Wednesday, May 29, 2019

Kenny Wayne Shepherd - The Traveler

I wasn’t following blues music when Kenny Wayne Shepherd first appeared on the scene.  I didn’t drink the Kool-Aid.  And on my limited acquaintance with him in recent years he’s never really bowled me over.  So what to make, then, of his latest album The Traveler?
Well, on the strength of the opening three tracks I was pretty encouraged.  ‘Woman Like You’ may not be the most of original of songs, but it has a stomping beat, a gutsy riff, and Shepherd contributes the kind of fiery guitar solo that might justify his reputation.  ‘Long Time Running’ follows that up even more strongly.  It’s even more powerful than its precursor, with revving rhythm guitar, and horns flaring to provide extra raunch. Shepherd
chucks in an array of urgent guitar licks, and his solos sound not just like he’s got a tiger in his tank, but that he’s having fun into the bargain.  ‘I Want You’ consolidates this promising opening with a suitably hip-grinding riff and a bluesy feel, buttressed by more horns and flashes of organ.  With a couple of solos from Shepherd that are varied in pace and show good use of tension and release, and a bright organ solo as a bonus, things are looking good.
Kenny Wayne Shepherd - we all alright
However.  Much as I’m impressed by what I’m hearing up to this point, I’m not keen on Noah Hunt’s voice.  Shepherd has been working with Hunt since 1996, so clearly believes in him. But for me, Hunt suffers from an unusual problem – his vocals are too good.  I know, this sounds crazy.  But his singing is too neat, too clean, too faultless, too lacking in personality to make a real impression.  Rather than putting any kind of stamp on the material, his voice just slides off me, so that as much as I find ‘Woman Like You’ entertaining, I’m left to note that his voice sounds like just another middle-of-the-road country rocker.
Interestingly, Shepherd has said that for this album he took on lead vocal duties more often – but the album credits don’t specify on which tracks.  I’d hazard a guess at three of them though, one of them being the aforementioned ‘I Want You’, and if his efforts aren’t as technically flawless as Hunt’s, they have the advantage of displaying a bit more character.
But then I have another problem.  After this bright start, the album collapses like a soufflé in the face of ‘Tailwind’ and ‘Gravity’, which are awful modern-day country rock efforts.  I don’t have a problem with country music per se, far from it. But ‘Tailwind’ is soggy, run of the mill country that’s not remotely original.  Striving to be deep and meaningful, it deploys acoustic strumming and harmonies to no effect.  ‘Gravity’ is slightly better, but not much.  With a pedestrian “Oh-woah-oh” vocal line and clichéd lyrics, its saving grace is another decent solo.  The same is true of ‘Take It On Home’, later on, a slice of common or garden country rock, or southern rock without the wit perhaps, despite swelling organ and another decent solo.
‘Better With Time’ may be in a similar vein, but it’s better put together, with (I think) Shepherd on vocals, a soulful horn riff, and a neat coda.  Stronger still is ‘We All Alright’, with its stabbing, spiky riff, and big fuzzy chords over a rolling drum beat, a busy guitar solo and an appealing little piano outro – which at least manages to create some fresh momentum after the feebleness of ‘Tailwind’ and ‘Gravity’.
Two covers are included – Buffalo Springfield’s ‘Mr Soul’, and Joe Walsh’s ‘Turn To Stone’.  It makes for an instructive comparison, as both of them are thoroughbred songs, with guts and originality.  On the former horns chug out the emphatic riff, urged on by surging organ, it sounds like it’s Shepherd who brings conviction to the vocal, and there’s an accelerating ending with racing guitar to round things off nicely.  The Walsh hit is given a muscular reading, with its tough but controlled riff and good hook, but the vocals don’t have the striking, individual quality that Walsh brought to the party.  Still, there’s a nice, piano-led bridge, with KWS tickling his guitar in the margins, before getting into a big solo that has real vitality and even drama.
All in all The Traveler is a decent album that certainly shows off Shepherd’s guitar chops.  It’s even good enough to encourage me to play fair by Shepherd, and go in search some of Shepherd’s older stuff to try and understand how he’s got to where he is now. 

Saturday, May 25, 2019

Samantha Fish - Q-Factory, Amsterdam, 23 May 2019

It’s 11.45pm, Samantha Fish has been offstage for about an hour, and she’s just finishing up the last few selfies and signatures for a throng of fans at the merch stand.  So ends the latest gig in a European tour on which the buzz is reaching new decibel levels.
The Q-Factory is a modern complex of rehearsal rooms, music shop, café, two concert halls and god knows what else.  Fish and her band take the stage in front of a near capacity audience of 650, and kick into ‘Wild Heart’. It’s a big square box of a room this, and where
All-out hoedown!
I’m standing down the front the sound seems heavy on the bottom, but they cut through it by rocking the house with a set that’s big on raunch.
Twin peaks early on are once again the energy rush of ‘You Can’t Go’ and, even better, ‘Little Baby’.  The latter is in a whole different league tonight, with Samantha going all Dick Dale on the intro, and Phil Breen bashing out honesty tonk piano en route to an all-out hoedown, with Fish delivering a screaming, bottom-of-the-neck solo, and Chris Alexander going nuts on bass, turning it into one of those musical moments that makes you want to laugh out loud with pleasure.
Those two tunes bracket the new ones ‘Love Letters’ and ‘Watch It Die’, and a super slinky ‘Chills And Fever’.  Standing in front of Phil Breen’s keyboards, it’s easier to pick up on the subtle guitar/keys harmonies in the former, while the latter is an exercise in light and shade – and both feature fierce solos from Samantha, though not at the vertiginous heights of the monster to follow in ‘Little Baby’ (if you can have vertiginous heights in the Netherlands).
“By the way, I’m super-American and don’t speak any Dutch,” says Fish to amused laughter – given that Dutch is a super-hard language to learn, and they almost all speak English anyway, sometimes switching mid-sentence.  They whack into ‘Cowtown’, and the manner of her SG playing indicates that its country undertones are by way of the Stones, while Phil Breen gets on with a bout of headshaking as he gives it plenty on keys ahead of a brief singalong.

