Monday, April 27, 2020

Little Red Kings - The Magic Show Part One

Little Red Kings – who’re they then?
I press play on the latest offering to be winged my way by a PR company to be greeted by a tastefully tuneful piano and vocal intro, and then . . . three tracks whoosh by in ten and a half minutes, borne aloft on a gale of song-led roots rock energy.
I still haven’t got down to the brass tacks of what the opener ‘Harry’s Town’ is all about, so I dunno anything about the identity of Harry or what’s so special about his town, but Little Red Kings make it sound like a good place to be.  There’s kicking drums, rock’n’rolling guitar, sinuous bass lines and playfully delivered vocals, and ultimately a belt-it-out earworm of a chorus that collapses into a hollering terrace chant outro.
Little Red Kings making a big noise
‘Almost Over’ eases into earshot with pulses of organ and throbbing guitar before opening up into another adrenalin rush of booming drums and a big, gutsy chorus.  It’s a well-constructed choon, but the energy still bursts out at the seams until they rein it in for the bridge – and then it breaks loose again, tearing off into an anthemic singalong while some lead guitar bleeps away, making like Angus Young on the intro to ‘Thunderstuck’.  Then ‘That’s What You Do’ has a subtly brooding verse, with a thudding drumbeat and eerily droning keys, before crashing into another mountainous chorus with soaring backing vocals.  It twists and turns teasingly, thrashes along with a post-punk sensibility, and chucks some buzzsaw guitar into the middle eight to add some extra edge.
Who are these guys?
The understated cover of the promo cd, with its peculiar artwork, doesn’t offer many clues.  I take a squint at the accompanying press release, but it doesn’t leave me much the wiser.  It does tell me that The Magic Show Part One is Little Red Kings’ second album though.  It also quotes some reviews that refer to their “consummate blues rock” and such like.  Well yeah, I can see that they deliver blues rock in exactly the same way that Mott The Hoople – didn’t.  Or the Faces, maybe.  Or Springsteen, even.  Or none of them.  Point is, the blues may be in there, but it’s all jumbled up with other strands of rock’n’roll.  Except of course, just to confound my argument, on ‘Mama’s Boy’ - a two and a half minute vignette of Delta-like blues conjured out of nothing more than spooky, scratchy guitar playing and haunted vocals.  
Their rootsiness takes a different turn on ‘Weather The Storm’ though.  The lilting piano and gentle elegiac vocal could almost be Billy Joel until it’s melded with violin (courtesy of guest Rosie Toll) to take a Celtic turn as the lyric starts to reference the Irish Sea and – if I hear it right – Tir Na nOg, the “Celtic otherworld”.  Which sounds appropriately epic as the song swells and the story-telling becomes more strident, before subsiding to a gentle ending.
And the following ‘Peppermint’ gets similarly windswept as it builds from a suspenseful intro, surging rhythm guitar and more of that supple bass to arrive at another BIG chorus.  And a rare guitar solo plays out against the repeated refrain, brief and spiky, cymbals crashing around like waves.  Check out this acoustic performance.
Who the hell are these guys?
They get back on the rockin’ horse with ‘Lose The Light’, which teases again with a subdued
opening, all ticking drums and bumps of bass, before letting loose with a driving rhythm and dense jangling guitars, good harmonies and a romantic turn that sounds like Springsteen by way of The Gaslight Anthem – except British.
So that's who Little Red Kings are.
And then they take a sharp turn and head into left field for the closing two tracks.  ‘Norfolk Border’ is all droning notes and hesitant piano chords as an ambient backdrop for a murmured, half-spoken vocal, like Roger Waters executing some minimalist tale of angst.  Finally ‘Magic Show’ starts off in thoughtful mode, leaning on piano and organ, before swelling into a majestic chorus, then fading back with quirky squiggles of keyboards and more of that sinuous bass playing, plus effects-treated vocal interjections and some circus ringmaster declaiming taking it into Peter Gabriel-like dramatic territory.
The Magic Show Part One is such an eye-opening surprise that part of me doesn’t want to know – just leave Little Red Kings as deadly guerrillas of roots rock, who strike and then sink namelessly into the night.  But nah, I’ve winkled out the info, so let’s roll the credits.  Little Red Kings were founded in Norfolk by singer and guitarist Jason Wicks.  Dougie Archer supplies more guitar and vocals, while the keys are courtesy of Craig Stevenson, and the rhythm section of Harry Wickham and Ben Beach respectively provide the skin-bashing and that springy bass.
Now, I’m not going to tell you The Magic Show Part One is some earth-shattering masterpiece.  But I will tell you that it’s striking enough to have made me sit up and listen damn close – in fact Little Red Kings’ firing on all six cylinders commitment wouldn’t allow anything else.  You owe it to yourself to get an introduction to these guys and their music.

