Monday, March 23, 2020

The Steepwater Band - Turn Of The Wheel

They’re an intriguing bunch, The Steepwater Band.  As the title track of Turn Of The Wheel kicks off, with a loose-limbed drum pattern that sidesteps into crunching, fuzzed up guitar chords and some slippery slide playing, the Black Crowes immediately spring to mind as a reference point. And if that kind of Southern rock is your bag then you’ll certainly enjoy this, not least for the prevalence and style of the aforementioned slide playing.  But maybe because the Steepwater gang are from Chicago, their sound touches more bases than just Dixie.
The Steepwater Band - peace and love, but not from Dixie
Pic by Timothy Schmidt
On ‘Big Pictures’, for example, they crank out some jagged, raw riffing that’s very much in a Neil Young rockin’ vein, and then up the ante with a vocal from Jeff Massey that leans towards keening, and an edgy guitar solo that’s like an itch you can’t scratch.  (Listening to the title track of their previous album, Shake Your Faith, I decided these guys could deliver a note perfect take on 'Like A Hurricane' in their sleep.)
And just as the Crowes and others of their ilk often had an ear for British Invasion bands, so the Steeps - as I’m sure their friends never call them - throw out some hints of the Stones and the Fab Four.  There’s an air of ‘Let’s Spend The Night Together’ in the riff of the catchy ‘Running From The Storm’, for example, mixed in with a rumbling rhythm guitar riff and some gritty slide, and a lyric that sardonically observes that “The future’s bright but it’s terrible here”.  ‘Please The Believer’ takes a Stonesy chugging riff, roughs it up a bit and adds some bright piano chords courtesy of guest Chris Grove to produce a good-time groove.  ‘Make It Right’ doubles down on that vibe, complete with some very Stu-like piano, and topped off with a couple of guitar breaks, the first squealing and the second clean and bright.  Then on the closing ‘The Peace You’re Looking For’ they switch horses to draw on mid-to-late period Beatles for an aspirational, affirmative tune.
One of the most original tracks though, is ‘That’s Not The Way’, an easy-going, mid-paced affair with some organ swimming around in the background, and an intriguing solo from guest sax man Terry Tritt that plays out over watery, almost surreal Fender Rhodes piano and shap-shifting guitar.  And ‘Trance’ adds throbbing rhythm guitar to a shuffling rhythm from drummer Joe Winters and a slithering, off kilter guitar intro, and has a neat, smile-inducing turnaround progression leading to the chorus.  But it’s also an instance of the slide guitar getting a bit too sweet to be wholesome – it’s a matter of personal taste, but I prefer my slide guitar gritty and edgy rather than swooning.
They can also get lighter and more reflective though, as on ‘In The Dust Behind’ which veers between the Eagles and Drive-By Truckers with its airy vocal and chiming chords leaning on an easy, swinging bass line from Joe Bishop, and a bleeping guitar solo that fleetingly evokes ‘Whiskey In The Jar’.  And ironically, considering its title, ‘Abandon Ship’ also has a dreamy, hopeful quality, sonically less dense and built on acoustic strumming and slide that may be sweetly woozy but still works on this occasion.
Maybe Jeff Massey and fellow guitarist Eric Saylors are a bit too ready to take it in turns with a solo each at times, so that if they’re not careful songs can become overlong and a tad formulaic in structure.  But it seems harsh to criticise when their playing is often so imaginative, and sonically varied.
The Steepwater Band have been around since 1998, and Turn Of The Wheel is their seventh album.  So I’m kinda surprised that with material of this depth, and playing with this resonance, they haven’t made a bigger splash before now.  Perhaps this turn of the wheel will give them the traction to break out and attract the bigger audience their music warrants.

Turn Of The Wheel is released by Diamond Day Records on 24 April, and can be pre-ordered here.

Monday, March 16, 2020

The Stumble - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 14 March 2020

The Stumble are brilliant.  I don’t mean “I have seen rock’n’roll’s future, and it’s name is Bruce Springsteen” kinda brilliant.  No.  I mean “It’s Saturday night, so grab yourself a beer, warm up your dancing shoes, and have a good time” - that kinda brilliant.
Their primary weapon of choice is R’n’B-orientated, as exemplified by their opening brace of originals from their most recent album The Other Side, the rocking ‘Just Stop’, and the following ‘Be My Slave’ with its tense, stomping opening and easy use of light and shade.  By the time they get through these a couple of things are clear: this six piece powered by
Paul Melville gets a grip on things
two guitars and sax, is a well-oiled rhythm machine that goes through the gears with ease, synched into the tight and unfussy bass and drums of Cam Sweetnam and new boy Luke Paget.  And it’s immediately evident that when they uncork a good groove they damn sure made the most of it – a point they hammer home later with the relentless rolling boogie of ‘360 Degrees Blues’, just in case you’ve forgotten.
They underline their R’n’B credentials with some well-chosen covers, such as ‘You Upset Me Baby’, which is a perfect vehicle for one of Simon Anthony Dixon’s sax solos.  Then they ignite their second set with a soulful take on Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Who’s Been Talkin’’, followed by a pumping version of his ‘Meet Me At The Bottom’, on which Colin Black cuts loose with a shiverin’n’shaking slide solo, topped off with the shuffling party time of Rosco Gordon’s ‘Just A Little Bit’, on which Dixon’s baritone sax playing inspires vocalist Paul Melville to embark on some dodgy twist moves.  Travolta he ain’t.
What he is though, is a helluva singer.  His voice has room-shaking power and depth for starters, but also expressiveness, which is a good combination for the slow blues of ‘All Over Again’, which puts together an excellent from Black, full of feeling, with shifts in pace and a dramatic vocal from Melville.  His voice is even more to the fore on ‘My Life’, which provides a grandstand finish to their first set and eclipses their 2012 studio version.  A statement of intent with a Fifties rock’n’roll ballad vibe, it ramps up the drama to a big finale, then after a lengthy pause they get the crowd bouncing with a foot-stomping, sax honking, borderline ska-inflected coda.
In a similar vein ‘Evening’ is a focal point in their second set, a twilight ballad or perhaps a rock’n’roll torch song, with Black providing a pizzicato passage in his solo before they wind it up several notches, as a prelude to Dixon easing things back down with a subtle sax solo.
Then they’re back into party mode with the likes of ‘Maudie’, a slice of swinging R’n’B that’s
"Hey Colin, can you see the bridge?  I think I've dropped it."
all ringing Chuck Berry chords and squawking sax, and the slower bump’n’grind of ‘Jumping Off The Loving Train’, featuring a couple of crackling guitar solos from Ant Scapens, the first trilling in tone, the second piercing.
They finish with some stonking soul in the form of ‘Bus Stop’, and squeeze in an encore with the dirty, slide-infected ‘The World Is Tuff’, bringing to a close two hours of no messing entertainment.  Colin Black may start the evening looking like he’s entering a Billy Gibbons lookalike contest, next to a proper sharp dressed man in Simon Dixon, and Melville may appear for the second half wearing some terrible tartan trousers tucked into his boots, plus an Artful Dodger-ish top hat, but The Stumble are as down to earth an outfit as you’ll find - like New Orleans by way of The Rover’s Return.  And I mean that as a compliment.
Guitar and drums duo Dixie Fried fill the support slot with a serving of gutbucket Delta blues, all slide and big right thumb from guitarist Craig Lamie, who also supplies raw vocals, while John Murphy’s raucous drumming rounds out the groove with fills of a very North Mississippi hill country persuasion. Over the piece they could do with more variation in tempo, but songs like ‘Saturday Night’ and ‘Dirty Old City’ certainly capture the vibe they’re after.  If you’re a fan of the White Stripes or early Black Keys you may want to lend them an ear.



