Friday, October 11, 2019

Redfish - Souls

It strikes me, listening to Souls, that Redfish dream large.  Not in terms of world domination commercially I imagine, but perhaps at least in terms of realising their artistic potential.  Though probably the quintet from the environs of Carlisle and Dumfries think about it in quite those terms.
The bedrock of their sound is John Mayall-esque British blues (sans harmonica), with hints of Born Under A Bad Sign thrown in for good measure.  They certainly do a bang-up job on straight-up bluesiness, as on the strutting boogie of ‘One More Fight’ for example, and the
funky ‘For The Love Of The Wrong Woman’, which is well served by both the piano and guitar solos, and is one of several songs on which they employ guest horns to good effect.  Their feel for the essentials extends to the moody slow-ish blues of ‘It’s A Very Lonely Life’
Redfish - walking in the shadows of the blues
too, with its smatterings of guitar over a steady bass groove, and a spot on organ solo from Fraser Clark, and I’m taken with the happy-go-lucky, Georgie Fame-like feel of the closing ‘Hallelujah Road’ too.

But they also manage to throw some twists into this kind of material, such as the throbbing and swirling clavinet-type sound on the opener ‘There’s Nothing Else’, matched by a fitting guitar tone from Martin McDonald on his solo.  Or the stop-start vocals from Brian ‘Stumblin’’ Harris on the funky ‘(Kick Up) Hell’s Delight’, with its effects-treated guitar break and shift to a snappy, Squeeze-like closing refrain.  And Harris clearly makes an effort to produce smart lyrics too, as on the wittily acerbic ‘Don’t Waste The Good Stuff’, which has organ and jagged slide guitar getting into competition towards the end.
But it’s the fact that they stretch their range beyond these mainstream stylings that really deserves applause.  They’re brave enough to keep it simple, for example, on the finger-snapping ‘Rakehells’, with its earworm of a stride piano figure and shuffling, swinging rhythm from drummer Sandy Sweetman and bassist Rod Mackay.  Clark adds a rippling piano solo, and McDonald some slide, but they don’t clutter up the tune en route to its oddly abrupt ending.  More dramatically, ‘Hate The Song But Not The Singer’ kicks off with a quietly crooned, hesitant vocal from Harris over the most spartan guitar, and when the band crank it up the vocals become more angsty and pleading, with suitably rough guitar giving way to some jazzy Rhodes piano.
‘Shadow On My Soul’ has an original sound too, its feel apparently inspired by Nina Simone.  Sweetman lays down a novel rhythm on percussion, augmented by handclaps, while McDonald and Clark contribute a sparse guitar/piano motif that puts me in mind of ‘Sloop John B’ of all things, and Harris delivers a patient, keening vocal about wanting to “scream like Roky Erickson”.  There’s some fitting piano embroidery from Clark, and a trombone solo courtesy of Chris Riley, and the upbeat coda is nicely done even if it might have been better kept for another song.
I could probably mention some other quibbles, but to hell with that.  Redfish are a bunch who have paid their dues, musicianship wise, and it shows.  More to the point, they haven’t plodded along a familiar blues rut from one end of Souls to the other.  Instead they’ve shown a spirit of adventure, set out to explore some fresh angles, and done it with conviction – and good on ‘em for that.

