Your Heart’ starts out as a cool rumble before morphing into a catchy AOR affair with a raw, Keef-like solo, while ‘The Jesus Gonna See You Naked’ is a gritty slice of bump’n’grind that could have gospel, Prince and Zeppelin in its genes.
Then by way of variation, at one end of the spectrum you get the simple and effective acoustic blues ‘Never Listened Too Good’, with its tasteful solo and hint of the sax line from Springsteen’s ‘Spirits In The Night’, and the virtuoso Spanish guitar vibe of the closing ‘Cactus Juice’.  At the other end there’s the heavy, doomy ‘Skeleton Key’, and the supercharged Delta boogie of ‘If I Die Today’, with the rhythm section of Wimbish and drummer Terrence Higgins clattering along in helter skelter fashion.
McFadden and co may show a tendency to go for a stomping beat once or twice too often.  But leaving that quibble to one side, Pain By Numbers ain’t painful at all – it’s a pleasant surprise.

Pain By Numbers is released by Whiskey Bayou Records.

Mike Sponza – Made In The Sixties

Italian guitarist and producer Mike Sponza has a long list of credits to his name, and the fact that this collaboration with one-time Cream lyricist Pete Brown was recorded at Abbey Road Studios suggests that they mean business.  Made In The Sixties is an interesting concept, devoting a song to each year of the decade, and it’s packaged in some imaginative artwork by Romeo Toffanetti.  But it’s also flawed in several respects.
The musicianship on display is good, and the arrangements are satisfying, starting with the loping soul-funk of ‘1960 – Made In The Sixties’, and continuing with the likes of the Latino vibe on the clunkily titled ‘1962 – A Young Londoner’s Point Of View On Cuban Crisis’, which features a nice trumpet solo from Chris Storr and effective percussion from Mauricio Ravalico, and on to the surging riff and waves of organ on ‘1967 – Good Lovin’’, to which Michele Bonivento adds a satisfyingly soulful organ solo.
But too often the melodies are samey, and if I’ve rarely been impressed by Pete Brown’s lyrics in the past, he’s done nothing to change my mind here.  They’re schoolboy-ish fare, especially when evoking the Cold War on ‘1961 – Cold, Cold, Cold’ and the aforementioned 1962 outing, and there are strained rhymes scattered throughout.
What’s more, Sponza may be a decent guitarist – he delivers some stinging licks and a tidy wah-wah solo on the closing ‘1969 – Blues For The Sixties’ – but he ain’t no singer. Regular readers will know that dull vocals don’t cut it here at Blues Enthused.  You can have an average voice and still be convincing if you invest it with personality, but Sponza barely rises above the mediocre on his four outings – though even he does better than Brown, who is inexplicably let loose on the 1962 offering.
Things improve greatly when Nathan James brings genuine feel, range and soul to ‘1963 – Day Of The Assassin’, and when Dana Gillespie gets to grips with ‘Good Lovin’’, but even Eddi Reader can’t do much to enliven the sluggish ‘1965 – Even Dylan Was Turning Electric’.  Rob Cass has a decent stab at ‘1968 – Just The Beginning’ though, using a megaphone effect to suggest the street demonstrations of the time.  But it’s a pretty anodyne slice of soul for the subject matter, and though Bonivento’s use of a celesta adds a warm vibraphone-type sound,
Gary Allman and AGB chums
it’s scarcely evocative of the subject.
Made In The Sixties is a good idea, but less than effectively realised.  The musicians do their best, but they’re fighting an uphill battle in light of the vocals and the limitations of the material.

