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.

Monday, November 30, 2020

JUBE - As One Door Closes . . .

Did you know that in Estonian, “jube” means “horrible, terrible, scary”?  Me neither.  Amazing the stuff you discover when you’re reviewing music.
What I do know though, is that “horrible, terrible, scary” are not adjectives that can be applied to As One Door Closes . . . , the recently released album by JUBE, aka singer-guitarist Julie Clarkson and her keys-tickling husband Bennett Holland of the Laurence Jones Band. Julie and Bennett = JUBE, see?
Jube act cool for the camera
When the album kicks off with ‘Everything’, with warm and slinky Fender Rhodes piano from Holland leading into a silky vocal from Clarkson, embellished by bass lines from Darren Campbell frothing up to the surface, the vibe is something not a million miles away from the 80s nu-soul of Sade.  But this isn’t a template for the rest of the album.  Sophisticated they may be, but JUBE aren’t glacial in character.
On the following ‘Deep Blue Sea’ Clarkson pushes her voice into more helium-infused territory, before they plunge into a funky groove for the chorus, with jazzy rat-a-tat-tatting drums entering the fray from Richard Storer.  Holland blends piano and organ, even as his voice meshes with Clarkson, and they smooth and snap the arrangement in different directions over the course of four minutes.  This kind of soul-jazz is probably as close as they get to a default mode, with Clarkson’s breathy cooing rubbing up against the corners of Storer’s pattering drums, while Holland veers between simplicity and jazziness, and Campbell adds a burbling groove.  Tracks like ‘Wear Yourself Thin’, and the closing brace of ‘Behave’ and ‘Bare Faced Lies’ are in this vein to a greater or lesser extent.
But the departures from the norm make things interesting.  ‘People’, for example, eases in with Holland’s rolling piano counterpointed with a quietly scooting rhythm from Storer and patient vocals from Clarkson, but then the rippling piano is overcome by a hail-shower of drums, and it becomes an edgier affair, with Clarkson’s voice becoming more forceful.  And on the combination of ‘Inside’ and ‘Civilised’ they take that edginess further.  The former, a brief, wintry instrumental comprised of desolate piano chords and sparse guitar notes, melts into the latter, on which Clarkson shifts her voice towards Kate Bush territory amidst more rippling piano and a slide into the halting chorus.
My favourite track though is ‘Drag’, which features quirky, finger-snapping percussion studded with simple acoustic guitar from Clarkson, in such an infectious fashion that I can imagine Clarkson’s eyes twinkling as she delivers the verses.  Meantime Holland gets to exercise his lungs more with a quavering lead vocal on the more conventional chorus.
Perhaps they could have laid down the gauntlet a bit more with a track going even further “out there”, or something more vibrant just to mix things up.  But I’m praising with faint damns.  As One Door Closes . . . is a refreshing palate-cleanser of an album, full of classy playing from all concerned, and Julie Clarkson’s voice brings a seductive intimacy to proceedings that’s hard to ignore.  Like I said, not horrible or scary at all.

As One Door Closes . . .  was released by Freshly Squeezed Music on 21 August.
JUBE have also made a documentary about the making of the album, which you can find here.

