Friday, October 25, 2019

Jawbone - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 24 October 2019

I have a question.  What in the wide world of sports is going on when a band as bloody marvellous as Jawbone are playing to a hundred or so people?  It’s a question that applies to numerous other artists of a roots rock disposition of course, but still – these guys really should be enjoyed by a bigger audience.
Their self-titled debut album from last year laid out a heart-warmingly good collection of songs, and I’d have been delighted to turn up for this gig and have them give me an action replay of that.  Well, stupid me.  Because it turns out that live they’re even better – more
Marcus Bonfanti amuses Rex Horan with a solo
free, more rock’n’roll, and pure and simply entertaining.  That crowd of a hundred that I mentioned lapped it up.
They kick off with ‘Leave No Traces’, with gritty guitar from Marcus Bonfanti and spikes of keys from Paddy Milner, Bonfanti ripping out a gutsy solo, and bassist Rex Horan advancing to the apron of the stage to liven everyone up.  It’s a solid statement of intent, and over the rest of the night they live up to it, and more.
‘Get What You Deserve’ lays out more of their armoury, with a really full sound featuring sumptuous two and sometimes three part harmonies, swirls of organ from Milner, and Aussie Horan serving up loose-limbed bass over Evan Jenkins’ swinging drums.
Milner doesn’t restrict himself to organ either, and in fact is even more ear-catching on piano, as on his rippling, classically styled intro to the dramatic ‘Bet On Yesterday’, which swells to a massive but subtle crescendo in the middle with Jenkins utilising timpani mallets on drums, before ending with a surprising and quite wonderful singalong, with both Bonfanti and Horan offstage, encouraging the crowd with woodblock accompaniment.
They pay homage to The Band, after one of whose songs they’re named, with a crackling rendition of ‘Rag Mama Rag’, featuring a sizzling, all action rock’n’roll solo from Bonfanti and wild piano from Milner, and it’s evident by this point that they’re not only tighter than a gnat’s behind, but they’re also enjoying it hugely, the smiles on their faces mirroring those in the audience.
The uncorked energy of some songs brings to mind The Beatles of, say, ‘Get Back’, in a way that wasn’t apparent from the album.  ‘Rolling On The Underground’ comes with crunching chords, witty lyrics name-checking London Tube stations, and a guitar-keys collision while Jenkins and Horan gets their syncopated groove on, while ‘Miss Feelgood’ is possibly the best of a clutch of new songs, a Faces-like pint of rock’n’roll which Rod the Mod would surely have been happy to grace in his heyday.  The former features an excellent bass break from Horan, and the latter a drum showcase from Jenkins, but neither is overlong, and throughout both the others keep rolling out the basic chords, so that the solos
Paddy Milner gets all deep and meaningful
still serve the song rather than offering an excuse to go to the bar.
But their sophistication continues to be evident too, on ‘Sit Around The Table’ for example, a song full of lyrical depth and musical feeling that opens with a piano only first verse and chorus before rousing itself, and with their attention to detail apparent even in the brief piano-guitar interplay of its outro.  Their sense of dynamics is clear too, on the likes of ‘The City’, another excellent new song with a mid-period Mop Top feel, which drops off to a delicate bridge before Milner’s revved up piano solo.
As they get ready to close Horan steps forward to deliver a yarn about spider farming in Australia, which turns out to be a bonkers pitch for the merch on sale later, before they finish with the thoughtful ‘Two Billion Heartbeats’, all supple groove and luscious harmonies, with another brilliant middle eight.
They’re back with more after a minute of course, and daringly offer the swoonsome ‘The Years Used To Mean So Much’ as a first encore, before bringing it home with the piano-pounding, slide guitar-stinging, dance-inducing ‘Big Old Smoke’ – and next thing they’re all in the audience, grabbing a tuba, side drum, trumpet and accordion to lead another mad singalong.
Honestly, what more could you ask for?  Great songs, great arrangements, intelligent lyrics, fabulous vocal harmonies, wonderful playing, and an easy rapport between themselves and with the audience – this, my friends, is what live music is all about.  

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Wayward Sons - The Truth Ain't What It Used To Be

