Monday, July 29, 2019

Going Dutch - Samantha Fish shares conversation with Blues Enthused

Dateline:  23 May 2019, Amsterdam.  Samantha Fish European Tour.

It’s late May in Amsterdam, and to quote The Kinks, I’m lazing on a sunny afternoon, having a quiet beer and waiting to meet Samantha Fish.
After catching three of her shows in Britain, I’ve indulged myself with a quick jaunt to the Netherlands to catch tonight’s show at the Q-Factory – and I’ve managed to score an interview with the lady of the moment into the bargain.
She’s running late, something to do with a filmed interview, but that’s okay.  Patience is a virtue, and all that.  And sure enough it’s not long before her tour manager Mark Sampson appears at the café doorway and gives me a wave.  And off we go, zig-zagging down some corridors before he opens the door to a cavernous, spartan room, in which Fish can be found sitting on a leather sofa in one corner, wearing a simple black t-shirt, black trousers and black headscarf, and looking fresh as a daisy.  I dunno how she does it, given her schedule.
We say our hellos and I sink onto the armchair at right angles to her, while she checks with Sampson that I’m the guy she thinks I am, who did those reviews of the British gigs? “Thanks for the great press man, I dig it!” she says winningly, as I get the digital recorder rolling.  And then off we go.

Down The Road Apiece
As they’re getting towards the tail end of a 22-date run through Britain and Western Europe, the obvious first question is:  how has it been going?

It's going good - Fender Jaguar time
“Going good,” says Samantha. “I’m in Amsterdam, having a blast!  Yeah, I mean this tour has been really exciting.  I feel we’re connecting with people, and that’s really exciting. And tonight’s going to be huge, there’s a lot of tickets sold, so I’ve just gotta go get myself together and make it work!”
This tour has taken in some bigger venues and audiences than her previous European jaunts, and from what I’ve seen the levels of enthusiasm have been stronger too.
“Yeah, yeah man!” she agrees.  “I love it when people sing the words along with the band, you know – they know the words of the songs.  It’s crazy when there’s a language gap,” she says, referring to the most recent gigs in Paris and Brussels, “but they still know the lyrics to the songs, you know?  It’s cool!”
One of the things I’ve noticed, I say, is that Fish is constantly changing her set, whether it’s the songs she plays each night or the running order.  This is not something that a lot of artists do these days, and highly commendable in my view.  So how important is it to her?
“I’m trying to do it more and more,” she says.  “It was kind of tough at first, ‘cause we had put two records out in 2017, and I had such a big band, and really with as much time as we’re on the road there’s not a lot of time to go home and rehearse, and work it out.  But we’ve just been forcing some of the older catalogue back into the set.  Really what helped facilitate that was we’ve been doing these festivals where we’ve been multiple shows at the same festival – you know when you’re in Byron Bay for four days,” she says, referring to the Australian festival they played recently, “I want people to think they’re missing something if they don’t come to another show.  You know, when we do those festivals, if they come to one show, and then they come to another one and they hear we play the same songs in the first 15 minutes, they go ‘Okay, we saw ‘em, we don’t need to go see ‘em again’.  I want ‘em to feel like they’re missing something, so I started putting that into the live show.”
I’ve also noted that she’s changed the guitars she uses on some songs.  On this tour she’s been using her Fender Jaguar on ‘Gone For Good’, for example.  
“Well, when I first started playing that song I was using an oil can, but that was really a six-string guitar.  So that was just like a regular guitar, I just tuned it to an open chord.  But yeah, the last few years I’ve just been down-tuning to Open G, and you can really do it on anything at that point. It’s kind of like, I look at the set list, and it’s what’s gonna be the easiest thing to tune fast, so whatever guitar I play before, I usually make that the one for ‘Gone For Good’.”
Watching her live, particularly when she’s soloing, Fish often seems so totally in the zone
A relieved band after negotiating another changed-up set list
that’s she’s lost in the music.  But obviously she has to keep one eye on the practicalities, because there are changes that come up, such as segue-ways where Phil Breen covers on piano while she re-tunes or switches guitar.
“Yeah, definitely,” she nods.  “And you know, over the years I always wonder ‘Why did I do this?’  It’s easier at home, when you have your home rig.  But you know, I could only fly over here with so many guitars.  So ideally I’d have a guitar in every tuning that I need, and I’d just go pick it up, put it on, and that’d be fine.  But you know, when you’re flying to Europe and you can only bring two bags with you, it’s like, okay, gonna have to make these four work in whatever tunings.  So yeah, I do think about that.  I write out the set list before the show.  We write it on the way to the venue – I like to feel out the venue, and go ‘Oh, this is going to be a rock’n’roll show tonight. Let’s stack the show with these kind of songs.’  I have to think about it before the show, so I’m not too stressed about it in the moment.”
And presumably the same applies to the rest of the band too, I suggest, so that they’re not left saying, ‘You’re gonna do what?’
“Well yeah, they need to know, they need to know!” she agrees, before laughing.  “Unfortunately for them, I’ll write the set, I’ll send it to the tour manager, and he’ll print it out and put it on the stage before the band even know what the hell’s going on!  So they get on stage and they’re like, ‘I didn’t know we were going to play this tonight!’  And I’m like, ‘Weeell . . . ,’ and she mimes an apologetic shrug.  “But they’re so talented, they can play anything!”
On this European tour they’ve been working as a four-piece, without the horns that have been a fixture since Chills And Fever.  So thinking about her earlier reference to having limited time to rehearse, I ask if it takes much work to rearrange things for the smaller line-up.  Or is it just more work for Phil Breen on keys?
More work for Phil Breen!
“It’s more work for Phil!” she acknowledges.  “I think he likes it though.  I’m like, ‘Would you like to play three keyboards tonight?’  I think he’d dig being able to do all that, it’s fun. It’s not more work, it’s just a different approach.  You know, we’re taking on songs like ‘Hello Stranger’, for instance, and that’s such a strong horn song, that’s got a really prominent part.  So how do we either cut that out, or adapt it to work on the guitar?  You know, some things are just, the personality characteristic is a horn, you can’t make the guitar into a horn.  I gotta find something else that’s gonna serve the song.  And a lot of our material, I mean I write a lot of the material on an acoustic guitar by myself, and it’s been fleshed out over the years as a trio, so it’s not too difficult.  But other songs’ll just take a little more effort and thought.”
Some of Fish’s long-standing fans are prone talk wistfully about ‘when Sam had a power-trio’.  But to me her approach has always been too wide-ranging for what seems a rather one-dimensional label – as opposed to ‘three-piece’, as a purely numerical descriptor.   Was it ever a description she identified with much, I wonder?
“You know, any time I feel like we’re closing to getting – um, figured out,” she says, “when people think that this is exactly who you are, and this is what you’re gonna be, and it becomes an expectation - it makes me wanna change.  ‘Cause I like to surprise people, and as an artist I feel like I want to grow and evolve, and I don’t want to be in a situation later where I’m like, ‘I wish I could change my band, but people will get upset’, you know?  I feel like, with as much as we changed in the last couple of years with the line-up, and in all honesty we added horns, a keyboard, and a fiddle for some stuff, the songs are still really guitar heavy.  I’m singing like I’ve always sung on them, and sonically I feel like it adds this layer of drama that I really, really dig.
“And you know,” she continues, “for certain things we might go back to – I mean we stripped down to a four-piece for this tour, you never know.  But I don’t ever want it to get to the point where I can’t do something, because it’s been so ingrained for so long that you can’t change anything.  I’m a solo artist, I’m a writer, I like to shift and bend my genre, and move around. But the thing that’s always going to be in the band is the guitar and my voice, so if I’m serving that then the rest around it is me just trying to make the best show possible.”