Friday, March 13, 2020

King Solomon Hicks - Harlem

If I were to say BB King by way of Robert Cray, with a pinch of Eric Clapton – and I did just say that, didn’t I? – then that alone would give you a pretty good handle on this debut album by King Solomon Hicks.
What’s that?  You want details?  Whether it’s any good, that sort of thing?  Oh, okay – here goes.
King Solomon Hicks - looks like a chirpy little fella, doesn't he?
If ever Robert Cray comes a cropper and needs a stand-in to fulfil some dates on the road, then 25-year old King Solomon Hicks is just the fella, judging by some of the stuff on Harlem.  His airy, soulful vocal on the laid back swinging opener ‘Rather Be Blind’ – nothing to do with Etta James, by the way – is the first clue to this, while his neatly pinging single-note guitar work is very BB.  But if that doesn’t convince you of the resemblance, then the slowish blues of ‘What The Devil Knows’ is so very Smooth Bob that it will surely do the job.  And in case you think I’m being chippy, I should add that on the cover of Blood Sweat & Tears’ ‘Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know’ Hicks’ vocal is full of feeling and impeccable phrasing.  An even slower blues, it has bongos adding a Latin vibe and subtle washes of organ, and it's a good example of the glossy production courtesy of Kirk Yano. 
The closing cover of Sonny Boy Williamson’s ‘Help Me’ is another slowie that’s redolent of Cray, but in this case garners bonus points for Hicks’ patient, pinpoint guitar licks, its well arranged brooding backing, and the closing coda that lifts the tempo for some additional guitar-picking exploration over ‘Peter Gunn’ like chording.
And that about covers the Cray-fish aspect.  BB King though, is well to the fore again on the tush-shaking instrumental ‘421 South Main’, which is all shuffling drums, ringing organ, and sparkling, stinging guitar.  There may not be any horns, but funnily enough it’s even more BB-esque than Hicks’ cover of ‘Every Day I Sing The Blues’.  Is it just the fact that the bass line and the horns on the latter borrow from the riff to ‘Crossroads’ that brings Clapton to mind?  Or is it the higher energy level and dirtier guitar sound that Hicks brings to bear?
Hicks has some other cards up his sleeve too.  The lazy strut of ‘Headed Back To Memphis’ creates a nice change of pace, its slide guitar combining with organ in the background to create a woozy feel.  A cover of Gary Wright’s ‘Love Is Alive’ – he of Spooky Tooth and ‘Dreamweaver’ – is funky, with sax alternating between squawking and smooth, the latter blending with mellow, sun-dappled guitar breaks.  And ‘Have Mercy On Me’ is a dose of rattling gospel over a Bo Diddley-inflected rhythm, which doesn’t really go anywhere but has some fun not arriving.
If there’s a standout though, it’s ‘It’s Alright’, a cover of an obscure 1964 hit for Beat Boom warbler Adam Faith, of all people.  But in the hands of Hicks and his knob-twiddler Yano it’s turned into a modern groove with Hicks adding a touch more rasp to his voice to go with the grinding ‘Rocky Mountain Way’-ish rhythm guitar and his squelchy lead, which sounds like Joe Louis Walker’s been let loose with his  effects toy box.  I like it.
I can’t say I love Harlem – I prefer a bit more grit in my oyster myself.  But you’d have to be a hard-hearted bastard who hates motherhood and apple pie not to like it.  And young Mister Hicks certainly shows enough talent to be a welcome addition to the new generation of blues players.

Harlem is released by Provogue Records on 13 March.

Wednesday, March 11, 2020

Wille & The Bandits - Inchyra Arts Club, 9 March 2020

Well this is nice.  Tonight’s venue, The Byre at Inchyra, is all candlelit tables and chairs, with a warm atmosphere and some pretty nifty lighting, and what’s more it’s impressively busy for a place several miles outside Perth on a wet Monday night.  So fair play to the Inchyra Arts Club who’ve laid this gig on.
Fair play to Wille & The Bandits too, who’ve clearly established themselves as a good draw on a couple of previous visits here.  And with good reason, because Wille & The Bandits are something else.
This is a rock band with an underlying blues sensibility, but who bring an unusual level of variety and inventiveness to their music.  And tonight’s performance confirms that this is still
Wille Edwards feels the pain - Matthew Gallagher empathises
the case, notwithstanding their reconfiguration from a three-piece to a four-piece following the departure of long-term rhythm section partners Matt Brooks and Andy Naumann.  The new line-up may have brought subtle changes to their sound, most notably through the addition of Matthew Gallagher’s keyboards, but it hasn’t occasioned radical change.
You want great hooks?  They got ‘em.  There’s the anthemic ‘One Way’, with its chant-along chorus, it’s rhythm both funky and hurtling, garlanded by a slithering lap slide solo from main man Wille Edwards on his Weissenborn guitar.  ‘Make Love’ is another rallying call that’s even twitchier in its rocking funkiness, with a winding and weaving guitar riff, and Gallagher supplying some additional Fender Rhodes colourings.  Meanwhile ‘Victim Of The Night’ is fresh and melodic, its catchiness underlined by harmonies and its energy reinforced by a turbo-charged conclusion, and ‘Judgement Day’ has a chorus that rolls evenly through several lines before snapping into the title and releasing an earworm of a spiky little guitar line.
But there’s a proggy dimension to the Bandits too, which they reveal at the heart of their set.  On ‘Mammon’ Edwards manages to counterpoint pithy commentary about greed and materialism with a romantic chorus that asks “Will you love me when the waves start to fall”, set to lovely acoustic guitar interplay of a Spanish classical bent between himself and Gallagher, and sensitive vocal harmonies.  ‘Four Million Days’ aspires to an epic sweep, with lush keys and a soaring chorus, but is merely a warm-up for the magnificent ‘Angel’.  A lengthy instrumental dedicated to Edwards’ late mother, it encompasses synth-widdling from Gallagher, a Latino-tinged passage that hints at Santana, and Edwards both strumming away furiously on his acoustic and coaxing a remarkable, piercing tone from it on a dazzling solo.
Their world music influences are somewhat diminished by the lack of former sticksman Andy Naumann’s tongue drumming, but they do add some colour with bongos here and there, as on the aforementioned ‘Mammon’.  And there’s no denying the powerhouse rhythm work summoned up by bassist Harry Mackaill and 18-year old drummer Finn McAuley, as evidenced on the final encore ‘Virgin Eyes’, for example.  (Yep, you read that right – just 18 years old, but McAuley belies his young years with this performance.)
Troy Redfern: he can rock a hat - and a resonator
There’s an appealing hippy idealism to Edwards’ lyrics, whether in the form of anti-rat race sentiments or the affirmative desire for a “Good time, love and peace” of the upbeat set
closer ‘1970’.  He delivers these with commitment, in a husky, passionate voice, now and then resorting to a semi-rapping rhythmic style for variation.  And his guitar playing is a delight throughout, whether in the form of precision-tooled finger picking or slide that ranges from Peter Green-esque weeping to huge, Page-like grinding.
Wille Edwards comes across as an amiable and humble sort of guy, but there's no doubt in my mind that he and his Bandits deserve more recognition.  They dare to be different, and boy do they do it well, with conviction and real quality.  Go see ‘em – you won’t be disappointed.
Support comes from the Troy Redfern Band, a trio who very much fit the blues-rock power trio mould.  They open up with some hard-edged, slide-infused boogie on ‘See You On The Other Side’, and ‘Back Door Blues’ is a stomper on which the bass and drums supply rock solid foundations, while Redfern switches guitar mid-song to a Les Paul for a bright solo.  I can’t say I’m that taken with the slow blues of ‘Double Trouble’ though, on which a screaming solo is long on technique and speed, but for me short on dynamics and emotion.
Much more interesting is ‘Waiting For Love’, on which Redfern cooks up a swampy groove on resonator guitar, while the closing ‘Satisfied’ is a pleasing uptempo rocker with a lengthy but varied solo that goes from squealing reverb to controlled restraint and fits in some pseudo-Arabic moves along the way.  There’s better to come from Redfern and co, methinks, if they can harness a bit more subtlety to leaven their material.

