Wednesday, March 3, 2021

New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers - Volume 2

If what you’re after is a slab of blues-rock seething with guitar sorcery, I suggest you get off the bus at the next stop.  This ain’t that kind of album.
The New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers – and that’s a mouthful I won’t be repeating much, believe me - weren’t a real band.  They were a bunch of roots music comrades who got together in the studio back in November 2007, set the tapes rolling, and  - well, played some stuff.  And it’s taken till last year with Volume 1, and now with Volume 2, for the fruits of those sessions to see the light of day.
Memphis big cat Jim Dickinson
The thing is, these weren’t just any old blues geezers.  They included Luther and Cody Dickinson of the North Mississippi Allstars, and their dad, that redoubtable stalwart of Memphis music Jim Dickinson, who died in 2009.  Also present were the respected Clarksdale harp player Charlie Musselwhite, Grammy Award-winner Alvin Youngblood Hart, and their pal and Squirrel Nut Zipper-in-chief Jimbo Mathus.
The feel of what they recorded is similar to Ian Siegal’s Picnic Sessions album, which was also recorded in the Dickinsons’ Zebra Ranch studio in Mississippi, with some of the same personnel.  The Jelly Rolling gang sat themselves down in a circle and played live, pulling out old covers and a few of their own songs, and capturing them in the most relaxed, down-home style you can imagine.
If a crate of beers and some bottles of rye were dispatched along the way, I wouldn’t be at all surprised.  The Charlie Mingus tune ‘Oh Lord, Don’t Let Them Drop That Atom Bomb On Me’,
Charlie Musselwhite - have harp, will wail
for example, is a slow blues that sounds like a bourbon-soaked funeral march, with Jim Dickinson delivering a plaintive moan’n’groan of a vocal, his chiming piano counterpointing a tentative guitar solo.  The closing ‘Blues Is A Mighty Bad Feeling’ is mournful too, the beat dragging like the half-step-and-pause of a slow march as Dickinson père croons along over warm, spare guitar chords and lonesome harp.
They can swing too though, as they show on a reading of ‘Messin’ With The Kid’ that’s way closer to Junior Wells than Rory Gallagher.  Dickinson senior provides vocals again, growling along over skimpy promptings from son Cody’s drums, twitching rhythm guitar, and Charlie Musselwhite tooting away on the stumbling riff before providing a solo to go along with a sparkling guitar break.  And there’s a similar light touch later, on Jimmy Reed’s ‘Can’t Stand To See You Go’, all chirpy piano and harmonica flourishes.
After taking the lead vocal on opener 'Blues For Yesterday', Musselwhite is also to the fore on the atmospheric highlight and dark-from-the-off ‘Black Water’.  He offers up ghostly harp to accompany lowdown guitar work that’s like an alligator gliding through the bayou, later migrating into a slithering harp’n’slide conversation, while stirrings of drum paradiddles conjure up snakes in the bushes.  But if all that sounds like the setting for a midnight-at-the-crossroads yarn, Musselwhite’s semi-spoken vocal is in fact a reflection on the modern world.
Jimbo Mathus comin' at ya!
Brighter notes come in the likes of ‘She’s About A Mover’ and ‘Searchlight’.  Alvin Youngblood Hart takes the mic on the former, a Sir Douglas Quintet song owing plenty to Ray Charles, Hart’s voice light and airy for a big fella, over an oom-pah rhythm and jittery tweeting organ, ahead of a fuzzy guitar solo.  On the following ‘Searchlight’ it’s Jimbo Mathus who takes the floor, with some bass work lending a warmer sound, while harp, slide guitar and piano all interweave, Musselwhite gets his wail on for a solo, and some spiky guitar adds extra spice.  Luther Dickinson also gets the chance to shine on the instrumental ‘Blue Guitar’, his slide guitar moaning and slithering around the melody from ‘You Shook Me’, guitar and harp eventually squeaking away together over a grinding rhythm that’s very ‘Chicago Blues’.
What the New Mooners got down was ensemble stuff, feeling their way around each other and the songs to create something organic – loose and spontaneous rather than tight and structured.  Freedom Rockers indeed.  If that sounds like your kind of gig, then get yourself a beer, pull a chair up to the circle, and listen in.
 
New Moon Jelly Roll Freedom Rockers Volume 2 is released on Stony Plain Records on 26 March.
 