Tuesday, October 8, 2019

North Mississippi Allstars - Up And Rolling

The North Mississippi Allstars hold a special place in my affections.  When I started getting into this blues thing a bit, they were one of the first bands I discovered for myself.  At the time I knew diddly squat about the North Mississippi hill country, or the singular mysteries of the blues emanating from the area.  But when I got hold of their album Shake Hands With Shorty my jaw dropped.  These Dickinson guys could groove like gravy (I’ve just made that up, but you get the alliterative idea) with nagging rhythms, and then next thing they’d explode all over the place.
Some of the NMA collective
And I'm pleased to say they’ve come up with the goods again.  Up And Rolling is inspired by the rediscovery of collection of photographs harking back to Luther and Cody Dickinson's formative experiences of the musical heritage of the North Mississippi hill country, and includes reworkings of old songs from their mentors and influences, as well as originals from the Dickinsons and their pals.  But it’s also a celebration of the community and lifestyle from which it springs. And the emergence of NMA from the hill country and its music is well captured by Luther Dickinson in the booklet accompanying the CD – including his inimitable description of his own guitar playing:  “I forged my style of psychedelic open tuned fingerpicked bottle neck country blues guitar by combining the horizontal melody of Fred’s [Mississippi Fred McDowell] and Otha’s [Otha Turner] bamboo can fife with rock’n’roll tube amp power and thumb picked rhythmic boogie as marching drums in the distance.”  You said it Luther.
So they open up with ‘Call That Gone’, tripping along on a paradiddle rhythm from Cody Dickinson and rumbling bass from Carl Dufrene, while Luther trades call and response vocals with Sharisse Norman.  At first there are just intermittent injections of ragged slide guitar and flute-like fife from Sharde Thomas, but later they’re ramped up until they and the drums are in fiery, but controlled, competition.  You won’t get stuff like this on your bog standard blues-rock album.
And to underline that point, they follow that with ‘Up And Rolling’, a deliciously dreamy affair, and little wonder when it’s evoking hazy Mississippi days drifting along on a stream of weed, LSD and mushroom tea.  Built around a lovely descending melody, it hangs together beautifully, with those silky female vocals to the fore.  Not to be done, Luther comes up with some delightful, delicate guitar work, that in combination with Wurly piano from brother Cody that brings to mind Hendrix in hypnotic mode.
They venture into a more traditional blues format on Little Walter’s ‘Mean Old World’, with a circular, pinging guitar figure, and Jason Isbell guesting on vocals, but they’re still adventurous with it, as a slide solo eventually takes off into an extended uptempo passage that’s very Allmans in style – making full use of the presence of Duane Betts on guitar.  (Apparently the song was once recorded by their father, muso and producer Jim Dickinson, with Duane Allman and Eric Clapton during the Layla sessions.)
The Dickinson brothers make World Boogie
But they also dig down into the hill country roots, with a couple of RL Burnside songs in the form of ‘Peaches’ and ‘Out On The Road’, the former improvising around the patient groove, and the latter brief and to the point.  Junior Kimbrough’s ‘Lonesome In My Home’, meanwhile, is a largely downbeat affair with ticking drums and distorted, haunting vocals that begin collide with modern guitar sounds until at times it sounds like it’s on the cusp of falling apart.
But other influences are reflected too, as on the ‘Pops’ Staples song ‘What You Gonna Do?’, which with Mavis Staples guesting is gospel reframed as simple and repetitive soulfulness.  And there’s also the vintage gospel of Tom Dorsey’s ‘Take My Hand, Precious Lord’, a great tune on which Luther Dickinson trades vocal and guitar licks with Cedric Burnside.
And there are socially conscious original songs too, with ‘Bump That Mother’ and ‘Living Free’ both featuring lyrics that cleverly make the political personal. The former is again tripped out, with a tense riff playing off more great female vocals, and some more spaced out Dickinson guitar, the latter laid back and soulful, with a catchy guitar riff and guest vocals from Tierini and Tikyra Jackson of the rather wonderful Southern Avenue.
North Mississippi Allstars are more a collective than a band, with Luther and Cody Dickinson at the helm.  Up And Rolling is the latest phase in their mission to bring the North Mississippi hill country to the world, and new generations, and make good on the last words of their father, Jim Dickinson - “World Boogie is coming!”

Up And Rolling is out now on New West Records.

Sunday, October 6, 2019

Stevie Nimmo - Oran Mor, Glasgow, 5 October 2019

Reasons to be cheerful, part 57.  For Stevie Nimmo, it’s a hometown gig in Glasgow, in front of a busy crowd that are well and truly up for it.  For me, it’s seeing Stevie Nimmo in such good form, after what must have been a really frustrating spell since breaking his right arm a couple of years ago.  Now he’s all healed up, and it’s all smiles as he and his trio lay on a belter of a show.
Stevie Nimmo binds some spells
There’s no new material, unfortunately – part of the fallout from his injury – but with a rejigged set, a new bassist since I last saw him in the form of Kelpie McKenzie, and a less
than surprising guest making an appearance, there’s a palpable energy and freshness to this performance.
They open with ‘Chains Of Hope’, crunching opening chords leading into its churning, thudding riff to pin everyone’s ears back, before downshifting into the breezy ‘Loving Might Do Us Good’.  Moved forward in the set from the home stretch, where it’s been for the last couple of years, it’s still bright and appealing, with Craig Bacon laying down a supple foundation for Nimmo to knock out a terrific, free flowing solo, as usual including a snippet of the Allmans’ ‘Jessica’.
The Allman Brothers’ ‘Gamblers Roll’ isn’t a song that particularly lights my fire, but Nimmo still demonstrates great control and tone on his solo, while on ‘Change’, with its chiming chords and steady backbeat, Kelpie McKenzie’s backing vocals are almost inaudible.  But
Kelpie McKenzie - he's having' a larf
he finds the groove effortlessly as his boss rips out some big chords.
‘Good Day For The Blues’ reinforces the light touch evident on ‘Loving Might Do Us Good’, drifting easily as the lyric suggests, but with direction and dynamics.  Conversely ‘Still Hungry’ is a muscular statement of intent, with Nimmo giving it large on wah wah and then a wailing solo over the gutsy undertow.
‘Running On Back To You’ is one of my favourite Nimmo songs, with its subtle and restrained guitar motif paving the way for a soaring, David Gilmour-like solo, itself a mere appetiser for Nimmo to serve up a second, fierce solo at the end, sweating bullets as he does so.
The guest appearance is of course by brother Alan, and together they firstly dredge up Walter Trout’s ‘On The Rise’ from their past repertoire together, a funky but tough affair on which Alan Nimmo tosses out a very Brian Robertson-esque solo.  In the midst of this Kelpie McKenzie may not have the geezer-ish affability of his bassist predecessor Mat Beable, but Alan Nimmo’s natural exuberance coaxes a big grin out of him.  Then on ‘Pray For You’, another dynamic tune with a great hook, big brother Stevie takes the first solo before
Craig 'Crispy' Bacon - it's smiles all round!
deferring to Alan for another wild solo, before they conjure up some guitar harmonies for the finale, before Nimmo the Younger takes his leave.
‘Roll The Dice Again’ builds tension with its surging riff, before Stevie cranks up a teasing intro to Freddie King’s ‘Going Down, on which McKenzie bubbles away furiously on bass before Nimmo leads the traditional singalong.
Which only leaves the encore of Big George Watt’s epic tune ‘The Storm’, reverb-laden and atmospheric, and featuring a solo from Nimmo that’s an object lesson in tension and release, ‘playing every other lick’ as the saying goes, making terrific use of sustain as he builds themes and produces something that blazes with feeling.
Stevie Nimmo is such a down to earth and humble guy that sometimes he may not get enough credit for just how good he is.  I’ve said before that his Sky Won’t Fall was my favourite studio album of 2016, as much for the variety and quality of his songwriting as the playing.  And tonight is further evidence that his guitar playing can be spellbinding. Reasons to be cheerful – absolutely.