The Magic Show Part One is released on 29 May, and can be pre-ordered here.

Friday, April 24, 2020

The Stevie Watts Organ Trio feat Alice Armstrong - Mission To The Moon

Been to a few blues and soul type gigs in the last few years?  Then it’s odds on you’ve encountered Stevie Watts, the Hammond B3 organ-driver who I've seen playing with Jo Harman, Joe Louis Walker and Ben Poole just for starters.  But whoever he’s been accompanying, you can bet that Watts, with his Modder-than-Bradley-Wiggins appearance (he’s also been known to play with Mod revivalists The Secret Affair), has added some expertly soul-infused va-va-voom to their sound.
Well now here he is releasing his own album, with The Stevie Watts Organ Trio.  Except that  when Alice Armstrong joins in on vocals, they should strictly be a quartet, shouldn’t they? 
The Stevie Watts Organ Trio - yup, there's four of 'em!
Well, however you count ‘em, on Mission To The Moon they’ve done a most satisfactory job of producing something a bit different, thank you very much.
What we have here is soul music that’s tinged with jazziness, a warm sound that’s often infused with a cool vibe.  Opening track ‘Camden Starling’ sets out their stall in pleasing fashion, with Watts trading neat little call and response riffs with guitarist Nat Martin, while Armstrong delivers a soulful, immaculately phrased vocal.
The peak moment – all 11 minutes of it – is the penultimate track ‘No Good’, an almost tearfully sad slowie about loneliness.  Watts lays down low end washes of organ, over which Armstrong intones a bravura vocal, full of feeling and summed up by the lines “People say that the best ones are taken, but I just can’t stay took”.  Martin matches up to this with a spare, pinpricking guitar solo that contrives some jazzy angles along the way, but still fits the emotional template of the song.
They come pretty close to those heights now and then though.  There’s the melancholy late night jazz lounge intimacy of ‘Just Go’, for example, on which Martin produces another halting, less-is-more solo before he and Watts rouse themselves for some lively organ-guitar interplay, and Armstrong shifts her tone from reflective to assertive.  And contrastingly there’s ‘Honey Baby’, on which Armstrong gets all slinky and sultry over mellow backing eased along by Vinnie Lammi’s laid back, gently swinging drums.
When they get uptempo and funky on ‘In My Stride’ Watts doesn’t half cook up some bubbling bass to go along with Lammi’s tripping drums – a prime example of his contribution in the absence of a bass guitar - and even if he keeps his solo foray brief it’s the kind of Sixties soul sound that’s his trademark from many a gig.
There’s a trio of instrumentals, ranging from the twitchy ‘Tronjevity’ with its declining organ motif and funky rhythm guitar fills, to the hazy and relaxed ‘Memphis Sky’, and the more spiky and agitated jazziness of ‘Dave’ with its nagging, skipping drums.
But they close with the bright and fresh soul-pop of the catchy title track, with Lammi swinging again, Armstrong riding the rhythm with spot on urgent phrasing before Martin cuts in with a stuttering, switchback ride of a guitar solo, and Watts plays around with the melody on a squelchy organ solo.  And when Armstrong concludes matters with a chirpy “See ya!”, you just have to smile.
Maybe a couple of songs are a bit samey, and it could have done with a track packing a bit more punch.  But still, the considerable muso chops of Watts, Martin and Lammi combine stylishly to make Mission To The Moon a refreshing and easy-going treat to go with the spring sunshine – and in the soulful singer stakes Alice Armstrong, I have to say, is a real find.