All The Way From Memphis
Her new album Kill Or Be Kind is coming out on 20 September – you can read the Blues Enthused review here.  So what’s the lowdown on it, Samantha?
“We recorded it mostly in Memphis at Royal Studios, which is a historic place,” Fish observes.  “It’s Willie Mitchell’s studio, and Al Green, Ann Peebles and all these incredible soul artists recorded there.  I know Bruno Mars did ‘Uptown Funk’ and everything in there.  I mean it’s just a special place, there’s a lot of soul, and history and vibe there, and I always really wanted to go back – because we did some stuff there for theWild Heart album.  
Ann Peebles - walking in the footsteps of classics at Royal Studios
“So when it came time to record, my producer Scott Billington and I were assessing Nashville, and all these different places, and I was like, Memphis has always made me feel so good, so let’s go there.  And we got some Memphis horns on a couple of the songs.”
But as she notes, this outing is following two dramatically different albums, in the form Chills And Fever and then Belle Of The West.
“So I wanted to find the middle ground,” she says, “but then push it even further – utilise the horns as a texture, something that’s gonna add to the track, but it’s not a horn record if you know what I mean.  But I kind of utilised the guitar a little differently on this album.  I got to flesh out and pad things, and add different layers and textures to the record, that polished it in a way.  And that was sort of fun for me, ‘cause it made it more dramatic. But I wrote all the songs, co-wrote everything with a bunch of different writers, from Los Angeles to Nashville, and all in all I think it’s a really good songwriter’s record, storyteller’s record – powerful guitar, powerful vocals.  I think it’s what people expect from me, but it’s just an evolved version of that.”
The songs on the album feature a handful of co-writers, such as Jim McCormick (who also contributed to Wild Heart), Patrick Sweaney, Eric McFadden, Katie Pearlman and Parker Millsap.  I ask her what these collaborators bring to the party for her.
She loves co-writing, she says, because, “Say I start with an idea, like a cool melody and a story I want to tell, it’s nice to have somebody there with you who can maybe point out that something that makes complete sense to you won’t make sense to anybody else.  I really feel like the best songs in the world can tell everybody’s story, you know? So having somebody else in the writing room with you, just to really get that story across, to make sure that you’re telling something that’s cohesive . . .”
Is that lyrics, or music?
“It can be both. Everybody I worked with was really different from one another.  Like Jim McCormick – he is a lyric doctor,” she says with a smile.  “He’s worked with some heavy country music superstars, and he writes in Nashville, and he was probably the guy I wrote with the most, ‘cause we kind of reside in the same place, when we’re both not working.  So ‘Love Letters’ was a co-write with him, just fleshing out lyrics on that one.  I had this idea,
Lyric doctor Jim McCormick
and I wanted to build off of it.  I started that one on an acoustic guitar, and then that’s one of the songs that doesn’t really change chords.  It kind of hangs on the same groove, but when we took it into the studio to produce it, and make the track come alive, it kind of peeled off into all these different layers.  The song sounds really dynamic, but it’s actually pretty simple chord structure wise. But Jim and I worked out the lyrics, telling the story, making sure the right messages get conveyed.  It’s just that another writer is another perspective, and I think that’s kind of exciting – that can be musical, that can be lyrical.”
And speaking of lyrics, it seems to me that a lot of Fish’s songs – and coincidentally covers such as those on Chills And Fever are often of a similar ilk - are character-driven. Where does that come from, I ask.  Is it books, movies . . . ?
“You know, probably so,” Samantha says, reflecting on it.  “You mean like it’s told from the first person, rather than an omnipresent narrator?”
Uh-huh, I confirm.
“I don’t know, like ‘Bitch On The Run’ – I’m peeling away back into the old catalogue . . .”
The Wild Heart album isn’t really that old, I suggest.
“No, it’s not that old,” she agrees.  “But ‘Bitch On The Run’ was like a social critique, you know?  I don’t know, I guess it feels like a bird’s eye view, but when you start putting words like ‘I’ into a song it feels very personal. Now that one in particular was just like a critical assessment of the world that we’re living in – not really so much about myself, but I mean I am living in the world.  Um, I think it might just come off that way.  But yeah I guess – I never really thought of that. You know, probably a lot of my songs probably do come from a very personal place.  Even if the song isn’t about me . . .”
It’s like you’ve created a character, I say.
I tell her that’s how I see it a lot of the time.  I recall reading an interview somewhere, where she mentioned her family responding to her songs by saying “Where do you get this stuff from?  This is nothing like you!”
She laughs at this. (You’ll have gathered by now that Samantha Fish laughs readily – unfortunately there’s a shortage of synonyms to cover her repertoire.)
“No, I mean it’s a songwriter’s curse too!” she says.  “I was talking to Jim about it, and I’m like ‘Do you ever come home after writing a song, and your wife is just mortified and mad at you, and asking “Why would you write that about me?”, and you’re saying “It’s not about you, what are you talking about?”’  She mimics hurt and bafflement in this exchange, before sobering up.
“You know, a lot of my writing does come from a personal place.  If it isn’t a personal experience it’s something I’ve witnessed, or come close to experiencing, you know?  It’s a
Getting in character
story. I think stories are the driving force behind songs, I think that that’s what connects people.  And songs to me kind of – when I hear a song I kind of imagine it applying to my life.  I don’t know about you, but that’s kinda how it feels to me – somebody else telling my story, and that’s such a strong connection.  So I think I keep that in mind when I’m writing.
“It’s also like the narcissism too!” she goes on, with a hoot of laughter.  “It’s the horrible narcissism – I write everything about me! It’s my character!” she says with a giggle, before reverting to serious mode.  “No, it’s interesting.  I’m learning more and more about writing all the time, how to diversify your style, and change things up, and approach from a different way, and I think collaboration has really opened my eyes to a lot of different practices that way. Everybody’s got a different approach – it’s kind of cool to watch that.”
The producer for Kill Or Be Kind was Scott Billington, a big hitter at her new label Rounder Records, who has three Grammys and numerous nominations to his name.  Was it interesting working with him?
“Yeah, it was interesting!” Fish says enthusiastically.  “Scott really came into the room, like, trusting.  He let me build out these songs the way that I saw them.  You know, I’ve had producers in the past where I’m like ‘Oh, I want to try this thing!’, and they’re ‘Nope, it’s done.  Move on.’  And I’m like, ‘Oh – okay,’” she says, adopting a disappointed tone.  “And that’s fine, but with Scott we had a bit more time on this record, and he was ‘Yeah, I can hear that – give it a shot.’ And then he was either like ‘It didn’t work’ or ‘That’s cool – we’ll put that in!’  He was very encouraging when it came to me wanting to try something else, and he guided the process but in a gentle way.  I thought that was cool, we really tried to do a bunch of different things together.”

