Friday, August 30, 2019

Give Me The Truth - Blues Enthused looks for answers from Sean Webster

Notalotta people know this, as Michael Caine imitators like to say, but Sean Webster has followed in my footsteps.  See, although he’s now based in the Netherlands, the soulful singer and guitarist grew up in a Nottinghamshire mining village called Elkesley.  He probably went to school in nearby Retford, as I did myself for a couple of years back in the late Seventies.  He may even, like me, have enjoyed gigs at semi-legendary local music venue the Retford Porterhouse, which at one time or another hosted bands like Def Leppard, Saxon, Dr Feelgood, and even Robert Plant’s Honeydrippers.  Or maybe he didn’t, because he’s younger than I am and may have missed its heyday.

But that’s where the resemblances end.  Because Sean Webster grew up to be a very gifted guitarist and singer of soulful blues, whereas I – didn’t.

Sean Webster - cool or what?
So with his band's new live album Three Nights Live coming out on 2 September, I swapped some questions and answers with Sean, to find out about his musical journey.

How did you get started in music, Sean?  Who were your early influences?

Music was always a feature in the house as I was growing up. My Grandma bought me my very first guitar at the age of 3 I think. Sadly she died when I was about 8 yrs old so she never saw me even take much interest in it. I actually got started at school at the age of 14. My early influences were Eric Clapton, Gary Moore, Pink Floyd, Dire Straits. The usual I guess.

And how did things begin to develop for you as a professional musician?

I think they are still developing!!! I’m not quite sure when things got better, but I do remember filling in for a band on the main stage at Burnley Blues Festival back in maybe 2002 or so, and that jumped me ahead quite a bit.

You’re based in the Netherlands nowadays.  How did that come about?

I was touring The Netherlands back in 2008 for the first time, and I played a few festivals. One happened to be in Giethoorn where I met my wonderful wife. After a shaky start between us, I finally moved to Holland in 2010. After a short stint in Australia in 2012, my wife and I moved back to Holland and now live in the village we met in.

Being based on the Continent, how widely do you tour in Europe?

I’m always looking to broaden my touring and pushing to get into more countries etc, but so far I’ve played in France, Germany, Belgium, Holland, Poland, Finland, Switzerland, Austria, Luxembourg.
Next year I already have a 3-week tour of Czech republic booked and will hopefully tour Spain and possibly parts of Russia too.

The new album includes a cover of John Mayer’s ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’, and I’ve also heard you perform his song ‘Gravity’ live. What attracts you to his work?

John Mayer just has it. He is one of the world’s best guitarists, he writes great songs, has a cool vibe, and is one of the very few crossover artists that attract all ages. If he wants to, he will be around for a very long time. 

Which may all very well be true, but let me say this, dear reader. John Mayer isn’t half the singer that Sean Webster is.  So if you want to hear an imaginative John Mayer song like ‘Slow Dancing In A Burning Room’ delivered with real emotion, go listen to Sean Webster singing it.

And speaking of emotion, I’m reminded that Steve Van Zandt likes to introduce his song ‘Some Things Just Don’t Change’ by saying that he wrote it for David Ruffin of The Temptations, who he says was “the King of Despair – your girlfriend left you, David Ruffin was your man.”  Well, due respect an’ all Stevie, but if you’re looking for the King of Despair, then Sean Webster is my man.  

So what’s it all about Sean?  I’ve joked in previous reviews, about so many of your
Dwelling at the dark end of the street
songs being about relationship pain and misery.  But I don’t imagine that’s entirely representative of your life, so how does it come about?

Actually it is quite representative. Perhaps not any more as I’ve finally found true happiness, but still I sometimes think how my life would be if it all turned black. 

To quote Billy Crystal's character in When Harry Met Sally, "That, my friend, is a dark side."  Okay Sean, but do you ever start off writing a cheerful song, only for it to take a left turn into something dark?

Erm . . . . No. My wife always says why can’t you write a happy song. I joke saying, when I find happiness I will. But like I said, I am happy . . . .  Maybe I’ll try . . . . I doubt it - but maybe.

What’s the song by someone else you really wish you’d written, and why?