Wille & The Bandits are on tour into April - dates here.

Saturday, March 7, 2020

Samantha Fish - Islington Assembly Hall, London, 5 March 2020

The lights dim, the strains of ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ on the entry tape swell, and drummer Scotty Graves scoots across the stage and round to his drum stool, arms spread wide like an aeroplane.  
That capering entrance just about sums up the fun this band are having, and transmit to the audience.  But if it’s a carefree performance, it sure as hell ain’t a careless one, because this show is a switchback ride mashing up blues, rock’n’roll, soul and country, and they need to keep their eyes on the road, their hands on the musical wheel.
Samantha Fish feels the soul
Samantha Fish makes her entrance and after a brooding slide intro they blast into a cigar box flaying ‘Bulletproof’.  About an hour and three-quarters later she’s got the cigar box in her hands again, for a pounding, body-slamming rendition of ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’.  And in between they flex their blues and rock muscles on the likes of a walloping run-through of ‘Watch It Die’, which they dial down into a quiet “I won’t fade away” passage, before Fish lets rip with a screaming solo.  Then there’s their take on ‘You Got It Bad’, completely eclipsing the recorded version, with a crunching middle eight and Samantha making like a Siren of the guitar on the ending.  And they really “blues it up”, in Fish’s words, on ‘No Angels’.  It’s ticking opening builds suspense before it gains momentum, rising and falling through a raunchy keyboard solo from Phil Breen and slide solo from Samantha on which they crank up the pace before dipping again into the final verse.
On the soulful front there’s no arguing with ‘She Don’t Live Here Anymore’, which shows how much Fish learned from the making of Chills And Fever. There’s attention to detail in the little cymbal sting Graves provides just as Fish drops her hip on a particular beat, but it’s just that - a detail - compared to her shivering slide solo and the delicate keys and organ solo provided by Phil Breen.  Being honest, I could live without the bitter-sweet ‘Love Letters’, good as it is, if it created room for another swig of rock’n’roll on a gallop through ‘Love Your Lies’.  But late in the set ‘Fair-weather’ is just spellbinding, even if I’m not convinced by Fish throwing away a few lines by dropping into spoken words at the end of them.  It’s got a sublime key change though, and Fish produces a trademark bravura vocal to close, while simultaneously re-tuning her goddamned guitar.  Don’t that just make you sick?
Along the way they also down-shift into the sweetly cool country-ish ‘Say Goodbye’, with keyboard player Nick David taking the lead vocal and Samantha dropping in a rippling acoustic solo, and later, for the first encore, they repeat the trick with a duet on the gorgeous ‘Need You More’ from Belle Of The West, with its pseudo-Hispanic, moonlit acoustic solo.
Yes, they are ready to rock'n'roll a little bit!
Mid-set, Fish asks “Y’all ready to rock’n’roll a little bit?”  This cues up the rattling ‘Little Baby’, on which Chris Alexander gives it plenty on bass while his boss delivers an eyeballs-out solo, en route to her duel with a drumstick-throwing Scotty Graves and a gut-wrenching denouement.  Then, with barely a pause for breath they’re sliding into the acid trip phantasmagoria of ‘Dream Girl’, with Graves taking a brush to his snare drum as the undertow to woozy slide guitar and aching vocals, melding into off-kilter synth effects and a spacey, echo-laden guitar solo.
They close the main set with ‘Bitch On The Run’, and for all it’s a song with a Stonesy undercurrent, the Strolling Bones would need steroids, Viagra, and who knows what else chemical enhancement to rock like this nowadays.  Nick David and Phil Breen take turns parading their keyboard chops, Chris Alexander thrums his bass like a junior Geddy Lee, and Scotty Graves throws a towel over his head for a snappy drum solo that swings enough to have Fish giving a smiling wiggle or two stage left.  Then she heads back to the mic to conduct the inevitable singalong as a precursor to a rocking, neck-snapping finale.
At some point in the middle of this multi-faceted set, some drunk guy shouts “Play some
Fèlix Rabin gets personal
fucking blues!”  Mate, if you were looking for wall-to-wall 12–bar blues wailing, you came to the wrong gig.  Samantha Fish puts on a stylistic rollercoaster ride of a rockn’roll show.  And to paraphrase Mott The Hoople, she’s a rock’n’roll queen, know what I mean?
After all that, one could be forgiven for neglecting the support slot contribution to the evening of French singer-guitarist Fèlix Rabin.  He kicks off with some effects-driven Hendrixness that isn’t apparent on his newly-released Pogboy EP, and continues in a choppy-funky vein with a warped wah-wah solo on ‘Say (You Won’t Leave Me)’.  But ‘Moving On’ introduces a more personal, melodic sound, showing off some exquisitely clear tone.
He reverts to Hendrix-mode with a ten-minute cover of ‘Voodoo Chile’, on which he proceeds to break a string but adapts well to let rip convincingly before a machine gun riffing ending.  And there’s still room for inventive choral effects on the big descending riff of ‘Walk’ with its anthemic chorus.  Fèlix Rabin may still be a fresh-faced 24-year old, but his potential is obvious.

The set list for the show is available at setlist.fm here.
You can find a review of the 28 February show in Glasgow here.

Thursday, March 5, 2020

Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion - Chameleon

Naturally, Chameleon isn’t just a reference to the rather snazzy cover art on the latest album by Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion, which features the rather boho chic Ms Schwarz in several differently coloured action poses.  It's also a metaphor for the eclectic nature of the material on the album – some of which, frankly, has me scratching my head.
But let’s begin at the end – in fact beyond the end, with a hidden track which may or may not be called ‘Lover Man’, and to my mind is right in their wheelhouse.  It’s a well smoochy affair, on which one could almost imagine Schwarz draping herself over a piano like Michelle
Zoe Schwarz - Grace Slick for the 21st Century?
Pic by Gordon Maxwell
Pfeiffer in the Fabulous Baker Boys as she delivers an at times breathy vocal.  Well, maybe.  Anyway, with guitarist Rob Koral adding a warm and jazzy guitar solo, they feel right at home.
But other highlights take quite different forms.  There’s the reggae-fied ‘I Hope I See The Day’ for example, an appealingly carefree tune with a positive lyric about hoping for a better day and more tolerance, and a slight but enjoyable exchange between Koral’s guitar and Wurly piano from Pete Whittaker.  And the swinging blues shuffle of ‘Give Me The Key To Your Heart’, on which they establish a good groove with some tooting horn support, to which Koral adds a zinging solo and Whittaker this time gets to work on Hammond organ.
They conjure up a late Sixties Jefferson Airplane-type vibe on the mid-paced ‘Better Days’ – not as psychedelic as ‘White Rabbit’, but certainly reminiscent of ‘Somebody To Love’, as Schwarz’s shift towards a more gritty vocal evokes Grace Slick.  It’s got a nice bass line, courtesy of Whittaker (the Blue Commotion don’t include a bassist), and a cool descending riff too, augmented by the horns, which could be properly gutsy if they really tried.  But they seem to fight shy of getting really raunchy, even when cook up a bit of a stomp on the similarly Airplane-ish ‘Amazon Woman’, with its stuttering riff and and gritty guitar solo.  And they evoke a different Sixties mood with the Latin rhythm, and hints of Carlos Santana in Koral’s solo, on ‘If Only I Could Be With You’, though I can’t say that Whittaker’s organ solo adds much to the equation for me.
I’m not so taken with their penchant for middle of the road ballads though, such as ‘Hello Old Friend’ and the overlong ‘I’ll Be Here For You’.  Both of these feature some Procol Harum-like churchy organ, and there’s a nicely delivered yearning vocal from Schwarz on the latter, but (showing my age) if I were to be unkind I’d say the former reminds me of the sort of thing Petula Clark would have emoted over on some TV variety show back in the day. ‘Tell Me’ is rather better – it may also evoke a Sixties chanteuse mood, but it’s a sweet tune with a well-suited, fluid solo from Koral.  But while Schwarz essays a slinky vocal on ‘I Cry Just To Think Of It’, it’s a pretty stolid, inconsequential affair that for me lacks suppleness.
As I said at the start, I find Chameleon a puzzle at times.  There are some good moments, but I have the feeling – I could be wrong – that at heart Zoe and chums are jazz musos.  If they were to cut loose a bit more, stick the needle into the red zone and show some passion, I might be a happier bunny.  Different strokes for different folks, eh?