A full-on, rocking-out reading of ‘Highway’s Holding Me Now’, and ‘Gone For Good’, bracket the aching acoustic country of ‘Need You More’.  Tonight Fish opts for her Delaney semi-acoustic on ‘Gone For Good’, giving it a warmer tone, while Scotty Graves gives his snare drum a serious workout to drive the song along.
Sam takes a gulp of water before delivering her Lulu-like “Weeeeeee-yeeaah-yeeah-eaahulll” vocal intro to ‘Somebody’s Always Trying’, leading to a swirling mid-section, a moody pedal board exploration on her knees, and then an unhurried crescendo that takes her into agony-and-ecstasy guitar goddess territory.
They close tonight with  ‘Shake ‘Em Down’, a cigar box stomp full of grinding, screaming slide, before coming back for ‘Bitch On The Run’, with Fish working the crowd like a good ‘un on the call and response section, leading up to a wild, pounding conclusion.  And thence to that merch stall, and a crowd of happy punters ready to give their endorsement.
Some of the PR bumf around Samantha Fish talks about her genre-bending tendencies,
Curse Of Lono - bloody civilised
and the same is true in a different way of alt.all-sorts-of-roots music London-based support band Curse Of Lono. Which may make them sound kooky, but they’re not.
‘Blackout Fever’ is a chug-along opener, but subsequent songs are particularly enlivened by a range of tasteful guitar work from Joe Hazell.  The Doorsy vibe of ‘London Rain’ is garnished by a succession of sparky licks, while ‘Way To Mars’ features spangly guitar complemented by high-end piano chords from Dani.  Then on ‘No Trouble’ he delivers a solo that reminds me, I think, of what Hugh Burns brought to Gerry Rafferty’s records in the 70s and 80s.  And so on, and so on, to good effect.
But they’re good songs too.  ‘Send For The Whisky’, I’ve decided on repeated acquaintance, reminds me of that line in ‘Me And Bobby McGee’ about “Freedom’s just another word for – nothin’ else to do”.  Meanwhile their rendition of Tom Waits’ ‘Going Out West’ develops a brooding groove you could swim in like a dark river at night, and the closing ‘Valentine’ is bloody and menacing, but still civilised, like an Orwellian English murder.  And all this with smiles on their faces that belie the darkness of the material. Clearly they enjoy doing it – see what you make of them next time they’re in your neck of the woods.

You can also find the Blues Enthused interview with Samantha Fish, carried out just before the Amsterdam show, here.

Samantha Fish setlist
Wild Heart
Love Letters
Watch It Die
Chills And Fever
Little Baby
Blood In The Water
Need You More
Gone For Good
Somebody's Always Trying
Shake 'Em Down
Bitch On The Run

Tuesday, May 21, 2019

Grady Champion - Steppin' In

Very well done, Grady Champion – as in, a good job well done, and also a pat on the back. Because Steppin’ In is a thoroughly enjoyable album.
It’s also billed as a tribute to ZZ Hill, the Texas bluesman who died in 1984 at the age of 48, due to complications following a car crash.  Hill is regarded in some quarters at least as having given the blues a shot in the arm by blending the blues with more modern soul stylings.  To be honest, I knew next to nothing about him before this album came my way, so I couldn’t say if that’s true.  But it makes listening to Steppin’ In a slightly odd experience, because I’ve had to keep reminding myself that I’m actually listening to Grady Champion in
Grady Champion - justifiably happy in his work
2019, and not ZZ Hill c.1980 – recorded in the same Malaco Studios in Jackson, MS where Hill did much of his work.
Either way, what you get here is a collection of archetypal blues stories – the guy having a day where if it can go wrong it does (‘When It Rains It Pours’), double entendre-laden occupations (‘Shade Tree Mechanic’), self-assertiveness (‘I’m A Bluesman’), and the guy whose woman is giving it away to the neighbourhood (‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’) – delivered with a modern sheen but with a nod to Hill’s own influences such as BB King and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland.
Opener ‘Down Home Blues’ sets the tone, with a laid back groove, a classic bluesy melody, and a straight ahead guitar solo from Will Wesley.  Think of Little Steven’s version of Etta James’ ‘Blues Is My Business’, then imagine a stripped back, cooled off tune that’s about kicking back when business is done, and you get the picture.  There’s not a lot to it, when you get down to it – and none of the horns that decorate subsequent tracks – but it works just fine.
Champion’s voice appears to be a reasonable emulation of Hill’s - from a quick exploration on YouTube - a soulful, bluesy growl that’s well suited to the leering lasciviousness of ‘Bump And Grind’, which does exactly what it says on the tin.  But he can still bend it to smoother soul space on the likes of ‘Cheating In The Next Room’ and ‘Three Into Two Won’t Go’, which both offer a nod to the likes of Otis Redding and Marvin Gaye, the former displaying some tasteful piano and organ from Sam Brady, as well as some crooning horns.  The horns go on to provide some vibrant punctuation across the album, notably on ‘Everybody Knows About My Good Thing’, where they follow a very BB King guitar intro from special guest Eddie Cotton, who proceeds to pepper the track with single-note guitar licks.
‘I’m A Bluesman’ – not the BB King song, it should be noted – offers variety in the form of a declamatory statement of intent, like a less spiky take on ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, fitted to a great bass line from Frederick Demby Sr that’s shadowed by the horns. And Denise Lasalle’s ‘Someone Else Is Steppin’ In’ is a funky groove that makes good use of female back vocals and the horns as the main man shifts from victim to swaggering his way out the other side.
Contrary to what the album cover suggests, Champion doesn’t play guitar on this outing.  He provides the on-the-money soul-infused vocals though, and some harp.  But most importantly, as producer he’s succeeded in creating a warm and rich sound that captures the soulful vibe.  Like I said, well done.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Stray Cats - 40