Sunday, February 28, 2021

Redfish - Songs From The Fire Station

Tick tock, time flies.  I’m two weeks beyond the release date with a review of this latest thang by north west of England/south west of Scotland band Redfish.  It’s worth the wait though.
Songs From The Fire Station is a four track EP of covers, recorded live at the Old Fire Station in Carlisle, effectively the home venue for the Redfish gang.  
The best moments come with the opening and closing tracks, ‘Meet Me In The Morning’ and ‘Use Me’, both of which display the kind of imagination that makes Redfish stand out from the blues herd.
The first, a Dylan song, is seven minutes worth of long distance travel from the semi-acoustic twanginess
Redfish turning blue
of the original.  The initial focus is on slinky Fender Rhodes piano from Fraser Clark and funky bass from Rod Mackay, garnished with sprinklings of bluesy licks Martin McDonald.  I sense that a lot of work has gone into giving this arrangement its soulful, jazzy, and relaxed vibe.  Clark’s piano solo eases and flutters its way across the octaves, before McDonald picks up the baton with a guitar solo that teases out and then releases the tension, while Sandy Sweetman’s drums tie things together in lazy, swinging fashion.
McDonald opens ‘Use Me’ with some Hendrix-homage wah-wah á la ‘Voodoo Chile’ which then melts into the soulful groove of the Bill Withers classic, over stuttering bass from Mackay.  Now and then everything drops away except pattering drums and the vocals of Stumblin’ Harris.  Now, Harris may not have the greatest voice in the world, but he does know how to use what he’s got, and he’s very good here, raising and lowering his voice and lending lots of character to the song.  There’s an interesting stuttering rhythm on the go underneath Clark’s piano, and they accelerate smoothly into a yowling wah-wah solo from McDonald, before downshifting again to bring plenty of dynamics to proceedings.  It’s a great song from Bill Withers in the place, and they do it justice.
In between, Hound Dog Taylor’s ‘Give Me Back My Wig’ and Jimmy Reed’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ may be less interesting, but they’re still entertaining live fare.  The former is high revving, slide-jangling blues, delivered with plenty of energy.  McDonald goes on a slide guitar toboggan ride, and Clark delivers a barrelhouse piano foray that keeps you hanging on the edge until takes a handbrake turn, and they fairly charge towards the buffers at the end.  ‘Bright Lights, Big City’ is more sturdy, mid-tempo boogie, with the ivories well-tinkled in a Johnnie Johnson stylee, and a warped-sounding guitar solo to add a different flavour.
All in all Songs From The Fire Station is good enough to make me wonder why they didn’t add a few more tracks and produce something more substantial than this tasty appetiser.  But less is sometimes more, and all that.  In any event, Redfish have followed up their album Souls with another demonstration that they’re not just yer typical 12 bar blues bashers.  And that shouldn’t really surprise me any more.

Songs From The Fire Station is available here.

Friday, February 26, 2021

Adventures in the South - New Orleans, Part 1

It was the morning after the night before in Lafayette, Louisiana, and we were up and about and ready to hit the road for New Orleans.  If you want to read about our Lafayette layover, you’ll find that episode here.  Or if you don’t know what this Adventues In The South business is all about, you can go right back to the beginning here.
We headed back along Highway 10, and the 18 mile long, stilts-over-gator-country Atchafalaya Basin Bridge towards Baton Rouge.  But from there we didn’t take the direct route to New Orleans.  Our plan instead was to take the scenic route, and approach New Orleans via the Lake
The Lake Pontchartrain Causeway
Pontchartrain Causeway – the longest continuous bridge in the world, at nearly 24 miles.  This detour wouldn’t take us much longer – or at least wouldn’t have done if a landmark like this was clearly signposted.  But no – here’s the longest continuous bridge in the world, which is even name-checked in John Hiatt’s much-loved, much-covered song ‘Feels Like Rain’, and you’d scarcely know it existed from the road signs.  Bizarre.  So we managed to plough on across the state line into Mississippi, where we had to make an impromptu pit stop at a State Park or some such to do an about turn.
Second time lucky, we found the turn-off, and then the bridge.  And it is remarkable, arrowing south across the lake, and over the horizon to N’Awlins – not jaw-dropping, but worth the diversion.
We dropped our hire car at the airport, as we wouldn’t need it for the remaining few days of our trip, and took a cab to our lodgings.  For New Orleans my other half Jill had selected the Hotel le Marais in the French Quarter, just a few steps from Bourbon Street.  Very nice it was too, as we chilled out after the drive (during which we had blessed the aircon as the temperature hit new heights) and the cab ride, by sinking into the pool in the rear courtyard with a couple of cocktails
Hotel le Marais hangs out the flags for us
– Strawberry Mimosas being the order of the day.
Later, in the course of a first wander around, we enjoyed some grilled oysters in one of the numerous local oyster bars.  Then we took the very warm evening air in Bourbon Street, and ended up in one of its well-known music haunts, the Famous Door.  Here we were treated to a soul and R’n’B, so cool one of them was wearing wraparound shades, whipping through a set of classic covers in most satisfying style.  The audience – a decent number for midweek – was rather less cool mind you, as it included a high proportion of Elks.  No, not the big beasts with coatrack antlers, of course.  These middle-aged folks were members of the Order of Elks, one of those fraternal societies so popular in the States, and their bright yellow t-shirts announced they were in town for a Convention.  The Order of Elks is very keen on God, the Flag and the Constitution – but less keen on black members until the 70s, and still not wild about women members.  That
One of the more genteel Bourbon St buildings
evening though, the Elk types – of both sexes – seemed mostly intent on having a few beers and shaking their booty to the band.
When the band took a break we spread our wings and found a bar further up the road where a jazz quartet was in action.  Rather good they were too, with an exuberant drummer who was really throwing himself into it, and a trumpet player who in my recollection bore a startling resemblance to the actor Chiwetel Ejiofor.  What was most noticeable though, was that they were competing with some rock bar across the street, which was blasting out the likes of Bon Jovi with the volume turned up to 11.  If this was the cause of the slightly pained expression that often crossed the face of our trumpeter, then I sympathised.
That trumpeter’s expression, I have to say, sums up my abiding impression of Bourbon Street.  It’s tacky.  People wander up and down it carrying large, garishly designed plastic vessels filled with high voltage concoctions named “Hurricanes”, “Hand Grenades” and such like.  Here and there along the way they pass by a selection of strip joints, with window displays that make their repertoire clear – even to the pre-teens dutifully trailing along in the company of Mom and Pop.  It smells a bit too, like once a week the whole avenue gets sluiced down with slops from the beer.
Appealing, huh?  Well, it still has some plus points.  And there’s more to New Orleans than Bourbon Street!