You can buy Mission To The Moon from Stevie Watts' website, here.

Monday, April 20, 2020

Ruins Barren - Land Of Desolation

Ruins Barren, eh?  Sounds like some death metal band - and that album title, Land Of Desolation fits the bill too.  But no, the album cover depicts Ruins Barren toting an acoustic guitar as he leans against an old stone wall, wearing shades in the gloom, and looking like a misplaced busker offering something windswept and interesting.
Except that when I dropped the metaphorical needle on the opening track, I thought, “I know that voice”.  The Leonard Cohen-esque croak immediately reminded me of Smokin’ Tiglio,
Ruins Barren - could do with an interior decorator
Pic by Marco Cattaneo
the singer in Italian-based, experimental funk-punk-blues outfit Crudelia, encountered previously in these columns.  That’s Smokin’ Tiglio, who was singing in English though apparently he didn’t speak the lingo.  So what gives?
Well, a few minutes investigation reveals that neither Ruins Barren nor Smokin’ Tiglio are entirely for real.  They are both nom de guerres, or alter egos, of a certain Marco Costa, who sings and plays guitar in another band, called Fattore Rurale, where he styles himself as Marco Della Morte – ‘Marco Of Death’!
Whatever.  On Land Of Desolation the mode of expression is, indeed, a melange of country-folk and blues, with yer Ruins Barren fella in multi-instrumentalist mode playing guitars, dobro and keyboards among other things, and getting an occasional helping hand from some pals.  Lyrically, it’s as dark as the title suggests, if not darker – bleak, alienated stuff of a “This is hell, nor are we out of it” bent – for which Barren’s wrecked bass groan is the perfect vehicle.  And on songs like ‘Dancin’ In The Wind’ and ‘A Love Story’ he and his producer Ricky Ferranti add to the dense atmosphere by combining several layers of Barren’s voice, sometimes in a spoken rumble or husky whisper.  Barren’s accented diction isn’t all that great at times, but you’ll get the idea all the same.
Funnily enough though, the music isn’t universally gloomy – there’s often light and shade at work.  On the opening track ‘Chicago Illinois’ the opening may be all gently rippling guitar, toots of restrained harp, and sonorous piano chords, but then it shifts into a higher gear with some Dylan-ish folky acoustic strumming.  ‘A Love Story’ starts off with gentle acoustic guitar and halting vocals, but it gradually swells in romantic fashion around the chorus, aided by sweeps of cello from Elena Castagnola, as Barren intones about how “love goes beyond death”.  And on ‘Crossroad’ the rolling, bluesy guitar-picking picks up into a positively toe-tapping chorus.
‘Charles Wilson Ford’ is forbiddingly dark, to be sure, as the title character sinks into suicidal despondency following his part in the killing of Jesse James by his brother Robert Ford, accompanied by some classical orientated acoustic playing and elegiac cello.  But ‘Damp Lips’ canters along with bright and brisk acoustic strumming and deploys some twanging electric guitar, while ‘Keep Away From The Shed’ manages to be jaunty and dark at the same time as it meshes together at least two guitars, and ‘2nd Floor Room 104’ goes round and round over and interesting, pattering rhythm, with some twanging courtesy of Barren’s dobro, until some slivers of trumpet from Gianni Satta float into the ending from different angles.
With startling synchronicity, Land Of Desolation is stylistically located not a million miles away from Bob Dylan’s new tunes ‘I Contain Multitudes’ and ‘Murder Most Foul’, but remote enough to be pained rather than bittersweet, more agitated than hypnotic.  So if those two servings of His Bobness weren’t enough for you, Ruins Barren may have a third course to satisfy your cravings.