A Picture Paints A Thousand Words
Speaking of experimentation, at the time of our conversation in May the UK Amazon site had recently put up a page for pre-orders of Kill Or Be Kind with an album cover featuring a picture of Samantha sporting a rather different look - Brigitte Bardot sprang to mind.  So I wondered if there any particular artistic concept behind that.
Kill Or Be Kind - the cover that wasn't to be
“Oh my gosh!” she says, laughing.  “Ha – I’m glad that got out there somehow!  We had a few different album cover ideas, and the one that they came up with is actually on the internet today, and that’s a different one from what you saw before.  But I dug that one - I was thinking, Brigitte Bardot, 1960s. . .”
This wasn’t then, the eventual cover choice?
“No that’s not it.  I kept my short hair.”
Would long hair would be too much work, I ask, like I’d know a damn thing about it.
“Well I’m kinda of the thought that when I think about my favourite female artists, they can do whatever the hell they want with their hair and it doesn’t matter.”
Which sounds fair enough to me.
“But for cohesiveness and stuff I was like, okay let’s just keep the hair short, and that way I’m not having to mess with it every day.
“But I thought that was kind of a cool picture – I’m such a fan of vintage looks, and I’m not afraid to try something new.   I’m always wanting to experiment with my style, so that was a fun day for me,” she says, laughing.  “I had a blast!  And I love that picture – I don’t know when we’re gonna use them, or what we’re gonna use them for . . .”
So I’m guessing, I say, that the shoot could have involved a variety of looks.
“Yeah.  I wanted to try out a few different looks – I’m going to do the one I’ve been doing, but I wanna try out some stuff and see what really clicks.
“At the end of the day I have a team of people that I work with,” she explains, “that want to guide the process, and that’s why they’re there.  So I do a bunch of different things, I throw a bunch of shit at the wall, and they come in and say, okay let’s make sense of this.  But I did love that shoot, I thought that was cool – I’m kinda glad it got out.  Half the people really dug it, I guess some people didn’t like it!”
For what it’s worth, I rather liked the energy of that cover design, with its graffiti-like scrawl of her name and the title, regardless of Fish’s styling.  I reckon it had an iconic air about it, a bit like The Clash revisiting Elvis with the cover of London Calling, maybe.  But it’s the road not travelled now.
Since we’re talking about image and so on though, it seems to me that somewhere before Chills And Fever, after she’d already been working her socks off for quite a few years, it was
"Hey you - I'm a girl!  Deal with it!"
like there was a step change in her attitude to what she was doing.
“Yeah . . .” she agrees, thoughtfully.
She seemed to want to take things to another level, I say, expanding on the thought, with her image being part of that.
“Yeah, well it’s always gonna be a part of it. But you know when I started playing guitar . . . I’m just gonna put this out there, I don’t even like talking about the gender thing ‘cause I could focus on it too much and talk about it too much.  But when I first started playing I didn’t want even the fact that I was a girl held against me for any reason at all, so I would dress in like Converse shoes . . .
Almost saying “I’m not a girl,” I venture.
“Yeah,” she agrees.  “I’d wear t-shirts, and Chuck Taylors, and carry my own amp in like a bear.  I worked my ass off to not have this perception.
“But then I was like, you know, I am a chick, and I love dressing up,” she says with a chuckle.  “I love that aspect.  I’m very connected to my femininity, that’s a part of who I am, and so I started dressing up.  I’m such a fan of vintage styling, like I said.  I feel like it’s iconic, it’s timeless, it ain’t going anywhere.  It looks rock’n’roll but it looks beautiful at the same time, and so I started honing my style towards that.  And it’s evolved over the years – I think if we don’t evolve and we don’t change – nobody is born knowing exactly what they’re going to do, you have to get there somehow.  There’s a long journey.
“But you know, you’re going to see me over the years change things up a lot!’ she says, with another hearty laugh.  “I hate to break it to people that didn’t like that photo the other day, but they’re going to see a lot more crazy stuff they might not like!  But that’s part of being an artist - you’re going to do things that are either gonna incite happiness, or upset people.”

New Horizons
Changing the subject, I noted that last year Fish, along with her manager Reuben Williams, had set up her own record label, Wild Heart, and produced its first signing Jonathon Long. How did that come about, I ask.  
“Well, I had been talking to my manager about wanting to start producing records.  It’s something I’d always wanted to do, I just hadn’t . . . .” She pauses, pondering the reason.
Had the time, I suggest, thinking about those 200 plus gigs a year she does.
“Yeah, exactly.  The problem with me is I want to do all these things, but I don’t feel like I have time to do ‘em.  And I probably don’t.  Then Reuben comes to me and he says,” she clicks her fingers, “‘You’re producing Jonathon’s record’.  And at first I was like, ‘I don’t have time to do this!’” she says in a mock-hysterical fashion.  “’I can’t do this!’  And he’s like, ‘You’re gonna do it, just go do it.’  And I got in there and it was, okay – it’s a lot of pressure to produce somebody’s record.  I want him to feel like he’s comfortable, and I want to help him get his message out. So you have to really let go of your own pre-conceived things about what the music should be, as a musician, and just be the producer and facilitate his goal - but also make it commercially viable for a label.  It’s a fine line – and also don’t spend all the money immediately.  Make sure that all the money doesn’t get wasted!  So there’s a lot of things that go into producing records.
Wild Heart Records inaugural signing Jonathon Long
“I hooked up with Jonathon through Reuben,” she explains, “who’s also his manager.  We were going to shop it to labels, and then we had this conversation, ‘cause something else I always wanted to do, but didn’t feel like I had time for, was start a record label.  And Reuben goes, ‘Hey, we know all the people that we need to shop this to. We know what to do.  We should just start this thing.’  And I was ready!  And it’s been going really good – I want to help get other people out there who deserve that kind of representation.  It’s hard to find.  And Jonathon, he’s a hard worker, and he’s so talented – he’s freaky talented, he’s amazing – and he deserves some representation, and I’m glad that I can be a part of his journey.
A Jonathon Long live album is lined up at some point, she says, before mentioning other signings. 
“There’s a guy named Nicholas David, and that’s coming out later in the summer, and he’s amazing too. He played keys in Devon Allman’s band for a long time, and he also was on The Voice, he did good on there.  And then Charlie Wooton from New Orleans,” she says, referring to the renowned bass player who has been a member of the Royal Southern Brotherhood and collaborated with Sonny Landreth, Zigaboo Modeliste and many others.  “We’re gonna put out a record by him.  So, three!”
And in fact Blue Basso, the album by the Charlie Wooton Project named after his signature blue bass, and featuring Anders Osborne, Sonny Landreth and Eric McFadden among others, is released on 23 August.