Sunday, February 21, 2021

When Rivers Meet - The EP Collection

Okay, so let’s recap.  When Rivers Meet are a British blues-type duo, comprising Grace and Aaron Bond.  They released their debut album We Fly Free in November 2020.  Many of you will know this.  But before that they’d released two EPs – The Uprising in September 2019 and Innocence Of Youth in May 2020.  Some of you will know this, and will have snaffled copies of those EPs some time back.  Good for you.  Now go get a coffee while the rest of us catch up.
You can’t get those two EPs any more, in their original form.  But you can now get this single CD double-helping of them.
So for the unenlightened, here’s the lowdown.
Grace and Aaron Bond - they get a bit dark
Pic by Terry Crouch
Opening track ‘Free Man’ typifies a key strand of the WRM modus operandi.  The intro is heavy on twangeroonie from Grace Bond's 
resonator mandolin, and then she cuts loose vocally over grinding slide guitar from husband Aaron, over boom-crash drums courtesy of co-producer Adam Bowers.  The Bonds don’t go in for much soloing, but here there’s a brief mandolin break that manages to sound peculiarly like tinkling high notes from a piano.  Later on ‘Innocence Of Youth’ is in a similar vein.  There’s some Page-like slithering slide on the intro, but the backing is minimal until it’s interrupted by jagged crunches of guitar and drums as the song takes off.  At which point Grace Bond lets fly like an air raid siren - that’s the kind of vocal impact she makes when she hits top gear.
But that’s not the only way When Rivers Meet roll.  The Bond girl gets delicate like a Homeric Siren on the gorgeous melody of ‘Tomorrow’, backed by faintly chiming guitar chords and spot on harmonies from Aaron.  Harmonies are also at the heart of ‘Like What You See’, a song that’s steamier than a Turkish baths in overdrive.  It pulses along, restrained and tense, with ringing guitar chords and thudding bass and kick drum.  Then it builds in intensity, with violin thrown into the mix, until La Bond raises her voice in – how shall we put this? – a wordless moan of rapture.
‘Kill For Your Love’ is daring too, all throbbing guitar and snapping, rattling percussion, while Ms Bond croons her way through a darkly violent, obsessive sounding lyric.  At moments like these there’s a Gothic edge to the WRM vibe. ‘My Babe Says That He Loves Me’, similarly, is nobody’s straight-up ballad.  It combines big, rough-edged guitar chords, wistfully descending vocal harmonies, and lines about whispering ravens and “the hidden truth of falling tears”.  Add in a handbrake turn for the chorus, a neat mandolin break, and some pounding drums, and there’s plenty to keep you listening.
They don’t always hit the bullseye.  There’s plenty of dynamics on ‘A Dead Man Doesn’t Lie’, with its ticking riff like a dialled-down grandchild of Zeppelin, but it feels a bit thin to be extended to over five minutes, for all that Grace Bond elevates it with an eerie violin solo.  And the same is maybe true of ‘Want Your Love’, despite its fuzzy, propulsive rhythm guitar, another scraping, ear-catching fiddle break, and a big crescendo at the end.
But here’s the thing.  Nobody else out there sounds like When Rivers Meet.  They’re also a photogenic pair, which can’t hurt.  And I reckon they’re pretty savvy too. Little wonder they’ve managed to create a buzz like a beehive in just a couple of years.  When live music returns, one fine day, you’d better snap up your tickets to see ‘em sharpish, because they’re gonna be in demand.
 
You can order The EP Collection from the When Rivers Meet website, here.