I think Etta James's ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, because it’s such a great song that speaks to me every night I play it. I don’t believe in faking it, so if I stop enjoying playing it I’ll just stop. But each time I play ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, it speaks to me. I guess I think about what it would be like if my wife left and some nights I’m on the verge of tears. I guess that’s why every night someone in the audience is in tears. They feel it.

Conversely, what’s the song you’re most proud of having written yourself, and why?

Tough question. I think if I’m allowed two, they would be ‘The Dream’, which I wrote directly for my wife quite a few years ago, and ‘Leave Your Heart At The Door’ the title track of my last album. I don’t tell many people but it’s a song for my daughter about growing up. She’ll understand when she gets a bit older.  She’s only 4 now.

Are you going to be touring in Britain and Europe to promote the new album?

Definitely!!!! We have a 2-week tour planned in September for the UK finishing up at Carlisle Blues festival, and then we’ll be touring the album into next year in Europe. 
I start a 9-date theatre tour in The Netherlands with some high profile Dutch guys the day after Carlisle, so I’m pretty tied up for a while but I am writing a new studio album and will keep popping up with my band.

As I wrote in my review of Three Sides Live, more people should be listening to Sean Webster. More people should be going to see him. It’s as simple as that.  So now’s your chance – get hold of the live album, and catch him on tour wherever you can.

Go to the Sean Webster Band website to order Three Nights Live and check their tour dates.
Read the Blues Enthused review of Three Nights Live here.

Monday, August 26, 2019

Odds Lane - Lost & Found

So here we have a guitar’n’drums duo in the form of Doug Byrkit and Brian Zielie respectively, and we all know what that kind of line-up sounds like, don’t we?  It’s right there in the primitive boom-thump of opening track ‘Don’t Give It Away’, with its spiky guitar licks – the latest manifestation of that back to basics blues sound style that gave us The White Stripes and The Black Keys.  ‘Nuff said.
Actually, no.  Odds Lane are a rather more eclectic outfit than that two-man band stereotype.  Sure, there are various shades of blues offered up on Lost & Found, but this St
Odds Lane - "Shit, I've dropped a contact lens!"
Louis pairing have got more than just that going on.  They may have started out as Mike Zito’s rhythm section back in the Nineties, but they played jazz in college and over the intervening years their songwriting partnership has absorbed a broader range of influences.
But let’s begin with the bluesier sounds.  ‘Seven States’ is Feelgood-ish, scratchy, rhythm’n’boogie and if Byrkit’s clear-toned vocals don’t come near to conveying the same kind of grit as Lee Brilleaux, it’s still a good tune with a neat little rollercoaster of a riff.  And there is more of an edgy vibe to ‘Blood On The Van’, which on one level seems like a straight-up twelve-bar blues, with a chugging riff a la ZZ Top.  But with its growling rhythm section and a intriguing lyric suggesting a violent event, as well as a strong slide break courtesy of the aforementioned Zito – who also produced the album – it’s more than the sum of its apparently simple parts.
‘Spare Change’ is bright, good old-fashioned R’n’B too, cantering along with a snappy rhythm and more scratchy guitar, garnished by more of Zito’s slide licks, and the closing ‘White Castle Blues’ sounds like the kind of British blues that emerged out of the Sixties Beat Boom, fashioned into a paean to the vintage Mid-West fast food chain White Castle, and its idiosyncratic square burgers.
There are more edges and corners on the likes of ‘Moth To A Flame’ and ‘Hard Rain’ though, the first a jolting shuffle pushed along by bobbling bass, and featuring more of Zito’s slide fills – rather begging the question of how they deliver this stuff when he’s not around – while the latter is a staccato mid-tempo affair, downbeat and mellow on the verses and punchier on the chorus, that perhaps outstays its welcome a bit.
But elsewhere they draw on a broader palette.  'Lost & Found' itself is best described as a catchy slice of bluesy jangle-pop, very nicely done. ‘What’s Your Name’, meanwhile, has a twitchy flavour, courtesy of a most Police-like deedle-eedly-dee guitar riff (pardon the technical terminology) over funky bass and an offbeat rhythm, added to interesting wah-wah like guitar tones and appealing key change leading into the guitar solo.  The mellow funkiness of ‘A Little Too Late’, on the other hand, contrives a Latin tinge in its rhythms to go with hints of Santana in its guitar sound.
Lost & Found is a refreshing album, like an inventively mixed blues cocktail – reassuringly familiar but infused with enough spice to give it a bit of extra zing.  Odds Lane may not have the heft to embed themselves permanently in your brain, but they’re sophisticated enough to make a positive impression.