Wednesday, November 25, 2020

Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar - The Reckless One

Three thoughts to begin with:
1.  Firstly - Samantha Martin sings like she really, really means it.
2.  If such a thing existed, I’d say that Martin and her co-writers – 11 out of the 12 tracks on The Reckless One are originals – were alumni of the Little Steven School for Disciples of Soul and R’n’B.
3.  The Delta Sugar gang know their green onions when it comes to arrangements and delivery.  I mean, seriously.  Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar hail from modern-day Toronto, but it sounds like their hearts are in Memphis, Muscle Shoals and Motown – in the Sixties.
Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar - happy singing about heartbreak
Pic by Paul Wright
On the first point, I refer you to track number five, ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’, the tentpole from which the rest of the album hangs.  A gospel-tinged slowie, it starts off with restrained backing, over which Martin holds herself in check through the verse, while demonstrating how solid she is at the bottom end of her range.  And then, with the chorus, it starts. She stretches out and takes off with full-throated passion, gathering intensity as the song progresses but still showing terrific vocal control.  By the time it’s done, Janis Joplin wrung out with emotion springs to mind.  Never mind what the rest of the band are doing, Martin is the focal point and then some.
As for the material, it ducks and dives around different soul styles and angles with savvy and blistering conviction.  The opening couple of numbers, ‘Love Is All Around’ and ‘Don’t Have To Be’, come off like Stax soul, the former all staccato horns and spring-heeled bass while Martin introduces herself in drawling fashion, the latter neatly twisting a verse with a drum-and-vocal-only delivery.
In the wake of ‘I’ve Got A Feeling’ they take a turn through Spector-country.  On ‘Sacrifice’ an acoustic guitar rattles along over a cantering rhythm section, while they also usher in some strings, crank up the reverb on the backing vocals, and Martin makes like a female Gene Pitney.  The following ‘So I Always Know’ is slower, rolling along on romantic waves, with “Tell me, tell me!” backing vocals suggestive of The Ronettes or somesuch, and overall sounding like it should be filmed in grainy black and white, know what I mean?  And ‘Pass Me By’ sounds like the Asbury Jukes having a blast at the Wall of Sound, with a whomping beat, urgent bass, twirls of guitar, and tense horns that eventually get a chance to relax in the bridge.  There’s a lot going on, but Samantha and co know how to leave you wanting more – none of these three songs clock more than four minutes.
This is an album where guitar is primarily part of the rhythm section, but Curtis Chaffey – who also co-wrote four tracks - does get out to play a couple of times.  On the bitter-sweet ‘Loving You Is Easy’ he delivers a slide solo that skates through nicely before the horns give wings to the ending.  And on the old-fashioned torch song ‘Better To Have’ (as in better to have never loved, upending the usual aphorism) he sets out an economical solo, in the eye of Martin’s emotional tornado, that Steve Cropper would be happy with.
I’m reminded of that other Samantha, Ms Fish, reflecting on the lyrical themes of her R’n’B album Chills & Fever: “That’s the human condition. Love, desire, heartache . . . ,” she observed in an interview.  That’s the vibe of The Reckless One summed up right there – and boy do Samantha Martin & Delta Sugar make it sound convincing.

The Reckless One is out now on Gypsy Soul Records.

Monday, November 23, 2020

Larkin Poe - Kindred Spirits

One of the obvious side effects of the Covid pandemic nixing live music is that many artists have headed back to the studio and tried to come up with something fresh to engage with their audience.  In that vein, Larkin Poe’s Kindred Spirits is an album of covers, delivered in stripped back fashion – and when I say stripped back, I mean to the bone.
Instrumentally, Rebecca Lovell contents herself with the simplest of acoustic guitar accompaniment most of the time, embellished by sister Megan’s lap steel, and here and there a kick drum, a few handclaps, or similar minimalist percussion, letting most of the focus fall on the sisters’ voices as a result.
Rebecca and Megan Lovell - say cheese, ladies!
The majority of the eleven tracks downbeat and reflective, even if that wasn’t the approach taken by the original artist, and now and again the formula strikes pure gold.  Their magical re-imagining of ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ is the prime example, austere and disconsolate in contrast to Neil Young’s electric fury, with halting chords and a lovely lap steel solo from Megan.  Lenny Kravitz’s ‘Fly Away’ becomes something wistful and genuinely evocative of bird-like flight, while Elvis’s ‘(You’re The) Devil In Disguise’ becomes something the King would never have contemplated, all spooky undertones and exquisite harmonies fashioned into – what, Americana desert blues?  And they bring a slinkier kind of nostalgia to Elton John’s ‘Crocodile Rock', with a neat twist on his “lah da-da-da-da-da” vocal bridge and a slowly dissolving fade-out to close the album.
Sometimes they come up with winners even when closer in tone to the original.  Their ‘Night In White Satin’ may be sombre, but it feels more human and intimate than the rather po-faced proto-proggery of the original.  Post Malone’s ‘Take What You Want’ is well served by stripping away the hip-hop beats and concentrating on the emotion.  Even better, they capture the spirit of ‘Bell Bottom Blues’ perfectly, their divine harmonies trumping Clapton’s own fine vocal, getting positively ethereal on the “I don’t want to fade away” lines, while Megan Lovell adds squeaking lap steel interjections.  They don’t really add anything to Phil Collins’ ‘In The Air Tonight’ however, and certainly don’t find anything to take place of that iconic drum fill.
There are upbeat songs too, in case you thought it would be navel-gazing from start to finish.  They do a brisk turn on Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love’, with Rebecca’s guitar more to the fore in pummelling fashion, the signature rhythm merely implied.  She drives along a fairly straight reading of the Allmans ‘Ramblin’ Man’ too, with handclaps and a sparkling acoustic solo adding to the joie de vivre, en route to a touch of wit in the ending.
The only question in my mind is why their opening shot at ‘Hellhound On My Trail’ is nothing more than a twinkling 44 second snippet, leaving me feeling a tad short-changed.
It’s in the nature of Kindred Spirits that it’s a relatively slight album, but better that than the Lovell sisters trying to gild the lily with half a dozen more tracks.  As it is, it’s a polished, less-is-more little gem – not some multi-carat diamond, to be sure, but a work of quality nevertheless.
Kindred Spirits is out now on Tricki-Woo Records.