Chameleon is released by 33 Records Presents on 3 April.

Monday, March 2, 2020

John Blues Boyd - What My Eyes Have Seen . . .

On one level What My Eyes Have Seen . . . is a tasteful, if pretty straightahead, electric blues album.  But on another, it’s something remarkable.  The difference lies in its sensitive presentation as John Blues Boyd’s memoir, folding together vignettes of both social commentary and personal reflections from a life that began in Mississippi in 1945.  As such, it’s also a sharp reminder that the blues isn’t just a musical genre, it’s an expression of the African-American experience.
There are ten actual songs on display here, separated by a succession of brief interludes.  These interludes blend a semi-spoken vocal with church-like organ, and together create a
The Singing Roofer has a moment of reflection
sense of Boyd sitting in his chair, eyes closed in a state of reverie, drifting into the memories
encapsulated in the songs, which have been written by various combinations of Boyd, producer Kid Andersen, and songwriter and label boss Guy Hale.
The opening track ‘In My Blood’ sets out their musical stall, with a feel reminiscent of BB King, Andersen knocking out zinging guitar licks here and there, amid washes of organ and flares of sax.  Boyd, meanwhile, sings of having the blues in his blood in a resonant, authoritative voice – perhaps not superlative, but his excellent diction is a real asset in communicating his story.  The title track is slower and more soulful, with an unusual, pulsing and shifting rhythm and subtle sax underpinnings as Boyd starts to recall “oppression and injustice”, while Andersen chips in with another helping of excellent, expressive guitar.
‘I Heard The Blues’ recounts his discovery of the music over a halting riff led by Andersen, on Farfisa this time, while harp licks from Ryan Walker evoke the music that provided the epiphany.  But ‘Ran Out Of Town’ provides a sharp contrast to that happy moment, with Boyd’s voice carrying a darker tone as he recalls that “in 1963 I had to leave my home” because of his support for the Civil Rights movement, over a shuffling tempo and tooting organ and sax, to which Andersen adds a typically precise, stinging guitar solo.  In a similar vein, ‘Why Did You Take That Shot?’ recounts the shooting of Martin Luther King, with a reflective air redolent of picking up the news from a barroom TV, perhaps, all downbeat sax
The face of experience
remarks and a mixture of disbelief and resignation.
But then on a more domestic note, there’s the easy swing of ‘A Beautiful Woman (For Dona Mae)’, about Boyd’s love for his wife, and the later ‘Forty Nine Years’, a slow blues that contemplates the passing of “my woman and my best friend”, with rippling piano and guitar mingling with smoky saxophone.  It’s elegiac but accepting – because he still has the memories – embellished by a lovely piano from Jim Pugh and some low-end guitar from Andersen.
In between these two fall ‘California’ and ‘The Singing Roofer’.  The former is so jaunty it almost makes the sunshine audible as Boyd tells of moving west in 1978, while the latter is a jump blues full of swinging guitar and honking sax as he recalls that his day job is "doggone hard", but “when I start singing everybody shakes it loose”.
‘I Got To Leave My Mark’ summarises the motivating force for the album, with funky bass playing from Quantae Johnson and chiming piano from Pugh well to the fore, before a final interlude of ‘My Memory Takes Me There’ rounds things off in solemn fashion.
What My Eyes Have Seen . . . is John Blues Boyd’s story, and he tells it in clear, plain-spoken terms.  But Guy Hale and Kid Andersen deserve credit for their role as joint midwives, delivering these vignettes from the 75-year old’s life with both empathy and style, making these musical memories stand out from the crowd.

What My Eyes Have Seen . . . is released by Gulf Coast Records on 4 March.

Saturday, February 29, 2020

Samantha Fish - St Luke's, Glasgow, 28 February 2020

Samantha Fish is a stone-cold killer.  I’m a witness.  I saw her do it right in front of me, live on stage last night.
Let me explain.  It’s halfway through her show in Glasgow, and she straps on her mint green Fender Jaguar, saying they’re going to play a song that always makes people jump around, so “let’s start a bluesy mosh pit”.  Then she launches into a twangeroonie rendition of ‘Little Baby’, and the place goes nuts.  It’s such fun that in the midst of it she comes to the mic and makes a rather feeble attempt at a Jerry Lee Lewis-like shivering purr, then turns away to bassist Chris Alexander and laughs at herself.  Then Nicholas David, one of two keyboard players in the band for this tour, contributes a crunking
Sam Fish produces some vocal confections
organ workout.  But that’s nothing compared to the rollercoaster rock’n’roll guitar solo Fish delivers, en route to a wild, teasing duel with Scotty Graves’ thumping drums.  It's the moment a rockin' show definitively achieves escape velocity.
And then she does it.  She straps on her acoustic guitar, and announces they’re going to do a song from Nick David, whose recent album Yesterday’s Gone she produced.  So off they go, with David singing ‘Say Goodbye', from a 2013 EP of his – not even one of her own songs that the audience might know, fer chrissake!  I submit, your honour, that for most artists this would constitute a capital live performance crime, taking all the wild energy built up by ‘Little Baby’, and immediately diluting it with something gentle and unfamiliar.
But she gets away with it.  No cops invade the stage to slap the cuffs on her for killing the rock’n’roll buzz.  You know why?  For a start, because the song turns out to be a pleasure, building from a quiet opening into a delicious country-soul swinger, with Samantha adding sweet harmonies to David’s soulful vocal, and a pin-pricking acoustic solo for good measure.  But Samantha Fish also gets away with it because, frankly, she can.  She’s so good that no jury would convict.
This first night of Fish’s latest European tour began in dramatic fashion, with the apocalyptic strains of Richard Strauss’s ‘Also Sprach Zarathustra’ belting out into the converted church that's St Luke's, courtesy of Nick David and fellow keyboard honcho Phil Breen, as a wacky intro to David delivering his own ‘Hole In The Bottom’ in soulful fashion.  The main mademoiselle then makes her entrance, not too grandly, but all chiffon and leather and as tousle-haired as ever.  She grabs her cigar box guitar, and kicks off the foot-stomping ‘Bulletproof’.
It’s the cue for what feels like a sprint through several of the songs from her latest album Kill Or Be Kind, starting with the title track, initiated by loosely funky bass from Alexander and featuring dangerously girlish, femme fatale vocals, before she switches to her semi-acoustic guitar, heralding a spell of gritty low-end slide and a dirty groove from the band, embellished by piano frills and swirls of synth.  It segues into ‘Watch It Die’, all fist-pumping, arm-waving and vocal gymnastics from Fish as a preface to a singalong bridge and a ripping guitar solo on the stage apron.
Testifyin' her innocence
‘Love Letters’ is subtle, notwithstanding the heavy duty that Fish grinds out, but the country-tinged ‘She Don’t Live Her Anymore’ trumps that with its dynamics, a big chorus, and a terrific organ solo in typical nose-to-the-grindstone fashion from Phil Breen, who’s become one of my favourite keyboard players in the last year or two.  ‘You Got It Bad’ has a pounding intro, and halfway through Samantha signals a solo by announcing that “I’m gonna go for it now!”  But she doesn’t really, not right away, saving herself for a more fulsome bluesy ending – and then for ‘Little Baby’.
After Nick David’s showcase a slinky intro develops into the bluesy, rocking ‘No Angels’, on which Breen contributes another cracking solo over crunching, guns-blazing Peter Gunn-style riffing from the others, and Fish adds further texture with some drunken-sounding slide.  That texturing is nothing compared to the near-psychedelic ‘Dream Girl’ though, on which they concoct squiggling sounds and keyboards making like lapping waves, while Fish slides her voice around confections of notes, and conjures up a soaring, ‘Albatross’-like slide break.
They hammer out the brooding rocker ‘Highway’s Holding Me Now’, which is good, though I'd prefer to hear 'Show Me' or 'Turn It Up' getting a run out.  Then they lay back again for the delight that is the aching ‘Fair-weather’, its hints of the Mop Tops surrendering to the simple, lovely melody, so that even the inevitable chatterers hush themselves.
And then there’s only time for a blast through ‘Bitch On The Run’ before the curfew slams down, with a hurtling keys duel between Breen and David that clearly entertain Fish herself, showcases for Alexander’s bass and Graves’ excellent drumming – this lot are a seriously damn good band now, by the way.  Then the crowd chuck themselves heartily into the usual call-and-response singalong, and that’s it, no encore as they have, as Fish puts it, “blown the whole show”.  But I don’t hear anyone complaining as they exit the hall to the strains of Frank Sinatra singing ‘Witchcraft’.
All the same, there are a couple of things I reckon Samantha Fish needs to do.  She’s gonna have to lengthen her set a bit, if her voice can take it, to do justice to her growing repertoire and give her room to stretch.  And next time she comes to Scotland, she should be booked into a much bigger room.  If the stone-cold killer is going to be convicted of anything, it should be for slaying bigger audiences than this.