Monday, February 15, 2021

Curtis Salgado - Damage Control

Oh yeah.  Count me in.  From the moment that opening track ‘The Longer That I Live’ hoves into earshot, Damage Control is the real deal.  It bobs along, piano, organ and guitar all dovetailing perfectly with little licks and remarks, over an easy-going, toe-tapping rhythm.  It sounds like these guys are having fun, and I certainly am.  There’s a twangy little solo from Kid Andersen, and a witty organ counterpart from Mike Finnigan, and throughout it all Curtis Salgado delivers a spot-on, expressive vocal about getting the most out of life.  Given that this is a guy who’s overcome two different bouts of cancer, and come through big time heart surgery, I kinda think he means it.
There’s a timeless quality to this stuff, like Salgado and his co-conspirators have uncovered a
"Play me some blues, Curtis!"
Pic by Marilyn Stringer
treasure trove of rock’n’roll, rhythm’n’blues and soul – and other stuff from the popular music lexicon.
Tracks like the Tex-Mex ‘Count Of Three’, ‘I Don’t Do That No More’ and the closing ‘Slow Down’ carry echoes of Delbert McClinton – wry and knowing both lyrically and musically.  ‘I Don’t Do That No More’ is piano-led boogie, with Kevin McKendree tickling the ivories on this occasion, as Salgado delivers a paean to clean living but insists life can still be a breeze.  And Larry Williams' ‘Slow Down’ (also raved up by The Beatles) is even better, with a shuffling groove underlined by horns, more honky tonk from McKendree and twangy rock’n’roll guitar from Bonnie Raitt accomplice George Marinelli, while Salgado gets his gnashers around some tongue-twisting phrases and even hints at Jerry Lee Lewis with some shivering delivery.
‘You’re Going To Miss My Sorry Ass’ may not quite have the chorus to live up to its title, but it’s still a crackling slice of rock’n’roll akin to John Hiatt’s ‘Tennessee Plates’, with more barrelhouse piano, warm acoustic bass from Mark Winchester, and mood-catching backing vocals from Johnny Lee Schnell.  Meanwhile ‘Hail Mighty Caesar’ is a N’Awlins-inflected take on the story of Caesar, Cleopatra and Mark Anthony.  It’s a hoot, but don’t rely on it if you’re revising for a History exam.  Instead, lay back and enjoy the witty, Latin-tinged piano courtesy of Jim Pugh, the subtle guitar and acoustic bass from Kid Andersen, while horns bring a second line funk feel to proceedings, and Salgado throws in some shoutalong backing vocals to underline the party vibe.
The variety is enhanced by ‘Oh For The Cry Eye’, all simple, swingin’ rhythm from Tony Braunagel on drums, tooting organ, and jazzy backing vocals from Wendy Moten as they cook up a bit of a Randy Newman feel.  And there’s also room for a touch of zydeco on ‘Truth Be Told’, a neat little toon that rattles along nicely as Salgado duets with Wayne Toups, who also adds cajun squeezebox over a snappy, Diddley-ish beat.  Meanwhile ‘The Fix Is In’ is downbeat funkiness, cruising along on a slowed-down ‘Billie Jean’-like bass line as Salgado delivers some cold-eyed social commentary on modern corruption.  “Somebody play me the blues!” he calls out in response, before delivering a sharp harmonica solo.
One of the very best things on the album though, is the slow-ish soul of ‘Always Say I Love You (At The End Of Your Goodbyes)’, with Salgado’s whole-hearted vocal nailing the emotional lyric about never knowing if you’ll get another chance to tell people you care about that you love them.
The songwriter comparisons and supporting cast I’ve referenced will tell you a lot of what you need to know about this album.  But in the end it’s Curtis Salgado’s engaging voice that really brings home the bacon, full of personality and conviction, really owning these songs.  Maybe a few of the thirteen tracks on could have been stronger, but that’s taking us deep into quibble territory.  Damage Control is a damn fine, irresistibly listenable, enjoyable, likeable album.  Count me in.
 
Damage Control is released on 26 February on Alligator Records.

Friday, February 12, 2021

The BluesBones - Live On Stage

Where to begin?  Well, why not Belgium, since that’s where The BluesBones hail from?  And while my knowledge of the Belgian music scene wouldn’t fill the back of a postage stamp, I’m hazarding a guess that these guys are among the country’s prime exponents of blues-based tunage, having won the Belgian Blues Challenge in 2016 and come second in the European event the following year.
But this is not a purist blues band.  The BluesBones have a distinctive sound that carries a fair amount of heft.  Right at the start of this live album, on ‘Find My Way Out’, they crank out a surging riff with a whiplash end to it, and the Jon Lord-ish power of Edwin Risbourg’s Hammond organ puts me in mind of Deep Purple.  Sort of.  Well, not really.  For one thing, singer Nico De
"Psst, Nico - what song is this again?"
Cock doesn’t have either the raunch and range of Ian Gillan or the soulfulness of prime Coverdale – but he still has a rich, assertive voice.  And though Purple comparisons float to the surface again here and there as the set progresses, the Bluesbones gang explore some different avenues.
‘Find My Way Out’ does make it clear that they’re a tight outfit though, capable of pulling off a clever, stop-start, drum break fuelled ending with ease.  And the following ‘The End’ shows that they can put together an impressive arrangement for something looser too.  Kicking off with rubberband-like bass from Geert Boeckx, it’s cool and steady, with chiming guitar and twirls or organ, while drummer Jens Roelandt relaxes behind the beat.
The twelve tracks on offer are a bit short of convincing hooks, though the songs are generally well-constructed.  But ‘Romance For Rent’ and ‘Psycho Mind’ both stand out as having that little bit extra.  The former is uptempo, with an appealing vibe like the theme to some Sixties TV show – Man In A Suitcase maybe – and a tense, ascending riff, and a typically impressive organ solo from Risbourg.  The riff on ‘Psycho Mind’ is tasty too, more helter skelter, and if they never really whack things into top gear they still generate satisfying momentum, with a thumping rhythm section and oomph from Paglia too while Risbourg is solo-ing.  ‘Going Down’ – no, not that one – may not be the catchiest, but it is atmospheric.  A mid-paced grind with a simple slide riff, it’s another impressive arrangement, and Paglia puts the icing on the cake with an eerie slide solo – the phrase danse macabre springs to mind.
De Cock gets more soulful on the slow and pulsing ‘Betrayal’, on which Risbourg delivers a solo with plenty of light and shade, and the vocals are also the main focus on the following ‘Sealed Souls’, an even slower and moodier affair with a poetic lyric about warfare and loss, that rouses itself in the middle, before falling away again for a quiet, pinpricking Paglia guitar solo.  It’s one of several tracks of seven minutes or more – they do like to spread themselves – but they make good use of the time here.
The uptempo rocker ‘Cruisin’’ has a slightly naff lyric about hunting down “baby” who has nicked the hero’s car and guitar, but it’s redeemed by some humorous musical twists and turns that carry echoes of Purple playfulness.  And Paglia brings the 11-minute long closer ‘Whisky Drinking Woman’ to life with a bluesy solo incorporating some hummingbird-like fluttering, and both soulful and playful passages before the song claws its way to a crescendo, with Boeckx adding some ear-catching bass lines.
To be sure, the songs could be stronger at times.  But the BluesBones are still proper musos who know what they’re about, and if you fancy a muscular blues-rock sound that’s bit of a throwback to the late 60s/early 70s, then Live On Stage could be just the ticket.
 
