Monday, December 28, 2020

Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking 2020 - Part 2

Still full of Christmas cheer, people?  Well, here’s Part 2 of the Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking to keep you smiling.
Now, you might think that live music is a curious choice for this piece to focus on, at the end of a year that was almost a total write-off for gigs from around mid-March.  But hey, there were a few live albums this year, from artists old and new, to remind us of the power of live music.
At the very top of the tree is Check Shirt Wizard – Live In ’77, by Rory Gallagher.  Released in March, I said in my review that I’d be dumbfounded if there was a better album this year, and I stand by that statement.  Check Shirt Wizard is a breath-taking document of what Rory brought to the stage back then – a four piece on full throttle, barnstorming, dynamic form, led by a man with a musical mojo of mythic proportions.  If you want to get in the mood, check out this footage of ‘Calling Card’, from a Hammersmith Odeon performance that year.

Another in concert collection from a late Irish legend arrived in January, with Gary Moore’s Live From London.  Recorded in 2009, it’s not without its flaws, but it’s still a testament to how rediscovering the blues back in 1990 brought a much stronger focus to Moore’s work.  Hard core fans will love the guitar pyrotechnics for which he always had a penchant, but for me it’s when he lays back a bit and captures the emotion in songs that he’s at his best, whether it’s the heartache of ‘Still Got The Blues’ or the humour of ‘Too Tired’.  Here he is having some fun with ‘Walking By Myself’, at the 2010  Montreux Jazz Festival.

A more contemporary live recording released this year came from Albert Castiglia, with Wild And Free, recorded in Boca Raton in November 2019.  Now Albert, like Gary Moore, is fond of letting it rip in the guitar stakes, and he certainly does that a few times in the course of this set.  But there’s light and shade in there too – as well as some special guests.  This performance of Johnny Winter’s ‘Too Much Seconal’, filmed in Poland a few weeks before the Boca Raton gig, is a pretty good illustration of the Castiglia style.

But lest anyone think that quality live albums are the sole preserve of guitar slingers, singer Sari Schorr chipped in with a goodie back in February in the form of Live In Europe.  At its best it serves up sassy, rockin’ blues with a dash of funk, decorated by quality guitar from Ash Wilson and keys from (depending on the cut) Bob Fridzema and Stevie Watts, as a platform for Schorr to do her forceful vocal stuff.  Here they are giving it some welly on the brooding 'Damn The Reason', back in 2018.

If there’s someone who really should have released a live album in 2020, to fill the void in touring work, it’s the woman who probably does around 200 gigs in the course of normal year – Samantha Fish.  Let’s face it, she and her management must have piled up some decent recordings of her incendiary live shows by now, and her fanbase have been drooling at the prospect for a good while now.  On the plus side, I did manage to catch a couple of British shows early in the year, including the London gig at Islington Assembly Hall, before she had to pull the plug on her European tour in mid-March.  Here she is in Denver back in February, having fun on ‘Bitch On The Run’, complete with compulsory singalong.

One of the few other bands I managed to catch before live music came to a crashing halt was Wille & The Bandits, in their new four-piece incarnation.  To my mind they're a band who deserve considerably more attention than they currently seem to get, as they manage to extend their blues foundations into prog rock terrain, with world music influences thrown into the mix for good measure.  To demonstrate my point, here they are with 12 minutes' worth of the epic instrumental 'Angel', from a 2020 performance in France.

I can't say I've devoted a lot of time to watching the streaming of live shows, though naturally quite a few artists have gone down this road in an effort to keep the home fires burning.  Sometimes that's just been a matter of timing - shows in the States often hit our screens in the middle of the night here in Europe.  But there's also the missing ingredient to contend with - the magic of simply being there, in the room when the music is being made, and being part of the interaction with the artist.  And with that in mind, let's hope this pandemic beats a retreat before too long, so that we can all get back to enjoying live music for real.

You can find Part 1 of the Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking here.

Thursday, December 24, 2020

Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking 2020 - Part 1

Oh, the irony!  2020 has been a disastrous year for any professional musician not insulated by superstardom, with live music ravaged and with it the opportunity for many CD and merchandise sales.  But at the same time it’s been an astonishingly good year for new studio albums – possibly the best I can remember over the six years I’ve been writing this stuff.

