Monday, August 31, 2020

Jim Kirkpatrick - Ballad Of A Prodigal Son

Air guitars at the ready?  Good, ‘cause you’re gonna want to strap ‘em on for this solo album by Jim Kirkpatrick, sometime wingman to Bernie Marsden, and guitarist with both melodic rockers FM and big band bluesers the Chris Bevington Organisation.
This isn’t to suggest that Ballad Of A Prodigal Son is a flat-out guitar extravaganza – Kirkpatrick is too interested in producing good songs for that.  But he sure leaves you in no doubt that he’s a fully qualified plank-spanker.
Take ‘Be Hard With It’ for example, a song that lives up to its title and then some, combining a rollercoaster riff, stomping drums, ripping chords, urgent vocals, and – oh yes, a wailing, wah-wah infused solo like a meteor whizzing past Space Station No.5.  And if you like that, axe fans,
Jim Kirkpatrick - he's got a guitar, and he's gonna play it
then you’re going to just lurve the penultimate track, ‘Brave New World’.  The album’s bona fide epic, it kicks off with a twinkling guitar motif and a sultry vibe as our Jim sings about being “bound for California”, before flexing its muscles and getting all big and dramatic en route to Kirkpatrick unleashing a veritable beast of a solo.  But brace yourself, because it turns out that’s him just warming up for his closing effort, which evolves into a howling monster that sounds like it’s escaped from Jurassic Park.  Or something like that.
Guitar hero is not Kirkpatrick’s default mode however, as the material on Ballad Of A Prodigal Son demonstrates.  ‘No Such Thing As A Sure Thing’ is a blues-infused rocker co-written with FM main man Steve Overland, with a rootsy intro of acoustic strumming and toots of harp that then gets sideswiped by a slamming riff.  It’s gritty, catchy, and well-constructed, and yes, you’ll want that air guitar handy for it too.  Meanwhile ‘Ain’t Going Down Alone’ is a mid-paced and moody affair that makes like something out of an early 80s Whitesnake songbook, and ‘Blue Heron Boulevard’ is an instrumental that sets Allman-like slide playing against sunshine-infused backing with a sheen reminiscent of Steely Dan.  The closing ‘All You Need Is All You Have’ also offers something different, a patient chill-out tune that swells and rolls likes the tide starting to come in on a sunset beach, before mustering a dramatic interlude, and another epic solo from Kirkpatrick over a ‘With A Little Help From My Friends’-like vocal refrain.
The one dud song on offer, relatively speaking, is the rather thin and predictable ‘Skin & Bone’.  But order is restored with the different blues facets evident in the following run of tracks.  ‘Always On The Road’, a co-write with Bernie Marsden, is good time, singalonga rock’n’roll replete with horns, honky tonk piano and Neil Murray on bass, that nods heavily towards Chris Bevington Organisation territory.  The following ’61 And 49’ is a tough and gutsy tale of the Clarksdale crossroads that’s appropriately stuffed with gritty slide, as well as some excellent, full-on backing vocals from Sarah Miller.  Then ‘Talk To Me’ is a blues ballad, kept simple but sprinkled with tasteful blues licks and a fluid solo, before ‘Gravy Train’, written by Rick Parfitt and John ‘Rhino’ Edwards, is a neck-snapping boogie express with a stinging guitar refrain to counterpoint the crunching riff.
But really you could guess at the quality of all this from the opening title track.  ‘Ballad Of A Prodigal Son’ features a snapping groove, a driving, stabbing riff, and strong vocals and harmonies typical of what follows.  It also features a simple little turnaround that doesn’t half remind me of Rainbow’s ‘Sensitive To Light’ – not that the two songs are really alike, but that gives you a clue to what the album is all about.  Call it blues rock, hard rock, or classic rock, call it what you will, Jim Kirkpatrick’s solo outing is a direct descendant of good stuff from days gone by, and it stands up pretty well in comparison.
So if you’re sitting there waiting with bated breath for the new Joe Bonamassa album, then stop it.  Breathe.  Relax.  And get your order in for Ballad Of A Prodigal Son.  You won’t be disappointed.


