Wednesday, November 13, 2019

The Seamus McGarvey Band - Seamus O'Boogie

I’m sure lots of bands recording an album regard it as a labour of love, but Seamus O’Boogie is really in a different category.  Irish bassist Pat McGarvey had had a long-standing notion to record with his harmonica-playing brother John and their amateur musician dad Seamus.  But it was only with the passing of Seamus’s brother, sister and father-in-law that the idea crystallised, bringing this album into being.
Now in his seventies, Seamus McGarvey has been a lifelong music fan, collecting records 
Seamus sings the blues, in bars of twelve or less
and attending shows by many famous blues, rock’n’roll and country artists, as well as singing and playing guitar himself.  Seamus O’Boogie is a collection of cover versions that celebrate his enthusiasm and have personal meaning for the family, recorded in Edinburgh with the assistance of local guitarist Jed Potts and drummer Calum McIntyre.
McGarvey senior’s affinity for blues music is demonstrated by the feel of his vocal delivery on tracks like Robert Johnson’s ‘Rambling On My Mind’, and Sonny Boy Williamson II’s ‘Don’t Start Me Talkin’, on both of which John McGarvey’s harp and Jed Potts’ guitar combine very nicely, with Potts delivering a shivering and shaking solo on the latter.  The same is also true of songs like Lonnie Johnson’s ‘It’s Too Late To Cry’, an acid tale of a no good woman on which McGarvey captures the man’s breaking point with an emphatic “That did it!”, and Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee’s ‘Walk On’, which opens reflectively with sparse harp and guitar accompaniment.
More upbeat blues comes in the form of ‘I Ain’t Superstitious’, with its snapping, lurching arrangement and a brittle-toned solo from Potts, as well as the sturdy grind of Elmore James’ ‘Look On Yonder Wall’.
Meanwhile McGarvey’s penchant for country music is well represented by ‘Sea Of Hearbreak’ and ‘Deep River Blues’.  On the former it’s apparent that while his voice doesn’t have the basso profundo quality of Johnny Cash, it does have something of Cash's character, with restrained banjo and amusing “bom-bom-bom” backing vocals from Pat McGarvey
Seamus and his sidekicks
providing some variety.  The latter is a more laid back, country-ish take on a traditional blues, with McIntyre providing washboard percussion that even stretches to the use of a bicycle bell.
Crossover tunes like Brook Benton’s pop hit ‘Hotel Happiness’ and Carl Perkins’ country/rock’n’roll ‘Honey Don’t’ feel like throwaways by comparison, and I’ll never go a bundle on a crooning-style Elvis tune such ‘Don’t Leave Me Now’, nicely enough done though it may be.  But on Duke Ellington’s ‘Don’t Get Around Much Anymore’ the understated delivery and McGarvey’s liltingly romantic vocal are good enough to have me digging out a DVD of When Harry Met Sally, in which the tune gets the briefest of airings courtesy of Harry Connick Jr.  Such is the power of a classic song.
There’s some rock’n’roll too, in the form of ‘Roll Over Beethoven’ and Jerry Lee Lewis’s ‘Break Up’.  The band rock away satisfyingly enough on the former, with McIntyre’s drums becoming more urgent in support of the guitar and harp solos, but the latter rattles along more vibrantly, with whoops of enthusiasm from McGarvey, and a nifty solo from Potts.
There are some curiosities added to the album too, harvested from a family cassette tape dating back to 1983 - snippets of song introductions and conversation, and renditions of a few Irish tunes on which Seamus McGarvey’s late brother John can be heard singing, add to the personal touch.  And even if these songs don’t mean much to me (other than ‘Mush Mush Mush Tooral-i-Addy’, familiar from the movie The Quiet Man) they underline my original point:  Seamus O’Boogie is a labour of love.

Seamus O'Boogie is available now on Johnny Rock Records.

