Thursday, September 24, 2020

Listened To Lately - Jimmy Regal And The Royals, and Crawlback Featuring Johnny Bird

We’re going harp-tastic today here at Blues Enthused, with reviews of two albums of different blues flavours, but both with harmonica well to the fore.

Jimmy Regal And The Royals – Late Night Chicken

That ol’ Thames Delta is still producing R’n’B, evidently, as demonstrated by this ten track collection of originals and covers from South London’s Jimmy Regal And The Royals – who do not, in fact, include anyone by the name of Jimmy Regal.

What we have here is an itchy and scratchy vibe that’s part North Mississippi Hill Country, and part Seventies post-punk R’n’B’n’rock’n’roll, the latter evident right from the off in the title track, a spartan, urgent, devil-may-care affair, with blasts of harp from singer Joff Watkins over CJ Williams’ barbed-wire guitar and Sammy Samuels’ rushing drums.

Jimmy Regal And The Royals - gimme gimme gimme fried chicken!
Williams is responsible for six of the seven originals on offer, and is evidently a student of the North Mississippi sound.  ‘Sun’s Gonna Rise’ is a brooding, grooving outing that’s primitive and prickly, with a digression in which the guitar and harp go a-duellin’.  But ‘Going To The Fair’ has a different complexion – languid, swinging and simple in a way that would have fitted right into the North Mississippi Allstars latest album Up And Rolling, with another good groove and some meandering harp from Watkins that suggests he’s been at the mushroom tea recommended by the NMA gang.  And these two tracks set things up nicely for the later cover of Junior Kimbrough’s ‘All Night Long’, with Williams trying on a fuzzy guitar sound reminiscent of early Black Keys, and Watkins delivering a quavering, Gene Vincent-like vocal.
‘Regal Alley’ is an instrumental that kicks off with a spooky, midnight-in-the-graveyard intro, before deferring to a jabbing riff and some spiky lead guitar explorations from Williams, underpinned by a bass line that here and there sounds like – a tuba?  (There ain’t no bass player in the Royals.)  Meanwhile ‘That’s All It Took’ is another original, with a ringing ‘Girl Can’t Help It’ style riff and a brisk, punkish verve that makes the early Stray Cats sound smooth.

The other covers are well-served too, with a crashing version of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Commit A Crime’ that’s suitably attired in gusts of harp, and sounds like it belongs in some dirt floor juke joint.  And Dr John’s ‘Lights Out’ is a flash-fried reading that’s in and out, over and done inside two minutes – flat-out rock’n’roll built for a sweat-strewn club.

But the most imaginative choon here is the marvellous ‘Can’t Cry No More’, a spangly, pretty, coruscating affair from the pen of Williams that runs to over six minutes, with additional percussion from Alan Hughes and kora – a 21-string African instrument - courtesy of Diabel Cissokho adding an extra dimension to Watkins’ sweet, Mark Feltham style harp playing.

Gotta say, this Late Night Chicken is pretty juicy, notwithstanding its gnarly, garage rock aesthetic.  Jimmy Regal And The Royals are a combo who sound like they’ve written a manifesto for jagged, bed-of-nails R’n’B, and are intent on delivering it.

Late Night Chicken is released on 25 September by Lunaria Records.



Crawlback, featuring Johnny Bird – Crawlback

Hailing from South Wales, Crawlback (the title of a track by Mississippi bluesman Frank Frost, btw) pursue a vintage R’n’B approach on this debut album populated predominantly by covers – though they do throw in a couple of curve balls along the way.

Led by harp player and singer Johnny Bird, Crawlback are in the “little big band” vein, as illustrated by jump blues opener ‘I Got No Reason’, with Bird’s harmonica occupying the space that would often be taken by a sax man, and some rocking piano with an appealing bumpity-bump left-hand rhythm, as I’m sure no piano teacher ever called it.  Jimmy Reed’s ‘Found Love’

Johnny Bird - blow that harp, boy!
follows, taking a more languid R’n’B tack that this time features sweet harp from Bird – including a literally breathtaking long note.
There are cracking renditions too, of Howlin’ Wolf’s ‘Forty Four’ and Junior Wells’ ‘Little By Little’.  Bird rips into the classic harp riff on the former, and if it’s ultimately in vain to compete with the Wolf vocally, Bird stands up for himself all the same, his gutsy voice pushed through a bullet mic by the sound of it.  ‘Little By Little’ grooves along nicely on Colin Griffin’s simple drums and Paul Hurley’s swinging bass, while Mark Phillips gets down to some stinging business on guitar with both the stuttering riff and his solo.

One of the curve balls comes with the self-penned ‘Cash Flow Problem’, which on one level is traditional R’n’B, but gets funky with it and features Bird rapping the verses about modern-day privations.  At the other extreme comes ‘Caravan’, the Duke Ellington instrumental which they deliver in style, tapping into its tripping, nimble rhythms neatly while Bird serves up both the snake-charmer-like theme and some bird-like high pitched soloing.

They also have the option to call on Bella Collins to deliver female lead vocals, and duly do so on a jazzy, swinging reading of Etta James’ ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’, on which Phillips deploys a more liquid guitar tone than the brittle, pinging style evident on some other tracks. Collins also adds tasteful backing vocals to the effervescent rockabilly of ‘Blues Stop Knockin’’ (once recorded by Lazy Lester and Jimmie Vaughan, methinks), with Bird getting jaunty on harmonica.  But she really shines on the slow blues of ‘More Than One’, with a fluid, soulful vocal underpinned by Bird’s tooting harp, while Phillips adds some squeaking slide guitar.

‘Wild Man’ brings proceedings to a relaxed close, belying its title with a strolling tempo, warm guitar chords, and rinky dink piano fills to go with Bird’s woozy harp.  You can almost see the tendrils of smoke from the weed mentioned in the lyrics.

Crawlback may feature Johnny Bird, but this is an ensemble effort for which all concerned deserve credit.  It may be old-fashioned, it may be mostly covers, but it’s done with both quality and heart.

Crawlback is available for £5 here.

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