Time for a wander into hard rock territory I think, in the company of the recently released second album from Wayward Sons, The Truth Ain’t What It Used To Be.
Put simply, on the evidence of their debut outing Ghost Of Yet To Come, and seeing them live, Wayward Sons are just about the freshest, most attention-grabbing straight-up modern rock band to have emerged in years.  And I gotta tell you, if The Truth Ain’t What It Used To Be isn’t quite as chock-full of stone cold killer tunes as its predecessor, it comes damn close.
Wayward Sons deliver another feelgood hit
Pic by Gary Gilmurray
The freshness is a product of their expert melding of different elements into their distinctive sound.  Wayward Sons take the dense, percussive riffing of the Foo Fighters, underpinned by a mountainous rhythm section courtesy of Phil Martini’s drums and Nic Wastell’s bass, and combine it with a more British classic rock sensibility, and – adding to their repertoire since their debut - some strands of pomp à la Queen.  Plus, in Toby Jepson they have a standout singer and front man, who has all the power, range and clarity you could ask for in a rock vocalist.  And he does a very impressive line in sharp, thought-provoking lyrics into the bargain – a bit wordy maybe, and more oblique than on Ghost, but smart all the same.
The ultimate peak here is ‘Joke’s On You’, the first single released from the album, which is less mega-heavy than some other tracks, but combines descending piano chords and a stop-time riff to pave the way for a grapnel-like hook.  Martini’s drum sound is huge, and Jepson ventures some semi-snarled vox, but there’s still room for dynamics, and spiralling, competing guitar lines from Sam Wood towards the end work a treat.  Once upon a time, in simpler days, it would have been described as a “surefire hit”.
The Queen influence emerges for the first time on the following ‘Little White Lies’.  Jepson is a self-confessed Queen nut, and even if all the guitar work here is down to Wood, the intro positively reeks of Brian May, which proves to be a mere appetiser for his solo, which has that familiar razor-wire May tone, a product of sustain, echo, Chorus effects or whatever it is
Toby Jepson - Wayward Son Number 1
Pic by Gary Gilmurray
guitar nuts use to contrive such things.  Along the way there’s also chiming piano, and a very Foo Fighters pre-chorus crashes into a Queen-ish refrain, complete with high, ooh-ooh-ooh harmonies in the background.
The Brian May guitar sounds resurface on a few other tracks, including the Queen-like drama of ‘Fade Away’, which kicks off with delicate piano from Dave Kemp, and Jepson’s restrained delivery of an elegiac, autumnal melody, before Wood goes to work with some appropriately counterpointed licks.
Other personal faves include ‘Feelgood Hit’, whose buzzing opening riff turns jagged over pounding drums, before easing off on the verse ahead of an urgent, busy chorus that strong enough to warrant them beating the listener over the head with it.  Then there’s ‘Long Line Of Pretenders’, on which another May-like intro leads to a cool verse over stop-start guitar, followed by a descending chorus over pounding piano that carries faint echoes of glam rock fun.  The title track and ‘Us Against The World’ both sport anthemic choruses, the latter augmented by a contemplative opening over ringing guitars and a tweeting keyboard line, with a squealing solo from Wood for good measure.
There also a (semi) hidden track, ‘Totally Screwed’, to create a baker’s dozen of songs – a hammering slice of polemic that suggests the young Elvis Costello converted to hard rock.  And though it’s brief and to the point, it still squeezes in another great guitar break.
The Truth Ain’t What It Used To Be confirms that Wayward Sons are a day-glo bright presence on the current hard rock scene – no thud and blunder, no clatter and noise, just well-focused musical energy.  Why they’re still schlepping around in support slots is beyond me.  These guys are born headliners.

Tuesday, October 22, 2019

Mike Zito And Friends - Rock'N'Roll: A Tribute To Chuck Berry

Doubtless some folk will think that putting together an album that revisits a bundle of Chuck Berry’s hits – 20 of ‘em, to be precise – is a redundant exercise.  Others are liable to see the unique selling point of this album as the range of guest guitarists on display, including the likes of Joe Bonamassa, Walter Trout, Robben Ford and Eric Gales.
For me though, one of the key attractions is that Mike Zito has made an old-fashioned rock’n’roll record.  See, while Zito is rightly appreciated as a leading modern-day bluesman, his 2015 album Keep Coming Back, made with his then band The Wheel, was very much a
Mike Zito - Let It Rock!
rock’n’rollin’ affair.  Hell, it even featured a cover of Bob Seger’s ‘Get Out Of Denver’, a direct descendant of ‘Johnny B. Goode’ if ever there was one.  It was also, as I have never tired of pointing out, my favourite album of 2015.  In short, Mike Zito’s affinity for this brand of rock’n’roll is the catalyst for a tribute album that captures the fun, energy and magic of Chuck’s music while giving it a modern sound.
And to some extent, all those guest guitar honchos are an unnecessary distraction, because with songs as good as ‘Rock And Roll Music’, ‘Johnny B. Goode’, ‘Back In The USA’ and all the rest, all a pro like Zito needs to do is wind ‘em up and crank ‘em out.  You can’t lose.  Though it’s fair to say that many of them in fact make contributions that merrily catch the Chuck Berry spirit.
Fittingly, the album opens with W.C. Handy’s ‘St Louis Blues’, celebrating the hometown of both Chuck and Mike, and here with an on the money lead guitar slot from Chuck’s grandson Charles Berry III.  It also sets the standard for the fundamentals of what follows, with a lively rhythm laid down by Matthew Johnson on drums, backed up by Terry Dry on bass, while Lewis Stephens whacks out some pounding piano.  And as on several other tracks, there are horn interjections to add further highlights, though any horn players seem to be uncredited.  And Zito’s voice, it’s worth emphasising, is an excellent fit for these songs.
Early highlights for me include the aforementioned ‘Rock And Roll Music’, on which Joanna Connor delivers some slithering slide guitar while backing up Zito on vocals, and the horns bring Hispanic hints to the fray.  Walter Trout gets very much in the mood on ‘Johnny B Goode’, duetting with Zito in rabble rousing fashion before the two of them cut loose simultaneously on guitar.  Meanwhile Anders Osborne reflects the more laid back vibe of ‘Memphis’ with some relaxed, sparkling slide that’s witty in tone as it plays around with the melody.
‘You Never Can Tell’ and ‘Back In The USA’ both illustrate Berry’s quality as a lyricist, respectively a perfect little short story of young love conveyed in a couple of minutes, and a brashly energetic, neon-lit collage of Fifties America, sizzling burgers and all.  Robben Ford
Eric Gales - one of 21 guest guitarists reeling' and rockin'
decorates the former with playful guitar, finding unusual angles, while Eric Gales reins in his usual whirlwind self on the latter, catching the mood with pinging playing over pummelling drums from Johnson.
Luther Dickinson brings a fresh guitar tone to ‘Too Much Monkey Business’ and doubles up on vocals with Zito entertainingly on the tongue-twisting lyric, while Stephens gets down to some rootin’ and tootin’ on piano.  Contrastingly, Sonny Landreth scatters woozy slide licks around with restraint on ‘Havana Moon’, respecting its dreamy salsa feel.
‘Downbound Train’ is an interestingly dramatic slow turn at the story of a hellbound loco, with spot on spooky guitar licks over ticking drums, though Alex Skolnick perhaps gets too modern in feel in his hurtling solo.  And ‘Thirty Days’ also strikes a different chord, featuring Albert Castiglia on its very country-leaning twanging.
There’s plenty of other good stuff too, but the album has its imperfections, just like Chuck himself.  The song selection could have been better, eschewing the fluff of ‘My Ding-A-Ling’ and one or two lesser tracks in favour of the mysteriously absent ‘Little Queenie’ and ‘Roll Over Beethoven’.  And the treatment of the slower ‘Wee Wee Hours’ is a real aberration - I’m no Joe Bonamassa-hater, but Zito really should have asked him what in the Sam Hill he thought he was doing slathering the song in a succession of full throttle guitar breaks that bear little relation to a Chuck Berry vibe.
But those concerns aren’t enough to spoil an album that’s a fitting, fun tribute to one of the giants of rock’n’roll music.  So kudos to Mike Zito for that, and for delivering what to these ears is the most enjoyable thing he’s done since Keep Coming Back.