So with that in mind, Part 1 of this year’s Christmas Stocking review is given over to reminders of ten of the best examples - and look out for the links to the original album reviews.  This ain’t a chart, and it’s not an exhaustive list, so you may well have favourites that don’t appear.  But that probably just underlines the strength in depth that 2020 brought us.

First up then, are Denmark’s finest, Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado, who lit up January with their latest album Come On In.  Apart from his distinctive bass voice, Risager is a songwriter with an acute sense of his blues inspirations but who also finds fresh angles.  And on Come On In that leads to material making refreshing use of acoustic guitar in addition to the Black Tornado’s usual big band sound, plus intriguing rhythms courtesy of drummer Martin Seidelin.  Here’s an early live take of the title track, dating back to 2018.

Of course, coronavirus lockdowns themselves became the stimulus for new work.  Two of the best results, for me, were Mike Zito’s Quarantine Blues, and on this side of the Atlantic the Birdmens collaboration that resulted in the album Lockdown Loaded.
Zito was first out of the blocks, evidently driven by frustration and financial concern after he was forced to abandon a lengthy European tour that had barely started.  Knocked out in just two weeks, Quarantine Blues crackled with creative energy, and did what Zito is best at, getting beyond pure blues into broader terrain.  As I said in my review, it’s a goddamn rock’n’roll rekkud!  Here he is with the Petty-esque 'Looking Out This Window', from a rare live excursion in June this year.

The Birdmens gang, inspired by a bundle of drum loops from producer and guitarist Dave Doherty, and featuring the likes of Ian Siegal, Jon Amor, Bob Fridzema and Jonny Henderson, rocked up at the end of May with Lockdown Loaded, an eclectic batch of barnstormers ranging from Delta stomp to Zepped-up funk to keening Americana.  Have a gander at this video of ‘Cover It Up’, which sounds a bit like it’s escaped from the theme to ancient TV show A Man In A Suitcase!

Some new names made a mark for me this year too, starting off with Norfoll-based Little Red Kings.  Their second album, The Magic Show Part One, was a cattleprod-jolt of rootsy rock, with a clutch of curveballs thrown in to keep you on your musical toes.  Here’s the unusual lyric video for one of those curveballs, the subtle and moody ‘Magic Show’ itself.

Canada’s Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar are a more straightforward proposition: scorching Sixties-style soul music, with a singer in young Samantha who sounds like she could tear your playhouse down.  Their album The Reckless One is swinging, torch-carrying, love-in-vain R’n’B fare, and mostly originals to boot.  Get yourself in the groove with this video of them in upbeat, 'Nowhere To Run' mode, with ‘Don’t Have To Be’.

But the new name that made the biggest impression was When Rivers Meet, aka married British musos Grace and Aaron Bond, who have stormed into the rock consciousness with the unorthodox bluesiness of their debut album We Fly Free.  Why unorthodox?  Because they’re flying free of the guitar solo-ing norms of blues-rock, and foregrounding their voices – especially the eye-popping singing of Grace as she sweeps from delicate hush to adrenalin rush.  Guitar does feature, but largely as a rhythm and slide engine, with embellishments provided by Mamzelle Bond via injections of fiddle and – wait for it – resonator mandolin slide playing.  Anyhoo, check ‘em out on this video of ‘Tomorrow’, from one of their 2019 EPs!

Regular readers will know that I get a bit sniffy about some of the ‘Southern rock’ that gets paraded around as having a blues/blues-rock appeal.  But that’s an argument for another day, because there was one Southern rock album this year that brooked no argument.  Last Light On The Highway by Robert Jon & The Wreck was a hook-laden belter.  Maybe it’s because they’re not good ol’ boys from the Deep South, but from California, but Robert Jon & The Wreck mostly avoided getting sucked into latter-day Southern rock stereotypes.  Still, if you like an Allman Brothers guitar sound, you should enjoy them on 'Do You Remember'.

Which just leaves us with three more familiar names to conjure with - Walter Trout, Jim Kirkpatrick, and King King.
Now, Walter Trout may be regarded by many as yer archetypal, guitar-flaying blues-rocker.  But to my mind there’s more to the fella than that – to wit, he’s a damn good songwriter who isn’t a slave to the 12-bar format.  And his latest album Ordinary Madness proves my point, with tracks ranging across various styles.  Get a load of ‘Heartland’, for example, as a classy example of rootsy rock.