You can find the set list for the show via setlist.fm here.
You can read a review of the London show on 5 March here.

Wednesday, February 26, 2020

Rebecca Downes - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 22 February 2020

It’s a few years since I last saw Rebecca Downes and her band, supporting King King in Glenrothes.  Happily the strengths that were evident then are still at their disposal, in the form of some well-constructed tunes encompassing a pleasing balance of blues, rock, soul and funk, delivered with neat arrangements and satisfying musicianship, all topped off with Downes’ ability to hit a vocal bullseye at a hundred paces.
So it is that a song like ‘Fever In The Night’ is a sexy little slice of funkiness, with plenty of room in the arrangement for Downes to do her thing stylishly and without effort.  Similarly
Rebecca Downes gives it some welly
‘Night Train’ – apparently her dad’s favourite, and I’d say he has a point – is a well catchy affair, combining rippling keys from Nigel Darvill, skipping drums, moody slide from Steve Birkett, and atmospheric, dynamic vocals from Downes.
Birkett’s slide playing is actually something of a secret weapon, tastefully decorating a number of songs.  He uses it to play around with the melody to good effect on the choppy, clavinet-squelching, and enjoyable ‘Sweetness’.  And it also adorns the segueway of the upbeat ‘Big Sky’, with its surging riff, and set closer ‘Believe’, where his guitar line offers a Southern-sounding counterpoint to Downes’ vocal, en route to a racing conclusion.  I reckon though, that if Downes were to pull out an acoustic guitar for ‘Believe’, emulating the studio version, it would add a different texture that would give a good song an extra lift.
Inevitably though, the moment of “peak Downes” comes on ‘Sailing On A Pool Of Tears’, a top notch power ballad on which she soars upwards on the wings of a great hook.  Mind you, I’ll argue till I pop my clogs that it should be an alliterative “sea of tears” that Rebecca sets sail on.  Too late now, I guess.
I’m not convinced by her strapping on a Telecaster to augment Birkett’s lead guitar on some songs though.  For my money what their sound gains in muscle it loses in subtlety, reducing the room for the keyboards, and encouraging Downes to whack her voice into an unnecessary higher gear.  Maybe, being from the West Midlands home of heavy metal, they feel contractually obliged to give it some welly – which may also account for their crowd-pleasing blast through Zeppelin’s ‘Rock’N’Roll’.
Rebecca Downes and her band – her “babies”, as she flatteringly describes them – are never going to set the rock’n’roll world on fire.  But they’re a rock solid professional outfit, with a strong seam of original material courtesy of Downes and her songwriting partner Birkett.  With Downes’ chummy Brummie patter they’re also winningly approachable, and
Cow Cow Boogie - twangin' an' swingin'
can be relied on to deliver an entertaining evening.
As can support act Cow Cow Boogie, who rustle up a snappy set with their energetic amalgam of country, Western Swing and rockabilly.  Tonight is a valedictory performance for the band’s singer Nicole Smit, who is moving on to focus on other projects, and they certainly give her a good send-off.  Smit is always an assured performer, but it’s easy to be on your game when you’re fronting an outfit this well-grooved.
They’re home on the range, so to speak, whether they’re delivering twangy, drawling country in the form of ‘Cow Cow Boogie’ itself (recorded by Ella Fitzgerald once upon a time, much to my surprise), or the rocking ‘It Ain’t Fair’, with its floor-tom bashing finale.  ‘I Cry’ smoulders like Peggy Lee on ‘Fever’, embellished with quivering lap steel, while ‘Get Into Trouble’ motors along at a fair old clip, propelled by brisk drumming, before segueing into the Brenda Lee tune ‘Sweet Nothing’, on which Smit gets suitably sinuous and sultry.  ‘Gone Gone Gone’ swings like Rory McIlroy, and the closing ‘Candy Man’ makes the most of its ‘Girl Can’t Help It’ groove.  When all’s said and done, Cow Cow Boogie are an engagingly different proposition. 

Monday, February 24, 2020

Listened to lately - Félix Rabin, and Jimi Get Your Funk On

It’s EP time at Blues Enthused today, with a couple of compact but bijou – and very different – new recordings.

Félix Rabin – Pogboy

It’s a funny old game.  A couple of years back Laurence Jones made an album that suggested his producer/manager was intent on treating him like a square guitar-wrangling peg who needed to be hammered into a round soul-pop hole.  Meanwhile when I listen to Ben Poole I often get the impression he’s puzzling away at finding a kind of glossy rock to
Félix Rabin - and a short neck SG?
Pic by Chiara Ceccaioni
suit his capabilities.  But now along comes this French whippersnapper Félix Rabin, knocking out an EP with a similar kind of pop-rock sound, but which seems to fit him like a second skin.
Rabin is billed as a blues-rocker, but he pretty much eschews the blues on this outing. Opening track ‘Walk’ may be a bit proto-proggy, with its effects-laden, synthy descending riff, but it’s not representative of what follows.  With his light, clear, and melodious voice Rabin sings confidently on the mellower, yearning style of ‘Moving On’, while also essaying some patient and fluid guitar lines, and a brief, clear-toned outro.
His modus operandi also encompassed some fuzzy, stuttering riffing on the modern-sounding ‘Say (You Won’t Leave Me)’, and some squelchy guitar lines on ‘Angels’, both perhaps reflecting his appetite for the Pog effects pedal that gives the EP its title.  But ‘Angels’ is also catchy and perhaps a little oddball, wedding his breathy vocal to some Hendrix-twiddly licks in the manner of John Mayer’s version of ‘Bold As Love’.  And Mayer-esque is certainly a term that springs to mind for the standout penultimate track, the cheerily titled ‘Death’.  It’s sparse and muted, with Rabin’s playing a model of restraint, focusing on long, sustained notes - and not merely as a preface to some frenzied scrabbling - while a plaintive trumpet passage underlines the mood.
Pogboy is an impressive introduction from Félix Rabin.  It may not be entirely my style, but it is stylish.

Félix Rabin is touring Europe as support to Samantha Fish from February 28.