Live On Stage is available now, and can be ordered here
 

Tuesday, February 9, 2021

Reading Matters: Diary of a Rock'n'Roll Star, by Ian Hunter

I’ve been meaning to read Ian Hunter’s Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star for years, but a lot of the time it’s been out of print.  Recently though, I collared a copy of the most recent 2018 edition, which comes in a very stylish trade paperback format.
“May well be the best rock book ever,” says a quote from Q magazine on the front cover.  Well, I’m not sure I’d go that far, but it’s certainly an interesting read.
For the uninitiated, Hunter’s diary covers a month-long US tour in November-December 1972, when his band Mott the Hoople were looking for an American breakthrough on the back of ‘All The Young Dudes’ reaching #37 in the Billboard chart that summer.  Hunter makes one or two references to the tour having been booked in a hurry, and maybe that accounts for one of the things that struck me – the expedition feels a bit ramshackle.
Ian Hunter back in the day - that guitar looks flash, but . . .
Pic by Brian Hunter

After kicking off on the West Coast the band spend much of the next month zig-zagging around the East Coast, Mid-West, and South, often needing two flights to get from A to B.  Inevitably, given that winter is descending, they find themselves competing with the weather, sometimes facing long delays and diversions.  Oh yeah, and guitarist Mick Ralphs is constantly faced with his phobia about flying.
When they get wherever they’re going, some of the shows they’re booked on are less than seamlessly organised.  At the mercy of local promoters, for several shows they’re sharing the bill with two or even three other bands of wildly differing styles (supporting John McLaughlin being one spectacular mismatch), fighting for soundchecks and embroiled in arguments about the running order.  So bad are some of these situations that they point to their contract and blow the gig out – getting paid expenses, but still out of pocket and losing the exposure the tour was intended to bring.
The book is not, by any standards, a litany of sex and drugs and rock’n’roll.  Groupies are always hanging around, but the band aren’t interested.  More than once, in a manner symptomatic of the pre-PC argot of the times, Hunter refers to them as “slags”.  Been there, done that in the past, it seems – and now acutely aware of the diseases these “chicks” might be carrying.
The arc of the diary also reveals the fatigue brought on by touring.  Hunter starts off commenting chirpily enough about flights and hotels; flying is still a relatively novel experience back in 1972, and he finds the standards of American hotels way better than the gloom and poor service in Britain.  But as time goes on tiredness and tetchiness set in.  Flights and security can be a pain, officious cabin crew feel the rough end of his tongue, and some hotels are less pleasing.  When serious drinking does break out, it seems as likely to be in response to boredom as any kind of party vibe – and the hangovers are real.
It’s this insight Hunter provides about the workmanlike nature of the “rock’n’roll star” life that
"Author!  Author!"
marks the book out.  Mott the Hoople, with one big hit single under their belt and not long disentangled from onerous contracts and debts, are by no means rolling in money.  So it gradually dawns that their determined investigation of pawn shops wherever they go is less to do with unearthing some classic guitar to be treasured forever, than with making some spare cash.  The hard currency of these expeditions is highlighted by a Mick Ralphs’ purchase of a Gibson Les Paul Junior in Detroit.  He pays $83.50, which Hunter observes equates to £33 (the past is another country, the exchange rates were different then), plus 50% customs duty to bring it back to Britain.  So, a £200 guitar is acquired for £50, and is eminently saleable in London’s Denmark Street to put some ready cash in a skint rock’n’roller’s pocket.
What you don’t get are regular blow-by-blow accounts of the shows.  Hunter is often more preoccupied with what can go wrong, and maybe when he’s onstage he’s too in the zone to bring many reflections off it – unless something out of the ordinary has happened, which is not necessarily a good thing.  Happily though, the final show in Memphis is a highlight which makes clear the buzz of performance, and sends him on his journey back home on a high.
The book contains a heap of photographs, including a very good glossy section, and in this edition the bonus of a brief diary from Hunter of a 2015 trip to Japan, which comes over as an altogether more relaxed experience.
 