Lost & Found is available now from Gulf Coast Records.

Monday, August 19, 2019

Nicole Smit & Blueswater: Queens Of The Blues - The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh, 18 August 2019

Introducing the final number of this show, Susan Tedeschi’s ‘Hurt So Bad’, Nicole Smit says that it was suggested to her last year by guitarist Charlie Wild, but she said to herself, “There’s no way I can sing that – Susan Tedeschi’s way too cool.”  Aye right, as we say sarcastically in these parts.  On this evidence, Nicole Smit is capable of singing any damn thing she likes.
Queens Of The Blues is one of a suite of shows presented each year on the Edinburgh Fringe by local band/collective The Blueswater, but this is the first time I’ve managed to catch it.  Which is, undoubtedly, my loss.  Backed by a tight band of  two guitars, bass,
drums and keyboards, Smit leads a show delivering great songs by both famous and scarcely remembered female blues singers.  Apparently this was the first time her dad had seen her perform.  Hopefully he’s now retrieved his socks, because I imagine his daughter blew them off big time.
Smit does a terrific job of selling the material, bopping around on the likes of ‘Nutbush City Limits’ and the foot-to-the-floor rock’n’roll of Mary Knight’s tongue-twisting ‘I Told You Not To Tell Him’, and getting a sassy groove on for bump’n’grind R’n’B like Betty James’ ‘Little Mixed Up’, on which Charlie Wild delivers a wang-dang guitar solo.
But it’s her vocals that are the real centre of attention.  You want to get some idea of what she can do?  Well, her take on Billie Holliday’s ‘Tell Me More’, covered by Nina Simone, is as emotional as it gets, while her bending and stretching a cappella version of Ma Rainey’s ‘See See Rider’ reduces the audience to stunned silence when she finishes.
But both of those are topped, I reckon, by her rendition of a Janis Joplin song.  She introduces it by saying that she hadn’t been much of a Janis fan until a woman told her about witnessing Joplin’s Woodstock performance, and feeling that she provoked a 
tremendous sense of freedom with her “don’t give a shit” performance style.  After which Smit and the band go on to deliver a blazing, foot-stamping performance of raging soul on ‘Kozmic Blues’ that’s so intense we all need a breather when she’s done.
They show a bit of imagination too, by creating an excellent R’n’B mash-up of Helen Humes’ ‘Real Fine Daddy’ and Sean Costello’s ‘Talk To Your Daughter’, on which Jed Potts lets rip on guitar.  And there’s more fun with scrappy Sixties R’n’B that is Etta James’ ‘It Must Be Love’, and Frances Burr’s ‘I Say No, No More’, which they embellish with an organ solo from Rob Harrison, a rollicking guitar duel between Wild and Potts, and a false ending – “No no, not yet!” Smit teases before calling them back in.
Which brings us back to their set closer of Susan Tedeschi’s ‘Hurt So Bad’, a torch song with a Fats Domino style groove, which needless to say Smit nails good and proper, wringing all the emotion out of the song with all the presence, range and power in her locker.
This isn’t just my opinion - at the end my other half announced that she’d been blown away.  Sitting in the front row, more by luck than good judgement, we got a close-up perspective on all of the humour, energy and musicality brought to the show by Smit and the whole band.
You’ll be hard-pressed to get a ticket for the one remaining performance of Queens Of The Blues on this year’s Fringe.  But if you decide to visit to Edinburgh for next year’s Festival, book your tickets early.

The last performance of Queens Of The Blues on this year's Fringe is on Friday 23 August at 5.30pm.