Ballad Of A Prodigal Son is released on 4 September, and can be ordered here:

Tuesday, August 25, 2020

The Allman Betts Band - Bless Your Heart

Devon Allman has taken, I gather, to suggesting that the Allman Betts Band hail from “the United States of Americana”.  And that turns out to be more than just a neat line, because Bless Your Heart benefits from the variety that comes from venturing into some different, and modern-sounding, Americana territory now and then.  Which is just as well, because with an album weighing in at 72 minutes, ploughing a stereotypical Southern rock furrow from end to end could have been fatiguing.
So while the opener ‘Pale Horse Rider’ features some excellent guitar interplay, by turns harmonising and counterpointing, and Allman’s vocal is still yer typical Southern drawl, the overall effect is ruminative and shimmering in a way that hints at those indie folkies Fleet Foxes, who are scarcely anyone’s idea of good ol’ boys.
The Allman Betts Band show off their new Mod image
They’re closer to home on the likes of ‘Ashes Of My Lovers’ and ‘Rivers Run’ though, recalling different facets of the Drive-By Truckers.  The former marries twangy guitar chords to a loping rhythm redolent of Ennio Morricone, but with Duane Betts’ slightly nasal vocal and wails of harp from guest Jimmy Hall it has a ragged charm as it layers different textures on top of each other.  And the latter, with its acoustic strumming, is akin to the DBTs in “pretty” mode.  It may be overlong, and the lyrics a bit sappy, but the acoustic guitar solo is appealing, and there’s also a pleasing touch of slowed-down ‘Jessica’ about the climbing guitar line that appears halfway through.
If that stirs comparisons with the Allman Brothers though, it’s got nothing on ‘Savannah’s Dream’, which is likely to have Allmans fans drooling with pleasure.  Now, if you’d told me in advance that the album featured a 12-minute instrumental with some jazzy pretensions, I might have run for the hills.  But fair play to 'em, they make it work in style.  After some initial messing about a stuttering electric piano line triggers jazzy, tripping drums from John Lum, and then they’re off on an adventure that features some stylish guitar motifs, the three guitars working in concert very nicely, thank you very much.  There’s a damn fine, sonically interesting piano solo from John Ginty, bracketed by a couple of guitar solos, the second of which – from Betts, I’m guessing – takes them through the gears as it reaches for the skies, with Lum’s drums reinforced by R Scott Bryan’s percussion.  And if that’s not enough for you, then the later ‘Should We Ever Part’ could be its second cousin, with added vocals, some more propulsive drumming, plenty of urgency, and a catchy harmonised guitar riff.
Other highlights include ‘The Doctor’s Daughter’, a simple, sometimes Beatle-is ballad that leans heavily on Ginty’s elegant piano and atmospheric weeping guitar as the backing for Oakley’s sparing vocal, and is stretched out to good effect by a steely, Hispanic-tinged acoustic guitar solo.  Merit badges all round for that one.  Meantime ‘Southern Rain’ may start off with a rather prosaic verse, but it then grabs the attention with its falsetto refrain of ‘I believe in you’ and echoing guitar theme, before the guitars really go to work, playing off each other, off Ginty’s washes of organ, and Allman’s vocal riffing.  And I’ve also got a soft spot for the slide-and-sax-fired uptempo boogie of ‘King Crawler’, a good time tune that jangles along nicely.  It’s inconsequential but fun, and closes with a sax solo by guest Art Edmaiston that should have been higher in the mix.
They can’t keep up the standard across thirteen tracks though.  ‘Magnolia Road’ is an okay tune, but ultimately same-old-same-old sentimental Southern stuff despite another injection of quality piano from Ginty.  And things tail off in pretty tame fashion with ‘Much Obliged’ – on which Allman goes for a Johnny Cash vocal vibe, for reasons passing understanding – and ‘Congratulations’.
There is also, of course, a lot of slide guitar on offer.  Now, I love great slide playing, but there is a style of squeaking, slithering Southern slide guitar that’s too sweet for my tastes at times, and which duly becomes wearing after a while here.  Some more grit would be welcome from time to time.
But for all that, Bless Your Heart finds the Allman Betts Band broadening and deepening their sound, the whole being more than just the sum of their parts – and if they continue to explore new horizons, a serious proposition in their own right rather than keepers of an ancestral flame.