Jim Kirkpatrick may not have a host of solo albums behind him - just one, in fact, before this year.  But he's still a known quantity by virtue of his work with FM, the Chris Bevington Organisation and more besides.  And he deserves a bigger following on the back of his new solo outing, Ballad Of The Prodigal Son, he really does.  It’s not full-on guitar overload from start to finish, but our Jim doesn’t half let rip at times.  Whether it’s blues, boogie, glossy instrumental or throw-in-the-kitchen-sink, the songs impress – bar one, and I’ll forgive him that – the delivery is great, and the guitar playing runs wild.  Check out the video for the monumental ‘Brave New World’, and tell me if I’m wrong.

And then there's King King.  Alan Nimmo has recast the King King line-up, and completed their metamorphosis from modern British blues heralds to fully-fledged Adult Orientated Rockers.  With a leading role for newly-liberated secret weapon Jonny Dyke on keyboards, new album Maverick finds the KK boys switching from glossy hard rock to gob-smacking power ballad and back again with consummate ease.  Check out the video for the mountainous 'Never Give In' for starters.

So there we have the first instalment of goodies for your edification and delight.  Merry Christmas one and all - go easy on the cake and mince pies, and we'll get together for Part 2 next week!

You can find Part 1 of the 2020 Blues Enthused Christmas Stocking here.

Wednesday, December 23, 2020

Martin Barre - 50 Years Of Jethro Tull

The last time I saw Jethro Tull was ten years ago, when I drove through a filthy night of wind and snow to see them on their fortieth anniversary tour, and they opened the show with Ian Anderson and Martin Barre stage front, aptly playing the atmospheric acoustic track ‘Dun Ringill’ with its “Stormwatch brews” lyric.
Nowadays of course, the pair have gone their separate ways.  But here’s Martin Barre popping up with a 28 track, two CD retrospective celebrating 50 Years Of Jethro Tull.  And why not?  Anderson may have been the well-spring for all things Tull, but if there’s anyone else with a sure grasp on the band’s aesthetic it must be Barre, his wingman for so many years.  And so it proves with this intriguing, satisfying collection of Tull material.
The songs are of course shorn of Anderson’s flute playing and idiosyncratic vocals.  But the
Martin Barre now . . .
interest levels are maintained by a track selection that blends deep cuts with old favourites, and brings some fresh arrangements to bear – particularly so in the case of Disc 2, which features female vocals from Alex Hart and Becca Langford on stripped back versions of several songs.
But to begin at the beginning, Disc 1 focuses on a batch of live-in-the-studio performances, including the likes of ‘My Sunday Feeling’ and ‘Hymn 43’, on which Tull’s bluesy roots are apparent even as they’re bent into different shapes.  On the former, with its tense ascending riff, there’s a relaxed swing under the melody, but it’s disrupted by bursts of bright chords, stinging flurries of guitar notes from Barre, and sharp drum fills from Darby Todd.  The more contemplative, mid-paced ‘Hymn 43’ is most notable for Barre’s feisty guitar licks, a suitable counterpart to Anderson’s acerbic lyric about the misuse of religion.  And later there’s ‘Teacher’, a personal favourite, weaving more bluesiness around its two-steps-forward, two-steps-back riff and its shifts from swinging to gutsy, before concluding with a blazing Barre solo over a crashing rhythm section.  
‘For A Thousand Mothers’ is a hectic affair, with a trademark byzantine Tull riff over complex, ducking and diving drums, which Barre accents with a succession of guitar breaks, ahead of lower-pitched solo.  ‘Sealion’ develops from a spiky, discordant intro to lay out simple, muscular riffing and scurrying guitar lines as a basis for Anderson’s metaphorical lyric about performing animals (like your friendly neighbourhood rock band), leaving space for the imagery then underlining it.  ‘Back To The Family’ references folk-rock elements from the Tull game plan, then bursts into life with Barre knocking out a piercing solo, accelerating over the racing rhythm section.  And speaking of folk-rock, while vocalist Dan Crisp wisely avoids outright imitation of Anderson’s vocal style, as songs go by his delivery hints more at English folkiness, perhaps reflecting his previous associations with various Fairport alumni.
They crank things up with a run of ‘Hunting Girl’, the aforementioned ‘Teacher’, and ‘Steel Monkey’.  The first shows off peak-Tull twisting and turning and mixing of folk and heaviness, the music again informing the story, and with some terrific guitar/bass harmonising between Barre and Alan Thomson.  The last is a more modern rocker, with heavy riffing, a tense and tough vibe, and a great bass line from Thomson adding to the groove.
. . . and then
Contrastingly, the second disc opens in dreamy form with ‘Wond’ring Aloud’, the voices of Alex Hart and Becca Langford winding together over sparse acoustic backing.  They follow that up with ‘Someday The Sun Won’t Shine’, a two-minute acoustic blues that Larkin Poe would be proud of, with another delicious female vocal over acoustic strumming and a glittering acoustic guitar break.  And ‘Life’s A Long Song’ completes a beautiful trio of tunes, with another pure vocal over magical, precise guitar picking from Barre, and understated complementary bass from Thomson – on stand-up bass, I’m guessing.
On ‘Under Wraps’ electric guitar and drums add more muscle and swing to proceedings, but with Hart and Langford’s singing it’s a more organic take than the original, more electronic version.  And later they bring a beguiling new dimension to ‘Locomotive Breath’, all rippling guitar and mandolin over insistent, nagging bodhrán, adorned by languid, layered female voices.  Meantime a purely instrumental rendition of ‘Home’ is exquisitely wistful.
Dan Crisp returns to the microphone for some tracks, delivering an aching vocal on the subdued ‘Still Loving You Tonight’, with its ticking rhythm guitar and sparkling lead lines, and getting into a lower register for the Celtic-feeling ‘Slow Marching Band’ as it shifts from reflective to rousing.  And he also has the last word, as they close the circle with the blues-based ‘A New Day Yesterday’, light and shade swirling around its beefy riff and swaggering rhythm.
The set also includes four tracks taken from a 2019 show in the States, at which Tull bandmates Clive Bunker and Dee Palmer guested on drums and keys.  Of these, the intricacies and folk elements of ‘Heavy Horses’ and ‘Songs From The Wood’ do more for me than ‘Warchild’ and the rather shallow ‘Bungle In The Jungle’.
But it’s the rediscovery of old songs, and the fresh take on others on Disc 2 in particular, that make 50 Years Of Jethro Tull a worthwhile exercise.  Those factors, and one other:  Martin Barre continues to be a twelfth-dan, black-belt rock guitarist, and a way more interesting player than many big-name axe merchants one could name.