Friday, October 4, 2019

Sayer & Joyce - Makes You Stronger

The growing roster of artists on Mike Zito and Guy Hale’s Texas- based Gulf Coast Records includes people from St Louis, Pittsburgh, Las Vegas, Miami – and now husband and wife Ron Sayer and Charlotte Joyce, from Norwich.  That’s Norwich in England, not Massachusetts.
Having seen them live a few years ago, I know how good Sayer and Joyce can be – he’s a top flight guitar wrangler, and she’s a captivating singer and keyboard player.  But now and then, listening to Makes You Stronger, I’m not sure it gives full expression to their talents.
From right to left, Sayer and Joyce - Mr and Mrs Blues
There are a couple of songs about which I have no doubts, most obviously ‘We’d Both Be Wrong’ – as in the saying “I could agree with you, but then we’d both be wrong”.  It has a catchy melody and sparky lyrics, which Joyce delivers convincingly.  But it also benefits from a toe-tapping funky groove, with a cheeky ascending riff that Sayer extemporises over effectively from the outset, before he puts the cherry on the cake with an entertaining solo over flaring horns from Dave Land and Clive Hitchcock – horns that then compete with him to further good effect.
Of similar quality, in a different vein, is the closing ‘Needful Things’.  An intriguing affair with a haunting tune, Joyce nails the expressive vocal, over little more than sparse double bass (also courtesy of Sayer) and the merest speckles of guitar.  Simplicity like this can be tricky to pull off, but they do it brilliantly, abandoning soul-blues stylings to contrive something more distinctive and European in tone.
On early listens though, I found the mix too thin to harness the different elements fully on some songs.  It was only when I stuck in some bloody good earphones and cranked things up that the sound began to hang together on tracks like the opener ‘Backbone’ and the later ‘My Life Alive’.  The former kicks off with a smart, intricate up-and-down riff, and once Charlotte Joyce’s assertively soulful vocal feels properly connected to everything else that’s going on, it comes across as a quality bit of funk-rock, topped off by a scattergun solo from Sayer, even though the horns are pushed too far down.  And on the blues-rocking ‘My Life Alive’, with it’s chunky, winding riff, Joyce’s strong vocal is further enhanced by some double-tracking on the chorus, while Sayer comes up with an adventurous solo, making use of some twangy low notes before darting off in various directions while always staying on point.
Joyce shows off her ability to get slinky on ‘Hard Love', on which a restrained arrangement swells for the chorus and bridge, while Sayer adds a tasteful, jazzy solo.  And ‘Broken’ provides an Aynsley Lister-like slice of soulfulness decorated by some precise and patient guitar.
Somehow though, the likes of ‘I Get Up Again’ and ‘The Things We Used to Do’ have an air of the whole not quite being the sum of its parts.  The former offers some neo-Hendrix links at the start and choppy funkiness, while the latter takes too long to muscle up to a rousing finish.  ‘No Galahad’, meanwhile, lands some punches with a strong Blackmore-esque riff, and Sayer putting his foot on the gas for his solo, but it’s as if there’s a missing ingredient somewhere - perhaps a bigger drum sound to really drive things along and provide more depth.  
There are lots of things to admire in Make You Stronger, as you’d expect from talents like Ron Sayer and Charlotte Joyce.  Sayer has plenty of clubs in his guitaring bag, and puts them to good use, while Joyce has terrific vocal control and soulfulness to boot.  But I can’t escape the feeling that there’s an even better album left in there that somehow hasn’t been fully revealed.

Makes You Stronger is out now on Gulf Coast Records