Land Of Desolation was released on 3 April 2020 by PA74 Music.

Friday, April 17, 2020

Robert Jon & The Wreck - Last Light On The Highway

Ever had that awkward feeling when everyone’s raving about an artist you’re not familiar with, and you’re worried that when you eventually get round to listening to ‘em you won’t like it?  That was me with this album from Robert Jon & The Wreck.  I’ve never heard a note from them before now, so didn’t come to Last Light On The Highway with any lip-smacking anticipation.  Would it be as good as everyone’s cracking it up to be?  Well, spoiler alert – yeah, it’s really, really good.
My wariness stemmed partly from the Southern rock label slapped on them.  There’s some so-called Southern rock nowadays – not all of it – that to my ears is just unoriginal country music being played loud.  But I needn’t have worried, because while the Wreck may lapse into Southern rock stereotypes once or twice, their palette is way broader than that.
Robert Jon & The Wreck - "Highway? What Highway?"
So, getting down to business, Last Light On The Highway has four real positives going for it.
Point number 1 – These boys from Orange County really know how to put a song together.  There’s no slipshod shit here, no filler, and there’s not an ounce of excess fat to be found.
Point number 2 – They come up with big, strong hooks over and over again.  By which I mean, every freaking song.  Try to walk away from these babies and you’ll rip the ass out of your jeans.
Point 3 – The playing and the vocals are superb.  Robert Jon Burrison may not have a show-stoppingly distinctive voice, but he is damn good, versatile enough to match the range of material, and sells the songs brilliantly.  They could give the Eagles a run for their money on the harmony front, and when they want an extra helping of soul in places they rope in backing singers Mahalia Barnes, Jade McRae and Juanita Tippins.
Point 4 – The sound, courtesy of their co-production with Jeff Frickman, is terrific, capturing the vibe of every song brilliantly and polishing them up for your delectation.
I’d already chucked my doubts in the bin by the time I got to the final track ‘Last Light On The Highway Part 2’ – and then they served up something special just to nail me good and proper.  After the sensitive, shimmering curtain-raiser of ‘Part 1’, here’s a six-minute epic, with sweeping strings and thunder-cracking guitar chords building a big, dramatic theme that’s counterpointed by rippling rainfall of piano from keys honcho Steve Maggiore, creating an atmosphere to compete with Blue Öyster Cult’s ‘Astronomy’.  Burrison adds a strident, assertive vocal, and there’s a cracking turnaround riff at the end of each chorus, plus some racing instrumental passages.  And yeah, it’s got a great hook – of course it does.
Favourite moments along the way include the simple, toe-tappingly catchy ‘Can’t Stand It’, a soulful shindig Joe Cocker might have freaked out to, with some very Allmans-like guitar harmonising from Burrison and his lead guitar buddy Henry James for good measure.  There’s ‘Do You Remember’, with the guitars getting all ‘Jessica’ on the intro before it sinks into a cool, loose rhythm to set up a ‘Night Moves’ vibe à la Bob Seger.  They crank it up on ‘Don’t Let Me Go’, with a gritty, bluesy, slide-driven intro and pumping bass from Warren Murrel, lighting the blue touch paper on a big, dirty, urgent rocker of a chorus driven along by Andrew Espantman’s drums.  And by way of complete contrast ‘Gold’ is a ballad in the manner of Keith Urban’s ‘Till The Summer Comes Around’.  It comes with a lovely, quiet piano intro, another stonking hook on the chorus, and real personality and emotion in the vocals as Burrison delivers a bitter, forceful lyric.
You get the picture?  Good – you can discover the other half dozen songs for yourself.
Is it reasonable to tag Robert Jon & The Wreck as Southern rock?  Maybe.  Probably.  But I don’t give a shit about that anymore.  I’ll tell you this for nothing though - Last Light On The Highway is one humdinger of an album.