NOW we’re talking!
I remember when the Stray Cats first burst onto the scene back in 1979, hurtling out of nowhere with youthful, swaggering braggadocio, all quiffs and tattoos and throwing off sparks like a Catherine Wheel.  And now here we are 40 years later, they’re back with a new album, and it’s like they’ve never been away.  Once again resistance is useless – prepare to be pulverised, people.
Stray Cats - the rock'n'roll insanity resumes
Pic by Suzie Kaplan
‘Cat Fight (Over A Dog Like Me)’ crashes out of the speakers with a blast of Brian Setzer’s rock’n’rolling guitar, then gets swept along on a tide of clattering snare drum from Slim Jim Phantom and runaway stand-up bass from Lee Rocker, telling a typically daft lyrical tale to the accompaniment of spiky chords from Setzer and culminating in an ever-so-Chuck-Berry solo.  It’s only track 1, and I’m breathless.
Across 12 tracks in just 35 minutes, like days of yore, the Stray Cats are plugged into a high voltage rock’n’roll generator, and have a direct line open to the greats of their musical ancestry.  ‘Cry Danger’ is built around a ‘Daytripper’-ish riff, and has “HIT” written all over it.  Setting the apocalyptic scene with an atmospheric verse that builds to the lines “The ground is shaking underneath, I’m too close to the edge,” it then ignites a dayglo Sixties party vibe to rival the B-52s’ ‘Love Shack’.  And they follow that up with ‘I Attract Trouble’, sucking you into a Link Wray-like vortex that emerges into an infernally catchy, two-part undulating chorus, illuminated by some very Dick Dale scudding twangery from Setzer.
A bit later they conjure up another stone-cold killer with ‘That’s Messed Up’, kicking off with a strutting riff that Mick Green might have cooked up for The Pirates, and adding some Jerry Lee Lewis-style shivering vocal into the mix, en route to a scrabbling solo from Setzer.  ‘When Nothing’s Going Right’ then picks up the baton with a riff like a gunning engine on a Mustang, added handclaps for a lark, and another explosive solo.
They cool things off a bit with ‘Desperado’, which is a descendant of the Shadows’ ‘Apache’ melding into some more Dick Dale-ery on guitar, before they bust into a high tempo country-ish shuffle, all tumbling guitar lines, on ‘Mean Pickin’ Mama’ – or as it should really be titled, ‘Meeeeaaaann Pickin’ Mama’.
Sure, there are a few tracks that don’t hit the heights of some of the above, but they still have enough wattage to light up Piccadilly Circus, from the jangling guitar and rasping vocal on the chugging ‘Rock It Off’, to the twiddly guitar breaks tossed hither and yon on ‘I’ve Got Love If You Want It’, and more besides.  And they finish strongly with the punk-ish refrain and chanted backing vox on ‘I’ll Be Looking Out For You’, with its plunging riff that crunches to an emergency stop, and the closing ‘Devil Train’ – the bastard offspring of ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Ghost Riders In The Sky’, with ripping chords and crashing cymbals.
Get this album.  Turn the sucker UP!  And party like it’s 1979, people!

40 is released by Mascot Label Group on 24 May.
You can find a 'Flashback' recollection of Stray Cats playing live in 1981 here.

Sunday, May 19, 2019

Jimmie Vaughan - Baby Please Come Home

Time for me to take a deep breath, because I reckon I’m going to be in a minority of one with what I’m about to say.  I find this resolutely retro new album from the iconic Jimmie Vaughan . . . uneven.
Let’s start by accentuating the positive.  Jimmie Vaughan is a great singer.  This is particularly apparent on a couple of tracks falling in the middle of the album, T-Bone Walker’s ‘I’m Still In Love With You’, and the following ‘It’s Love Baby (24 Hours A Day)’.  The first is a dreamy ballad on which Vaughan delivers the vocal beautifully, over nothing more than drums’n’bass for a spell, until they’re joined by swells of horns, touches of organ,
Jimmie Vaughan - dig those shoes!
and some trills of jazzy piano.  It’s a delight.  And his phrasing really lifts the last verse of ‘It’s Love Baby’.
The album starts off in scintillating fashion with ‘Baby Please Come Home’ itself, swinging like a trapeze, with a bouncing bass line courtesy of Ronnie James, a good sax solo, and Vaughan’s guitar solo playing off the melody in nifty fashion.
On the whole though, I find the second half of the album stronger than the first.  One of the reasons for this is that some of the early tracks lean heavily on horn riffs that seem a bit tame to these ears.  And bearing in mind that Vaughan made his name as a rhythm guitarist, there are times when I’m asking myself whether he’s even playing rhythm guitar.  Is it buried in the mix, or is he leaving it to the horns to do the rhythm job? Either way, it contributes to a shortage of grit in places.
All the same, there’s a cool groove on ‘Be My Lovey Dovey’, with female backing vocals and handclaps, and ‘What’s Your Name?’ gets up a bit of head of steam as it progresses.  And things liven up a bit more on the instrumental ‘Hold It’, where Vaughan’s guitar sound is warmer and Mike Flanigin’s organ comes to the fore.
Fats Domino’s ‘So Glad’ really has a bit more of a tiger in its tank though, with the horns a bit tougher, more snap in the drums, and Vaughan rousing himself vocally as well as delivering a stinging solo.  That higher oomph quotient is also apparent in Clarence ‘Gatemouth’ Brown’s ‘Midnight Hour’, with some nice ripples of piano that could have been higher in the mix.
Jimmy Reed’s ‘Baby, What’s Wrong’ is better still, in a back to basics manner.  With the horns absent, Vaughan’s rhythm guitar is audibly present on the ‘Got My Mojo Working’-style riff, though occasionally threatening to be overtaken by Flanigin’s organ, and there’s plenty of zip in his solo too. The fact that it’s a live cut may be something to do with the fresher approach, and the same is true of the two bonus tracks, ‘Silly Dilly Woman’ and the Flanigin-penned instrumental ‘Exact Change’.  All the same, while I love the sound of a Hammond B3 organ, and Flanigin is known as a prime exponent, across the album it seems to be set up with too much of an old-fashioned, Wurlitzer sound to suit my tastes.
Baby Please Come Home is the proverbial curate’s egg of an album - absolutely of the standard you’d expect from Jimmie Vaughan in parts, and curiously flat in others.  Maybe he and I aren’t on quite the same blues wavelength.  Whatever, I don’t imagine my bemusement will affect his iconic status one iota.

