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.
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