Last Light On The Highway is released on 8 May, and can be pre-ordered here.

Tuesday, April 14, 2020

Chasin' The Train - Dead Man's Handle

When Scottish band Chasin’ The Train turn the ignition key on ‘Beat Up Ford’, the opening track on Dead Man’s Handle, they sound good and ready to go racing on the strip.  There’s a throaty engine-like rumble, a fuel injection of Chuck Berry-ish guitar, and they’re off on a two and half minute blast of rock’n’roll that brings to mind the old classic ‘Bony Moronie’.  With a full-tilt shuffling rhythm courtesy of drummer Jason Little, screeches of harp from Robert ‘Howlin’ Bob’ Clements hinting at squealing tires, and singer Tom Cuddihy right in the zone, it’s energetic, tight, and great fun.
A couple of tracks later, ‘Temporary Man’ is almost as good, opening up with echoing slide guitar that tips the hat to Jimmy Page on ‘In My Time Of Dying’, before cranking out some
boogie that’s weighty with grit and reinforced by stabs of slide and harp.  There’s a bright,
Chasin' The Train get revved up
buzzing guitar solo from Rory Nelson, and a good ol’ fashioned harp solo from Clements that ends on a yelp of slide, and it all fits together in enjoyable fashion.

Unfortunately though, on several tracks there’s a sense that the whole is not quite greater than the sum of its parts, like a Rubik Cube that’s one square short of being solved, or a dish where one of the ingredients is missing.  So a song like ‘FWPB’ - referring to First World Problems - suffers from a prosaic chorus that undermines its better qualities, such as Peter Jamieson’s elasticated bass lines (often a positive, it has to be said), an easy-going guitar solo from Nelson, and verses in which Cuddihy offers amusing observations in laid back fashion.  The same issue of an average chorus afflicts the overlong ‘Down Home’ and the closing ‘Don’t You Lie To Me’.  On the former it detracts from some muscular chord progressions and Clement kicking in with some harp that creates a Dylan vibe.  On the latter it deflates a conversational vocal from Cuddihy on the verse, as well as other positives such as the acoustic strummed undercurrent, the snapping drums and grooving bass, the plaintive harp in the more downbeat middle eight, and Nelson’s satisfying, well-paced guitar solo.
On the slow blues of ‘Exit Wounds’ the arrangement leaves Cuddihy straining a tad in an uncomfortably high vocal register, and the same is true on the following ‘No Blues’.  But it’s still worth noting that ‘Exit Wounds’ comes with a simple and appealing descending riff and suitably mournful harp from Clements, while on ‘No Blues’ the rhythm section cook up an appetising groove out of a stomping beat and soulful bass, with some Morse Code like guitar chords, though for me it cries out for the colour of horns rather than harp.
‘Too Much Sugar’ though, is a short and sweet jump blues concoction that combines a ‘Ballroom Blitz’-ish rhythm with somersaulting bass and a brief, rock’n’rollin’ guitar solo, while Cuddihy’s rattling vocal is rounded out by some enjoyable the-gang’s-all-here backing vocals.
When everything clicks Chasin’ The Train show themselves to be a really capable, enjoyable outfit, as ‘Beat Up Ford’, ‘Temporary Man’ and ‘Too Much Sugar’ demonstrate.  There’s just this frustrating sense that with Dead Man’s Handle there was a better album wrestling to get out, if they’d only been able to spot when some aspects needed more work.  Maybe next time.