It’s a measure of Ian Hunter the songwriter that some of the 1972 experiences evidently became the seeds of Mott’s 1973 hit ‘All The Way From Memphis’, condensed and transformed into a mythical rock’n’roll tale that’s now a golden oldie.  Just like Ian Hunter himself, who is 81 years old now, and still a rock’n’roll star.
 
Diary of a Rock’n’Roll Star is published by Omnibus Press.   
 

Saturday, February 6, 2021

Joanna Connor - 4801 South Indiana Avenue

BOOM-BA-DA-BOOM!  An offbeat train-like rhythm kicks in, and a second later a blizzard of slide guitar follows it.  Joanna Connor is off and running, heading for the ‘Destination’ of the opening track, and for your own safety you’d better stand back behind the yellow line.
‘Destination’ is locomotive chugalong boogie, with additional guitars from producers Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith underpinning Connor’s slide.  Reese Wynans whacks out some Johnnie Johnson-like piano, adding roll to the rock, and over the top of all that Connor delivers a raucous, assertive vocal, counterpointed by backing vocals from Jimmy Hall.
Joanna Connor - not as quiet as she looks
Pic by Maryam Wilcher
Yessiree folks, if you have a taste for rip-roaring slide guitar and a woman who sings with Joplin-esque abandon, then 4801 South India Avenue is the album for you.
If you don’t believe me, cop an earful of ‘I Feel So Good’.  Connor serves up a slide frenzy intro like screaming tyres, then hollers “Weeeeeeelllll . . . I feel so good I’m gonna boogie till the break of day!”  A slight exaggeration, given that the track last three and a half minutes, but it does roar along like a souped-up Ford till it downshifts into a slide-and-drums passage, then some especially pizzicato-like slide on the way to a chain-yanking ending.
There’s an appealing retro vibe to songs like ‘Come Back Home’, ‘For The Love Of A Man’, and ‘Please Help’, reflecting their provenance.  The first, penned by Hound Dog Taylor, with its rolling blues riff and sprinkles of piano, brings to mind Beano-era Bluesbreakers, with Connor delivering a powerful, well-phrased and emotive vocal, and scything slide work.  ‘For The Love Of A Man’, a Don Nix tune recorded by Albert King, rolls out a ‘Crossroads’-type riff that’s taken up by the horns that appear on a few tracks, and adds in a smile-inducing up-and-down turnaround reminiscent of the Hendrix take on ‘Hey Joe’.  And JB Hutto’s ‘Please Help’ takes another vintage-sounding riff and sprinkles slide over the top, while Connor drops her voice into a marginally lower register, and takes her slide skating over what an unusually placed, almost counter-intuitive beat.
The slow blues of Luther Allison’s ‘Bad News’ may be topped and tailed by the naff, unnecessary tolling of a funereal bell, but otherwise it delivers the goods, from its synthy bass sound to Connor’s weeping slide and plaintive vocal.  Her solo is characterful, and Reese Wynans cools off the anguish a tad with a virtuoso piano solo.
Connor has one belter of a voice, and gets soulful on the horn-laden ‘Trouble Trouble’, on which she also delivers a gritty solo that’s fraught with tension.  But wielding that muscular larynx with more subtlety wouldn’t go amiss at times, as she hollers all the way through to the strut-riffed ‘Cut You Loose’, which slows and quickens in curious fashion, taking in a woozy slide solo en route to a crash-bang conclusion.
Eventually though, she brings more dynamics to her singing on the easier-going last but one track ‘Part Time Love’, with warm organ from Wynans, some velvety sax from Mark Douthit, and subtle, rolling waves of horns.  Oh yeah, and Joey B sticks his head above the parapet to trade some licks with Connor.  It’s a song that could usefully have been slotted in earlier to apply some coolant to the steaming engine, rather than sitting back-to-back with the following ‘It’s My Time’.  A slinky and sultry affair with a semi-spoken vocal, over a subtle rolling rhythm, the closer combines twangy guitar chords mingle and some spacey keyboard trills, and Connor adds another stylish touch with her cool, angular solo.
Credit to Bonamassa and Josh Smith, and engineer JJ Blair for the huge, live sound – there’s no chance of Connor hiding her light under a bushel with this mix.  4801 South Indiana Avenue isn’t perfect, but it is one juggernaut of a blues album.  Maybe it’s been overdue, but I can hear Joanna Connor’s train a-comin’.

4801 South Indiana Avenue is released by KTBA Records on 26 February, and is available to pre-order from https://shop.jbonamassa.com/collections/ktba-records.

Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Quickies - Lee Rocker, Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters, Wily Bo Walker, and Fred Hostetler

Lee Rocker – Gather Round

I do like a bit of rockabilly now and then, stemming from a long-held affection for the Stray Cats.  And when I heard that this solo outing by the Cats’ bassist Lee Rocker included a take on the marvellous ‘Everybody Wants To Be A Cat’, from the Disney movie The Aristocats I enjoyed as a young kid, a quick download purchase became a necessity.
And lo, the rendition of ‘Everybody Wants To Be A Cat’ is real cool, man, with lots of low-down,
Lee Rocker - have dirty great bass, will travel!
twangy stand-up bass and a nicely crooned vocal from the Rocker fella.  Being honest, I wanted Rocker and his gang to break loose and get all hot-diggity-dog on it, but no matter – there’s plenty of rock’n’roll elsewhere!
The opening ‘Gather Round’ is a prime example, swinging and uptempo, with rockin’ slap bass from Rocker, honky tonk piano from Matt Jordan, and bright, jangling guitar from Buzz Campbell.  And there’s more upbeat entertainment on the likes of ‘Pickin’ And Grinnin’’, featuring a little firecracker of a guitar solo, with Rocker’s bass racing after it, and the rattling ‘Dog House Shuffle’, with its shoutalong chorus and even a brisk bass break.  And if it seems a bit odd to include ‘When Nothing’s Going Right’, which featured on the Stray Cats’ 2019 album 40, it still cuts the mustard.
Rocker and co are dab hands at mellower rock’n’roll pop toons too, like the dreamy ‘The Last Offline Lovers’, with its warm acoustic guitar and neatly trilling descending guitar line, and the romantic ‘Every Time I See You’, a good melody enhanced by neat harmonies and a nifty little key change.
Gather Round is no magnum opus.  It’s ten tracks and half an hour of innocent, energetic fun, and that’ll do nicely Lee, thanks very much!
 
Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters – Swashbucklin’

Scottish guitarist Jed Potts and his trio the Hillmans specialise in late Fifties/early Sixties style blues, and with the absence of live work in the last year they’ve used the time to develop a bundle of new songs.  ‘Swashbucklin’’ is the second in a series of singles featuring this original material, and it’s the kind of good-rockin-tonite blues that’s right in their wheelhouse.
Jed Potts - good rockin' tonite!
With a shuffling rhythm from drummer Jonny Christie and walking-type bass from Charlie Wild, it’s got bags of swagger, over which Potts lays down bright, stinging guitar chords, and its amusing lyric about buccaneering behaviour is well-matched by Potts’ zinging, witty soloing.  Check it out for a three-minute injection of swingin’ piratical blues.
 
‘Swashbucklin’’ is released on 8 February, available to stream on all the usual platforms, and will be available for download from Bandcamp, here.
 
Wily Bo Walker – I Want To Know

Gravel-voiced troubadour Wily Bo Walker has also released a new single, ‘I Want To Know’, previously included on his album Moon Over Indigo and now recast in slinky funk style.  It’s all grooving bass, flickers of wah-wah guitar, and cool female backing vocals from Karena K as the foundation for Walker’s deep, Waits-like groan of the film noir-ish lyric.  Then there’s icing on the cake in the form of a fuzzy-but-piercing Latin-tinted guitar solo courtesy of Mike Ross, and soul-funk Hammond organ from the inimitable Stevie Watts.

'I Want To Know' was released by Mescal Canyon Records on 22 January.
 
Fred Hostetler – Fred’s Blue Chair Blues

It’s one man and his guitar time with this nine-track collection of acoustic blues from California’s Fred Hostetler.
Hostetler eases in with Jimmy Reed’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, introducing himself in relaxed fashion with pleasant vocals and a warm acoustic guitar sound, to which he adds some nice flourishes as the song progresses.
His voice is his Achilles’ heel over the course of the album though, his lack of strength and resonance soon making themselves evident on ‘Hey Corporate Vandals’, an otherwise okay bit
Fred Hostetler and friend
of acoustic boogie, with a guitar figure that recalls ‘The Boy From New York City’.  And the lack of vocal attack also detracts from his intricate slide playing on ‘Deep, Deep Well’, a decent blues tune that I could imagine turning out very well if amped up by the likes of Savoy Brown.  (Hostetler was once a member of rhythm’n’bluesers Blue By Nature, so he has an understanding of muscular blues.)
There’s a tendency to long-windedness on ‘Rain On My Window Pane’ and ‘I’m A New Man’, though the former actually improves as it goes on, emerging from a so-so blues, via good guitar-picking and interesting slide work, into a good groove around the later choruses.  The latter is uptempo, brisk and cheerful, but Hostetler is straining again vocally, and as it descends into a rather dull bridge it outstays its welcome by a good minute.
Conversely, one of the best tracks is the eight-minute long ‘Taming The Wolf’, a slow blues with a spoken intro and simple guitar chords that develops into an interesting, ‘Pilgrim’s Progress’ type tale of turning away from pride and confrontation, with a faster section spicing it up.  Meanwhile, in rather shorter mode, the other highlight is ‘There I Go Again’, a simple, country-ish slowie with a pleasing melody, that brings to mind Willie Nelson.
“This is what I call ‘Living Room Blues’,” Hostetler has said of Fred’s Blue Chair Blues, and the album certainly has that kind of intimate feel.  There are some decent songs in here, and Hostetler’s guitar playing is often pleasing, but I’m left with the feeling that if he’d brought in a genuine vocalist it would have given the whole enterprise a big lift.

Fred's Blue Chair Blues is out now, and available here.