Diamonds Are A Girl’s Best Friend
Our time together is nearly done, so I tell Samantha it’s time to pop the $64,000 question – what’s the red diamond eye make-up all about?
“Ha ha!  I can’t talk about it yet!” she laughs, before repeating more coyly, “I can’t talk about it yet!  It’s part of – a project that’s coming up.  But I like that,” she says with another giggle, “the $64,000 question!”
Was that mysterious project simply the video for her latest single ‘Bulletproof’, released in July, or was it something more?*  Only time will tell.  And speaking of time, mine is up.  Samantha has to go eat before showtime.

Later that evening, Samantha Fish and her band deliver another crunking performance to the Q-Factory crowd.  Just another night on the rock’n’roll road, with many more ahead.  Like the lady said, it’s a long journey. I look forward to seeing her again in Europe in 2020, by which time I expect that she’ll have taken a big stride forward on the back of Kill Or Be Kind.

Kill Or Be Kind is released by Rounder Records on 27 September.  You can read the Blues Enthused review here.
*Samantha spoke more about the significance of the red diamond in a subsequent audio interview, here.

Thursday, July 25, 2019

Sean Webster Band - Three Nights Live

More people should know about Sean Webster. More people should be listening to him. More people should be going to see him. It’s as simple as that.  And his new live album Three Nights Live underlines the singular quality of a soul-blues sound that deserves more attention.
Now when I say soul-blues, I don’t mean Stax horns.  And12-bar action isn’t the primary focus either.  But what the hell else can you call it when the guy sings like Joe Cocker, his songs are high on emotional content - generally located at the dark end of the street, to quote the James Carr song – and his guitar playing enhances the intense mood?
This is not throwaway stuff. Take his cover of John Mayer’s ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning
Sean Webster - hear him now
Room’, which comes along three songs in.  A subtle ballad, it weighs in at ten and a half minutes, but it’s so engrossing that the time passes easily.  It opens with mesmerising guitar on the intro, building tension before floating into the body of the song, on which Webster and his band contrive to create an intense atmosphere.  It helps, of course, that as a singer Sean Webster could wipe the floor with Mayer’s airy efforts every day of the week and twice on Sundays.  But it also reflects some guitar playing with real purpose, adding fuel to the song over washes of organ from Hilbrand Bos, and even including a neat little snippet of the melody from Stevie Wonder’s ‘Isn’t She Lovely’ as a cherry on top.
The album opens ‘Give Me The Truth’ and ‘Hands Of Time’, both taken from Webster’s last album Leave Your Heart At The Door, and both with the energy to give momentum to the album.  The former has a strong melody, to which Webster brings a typically expressive vocal, augmented by some “woah-oh-oh” harmonising, while an excellent guitar solo builds suspense as it weaves around the melody.  ‘Hand Of Time’ then reinforces the impression that Webster knows how to write a damn fine tune, as the patient, pulsing beat and throbbing guitar on the intro lead towards a hook to be savoured.
‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’ then kicks off a run of four tracks in a similar mode.  And if I have a gripe at this point it’s that four songs on the trot about heartache and pain, ranging from seven to over ten minutes, is a little bit much.  Not that they’re bad in themselves – though I think he has stronger songs in his locker than the last of them, ‘Don’t Feel The Same’ – but for me a shorter, snappier affair in the middle would have been good to cleanse the palate.  Try writing a funky little number about going on holiday with the missus, eh Sean?
But I digress.  ‘Heart Still Bleeds’ is a strong song does have a laid-back intro, and some bright chord sequences, and you might even call the tune jaunty if it wasn’t the backdrop to more emotional turmoil in the lyric.  And there’s no arguing with a guitar solo that soars and changes pace, over shuffling drums, en route to an immaculate, attention-holding ending.  ‘Hear Me Now’, meanwhile, is probably as bluesy as the album gets, with a halting, hesitant
Songs from the dark end of the street
rhythm that echoes the doubts in the mind of the character in the song.  It also displays excellent dynamics as the intensity rises and falls, with a rousing ending on which Webster’s voice rides the mounting tension.  And if I don’t find ‘Don’t Feel The Same’ so interesting melodically, it still has a tasteful, elegiac organ solo from Bos, and a stylish guitar solo built around a repeated motif, before gliding down to a delicate ending.
‘The Mayor’ does bring a shift in mood, a driving affair with a tough riff, that’s kept crisp, and provides a breather before they tackle Keith Urban’s ‘’Til Summer Comes Around’, also previously included on Leave Your Heart At The Door.  It has a loooong intro, that starts quietly then picks up and recedes again, as a precursor to an evocative song with a restrained arrangement that puts Webster’s voice well to the fore as the lyrics paint a vivid, melancholy picture.
They go out in more upbeat fashion, with the funky, high stepping ‘Highway Man’ the set closer, and then the encore of ‘You Got To Know’, which rides along on a swinging beat from drummer Ruud Gielen and walking bass from Floris Poesse, with Webster adding some chiming, funky guitar and a breezy solo, to deliver a satisfying finish.
Mixed and mastered by House Of Tone knob-twiddler Wayne Proctor, a man who knows a bit about soulful grooves, the sound is clear and unfussy, letting the quality of the performance shine through.  Three Nights Live is a treat.  It captures an artist of real substance, with his own distinctive vibe.   If you’re a fan of smouldering, soulful blues, then this is for you. 

Three Nights Live is released on 2 September, and available for pre-order now.