50 Years Of Jethro Tull was released by The Store For Music on 6 November, and is available here.

Tuesday, December 15, 2020

Kevin Burt - Stone Crazy

On the cover of his latest album Stone Crazy, Kevin Burt is perched on the tail end of a pick-up truck, with an electric guitar in his hands.  So far, so typical of yer average modern-day bluesman.  Except that this doesn’t really tell the story of the Kevin Burt sound.
There are three things that caught my attention, listening to Stone Crazy.  One, there’s Burt’s voice, which is a resonant, molasses-rich instrument.  Two, there’s a ringing, acoustic-like quality to some of the rhythm guitar parts, and if that’s no longer a surprise when two minutes’ research reveals that our Kev is often to be found with an acoustic guitar in his mitts, it still brings a different dimension to the sound.  And three, on a few tracks his harmonica playing collides with some funky grooves to create a novel contrast.
Kevin Burt - ain't got no problems

This third trait is apparent on opening track ‘I Ain’t Got No Problem With It’, with bright harp licks over a shuffling beat from drummer Matt Johnson and choppy rhythm guitar – electric on this occasion, I reckon, but restrained – and Burt making good on the title with a laid back vocal showing off some good phrasing.  There’s less funk to ‘Rain Keeps Coming Down’, but here Burt’s harp and some vocal testifyin’ are played off against an acoustic guitar riff, darting and dodging bass from Doug Byrkit, and subtle slide which I take to be the work of Mike Zito, who sat in the producer’s chair as well as contributing guitar parts.  ‘Should Never Have Left Me Alone’ is a less distinctive song, but there’s still a chirpy harp solo to go with Johnson’s skipping drums, with Lewis Stephens adding some piano flourishes from variety.
That ringing acoustic sound rolls along over a snappy beat on ‘Purdy Lil Thang’, creating an appealing, catchy groove over which Zito lays some intriguing, off kilter guitar licks, while Burt casts an admiring, aspiring eye over the pocket rocket of the title in relaxed fashion.  Stephens is back on ‘I’m Busting Out’, adding waves and twitches of organ to the brisk, shuffling drums and stuttering funk guitar, while Burt gives his vocal some more urgency and grit in between a couple of pinging lead guitar solos.  And Jimmy Carpenter puts in an appearance on ‘You Get What You See’, seasoning a smoothed-out ‘Shakin’ All Over’-style riff with staccato sax, before jostling with the guitar for the spotlight towards the end.
But the best couple of tracks are ‘Something Special About You’ and the closing ‘Got To Make A Change’.  The first, with its spare arrangement focused on acoustic guitar and subtle organ, is more effectively Bill Withers-ish than the later, rather mundane cover of Withers’ ‘Better Off Dead’.  For me it also makes way better use of the soulful quality of his voice than the syrupy, Commodores-lite title track – though if you like that sort of thing you won’t complain about his delivery.  ‘Got To Make A Change’, meanwhile, is a solemn meditation on the state of the world and personal responsibility, featuring some shivering, tremulous guitar work – Zito again, I’m thinking – while Burt winds himself up to some more gospel-ish testifying to deliver a strong ending to the album.
Stone Crazy would benefit from a couple of stronger songs to maintain a consistent standard.  But it’s still an album to bring a smile to your face, showing off Kevin Burt’s undoubted strengths – his harp playing, acoustic guitar, and that expressive voice - to good effect.  There is indeed more to him than the common-or-garden guitar-toting blues dude suggested by the cover.