Rock’N’Roll: A Tribute to Chuck Berry is released by Ruf Records on 1 November.

Friday, October 18, 2019

Mike Bowden & The A917 - Gravy Train

Regular readers may recall that Mike Bowden & The A917 got an honourable mention in my review of the Jock’s Juke Joint Volume 4 album last year.  So having picked up a copy of their album Gravy Train at a recent live show, it’s good to be able to report that it is also a positive listening experience.
Four of the tracks on the album were recorded live in Llangollen, which seems a bit incongruous when you consider that the band takes its name from a road that follows the coastline of the East Neuk of Fife (or Eastern Corner for non-Scots).  But then Mike Bowden hails originally from the North West of England, and has been knocking around on the British blues scene for years, in one guise or another.
The fact that their live set included covers of Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A
Mike Bowden, adopted Fifer
Pic courtesy of Stuart Stott
Train To Cry’, Tom Waits’ ‘Heart Of Saturday Night’ and Dr John’s ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’ should give you a good idea of what they’re about.  They swing effortlessly, with lots of slide guitar from Les Cowley and piano from Martin Rhydderch as embellishment.  ‘Poor Man’, the song that featured on the Jock’s Juke Joint cd, is a good example with its jazzy groove, bobbing bass from John Walker, and a hook that sounds like inevitable singalong territory.
Bowden himself, a grizzly old bear of a guy, contributes acoustic and cigar box guitar, but is most to the fore courtesy of his resonant, groaning voice.  Sometimes woozy, sometimes gruff, he knows how to deliver a story, which is a good thing because his lyrics, which explore darkness and comedy in equal measure, deserve to be put across with feeling.
‘Blood In His Pockets’ is a moody and reflective affair recounting an attack with Stanley knife, with sparse, shuffling drums from Colin ‘Big Vern’ Seymour and a weeping slide guitar undertow.  ‘Dangerous’, on the other hand, is a tongue in cheek ode to sexual exploration, featuring lines such as “No rights no wrongs, Let’s talk in tongues,” and “Like to see you tied to the railway track”, with bright piano from Rhydderch and, I reckon, some of Bowden's cigar box playing as adornment.  ‘Scratchface Lane’, meanwhile, tackles social deprivation and drug use in a grim locale where Bowden once lived, over jingling, pulsing percussion, Fender Rhodes-like piano and more emotive slide playing.
There’s a Gerry Rafferty-ish feel to the chord progression and yearning melody of ‘Runaway Child’, and the album closer ‘Sorry’ sounds like nothing so much as Tom Waits making another bid for the Great American Songbook, all the way from its piano intro to its lovely melody, delivered with precision and feeling by Bowden.
In fact Bowden’s songwriting is impressive across the whole of the Gravy Train, and the playing is on the money too, even if a bit more variety in the instrumentation might give proceedings the occasional lift.  But leaving that faint quibble to one side, if you like your blues laid back, subtle and rootsy, then this train is one to catch.

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