Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Quickies - Jimmy Regal And The Royals, Elles Bailey, Wily Bo Walker, and John Mayall

Here's a chance to catch up with a clutch of recent releases in the EP and single domain.

Jimmy Regal And The Royals – Ain’t Done Yet
As Bertie Wooster might have put it, they interest me strangely, do Jimmy Regal And The Royals.  On one level there’s a sensibility to them that’s as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  But as the five tracks on their Ain’t Done Yet EP demonstrate, their musical palette extends to more exotic influences.
This openness is most apparent on the tracks that bookend the EP, ‘Ain’t Done Yet’ itself and a radio edit of ‘Can’t Cry No More’, which appeared previously on their album Late Night Chicken.  
Jimmy Regal And The Royals - which one's Jimmy?
The former is built on twitching, pattering drums from Sammy Samuels, and sub-Saharan-tinged guitar lines from CJ Williams – and in due course a squeakin’n’scratchin’ solo - with honking sax from guest Chris Rand providing additional punctuation.  Meanwhile Joff Watkins gets to grips with a tongue-twisting vocal on the verses, and a simple but overly vibrato-prone chorus.  On the closing acoustic version of ‘Can’t Cry No More’ that African undertone is taken further and made more explicit, with more sparkling and shimmering guitar from Williams set to supple Kora rhythms courtesy of the guesting Diabel Cissokho.  Cissokho also adds some additional colour to the mantra-like vocal from Watkins, who earns his corn by adding further textures via moaning, gypsy jazz like harmonica work.
In between these two poles, ‘Mickey Two Suits’ – a title deserving of an award all on its won – is a blast of instrumental boogie on which Watkins’ harp lends an infusion of urgency to Williams’ chunka-chunka guitar.  ‘Way To Lose’ is a more downbeat affair, combining ripples of acoustic guitar, moans of nocturnal harmonica and minimalist, atmospheric persussion as the basis for Watkins’ groaned vocal.  And ‘Show Time’ is an intriguing affair, with Samuels’ patter-and-lurch rhythm matched to fuzzy splutters and splinters of guitar that occasionally get spiky in tandem with Watkins’ bursts of harp.  Meanwhile Watkins vocal may hint at a Brilleaux-esque growl, but this ain’t no Feelgood-like rock’n’roll, it’s a more idiosyncratic example of British blues.
All in all, Ain’t Done Yet confirms the impression that Jimmy Regal And The Royals may not be a big name in the making, but they are an outfit with something original to offer.
Ain’t Done Yet is out now, and available from Lunaria Records here.
Elles Bailey – ‘Stones’
The third single from Elles Bailey’s forthcoming album Shining In The Half Light rides in on a brooding slide riff from Joe Wilkins, grinding along in Resonator-like fashion over subtle, reined-in drums.  Then Bailey’s moody, assertive vocal swings into play, and Wilkins’ slide playing finds slithering groans and moans to harmonise with her on particular segments, while elsewhere some elegant vocal harmonies bring additional richness to Bailey’s delivery.  Wilkins then earns
Elles Bailey wonders where her hat has gone
Pic by Rob Blackham

extra bonus points with a slithering slide solo.  All in all ‘Stones’ makes a far more impressive impact than Bailey’s summer release ‘Cheats & Liars’.
Shining In The Half Light will be released by Outlaw Music on 25 February, and can be pre-ordered here.
Wily Bo Walker Acoustic Band – ‘Long Way To Heaven (Live)’
With which Wily Bo Walker, as is his wont, reworks a song from his back catalogue in a different style, this time taking a 90% acoustic approach to a song previously titled ‘The Ballad of Johnny And Louise’ when it appeared on the album The Roads We Ride recorded with compadre ED Brayshaw.  But while the instrumentation here may be different, there’s still a familiar cinematic tone to ‘Long Way To Heaven’, as a tale of the two characters out on the road in the American night.  Lyle Zimmerman adds twinkling mandolin to Walker’s familiar, Waits-like groan of a voice, while Gary Bridgewood contributes sweeps of elegiac fiddle.  Brayshaw meanwhile (whose latest solo album is reviewed here), is responsible for the non-acoustic dimension, adding harmonic electric guitar notes for colour, and a brief but typically edgy solo.
‘Long Way To Heaven (Live)’ is available now on Mescal Canyon Records.
John Mayall – ‘Can’t Take No More’
It’s remarkable to think that John Mayall is now 88-years old – the likes of Jagger and Richards are mere striplings by comparison – yet here he is gearing up to the release of his gazillionth album in the New Year, from which ‘Can’t Take No More’ is the second single.  And a sprightly affair it is too, even if Mayall’s vocal is, in all honesty, stronger on phrasing than melody.  Horns riff brightly, and Mayall’s organ tootles over a tripping, shuffling rhythm from Jay Davenport and funky bass from Greg Rzab.  Special guest Marcus King brings the guitar quotient, with an extended but relaxed solo, to which Mayall adds subtle remarks on organ, and there’s a spikier King outro to round things off.  ‘Can’t Take No More’ isn’t a humdinger of a track, but delivering something like this is still as easy as falling off a log for John Mayall.
John Mayall’s new album The Sun Is Shining Down is released by 40 Below Records on 28 January.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Dion - Stomping Ground

Okay, so it’s the season of goodwill and all that, but you know what one of my favourite Christmas movies is?  The Grinch, with Jim Carrey all hairy, green, and most of all grouchy.  So before I get into telling you about the good things on Stomping Ground, I wanna get a couple of gripes off my chest, alright?
Gripe #1:  The album follows the same guest artist formula as 2020’s Blues With Friends.  It’s an approach that can have some artistic value by way of spicing up an artist’s sound and repertoire, but for me repeating the trick seems too much like a marketing tactic.  If the songs are good
Dion - still stompin'!
Pic by Steve Cell
enough, then why not just record with a core band, and pull in name guests on just a couple of tracks if you want some extra stardust?  This is Dion DiMucci fer cryin’ out loud, not Joe Schmo no-one's ever heard of!
Gripe #2:  There are fourteen tracks included here, and while plenty of ‘em are good ‘uns, a few are makeweights.  And are some tracks overextended just to get more mileage out of the guest turns?  Now then it feels like the pudding is being over-egged.
But that’s enough bah-humbuggery for now.  Because when the opening track 'Take It Back' kicks in, it’s a catchy old thing which Dion sells well over a strutting rhythm laid down by the bass and drums.  And Joe Bonamassa, who would probably turn up to provide a guest solo for the opening of an envelope, does in fact elevate the song with a bundle of humorous, on-point and interestingly-toned licks.
The swaying and sinuous ‘Dancing Girl’ lives up to its title with a danceable Latin rhythm fit for your next Salsa class.  And with some pinpoint guitar from Mark Knopfler in his inimitable style, enhanced by some subtle interplay with the piano, it’s very good indeed.  On the other hand, while Eric Clapton brings some decent soloing to the blues shuffle of ‘If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll’, the star of this particular show is Dion himself, singing “I’m a rhythm king baby, I can groove all night long” and other such lines, in a manner that suggests they have less to do with the dance floor than the bedroom.
‘There Was A Time’ is a slow blues with a kinda European feel to its suspenseful melody, and Peter Frampton doesn’t feel the need to fill every crevice with his playing, while there’s plenty more to notice between the deep rolling horns, the rippling piano, and the sweeping strings add to the melancholy feel.  Sonny Landreth delivers suitably weeping slide guitar on the intro of ‘Cryin’ Shame’, but his playing warms up as the song progresses, and instruments interweave on a textured arrangement with a deceptively simple beat.  There’s slide guitar too, courtesy of Keb’ Mo’, on the album’s only cover, a version of Hendrix’s ‘Red House’.  On early listens I was less than impressed, but there is some merit in its rootsy approach and Dion’s plaintive vocal, even if the contributions of Keb’ Mo’ don’t amount to much.
Getting away from the guitars, ‘Angel In The Alleyways’ may not be a classic, but it’s certainly better than ‘Hymn To Her’, Dion’s previous collaboration with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa.  An acoustic guitar-led piece of Americana, with the Boss and his missus supplying harmonica and hushed harmonies, it manages to combine tension and urgency.  But the two tracks that foreground piano are bigger winners.  ‘That’s What The Doctor Said’ makes lyrical reference to Dr John, and backs that up with a New Orleans groove foregrounding sweeping, swinging ivories from Steve Conn, while horns toot in fine fashion.  And ‘I Got My Eyes On You’ is a rock'n’roll train stoked by Marcia Ball’s piano, rattling along with intermittent horn punctuation and then bright riffs on the chorus, plus twanging guitar from Jimmy Vivino.
There’s more rockn’roll, of the Chuck Berry variety, on the amusing, foot-tapping ‘I’ve Got To Get To You’, on which Dion shares the mic with Boz Scaggs.  But the more interesting duet is the closing ‘I’ve Been Watching’, to which Rickie Lee Jones adds characterful vocals in tandem with DiMucci, the mood shifting between reflective and impassioned in satisfying fashion, while producer Wayne Hood adds fluid guitar that fits the song well.
When you get right down to it, Stomping Ground is a good album.  But it’d be a better one with more focus – focus on fewer songs to maintain the quality, and focus on Dion’s delivery more than a troupe of guests.  Hasn’t the guy earned the right to the spotlight?