Thursday, August 15, 2019

Danny Bryant - Means Of Escape

Danny Bryant’s blues are often pretty heavy, man.  Heavy but, it has to be said, often heartfelt.  And when he gets it right, this can result in something emotionally truthful both lyrically and musically.
The prime example here is ‘Skin And Bone’, which follows on from some of the songs on his last album Revelation in contemplating the death of his father. Low key and built on the simple strumming of acoustic guitar, it’s painfully honest about loss.  It’s up close and personal stuff.  And I can tell you from experience, it hits the emotional mark.
"Say cheese, Danny!"
Pic by Rob Blackham
Nothing else reaches that level, but ‘Where The River Ends’, written some time back for a friend who lost his daughter, features some lyrical, Clapton-like guitar in places. Meanwhile the closing ‘Mya’ is an instrumental exploration that benefits from being a bit more laid back, and less tense than yer typical Bryant arrangement, giving his guitar space to soar more freely as he builds a theme in – again – a Clapton-like fashion.  I’m reminded that on Revelation some of the best moments, for me at least, were those when he began to mine a Clapton seam, such as ‘Shouting At The Moon’.
In a different vein, the title track ‘Means Of Escape’ benefits from revisiting (so to speak) the riff from ‘All Along The Watchtower’, creating a supple vibe, and over the booming drums Bryant does a good job scattering licks around the place, before delivering an impressive solo on the outro.  And even if the lyrics are a bit gloomy apart from the affirmative chorus, Bryant’s vocals sound a mite more relaxed than is his wont.
And there’s the rub. Danny Bryant is rarely, to be honest, a little ray of sunshine.  And this tends to transmit itself through a variety of stomping, grinding, heavy blues outings, characterised by some teeth-clenching vocals.  Opening track ‘Tired Of Trying’, overtly influenced by his mentor Walter Trout, is typical of this tendency, and though it does feature some muscular soloing with a degree of tension and release, it’s overlong. The following ‘Too Far Gone’ is a smidgen more relaxed as it opens, with some nice rolling piano notes, and for a while it reminds me of the kind of gutsy fare the Nimmo Brothers might serve up. But it ends up getting a bit overwrought, and the vocals get too angsty for my taste.
‘Warning Signs’ is a slightly looser affair, with jabs of horns prefacing a useful organ solo, and ‘Hurting Time’ finds Danny dusting his broom on slide guitar, in slow and measured fashion, with some horns and a nice piano solo to leaven the recipe.  But these don’t do much to alleviate the sense of stomp-grind pervading much of the album, which is generally reinforced by Bryant’s idiosyncratic tendency towards vocals that to me sound physically tense. And if I were to offer up a sample of lyrics from across the album, you wouldn’t find many sunny moments.
Danny Bryant does what he does with commitment and intensity, and sometimes seizes your emotions as he does so. But all in all, Means Of Escape would benefit from more light and shade in terms of words, music and rhythm.  Hell, even Walter Trout and Eric Clapton, who haven’t had their troubles to seek, write some upbeat songs.  Discovering a broader palette would serve Danny Bryant well.

Means Of Escape is released on Jazzhaus Records on 20 September.
Danny Bryant's October British tour dates can be found here.