Wednesday, July 24, 2019

Porretta Soul Festival - Rufus Thomas Park, Porretta Terme, 20 July 2019

It’s a warm summer’s evening in Porretta Terme – like 30 degrees Celsius warm – and Rufus Thomas Park is already jam-packed well before the Saturday show at the Porretta Soul Festival kicks off.
Opening up tonight is Curtis Salgado, one-time member of the Robert Cray Band, inspiration for the Blues Brothers, and a multiple Blues Music Award winner.  His band come
The Curtis Salgado Band - let the good times roll!
on ahead of him, striking up a patient, funky intro that’s embroidered by a zinging Telecaster solo from guitarist Anthony Stelmaszack.  Salgado then strolls on, promising “blues, soul, funk, rhythm’n’blues – but whatever you wanna call it, it’s a good time.”  And they set about making good on that promise right away, with the swinging blues of ‘I’m Trying’, stuffed with crisp-toned guitar fills a la Jimmie Vaughan from Stelmaszack, supplemented by a surging organ solo from Damien Cornells, and Salgado’s first foray on harp.
From a distance, in his pork pie hat and baggy jacket and sweater, you could mistake Salgado for Van Morrison, if it weren’t for his more affable demeanour.  And there’s a bit of Van soulfulness in his sound at times too, as in his vocal on Robert Cray’s ‘Blues Get Off My Shoulder’, a halting, tripping slowie on which he and the band tap into a loose-limbed, easy vibe.
They’re joined by his fellow Portland resident LaRhonda Steele for ‘Nobody But You’, a piece of pulsing Southern soul that’s full of fun, accentuated by a piano solo from Cornells., and she returns later for ‘Both Sorry Over Nothing’, a duet that’s delivered with real spark,
and a great harp solo from Salgado in lieu of the Tower Of Power horns of the original.
All the way from Portland - Curtis Salgado and LaRhonda Steele
Other highlights include ‘I’m Driving In The Driving Rain’, referencing the Oregon climate, on which they cook up a rumbling soul/blues stew that’s reminiscent of Tommy Castro, and ‘Walk A Mile In My Blues’, which is inspired by some of Salgado’s part health problems and features a spot-on segment of call and response between Salgado’s vocal and Stelmaszack’s guitar, as well as a crackling solo from the latter that serves the song beautifully.
There are a couple of OV Wright songs along the way, including the slowie ‘Born All Over’, on which Salgado produces a bravura soul vocal performance to close the set.  They then encore with a blast of N’Awlins sounding rock’n’roll, complete with an ivory-bashing piano solo and some twanging guitar revelry, to which Salgado adds a spell of blues st-st-stuttering. We may not be talking ‘bout a revolution, friends, but Curtis Salgado and his band do indeed serve up a good time.
The Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra from California then take the stage as house band for the rest of the night.  The most immediately striking about them, as they kick off with a jump blues instrumental, is the exuberance of drummer Derrick “D’Mar” Martin, who shows off an
ability to perform squat jumps from his drum stool during a brief solo, as well as playing a floor tom with his elbow.  There’s more to his playing than these tricks though, and indeed there’s more to the Orchestra as a whole, with four horns and a trio of crack backing singers – the latter, I have to say, not utilised as much as they could be throughout the show.  However one of the three, the very glamorous Omega Brooks, takes the lead for a couple of numbers, including Stevie Wonder’s classic ‘I Wish’ – which takes me back to my school days, which shows how old I am – and unwraps an excellent soul delivery.
LaRhonda does Aretha, with the Anthony Paule Soul Orchestra
I wish, as it were, that the same could be said of Australia’s Georgia Van Etten, who then appears as a guest.  Van Etten is a former member of the Sweethearts, the all-girl troupe who have been regular visitors to Porretta Soul, but her subsequent career has evidently taken her in a jazz direction, as she delivers a very Cleo Laine-like vocal that really isn’t to my taste.  It’s very well done, in its own terms, but it doesn’t fit with the soul vibe, and I don’t see the point in a singer imitating a trumpet solo when there’s a trumpet player on stage.  (The great Georgie Fame gets a special dispensation for such shenanigans.)
But LaRhonda Steele then returns to lead the way on a tribute to Aretha Franklin, singing with just the kind of soul and sassiness required.  They cruise through a funky ‘Rock Steady’ and spot on ‘Respect’, before those backing vocalists show their true worth on the magnificent ‘Chain Of Fools’. Steven Stills’ ‘Love The One You’re With’ is decorated by a neat organ solo against a horn backdrop, and they even manage to bring some dignity to a soul reading of ‘Imagine’, with some nice piano from Tony Lufrano.
After a blast of ‘Take Me To The River’ that has some of the quirkiness of the Talking Heads version about it, Steele’s real highlight is a delicious take on BB King’s ‘Rock Me Baby’. She sounds like she really means it, and a climactic sax solo from Charles McNeal underlines the sentiment.
Steele is followed by the night’s main man, veteran Wee Willie Walker, who wastes no time in belting out a classic, with ‘Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’ that features a trombone solo and a great, stinging guitar solo from Paule. Meanwhile Walker is without a
Wee Willie Walker - small but perfectly voiced
doubt ‘wee’, but he delivers a rasping vocal with great phrasing.
Walker has been collaborating with Paule and his crew for a while, and it shows in the ease with which they deliver old-fashioned soul grooves such as ‘Let’s Talk About It’, a tune with a Smokey Robinson feel that’s embellished by sweet backing vocals, sparkling guitar, and supple bass from Endre Tarczy, while on another track in a similar vein Walker produces a brilliantly controlled quiet falsetto passage.
Despite its clunky title, ‘Warm To Cool To Cold’ is an enjoyably BB King-like chunk of R’n’B, and on George Jackson’s ‘I Don’t Want To Take A Chance’ Tarczy’s grooving bass is as impressive as Martin’s snapping drums.
They change tack and deliver some slow, brooding funk with ‘You’re Something Else’, before closing with ‘After A While’, the title track of their last album and another very Smokey-styled offering, on which Walker grabs the attention with an away-from-the-mic vocal segment.  He may be a little guy, but he has loads of charisma to go with that soulful voice.
There are a couple of acts still to come, but it’s midnight, and time for us to hit the road, Jack. You need stamina to go the distance at the Porretta Soul Festival!

You can watch all of the Saturday show at the Porretta Soul Festival here.