Stomping Ground is out now on Keeping The Blues Alive Records, and can be ordered here.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Deacon Blue - Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 8 December 2021

The more that things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s thirty-odd years since Deacon Blue’s glory days, but when they get on stage it seems like yesterday.  Ricky Ross still looks like a cool Modern Studies teacher, albeit now one that’s recently retired.  Dougie Vipond may have branched out into TV presenting, but he still looks and sounds perfectly at home behind a drumkit.  Jim Prime is still the quiet man on keyboards, overseeing proceedings with a sometimes studied, sometimes genial look.  Lorraine McIntosh
"Has anyone seen Lorraine?"
still dances like no-one is watching, still bashes a tambourine like a maniac, still hits the sweetest of high notes as a foil for Ross’s more grounded vocals.  And they still know how to put on a damn fine show.
They play in front of back projected films, photographs and kaleidoscopic images that lend gloss to proceedings, but it’s the human element that makes Deacon Blue a sight still worth seeing – and hearing.  There’s the personal connection that Ross is always pursuing, whether through his occasional bouts of pseudo-Springsteen patter, which he delivers with a knowing twinkle in his eye, or occasional dedications that highlight the meaning songs can convey more than words alone.  There are the thoughtfully rendered covers that nod to influences and put little twists on the mood.  There’s the joie de vivre they’ve rediscovered in this later phase of their career.  And then there’s the songs.
Oh man, the songs!  A clutch of tracks from 2020’s City Of Love stand up well next to their back catalogue, ranging from the opening title track, a sweet but insistent hymn to resilience, through the fresh and piano-led ‘A Walk In The Woods’, to the elegiac ‘Weight Of The World’.  But when a band has three or four albums in their locker that are stacked with magic moments, these newer efforts can really only be appetisers.
They gradually reel the audience in with ‘Twist And Shout’ and ‘Your Swaying Arms’ bracketing ‘Chocolate Girl’, into which they insert a slice of James and Bobby Purify’s simple and soulful ‘I’m A Puppet’.  And then with the foreshadowing of ‘Born In A Storm’, they roll into ‘Raintown’ and really get down to business, the crowd instantly clapping along.  Deacon Blue are often tagged as a pop band, but here it’s evident that Dougie Vipond’s drums make them rock, with the guitar and bass of relative newbies Gregor Philp and Lewis Gordon crunching in to underline the point.  And on the more subtle ‘Bethlehem’s Gate’, embellished by Jim Prime’s Hammond organ and chocolate box piano, Vipond’s drum fills create neat shifts in punctuation.
Ross’s songs are always seeking to connect, whether in relationship tales like ‘Chocolate Girl’, the contemplation of the human and the infinite of ‘Bethlehem’s Gate’, or the connection between the personal and the political - as on ‘Loaded’.  “I have found an answer,” he sings.  “I don’t think you don’t care.  You just laugh ‘cause you’re loaded.  And things look different from there.”  On the day that Allegra Stratton tearfully resigned after being caught laughing about a 10
"Ah, there you are!"
Downing Street party that should never have happened at a time of Covid lockdown, the pertinence is obvious.  But Ross doesn’t leave any room for doubt in a spoken interlude.  “We’ve been singing this song for 30 years,” he says reflecting on the song’s roots in the days of Thatcherism, “and it was always about power and wealth.  But now it’s about power and wealth, and lies.”
The more that things change, the more they stay the same.
“Still,” Ross reflects with a smile, “tonight can be about cheering ourselves up!”
And if they weren’t doing that before, they set about it with a will now.  The optimism of ‘The Believers’ packs a punch, as a warm-up for the everyday rough and tumble of ‘Wages Day’, and the lesser known ‘That’s What We Can Do’ is the cue for footage of their younger selves on the projection screens.  “God, they look so young!” is the natural thought.  But so were we all back then.
So when ‘Real Gone Kid’ is unfurled, the joint starts jumping, though perhaps a bit arthritically these days.  ‘Circus Lights’ is an electro-bleeping, bass twanging, groove drumming swirl, leading to the defiant set closer of ‘Your Town’.
During the encores they stitch a take on the Chi-Lites’ ‘Have You Seen Her’ into their own love-letter ‘When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring)’, which makes me wonder why Ricky Ross presents a country music show on radio, given the delight the guy clearly gets from old soul music and Brill Building songsmithery.  And then the inevitable ‘Dignity’ and the rousing ‘Fergus Sings The Blues’ bring band and audience together in expressions of hope for the future, in life and music.  They deliver a sensitive acoustic reading of Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ as a parting shot, but it’s those two songs of their own that bring the real moment of communion, rekindling that world of possibility they first sparked years ago.
Even after 21 months, in a world of vaccines, masks and QR codes, live music can still make magic happen.
The more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