Bless Your Heart is released by BMG on 28 August.

Monday, August 17, 2020

Fantastic Negrito - Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?

Well, he’s back, and looking as out-of-the-box as ever.  Yes, it’s Fantastic Negrito, with his new album Have You Lost Your Mind Yet?  And on the cover he's wearing a fur-collared jacket that would suit Rasputin going for tea at the Winter Palace.
The Negrito formula remains much the same as on previous outings such as Please Don’t Be Dead – which is to say, he rejigs elements of black music genres like he’s fiddling compulsively with a Rubik cube.  “All kinds of things can happen in the world”, he sings repeatedly on the 55 second, syncopated-handclapping vignette ‘Shigamabu Blues’, and across the 11 tracks here goes about proving the truth of that statement.
Fantastic Negrito - zig-zagging his way through black music
Opening track ‘Chocolate Samurai’ is about as straight up as it gets, if that’s a valid description for what sounds like James Brown grabbing the core of Stevie Wonder’s groove on ‘Higher Ground’, shaking it upside down, and chucking in curve balls like a descending trill reminiscent of ‘Sir Duke’, a wonky guitar solo, a fabulously daft turnaround, and some jazzy piano.
  And while the lyrics include the album title, you may well recall more readily his admonition to “Eat less sugar, have more sex.”  Which sounds like a pretty good prescription to me.
Or there’s ‘Searching For Captain Save A Hoe’ – he does good titles, does Negrito – which is a staccato narrative delivered with punch à la Macy Gray.  Except the recipe also includes a doomy riff that now and then squelches and honks its way in from the margins, plus some sweet harmonies, a flurry of controlled rapping, and some groovy lead guitar.  And out of all that I come away with the thought that Negrito may well have spent as much time listening to Frank Zappa as the more obvious pathfinder Prince.
He can keep things relatively simple too, mind you.  Over the years his go-to schtick has often been a Moby-like transfiguration of a work song vibe, and you get that here with ‘I’m So Happy I Cry’, albeit with the core elements colliding with slithering organ and some wacky rapping from guest Tarriona "Tank" Ball, of Tank and the Bangas (nope, me neither).  And ‘How Long’ allies a dreamily vocalised verse to a chorus featuring a thudding ‘Mistreated’-style riff reinforced by clipped blasts of organ, to which yer man then adds a fluid, pinging guitar solo for further embellishment.
‘Your Sex Is Overrated’ is founded on vocals that are equal parts Sixties soul rasp and Prince-like head voice, over restrained, spacy backing that rouses itself as Negrito reaches a blissed-out peak.  And the guitar solo is mellow too, over perfectly melded bass, drums and keys, before it takes off to herald the conclusion.
A couple of tracks cut less mustard.  ‘These Are My Friends’ may have a punchy and snarling verse, and a swelling chorus that winks at the Fab Four, but it lacks any kind of killer twist, while the slower rumination of ‘All Up In My Space’, with its mantra-like chorus, is simply overlong, despite being enlivened by a funky, soulful organ break.
Speaking of funk though, the album closes with two corking examples.  First there’s ‘King Frustration’, which emerges from a mellow organ intro into a twitching, jerking funk groove like a puppet on a string, and throws in a trippy, hurdy gurdy bridge ahead of a squealing guitar solo and a suitably warped-classical slice of organ.  Then for afters there’s the throbbing, thrusting, grinding groove of ‘Platypus Dipster’, its brief guitar break sounding like it’s being squeezed out of a toothpaste tube.
Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? confirms that Fantastic Negrito is a non-conformist stirrer of rock/funk/soul and whatever else may be a distantly bleeping, clanking, rapping descendant of the blues – an evangelist for the musical misfits.  Dig it, people!