Jimi Get Your Funk On – Thought

I will happily admit that jazz-funk isn’t really my cup of cappuccino.  But as Frank Zappa once observed, “The mind is like a parachute.  It won’t work unless it’s open.”  And speaking of Mr Z, I suspect that this new 9-piece Scottish combo may be rather more familiar with his work than I am.  Not that they’re really “out there”, maaan, but there is a certain quirkiness abroad at times on this debut EP.
Jimi Get Your Funk On - shoulda brought your shades, guys
On the bouncing, crisply delivered ‘2 AND 4’, for example, there are slithering horns over choppy guitar heralding while Honza Kourimsky rattles out a humorous lyric and some cod dialogue about a muso’s drink-addled attempts to join a bar jam session, with some neat slap bass from Ben Watt coming to the fore late on.  And on the last of the four tracks, ‘Not In The Mood’, the horns start, then stop, then start, then stop – and so on, like a series of combination punches from a snappy boxer.  There’s then a brief hint of AWB as things progress, as a prelude to a cool semi-rapped vocal leading up to an impatient chorus of “Not playing Miller ‘cause I’m not in the mood”.  Geddit?  And repeat, sorta, till they break out an effects-treated trumpet solo (I think) from Harry Marshall and some squealing sax from Gavin Mungersdorf, then drop down into a tripping rhythm from drummer David Burns before a discordant horn glissando leads the way to a brisk conclusion.
Opening track ‘Liberation’ is all insistent horn riffing over a twitchy rhythm and some twiddly wah-wah guitar, allied to an alternately easy-going then staccato vocal about a guy getting the dunt from his girlfriend for playing guitar all day, with Mellissa Jay Ross’s backing vocals providing additional colouring.  A dreamy bridge features some smouldering sax which then, complemented by Ross’s voice, climbs into a ‘Great Gig In The Sky’-like soaring passage.
‘Thought’ is a more romantic offering, a languid opening seasoned with some popping guitar licks and Kourimsky’s smooth vocal supplemented coo-ingly by Ross. The horns ease in alongside some glockenspiel-like keys from Ross Little, before a piercing guitar solo, all adding up to a pleasing change of pace.
As I said at the top, this kind of funky fusion thang ain’t really my thing.  But these fresh-faced youngsters certainly seem to know what they’re doing, and do it with a bit of flair.

Check out the Jimi Get Your Funk On website for more info.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

Sari Schorr - Live In Europe

Live In Europe, eh?  There’s a title to conjure with.  It's perhaps not the best idea for any blues rocker to invite comparisons with one of Rory Gallagher’s stage-striking offerings.  But happily, while I’d never expect them to reach the heights of the check-shirted one, Sari Schorr and her gang do acquit themselves pretty well.
It helps of course, that Schorr enrolled some crack musos in the enterprise, and when they get a groove on they make a big, fat punch-packing sound that’s captured with admirable clarity by the mix.   So when they get to grips with some quality songs, with Schorr’s powerful, dynamic vocals hitting the mark, the results are more than satisfying.
Take ‘Demolition Man’ and ‘Ain’t Got No Money’ for example, both from her first album A
Sari Schorr - powerful, dynamic, and suitably sassy
Force Of Nature
.  The first of these is a loose-limbed, swinging chunk of soulful bluesiness that suggests Whitesnake in their pre-1987 heyday, with Stevie Watts’ organ tootling away in his typical Sixties Booker T fashion, Ash Wilson getting down to some seriously bluesy guitar wailing, and La Schorr herself delivering a suitably sassy interpretation of the lyrics.  The latter is mildly funky, with Roy Martin’s drums slipping in perfectly behind the beat while Mat Beable’s bass bubbles away augmenting the groove, and Wilson scatters spiky guitar licks and accents around.  Schorr again captures the mood of the song perfectly with her vocal, and Wilson peels off another grabber of a solo for good measure, full of wiry tension.
This is the kind of the vibe that they excel at, and there’s a goodly proportion more of it that I’ll get to in a minute.  What does it for me rather less is the glossy Diane Warren/Desmond Childs AOR strand in her writing.  That kind of stuff was all well and good in its 80s/90s day, and Schorr’s songs ‘Turn Your Radio On’ and ‘Back To LA’ are serviceable enough, but to my mind they’re not on a par with the rest of the material served up here.
So let’s eliminate the negative and accentuate the positive, and say that their strutting, swaggering, ten-minute take on Muddy Waters’ ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ is a cracker, all the way up from its tush-shaking-beat-and-pulsing-bass roots.  Wilson’s fuzzy riffing builds the mood early on, and Schorr’s vocal is all-woman assertive until the band drops out for her to deliver the title line in breathy, slinky fashion.  Watts and Wilson get plenty of room to shine again, the former venturing hither and yon with great tone, and the latter getting imaginative in an outing that carries the odd whiff of Ritchie Blackmore before entering into squealing wah-wah mode.  All told it’s fresh and funky and lip-smackingly good.
They can rock plenty too, as on the brooding verses and fierce choruses of ‘Damn The Reason’, the intense chorus and tough riffing of ‘Thank You’, and the uptempo ‘Valentina’, on which Schorr whacks it out like Maggie Bell over drum-tight backing that includes spot-on harmonies and pounding bar-room piano.
And then there’s ‘Black Betty’.  A work song so old it pre-dates the twentieth century, never mind the frothy 70s Ram Jam version, it opens with Schorr crooning moodily over pinpricking guitar notes, before breaking out into snarling, raging vocals and crashing guitar chords, over mountainous foundations.  It’s Sari Schorr’s tour de force, and this rendition does it justice.
To help you come down after that, there are a couple of acoustic tracks recorded for the BBC tacked on at the end, bonus track fashion, in the form of ‘Ready For Love’ and ‘King Of Rock’N’Roll’.  Both are good, but the first is totally on the money, delivered by Schorr like she’s a female doppelganger of Paul Rodgers, over perfect, delicate piano and gently strummed acoustic guitar.
Live In Europe might have been better if Sari Schorr had another studio album under her belt on which to draw.  But it captures the live experience of a bloody good band and a powerhouse singer who know what they’re about.  It may not be a classic, but it’s vibrant and entertaining and it gets the job done, often with a bit of panache.  Can’t say fairer than that.

Live In Europe is released by Manhaton Records on 6 March.
Tour dates in Europe and Britain, starting on 6 March, can be found here.

Monday, February 17, 2020

Flashback #11 - Suzi Quatro

A few months back I collared a copy of The Very Best Of Suzi Quatro.  Why the hell am I telling you this, you ask?
Well, I was on a major Dr Feelgood kick at the time, and after listening to Lee Brilleaux growling his way through a heap of excellent stuff I found that in some idle moments I was hearing his voice rumbling through the chorus of Suzi’s number one hit ‘Devil Gate Drive’.  Bizarre I know, but true.
Anyway, this took me back to my school days, as I was eleven when Quatro first broke through with the stomping and wailing ‘Can The Can’ in June 1973, adding to the innocent
Suzi Quatro cans the can - whatever that means
pleasures I found in the glam rock canon of the time.  And it’s maybe worth emphasising “innocent pleasures”, because even as an impressionable school kid I never really found Suzi all that sexy, regardless of her leather jumpsuit with low slung zipper.  Her readily apparent tomboy nature dispersed pretty much any sense of sultriness there might have been.
What she did seem to exhibit though, was an enjoyment of rock’n’roll that imbued her big hits.  She didn’t write them of course – they came off the assembly line of songwriting and producing duo Nicky Chinn and Mike Chapman, who also came up with hit singles for Sweet and Mud among others.  But when the Chinnichap pair clicked with an artist they could really deliver the goods, and in Suzi Quatro’s case that meant three million-selling singles, culminating in the wonderful ‘Devil Gate Drive’.  It was corny to be sure, not least in the Top Of The Pops appearance linked above, where her band embarked on a dorkish dance routine in the bridge.  But to a kid starting to enjoy music it was three minutes and something of irresistible, ramshackle fun.
So with this in mind I went out and got myself Suzi’s Very Best Of cd - or to be entirely accurate, double cd.  Hell, it only cost £5.99.
Unsuprisingly, imagining that Quatro’s best demands two cds was fanciful on someone's part, to say the least.  Her run of hits peaked with ‘Devil Gate Drive’, and pretty much ground to a halt within the year, in Britain at least – and the one big success she subsequently managed in 1978, ‘If You Can’t Give Me Love’, was the most godawful country mush, foreshadowing some dreadful later recordings.    Maybe Chinn and Chapman were spread too thin, servicing other acts, but one way or another the collection tails off into quite a lot of dross.
Still, Suzi may have been groomed (as it were) by Mickie Most, the owner of her record label RAK, her hits may have been penned by others, and her vocals often have a banshee tone to terrify the local dog population, in her better moments she had an endearing commitment to the virtues of old-fashioned rock’n’roll.  Her so-called Very Best includes her belting out the likes of ‘All Shook Up’, ‘Shakin’ All Over’, Cliff’s ‘Move It’, a rollicking live version of Little Richard’s ‘Keep A Knockin’’.  She even gives it some welly on a cover of Johnny Winter’s ‘Rock And Roll Hootchie Koo’.
So maybe it’s not really so bizarre to wonder what a Feelgood-like R’n’B band would make of ‘Devil Gate Drive’.  And whatever her evident limitations, Suzi Quatro will always be part of my pre-teen musical firmament, god bless her.  Happy days.