E D Brayshaw - Random Repeat

It’d be fair to say that E D Brayshaw, a gentleman of a certain age with a thinning hairline to match my own, doesn’t immediately bring Ziggy Stardust to mind.  But like Ziggy, boy can he play guitar!
That's not all there is to his second solo album, Random Repeat, but it’s a pretty good place to start.  Regular readers will know that I can get most disgruntled at guitarists who ramble on for ages as if songs are just excuses for them to solo.  But here we have Mr Brayshaw, who undoubtedly likes to spread himself a bit when it comes to the ol’ guitar pickin’, taking 56 minutes to deliver ten songs – and I like it.  I like it a lot, in fact.
E D Brayshaw - not quite Ziggy Stardust
Pic by Sally Newhouse
On the opening ‘Storm Warning’ his barbed-wire delivery of the twisting and turning opening guitar riff provides the perfect setting for the dramatic pen picture of the titular storm.  It’s one of at least three tracks that have seen the light of day before, in this case in cahoots with his mucker Wily Bo Walker on their album The Roads We Ride – he’s evidently been infected by Walker’s penchant for frequent reworking of material – but that doesn’t detract from its power.  His voice is more billy-goat-gruff than Walker’s velvet growl, but that doesn’t matter either, because he sings with real intent.  And then there are the solos, intense affairs that fizz and crackle like forks of lightning, taking the main guitar theme and shaking it in all directions.
Penultimate track ‘After The Storm’ offers a more subdued, Celtic-tinged arrangement that suggests the skies clearing and the rain washing away, but only as the backdrop to some Dire Straits-like storytelling about a man’s life left in ruins by the tempest, his anguish captured in Brayshaw’s plaintive soloing.
The less intense ‘Just Another Night’ humorously recounts nights onstage in different settings, during which he feels the presence of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman and Roy Buchanan at this side, and if his payoff line of “I’ll do everything that I can” is a tad weak, that can’t be said of the steady, laid back backing, or his well-paced, sizzling guitar breaks.
But different styles are explored too.  The easy-going, semi-acoustic ‘Take It Away’ is in shuffling JJ Cale territory.  And there’s a Knopfler-like feel to the lilting ‘Tennessee Blues’, with its tripping rhythm and simple, bobbing bass, to which Brayshaw adds some jauntier guitar work, tinkling piano, and what sounds like banjo and lap slide into the bargain.  Or possibly something else, since the guy is a multi-instrumentalist who also takes care of bass, drums, mandolin and dobro duties, with only a little help from Lee Feltham on the drum stool for a few tracks.
Adding to the variety, things get swinging and jazzy on ‘Probably Correct’ and the closing, more restrained ‘Petite Fleur”, the former with a conversational, tongue-in-cheek lyric, and the latter a cover of an instrumental by the long gone jazz clarinettist Sidney Bechet, that comes over like a more fluid forebear of ‘Parisienne Walkways’.
‘Fade Away’ is a highlight in a very different vein.  It kicks off with a rapidly throbbing, undulating bass line over a snappy beat, sounding like a speeded-up sample from Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’, but as the basis for a tune with a bit of a snarl.  Brayshaw’s voice is straining and angsty over the fuzzy guitar riffing, and he knocks off a tearaway solo as the bass goes into rollercoaster mode.  It’s the one here track that harks back, pleasingly, to some of the rough’n’ready R’n’B sounds on his previous album Fire Without Water.
There's nothing random about this album.  E D Brayshaw doesn’t attempt anything fancy.  He may be a black belt of guitar tone, but I don’t hear a phalanx of effects pedals at work here.  His voice is nothing special, to be sure, but it’s got character and a certain charm, and he writes a good song.  Random Repeat is the sound of a man happy in his work, and if you like razor-sharp, imaginative guitar-playing then you should be happy with it too.
Random Repeat is out now on Mescal Canyon Records, and can be ordered here.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Mark Pontin Group - Kaleidoscope

Eek – a concept album!  Prog-phobic readers needn’t panic however – there are no wizards, castles or magic swords to be found on Kaleidoscope.  Instead it recounts the emotional rollercoaster experienced by a fella after he wakes up one morning to find that his baby has, indeed, done left him.  But while musical history suggests that’s a topic destined for a 12-bar blues setting, Mark Pontin has other, rather more grand ideas.
After the brief instrumental intro of ‘Sunrise’, on which shimmering guitar chords give way to the sound of pouring rain, Pontin sets out his stall on ‘Everything (Today)’, with sweeping strings and flurries of horns laying the foundations for a romantic torch song fit to send Dusty Springfield into
Mark Pontin puts his best foot forward
full hand-twiddling mode.  And fair play to Pontin, his own clear and airy voice does justice to the intended vibe, while his razor-edged guitar playing adds a decidedly non-Dusty dimension to proceedings.
Songs like ‘Don’t Sleep’ and ‘Roll With Me Easy’ convey a wistful tone to good effect, the first featuring more shimmering, twinkling guitar backing and gliding harmonies to produce a mellow and sophisticated piece of pop, topped up with a quiveringly processed guitar solo.  The latter outstays its welcome a little, as our hero ponders happy memories of his girl, but it still has a winning intro combining more weeping strings and some ‘Slaughter On 10th Avenue guitar work à la Mick Ronson.
Pontin and co exercise their funk chops here and there too, as on the ironic ‘This Will Never Be A Hit’, which departs from the conceptual narrative, its lazy, slinky beat elevated by bright horns and some squelching, synth-like guitar.  ‘Freeway Fantasy’ is a low-key strut, embellished by some jazz-funky guitar, and Fender Rhodes soloing from Owain Hughes.     Best in this vein though, is ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, on which the lip-smackin’, thirst-quenchin’, breath-gaspin’ vocal of the verses gives way to a very retro, catchy chorus and guitar refrain, like the Fab Four’s ‘Taxman’ given a shot of funkification.
Okay, there are a few more prosaic tunes, though usually they’re perked up by some aspect of the arrangement - my knee-jerk response to the REO Speedwagon AOR of ‘Forever’ is to say “no thanks”, for example, but Pontin’s sharp and to the point solo still appeals.  There’s no arguing though, with three tracks that hit diverse targets with panache.  ‘Starmaker’ has a slowed down, grinding, vaguely blues-rock character, with a gravelly, fuzzy guitar figure shifting into brighter, ringing chords, topped off by Pontin’s light and soulful voice.  But it really hits pay dirt when a couple of twiddly guitar licks turn out to preface a sustained, distorted, Hendrixy wah-wah attack, with James Garvey cranking up his drumming in support.  ‘Everything (Tomorrow)’ returns to Burt Bacharach/Jimmy Webb territory with more lush strings, but less romantically as the lyric – rather too opaquely – has our hero battling with addiction, while Pontin adds more FX-laden guitar solo-ing over some cool bass lines from Tim Hamill.  And the closing ‘Phoenix’ opens with more bendy, reverb-inflected guitar chords and sweeps of strings to fashion a sense of calm summation and clarity, before lifting off into a sense of renewal with the strings soaring and darting in pseudo-Arabic style, echoed by Pontin’s guitar, while Garvey underlines the epic feel with tub-thumping drums.
Mark Pontin’s reach may exceed his grasp at times, with some of his lyrics not up to the standard of his impressive string and horn arrangements for example.  But I still applaud the ambition, and the Mark Pontin Group make a good fist of delivering on it, with convincing musicianship all round.  All things considered, Kaleidoscope is a breath of fresh air.
Kaleidoscope is out now on Lunaria Records, and can be ordered here.