Friday, May 17, 2019

Rockin' Johnny & Quiqué Gomez - Dos Hombres Wanted

I seem to be having a couple of weeks where new albums reach my ears that show old-fashioned R’n’B is alive and well.  This time it’s San Francisco-based guitarist and vocalist Rockin’ Johnny Burgin and his harp-playing Spanish compadre Quiqué Gomez supplying the goods.
Dos Hombres Wanted announces itself with ‘Your Charm Won’t Help You’, a helping of bopping R’n’B penned by Burgin on which he delivers the vocals and also zinging guitar work, while Gomez adds harp licks aplenty over an easy beat and bobbing bass from Eric Przygocki, and ivories tinkle in the background courtesy of Christian Dozzler.  And it has to be said, they make this stuff sound easy.
Arrest those men!
‘Take It Like It Is (What I Gotta Do)’ features Gomez on vocals.  He has a bit of a groaning style, with the slightest of Spanish inflections, but he understands how to deliver the lyric to good effect, while Burgin offers up a solo that starts off stuttering and reined in, before shifting to a more waspish gear, in contrast to Gomez’s plaintive harp.
There are a couple of nifty instances of that classic blues theme of the knockout babe who’s devoted to her man, in ‘You Can’t Steal My Sugar’ and ‘Everybody Loves My Baby’.  The first rocks along urgently, with rollicking piano from Dozzler and a rattling rhythm from drummer Stephen Dougherty, while the second is an unhurried, steady groove, featuring subtle guitar with bags of twang from Burgin.
The flip side of those lyrical sentiments appears on the slow and mournful ‘Coffee Can Blues’, a tale of heartbreak on which Gomez moans away on harmonica throughout, and Burgin contributes a pinging, ringing solo, over simple, dragging bass lines from Przygocki.
A particular highlight is ‘Ain’t No High Roller’, a steady rumble of a track with squalls of harp and swirls of accordion from Dozzler in the background.  With reined in surges of guitar from Burgin, and an insistent bass line, it has an on-the-money feel.  ‘Step It Up Bro’ also scores heavily, with some shouted backing vocals on the chorus, the accordion pulled into the foreground, and woozy bursts of trombone from Farris Jarrah.  The overall effect is a swinging, jazzy feel reminiscent of Sean Costello, underlined by some dreamy guitar tones from Burgin.
Robert Lockwood’s ‘Funny But True’ heads for Tom Waits-style late night lounge territory, and though it never has Waits’ edge or poetry it’s still a pleasingly minimalist affair, with twinkling guitar and piano.  More fun, perhaps, is Tampa Red’s ‘Don’t Blame Shorty’, which is laid back and easy with a liberal helping of harp from Gomez.
At 14 tracks the album feels overlong, with a couple too many common-or-garden slow or mid-paced offerings.  There’s some variety in the slow but atmospheric ‘The Jinx’, the vocals apparently delivered through a bullet mic over a steady, nagging beat and restrained guitar chords, and ‘Are You Ever’ is upbeat and shuffling, with a squealing harp solo and some stinging, brittle-toned guitar from Burgin.
I might have liked a tad more raunch here and there, a bit more hair let down.  But on the whole Dos Hombres Wanted shows Burgin and Gomez hitting the mark old-fashioned R’n’B that catches the right vibe with ease and charm.

Dos Hombres Wanted is out now on Vizztone Records.

Tuesday, May 14, 2019

Rosie Flores - Simple Case Of The Blues

I have, as I’m sure the kids never say nowadays, been digging this album for a couple of weeks now.  Don’t think I’ve ever said that before myself either, come to think of it.
But I digress.  The point is that with Simple Case Of Blues Austin-based Rosie Flores has come up with an album of the most straightforwardly engaging old-fashioned rhythm’n’blues you could wish for.  There’s nothing innovative about it, but who gives a shit?  What it is, is very well done, and fun, fun, fun.
The tone is set beautifully by the opening track, Roy Brown’s ‘Love Don’t Love Nobody’, a tootling piece of blues that could easily have emerged from Sun Studios in the 
Rosie Flores - knows her onions, as they rarely say in Austin
Fifties.  It swings with ease, and with Flores’ pinging guitar solo thrown into the mix, backed up by another from Kenny Vaughan, you could easily imagine the Stray Cats being a mite envious.  I could do without the yelps of emphasis in Flores’ vocals, a trick repeated later on the old-time R’n’B-cum-rockabilly of ‘I Want To Do More’, which also has piano and sax to the fore, and also on the jump-bluesy ‘Till The Well Runs Dry’. But I’ll forgive her given the quality of her phrasing and delivery throughout the album as a whole.
And in fact her voice grabs the attention for all the right reasons on the likes of Dwight Yoakam’s ‘If There Was A Way’, a Fats Domino-like ballad that’s all steady piano and the twinkling of two intertwined guitars, over the top of which Flores produces a characterful vocal that puts me very much in mind of Maria McKee on her excellent album You’ve Got To Sin To Get Saved, and you can’t say fairer than that.  The same comparison is valid for the excellent closer ‘If You Need Me’, previously recorded by Wilson Pickett, and another aching slowie, here with a country-esque spoken verse.  And if Flores doesn’t quite hit those heights on the earlier ‘Mercy Fell Like Rain’ it’s still a spot-on slow blues, with sparse, reverb-heavy chiming guitar chords, washes of organ courtesy of Mike Flanigin, a suitably plaintive vocal, and expressive guitar playing throughout.
The title track is a cracking tune, a tale of heartache redolent of scrappy Sixties R’n’B, with a simple, on-the-money retro sound – and in fact the production has an appealing old-time quality throughout.  ‘Drive Drive Drive’ is a slinky, mid-paced road song, while ‘Enemy Hands’, comes from the pen of bass player Dave Roe, and is smoky and sultry, with another aching vocal, and a reflective, understated guitar solo that’s really quite delectable.
Chuck in another irresistible little jump-bluesy affair in the form of ‘That’s What You Gotta Do’, all walking bass, parping horn riff and tinkling ivories, and the Sean Costello-ish guitar instrumental ‘Teenage Rampage’, and you’ve got an album full of charm and wit.
Simple Case Of The Blues isn’t a heavyweight masterpiece. It is, however, damn good.  Flores has been at this game for more years than it would be courteous to specify, starting off playing the blues and assimilating punk, and rockabilly along the way.  So she knows her onions, and together with co-producer Charlie Sexton, and crack musos like Roe and Flanigin, she’s put together an album that sounds traditional and fresh at the same time. And, it's worth repeating, it’s great fun.