Saturday, November 21, 2020

Listened to lately - Kat Riggins, Malaya Blue, and Hurricane Ruth

Kat Riggins – Cry Out
If you’re a fan of Sari Schorr’s brand of gutsy blues delivery, then you may well find things to like in this album from Kat Riggins, who has a similarly resonant voice, if without Schorr’s operatic undertones.
Have a listen to ‘Wicked Tongue’ for example, all strut and swagger and enlivened by some grizzly, spiky guitar from Mike Zito, and a rollercoaster turnaround.  Or better still the defiant ‘Burn It All Down’ with its jabbing beat and rolling riff, on which Riggins delivers the vocal with 

Kat Riggins gets slinky
real conviction.  Opener ‘Son Of A Gun’ is in a similar vein, with spangly guitar breaks from Zito and some funky bass from Doug Byrkit, but is let down by its hackneyed lyric.
If there’s a samey-ness to some of these tracks, then there’s pleasing variety to be found elsewhere. ‘Cry Out’ itself, for example, is a slice of swinging, shuffling blues on which Riggins redeems herself lyrically, knocking out reflections on social justice with urgency, accompanied by flashes of harp, and an appealing riff and spot-on solo from Mike Zito.
Zito is in the producer’s chair, co-writes most of the material, and supplies the necessary guitar-twanging throughout, and considering the number of projects he’s worked on in the last eighteen months he keeps things creditably fresh for Riggins’ benefit.  Horns expand the sound on the funky and swinging ‘Meet Your Maker’, while Zito deploys a Morse Code guitar riff and Riggins demonstrates the depth of her register.  And more horns give a Southern soul dimension to the brisk and bubbling ‘On It’s Way’, a good tune with a fun arrangement, with Riggins varying her delivery and phrasing to good effect.  Meantime ‘Catching Up’ is one of the rockiest, and best, things on offer, with fuzzed-up guitar and buzzing bass while Riggins gets all sassy and punchy in a tale of mama getting home and wanting some action from her man.
I could live without the schmaltzy children’s choir on ‘Heavy’, a gospel soul number on which Riggins wears her heart on her sleeve on the subject of faith, while the backing largely gets out of her way.  But they close the album strongly with ‘The Storm’, a slow blues with a simple but haunting arrangement and subtle, quivering guitar and slide from Zito, and if the lyric isn’t exactly freshly minted Riggins still invests it with some drama.  All in all Cry Out is an enjoyable debut outing from Ms Riggins, hopefully a foretaste of more to come.
Cry Out is available now on Gulf Coast Records.