Monday, November 29, 2021

Gov't Mule - Heavy Load Blues

Well stone me, I’m impressed.  Albums of blues covers by established artists seem to be ten-a-penny this year, but this half’n’half originals and covers set by Gov’t Mule probably tops the lot.
Never mind the width - and with a running time of 78 minutes Heavy Load Blues is as wide as an elephant’s backside – feel the quality.  See, I can’t say I’m a huge Gov’t Mule fan, though I’ve got a couple of their albums and quite liked ‘em.  But that doesn’t matter, because a couple of listens to this tells you that you’re in the presence of some grown-ups who know what they’re about.
Okay, so a few of the songs here just are what they are, know what I mean?  They open with ‘Blues Before Sunrise’, and it’s a pretty straight reading with some screeching slide guitar and wailing harp, but even though it sounds like they’re just getting warmed up it’s still on the money.  
Gov't Mule - "Waddya mean, 'Say Cheese'?"
Pic by Jacob Blickenstaff
'Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ is a great song, nicely done, and easily matches up to the benchmark treatment by Whitesnake, while ‘(Brother Bill) Last Clean Shirt’ is less familiar fare -  a lesser known Leiber and Stoller slice of straightforward R’n’B, with a stop-time riff, and a distorted vocal to go with its pained narrative  By contrast, Ann Peebles’ ‘Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’ is oft-covered, and the Mules don’t attempt any radical reinvention, but they still put it over with a stylish, funky edge, as drummer Matt Abts’ rock steady beat is accompanied by throbbing bass from Jorgen Carlssen, sparky clavinet from Danny Louis, and squelching guitar from Warren Haynes.
But while all of the above are very good, the Mule shine even more brightly elsewhere.  ‘Hole In My Soul’ and ‘Wake Up Dead’ are both originals, but they come with “where have I heard that before?” melodies.  The former leans on slinky horns and subdued organ, studded by prickling guitar licks from Haynes, while the latter features an ear-catching organ riff, which Louis follows up with an excellent solo, while Haynes provides more injections of guitar commentary, and a steely solo that values substance over flash.
‘Snatch It Back And Hold It’ will doubtless please jam band enthusiasts, as after three minutes the Junior Wells and Buddy Guy tune, with its stuttering riff, sinks into a slower jam, with everyone playing off everyone else and stacks of tension and release going on.  ‘Make It Rain’, meantime, sounds like it’s been around forever, even though Tom Waits only recorded it in 2004.  Probably a lot of that is down to Waits, but I’m inclined to give a heap of credit to the Guvnors too, as they trigger its fatalistic lyrical mood with a swaying Fender Rhodes piano phrase, and more crackling vocals from Haynes.  Then the following ‘Heavy Load’ is seven minutes’ worth of
"Has anyone found the ending yet, fellas?"
haunting acoustic blues, depending on little more than a pinging guitar motif, hints of slide and some sparse piano chords as the backing for Haynes’ evocative vocal about encountering “too many bridges, too many roads”.  For me it feels a minute too long – not the only occasion they overstretch, but given the “live in the studio” approach taken to the album, I’m guessing tracks would just end when everyone was ready to end.
‘If Heartaches Were Nickels’ is another original, but one that comes over like a ready-made classic of a blues ballad, simple but resonant, and with a heartsick lyric delivered by Warren Haynes in emotive fashion, before they pick up the tempo a tad for a playful organ solo, getting Dave Brubeck-jazzy as they head towards Haynes’ guitar solo and a subtle, flickering ending.  ‘I Asked Her For Water (She Gave Me Gasoline)’, on the other hand, is a lead-heavy storm, with a lurching riff reminiscent of Cream’s ‘Politician’, a surging organ turn from Louis, and a couple of solos from Haynes that progress from the merely tempestuous to howling, dizzying levels.  It could be the soundtrack to the Wolf turning in his grave.
Heavy Load Blues is supposedly the first blues album Gov’t Mule have ever recorded.  You could have fooled me.  The half dozen originals on offer here dovetail perfectly with the oldies sitting alongside them, and the end result is a standout collection.  Now you’ll have to excuse me – I need to go and dig out some more Mule albums.

Heavy Load Blues is out now on Fantasy Records.

Tuesday, November 23, 2021

Bernie Marsden - Chess

In case you haven’t noticed, there’s a whole spate of covers albums and tribute albums pouring forth right now, a lot of them by big name artists.  Bernie Marsden has already contributed to it this summer with his album Kings, a tribute to BB, Albert and Freddie.  And before you can say “sweet home Chicago” he’s back with the second volume in his Inspirations series, Chess, reflecting the influence of classic blues label Chess Records.
This, I would suggest, is a different kind of proposition from its predecessor.  Whereas the focus with Albert and Freddie King, if less so BB, often lay on their guitar playing, the Chess material
"Where do I plug this in then?"
Pic by Fabio Gianardi
Marsden has selected here tends to be of a simpler, more singer and song-led nature.  And on some tracks, it seems to me, that presents our Bernie with a bit of a challenge in the vocal department.
Marsden is a good singer, but I doubt if even he'd claim that he’s a great one.  But the issue isn’t so much quality, as personality.  On ‘I’m Ready’ he lacks Muddy Waters’ resonance, so that if he sounds laid back about being ready, it’s possibly out of necessity as much as choice – though he opts to chuck in some double-tracked/harmonised vocal lines that add a different flavour.  On ‘You Can’t Judge A Book By The Cover’, which rattles along nicely on a skiffle-esque drum rhythm, and features a zinging guitar break, he can’t really match the oomph brought to the tune by Bo Diddley.  And while Chuck Berry wasn’t the most powerful of singers, the twinkle in his eye always came across, whereas on ‘Back In The USA’ Bernie sounds – well, too English really.
These examples aside though, Marsden shows the kind of feel for the material that you’d expect, right from the opening ‘Just Your Fool’, on which Alan Glen’s harmonica is much to the fore, reflecting the song’s origins with the harp legend Little Walter, while jangling piano and some bursts of organ from Bob Hadrell decorate the simple R’n’B riff, and Marsden contents himself with a brief, patient, but piercing solo to close.  Little Milton’s ‘Grits Ain’t Groceries’ is a given nice working over, with a modern sound and a punchy arrangement.  Jim Russell’s shuffling drums and John Gordon’s bass bring hints of funk, complemented by peals of organ from Hadrell, while Marsden gets himself into a vocal zone that’s satisfyingly strong and soulful.  On ‘I Can’t Hold On’ he finds similar vocal attack to go with some big, ringing slide guitar to do justice to Elmore James – all and sundry sounding as if they’re having fun as they suggest a singalong vibe with the “Talk to me baby” segment.
They do some slow stuff nicely too, firstly on ‘Won’t Be Hanging Around’, where a touch of reverb on the vocals helps him to produce extra feeling to go with some tasteful, on the money guitar interjections.  Meanwhile on ‘Who’s Been Talking’ Bernie wisely opts for a regretful vocal tone rather than competing with the weighty bitterness of Howlin’ Wolf, while successfully ‘British-bluesifying’ the song in a spooky and melancholy Peter Green fashion, courtesy of bags of sustain in his guitar tone and some haunting organ from Hadrell.
There are a couple of brief, self-penned instrumentals.  ‘Lester’ features some discordant guitar work counterpointed by the organ, over a snappy backbeat, while ‘Johnny’ is a strutting affair akin to the Fabulous Thunderbirds ‘Wait On Time’.  But nifty as they may be,  both tracks are fairly perfunctory.
Chess doesn’t perform any kind of alchemical transformation of its base material, but it’s a pleasing and respectful nod to some of Bernie Marsden’s inspirations.  But as I’ve suggested before, I’d prefer to hear him plough some fresh blues-rocking ground.
Chess is released by Conquest Music in association with Little House Music on 26 November, and can be ordered here.
Bernie Marsden has released a YouTube video about the making of Chess, with snippets from the songs, which you can watch here.