Sunday, August 11, 2019

Albert Castiglia - Masterpiece

Okay folks, here’s how I imagine the conversation went when Albert Castiglia arrived at the studio and introduced this bunch of songs to his producer Mike Zito.
“No fucking frills, right?”
“Right!”
“Who else we gonna get play on it?”
“Nobody.  We’ll do this fucker ourselves.  You and me.”
“Cool.  Let's go.”
So here we have the pair of them weighing in with electric, acoustic and bass guitars,  while Castiglia takes care of the vocals, and Zito also takes responsibility for – would you believe? - drums and keyboards.  It sounds like it was recorded on some clapped-out analogue recording equipment that someone rescued from the dump.
And it is flat-out, bone-shakingly magnificent.
"You looking' at me?  Well, they're ain't nobody else here."
Oh sure, it starts out sounding like a particularly juicy T-Bone steak of electric blues, with ‘Bring On The Rain’, urgent and ready to rock, with guitar licks elbowing their way in all around Castiglia’s growling voice.  But believe me, they’re just lulling you into a false sense of security.
The shuffling primal stomp and booming bass line of ‘I Tried To Tell You’ build foundations of granite for Castiglia’s screw-you vocals and a scrabbling, discordant solo, before it sulks its way to an abrupt ending.  And that’s just by way of readying you for the further acts of shock and awe coming your way.  Like ‘Keep On Swinging’ fr’instance, with its bludgeoning riff over rock steady, reverberating bass and drums, a spell of raking guitar harmonies, and a dogfight of traded guitar licks, while Castiglia insists “Don’t let the bastards get you down.” Or ‘Thoughts And Prayers’, on which more bang-crash drums and sledgehammer bass, allied to a lurching, scratchy guitar riff, provide the basis for an acid discourse from Castiglia about “thoughts and prayers and a loaded gun”, and “children in the firing line.” Or ‘Catch My Breath’, which welds a Skynyrd-like melody to a chugging, clanking rhythm.
The two covers provide reinforcements.  Johnny Winter’s ‘Too Much Seconal’ feels like drinking the hair of the dog the morning after the night before, with fuzzy, screeching guitar and some basic blues piano-bashing from Zito, while Castiglia grabbed the most ancient microphone available for his vocals, and the drums sound like they were recorded out in the garden shed.  I’m sure Johnny would be proud.  As he would also be of their take on Muddy Waters’ ‘I Wanna Go Home’, which is all jagged, jangling R’n’B basics, with a razor-wire guitar solo - Hard Again indeed.
Castiglia does provide some relief from the scruff-of-the-neck approach though.  The title track is an awestruck but not maudlin reflection on his first discovering he had a daughter, the masterpiece of the title, 30 years after her birth – a simple affair of acoustic strumming and slide remarks, over boom-tap drums.  ‘Heavy’ is a social commentary slow blues framed around a rippling, rising guitar line and basic, beats-like drums.  And best of all there’s ‘Love Will Win The War’, a meditation on the horror of mass shootings in churches, synagogues, schools and – well, you get the idea – set to warmly twangin’an’twinklin’ ‘Wild Horses’-like guitar work.
Castiglia and Zito deserve a lead-heavy slab of acclaim for this album.  Masterpiece is raw and primitive, down to earth and defiant, emotional and honest.  And it is not to be denied.  Crank it up to 11, and tell me if I’m wrong.

Masterpiece is out now on Gulf Coast Records.

Thursday, August 8, 2019

Samantha Fish - Kill Or Be Kind

Kill Or Be Kind is a grower.  I’ve been living with it for a couple of months now, and it’s a distinctive album that defies easy labels, gradually disclosing its subtleties over time. It’s the product of an evolutionary journey on which Samantha Fish has stretched and deepened her vocabulary until she can now command her own mature sound with confidence.
As a key to getting inside Kill Or Be Kind, get your ears around ‘Love Your Lies’, the shortest and most straightforward track on offer.  The first time I heard it spring out of the starting blocks, I said to myself, “Buzzcocks! With Chrissie Hynde on vocals!”  Of course this was a daft knee-jerk reaction, as vocally Fish and Hynde are very different, but Buzzcocks didn't have a female singer, so gimme a break.  But it's still a fizzing little rock’n’roll firecracker, on which Fish lets loose a whoop of delight as she launches into a brief, scorching guitar solo that will just beg for her to let rip live.  And the Chrissie Hynde reference is apposite on another level, because Kill Or Be Kind achieves just the kind of crossover quality that The Pretenders nailed in their heyday, encapsulating soul, R’n’B, classic pop and rock’n’roll with élan.
Samantha Fish - crossover success beckons
And to underline the point, the outstanding ‘Fair-weather’ is a simple and lovely song lamenting the decline of a friendship.  Resting on tinkling ‘Lucy In The Sky With Diamonds’ guitar notes, it features an at times breathy vocal from Fish set against the merest touches of organ and murmurs of horns, before being elevated by a key change as Fish delivers a rueful wave goodbye at the receding relationship.  Simple as it is, the emotional connection is profound.
A brace of songs reach back to Chills And Fever and translate its soul and R’n’B vibe into originals with a modern feel.  'Kill Or Be Kind' itself sets the tone, with some excellent rubber band bass providing the basis for Fish to open up with deceptively girlish vocals – deceptive because this is a lyric with a very Fish-like dark twist to it, revealing not a "goody-good-good girl", but a tough cookie.  ‘Try Not To Fall In Love With You’ is a dreamier affair, sweet and soulful, with a neat horn arrangement, and twinkling guitar notes providing texture ahead of a scorching solo.
There’s nothing here squarely in the acoustic/Americana vein of Belle Of The West.  But ‘Dreamgirl’ takes the romantic feel of ‘Belle Of The West’ itself, and gives it a more sleek modern sound, with some double-tracked vocals, a woozy slide reading of the melody, and squiggling noises in the background combining to add a phantasmagorical tinge to proceedings.  And the following ‘She Don’t Live Here Anymore’ blends Americana and soul stylings, with a twanged descending guitar motif, subtle Memphis horns, and a restrained slide solo over tinkling keys, while Fish holds herself back rather than wigging out vocally.
‘Love Letters’, like the title track, offers a love-turned-sour lyrical juxtaposition, mirrored musically by the contrast of sweet verses and a bitter chorus, with sighs of slide guitar and another helping of appealing bass.  And ‘Dirty’ is another reflection on distasteful relationship behaviour, setting out with a flurry of understated organ, ticking drums and sparse bass notes, before Fish’s guitar paves the way for a finely judged burst of vocal passion.
Which leaves a trio of rockers in the form of ‘Bulletproof’, ‘Watch It Die’ and ‘You Got It Bad’ to add some heft.  ‘Bulletproof’ opens the show with a bullet, as it were, its cryptic lyric about the challenge of standing up for oneself played out via a delicate falling melody on the verses and a full throttle roar on the chorus.  It’s both urgent and tense, gains weight as it progresses, and features a blistering cigar box slide solo – Fish is now a veritable slide guitar demon.  ‘Watch It Die’ is all buzzsaw riff and flaring horns, with a squealing solo and a bridge of interesting sighs, as it were, while Fish soars vocally on the chorus as only she can.  ‘You Got It Bad’, bringing down the curtain, is a layered chunk of moody blues-rock, with a brooding guitar figure, a rousing vocal on the chorus, and a repeated slide refrain that ushers in a scraping slide solo.
The songs and musicianship on Kill Or Be Kind are top notch. Fish’s guitar is sharp and multi-faceted, and her vocals are, as ever, astonishing.  Ultimately it’s an album to captivate not just the ears, but the emotions. The fuse has been burning on her career for a while now, but I have a feeling that Kill Or Be Kind may be about to detonate a Samantha Fish explosion.