Allman Goldflies Band – Second Chance

Yep, there’s another member of the Allman clan doing their thang now folks.  In this instance it’s Gary Allman, cousin to Greg and Duane, who has hooked up with former Allman Brothers Band bassist Dave Goldflies to form the Allman Goldflies Band.
Goldflies is apparently something of a bass icon, and even takes a solo on the opening ‘Ever Been So Lonely Baby’.  And to be fair, his six-string bass playing is stylish throughout – which is just as well, because it’s pushed well forward in the mix.
Allman, meanwhile, contributes keyboards and groaning vocals, as well as some tasteful, patient slide guitar on the otherwise mundane “missing my baby while I’m on the road” fare of ‘Pretty Green Eyes’.
There are good things on Second Chance, most notably the guitar work of Joe Weiss and Matt Siegal, which is frequently subtle and understated, but all the more effective for it, with some jazziness here and there that I take to be the work of Chicagoan Weiss, who apparently has a jazz background. Together they contribute some nicely double-tracked lines, and some interesting moaning, string-like effects, to ‘Standing In The Georgia Rain’, as well as some satisfyingly ‘Jessica’ like licks on ‘Southern’s All I Ever Want To Be’, to make up for some clichéd lyrics.
There’s also a decent guitar contribution from Luthor Wamble, on ‘You Gave Me Love’, a pleasant enough but derivative ballad undermined by some all too lazy words.
Elsewhere there’s the country-leaning ballad ‘Yesterday’s Blues’, with more good guitar work and a ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’-style organ motif in the background.  ‘Can’t Turn Back Now’ is a funky affair, riding along on tip-tapping cowbell and a bumping bass line from Goldflies.  And incognruously, Goldflies also contributes ‘Fadiddle’, an instrumental that begins with a sombre, mournful intro from acoustic guitar and Goldflies’ fiddle, before coming over all Gogol Bordello, en route to a showdown with the Devil in Georgia by the sound of it.
If you’re a sucker for Southern rock then by all means give Second Chance a spin, and see what you reckon.  But for me it’s lacking the depth to make a real impact.

Wednesday, January 2, 2019

Wille & The Bandits - Paths

Wille & The Bandits have been knocking around for a few years now, working hard, ploughing their own furrow.  But you know what?  I reckon that with Paths, despite its anodyne title, they’re about to propel themselves a couple more rungs up the ladder.  They’re beardy and they’re bluesy, and they’re delivering roots rock for now, folks.
Opening track ‘One Way’ blasts along on a buzzsaw slide guitar riff from Wille Edwards, allied to a hard-rocking, shoutalong chorus and a slithering slide solo.  If you’re looking for some head-shaking, neck-snapping rock’n’roll, then this fits the bill.  It also features the kind of hippy-ish social commentary that’s their stock in trade, conveyed with conviction and some pleasingly original wordsmithing.  The same ethos is evident on the following ‘Make
Love’, this time set to funk blues with a stuttering rhythm from Andy Neumann’s drums and fuzzy guitar from Edwards, tied together by throbbing bass from Matt Brooks (who elsewhere contributes cello when the vibe demands it).
Wille & The Bandits celebrate a big thumbs up from Blues Enthused
There’s often an edginess redolent of Dan Patlansky, without the same level of Hendrixian guitar fireworks, but on ‘Victim Of The Night’ they also demonstrate an ability to write something with an air of hooky Eighties AOR, aided by some swooping backing vocals and washes of organ, while Brooks’ bass bobs about over a simpler drum groove from Neumann.
It’s in the middle of the album that they really dare to be different though.  ‘Chakra’ features Morse Code-like, African-sounding percussion to complement an offbeat rhythm from Neumann, underneath sweeps of electric Weissenborn lap steel from Edwards.  The following ‘Keep It On The Down-low’ is built on hip-hop funkiness and semi-rapped vocals from Edwards on the verses.  And both songs, it should be noted, have well catchy choruses.
‘Judgement Day’ is apparently inspired by the classic TV series The Wire, and certainly carries echoes of Tom Waits’ ‘Down In The Hole’ which was the show’s theme tune – simple drums and a spiky little guitar line from Edwards leave plenty room for Brooks' bubbling, rumbling bass to shine.  And then they veer away into entirely different territory with ‘How Long’, a plangent, widescreen affair that to these ears has a much more British feel – the sort of thing that post-Britpoppers Doves delivered to good effect a few years back.
‘Watch You Grow’ has an eerie opening that almost begs for Robert Plant to put in a sudden appearance to croon “In the eeeevening”, before it settles into a relaxed and mellow groove involving more World Music percussion from Neumann, and muted, sensitive Weissenborn licks from Edwards, on which the song surfs liltingly to a close.
Closing track ‘Retribution’ has a retro, classic rock vibe that seems to delve back into the Seventies, taking its time then revving up with a soaring slide solo, before turning off the heat with a neat, brief acoustic coda.  But, like the earlier ‘Find My Way’, it’s perhaps an example of where they could have pushed themselves harder to find that little something extra.  Or maybe I’m just being picky.
All told though, Paths is an adventurous album from a trio who have something distinctive to say, both musically and lyrically, and have said it in accomplished fashion.  Good songs, good hooks, good musicianship.  Well played, gentlemen.

Paths is released on 1 February by Fat Toad Records.
Wille & The Bandits are touring Britain in March.  Tickets available from their website here.