Sunday, November 21, 2021

Five Points Gang - Wanted

“You might think we’re just a little blues band” suggest Five Points Gang on ‘All Points Bulletin’.  Well, no actually, I don’t think that.  And I very much doubt that the FPG fellas do either.  The blues may be in the musical DNA of this Welsh/Brazilian/French trio (yes, you read that right), but they sure as hell don’t sound like Muddy Waters on this first studio album.
No, they sound like a rock band who’ve bent their ears to Hendrix more than a little, in a similar fashion to Philip Sayce and Dan Patlansky.  And somebody in there has a fondness for Stevie
Five Points Gang - looking real cheerful after raiding the dressing up box
Wonder methinks, in funky ‘Living In The City’ mode.  And I dunno if they’ve ever paid much attention to Cream, but there’s a tendency towards all-action rhythm section syncopation of a jam band persuasion coming from somewhere.
So when they announce themselves with ‘How Long’, it’s with a twiddly guitar riff and rattling drums that raise a fair old head of steam, while lead singer and guitarist Joe Pearson kicks in with a strong, clear vocal - reinforced by well-pitched backing vox from his buddies – and a pretty zippy solo to close.  ‘All In All’ continues in a similar vein, Gaet Allard’s booming drums driving a strong and sturdy riff, while Pearson contributes a wah-wah solo – and then they slip in a Police-like “white reggae” rendition of the third verse to shake things up.
Later on though, they up the funk ante on the likes of ‘What Kind Of Man’ and ‘All Points Bulletin’.  The former is all round funkified, with Dinho Barral’s bass bobbling everywhere, a wiry guitar solo from Pearson and later a wailing wah-wah effort, and there’s a nifty passage of guitar riffing/drums interplay too, with Allard giving it large on the skins.  ‘All Points Bulletin’, meanwhile, is a rock’n’roll party tune, but with a Wonder-ish funky riff thrown into the mix, along with a slithering guitar solo before it reaches a screeching finale.
They can cool things off effectively too, as evidenced by ‘Let’s Stay Together’ with its elasticated bass and offbeat rhythm, and semi-plaintive vocal on the verses before picking up on the chorus with its ooh-oohing backing vocals.  Then there's a razor-like guitar solo and Allard getting a whole lot more active on drums – and cymbals – as it seems is his wont.
If anything though, I’m most impressed by the snappy, commercial-as-all-hell AOR sound of ‘Deep Inside’, with its tush-shuffling rhythm, catchy to the nth degree melody, and more simple but effective harmonised backing vocals, en route to a hyperactive closing instrumental section.  It’s a mighty fine piece of pop-rock writing and arranging.  But lest anyone think they’re a bit soft, the following ‘Made Man’ goes a bit overboard in trying to establish some rough’n’raw credentials, with Pearson working himself into a lather vocally.  By the same token the slow number ‘Love By The Gun’ is better when he relies on the clarity of his voice than when he goes for rasping anguish.
He does deliver plenty of interesting guitar work though, whether it’s the jazz-inflected soloing on ‘Drifting Away’, the ‘Little Wing’-like mellow intro and distinctive, Stylophone-like tones on ‘All She Said’, or the jagged riffing on the agitated ‘The Secret’ – on which he again gets a mite too worked up vocally for my liking.
There’s lots of good stuff on Wanted – too much really, with 13 tracks clocking in at 55 minutes.  (Yeah, I know, I’m always moaning about albums being overlong.  But here’s the thing: I’m right.)  If Five Points Gang had held back three tracks for another day then this would have been a more focused album, and better for it.  All the same, Wanted is a pretty kick-ass calling card, and I strongly suggest that Five Points Gang are kept under close surveillance from now on.
Wanted is out now on Lunaria Records, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, November 14, 2021

When Rivers Meet - Saving Grace

Bang, bang, bang, on the door baby – bang, bang, on the door!  That hammering is the sound of When Rivers Meet, back with their second album Saving Grace, and demanding your attention.  The husband-and-wife duo of Grace and Aaron Bond, aided and abetted by their multi-instrumentalist producer Adam Bowers, like to make a rocking racket, and that alone will be enough to keep many headbanging fans happy.  But they’re not just one-trick ponies, as we’ll see.
There’s no ignoring the clatter-and-wallop dimension to the album though, so let’s start there, eh?  In this respect WRM’s go-to sound is frequently a primitive, skeletal, neo-Zeppelin vibe.  Take the song ‘Lost And Found’, for example.  A mucho Zep-like stop-time riff and drum rhythm
When Rivers Meet - strike a pose, there's nothing to it!
Pic by Rob Blackham
lay the foundations for Grace Bond’s edgy vocal, which then erupts into siren mode on the urgent, “Run for your life!” chorus, while Bowers adds rubbery bass, and then some paradiddling drumming towards the end.  Or there’s ‘Do You Remember My Name’ which combines an insistent, tense rhythm with a grinding guitar riff to bore into your brain, given a Page-like lift by a couple of snazzy slide mandolin motifs and some oddball sound effects, en route to a whipped-up finish.  Or there’s the stomp-along Bonzo-like shuffle of ‘Shoot The Breeze’, this time combined with a dipping slide riff, while Grace Bond adds a scraping break on what I take to be violin, before they change up the riff for the ending.  And there’s more – namely the furious closer ‘Make A Grown Man Cry’, its subterranean sledgehammer riff and landslide drums underpinning reverb-drenched hollering from the lady of the house.
Other heavy units show that they can lean away from the stripped-Led template though, and sometimes with extra credit. There are soul leanings discernible in Grace Bond’s terrific delivery of the chorus on ‘Never Coming Home’, for example – well, soul leanings from the Motor Town of Dagenham rather than Detroit, perhaps.  And joking apart, with Bowers adding some swirly organ backing and Jack Bruce-like bass, the song has a satisfying late 60s twist to it.  Meantime ‘Testify’ takes a snatch of ‘Watchtower’ riffing, then mixes in hurdy-gurdy keys and grooving bass from Bowers, while Mademoiselle Grace goes full throttle vocally, and also uses her violin to do a bit of harmonising with her other half’s Yardbirds-style moaned backing vocals.  There’s a whole lot going on in three-and-a-half minutes.
Hard rockin’ ain’t the whole deal though, and they explore different avenues elsewhere.  As straight up as the verses of ‘Have No Doubt About It’ may be, it still takes on a darkly Gothic quality, with Grace Bond’s eerie scrapes of violin, and potent, crystalline vocals - one could imagine it set to a nightmarish, black and white video.  Better still is the absorbing ‘Eye Of A Hurricane (Friend Of Mine Pt 2)’, which comes over like an old folk-blues tune à la Leadbelly, resurrected in ghostly fashion.  It’s Aaron Bond who renders the brooding lead vocal, but it’s the haunting, wordless vocal counterpoint provided by his missus that’s really striking.
But a pair of quieter tracks also shine.  ‘Don’t Tell Me Goodbye’ is simple and soulful, with a resonant melody.  It could go down an ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ road but ends up style-straddling with an Americana feel to great effect.  And ‘Talking In My Sleep’ is a delicate, affecting affair, combining melancholy harmonies with sparse acoustic strumming in exquisite fashion.
That diversity of material is good, because the Bonds do face one challenge with their heavier stuff – they don’t leaven their arrangements with much in the way of traditional “soloing”.  It’s evidently not Aaron Bond’s thing on guitar, and they seem wary of Grace Bond highlighting too much of her violin and slide mandolin.  And that’s fine.  But that being the case, they need to work harder on interesting bridges, codas and so on – even the false ending with mock spoken interruption on ‘He’ll Drive You Crazy’ – to maintain listeners’ interest.
For now though, When Rivers Meet are on a roll.  Their Saving Grace, as it were, is that their sound is so distinctive.  It can surely make many a casual listener sit bolt upright and think “What the proverbial . . . is that?”  Bang, bang, bang, on the door baby!

Saving Grace is released on 19 November on One Road Records, and can be ordered here.
Read the Blues Enthused review of debut album We Fly Free by When Rivers Meet here.
And you can read the review of The EP Collection here.

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Mississippi MacDonald - Do Right, Say Right