Malaya Blue – Still
When I was a kid, gravitating from glam rock to Status Quo and then the broader horizons of hard rock, there were still songs of a different hue could make a lasting impression.  I recall, for example, ‘Lovin’ You’ by the stratospherically-voiced Minnie Riperton, and Roberta Flack with the remarkable ‘Killing Me Softly With His Song’.
Now, I don’t mention this in order to suggest that Malaya Blue could stand shoulder to shoulder
Malaya Blue - late-night, softly-lit
with these ladies.  But if Blue has a sweet spot, I think it’s in a similar realm of intimate soul ballads, as indicated by the opening title track ‘Still’, with its late-night, softly-lit feel, and subtle guitar work from Nat Martin.  Penultimate song ‘I Can’t Be Loved’ dials things down even further, a spare ballad with piano accompaniment from co-writer Sammi Ashforth that’s bordering on musical theatre – which isn’t, y’know, the end of the world when done well.  Best of all perhaps, is ‘Love Of Your Life’, a breathy ballad on which Blue takes her time and dovetails beautifully with Stevie Watts’ delicate piano.
But Blue sounds rather less at home when things get funky.  She makes a decent fist of ‘Kiss My Troubles Away’, on which she sounds like she’s having fun over Watts’ jazzy piano and Eddie Masters’ bubbling bass.  But elsewhere, as on ‘Down To The Bone’ and ‘Love Can Tell’, she lacks the oomph to inhabit the groove.
She captures the gospel-tinted soul of ‘Why Is Peace So Hard?’ effectively though, matching up to Watts’ church-flavoured organ playing.  And she’s on good form for the smooth soul of ‘Down To The Bottom’, adding interesting variations in her phrasing, and even her own backing vocals, to another catchy bass line from Masters and sweet organ.  ‘These Four Walls’ is one of her better stabs at going uptempo, a well-constructed bundle of bouncing soul punctuated by some gutsy chords.  But as a statement of female assertiveness the closing ‘Hot Love’ sounds uncomfortable and unconvincing – edgy it is not.
With honchos like Nat Martin and Stevie Watts on board, and an impressive rhythm section in Eddie Masters and Mike Horne, Still never falls flat.  But Malaya Blue really needs to discover what kind of singer she really is, and commit to that style, if she wants to give of her best.

 is out now on Blue Heart Records.
Hurricane Ruth – Good Life
Hurricane Ruth LaMaster hails from Illinois – and I use the word “hails” advisedly, because the lady hasn’t acquired that Hurricane moniker for nuthin’.  What we have here is an old-fashioned R’n’B belter, and when she cuts loose on Good Life it ain’t half fun.
Opening track ‘Like Wildfire’ is one of the best cuts here, with LaMaster strutting and hollering like Ike-era Tina Turner over a locomotive riff and the booming, lock-step rhythm section of
Hurricane Ruth - not so sugar and sweet
Calvin Johnson on bass and Tony Braunagel on drums.  They tone it down a mite for the following ‘Dirty Blues’, but it still lives up to its title, with our Ruth delivering vocals with full-on commitment and guitarist Scott Holt adding buzzing rhythm guitar, piercing slide licks, and an enjoyable solo with plenty of tension and release.  Oh yeah, and they chuck in some shouted backing vocals worthy of a Suzi Quatro hit from the Seventies, just to give LaMaster some full-throated company.
Later they re-launch the R’n’B raunch with ‘Black Sheep’, a chunk of heads-down no-nonsense boogie that’s far from adventurous but should do the business in a sweaty live show, with throbbing guitars and a buzzing, echoing solo from Holt, while the Hurricane herself bawls “I was a tough little badass, not so sugar and sweet!” to all and sundry, in a manner fit to whack Joan Jett for a home run.  And just in case you haven’t got the idea, they later add ‘Late Night Red Wine’, with more Nutbush-like guitar chugging fleshed out by organ flourishes from Bruce Katz.
When they depart from this tempestuous template the results are less convincing.  ‘Good Life’ is a painted-by-numbers slow blues tune, and though it’s well delivered the lyrics are too maudlin for me.  The lyrics on the closing piano-led ballad ‘I’ve Got Your Back’ get similarly mushy, undercutting Katz’s tastefully jazzy ivory-tinkling.
The laid back and swinging ‘What You Never Had’ is lightweight but still fun, benefitting from some more fine flurries of organ from Katz.  And LaMaster does well on the reflective but warm and positive ‘She’s Golden’, catching the right tone for a tale of a woman achieving liberation from hard times, while ‘Who I Am’ is an assertive chunk of mid-tempo funk.
Good Life may be inconsistent, but it still contains the ingredients to fire up a rock’n’roll party.  “Can I get a ‘Hell yeah’?” the Hurricane enquires at one point.  Yes Ruth, I believe you can. 