Saturday, May 11, 2019

Sam Fish Hits Scotland, Episode 2 - Oran Mor, Glasgow, 10 May 2019

Tony Joe White should really have written a song called ‘Rainy Night In Glasgow’.  We get 57 varieties of rain in Scotland, and tonight it’s a sudden downpour that soaks you just walking a few hundred yards, so that a succession of sodden punters turn up at Oran Mor.  In a little while though, braving the rain will be well worth it, to experience a band that are on fire.
Samantha Fish and her gang had set the bar eye-wateringly high in Edinburgh the previous night, and if tonight they don’t stoke up exactly the same intensity, they get close enough as makes no difference, while the show also benefits from the snazzier lighting that Oran Mor has to offer.
Samantha Fish fires off combination punches on guitar and vocals
The band take the stage in darkness, and immediately assert their confidence by opening the show with ‘Bulletproof’, Fish sporting her recent innovation of red diamond make-up over her right eye for good measure.  The fact that the song is unreleased doesn’t matter a jot.  Its strong hook and Samantha letting loose on cigar box guitar, augmented by strobe lights, are plenty enough combination punches to garner a roar of approval.
The other new songs, ‘Love Letters’ and ‘Watch It Die’, are positioned in the middle and towards the end of the set respectively.  Introducing the first, Sam says “It’s a new song, so don’t be mean if it sucks.”  Fat chance.  Seems to me it’s a darker song than it appears at first blush, a tale of someone taken for granted perhaps, and the musical balance of sweetness and desperation again has the desired impact on the audience.  ‘Watch It Die’, meanwhile, is alternately hot and cool before building to an overwrought ending that is surely the work of a woman who used to rock out to AC/DC.
Contrasting highlights come in the form of ‘Gone For Good’ and the following ‘Go Home’.  The former is again delivered with her Jaguar rather than the cigar box, indicative of her constant readiness to try something different. And apart from the infernal catchiness of the
Singing songs of sweetness and desperation
intertwined rhythm and guitar line, it’s increasingly becoming the Sam’n’Phil show as Fish trades guitar and organ breaks with keyboard player Phil Breen en route to a crunching ending.  The crowd are hollering fit to bust at this point, but the next minute they fall impeccably silent as she dons her acoustic and starts picking her way through the opening bars of ‘Go Home’.  It’s such a simple, restrained but beautiful song, and I daresay I wasn’t the only one quietly crooning along with bassist Chris Alexander and drummer Scotty Graves on their “go home” backing vocals.  It makes good use of ringing acoustic chords over Breen’s organ, and between them they contrive a gentle, delicious ending.
Tonight both ‘Don’t Say You Love Me’ and ‘Cowtown’ also feature in the first half of the set. The former starts out blue and soulful, while country leanings are apparent in the latter, yet both emerge as entirely distinctive pieces of Americana.
It’s intriguing how some songs suddenly come to the fore on the road.  On this tour ‘You Can’t Go’ has become a real humdinger, and tonight it’s notable how Fish wrenches its fuzzed up solo out of her guitar.  And later she introduces ‘Little Baby’ by saying “It’s nice and sweaty already, so let’s do some bouncing.”  Which is exactly what happens as they turn it near-as-dammit into a slice of rockabilly, as without the horns Fish’s rollicking, brittle-toned guitar comes to the fore over Alexander’s rollercoaster bass runs.
Sam’s biting closing solo on ‘Daughters’ evolves into a wall of noise to herald the closing ‘Crow Jane’, by which time the crowd are going nuts.  And when the band return from a brief disappearance to encore with ‘Bitch On The Run’ they’re even more ready to launch into the singalong section than in Edinburgh the night before.
This was another tour de force performance from Fish and her band, and it was evident they’d wowed the capacity audience.  Samantha Fish is turning into a force of nature, one of a select band of artists who can overwhelm you with their material, musicianship, unique vocals, and unstoppable performance levels.
Curse Of Lono - dark, acerbic and expressive
Once again, support band Curse Of Lono evidently have a sizeable number of their own fans in attendance, and I’ll warrant that by the end of their set they’ll have acquired some more.  As dark and acerbic as their lyrics are, they deliver some top quality songs in a winning manner, whether it’s the bass-laden son of ‘Wild Thing’ that is set-opener ‘Blackout Fever’, the easy rolling rhythm of ‘London Rain’, or the undeniably catchy ‘Way To Mars’.  ‘No Trouble’ is a song about loss with a suitably elegiac tone until guitarist Joe Hazell cuts through it with a typically expressive, clear-toned solo – though they too often tend to end songs on his solo, without a definitive chorus or coda, following what I’m sure is a deliberate policy of denial.  Whatever, their new album 4am And Counting is due out in July, and I’d bet this tour will attract new takers for it.

You can find a review of the show in Newcastle on 7 May here, and a review of the Edinburgh show on 9 May here.

Samantha Fish Set List
Chills And Fever
You Can't Go
Don't Say You Love Me
Love Letters
Little Baby
Blood In The Water
Gone For Good
Go Home
Watch It Die
Crow Jane
Bitch On The Run

Friday, May 10, 2019

Sam Fish Hits Scotland, Episode 1 - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 9 May 2019