Mississippi MacDonald is a blues aficionado, a devotee.  “You think you’re from Chicago,” goes a line in his song ‘I Heard It Twice’, and listening to his latest album Do Right, Say Right, you could easily be convinced he’s from the Windy City.  Or maybe Memphis. Either way, you'd be wrong – he’s from London.  But having immersed himself in electric blues and Southern soul since he was in short trousers, that’s the kind of sound he produces.
Mississippi MacDonald - eyes down for a full house of blues
The style of Do Right, Say Right is easy to sum up.  This ain’t no blues-rock, boys and girls.  Rhythm guitar riffing is conspicuous by its absence.  The pace rarely threatens to break a sweat.  The rhythm section values groove over flash, with cool organ adding to the foundations, and horns wafting rather than bursting into earshot here and there. Meanwhile MacDonald adds flurries of guitar notes in between his soul-inflected vocal lines.  I can easily picture him hoisting his guitar behind his back à la BB King, while he sings about classic blues subjects like back door men, cheating wives, and it being five o’clock in the morning and needing to clear his head.
Now, if all that sounds like the nine songs here might get a bit samey, well yeah, you might have a point.  Thing is though, that really doesn’t matter, because it’s so well put together.  All the pieces are assembled with hand-crafted precision and, one imagines, no small amount of luuurve.
Take the opening ‘I Was Wrong’, fr’instance.  It’s laid back, easy going, the organ backing is subtle, with wiggling bass from Elliott Boughen over a steady beat from Mark Johnson-Brown, while MacDonald’s vocal displays impressive, conversational phrasing, and he knocks out a couple of stylish, relaxed solos in addition to his flutterings elsewhere.
‘Drinker’s Blues’ is a straight-up slow blues, with MacDonald chucking in bendy guitar notes galore over subtle piano strokes from Phil Dearing, while his soulful vocals interact with both the piano and his guitar playing, and Lucy Dearing adds some swells of gospel-ish backing vocals.  It’s a well-constructed tune all round.
But if languid, contemplative, turn the lights down stuff is MacDonald’s métier, he still finds room for a couple of shifts of gear, albeit raunch-free ones.  ‘I Heard It Twice’ bops along pleasantly, propelled by Boughen’s walking bass, while MacDonald delivers a series of nifty guitar breaks.  Meantime ‘That’s It, I Quit’ is an enjoyably energetic stroll in the company of swinging drums and carefree bass, punctuated by some stops and starts to underline the witty lyric, and 'It Can't Hurt Me' is loose and kinda funky.
MacDonald is at his happiest when he’s taking his time though, on the likes of ‘If You Want A Good Cup Of Coffee’.  Its tone is set by sedate, sparse piano and long organ and horn notes, while MacDonald gets down to some biting guitar work, with teasing passages of tension and release.  And ‘Keep Your Hands Out Of My Pocket’ is a dreamy old thing, with quivering guitar and late night piano musings.  It’s a good vibe, well captured, and they let themselves spread out on it a bit, MacDonald flinging a variety of discordant and well-bent notes into the mix.
One could say that the sound of Do Right, Say Right is old-fashioned.  But with all but one of the tracks on the album self-penned, I prefer to think of it as Mississippi MacDonald stirring together all his songwriting, six-string and vocal influences, and putting his own personal stamp on them.  At a time when blues covers albums by big names seem to be all the rage, full marks to him and his gang for doing their own thing, and pulling it off.
Do Right, Say Right is released on 19 November, on APM Records.

Friday, November 5, 2021

Colin James - Open Road

There’s a lot to like in Colin James’ latest album Open Road.  On every song the feel is good, the playing is good, and the production is good.  I just have this nagging feeling that over the piece I should enjoy the album as a whole more than I do.  How come?  Let’s see if I can explain.
The album opens with 'Open Road' itself, a loping tune with sparkles of guitar over a grooving bass line, while James deploys an understated, rhythmic vocal to deliver atmospheric lyrics about every life being an open road.  It’s got a swampy vibe, with some buzzing guitar breaks bringing added edge.  That’s followed up a cover of Tony Joe White’s ‘As The Crow Flies’ that
Colin James - guitarist photographed without guitar shocker
Pic by J O'Mara
starts out with some retro-sounding steely guitar picking, before upping the ante with some punched out, gritty chords, while James’ lead guitar echoes the melody.
Then there’s the impressive slow blues of ‘That’s Why I’m Crying’, on which subtle guitar and shades or organ are interlaced with a convincing, soulful vocal.  It’s kept simple, relying on feeling not fireworks, and works a treat.  As does, in a different way, the following funky cover of Otis Rush’s ‘It Takes Time’, a danceable affair with walking bass, sharp injections of horns, and a nifty harp solo from Steve Marriner.
All that makes for a strong, satisfying opening, and on its own terms the following slowie ‘Down On The Bottom’ continues the streak, at times reminiscent of the Black Crowes, especially in James’ singing.  It’s evocative, with strong guitar licks bouncing off the vocal, and an intense closing solo.  Thing is, it also starts a run of four successive tracks that are all, in their own ways, slow to mid-tempo.  Of these, a cover of Otis Redding’s ‘I Love You More Than Words Can Say’ can’t match the aching simplicity of the original, while the ‘Stormy Monday’-style slow blues of ‘There’s A Fire’ is well-executed but a tad predictable. And if the spiky, discordant riff brings a bit of edge to the brooding ‘Change It’, it’s still a mid-tempo tune that feels a mite too comfortable to shake things up.
All of which makes the central core of the album sag a bit – and too much to recover the momentum right away with the relaxed, low-key boogie of Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A Train To Cry’.  And for all that Albert King’s ‘Can’t You See What You’re Doing To Me’ has an appealing, bobbing and weaving riff, underpinned by bubbling bass and snapping drums, it too is in a middling tempo.
Happily, the following ‘Bad Boy’ and ‘Raging River’ go down some different avenues, even if they don’t apply much pedal to the metal.  The former is an old-fashioned blues, with prickling and scraping slide guitar over a minimalist, dragging beat, and the latter ventures in the direction of ‘Bad Company’, by the band of that name, with its weeping guitar sound and “out on the prairie under the stars” vibe.  Which just leaves ‘When I Leave This House’ – which is, praise be, a slice of upbeat boogie!  Okay, so it doesn’t kick your ass like Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘The House Is A’ Rockin’’, but it does generate a good-time, dancin’ shoes mood.
So you see, taken individually all of the 13 songs here are good – a few of them very much so.  I enjoyed Open Road, and if Colin James had saved two or three of these tunes for another day, trimming its 54 minutes and creating a better stylistic balance between light and shade, I’d have enjoyed it even more.

Open Road is out now on Stony Plain Records.

Monday, November 1, 2021

Starlite Campbell Band - The Language Of Curiosity

They’re a bit bonkers, I think.  Bonkers about each other, and bonkers about making the kind of music they love, the way they want to make it.  And long may Suzy Starlite and Simon Campbell be that way.  Their debut album, Blueberry Pie, was a wonderful surprise that landed in my lap nearly five years ago now.  And happily, The Language Of Curiosity is similarly appealing.
They ease into proceedings with ‘Distant Land’, the whomping backbeat from drummer Steve Gibson backed up by crunching chords, and decorated by spiralling lead guitar lines from 
The Starlite Campbell Band - ready to rock!
Campbell.  There’s a melodic bridge – they do like to do something different with a bridge - and a guitar solo that buzzes and flutters like a bee hot on the trail of nectar.  It’s catchy too – but not as much as the following ‘Gaslight’, which rides a riff that’s so Stonesy it’s coated in brown sugar, en route to a shout-it-out chorus.  It has pointed lyrics about blowhard political liars too, and some razor-sharp slide guitar fills along the way.  And the first single from the album, 'Stone Cold Crazy', has a tough strut of a fuzzy riff,  coming over like one of Purple's lighter moments.  A bit.
These tunes may reaffirm their devotion to Sixties British blues and early Seventies British rock, but it ain’t nuthin’ compared to the wig-out they deliver halfway through the album.  ‘Said So’ stomps all over the riff from ‘You Really Got Me’, then mashes it together with a snippet of the melody from The Temptations’ ‘Get Ready’.  After belting along breathlessly for a couple of verses they downshift into a contemplative bridge.  And then, my friends, they stamp on the gas pedal, the bass’n’drums of Suzy Starlite and Steve Gibson start racing each other, and Campbell goes nuts on a wild, distorted solo, tearing down the road like an F1 car.  They find the brakes, just, for another verse or so, and the whole thing shudders to a halt to the accompaniment of some Jon Lord-style Hammond B3 doodling by Jonny Henderson.
But rockin’ it up is not, stylistically, the be-all and end-all of The Language Of Curiosity, no sirree.  For one thing, Suzy Starlite was a folk-rock singer before she learned to crank out a bass guitar groove, and on ‘It Ain’t Right’ she delivers the dreamy melody in blissed-out fashion, over pattering drums, acoustic guitar strumming, and simple, warm piano chords.  Hell, there’s even a wordless harmonised passage that sounds handed down from the Mamas and Papas.  And if the closing ‘Ride On Cowboy’ evolves from a metronomic kick drum to a four-on-the-floor funky
A little bit bonkers, a whole lotta rock'n'roll
vibe, all grooving bass, chirping guitar and Fender Rhodes frills, her vocal is English rose rather than sassy soul siren – except when her other half breaks out a sizzling solo and she gets all breathy and sexy in the background.  And the title track is a real curve ball, which kicks off in jangly post-punk pop fashion redolent of ‘Echo Beach’, the two of them harmonising in lock-step, before taking a left turn into Campbell crooning like Midge Ure dancing with tears in his eyes over washes of keys.  And if that sounds mad, it’s still a bum-wiggling little winner.
Other highlights are in a more reflective vein, most impressively on ‘Take The Time To Grow Old’, where a ‘Dear Prudence’ guitar motif combines with sustained organ chords and tinkling piano, while Campbell sings about defying the dying of the light.  It’s a post-Beatles pop-rock ballad that could easily con its way into Johnnie Walker’s Sounds of the Seventies radio show, and it’s topped off by a big, ultra-fuzzy guitar solo.  ‘Lay It Out On Me’, meanwhile, is a more melancholy affair, with a ruminative bass line and delicate piano while Campbell drifts between Peter Green and Dave Gilmour stylings with some spare, almost whispered guitar work.
Simon Campbell seems like a walking encyclopaedia of classic British axe heroes.  But overall his guitar sound is his own, and it’s remarkable that he eschews effects pedals in search of it.  Just as importantly though, The Language Of Curiosity is about well-constructed songs, about infectious melodies and worthwhile words, and the couple’s co-writing fulfils those ambitions with a bit of flair.  The Starlite Campbell Band’s bonkers devotion to their musical muse has produced another crop of goodies.