Sunday, November 8, 2020

Storm Warning - Different Horizons

It’s a shame that the first thing that most people will mention about Different Horizons, the fifth album from Storm Warning, is that guitarist Bob Moore passed away following its completion.  But I reckon the second thing many people will say is that Moore’s fine playing contributes greatly to making Different Horizons an impressive exploration of classic rock possibilities.
There’s blues in there to be sure, reflecting their blues-rock roots, most notably in the bright and
Storm Warning - eminent hipsters
 energetic boogie of ‘Come On In’.  But symptomatically, it’s R’n’B buffed up with extra refinements.  So singer Stuart Maxwell may deliver classy, old-fashioned harp, but he does so in the midst of Moore injecting fresh’n’fuzzy guitar breaks and keys man Ian Salisbury adding a synth solo.  Elsewhere, they get more adventurous.
They like to spread themselves, do Storm Warning.  The nine tracks here all run to over five and a half minutes, and they make good use of the time.  The opener ‘Horizons’ is certainly a positive example – a mid-paced, contemplative affair that starts with the swelling of ominous organ chords, pulsing drums and ticking guitar.  Then Moore picks out a subtle guitar motif, and with mounting urgency they create a platform for a range of striking guitar themes and textured breaks, before they downshift into an intriguing Moore solo that’s melodic, thematic, and even borderline proggy.
There’s a enjoyably Purplish quality to ‘Feeling Something’ with its intricate riffing over waves of organ, allied to a bluesy melody, over snappy drums from Russ Chaney, to which Salisbury then adds a rocking piano solo and Moore a zippy guitar break.  The closing ‘Questions’ is similarly rock that’s breezy rather than heavy – though it is the one track that drifts on a tad longer than it should.
But elsewhere they stretch themselves to good effect.  ‘Stranger’ deftly captures a sense of alienation, with its brooding opening of sparse chords over a machine-like drum rhythm, and Maxwell’s measured, ruminative vocal – the guy may not have the greatest range, but he uses what he’s got expressively. Then after a bluesy organ showcase they ramp up into a big
Bob Moore - going beyond the blues
passage in which Moore’s tasteful solo jostles with the organ over booming bass from Derek White, till it resolves into another memorable theme.  Similarly ‘Long Road’ builds from a mellow intro, with organ underpinning a reflective melody and lyrics from Maxwell, before Moore weighs in with Knopfler-esque solo, all fluttering notes and clear tones.  Indeed the track as a whole, with the guitar and keys dovetailing elegantly, hints at Telegraph Road-era Dire Straits, at once tasteful and daring.
‘Tell The Truth’ starts off slow, with twanging bass from White, but they soon leave that simplicity well and truly in their rear-view mirror, overtaken by tumbling guitar flitting in and out of Salisbury’s washes of organ, and an adventurous, suspense-laden mid-section of layered guitar lines.  On the following ‘Call It Midlife’ Maxwell’s wry vocal delivery and amusing lyrics bring to mind the late Tony Ashton, while Moore weighs in with bristling guitar chords and a tempo-shifting solo that ventures towards Steely Dan territory.  And ‘Can’t Sleep For Dreaming’ is intelligently constructed, with a subtle, Floyd-like swing, stalking, reverberating bass, and edgy slide remarks from Moore ahead of the bluesiest of his solos.
Different Horizons is not a hook-laden album to have you singing your head off.  It isn’t anything ground-breaking either.  What it is, is the sound of a gang of old lags channelling the classic rock music they love, and shaping it into something of their own – and you can feel their enjoyment.  As the winter nights draw on, you can stick on Different Horizons, lay back and close your eyes, and bathe in its warmth.