Tuesday, April 7, 2020

The Proven Ones - You Ain't Done

When You Ain’t Done kicks off with the needle-crackling, sinuous, tape-run-backwards 58 seconds of ‘Get Love Intro’, I think to myself – the Sixties.  More particularly in fact, I think of George Harrison and Brian Jones messing around with sitars, and George Martin experimenting with recording techniques.  But if this psychedelic noodling is a red herring, the Sixties allusion isn’t.  Because to these ears one of the characteristic moods on You Ain’t Done is the driving, soul-inflected R’n’B adopted here and there by British bands from the mid-Sixties through to the early Seventies - think the Stones when the horns kick in on ‘Rocks Off’; think Stevie Winwood
The Proven Ones - cruisin' down the blues highway
dialling up the organ on ‘Gimme Some Lovin’’; hell, think of the ‘Oo when the horns blare on ‘5.15’ if you like.  In doing so these combos were co-opting and reheating Southern soul from the likes of Otis Redding of course – who in turn covered ‘Satisfaction’ and ‘Day Tripper’, keeping the yin and yang in balance, as it were.
All of which is a pretty good reference point, I reckon, for the likes of the title track, the following ‘Already Gone’, and the closing ‘Favorite Dress’, which between them draw on blasting horn injections, flaring organ and rattling piano from Anthony Geraci, Brian Templeton’s commanding voice, and Kid Ramos tossing out Keef-style choppy riffing, slide fills and economical soloing on guitar.  Oh yeah, and some on-the-money soulful backing vox from LaRhonda Steele too.  But as rousingly good as these songs are, they really hit paydirt with ‘Get Love’ itself, a seriously BIG tune with a signature twiddly guitar motif punctuating the chorus, amid scurrying, piercing guitar licks, barroom piano and flares of organ.  If you like Southern soul delivered with rockin’ blues muscle, this is for you.
In between these tentpoles though, they explore some different styles.  ‘Gone To Stay’ may not be much of a departure, being power pop soul driven by Jimi Bott’s simple, snapping snare drum and Ramos’s jangling guitar.  But ‘Whom My Soul Loves’, on which Templeton duets emotively with guest vocalist Ruthie Foster, swells from a subdued, piano-led opening with a spiritual tone into a big, rootsy affair reminiscent of both Shemekia Copeland and The Band, with twanging, slippery guitar and brief, yearning organ and sax solos.
There’s a mellower strain of soul-pop evident in both the sunny, blissed-out love song ‘Milinda’ and the easy-going show of parental wonderment captured in ‘She’ll Never Know’.  They’re pretty smooth too on the samba of the hip-swaying ‘Nothing Left To Give’, all bongos and shakers from Bott and laid back bass grooving from Willie J. Campbell.  And they manage to kill two birds with one stone on ‘I Ain’t Good For Nothin’’, which starts off in a swingin’, back-porch-with-a-beer country-soul vibe before evolving into a N’Awlins jazz workout, Geraci’s honky tonk piano vying for attention with swooping trumpet and sax, and harp from Templeton, while Ramos doubles up on the lead vocal and what sounds like lap steel guitar.
With writing credits scattered around the whole gang, and rock solid production from Jimi Bott (and the ubiquitous Mike Zito getting in the act too, apparently), this album is a mightily well-assembled piece of work – even better, I reckon, than its predecessor Wild Again.  The Proven Ones show on You Ain’t Done that they can fire on all cylinders down the R’n’B highway, cruise slowly down the strip taking in the summer night air, or park up and think deep thoughts.  Get in that automobile, go for a ride.

You Ain't Done is released by Gulf Coast Records on 17 April 2020.