Let’s do something radical, shall we, and begin at the beginning, with the support band?  (No scrolling down now, Samantha Fish fans!)  Because it's worth emphasising that London’s Curse Of Lono are an imaginative outfit with a distinctive voice of their own.
With songs from front man Felix Bechtolsheimer, interesting arrangements, and strong musicianship all round, it strikes me that the Southern Gothic label that’s often attached to them doesn’t tell the whole story.  After opener ‘Blackout Fever’, second song ‘London Rain’ shows off Doors-like keys from birthday boy Dani Ruiz Hernandez, impressive four-part harmonies, and a good sense of atmospherics.  By the time they get to the end of ‘Way To
How to deliver a rock'n'roll dramatic monologue - Lesson 1
Mars’, which explores the touring musician’s motivation for “waking up in a shitty hotel room every morning”, I’m thinking they remind me more of the alt.rock/ stylings of Drive-By Truckers.  But from England.
And they’ve got more in their locker.  Felix straps on a side drum for ‘Send In The Whisky’, with its droning guitar notes and vaguely folky chorus, while ‘I’d Start A War For You’ contrives something of a motorik vibe, with Joe Hazell producing a convincing synth impersonation on guitar.  ‘Pick Up The Pieces’, with its offbeat shuffling rhythm and Hernandez playing a harmonium, comes across like the bastard offspring of Iggy’s ‘Lust For Life’ and Celtic rock.  For their efforts they get, and deserve, a warm reception from tonight’s audience.
And so to the main event.
One of the pleasures of seeing multiple Samantha Fish shows is the variety she brings to her set – no recite-it-by-heart running order for her, no sirree.  So tonight she and the band kick off by walloping into ‘Wild Heart’, on which she launches her slide solo with a shout of “Let’s go!”  Then they’re straight into ‘You Can’t Go’, with the pedal pushed flat to the metal, Sam bringing a wild conviction to those “oh-oh baby” vocals, and a fiery solo to match.
After which it’s as probably as well for any patrons with a heart condition that she opts to cool things down with the torch song soul of ‘Hello Stranger’, which develops from meltingly
Sam Fish goes metal - well, maybe
seductive to achingly passionate. Like so much of her material, whether originals or covers, it’s a dramatic monologue of a song, and it’s notable how she now injects glimpses of the characters’ attitudes into her delivery, be they sensitive or snarling.
They whack up the tempo again though, on ‘Highway’s Holding Me Now’, which is the cue for Fish’s first burst of power chord hair-flailing. Then it’s time to head in a Nashville direction for ‘Blame It On The Moon’, on which Phil Breen contributes Bruce Hornsby like piano intro and outro.  And when Fish steps up her slide solo from a country-like lilt to full tilt, Breen is so into it that he can be seen emulating his boss’s penchant for head banging.  
Breen, in fact, is a revelation tonight.  It’s as if he’s thriving on additional responsibility coming his way in the four-piece format, not least on ‘Little Baby’, on which he lashes out vibrant honky tonk piano, while Chris Alexander throws himself bodily into breakneck bass runs, and Sam cranks out the kind of full-on twangery for which her Fender Jaguar was designed.  It closes with a teasing guitar and drums exchange with Scotty Graves, then melts into the sparse and reflective ‘Blood On The Water’, resting heavily on harmonies with Alexander and Graves, and warm piano from Breen.
Dusty Springfield impersonation time?
She changes the Jaguar’s tuning at this point – or tries to. “Close enough,” she shrugs, in a tellingly relaxed manner.  Playing to a sell out, all-standing room, feeding off a crowd that start off enthusiastic and crank it up from there, it’s like tonight the whole band are off the leash. And when she then picks her way through the opening bars of ‘Gone For Good’, it’s met with a roar of approval. With its rattling rhythm, a bonkers organ solo from Breen, and Fish not just letting rip on guitar but capturing the “screw you” dimension of the lyric, it’s a veritable barn-burner that has the place bouncing.
“Let me compose myself,” says Samantha when it’s done, pushing her hair off her face.  “Sweaty room, huh?”  Then with a wink as she reaches for her acoustic, “Here’s one to bum you out.” And out rolls the gorgeous ‘Need You More’.
The suggestion of some new songs is greeted by shouts of encouragement, and tonight it’s ‘Love Letters’ first out of the blocks.  I wasn’t sure about those quirky little slide notes when I first heard it, but now, alongside those lines about “Oh my sweet little sexy baby, why can’t you sleep alongside of me,” they seem to fit like the breathing of a sleeping partner, and the song's dinky verse and driving chorus create satisfying light and shade.  “This one’s a bit more heavy metal,” she says, introducing ‘Watch It Die’, which suggests she hasn’t heard some of the thud and blunder that passes for metal nowadays.  All the same, its buzzing riff shows that she’s still got the capacity to deliver high-end blues rock – Chris Alexander evidently thinks so, as he gets his groove on while cranking out the bottom end en route to a monster finale.
Curse Of Lono - tales of shitty hotel rooms
Things are going so swimmingly Fish decides to add ‘No Angels’ to the pre-arranged set list.  Starting out as restrained, chugging boogie, it explodes on the solo, then shifts through subtle guitar and piano interplay, with dynamics galore as Fish again enacts the lyric in her vocal delivery, with signature hand gestures like a Dusty Springfield armed with a guitar.
‘Daughters’, with its skipping beat, offers some more respite, but only briefly, and Breen practically has his nose on the keyboard as he embarks on another organ workout, covering for Samantha as she switches guitar to her SG for a wiry solo that builds to a punishing conclusion.  Then it’s out with the cigar box, and more cheers as ‘Crow Jane’ brings the set to a crunking conclusion.
Well, sort of, as it only takes a minute before they’re back for ‘Bitch On The Run’.  I could wish that Sam would leave herself the option to pull a rabbit out of the hat for an extra encore now and then, but the crowd throw themselves into the “Right now, right now” singalong regardless, and by the end there’s no doubt that the goods have been delivered.
Your favourite artists don’t routinely strike gold onstage, and don’t go kidding yourself otherwise.  But tonight, in an old-fashioned, sweaty ballroom, Samantha Fish and her band – all of them – turned it up to eleven and beyond.  This, my friends, was the spirit of rock’n’roll captured like lightning in a bottle.

You can find a review of the 7 May Gateshead show here, and the Glasgow show on 10 May here.