Kill Or Be Kind is released by Rounder Records on 20 September.

Read the exclusive Blues Enthused interview with Samantha Fish here.

Wednesday, August 7, 2019

Whisky Road - The Jazz Bar, Edinburgh, 7 August 2019

Now and then it’s a pleasure to hear the blues stripped back.  It gives a different perspective on the songs, shorn of volume and effects. And this acoustic blues show on the Edinburgh Fringe by Whisky Road, a trio armed with two acoustic guitars and harmonica, does the job very nicely, thank you very much.
Their hour long set ranges draws on classics across the generations, with the addition of a few originals, kicking off with an uptempo, good-time reading of Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Eyesight To The Blind’, with a funkily rhythmic undercurrent, with Jim Harcus providing chugging harp accents along the way, and a pinging guitar solo from Pete Caban.  And they
Whisky Road - unplugged blues in the Jazz Bar
follow that up with ‘Key To The Highway’, demonstrating just why it’s a classic, with a plaintive harp solo from Harcus and a tasteful guitar solo from Derek Smith, which then neatly interleaves with Caban’s guitar again at the end.
There’s some amusing banter about them changing the set list from show to show, and whether anyone actually comes back for a second helping to check, but they evidently have an extensive repertoire at the their disposal with which to deliver on that promise.
Highlights include the dreamy and soulful Clapton/Cray song ‘Old Love’, and in a similar vein ‘The Thrill Is Gone’.  Smith conjures up a Layla-ish bass line on his acoustic for the former, in addition to a neat solo, before Harcus plays around with the melody in subtle fashion on harp, on the way to a piercing solo from Caban as they bring the song to a crescendo.  Their take on ‘The Thrill Is Gone’, meanwhile, is loose-limbed and exquisite, a quiet opening leading to the understated introduction of that classic blues riff.  There’s well-balanced tension and release in Smith’s solo, while Caban demonstrates similarly good tone and phrasing in his outing.
But there’s variety too, ranging from the simple, chugging R’n’B of Jimmy Rogers’ ‘That’s Alright’, with nicely interwoven guitar lines, to the nagging, harp-reinforced riff of something I think called ‘You Don’t Love Me’, which is ever so British Blues Boom.  And Derek Smith delivers a suitably smoky vocal on Memphis Minnie's 'Ain't Nothin' In Ramblin'', a downbeat depiction of pain and misery on which you can practically feel the Louisiana heat.
Smith’s self-penned ‘Nobody Knows Like Me Like I Do’ is a lightly swinging affair, with a jazzy solo from Caban, that has a cool air of 50s rock’n’roll inspired pop, matched later on by the old-time vibe of the blues standard ‘Nobody Knows You When You’re Down And Out)’.
They close with BB King’s ‘Let The Good Times Roll’, with rattling solos from both guitarists and a mid-song switch of harps from Jim Harcus as they change key, and a bit of singalonga-BB for good measure.
If you’re in Edinburgh for the Festival, and in the market for a bit of unplugged blues as a warm-up for your afternoon, the Whisky Road show is a damn good shout.

