Tuesday, February 5, 2019

Walkin' The Blues - Ian Siegal's Swagger Revisited

Why take the time to have a look back at Swagger, you ask?  It’s not an anniversary, is it?  Well, from some of the PR bumf I’ve seen over the years, Swagger was apparently hailed as something of a shot in the arm for the British blues scene when it came out in 2007.  But that’s not it.  It’s actually that Ian Siegal seems to pay it scant attention, so I feel like someone else should.
Ian Siegal unwraps a throat-shredding squeal
The thing is, I found this album for myself, back when I was just starting to delve into blues stuff back in 2011.  Didn’t know Ian Siegal from shit, but listened to some snippets on eMusic, downloaded it – and was hooked.  I’ve been following him ever since, and you know what?  In all the times I’ve seen him live, the bastard has only ever played one song from Swagger – namely the philosophical meditation on death that is ‘Mortal Coil Shuffle’, which here features harp from Big Pete Van Der Pluym.
Anyway, first track out of the gate is the title offering, and it lives up to its premise, strutting along on a cool beat and jangling chords, while Siegal unwraps the most Howlin’ Wolf-like vocal ever likely to be delivered by a guy from Portsmouth.  It’s also the first example of Siegal’s characteristic wordsmithery, its lyric peppered with sharp imagery conjuring up the swagger in question.
Siegal’s work often displays a fondness for paradox, here most clearly in the form of ‘Catch 22’, the entertaining résumé of a woman who will “shower you with compliments, then spray you with Mace”, played out over Siegal’s fizzing slide guitar. Just as eloquent is the penultimate track ‘Curses’. Here Siegal mulls over, at wonderful, withering length, the failings of a man whose “mind is like a soup dish, wide and shallow”, and whose wife “has the hostess skills of Lady Macbeth”, before wishing a range of creatively unpleasant fates to be visited on him. It’s all set to a patient arrangement that takes in banjo and clanking percussion and is, as they say, a hoot.
If the humour is dark, the music can be too, as on ‘God Don’t Like Ugly’, which starts off with murmured vocals over little more than ticking drums and plonking bass, before Siegal gets his dander up and adds his own backing vocals.
All of the above is also indicative of the variety Siegal brings to the pursuit of roots music, not ploughing the same furrow over and over, but still managing to produce stuff that sounds . . . elemental.
Swagger - an album that shines like a diamond
Take, for example, his twin-barrelled readings of ‘Horse Dream’, written by his mysterious chum Ripoff Raskolnikov.  This striking monologue of a youngster expressing anxiety to his father about the maltreatment of a horse echoes the burning angst of a similar scene in Joseph Conrad’s novel The Secret Agent.  Siegal gives it two different treatments, firstly the brief, acoustically strummed ‘Horse Dream (Western)’, and secondly the deeper, brooding ‘Horse Dream (Swamp)’.  On the latter reading prickly guitar notes are picked out over doomy drumbeats and rolling bass, while nagging, minimalist organ chords hover in the background.  Against this backdrop Siegal mounts a vocal crescendo that shifts from the abuse of the horse to “an entire people being led to the slaughter on a single man’s whim”, as a precursor to a subtle, glittering guitar solo that I’m guessing is down to producer Matt Schofield.  It all adds up to 6 minutes of sheer class, and if Raskolnikov is responsible for the raw material, probably only Siegal could bring it to such devastating fruition.
A selection of covers bring other colours to the palette. There’s the twitchy groove of the second track, John Lee Hooker’s ‘Groundhog Blues’, which features the first outing for Siegal’s trademark throat-shredding squeal.  Then there’s the Little-Richard-channelling-Fats-Domino N’Awlins R’n’B of ‘I Can’t Believe You Wanna Leave’.  And from the pen of Don Covay, who also wrote ‘Chain Of Fools’, there’s ‘I Don’t Know what You Got (But It’s Got Me)’, on which Siegal manages to cross Sam Cooke-like soul with a country vibe.
Elsewhere there’s the urgent Chicago sound of Siegal’s own ‘Stranger Than A Green Dog’, and his shuffling ‘High Horse’, with its added 'kitchen utensil' percussion.  And closing the album is his rendition of ‘Let My Love’, by the now late and lamented Glasgow icon Big George Watt.  And though I actually prefer Siegal’s take on one of Watt’s other classics, ‘Take A Walk In The Wilderness’ this still makes for a top drawer conclusion.
Thirteen great tracks in all, exploring different roots avenues, and all tied together into a coherent whole, with due credit for their contributions to his then rhythm section of Andy Graham on bass and Nik Bjerre on drums, plus guest ivories bod Jonny Henderson.  If you’re a blues fan, and you’ve never heard Swagger, then you need to get your shit together and go unearth a copy.  Like, right now!
Meantime, regular Siegal watchers will probably get my drift if I say that the next time I see him live I might shout at the start of the set, “Don’t play anything from Swagger!”  Perversely, that might do the trick.  But I’m not holding my breath.  Bastard.

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