Monday, November 11, 2019

Wishbone Ash - The Jam House, Edinburgh, 9 November 2019

There’s only one Wishbone Ash.  Well, actually that might be a rather contentious statement in some quarters.  What I mean to say is that there’s only one Wishbone Ash sound.  There may be a distant resemblance to Yes here and there, in the vocal harmonies, busy bass playing, and occasional pastoral mood, but that’s it – they really do stand apart with their twin guitar prog sound.
Mark Abrahams and Andy Powell get all wistful and elegiac
Which is clear as soon as they kick off tonight’s show with ‘Real Guitars Have Wings’, an instrumental that may be brief but still has room to show off those rippling guitar harmonies.  And having warmed everyone up with that, they then make a statement of intent by knocking out three humdingers in a row from Argus.  Mark Abrahams takes the lead with a wah-wah intro that builds into the classic riff of ‘The King Will Come’, while Andy Powell contents himself with laying down rhythm textures, and those vocal harmonies produce the icing on the cake.  They follow that with the Tudor-sounding opening theme that announces ‘Throw Down The Sword’, on which it’s evident that Powell, all salt-and-pepper and twinkling eye, still has a decent set of pipes, though it’s bassist Bob Skeat that adds the vocal fairy dust with his high harmonies – though verses and choruses are, as is often the case, the lesser part of the song, as Powell takes the lead guitar chair this time with a piercing, elegiac solo.  By which time the thought occurs that Robin Trower may sometimes be identified as a master of tone, but there can’t be many pairings out there to match Powell and Abrahams for crystal clarity. 
The third element of the Argus triptych is ‘Sometime World’, which opens in lyrical mode before revving up and building to its distinctive dah-dah-dee-dah vocal harmony section, before Powell produces an excellent solo underpinned by great bass runs from Skeat and ringing chords from Abrahams.
They make room for a new song, ‘We Stand As One’, which stands up well beside the older
material.  Written by Mark Abrahams, his prickling guitar lines are counterpointed by a jagged, rumbling riff.  But the final highlight of this first set is ‘Way Of The World’, a dynamic epic with a mountainous riff, and a blazing Powell solo over more big chords, and undulating bass from the beaming Skeat.  It then hits a fresh peak with a guitar harmony segment of byzantine complexity, followed by a screaming solo from Abrahams before they drop it down to create space for a crackling exchange of guitar fire between them.
They ratchet up the momentum again quickly in their second set, with Powell on a Telecaster for the boogie of ‘Blind Eye’, before the chunky, chugging shuffle of ‘Deep Blues’, which underlines that Joe Crabtree’s drumming is unfussy in the midst of everything going on around him, but exactly where it needs to be.
Andy Powell and Bob Skeat - old guns havin' some fun
‘The Pilgrim’ takes things back into epic territory in convincing fashion, its patient opening leading to a hypnotic rolling guitar groove.  But while ‘Tales Of The Wise’ features a very WA stately intro, and a faster middle section with expertly combined lead and rhythm guitar, for me it demonstrates that you can have too much of a good thing, as it goes on long enough to begin to pall.
But of course with their back catalogue they’ve got too many get out of jail cards to really lose their way, and they promptly rip out the gutsy riff to ‘Living Proof’ to get back on track, before trumping that with the catchy guitar figure of the swinging ‘Jailbait’, with Powell prompting an arm waving, testifyin’ singalong.
They encore with ‘Blowin’ Free’, of course, a classic which is really beyond commentary, and brings a cheerful conclusion to an effortlessly strong 2 hour performance, accompanied by some appealingly old-fashioned visuals in the form of a slide/animation/kaleidoscope show.
Wishbone Ash aren’t anybody’s star vehicle.  Powell may be the main man, but he’s happy to give his axe sidekick Abrahams plenty of space to shine, and it’s very much an ensemble performance.  Fifty years gone, and a new album coming next year, Powell tells us.  I dare say we’ll meet again.