Have You Lost Your Mind Yet? was released on Cooking Vinyl/Blackball Universe on 14 August.

Wednesday, August 12, 2020

Walter Trout - Ordinary Madness

Sometimes an album just grabs you, right from the git-go.  So it is with Ordinary Madness, the latest offering from Walter Trout.  Right from the opening title track, the old blues-rocking warhorse is on the top of his game – and I’m not just talking about guitar-wrangling people.  No, Trout is in cracking form here on several fronts.

‘Ordinary Madness’ is an atmospheric piece of songwriting about everyday troubles, emerging out of a warbling electronic intro.  It’s brooding and claustrophobic, set to a loose beat like a wolf stalking you in the dark of the night.  It’s got clever lyrics, and a tense, strung-out guitar solo that eventually takes flight before sliding back into the metaphorical murk.  It’s really good – and it’s just the start.

In fact, the front half of this 11-track album is stacked with goodies.  ‘Wanna Dance’ is an

Walter Trout - just your everyday guitar madness
Pic by Christophe Losberger
uptempo counterpart to the title track, all ringing chords, urgency, and a need for release, sung with conviction by Trout and backed up by a wiry solo, over a stomping beat and crashing cymbals.  But it’s the following ‘My Foolish Pride’ that really elevates proceedings to a whole other level.  A reflective ballad that floats somewhere in the continuum between Willie Nelson and Bruce Springsteen, it makes the very most of picked guitar, occasional swells of organ, and a heartfelt vocal, to create something that’s simple and lovely.  Oh yeah, and there’s some guitar playing that’s perfectly judged in how it serves the song.
Interested yet?  How about ‘Heartland’, a third person narrative about a young woman’s dreams of something better, with a Tom Petty vibe full of retro Sixties leanings, vocal harmonies, and even some mournful accordion to counterpoint Trout’s razor-sharp soloing.

What you should have noticed by now is that I’m emphasising Trout’s imaginative song-writing and arrangements, and thoughtful lyrics with vocal performances to match, as much as his guitar playing.  But for anyone who's worried that there’s not enough mention of out-and-out blues, ‘All Out Of Tears’ will provide reassurance, and then some.  A straight-up slow blues, with some tasteful piano and organ in the mix, it rubs along very nicely, until the shift into the second segment of Trout’s first solo promotes it to another league, with some nice interplay from Johnny Griparic’s bass towards the end too.  Would it be pushing it to say that it could be to Trout what ‘Still Got The Blues’ was to Gary Moore?  Give it a whirl, and decide for yourself.

I’d be kidding if I said that the back end of the album consistently scales the same heights, but it’s still darned good.  In particular, ‘Final Curtain Call’ is a tough, mid-paced rocker with a trilling riff akin to The Guess Who’s ‘American Woman’, to which Trout adds some interesting twists with harp accompaniment, and vocal harmonising on the outro.  ‘The Sun Is Going Down’ is an unsentimental reflection on the ageing process, leading off with psychedelic-era harmonies and a reined-in guitar theme, more toots of harp for colour, clear-eyed lyrics – “Time, it’s brutally honest, and it’s so unfair” – and then a rocked-up coda shaken’n’stirred by some wang-dang guitar.  And ‘Make It Right’ is a rock-solid blues-rock song, with a bouncing rhythm and a downbeat mid-section with weeping guitar notes.

And you have to smile at the closing ‘OK Boomer’, a typically Trout-ish piece of social commentary, a raucous rock song that’s a tongue-in-cheek flipping of the bird to millenials’ criticism of the baby boomer generation.  “I like my music loud,” sings Trout, “I’m geriatric, and I’m proud!”

And so he should be.  Trout has delivered an album that shows off an impressive song-writing palette, equally impressively executed.  In a year that has seen the release of a remarkable pack of top drawer albums jostling for attention, Ordinary Madness is about to come hurtling up on the rails. Walter Trout is one Boomer who is definitely okay.