Whisky Road play six more shows at the Edinburgh Fringe from 9-24 August.  Tickets available here.

Monday, August 5, 2019

Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones - Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones

The first time I gave a spin to this self-titled album by Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones, I said to myself “Uh-huh” as a positive response to the first few songs, made a mental note about a few things, then kind of half-listened to the rest of the album as I pottered about at something or other, thinking that it tailed off a bit as it progressed.
Listening to it again now, those first impressions were wrong.  This third album from Hannah and her pals is an impressive body of work from start to finish.  The songs are good, she’s got a strong voice, plays some sharp guitar, and has a kicking band behind her in the form of drummer Juilian Dorio and bassist Reno Bo.
Hannah Wicklund - she can play, sing, she can do most anything
Pic courtesy of Greg Logan Photography
Imagine, if you will, Pat Benatar re-tooled for the 21stCentury.  All the AOR-sheen has been
sandpapered off, she’s been force-fed a diet of Led Zeppelin and early Rush, and handed a guitar and told to equip herself as a lead guitarist even if it makes her fingers bleed.  That might give you an idea of what Nashville-based Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones sound like.  Maybe. Or perhaps you should just imagine being chucked in a wind tunnel.
The ‘Peak Patty’ moment is probably ‘Mama Said’, with its stuttering, semi-reggaefied riff leading to a hooky, upbeat chorus which they ram home big time towards the end, while Wicklund contributes a nifty little squealing solo to close.  But the polished middle 8 of ‘Ghost’ comes pretty close, in the midst of a strolling, chiming, bluesy affair on which Wicklund’s expressive vocal reaches towards a rootsier domain, and she demonstrates a disciplined approach to soloing that serves the song rather than the ego.
Wicklund’s inspirations may stem from the early Seventies and beyond, but she still manages to sound modern, with the aid of producer Sadler Vaden (guitarist with Jason Isbell & The 400 Unit).  For ‘On The Road’ she highlights her flexibility by deploying a yelping, hiccupping vocal that provides some effective variation, over ringing guitar, appealingly bendy bass from Bo, and crunching, driving drums from Dorio, before downshifting into a subtle solo.  Then there’s a discordant tinge to ‘Crushing’, with a quavering vocal, and a heavy descending riff that’s counterpointed by a spiky solo, before Wicklund really gets her wail on vocally.
Now and then things may get a bit overcooked, as Wicklund’s voice has to compete with that huge rhythm section at times, as on both ‘Strawberry Moon’ and ‘Meet You Again’, but I’ll forgive her.  The former is another well constructed song, opening with just guitar and an aching vocal that hints at Maria McKee rootsiness, and features another patient, well-measured solo.  The latter hints at Americana possibilities with its moody guitar and voice intro, which is then met with sharp injections of Zepp-ish power, before a shift in tempo and rhythm into urgent strumming and then a scrabbling solo.
And if the album opens with stomping blues rock in the form of 'Bomb Through The Breeze', she’s got the courage to close in more restrained fashion with ‘Shadow Boxes And Porcelain Faces’, which features delicately picked acoustic-sounding guitar, and sweet vocals that again play around with Americana in haunting fashion, over minimalist percussion – and I do mean minimalist.
With her Pre-Raphaelite auburn locks the 22-year old Wicklund looks the part too.  If she can cut it live with the punch suggested by this album, I predict a bright future.

Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones is released in the UK on 13 September.
Hannah Wicklund & The Stepping Stones are touring Britain and Europe from August to October.