Friday, November 8, 2019

Uncle Nef - Love Songs


“You’d think that people would have had enough of silly love songs,” sang Paul McCartney.  Well that’s no problem for Uncle Nef, because their Love Songs aren’t silly, they’re – unusual.
Uncle Nef are comprised of New Orleans jazz drummer Shannon Powell, and his young apprentice and NOLA incomer Darren Hoffman, a multi-instrumentalist who for the purposes of Love Songs focuses largely on guitar playing of a less than straight up variety.
Uncle Nef(few) - across the generational divide
What we have across the 11 tracks here are a variety of originals and covers, instrumentals and songs, with Powell supplying most of the lead vocals in his rich, relaxed voice, starting with ‘That Was That’.  A break-up song in a real sloooooow tempo, it opens with birdsong, followed by quaking guitar notes from Hoffman before Powell weighs in on a soulful melody, and then as is his wont triggers a Hoffman solo with a “Come on son” aside.  With an organ solo from Paul David Longstreth, and hooting sax from guest Morgan Guerin combining with Hoffman’s guitar, it’s a good entrée for the mixture that follows.
The four instrumentals take on less traditional textures.  The scratchy bleep and squeak of ‘Cabrito’ has drum rhythms and guitar lines vying for dominance before clicking into synch.  On Jimi Hendrix’s ‘Jam 292’, Hoffman’s exploratory, wiry wah-wah guitar jostles for attention with swirling organ from Kyle Roussel around a handful of themes, while on ‘A-Side’ a repetitive riff alternates with another guitar refrain, until Hoffman kicks in with another warbling wah-wah solo from some peculiar Hendrixian dimension.  Edgier still is the Kurt Cobain composition ‘tourette’s’, on which a rudimentary riff is picked as single notes, and as it’s repeated gradually metamorphoses into fuzzy chords over mounting cymbal tapping from Powell, prefacing some spikier guitar licks from Hoffman.
But if all that sounds a bit wacky, they sweeten the mix with the likes of Louis Jordan’s
‘Caldonia’, giving it a bass heavy, loose and fun jump blues treatment, and Fats Domino’s ‘Sick And Tired’, with Kyle Roussel responsible for its great rolling piano figure, and also a tasty, jazzy solo.  And ‘Beat To Eat’ has an offbeat sound, over fast-ticking metronome-like percussion, as if James Brown has lost the ‘one’ – or maybe it’ll remind you of the Flying Lizards’ version of ‘Money’, who can tell?  Either way, it’s infectious.
Evidently a bargain deal on purple shirts
In a different vein, ‘It Hurts’ is an achingly romantic song, opening with the sound of lapping waves, before introducing warped, echoing guitar notes and strung out violin and viola courtesy of guest Abby Swindler, while Hoffman delivers his only lead vocal in a semi-spoken style that suggests Scott Walker.
They close with the ancient classic, ‘St James Infirmary Blues’, founding it on grinding, deep down guitar notes over which Powell delivers a bluesy vocal, supported by sweet backing vocals from Topsy Chapman and Solid Harmony, before Hoffman gets into slow, shivering guitar notes over abrupt organ from Longstreth.  It may be tense and modern, but it’s still got deep roots.
Uncle Nef are not what you’d call predictable.  Just when you think they’re about to soar off into an experimental sphere, they come back to earth with a nod to blues history – albeit still from an odd angle.  Love Songs is a quirky, sophisticated album that’ll keep you on your toes.

Love Songs was released on Ropeadope Records on 21 October.

Tuesday, November 5, 2019

StoneWire - Life As We Know It

Well I’ll say this for hard rockers StoneWire, their sound is well put together – there’s no clatter and thrash dunderheadness evident on their second album Life As We Know It.
In fact in their better moments, such as the opening track ‘Monkey Talk’, they sound like the real deal.  Tearing off the starting grid with a supercharged, topsy-turvy riff, topped off with some blazing guitar licks, it cracks on into a more than decent hook, with Sky Hunter’s vocals supplemented by some shoutalong backing on the chorus.
By the same token I can see a crowd bouncing around happily to ‘House Rules’, which chugs along nicely with another strong chorus and a satisfying arrangement that includes
Stonewire - Denim and Leather, and all that
good loud/quiet transitions.  On these tracks, and indeed throughout, Hunter’s vocals are well to the fore, sounding like Maggie Bell – and, er, Klaus Meine.  No kidding, her intonation of some vowels is disconcertingly similar to the little Scorpion.
Their sound remains impressive even on some more hackneyed songs, with good clarity and separation, though I might have liked Gaz Annable and Duncan Greenway’s guitars to be a tad higher in the mix at times, to counterbalance Hunter’s voice.  But the material is rather less consistent.
Oh, there are some other decent tunes and good moments, such as ‘All That Matters’, which kicks off with a impressively twisting, turning riff paving the way for an intriguingly doomy verse and a catchy enough chorus, and the robustly mid-paced ‘One For The Road’, has an endearingly old-fashioned aspect to it.  But too often songs feel overlong, or that they haven’t developed quite as far as they should.  Lyrically too, if you’re going to explore themes about escaping from the mundanity of everyday life, it would be handy to avoid descending into cliché quite so often.
The aforementioned ‘All That Matters’, for example, clocks in at five and a half minutes, but feels like it’s need of a decent bridge to liven it up.  And while ‘Top Shelf Conversation’ benefits from some tough riffing, with hints of slide to give it variety, it could also do with a middle eight capable of giving it a lift.  The title track lurches along happily on its sturdy riff, and adds some stuttering changes of gear into the chorus, but outstays its welcome, while ‘Kick Up Some Dust’ hoves into view with a bright riff, then throws it away by slowing down into a duff verse before regrouping with an effective chorus.
‘Hero’s Journey’ offers some wordless vocal harmonies over a restrained guitar motif at its outset, before big, isolated chords come crashing in.  It’s an epic, innit?  As if you hadn’t guessed from the title.  But it’s all a bit so-so, despite a pleasing enough guitar solo.  ‘A Step Too Far’ tries hard in various ways, opening with a thudding Sabs-like riff, before chucking in some stinging guitar chords, a neat little bass moment from Steve Briggs, and on this occasion a half-decent middle eight, but it’s weighed down by a less than captivating melody.
But you know what?  For all the flaws I’ve enumerated, I still think StoneWire show promise.  There are good ideas on Life As We Know It that just needed more nurturing in order to flower in the same way as ‘Monkey Talk’ and ‘House Rules’.  In terms of musicianship, they sound well equipped, Sky Hunter has a suitably big voice, and I daresay they can deliver an energetic live performance.  Check ‘em out and make your own mind up.