Stone Crazy is out now on Gulf Coast Records.

Friday, December 11, 2020

Andy Watts - Supergroove

If you haven’t heard of Andy Watts before – and I certainly hadn’t – it’s probably because the guitar-toting bluesman is from Israel.  But Watts has still managed to rack up plenty of collaborations and performances with high profile blues artists, some of whom contribute to his latest album Supergroove – not least Kenny Neal, who co-produced the album for his Booga Music label.  And what they’ve cooked up is an enjoyable collection of soul food blues.
Watts demonstrates his credentials from the off on the title track, a swinging instrumental on which his guitar tone, both rhythm and lead, smacks of Stevie Ray Vaughan à la ‘Crossfire’.  
Andy Watts meets a superfan
With a relaxed groove enhanced by funky horns, Watts delivers some tasty soloing, but also shares the limelight with band members Eyal Klein on Hammond organ and Ioram Linker on baritone sax.  And that sorta-SRV vibe returns on the penultimate track ‘Raw’, its bubbling riff lifted into rockin’ mode by some crunching chords, while Watts adds a twisting and turning solo and Gadi Altman catches the mood with a punchy vocal.
A rather different vocal adorns the best track on the album, with guest Joe Louis Walker behind the mic – and at his soulful best - for the slow blues of ‘Burning Deep’, giving real feeling to the melody over low undercurrents of horns and organ, and some exquisite guitar commentary from Watts.  And on a song previously recorded by Walker, ‘Blues Of The Month Club’, Eliza Neals provides another impressive guest vocal, adding a sly and slinky layer to a typical blues tale of everyday disaster, ironically to the accompaniment of more swinging horns and relaxed lead guitar from Watts.
There’s more variety in the form of the Rick Estrin song ‘Living Hand To Mouth’, a burst of bopping R’n’B suitably embellished by harp from Coastin Hank, and some hop-along bass from Tom Mochiach.  It’s one of three songs delivered by the cracked, groaning voice of Roy Young, the best of which is ‘Don’t Take My Blues Away’, a slower affair on which he draws out the emotion well, augmented by imaginative intertwining of guitar and trumpet from Watts and Gregory Rivkin.  Less successful is the cover of the sometime Freddie King tune ‘Pack It Up’, which feels run-of-the-mill in spite of Klein’s funky clavinet lines.
Rather better are the sunny and easy-going ‘Straight Shooting Woman’ and the soul-lite ‘Don’t You Let Me Down’, both smoothly voiced by Danny Shoshan.  The former contrasts lush horns with a strong, wiry solo from Watts, while the latter tones down a Bo Diddley rhythm and throws some curiously blissed out backing vocals into the mix.
The closing highlight though, is a version of Peter Green’s ‘Supernatural’.  Over the pulsing, semi-Latin rhythm, Watts really steps up with some elegant guitar befitting the tune, backed up by Rivkin’s trumpet as they both get in the reflective zone together, and Klein adds some subtle, halting organ.  It’s a rendition good enough to have left me wanting more.
Supergroove is a well put together, entertaining album, and Watts' playing is often impressive, though the material veers a bit close to the middle of road at times.  But with the benefit of a couple of standout tracks in ‘Burning Deep’ and ‘Supernatural’, it’s an album that should make Andy Watts’ name more familiar to blues fans.

