Monday, March 30, 2020

Eamonn McCormack - Storyteller

On ‘The Great Famine’, the opening track of his latest album Storyteller, Dubliner Eamonn McCormack begins in reflective mode, with gentle acoustic guitar and hushed vocals.  The latter are delivered in his native Irish accent, and given the dark subject matter of the Irish potato famine of the 1840s, good on him for that.  And the arrangement of the song as a whole is satisfying too, drawing in some flute-effect organ along the way, with a good shift into the satisfying electric second half in which McCormack’s clear-toned guitar licks respond to the melody. 
Eamonn McCormack feels the force of the whammy
Unfortunately though, the lyrics are pretty ropey schoolboy fare that often descend into limp imagery.  What’s more, it’s a failing that recurs regularly, with a host of clichés and lazy rhymes, now and then compounded by weak melodies and vocals.  Which is a pity, because there are often things to enjoy on Storyteller, not least McCormack’s fine guitar playing.  So let’s try to accentuate the positive for a while, eh?
McCormack and his three-piece, now and then augmented by producer Arne Wiegand on keys, often sound more comfortable in uptempo mode, not least on ‘Tie One On’, an amusing pub crawl tale that’s fun right from an opening chord progression that briefly invokes ‘The Boys Are Back In Town’, with a semi-spoken vocal, a good groove from Edgar Karg on bass and Max Jung-Poppe on drums, and some daft little guitar interjections suggesting different nationalities of restaurant.
Similarly effective are a couple of outings that remind me of the energetic R’n’B of The Sharpeez.  ‘Cowboy Blues’ is a cheerful boogie that chugs along at a decent clip, with well-judged injections of slide from McCormack and driving bass from Karg, whose playing frequently catches the ear.  And they rock out even more effectively on ‘With No Way Out’, with Jung-Poppe’s drums rattling along in fine fashion – though I could wish for a bigger drum sound at times, even if Karg’s resonant bass compensates somewhat – while McCormack’s guitar has bite and direction from start to squealing finish.
Similarly ‘Cold Cold Heart’ is a toe-tapping shuffle with a propulsive riff reinforced by the bass, a gruff, semi-spoken vocal, and a gritty, energetic guitar solo on an outro where McCormack sounds right at home.  And the closing ‘Make My Move’ is a hurtling effort with hammering drums, piercing guitar breaks aplenty, and a touch of Gary Moore about the guitar solo.
It’s not the only time Gary Moore springs to mind either.  The slower stuff may not be McCormack’s comfort zone vocally, but the Moore-like bluesy intro on ‘In A Dream’ is very appetising, and is followed up by some tasteful weeping guitar lines over subtle organ from Wiegand.  And on the following ‘Every Note That I Play’, a love song with a simple, pleasing arrangement, there’s some beautifully weighted, emotive guitar work, including some fluttering passages that show a light touch rather than flash.
‘Help Me Understand’ occasionally hints at something more expansive, its opening combining muted vocals and twinkling guitar in a manner reminiscent of psychedelic-period Beatles and the Floyd that could usefully have been explored further.  Instead McCormack opts to go for something more angsty, and if the melody doesn’t quite carry the day then Karg’s bubbling bass and McCormack’s mood-capturing solo surely do.
There’s a good album lurking within Storyteller, one that intermittently breaks the surface with moments of startling quality that make you prick up your ears for a while.  What it needed was someone to insist on more graft on some aspects, so that Eamonn McCormack could deliver his best throughout.

Storyteller is released by BEM Records on 3 April, and available from his website here.

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 On 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 (perhaps by way of Drive-By Truckers' 'Ramon Casiano'), 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 shape-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 make 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 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.