Different Horizons was released on 6 November on Lightnin' Fingers Records.

Sunday, November 1, 2020

When Rivers Meet - We Fly Free

When it comes to setting out your stall, When Rivers Meet – the musical moniker of British husband and wife duo Aaron and Grace Bond – do a fair old job on ‘Did I Break The Law’.  The opening salvo on their debut album We Fly Free, it weighs in with a grinding rhythm guitar riff over a stomping drumbeat, and before long works itself up into a fair old lather.  You’d have to reckon, listening to this, that life chez Bond can be a pretty LOUD affair at times.
This raw and primitive aesthetic isn’t exactly unique – compare Lincoln Durham, fr’instance.  But
When Rivers Meet - they make a cute couple, dontcha think?
Pic by Terry Crouch
When Rivers Meet do have a unique selling point, namely the way in which Grace Bond’s voice stalks the album’s landscape like that of a windswept and mysterious sorceress, right from her “Oh yeaah, oh yay-yay-hey-yeaah” hollering on that opening track.
Now, I don’t mean that she gets her wail on from start to finish, though our Grace certainly has the pipes to compete with the surging guitar and pounding drums on the likes of their single ‘Battleground’, to name just one example.  Nor do I mean that her voice dominates proceedings, bearing in mind the underpinning harmonies often provided by the deeper voice of her other half, who also provides the lead vocal on a couple of tracks.  No, what I mean is that her voice has the quality and personality to make When Rivers Meet standout from the herd like neon.  Her pure, clear vocal contributes to the light and shade on ‘Bound For Nowhere’, for example, alongside Aaron Bond’s doomy, midnight-graveyard guitar line, before they explode into stridency with the aid of producer Adam Bowers’ clattering drums.  And she shows real delicacy on the quieter, enigmatic ‘I’d Have Fallen’, over gently sawing violin and off-kilter percussion.  It’s the sort of track that I reckon might have latterday Robert Plant nodding his approval for its distinctive, not-just-same-old-blues-rock approach, right down to La Bond’s slide resonator mandolin (yes, you read that right) outro.
Not that this is a one-woman show.  When Aaron Bond takes the vocal reins on ‘Breaker Of Chains’, over a restrained bluesy guitar refrain and with background harmonies from his missus, they again manage to deliver something different, with the feel of an English folk song or maybe even a hymnal as they sing about reaching out for the last time “through the door of evermore”, and add a brief bridge of drums paradiddling away under sweeps of sombre fiddle.
Some songs are more straight up, like ‘Walking On The Wire’, which opens with a dirty blues slide riff, and sounds like the sort of tune Elles Bailey might cook up – except delivered with the aid of a sledgehammer, amid serpentine injections of fiddle and washes of Hammond organ.  It also demonstrates their penchant for an oft-repeated vocal line – in this case “Are you the fortunate son?” – that could seem lazy but in fact takes on a mantra-like quality.  ‘Kissing The Sky’ is a tale of love sickness like a stripped back funky rocker, with trampolining bass and a slide mandolin solo that sounds like a ghost emerging from a crypt.  And ‘Take Me To The River’, matches another vocal from Mr Bond to a swaggering blues rock riff and a squeakingly high-pitched slide mandolin break.
But the longest track here, ‘Bury My Body’, offers simplicity of a different kind.  Melodically sweeter, it combines the couple’s voices beautifully, over little more than gentle acoustic guitar and some strokes of piano and organ.  The end result is elegance that sounds effortless.
There are twelve songs on We Fly Free, and they’re all good, some of them startlingly so.  What’s more, When Rivers Meet deliver them with a real clarity of vision, in a distinctive style that’s full of grace and danger. I predict great things.

We Fly Free is released by One Road Records on 20 November, and can be pre-ordered here.

And you can read the review of The EP Collection, comprising material released before the album, here.