Ordinary Madness is released by Provogue Records on 28 August. 

Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Kirk Fletcher - My Blues Pathway

Given that Kirk Fletcher is known first and foremost as a standout blues guitarist, it may seem odd to kick off a review of his latest album by talking about lyrics.  But hey, stick with me a minute here, huh?

Seems to me there’s a theme that emerges from a few songs on My Blues Pathway.  ‘Struggle For Grace’ is about the challenge of pushing troubles aside to make the best of yourself.  The Sonny Boy Williamson cover ‘Fattening Frogs For Snakes’ is about no longer doing the hard graft only for others to reap the benefit.  And in selecting Chris Cain’s ‘Place In This World Somewhere’, Fletcher also makes an assertive statement about the day-to-day trials of trying to

You're holding that guitar all wrong you know, Kirk.
Pic by Rick Gould
carve out a space for yourself.  It sounds to me like our Kirk is expressing a determination to make his musical efforts count, to be seen not just as a guy who “coulda bin somebody”, but as an artist whose work really does get attention.
Well, I reckon that with My Blues Pathway Fletcher shows that at his best he’s not just an outstanding blues guitarist, he’s an out of this world blues guitarist.  The first time I saw him live he blew me away, and several tracks here attain that same rarefied level.  This is a guy who can play within the constraints of the blues framework, but also come at you from fresh angles – and without resorting to raw speed.

Take ‘Struggle For Grace’.  On a fluid intro Fletcher effortlessly evokes BB King, all sweetness.  He gets his lyrical point across with a strong vocal, and then moaning horns create a floating backdrop for a fluttering solo of terrific control and lightness.  The outro shows his mastery of tension and release too, but that’s just a warm-up for what he does on the later ‘Heart So Heavy’.  Another self-penned song, it’s a classic slow blues in a minor key, featuring lots of interaction between his soulful vocal and responsive guitar licks.  Then Fletcher produces a couple of solos that go from teasing restraint, hanging back and hanging back, into sudden shifts of gear into higher revolutions, while he adds in twists and turns to wrongfoot you in the most beguiling way.

He can do this on more upbeat stuff too, like the funky cover of sax player AC Reed’s ‘Rather Fight Than Switch’, on which fun guitar breaks abound as he grabs your ear with an unusual wobbly guitar tone, and horns come in to fatten up the song for a bright ending.  Or the way he plays around with a discordant riff on the Texas blues-styled ‘D Is For Denny’, a tribute to his friend Denny Freeman on which some combinations of notes are enough to make me wonder if Fletcher is playing two guitars at once.  Meantime, on the light and breezy funk of ‘Place In This World Somewhere’, his solo plays around with the melody in a way that serves the song beautifully, before he conjures up some jazzy handbrake turns en route to a brief, bleeping fade-out.

‘Place In This World Somewhere’ is, however, one of the occasions when Fletcher sounds out of his comfort zone vocally, as is also the case on the single ‘No Place To Go’.  But he's more at home on the smoothly funky Robert Cray-style blues of the opening ‘Ain’t No Cure For Downhearted’ – also featuring a zippily neat and precise solo – and the gospel-tinged soulfulness of ‘Love Is More Than A Word’, and elsewhere he produces the most confident vocals I’ve heard from him to date, not least on the aforementioned ‘Heart So Heavy’.  And he relaxes nicely into the closing ‘Life Gave Me A Dirty Deal’, a simple old-style blues based on just guitars and harp, on which he’s content to yield the instrumental foreground to Josh Smith on resonator guitar and Charlie Musselwhite on harp – the latter stealing the show.

My Blues Pathway isn’t end-to-end brilliant - it takes a few songs to get up a head of steam, and there are those dips vocally.  But when it’s good it’s bloody marvellous, with strong songs and arrangements - and get ready to prick up your ears for some truly great guitar playing.

My Blues Pathway is released by Cleopatra Records on 25 September