Monday, July 22, 2019

Porretta Soul Festival - Rufus Thomas Park, Porretta Terme, 18 July 2019

It’s one in the morning in Rufus Thomas Park, the open air amphitheatre in Porretta Terme that’s home to the Porretta Soul Festival, and Don Bryant is just about done for the night. The 77 year old, possibly best known for co-writing hits like ‘I Can’t Stand The Rain’ for his wife Ann Peebles, is winding up the opening night of the festival with an energetic set of classic soul, backed by Memphis stalwarts the Bo-Keys.  And the crowd are lapping it up.
On one level, Don Bryant is just a little ol’ fella whose knees and hips are maybe a bit
Natty dressers Don Bryant and Hubby Turner
rickety nowadays.  But put him onstage with a band who know their soul stuff, and he has an immediate impact, strutting his stuff in a floral jacket and natty white hat, and working the crowd as he belts out ‘Nickel And A Nail’ with an authentic soul voice. Right out of the gate there’s dancing going on either side of the stage, and it doesn’t let up when Bryant and co follow up with the driving funkiness of the upbeat ‘Set My Soul On Fire’.
Even these crackers are eclipsed by ‘I Got To Know’ though, first released on his 2017 album Don’t Give Up On Love but a classic slice of Sixties soul, with a swaggering guitar solo from Joe Restivo, and great harmonies from some of the Bo-Keys.  Then on ‘Everything’s Gonna Be Alright’, written by Bryant’s mentor Willie Mitchell, ‘Hubby’ Turner rips out a blinding organ solo that seems to send drummer Pee Wee Jackson – who often seems to have a curiously alarmed expression - into a happy place.  The fact that Turner was part of the legendary Hi Records rhythm section in Memphis, recording with the likes of Al Green and Ann Peebles, is a key indicator of the pedigree of this band – and at 73 years old he cuts an impressive figure, dapper in his suit and fedora as he stands at his keyboards.
They go on to knock out ’99 Pounds’, the upbeat hit Bryant wrote for Peebles, while Bryant also finds time to produce a Howlin’ Wolf impersonation that’s improbably good given his stature, while Turner gets busy on organ again, and Jackson has some fun rattling around his kit.  And at the end of the set Bryant receives a portrait of himself in recognition of his work, indicative of the love felt for old soul legends in these parts.
Bryant’s set is preceded by the Bo-Keys (minus Turner on Keys) backing Scott Sharrard,
Scott Sharrard revs up the R'n'B with Pee Wee Jackson
one-time lead guitarist and musical director for Greg Allman, with whom Bo-Keys trumpeter Mark Franklin and sax man Kirk Smothers also played.  They duly open up with a Sharrard song recorded by Greg Allman, ‘Love Like Kerosene’, a danceable chunk of Memphis-style R’n’B on which Sharrard whips out a cracking solo that seems to race with the vibrant bass of Scott Bomar and Jackson’s drums, while Franklin and Smothers beef up the sound with their horns.
Sharrard delivers a enjoyably varied set, ranging from the funky soul with blues roots of ‘Everything A Good Man Needs’, on which he produces a nimble and skittish finger-picked slide solo, to the dreamy soul a la Al Green of ‘Words Can’t Say’, with Sharrard essaying some tasteful falsetto vocals.  ‘High Cost Of Loving You’, from his 2018 album Saving Grace, is a swinging thing, punctuated by the horns and with a great sax solo from Smothers to fit alongside Sharrard’s own biting solo, and some serious kit pounding from Jackson.
Sharrard closes with the Memphis classic ‘Precious Precious’, on which Turner appears to join his Bo-Keys compadres and deliver some swinging piano and organ.  It’s an enjoyable end to a strong set, at its best to these ears when Sharrard veered to R’n’B with his guitar a key component. All the same, it’s noticeable that when the Bo-Keys put aside the music stands for the arrival of Don Bryant, their playing acquires a more natural zip.
Re:Funk play their trump card - special guest Pee Wee Ellis
Earlier on, Switzerland’s Re:Funk got in a polished groove with a brand of soul-funk that often brought to mind the Average White Band, not least on ‘Show Us What You Got’. They’re a tight nine-piece outfit, capable of pulling off a stuttering dance rhythm with ease, crisp drumming from band leader Dario Milan providing the base for some Stevie Wonder-ish clavinet from Luca Fraula and a fluid guitar solo from Mad Mantello, while Maqs Rossi
provides energetic lead vocals.  ‘Roxette’ is neither the first nor the last big fat groove they deliver, with the rhythm section lock-tight and Francesca Morandi’s bass bubbling busily, while their fun horn trio do their thang.
Re:Funk also have a trump card, in the form of special guest Pee Wee Ellis, the sax player who came up with ‘Cold Sweat’ for James Brown.  And with Ellis safely ensconced front and centre they’re all set to, as the song puts it, have a funky good time.  Ellis’s ‘Chicken’, a piece recorded by Jaco Pastorius among others, is a veritable horn fiesta, Pee Wee showing he’s still got it on his solo in combination with the Re:Funk horn section, complemented by a simpatico organ solo over great drumming and counter-punching bass.
Their bumping and grinding take on ‘Cold Sweat’ is right on the money, and they close with ‘I Feel Good’, much to the satisfaction of the audience.  And just for good measure, Pee Wee is presented with a lifetime achievement award, reflecting his stature. 
Opening the night were Sweethearts, a troupe of schoolgirls from Geelong in Australia,
Aussie Sweethearts get into a 'Cold Sweat' with Pee Wee Ellis
aged between 13 and 16 years old.  This is the sixth time that a Sweethearts party has visited Porretta, and it’s clear that they’re worth the invite.  With over 20 girls in the company, there can be up to 19 of them onstage at any one time, including 3 backing singers, drums, percussion, two guitars, keys, and – wait for it – six saxophones!  Unsurprisingly, they create a big sound on Jackie Wilson’s ‘Higher And Higher’, and continue to impress as they work their way through a succession of classic covers, a variety of vocalists doing justice to the likes of ‘Shake’ and ‘Mr(s) Pitiful’ – and they do shake the house, especially on ‘Kind Of Girl You Can’t Handle’ (I think), with its choppy rhythm and controlled wah-wah solo.
They get a bit of a leg-up mind you, when Pee Wee Ellis comes on to guest on, yes, ‘Cold Sweat’. They cook it up nicely, and what a thrill it must be for two of the sax players to trade licks with the big man, which they do with gusto.
They close with a belting take on ‘Soul Finger’, segueing via a ‘Peter Gunn’ riff into an equally strong reading of Etta James’ ‘Tell Mama’, and receive warm applause for an impressive exercise in sisters doin’ it for themselves.

You can watch the full 18 July show from the Porretta Soul Festival here.