Saturday, October 24, 2020

Mike Ross - The Clovis Limit Pt.2

Incongruities – there’s a good word.  A couple of examples spring to mind when considering Mike Ross’s album The Clovis Limit Pt.2.  For one thing, the cover features a space helmet, and the contents include intermittent snippets of bleeping and droning, but the music is far from other worldly, being an earthy soup of Skynyrd, and the Black Crowes, and Creedence, and Joe Walsh, and – well, you get the picture.  And for another thing, Mike Ross lives in Brighton, on the South coast of England, but his voice sounds like he hails from Jacksonville, Florida.  Verily, the guy inhabits the vibe he’s exploring.
Mike Ross auditions for a remake of Easy Rider
And that vibe is well represented by opening track ‘Thanks A Lot’.  A sci-fi electronica intro is interrupted by crunching chords, heralding a sturdy riff of layered, or one might say Lynyrd, rhythm guitars.  A couple of verses later it suddenly changes gear and turns into a hurtling rock’n’roller, before downshifting again into a languid solo.  There’s a passage of falsetto-voiced, slide infused honky tonk, then it drifts away with a steely, pin-pricking solo outro over that robust riff.  It’s a five and a half minutes mini-suite of what Mike Ross is all about.
If that hard rockin’ segment in ‘Thanks A Lot’ suggests that Ross is prepared to get heavy, he confirms it on ‘None Of Your Business’, on which he transports a ‘Stormbringer’-like juddering riff to Dixie, takes things down into a dreamy guitar solo over cooing backing vocals and subtle organ, then hits the throttle again.
Joe Walsh echoes are evident on the witty and swinging ‘The Only Place You Ever Take Me Is Down’, and later on ‘Don’t Say A Word’, both tracks featuring crackling, abrasive slide playing.  The former also benefits from an expressively contemptuous vocal, and some swaggering slide/organ interplay en route to its amusing vibraslap finish, while ‘Don’t Say A Word’ kicks ass with a stomping beat and fuzzy rhythm guitar.
Ross has more clubs in his bag though.  ‘Hammer’ belies its title in wistful, plaintive style, with soaring harmonies and glittering guitar picking, a shimmering bridge and an airy solo.  ‘The Loser’ combines acoustic guitar and Rhodes piano in a simple, understated and rootsy way.  ‘Leviathan’ is something else again, evolving from an Electric Ladyland psychedelic intro until it acquires more shape with a slithering electric guitar reading of the melody from ‘The Loser’, before Ross comes in with an echoing vocal to evoke an eerie blues vibe – the song is delightfully off-kilter.
A couple of instrumentals are more straightforward.  Fizzing guitar opens ‘Tell Jerry’, which shifts shapes between two guitar motifs over carefree, bopping bass from Ricky Kinrade.  ‘Unforgiven’, meanwhile, is an Allmans-like shuffling affair on which Darren Lee’s swinging drums are essential to the lightness of mood, while Ross’s guitar switches effortlessly between its catchy theme and sparkling soloing, and Stevie Watts weighs in with a typically groovy organ solo.  And the latter is dreamily reprised on the closing ‘Unforgiven (Ramport Transition)’, its elements of acoustic guitar, cosmic synth lines, and ethereal harmonies repeating the title played off against fuzzed up guitar.
But before that there’s the nine minutes’ worth of ‘Shoot You If You Run’, which is a game of two halves.  Upfront there’s serrated slide over fuzzed up rhythm guitar, creating an edgy tense atmosphere reinforced by the stumbling rhythm, pushy, competing voices, and a squealing solo.  Then it all dissolves into an arresting, if decidedly oddball, second segment, comprising spooky, unaccompanied guitar over barely discernible radio voices and Sputnik signals.
It’s easy to find late Sixties/early Seventies American rock points of references across The Clovis Limit Pt.2.  But Mike Ross draws them all together with his own personality, and makes them sound fresh and contemporary.  And aside from the rhythm section and organ, it’s just him deploying a swathe of instruments to deliver this many-sided, hugely enjoyable, fun album.
I just have one question.  What the hell is the Clovis Limit?
The Clovis Limit Pt.2 is released by Taller Records on 30 October.