Set list
Wild Heart
You Can’t Go
Hello Stranger
Highway’s Holding Me Now
Blame It On The Moon
Little Baby
Blood In The Water
Gone For Good
Need You More
Love Letters
Watch It Die
No Angels
Crow Jane
Bitch On The Run

Thursday, May 9, 2019

Ana Popovic - Oran Mor, Glasgow, 8 May 2019

It’s a damp and miserable evening in Glasgow – or dreich, as we say here in Scotland.  But Ana Popovic certainly succeeds in raising the temperature in Oran Mor with her brand of funky rocking blues.  After a brief, driving soul curtain-raiser from the rest of her band, complete with squealing horns, the lady makes her entrance and proceeds to light the fuse by leading them in a blistering instrumental.
That sets the tone for an opening barrage of take-no-prisoners funkadelicness from a band that manages to be at once tight as a drum and loose as a goose, featuring some jaw dropping guitar
Serbian siren singes fretboard alert
from their boss.  Often, if I were to say that a guitarist is capable of unleashing a torrent of notes, it wouldn’t necessarily be a  compliment.  But it has to be said that in the hands of Ana Popovic it’s done with eye-popping intent.
They blast through chunks of funk like ‘Can You Stand The Heat’ and ‘Object Of Obsession’ with plenty of variation, from a brief bass showcase over jazzy piano chords, to Ms P exploring the apron of the stage for a succession of zinging solos, to a guitar and keys duel.  Throughout all this Popovic tends to sport a look of total self-assurance, mistress of all she surveys.  And no wonder.
It’s all a bit relentless mind you, not helped by the sound being just a bit too in-yer-face.  I’m rarely one to complain about volume, but there’s a tendency for things to sound overly shrill until later in the set.
Whatever, it’s a relief to get a breather when they downshift into ‘Long Road Down’ a more relaxed tale of western migration – albeit with some brisk wah-wah riffing – on which the horns get their groove on before another blinding solo from Popovic. She then cools things off further with a cover of Tom Waits’ ‘New Coat Of Paint’, bringing a N’Awlins horn vibe together with jazzy piano runs.  Both the trumpet and sax player get solo turns, while Popovic totally nails Waits’ lazy vocal phrasing.  ‘Johnny Ray’ completes a triplet of more
Aaaand - breathe . . . .
laid back tunes, all smoky downbeat jazziness, and featuring a fluttering, left-hand-only, pin-drop quiet guitar passage of extraordinary control.
Then she ups the funk ante again with ‘If Tomorrow Was Today’ to shake everyone’s butts back into motion, before launching into the joint-jumping blues of ‘How’d You Learn To Shake It Like That’, with the classic lines “Your daddy was a preacher, your mama was an alley cat”, and a strafing slide solo to boot.
‘Unconditional’ starts off in easy-going mode before developing a breakneck call and response passage for guitar and keys, while ‘Summer Rain’ features a full-on eyeballs-out solo – not so much a sun shower as a tropical downpour.
You’d scarcely think the woman has a new album to flog, given that she leaves it for over an hour before she slots in the loose-limbed title track from Like It On Top, followed by the bump’n’grind of ‘Brand New Man’.  But if those provide another pause for breath, it’s only in readiness for ‘Show You How Strong You Are’, which closes the show with showcases for band members all round before they wallop into a ‘Going Down’ riff that ultimately melds into a rip-roaring ‘Crosstown Traffic’, replete with another dazzling firework display of lead guitar.
After that the brief, sun-kissed and swinging ‘Lasting Kind Of Love’, from the new album, is something of an anti-climax.  Or maybe it’s just a final exhalation to let the crowd recover as they head out the door. I certainly needed a lie down – a wow performance to be sure, but a
bit more blues to leaven all the funkification, and the foot off the pedal a bit more, would create more light, shade, and balance.  As a first encounter with the Ana Popovic live experience though, this was an eye-opener and then some.
Ben Poole - "Where'd I drop my pick?"
What to say of support act Ben Poole, preceding that force of nature?  I’ve liked Poole since picking up his Live At The Royal Albert Hall album a few years, but this brief curate’s egg of a set left me feeling that he’s still not fulfilling his potential. He produces a solid opening with the chunky chords and beefy rhythm of ‘Take It No More’ – you’d better bet you’ll get a meaty groove with Wayne Proctor on drums.  ‘Start The Car’ is a funky strut to get toes tapping, on which Poole produces an interesting flight-of-the-bumblebee segment in an otherwise overlong solo.
‘Don’t Cry For Me’ is a moody slowie with the kind of soulfulness that suits his voice, and the restrained grooving passage of his solo displays feeling, though for me the big and dirty uptempo section that follows is less interesting.  But the closing ‘Anytime You Need Me’, the title track of his latest album, certainly fits the bill.  With its brassy riff, punchy vocal delivery that’s one of his strengths, interesting shifts in tempo and volume, and a scrabbling solo over bubbling bass runs from Beau Barnard while Proctor holds it all together, it's worthy of its big finish.  Others may disagree, but I think a bit more discipline in his soloing would serve Poole well, allowing him to focus more on his undoubted ability to deliver a tune.