Tuesday, July 16, 2019

The Allman Betts Band - Down To The River

Heritage and ancestry are double-edged swords.  They can bring name recognition, but also the burden of expectation.  You can be nurtured by the reflected glory from a famous parent – or you can struggle to emerge from the shadow they cast. 
It might not always be easy, being Devon Allman or Duane Betts.  Right now though, may well be among the better times, because Down To The River is a pretty damn good album.
The seeds of The Allman Betts Band were sewn in the coming together of Allman and Betts for the tribute concert the former organised for his late father, Greg, and were then cultivated when Betts went on the road as support act to the Devon Allman Project. New material began to emerge from their association, with additional input from songwriter Stoll Vaughn.  And having recruited a few other honchos to the band, they installed themselves in Muscle Shoals Sound Studios for a week, with producer Matt Ross-Spang and a couple of guests, and proceeded to come up with Down To The River.  Easy, really.  And did I mention that it’s pretty damn good?
The Allman Betts Band - clearly bassist Berry Duane Oakley has a different stylist
The album is suspended from two impressively tall tent poles, in the form of ‘Autumn Breeze’, the fifth of the nine tracks and the centrepiece, and ‘Long Gone’, which is a fittingly strong note on which to close matters.  ‘Autumn Breeze’ is a suitably evocative title for a slowish affair that begins with guitars and drums circling, looking for an opening, before gathering up strands of acoustic, electric and slide guitars, over swells of organ from Peter Levin (one of the guests), push-pull bass from Berry Duane Oakley (son of Allman Brothers Band bassist Berry Oakley), and minimalist drums from John Lum.  The result is a patiently developed tapestry that’s the backdrop for the best of Duane Betts’ vocals on the album, and which is first lit up by a quintessentially Allman Brothers-like guitar harmony passage, and then further embroidered by a very good extended solo, I’m guessing also from Betts.  ‘Long Gone’ is a similarly slow song, producing an archetypal Southern rock epic of a finale.  With both Allman and Betts contributing vocals, it has an air of Drive-By Truckers as it progresses in dynamic fashion, halting at an acoustic guitar passage before setting off again en route to another quality guitar solo with Celtic hints probably rooted in the mists of time, and occasional shooting stars of slide crossing its horizon.
But if those songs are the twin peaks, there are other pleasures too.  Opener ‘All Night’ makes for a strong calling card, with a ringing riff that gets embroidered in a higher pitch, over strutting beat and bubbling bass, before a declining motif leads into a classically sweet Southern solo before mounting drums and guitars crash through.  There’s more of those ‘Jessica’-like guitar harmonies on both ‘Shining’ and ‘Try’, and very nicely done they are too, and the former is also peppered by slide fills to good effect, leading to another solo of quality. In fact slide guitar decorates much of the album in style, and if it’s not the work of either Allman or Betts then the credit is due to fellow guitarist Johnny Stachela, recruited from the Devon Allman Project and by all accounts a slide player of note.
The title track works well too, acoustic guitar and bobbing bass creating a laid back vibe, accented by chiming chords again over restrained drums, with good vocal delivery from Allman and a measured, sparkling solo from one or other of the guitar pickers, ahead of nicely judged long fade.  And ‘Southern Accents’ brings some variety with its piano foundation, courtesy of the guesting Chuck Leavell, its simplicity and more of those slide accents, which are more satisfying than the lyric – “Young ‘uns call it country, Yankees call it dumb/ I got my own way of talking, where everything is done/ With a Southern accent/ Where I come from.”  Sentimental schmaltz is the phrase that springs to mind.
But such transgressions are few, and if ‘Melodies Are Memories’ is borderline country filler I’ll forgive that too.  Down To The River may simply be new growth from an old vine, but on the whole it is, like I said, pretty damn good.

The Allman Betts Band are touring Europe until 3 August.

Friday, July 12, 2019

Robert Randolph & The Family Band - Brighter Days

The Staple Singers. Fantastic Negrito.  Pink Floyd.  The Black Keys.  These are not, as a rule, names you might associate with pedal steel guitar.  Pedal steel guitar is not, come to that, an instrument for which I usually have much of a hankering – its sickly sweet, swooning contribution to a heap of country music lingers in the mind.
In the hands of Robert Randolph however, pedal steel guitar becomes a whole different proposition. For one thing, he ain’t no proponent of the schmaltzy Nashville sound, he’s a black guy who took up pedal steel because of its use in gospel music.  And for another, he plays that thing like he’s a modern day guitar slinger, pedal board and all.
Robert Randolph - just a sedate young pedal steel player
So if The Black Keys had been in the mood to add pedal steel to the mix for a song on their latest, guitar-driven album ‘Let’s Rock’, for instance, there’s every chance it might have turned out sounding like the opening track on Brighter Days, ‘Baptise Me’.  It’s a big, chunky soul/gospel sound, with a vaguely retro riff, great gospel backing vocals, funky bass – and Randolph’s weapon of choice squealing away like Dan Auerbach has just unearthed some new effects pedal.
There’s a heavy gospel angle to the following ‘Don’t Fight It’ too, a stop-start choon that combines passages of ra-ra-rapido rhythm with slower, anthemic sections of “Na na a na” vocals that drag it into some kind of less screwed up Negrito-ish domain.  Not sure what the business about “If you want some lovin’ take the biscuits in the oven” in the middle eight is all about, but whatever, it packs a whole heap of energy into three and a half minutes. There’s a Negrito undercurrent to ‘Second Hand Man’ too, with a hip hop sensibility to Marcus Randolph’s drums – and a second hand piano motif that recalls Sly & The Family Stone’s ‘It’s Your Thing’, while Danyel Morgan’s bass alternates between deep groove and syncopation, and Randolph chucks in handfuls of squelchy licks.
Bearing in mind the gospel roots, it’s scarcely surprising to find echoes of The Staple Singers, and sure enough they’re there in ‘Simple Man’, ‘Have Mercy’ and ‘I’m Living Off The Love You Give’.  ‘Simple Man’ is a Staples cover, and a slowie with a good tune, but this is an instance where the ‘sacred’ nature of the lyrics eventually leaves me cold.  “Watch where you’re going, remember where you’ve been” is an okay line, but when Randolph comes out with “Tell you what’s wrong with the world today, people done gone and put their Bible away”, I head for the secular hills.  ‘Have Mercy’ though, is a cracking soulful affair with marvellous ensemble vocals, and Randolph producing a reflective, Dave Gilmour-like intro over chiming piano chords.  And ‘I’m Living Off The Love You Give’ is something different, a great little song with a tough, assertive sound that brings to mind ‘Respect Yourself’, and a slithering, sliding bobsleigh ride of a solo from Randolph.
It's a Family Band affair
There are a couple of lightweight moments in the fuzzy, helter skelter ‘Cut Em Loose’ and the smooth, Commodores-like ‘I Need You’.  But there are two other peaks to compensate, in the forms of ‘Cry Over Me’ and the closing ‘Strange Train’ respectively.
‘Cry Over Me’ opens with weeping pedal steel tones from Randolph, bluesy and soulful, as a prelude to a terrific vocal from his sister Lenesha Randolph, delivering a classy melody. And then it takes off, with soaring, choral harmonies aspiring to anthemic levels, until delicate piano lays the foundations for Randolph to deliver an exemplary, ‘Layla’-esque solo. ‘Strange Train’, meanwhile, closes the album in boisterous fashion, with a rattling bluesy riff from Randolph, and rhythmic “Hey you” vocals creating a shoutalong refrain if I ever heard one. There are bursts of speeded up Bo Diddley drums, and a neatly funky slow section, before it bolts for the finish in runaway fashion.
Full credit to Randolph and the Family Band for delivering such a rounded ensemble sound, and to producer Dave Cobb for capturing it – especially those vocals, and especially those of Lenesha Randolph.  I do believe Brighter Days is an album that could make pedal steel guitar cool – as long as Robert Randolph is playing it.