Supergroove is out now on Booga Music in association with the Vizztone label group.

Tuesday, December 8, 2020

Elles Bailey - Ain't Nothing But

Necessity, so the saying goes, is the mother of invention.  As professional musicians around the world have been forced off the road by the coronavirus pandemic, they’ve had to do things to try to offset the resulting loss of income.  Not all of these “inventions”, will be artistically successful.  Ain’t Nothing But, however, is an endeavour that delivers the goods with easy charm.
Drawn from two professionally filmed and recorded livestream shows at White Noise Studios this summer, Ain’t Nothing But is an unplugged covers album that captures two different sides of Elles Bailey’s musical personality.  On the one hand there are the opening seven songs, of a
Elles Bailey nervously awaits the Blues Enthused verdict
Pic by Alan Dunkley
 singer-songwriterly, Americana-leaning disposition.  And on the other hand there are nine rootsier, blues-driven songs.  Both elements work, but as to which works best – well, I refer you to the title of this blog for a clue to my thinking.
The scene is set with John Prine’s ‘I Remember Everything’, with a country-inflected melody that’s delicious in its simplicity, with Bailey’s delivery right on the money.  On these songs she’s backed by Phil King laying down a foundation of acoustic guitar picking, while her regular guitarist Joe Wilkins adds embroidery and colour, in this instance with some hints of the Hispanic in his solo.  And the gents also add some impressive harmonies to the mix, enhancing the earworm of a chorus on ‘Crowded Table’, for example.
Personal favourites from this set include Jeff Tweedy’s ‘You Are Not Alone’, which is heralded by some wonderful bendy notes from Wilkins and all crystallises around the line “Open up, this is a raid”, before going on to feature some iridescent guitar, like Hendrix gone folk; and ‘Fifty Ways To Leave Your Lover’, on which Bailey brings delicacy to the verses before the guitars intertwine to give the chorus a swinging jauntiness.  And they also extend themselves well on the social commentary of Mary Gauthier’s ‘Mercy Now’, the intermeshed guitar picking again excellent.
For the blues set Wilkins is joined in the engine room by Joe James on double bass, and right away they bring muscle on Bonnie Raitt’s ‘Love Me Like A Man’, drawing more oomph and dynamics from Bailey’s vocal, while Wilkins adds not one but two exquisite slide solos.
Some of the song choices may be predictable, but that doesn’t detract from the quality of the performances.  On Tom Waits’ ‘Way Down In The Hole’, for example, James’ bass is sumptuously to the fore, while that rasp in Bailey’s voice is a perfect fit.  She’s right in the zone on the following ‘When The Levee Breaks’ too, over rolling and rippling blues guitar from Wilkins, with a sublime James bass solo into the bargain.  ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’, meanwhile, is caramel-smooth and rich, with excellent harmonies, until Wilkins cuts through with an edgier guitar break.
‘Spoonful’ is laid back instrumentally, but Bailey lets loose with a bit more raunch and some interesting phrasing, and Wilkins knocks off another bluesy-as-you-could-wish solo.  Stephen Stills’ ‘For What It’s Worth’ offers something a bit different, with harmonies underscoring the chorus, and a bass solo from James that twists and turns around the roots of the melody, and nifty punctuation from Wilkins’ guitar prefacing another cracker of a solo.  Then the rattling rhythm of Bo Diddley’s ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By Its Cover’ brings things to an upbeat close embellished with more chutzpah-laden soloing.
An affair like this may be small-scale, but like a miniature painting that can mean the details need to be all the more precise.  So salutes and medals to all concerned for getting it right, including Richard Stockley for the mix.  Ain’t Nothing But may be an album that was born of necessity, but it sure as hell underlines Elles Bailey’s quality – especially, I reckon, when the lady sings the blues.