Wednesday, May 8, 2019

Samantha Fish - Sage 2, Gateshead, 7 May 2019

Wild Heart seems like a pretty good monicker for Samantha Fish. It’s not just the title track for one of her albums.  Or the name of the record label she’s created.  It also captures the qualities she brings to her live performance – by turns frenetic, intimate, and emotional.
Shorn of the horns, the four-piece she’s brought on this European tour still has the weight and the chemistry to bring to life whatever material she throws into the mix, with Phil Breen’s keys perhaps taking a more prominent role in rounding out the sound.
Sam Fish - no rabble rousing required
Warming up with ‘American Dream’, Fish gets her slide guitar mojo working over rock steady bass from Chris Alexander, and sets to working the crowd with ease.  Every inch the rock chick in studded pink leather jacket and black leather trousers, she doesn’t need to be a rabble-rouser to get them on side. A beckoning gesture and a quick aside of encouragement is all it takes.
The Sage 2 is a glossily modern three-tiered room.  It’s also distinctly warm from the outset.  So it’s no surprise that after a slinky ‘Chills And Fever’, on which Sam essays a subtle solo and lets rip vocally for the first time on the ending, the leather jacket comes off in time for ‘Wild Heart’. With its high-revving ‘Barracuda’-like riff, and a bout of her inimitable vocal pyrotechnics, it brings a palpable change of gear to proceedings, and when they then segue into the snappy, stuttering R’n’B of ‘You Can’t Go’ the energy levels on stage become electrifying.
Dynamics are to the fore though, as they down shift into the brooding ‘No Angels’, with funky bass from Alexander and a thumping tick-tock rhythm from drummer Scotty Graves, a piano solo from Breen, and Fish taking it down further with intriguing volume pedal inflected slide playing before breaking out onto another level..  She also recruits the audience for some “No it ain’t” call and response singing, even if expecting anyone to match her somersaulting vocals is somewhat implausible. 
She straps on an acoustic for a couple of songs.  First there’s the dreamy, country-tinged Americana of ‘Need You More’, with a delicate and lovely solo conjured out of both strumming and picking.  Then later there’s ‘Daughters’, featuring deliciously warm piano playing from Breen as a prelude to his boss smoothly switching guitars to her SG mid-song, in readiness for a scorching, head-shaking solo.
Achingly good vocals to light the blue touch paper
In between we’re treated to a trio of songs from her upcoming album Kill Or Be Kind.  ‘Bulletproof’ is a typically energetic cigar box guitar rocker, with a punchy chorus and a descending melody on the verse thatsounds like a kind of Sixties rock’n’roll version of the “It’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s soooo good” line from Donna Summer ‘I Feel Love’ - I kid you not.  And indeed it is so good, as Sam duly goes nuts on the solo to the accompaniment of some stroboscopic lighting.
‘Love Letters’ is a multi-faceted affair, with some breathy “you and I” vocals from Fish, backed up by Alexander, and shows that she’s absorbed the soul of those Chills And Fever tunes to become a 21st Century Sixties Girl.  ‘Watch It Die’, meanwhile, is notable for the underlying intricacy of its throbbing, buzzsaw riff, Sam’s right hand fluidly combining her pick and her fingers, before she again switches guitars mid-song, from her Delaney semi-acoustic to her SG, for the slow segment that offers a breather before another wig-out solo.
The dark and heavy ‘Crow Jane’ is the set closer, a cigar box stomper, with Phil Breen working away studiously and Graves getting into some floor-tom infused tub-thumping – more than once during the set he has to adjust his kit, the hi-hat and kick drum having shifted position – before they drift into a slithery ‘Shake Em On Down’ coda.
“Do you want one more?” Sam asks when they reappear.  “Two more!”  “Three More!” come the shouts from the crowd.  But that response is more in hope than expectation, and the Stonesy ‘Bitch On The Run’ duly brings the night to a close with the traditional “Right now, right now” singalong.
Curse Of Lono - Southern Gothic-on-Thames
London-based tour support Curse Of Lono can’t compete with the Fish level of firepower, but their Southern Gothic-on-Thames still makes for an intriguing proposition, and they evidently have a posse of their own fans in attendance who are more than happy with their set.
They kick off with ‘Blackout Fever’ which effectively takes the riff from ‘Wild Thing’ and transforms it into a subterranean bass groove.  It’s a catchy affair, showing off their harmonies and some neat slide from Joe Hazell.  As dark as they may be though, ‘Way To Mars’ is actually a pleasingly poppy tune, with spangly guitar and a nice a cappella harmony ending.  Their cover of Tom Waits' 'Going Out West' is meaty and rumbling, and they bring some Alabama 3-like warped country tinges to ‘Welcome Home’, while ‘And It Shows' is a subtle, sub fusc affair, with brushed drums and twinkling guitar from Hazell.  Throughout all this main man Felix Bechtolsheimer is a poised and engaging presence, and on the whole there’s a zip to their live performance that outshines their two albums, as intelligent as those are.  If you’re not familiar with them it’s worth getting along early to catch them before the main event.

You can find a review of the Edinburgh gig on 9 May here, and the Glasgow gig on 10 May here.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Hollis Brown - Ozone Park

“Hey listen, it’s gonna be one of those relaxed nights, you know,” says Southside Johnny, on the live album Reach Up And Touch The Sky. “You had Jackson Browne in here last night, and the Doobie Brothers.  So we’re all gonna put on our earphones, and just relax, take it easy. Play a little West Coast – gimme a little West Coast rock’n’roll will you please?”
The Asbury Jukes make a desultory start on the opening chords to the Eagles’ ‘Take It Easy’, and Johnny tries out the first line.  “Well I’m running down the road tryin’ to loosen my load,” he sings, before bringing matters to a swift “forget it” conclusion.
All of which is by way of saying that while Hollis Brown – named after a Dylan song – originated in Queens, New York, much of their latest album Ozone Park is redolent of 70s and 80s West Coast rock – bright, easygoing and melodic.
Hollis Brown loosening their load
In fact the thought that immediately springs to mind with opening track ‘Blood From A Stone’ is Fleetwood Mac, not least because singer and guitarist Mike Montali’s voice is a dead ringer for Lindsey Buckingham.  The chorus could easily fit into a Mac album of that vintage, while the verse features a neat progression and a tickle of funk.  And the following ‘Stubborn Man’ is essentially out of the same box.
Their cover of Jesse Malin’s ‘She Don’t Love Me Now’ is slower and more Eagles-like, with acoustic rhythm guitar evident, and more pronounced use of harmonies.  But lest you think they’re entirely stuck in the past, ‘Do Me Right’ makes use of some a couple of spikier, counterpointed, guitar lines from Jonathan Bonilla in addition to bubbling bass.  It still evokes the 80s, but should also be amenable to fans of more recent fare like, say, Kings Of Leon.  And both ‘Someday Soon’ and ‘The Way She Does It’ similarly hint at a more contemporary vibe.  The former is spangly and airy, with a radio friendly melody and rinky-dink guitar line, like a more grown up but perhaps less original version of California’s Avi Buffalo.  'The Way She Does It', with its lazy backbeat and pulsing bass supporting a catchy chorus and more good use of harmonies, is the veritable sound of summer.
They go a bit further afield with ambient instrumental minimalism on the brief ‘After The Fire’, which is really just an intro to ‘Forever In Me’, a more ethereal ballad suggestive of Fleet Foxes, with slow electronic beats, and an echoing keening vocal before it picks up into acoustic strumming and some Adam Clayton-like bass.
The closing tracks aim for something edgier, ‘Bad Mistakes’ coming across as more jagged and modern, while ‘Go For It’ makes use of synthesizer and some glissando backing vocals, but is ultimately too nondescript to live up to its title.
Three-quarters of Ozone Park is a glossy, well-crafted re-reading of classic Adult Orientated Rock sounds, and hats off to Hollis Brown for the quality of some of the hooks they’ve come up with in the process. It’s just a pity they don’t manage to keep up the momentum right to the finish line.

Ozone Park is released on Cool Green Recordings/Mascot Label Group on 7 June.