Brighter Days is released by Mascot Label Group on 23 August.

Wednesday, July 10, 2019

Eric Gales and Robben Ford, Pistoia Blues, 7 July 2019

All day the weather forecast was predicting thunderstorms arriving sometime tonight.  But thankfully the only thunder and lightning that strikes the outdoor space of Pistoia’s Piazza del Duomo is the stuff produced by Eric Gales and his band.
It’s not being lazy to say that Eric Gales has an affinity for Jimi Hendrix.  Sure, the fact he plays left-handed, with an upside down Strat, is just a coincidence.  But whereas many guitarists have learned how to ‘do’ a Hendrixy wah-wah effect, with Gales you sense the Hendrix sound is flowing through his fingers.  Hell, even tuning up a fresh guitar he contrives to sound just like Jimi.
So he comes on stage and essays a Hendrixy preamble as the band take their places, but
Eric Gales - boogie chillin'
what follows is by no means a tribute act.  For much of his set Eric Gales is, well, Eric Gales, kicking things off with a ‘Big Boss Man’-like R’n’B riff – and a busted string on the first of the night’s fit-to-bust solos.  Undaunted, he launches into a bout of 21st Century Chuck Berryism that has the crowd boogie-ing along all the way to the climax.
He follows that with something that may or may not be called ‘Read All About It’ – titles not being hugely relevant to an Eric Gales set, in which songs are generally a platform for his guitar explorations – though not, it should be noted, of the meandering, solo-all-night variety.  But whatever this tune is called, it features another frenzied solo, over a whipping backbeat laid down by his missus LaDonna on percussion, alongside drummer Nick Hayes.
They follow that up with a Hooker-esque slice of boogie that in due course goes all Jimi, and then just plain bonkers, with Gales whooping it up to the crowd from the front of the stage. Needless to say, a battalion of guitar nuts are down the front by now, getting all steamed up by this frenetic fare, so that when the song finishes some admin honcho takes the mic to tell ‘em to sit down.
Gales takes a breather to relate the tale of having left Lithuania at six this morning after last night’s gig, and being diverted to Bologna because of rain storms, making them three hours late arriving at tonight’s venue.  But tonight’s the last night of this European jaunt, he says, so no matter how tired they are, he’s going to give the show his all.  And they then proceed to funk it up in very modern fashion, bass player Byron Carter adding some keys on the intro, before they divert into soulful territory for a spell, with Gales demonstrating his vocal
"Who needs six strings anyway?"
capabilities – something he should do more of, to my mind, given that with some backing from his lady wife he produces a pretty fine Stevie Wonder-ish sound.  But even as I’m thinking this he’s off again, the band holding down a menacingly steady groove, while Gales lets rip with a hummingbird-quick solo before winding up the crowd like Will Smith seeking some goddamned appreciation for blasting away a bunch of aliens.
‘Southpaw Serenade’ kicks off mellow, and with him singing about feeling so alone stays restrained until a solo that has him on his knees, along the way recalling a touch of Stevie Ray Vaughan in reflective mode.  ‘You Got Me Crying’ has a downbeat opening with a bass sound like rolling thunder really has arrived, and stays moody as it grooves towards a slowed down grind through the ‘Purple Haze’ riff, before the kind of solo in which, as a guitarist acquaintance of mine once put it, “he plays a lot of notes”.
He closes with ‘Voodoo Chile’, insisting that “while I don’t want to disrespect anybody’s rules” he ain’t playin’ unless the crowd get on their feet – and naturally, we oblige. Of course, his time-served reading of ‘Voodoo Chile’ is really an excuse for him to hop from stop-start funk to some Blackmore-style neo-classical picking and the riffs to ‘Kashmir’ and ‘Back In Black’, en route to a final bout of wild soloing.  It’s the kind of “give ‘em what they want” trick plenty of artists deploy, but few with as much chutzpah as Gales.  It may not be art, but the Eric Gales show sure is a shit-load of fun.
Whereas I’ve seen Eric Gales before, this is my first live encounter with Robben Ford, and having thoroughly enjoyed his recent albums Into The Sun and Purple House I’m looking forward to it.
He kicks off with the offbeat funk of ‘Down The Road I Go’, including brittle-toned soloing that’s full of the unexpected, before ‘What I Haven’t Done’ from Purple House shows off a ‘less is more’ approach, the notes he doesn’t play as interesting as those he does, if you catch my drift.  A brief take on ‘Tangle With Ya’, also from the new album, is all tangled up riffs and dulcet fills, while the following ‘Midnight Comes Too Soon’ features floating, mellifluous guitar that fits the song, before he throws in some jazzy chords as he varies the pace and
Robben Ford - 'Sideways'
comes at things from unexpected angles.
‘Indianola’ is a tribute to BB King with a high-stepping riff, on which Ford delivers some clever chord work that BB himself would undoubtedly have left to a sidekick, while ‘Bound For Glory’ finds the band producing some neat harmonies, and Ford conjuring up some spangliness worthy of Steve Hackett.  Around this point the thought occurs to me that if you wanted to describe them in elemental terms, Eric Gales is all fire and earth, while Ford’s lightness is that of air and water.
Freddie King’s ‘Sideways’ is attacked sideways, as it were, and has immediacy and swing to spare, while ‘Crazy For My Baby’ features tough, ringing chords.
And then . . . things just start to peter out.  The blues of ‘Black Night’ could be bluesier, though it improves as they slow it down, but it’s followed by a jazz fusion outing that really ain’t my thang.
By the time they’ve knocked out yer typical bass’n’drums showcase, and embarked on some anodyne funk in the form of ‘Oh Virginia’, my feet are leading me towards the exit, feeling like the show has suffered a slow puncture.  If Eric Gales’ heat can be a bit manic, there’s no doubting his entertainment value.  Whereas Robben Ford’s cool intelligence somehow doesn’t seem enough to sustain his set to the end, on this occasion at least.
But if I’m left feeling a bit disappointed by the end of Ford’s set, Pistoia Blues – now in its fortieth year - is still a captivating setting for live music, in the shadow of the Duomo on a warm Italian night.  A return visit may well be required next year.