The Language Of Curiosity is released on 5 November, and can be ordered here (though the vinyl edition may not be available till 2022).

Saturday, October 30, 2021

Sue Foley - Pinky's Blues

Sue Foley may be Canadian by birth, but after 30 years living in Austin, her latest album Pinky’s Blues has ‘Texas’ stamped all over it.  It was recorded in Texas, with Texan Hammond organ maestro Mike Flanigin doing the knob-twiddling, and there’s a guest appearance from guitar legend Jimmie Vaughan – hailing, of course, from Dallas, Texas.  Hell, the lady probably wears boots labelled ‘Made In Texas’.
But leave all of that to one side, and the sound of the album still hollers ‘Texas blues’.  It’s there in the feel of ‘Hurricane Girl’, one of the best tracks on offer, which may have a sturdy, stop-time thing going on, but still has drummer Chris Layton and bassist Jon Penner bringing the swing. 
Happiness is . . . Texas blues and a pink guitar
Pic by Todd Wolfson
Meantime the guitars of Foley and the aforementioned Vaughan ripple, shiver, and skim over the top, and if her vocal doesn’t have the command of Etta James declaring she’s a ‘W.O.M.A.N’, it’s still satisfying assertive.
There’s a cinematic feel to songs like ‘Two Bit Texas Town’ and ‘Southern Men’, as if David Lynch were demanding stacks of twang.  The first is an interesting bit of storytelling, but fizzles out a bit.  The second is stronger, with a rumbling, sub-Diddley rhythm, an interesting tune, and a spooky guitar break, though the limitations of Foley’s girlish voice start to become apparent.
She’s better on the romantic slowie ‘Say It’s Not So’, bringing a breathy quality to bear as it opens with just guitar and vocal, while Penner adds a moody bass line to Layton’s restrained drums.  And Foley’s playing here on her guitar 'Pinky' is resonant, human, old-school stuff perfectly tailored to the song – unlike the fade-out that undercuts the emotions.  She delivers a suitably aching vocal on the shimmering ballad ‘Think It Over’, which reaches for the soulfulness of Sam Cooke, assisted by Flanigin’s hesitant and romantic organ solo.
There’s good stuff too in the brisk shuffle of ‘Dallas Man’, with its nagging riff, even if it feels a bit perfunctory.  ‘Stop These Teardrops’ is a great find for a cover too, a catchy slice of shoe-shuffling blues with a stuttering guitar line, penned by (Miss) Lavelle White.  And the jazzy swing of ‘Boogie Real Low’ sounds just like the kind of old-time 50s bluesy rock’n’roll it is, even if the vocal seems almost like an afterthought.
The quickie instrumental ‘Okie Dokie Stomp’ is slight but fun, with Foley’s ducking and diving, witty guitar nicely complemented by the snap and swing of the rhythm section, and Layton’s cymbal stings.  Meanwhile the closing Junior Wells cover ‘When The Cat’s Gone The Mice Play’ is essentially ‘Messin’ With The Kid’ Mark II, without Wells’ convincing growl but Tex-ified by slipping in bursts of Freddie King’s ‘Sen-Sa-Shun’.
I do like a bit of Texas blues.  It’s direct, uncomplicated stuff, in which great guitar playing often seems like ego-free fun around the expression of simple emotions.  There are weaknesses evident in Pinky’s Blues – Foley should have been pushed harder on the vocal front, and a few songs should have been rounded out more definitively.  But it’s still an outing to raise a smile and warm the heart.

Pinky's Blues is out now on Stony Plain Records.

Wednesday, October 27, 2021

The Kentucky Headhunters - That's A Fact, Jack!

The Kentucky Headhunters do their own thing.  They’ve won country music awards, and they’ve been pegged as Southern Rock, and yeah I suppose those labels fit now and then.  But mostly they’re a bunch of rock’n’rollers who’ve been doing whatever they wanna do for a long, loooong time, and judging by That’s A Fact, Jack! they’re still having a ball doing it.
The opening ‘Gonna Be Alright’, for example, is mid-paced and laid back, with Fred Young deliciously behind the beat on drums.  It’s infectiously simple, with trilling guitar fills from Greg
The Kentucky Headhunters - barn-burningly good!
Pic by Joe McNally

Martin along the way, until it gains intensity towards the end.  That lazy beat from Fred Young
returns later in the service of ‘We Belong Together’, a warm and mellow slice of romance with typically expressive vocals from bassist Doug Phelps, and an immaculate bitter-sweet solo from Martin – whose playing, I may say, is outstanding throughout.
They can do country-ish Southern Rock balladry like falling off a log, as on ‘Susannah’ for example, factoring in subtle dynamics as they gradually raise the temperature via a shift in the riff and some walloping drum fills, leading up to a chiming outro.  There’s organ in the mix there too, as there is cushioning the similar, heartsick ‘Lonely Too Long’, the bass and drums bouncing off each other as Martin adds some elegant guitar embroidery.
But they can rock too, as on the hooky ‘How Could I’, on which Fred Young’s snappy snare drum perfectly punctuates a cracking little riff, while Martin contributes some deliciously slippery slide.  But that’s just a warm-up for ‘That’s A Fact, Jack’ itself, on which churning guitars herald a gruff, finger-pointing vocal from Richard Young, while that punchy snare drum locks things together and Martin comes up with a suitably sizzling solo.  And still, that’s nothing compared to the bonkers penultimate track, ‘Shotgun Effie’, a tyre-squealing rocker with a grabber of a riff, on which Greg Martin takes a turn behind the mic.  He’s only a little fella, but he doesn’t half sound mean, like Billy Gibbons on the morning after the night before, with thumping drums and some skidpan-worthy slide guitar for good measure.  Oh yeah, and they knock off some old-fashioned rock’n’roll along the way, on ‘Heart And Soul’, with bopping bass from Phelps, swinging drums, satisfying harmonies, and a couple of effortless guitar breaks, all in the space of three minutes.
And in addition to all that, they’re funny too.  ‘Cup Of Tea’, with its Byrds-like ringing and weaving guitars, is a catchy, smile-inducing number, the kind of tune you feel you’ve known forever and a day.  But in place of the Byrds’ soaring harmonies drummer Fred Young delivers vocal that’s croaky, relaxed and humorous, and still romantic in an everyday kinda way.  Meanwhile the closing ‘Let’s Get Together And Fight’ is an ironic, booze-infused Christmas song, nodding heavily towards ‘Rockin’ Around The Christmas Tree’ but painting a picture of bickering and fisticuffs rather than peace and goodwill.  Yea and verily, it deserves to become an alternative festive classic.
Listen up good people - The Kentucky Headhunters may be a bunch of old geezers, but they’re also the gen-yoo-wine article, as That’s A Fact, Jack! demonstrates.  I know it’s only rock’n’roll, but you’ll like it, like it, yes you will!
That’s A Fact, Jack! is out now on Practice House Records, and available on all digital platforms here.