Friday, April 3, 2020

Mike Zito - Quarantine Blues

Let’s be real clear here people.  The origins of Quarantine Blues are unusual, but they’re not the whole deal.  There’s another story here, and that is the album itself.
But let’s get that back story out of the way, for those who don’t know.  Mike Zito and his band had just kicked off a European tour when the Covid-19 virus took off, causing international consternation.  Flying home to the States with twenty-odd days of work binned, Zito had an idea.  They’d create an album from scratch, working with each other remotely and delivering the whole thing within a two-week quarantine period.  Fans could get it for free, but could contribute to a GoFundMe campaign if they wanted, to help the band out financially.
When you get right down to it - let's rock!
So great, yeah?  Hats off to Mike Zito, for turning a problem into an opportunity.  But if you’re thinking this sounds like a quick and dirty excuse to throw some cash in a guitar case, listen up.  I reckon Quarantine Blues is – Chuck Berry tribute outing aside – the best album Mike Zito has made in several years.
Maybe the self-imposed deadline brought an unusual zest to the whole caper, but what we have here is a goddamn rock’n’roll rekkud, and one that sounds fresh, energised, and vital.  Eleven songs, ten of them brand new, and it sounds like Zito the songwriter has been jabbed with a cattle prod – maybe wielded from a social distance by his Gulf Coast Records partner Guy Hales, who collaborated on some of the material.
There’s an air of Tom Petty about several tracks, like the opener ‘Don’t Let The World Get You Down’ fr’instance.  Slam - straight into the chorus, all ringing chords over a thumping four-on-the-floor beat, verses dotted with sharp, stinging guitar notes, and a simple, brief solo.  On both ‘Hurts My Heart’ – a song re-purposed from his Royal Southern Brotherhood days – and ‘Looking Out This Window’, Zito mixes up acoustic guitar and fuzzy electric to produce jangling riffs, supplemented by see-sawing keyboard strokes from Lewis Stephens on the latter.  And the atmospheric ‘Call Of The Wild’ is borne on a weighty, surging riff and chorus, embellished by zinging guitar licks and a solo played out over a tense, jabbing bridge.
You want blues?  Well, the title track is a primitive beast, its stomping beat and distorted vocals complemented by slide guitar from Zito that grinds on the riff, and slashes like a razor on the solo.  ‘Dark Raven’ may recall earlier Zito slow blues outings like ‘Old Black Graveyard’, but here he lays choral, harmonised guitar work over the midnight-black backing to produce something different, wiry and ear-grabbing.  And the mid-paced ‘Walking The Street’ has spiky but bluesy guitar bursts over a slow-slow-quick bass line from Doug Byrkit, washes of organ, and some stuttering, crashing handbrake turns that’ll give you whiplash.
Elsewhere, ‘After The Storm’ has a brooding bass line that evokes ‘Cocaine’, as the setting
Don't mess with Mike - the missus just locked the bedroom door
for some appropriately Clapton-esque guitar work to capture the mood.  ‘Dust Up’, meanwhile, is a tale of marital lockdown strife in which Zito laments that he “Can’t get no loving since my baby locked the door”, set to a snapping, rock solid snare drum from Matt Johnson and a soulful, ‘Treat Her Right’-like riff, with a rock’n’rollin’ solo as icing on the cake.  “She can’t forgive me,” sings Zito, “I don’t even know why.”  Doesn’t matter why pal, suck it up like the rest of us.
The gutsiest offering though, is ‘Don’t Touch Me’, a collaboration with Tracii Guns, once of L.A. Guns.  It blasts off the starting grid with a heavy riff, heads-down-no-nonsense drums’n’bass and a punk-ish shouted chorus, and is strewn with supercharged rock’n’roll guitar licks.  But at the other extreme, the closing ‘What It Used To Be’ is primarily down to the strumming and picking of an acoustic guitar, as accompaniment to a melancholy comparison of the current situation to part troubles recounted by Zito’s parents.
“Animal instinct starts kickin’ in,” sings Zito on ‘Call Of The Wild’, and I reckon that’s what’s happened here.  Unplanned, Zito was liberated to do whatever came naturally, and in squaring up to the challenge right in front of him, confronting it directly in the lyrics, he and his gang got their collective mojo working big time.  Hell, considering that they never got in the same room to do this, even the sound is great.  Sure, this album is a document of some strange days.  But here’s what you really need to know  – when you get right down to it, Quarantine Blues rocks.

Go to Mike Zito's website and you'll find links to download the album, contribute to his GoFundMe campaign, and also a further 'Paying The Blues Forward' campaign to support other artists in need.