Coincidentally, I’m currently reading Stuart Maconie’s book Cider With Roadies, about the evolution of his musical fandom.  Maconie is of the same vintage as me, and writes a highly entertaining chapter about the glam rock era.

Sunday, February 16, 2020

Rory Gallagher - Check Shirt Wizard - Live In '77

Where do you begin with this?  I mean, really, where in the world do you begin? Check Shirt Wizard – Live in ’77 comprises 20 tracks and lasts two hours, and it’s got my brain buzzing like a jar full of wasps.  Well, here goes . . .
First thing is, this is my favourite Rory Gallagher line-up – not that he ever had a bad band.  But here we have not only his long-standing right hand man Gerry McAvoy on bass, but also somewhat unsung piledriving drummer Rod De’Ath, and also Lou Martin’s keys, which add some flavours I like.  Others will prefer his power trio period, but for me this is the best of the best.
Rory Gallagher - a wizard, a true star
Such a great songwriter as well, who was so fresh lyrically - Rory is never a peddler of the usual clichés.  Here you get a great reading of the near-jazzy yet infernally catchy ‘Calling Card’.  ‘Tattoo’ed Lady’ is so evocative, but economical, with lines like “I spent my youth under canvas roof, as I roamed from town to town”, and set to such an original, swinging tune.  And of course ‘A Million Miles Away’ is incomparably atmospheric.  Hell, even when it’s just a matter of riffs the man is a magician - witness the high-tension-wire tautness of ‘Moonchild’ and the crackle-and-jab of the high octane ‘Secret Agent’.
Rory’s inventiveness and playfulness are a joy.  Take ‘Bought And Sold’ for example, a chunk of boogie that Quo might have chugged away at merrily in a straight line for several minutes.  But in Rory’s hands it takes off in fresh directions like a kite in a stiff breeze.  McAvoy and De’Ath put the hammer down at one point, but Rory’s playing remains relaxed, like a genius footballer who always seems to have more time than anyone else, before they take it down into a great ‘pizzicato’ passage and then one of his trademark guitar/voice harmonising segments.  Your jaw will drop at similar excursions on a regular basis.
Rory was doing ‘unplugged’ segments before the word had even been thought of, and here he straps on his acoustic for ‘Out On The Western Plain’, which sounds like it must have been around forever.  I’d normally run for the hills in response to ragtime guitar, but Rory makes it work on ‘Barley & Grape Rag’ because he finds the earthiness and fun in it, whereas to my ears most exponents just sound twee. ‘Too Much Alcohol’ is a raucous slide affair, on a resonator methinks.  Then there’s long-standing favourite ‘Going To My Hometown’ on which the rest of the band gradually reappear.   I mean, where the hell did he get this from?  He barks away enthusiastically over rattling mandolin, while the audience claps along in anticipation of the stomping beat, and Lou Martin adds a fun piano solo, combining to create a classic that’s a one-off if ever there was one.
The energy levels are staggering, notably on ‘I Take What I Want’, a Sam and Dave soul hit that gets shaken’n’stirred and turned inside out and upside down, with chords flying around like shards of metal and needle sharp lead playing, some Celtic leanings, and a mind-boggling second solo.  I’m listening to it again as I type, and I’m breathless.
But they really get into the red zone when Rory lets rip with fiery slide playing, as on the unstoppable foot-to-the-floor rock’n’roll of ‘Souped-Up Ford’, where he whips up a veritable storm and Martin boogie woogies away on the Joanna.  Or of course on the climactic, surging ‘Bullfrog Blues’, with its iconic “Well did you evvaaah” opening.
But slide or not, Rory’s guitar is a joy to listen to, right from the glorious fuzzy warmth of both rhythm and lead playing on the opening ‘Do You Read Me’ to the encores ‘Used To Be’ and ‘Country Mile’, by which time I’m recalling the famous phrase describing the playing of the jazz cornettist Bix Beiderbecke - like “shooting bullets at a bell”.
Enough.  I’m worn out with enjoyment.  If there’s a better album than Check Shirt Wizard in 2020, I’ll be dumbfounded.  This is the work of a rock’n’roll genius, sitting on top of the world.

Check Shirt Wizard - Live In '77 is released on 6 March, and can be pre-ordered here.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Albert Cummings - Believe

This latest album by Massachusetts singer and guitarist Albert Cummings was recorded in Muscle Shoals, with the legendary Jim Gaines in the producer’s chair.  So there’s little surprise that when it kicks off with a horn-laden cover of the Sam and Dave hit ‘Hold On (I’m Coming)’ the resulting sound is big, rich and soulful, with Cummings doing a sterling job vocally.  It’s the first of several enjoyable songs of a soul-blues bent on Believe, and if someone were to pitch them as the soundtrack to a remake of The Commitments, I’d reckon that sounds like fun.  But at the same time I’d venture to say it’s indicative of how Believe plays it a bit safe at times.
Albert Cummings - a new rehearsal studio may be an idea
On the one hand this collection of originals and covers features some cracking stuff.  For example there’s the catchy ‘Queen Of Mean’, which may lean on a familiar sounding ‘Take Me To The River’-like riff but benefits from stinging guitar from Cummings.  And there’s the bluesy dig of ‘Call Me Crazy’ - all big ringing chords and a scrabbling, feedback-howling solo, with snappy lines like “You think I was born yesterday, but I stayed up late last night”.  But on the other hand it includes a pretty redundant cover of Little Walter’s ‘My Babe’, and a bland country-soul reading of Van Morrison’s ‘Crazy Love’ that lacks any Van-like depth.  As covers go though, there’s nothing “little” about his take on ‘Red Rooster’, a slow-grinding chunk of R’n’B that nods towards the Howlin’ Wolf original rather than the sparse and reedy Stones’ version, with Cummings’ vocal booming in resonant fashion and his guitar kicking in with an impressive solo that’s full of tension, release and dynamics.
‘It’s All Good’ picks things up with a Delbert McClinton slice of chirpiness after ‘My Babe’, featuring some sprightly guitar, but Cummings really hits his stride in the home stretch.  ‘Going My Way’ is strong but subtle, reverb-heavy guitar cutting through over a strolling rhythm, while stuttering, twanging licks are strewn around casually.  It’s a good precursor to the wallop of the aforementioned ‘Call Me Crazy’, and then the album-closing rendition of Freddie King’s ‘Me And My Guitar’, which has plenty of punch, a funky groove to engage one’s butt, and a fleet-fingered, wah-wah inflected solo.
That closing trio of tracks would sit happily alongside any of Buddy Guy’s recent output, and demonstrates the impact Albert Cummings is capable of delivering.  Believe is an enjoyable album, but it could have been a standout if the drive and swagger of its best moments had been maintained across the piece.