Monday, October 25, 2021

Davy Knowles - What Happens Next

How to avoid repeating yourself.  How to stand out from the herd.  Seems to me these are key questions for many a modern-day blues-rockin’ artist.  Some don’t bother of course, and just keep on keepin’ on, following the same old course.  But others go in search of different angles of attack, looking for new grooves rather than getting stuck in a rut.
In the case of Chicago-based Manxman Davy Knowles and his new album What Happens Next, the result is a focus on songs in differing styles, sometimes retro-sounding to go with the
Davy Knowles gets all sophisticated for the camera
Pic by Timothy M Schmidt
"salvaged vinyl" look of the cover art, but with a few nifty embellishments to deliver a modern twist - drawing on the skills of producer Eric Corne I suspect, who has added similar freshness to the soulful sound of Sugaray Rayford.
Take the opener ‘Light Of The Moon’ for example, or a little later ‘Get Lucky’.  Both tracks carry echoes, however distant, of The Black Keys.  With its stomping backbeat and grinding guitar chords, the first in particular suggests the bluesy neo-Glam Rock vibe of the Keys’ El Camino.  It comes with tweeting keyboard notes, brief and edgy guitar breaks, and a couple of anthemic “Hey! Hey!” interludes, if not quite the grapnel-like hook of, say, ‘Gold On The Ceiling’.  On ‘Get Lucky’, meantime, the verses may be a tad lightweight, but the catchy chorus compensates, heightened by a simple, but effective, bubbling keyboard line.
Knowles has a good rather than outstanding voice, but he uses it with conviction, especially a slowie like the Corne composition ‘Roll Me’.  A bluesy ballad one might say is in John Mayer territory, Knowles delivers it with more character than Mayer could muster, over a foundation of low down, spaced out guitar notes and subtle washes of organ, to which he adds his own restrained and well-judged guitar work.  And he does moody and reflective well too, on the haunted vibe of ‘Devil And The Deep Blue Sea’, with its tinkling piano and most Bonamassa-like slow and epic riff, to which Knowles adds some squeaking slide that turns rather more razor-edged on the outro.  The same is true of the melodic and mellow ‘River’, a simple affair on which Knowles gets increasingly impassioned, underlined by some beautifully complementary guitar licks.
These ballads are the real standouts, rather than poptastic outings like the stuttering ‘Solid Ground’ and sprightly ‘Side Show’, though the latter piques more interest with its fuzzed-up guitar tone, its rubber band bass, and the way the tense, buzzing riff butts up against the relaxed rhythm.
‘Wake Me Up When The Nightmare’s Over’ is strident stuff, and if Knowles could do with summoning up more vocal raunch, it’s still got guts, with crunching guitar chords, walloping drums, surging organ and rocking piano, going out on a burst of taut and wiry guitar.  Then by way of contrast the album closes with the folkie ‘If I Ever Meet My Maker’, sparkling picked guitar the main backing for its sensitively sung, lilting melody.
What Happens Next is a grower.  It’s not a straight-up blues-rock album, and Davy Knowles may not always hit the stylistic targets he’s aiming for, but when he’s good – on those slow numbers in particular – he’s very good indeed.
What Happens Next
 is out now on Provogue Records, and can be ordered here.

Thursday, October 21, 2021

Southern Avenue - Be The Love You Want

Let’s get straight to the point, eh?  Or to two points, to be more accurate.  To wit:

1.   At their best, Southern Avenue evoke classic Memphis soul à la the heyday of Don Bryant and Ann Peebles, for example, but in a modern style of their own.

2.  They’re a damn fine, tight ensemble, the whole exceeding the sum of their parts.  But their trump card is lead singer Tierinii Jackson.  Seriously, we’re talking about a Superbowl standard vocalist who can go from gossamer light to stratospheric power while maintaining the purest of tones.

Smile along with Southern Avenue

All of which is evident on the title track of Be The Love You Want, which opens with some rattling percussion triggering staccato guitar chords, before slipping into a more comfortable groove propelled by rubbery bass and bright horns.  Meantime Tierinii Jackson starts warming up her tonsils, and right off the bat they’re delivering something special, topped off a fizzing guitar break from Ori Naftaly.
The following ‘Control’ takes it easy on the verses, with Ms TJ slipping and sliding around the melody, over cool bass lines from Evan Sarver, fluid horns, and offbeat drum patterns from TIkyra Jackson – who also contributes to the spot on vocal harmonies on the lively chorus.  ‘Don’t Hesitate (Call Me)', meanwhile, dials things down into dreamy mode, Jackson delivering her vocal over minimalist backing, with injections of more sumptuous harmonies, while Naftaly works up a melodic guitar motif that steps out of the everyday soul/blues vein en route to a brief but sparkling solo.
The backwards shuffling rhythm of ‘Push Now’ carries hints of North Mississippi hill country – little surprise perhaps, with the writing contribution of North Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson - but is still stamped with Southern Avenue soul.  There’s some edge as the tune strains against the rhythm, while Jeremy Powell brings warm piano and Naftaly adds another interesting solo.  ‘Fences’, in a different vibe, really is like an old-fashioned soul track from the late 60s/early 70s, with Jackson stretching herself into an ethereal domain worthy of Minnie Riperton, and Naftaly adding another nifty little supporting solo.
As the tracks go by though, I begin to find the relentless presence of the horns somewhat irritating – smooth and slinky too often for my liking, as on the rather flimsy soul-pop of ‘Love You Nice And Slow’ for example, and leaving little room for Jeremy Powell’s keys to contribute.  And with its floating vocals over shimmering guitar, ‘Too Good To Be True’ is a sophisticated enough ballad without the horn interpolations that nudge it in the direction of easy listening.  Southern Avenue have enough clubs in their core five-piece bag without needing the assistance of brass at every turn, as ‘Heathen Hearts’ demonstrates with its gospel-like vocal delivery by the Jackson sisters over backing that consists of little more than rhythmic clapping and a whomping kick drum.
Still, ‘Move Into The Light’ is a bubbling chunk of funk, with another restless, offbeat rhythm, and ‘Pressure’ derives some satisfying oomph from its staccato feel, Jackson’s occasionally edgier vocal, and some gutsier guitar from Naftaly.
Be The Love You Want demonstrates all the quality that brought Southern Avenue a Grammy nomination, ten-a-penny though those may be.  I’d like to hear Naftaly spread himself a bit more on guitar just once or twice, and a couple more killer hooks wouldn’t go amiss.  But this is a classy album, no doubt, with an impressive strike rate of winning songs – and Tierinii Jackson’s astonishing voice always ready to knock you sideways.

Be The Love You Want is out now, on Renew Records/BMG.