Wednesday, April 1, 2020

Albert Castiglia - Wild And Free

This is one of those nervously-licking-your-lips-in-anticipation releases. See, Albert Castiglia’s Masterpiece was my favourite album of 2019 – and to be honest it’s a mystery if you haven’t come across me shouting that from the rooftops already.  It was a juggernaut of an album, but with subtleties that brought its weight into sharp relief.
So I’ve been asking myself, would Albert – could he – live up to that heady mix with this live recording?  Or would he, perhaps, let rip with percussive power and guitar mayhem to the point that after 75 minutes I’d have to lie down in a darkened room for a good long spell?
Well, the good news is that Castiglia just about gets away with it.  Sure, he shoves the needle into the red a lot, and maybe overextends the soloing here and there.  But Wild And Free still includes enough moments of calm, relatively speaking, to let the music breathe – and just as importantly to give the listener a breather.
And in Albert's case, that's LOUD!

Four tracks in, ‘Heavy’ is a key moment of reassurance on this point, and a highlight to boot.  With its climbing, chiming riff, it cools things off after three helter-skelter tracks, creating a more solemn, bluesy setting for the reflective lyric, and Castiglia’s first solo is a well-paced, twisting and turning effort.  Then Lewis Stephens shifts from piano to B3, gradually building to waves of organ as the foundation for the closing segment of a song that grips the attention for nearly ten minutes.
By that time we’ve had the blistering opening of ‘Let The Big Dog Eat’, which kicks off with solid drums, throbbing bass, surging organ and fiery, scattergun guitar licks en route to a supercharged riff.  Then there’s ‘Hoodoo On Me’, which manages to match a dentist-drill riff to a swinging rhythm set by Justine Tompkins’ bass and Ephraim Lowell’s drums, as a precursor to some full steam ahead soloing from Castiglia, all punctuated by a knockout free-falling turnaround.  And ‘I Been Up All Night’ continues in the same vein with a screaming wah-wah intro, before easing back a tad with some relaxed, bopping bass and piano chording – though if that introduces some dynamics, there’s still room for plenty full-tilt guitar work.
The balance of throttle and brake continues with ‘Get Your Ass In The Van’ and ‘Searching The Desert For The Blues’.  The former is a pumped-up blues shuffle, with boogie-woogie piano complementing a slide guitar frenzy, and a quaking slide solo.  But the latter – not the Blind Willie McTell song of the same title, by the way, but from the pen of Floridian Graham Wood Drout – is at once a steadier but looser affair, with pulsing bass and some funky rhythm guitar.
By the same token ‘Keep On Swinging’, all pummelling riff offset by darts of piano, and a solid groove given extra curves by Tompkins’ bass, gives way to a cool opening on Johnny Winters’ ‘Too Much Seconal’ – well, as cool as they ever get.  Bizarrely, I actually reckon Castiglia’s screaming, pace-changing solo on the former is too low in the mix – if the guy’s going to go gonzo then surely he should be up front and centre – and it’s a flaw that occurs once or twice elsewhere.  Whatever, John Ginty and Mike Zito are both guests on ‘Seconal’, Ginty adding a strong, swinging organ solo while Zito gets properly bluesy but for me then getting somewhat carried away.
Down the stretch there’s swinging’n’stabbing R’n’B in the form of Paul Butterfield’s ‘Lovin’Cup’, with flashes and starbursts of guitar punctuating the vocal delivery; the pounding, in-your-face ‘I Tried To Tell Ya’, with its forceful, ringing riff; and then Freddie King’s instrumental ‘Boogie Funk’ does exactly what it says on the tin, packing a high tempo chugging riff and lots of back and forth, tension and release guitar work.  It goes on a bit, but I could imagine that on the night at the Funky Biscuit in Boca Raton it was simply the catalyst for a mass freakout. 
Wild And Free may not be a perfect live album, but it’s sure as hell well-titled.  Go find a white flag people, and surrender to the blues power of Albert Castiglia and his band!

Wild And Free is released by Gulf Coast Records on 3 April 2020.