Ain't Nothing But is available on CD only from 11 December, and can be ordered from her website, here.

Friday, December 4, 2020

A Gulf Coast Christmas - featuring Mike Zito, Albert Castiglia, The Proven Ones and more

In the bleak midwinter – and here today it’s been pretty bleak – it’s always good to have a source of good cheer to hand, isn’t it?  A glass of mulled wine say, maybe a mince pie?  And now perhaps A Gulf Coast Christmas, the Christmas blues compilation that’s been released by Mike Zito and the rest of the Gulf Coast Records roster.
Now, an album like this obviously isn’t intended to be any kind of magnum opus or “statement”.
Somebody stole Albert's Christmas - call the cops!
Pic by Pat Gleeson
It’s meant to be fun, and should be judged in those terms.  So is this shebang be something a blues fan would be happy to find in their Christmas stocking?  Yes, is the answer, even if in the course of 16 tracks from a range of artists the quality varies a bit.  But hey, let’s focus on the most attractive lights on the Christmas tree, eh?
In that context Mike Zito leads the way, with a brace of tunes bookending the album.  First up is the original ‘All I Got For Christmas Is The Blues’, on which he delivers a quintessential blues lyric about everything going wrong that’s wry right down to its ho-ho-ho outro, accompanied by a grinding rhythm section, Christmas piano decorations, a smile-inducing tumbling turnaround, and a knuckle-dusting slide solo.  And he closes the album with Chuck Berry’s ‘Run Rudolph’, which naturally should be a breeze after his Chuck Berry tribute album last year.  He duly nails it with a reindeer-hoof-pounding take that’s all thumping drums, a fuzzed-up boogie guitar riff worthy of Status Quo, tinkling piano remarks courtesy of Lewis Stephens (I’m guessing), and a rockin’ guitar solo.
The front end of the album is stacked with more goodies, kicking off with Albert Castiglia getting all lonesome on the slow blues of ‘Somebody Stole My Xmas’, spreading out on a classy extended solo that takes in some tasty diversions without ever going OTT or losing sight of the song.  Meanwhile Kevin Burt’s ‘Please Mr Santa Claus’ is a funkier, mid-paced affair, with his rich groan of a voice decorated by some nifty harp breaks as he tells another tale of – yep, you’ve guessed it, loneliness!  Well, if the blues can’t provide a artistic reminder that not everyone’s Christmas is a celebration, what can?  And at the other end of the album Sayer & Joyce take up the theme to good effect on the penultimate track, ‘Please Come Home For Christmas’, with Charlotte Joyce delivering an aching vocal over chiming rhythm guitar, while Ron Sayer adds subtle guitar licks and ultimately a plaintive solo.
In between, highlights include The Proven Ones with ‘Blue Christmas’, and John ‘Blues’ Boyd and Lisa Andersen with ‘Merry Christmas Baby’.  The former is upbeat, jingle-jangling R’n’B, a fun party tune with plenty of boogie woogie piano to the fore from Anthony Geraci.  The latter is a different kind of fun, a slinky duet in the vein of ‘Baby It’s Cold Outside’, all log fire and brandy – and guitar breaks courtesy of Kid Andersen.  Meanwhile Mark May and Miss Molly deliver a duet of a different hue on 'The Bluest Christmas', a soulful, Ray Charles-like bump’n’grind full of call and response, swinging horns, and piercing guitar injections from May.
There are also a couple of comic takes on the Nativity tale for variety.  LeRoux serve up an acoustic guitar and voice live recording 0f ‘Who Da Baby Daddy?’ that’s twinkingly tongue-in-cheek, while on ‘Christmas Is Cancelled’ Thomas Atlas gets lightly funky, with sparkling guitar and smooth vocals reminiscent of Robert Cray.
If you’d rather not have your festive musical fare dominated by all the usual suspects, then A Gulf Coast Christmas will provide an appealing soundtrack to keep you smiling through the Christmas cake and the turkey leftovers.