Believe is released by Provogue Records on 14 February.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Scottish Blues Weekend - St Bride's Centre, Edinburgh, 7-9 February 2020

There are weekends, and there are long weekends.  The second Scottish Blues Weekend, organised by the Edinburgh Jazz & Blues Festival, is one of the latter, with 10 gigs taking place over four days from Thursday.  I managed to get along to three shows, and very good they were too.

Nicole Smit Band, with Delightful Squalor

Singer Nicole Smit and her band entertained a sold out crowd on the Friday night with a largely R’n’B centred set, grabbing the attention early on with a swinging take on Junior Wells’ ‘Little By Little’, and Koko Taylor’s swaggering ‘Wang Dang Doodle’.  And as anyone
familiar with Smit’s voice would know, she has the range and power to bring a punch to both tunes without, it has to be said, resorting to Taylor’s throat-scrapingly guttural approach.
Taking a different turn, they belt through Wanda Jackson’s ‘Fujiyama Mama’, a country-rockabilly affair on which Smit bounces around with the same kind of glee that she gives to the yelps of the title line.
Charlie Wild and Nicole Smit do some wang dang doodle
The band depart while Smit is joined by Cera Impala from support act Delightful Squalor on acoustic guitar, for a duet on a subtle original – ‘Release’, I think – that they’ve recently co-penned, the pair of them blending their voices in sublime fashion.
There’s reflective emotion too in Smit and the band’s rendition of Billie Holliday/Nina Simone oldie ‘Tell Me More’, but also a ton of energy on uptempo numbers like Sugar Pie Desanto’s ‘Witch For A Night’ and Marie Knight’s rattling ‘I Thought I Told You Not To Tell Them’.  Guitarist Charlie Wild contributes rock’n’rolling guitar breaks to add extra spice, and on the latter Smit also shows off her diction with the rat-a-tat delivery of the lyrics.
One of Nicole Smit’s specialities is foraging for overlooked barn-burners by female artists, as evidenced by most of the songs listed above.  The result isn’t just a refreshing change from the standards that many blues artists would lean on, it’s the basis for a belter of a show.

Delightful Squalor are a duo comprising the aforementioned Cera Impala, who mostly employs banjo as her weapon of choice, and Texan singer-guitarist Lake Montgomery, who together offer a selection of old-fashioned roots tunes featuring exquisite, breathy harmonies.  They also produce a couple of ukuleles at one point, and to paraphrase Indiana Jones in Raiders Of The Lost Ark, “I hate ukuleles, Jock – I hate ‘em!”  At times they’re a bit twee for my tastes, but to be fair, at their best they conjure up echoes varying from Steve Earle in his breezier moments to early Joan Armatrading.


Blues Afternoon – Dana Dixon Band, Liz Jones Trio, and Charlotte Marshall & The 45s

Storm Ciara is approaching Edinburgh on the Saturday afternoon, but there’s shelter from the storm as a full house welcomes a trio of female-led blues acts.
Dana Dixon - harp at the ready
First up are the Dana Dixon Band.  Ms Dixon is pretty much your archetypal blues belter of a vocalist, but she’s also something you don’t find every day – a female harp player.  She
duly gets her wail on when they crank out John Lee Hooker’s ‘Good Rocking Mama’ to good effect.
This kind of uptempo R'nB is their natural beat, as on a crackling version of Chuck Berry’s ‘Sweet Little Rock’n’Roller’, with Dave Dixon producing some nifty guitar picking along the way.  He’s a mite overfond of his trick of sticking his right hand at the top of the neck like a capo, while shredding away with his left below it.  But that takes nothing away from the vitality of their rakish, garage band-like closer ‘The Boy From New Orleans’.

The Liz Jones Trio are essentially half of Liz Jones’ band Broken Windows, in semi-acoustic form with Jones accompanied by John Bruce on guitar and Suzy Cargill on percussion.
John Bruce and Liz Jones search the floor for the lost chord
Their 45-minute sets deliver something rather more reflective, Jones’ songs lending themselves well to a stripped back format.  ‘Strum’ alternates between a hypnotic shuffle propelled by Cargill’s pattering djembe drum and the urgency of the chorus.  ‘No Classic Love Song’ is jazzier fare, swinging along effortlessly on its delicious melody with a lyric that’s an evocative tribute to a maverick couple of Jones’ acquaintance.
My favourite on this occasion though, is the 2018 single ‘Lover’, with its catchy, ringing guitar line over Suzy Cargill’s mandolin, its complementary ascending middle eight, and Jones’ thoughtful vocal floating patiently over the top.  A new album from Broken Windows is in the works, and I look forward to its arrival for another helping of something out of ordinary.

I have no idea whether Charlotte Marshall & The 45s are assembling a debut album, but if they aren’t then they damn well should be.
Charlotte Marshall marshals her troops
It’s probably a bit hackneyed to tag the diminutive Aussie chanteuse as the Divine Miss M,
but her performance sass does bring to mind Bette Midler.  More to the point, she knocks out high quality original songs across a range of genres, from New Orleans moodiness on ‘Full Moon’ to fun country on ‘Baby Say You’ll Be My Valentine’; from a James Brown-style funk refrain on ‘Do You Remember’ to the no messing R’n’B raunch of ‘Mama’s Spring Cleaning (And You’re The First To Go)’.
The songs are the subject of clever arrangements, delivered with conviction by the 45s, who are clearly well, er, Marshalled.  Comprising sax, trombone, guitar and keys in addition to the rhythm section, they whack out a tasty miscellany of solos throughout the set, and turn on a dime at the wave of a hand from their boss.
Marshall, meanwhile, gets right into character to inhabit the songs, winding up the set with more stylistic variations in the form of the warm and soulful ‘Dig My Love’ and the NOLA jazz stomp of ‘Bootleg Liquor’.  Now let’s be having that album, Charlotte.


Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters

I’ve seen Jed Potts and his trio numerous times, and they never fail to impress.  But I have to say this Sunday night show was something special.  The boys have clearly been busy, because their two sets are dominated by original material, some of it well-seasoned to be sure, but much of it fresh out of the box to the point where I’m only guessing at some of the titles.
In fact one of my favourites of the whole night is supposedly a work in progress, to the point that it still goes under the working monicker of ‘Prototype Rory-ish Groove in F’.  And yeah,
Jed Potts - a man happy in his work
maybe the melody still needs a little work, but boy do they manage to channel a rattling, Gallagher-like energy, with ringing slide and a scudding solo from Potts going down a storm.
There’s a relaxed vibe from the outset though, with opener ‘Swashbucklin’’ the first of a clutch of new songs that culminate in the crunching ‘Where’s Your Man’.  They swing easily throughout, with Charlie Wild mostly content to be a steady Eddie holding down the groove on bass, while Jonny Christie has the freedom to add accents that underline the variation in Potts’ guitar work.
A trio of songs from their first album culminates in the frisky instrumental ‘Puttin’ It Aboot’, then the catchy, twirling guitar line of ‘How Am I Meant To’ precedes the Rory groove, and they close the first half by putting their foot down on what I believe is an old original, the Dick Dale-like garage rock of ‘Burn It’.
Their second set opens with a moody, bass’n’drums intro to a slow blues, on which Potts lays down more noteworthy slide playing en route to an uptempo passage which rocks big time.  And they must have been in the mood for slow blues epics lately, because a few songs later they get into something that may or may not be called ‘Hey Baby’, but builds to what can only be described as a guitar wig-out by Potts.
They slip in some favoured covers after that, including Elvis’s ‘Trying to Get To You’ and the set closing boogie of ‘Days Of Old’, wrapped around a new arrangement of Charles Brown’s aptly-titled ‘Drifting Blues’.  But they go out with a bang on the encore, a breakneck take on their own ‘Ain’t It Rough (When Your Baby’s In The Huff)’.
In the course of the evening Jed Potts assures us they’re intending to record all this new material soon for a new album.  Here’s hoping that his definition of “soon” means that it’ll see the light of day this year!