Life As We Know It is out now on 22:11 Records.

Saturday, November 2, 2019

Conil - Strange Part Of The Country

Well one thing’s for sure, Strange Part Of The Country ain’t no dance album.  Instead we’re in the realms of Nick Cave and warped lo-fi experimentation on the hinterland of blues and folk, with Phil Conil (not to be confused with a French DJ of the same name) contributing vocals and guitars, both acoustic and electric, and yer go-to maestro of the low notes Danny Thompson on stand-up bass.  There’s piano and other stuff on here too, but don’t ask me who’s responsible for what.  And although the album only came my way recently, I've reason to believe it's been kicking around for a decade.
The title of the opening track, ‘Dog Meat Stew’, offers a sense of the vibe here.  Conil strums away on acoustic guitar while intoning a repetitive descending melody in husky
Phil Conil goes for a suitably bohemian look
fashion, and Thompson develops a brooding bass undertow, before things boil up into a kind-of-chorus that sounds like Thom Yorke getting his wail on, while sprinklings of electric guitar emerge into scratchy eruptions.
There’s delicacy on a track like ‘Years Between’ though.  Thompson supplies some subtle, deep bass playing to go along with Conil’s minimalist strums of acoustic guitar, drums and keys gradually emerge, and there’s an appealing chorus you can fall into.  ‘Time Settles’ similarly leans on faint acoustic and foregrounded bass, with wistful, breathy singing and hints of other sounds in the background – is it a voice, a recorder, a synth?
The most immediate song on offer is ‘Round Midnight’, which drove me nuts for a while with naggingly familiar snatches of melody.  What it reminds me of, I eventually decided, is the opening to Beck’s (no, not Jeff – the other one) ‘Nicotine And Gravy’, and though it doesn’t have Beck’s dance beats it’s still rhythmically interesting underneath Conil’s harsh vocal and a burst of jagged electric guitar.
‘After The Hole’ feels like more of a collage, opening with tinkling piano notes as a precursor to some doomy drum beats and sparkles of guitar, while Conil’s voice veers from a droned hum to clear, drawn out high notes, and the drums return after fading away.  There are even what sound like ripples of harp to add more texture.
Lord knows what Conil’s singing about there, but though he hails from London and is much-travelled I’m reckoning he has some Irish roots, judging by song titles like ‘Old Irish Drunks’ - which feels like watching clouds drift by - and ‘Kitty’s Wake’, a spooked folkie kind of affair with a stretched out melody that again sounds oddly familiar, but alien at the same time.  Oh yeah, and there’s the reference to “the death of a bricklayer in Dublin” in amongst the scratching, scraping and squeaking of the marvellously titled ‘A Waterfall Is A Poem Pouring Through A Rock’.
Conil has produced some lovely tunes here, sometimes rendering them in an almost ethereal fashion that demonstrates tremendous control, but always with an off-kilter sensibility that makes Strange Part Of The Country an edgy, prickly listening experience.    Much to my surprise, I’m quite taken with it.