Sunday, January 31, 2021

Robert Connely Farr - Country Supper

There’s a cinematic aspect to this album from Mississippi-born, Vancouver-based Robert Connely Farr.  Listening to a track like ‘Girl In The Holler’, with Farr’s fuzzy, warped guitar playing out over booming drums, the image that springs to mind is of a car cruising down a two-lane blacktop in the silent night, its headlamps the only source of light.  Think Springsteen’s stripped-down Nebraska for the atmosphere – but located way down South, in Farr’s Mississippi homeland.
There’s an air of early, raw Black Keys to the rough and tumble sound of ‘Girl In The Holler’, which makes sense given their devotion to North Mississippi hill country sounds.  But on other tracks Farr delves way deeper for a bleak and spooky country blues vibe.  The opening ‘Cypress
No, not John Goodman in The Big Lebowski - it's Robert Connely Farr!
Grove’ features prickly, fuzzy guitar, over doomy, sonorous bass from Tom Hillifer and a funeral marching beat from drummer Jay Bundy Johnson, to accompany Farr’s controlled moan of a vocal.  On ‘Water’s Rising’, for example, Farr offers up patient, steely guitar over a beat like a dripping tap, while his old-fashioned vocal isn’t especially bluesy but remains atmospheric.  Here the sense is less of cruising down a highway than of meandering along, maybe even horse drawn, on a country lane where time has stopped.
The mode of transport changes on ‘Train Train’, but while this may be drawn from the same ancient well as Junior Parker’s ‘Mystery Train’ it’s of a much darker hue, evoking a slow train to nowhere, all slow beat and down-low blues, with the guitar non-existent at first.  I’m thinking to myself, if the Coen Brothers had worked a train into Barton Fink at some point, this is what it would be like.
Farr, who has been mentored by Bentonia blues magus Jimmy ‘Duck’ Holmes, knows what he’s doing in this eerie terrain.  But in truth, rather too many of the sixteen tracks on Country Supper go down this lonesome, melancholy road.  Thankfully though, Farr doesn’t let it become a cul de sac.  ‘I Ain’t Dying’ and ‘If It Was Up To Me’ are Americana-tinged, like Steve Earle albeit still in a reflective mode, and both offer some extra ingredients.  The former pitches in a flurry of bright guitar before petering out somewhat.  But the latter benefits from more structure and direction, as well as a good melody and some sprinklings of fairy dust guitar.  ‘Lately’ has a similar feel, but with some acoustic guitar strumming laying down a warmer foundation.
In a different vein, ‘All Good’ is scarcely what you’d call danceable, but it is more nimble rhythmically, and closes with a few turns of an appealing guitar figure.  Better still, on the uptempo ‘Bad Bad Feeling’ the trio carve out a deep and satisfying groove, and it feels liberating when Farr cuts loose a bit – not once but twice – on guitar.
The album closes with a couple of subtly different numbers.  ‘Bad Whiskey’, flavoured by slow strumming and weeping slide (or is it pedal steel?) is a sensitive, elegiac country-ish tune with echoes of Drive-By Truckers. Then the short and dark ‘I Know I Been Changed’ brings down the curtain with a groaning, reverb-heavy a capella intro, easing in a gospel-ish melody over drum’n’bass accompaniment, before Farr adds another dimension with some ringing guitar work.
If what you’re after is good-time R’n’B, fit for an evening of boozy hip-shakin’ with the missus, then I would venture that Country Supper is not for you.  But if you want to saddle up for a long journey deep into the Mississippi blues, then Robert Connely Farr may be just the escort you need.

Country Supper is out now, and you can buy it here.

Monday, January 25, 2021

Celebrating Etta James

Today, 25 January, is the birthday of one of the truly great blues, R'n'B and soul singers, Etta James.  So I thought I’d pen a brief appreciation of this astonishing talent, who delivered a parade of major hits over the years, despite living a deeply troubled life.
Born in 1938, Etta never knew her father – though there have been unauthenticated rumours that it may have been the famous pool player Minnesota Fats – and her mother was reputedly just 14 when she was born, so that she spent much of her pre-teen years being looked after by her mother’s landlady, Lulu Rogers.
Little Miss Peaches gives it some welly
Even as a child in Los Angeles she became noted as a young gospel singer with a prodigiously big voice, and after moving to San Francisco in 1950 she began to gravitate towards popular music vocal groups – in tandem with a tendency towards teenage delinquency – until her group The Creolettes was signed by bandleader Johnny Otis in 1952, and they began touring with big name acts of the day, re-badged as The Peaches.
The Otis connection led to her first recording, with ‘Roll With Me, Henry’, released in 1955 and re-titled as ‘The Wallflower’ to disguise the sexual connotations of the lyric.  The song was a hit for James on the R’n’B charts, but re-titled again as ‘Dance With Me, Henry’ it became an even bigger crossover hit for white singer Georgia Gibbs – a source of some irritation to James, until she saw her royalties from Gibbs’ version.
Another dozen or so singles followed during the Fifties, on the Modern and Kent labels, such as ‘Good Rockin’ Daddy’ and the stop-time riffing ‘W-O-M-A-N’, and a few duets with Harvey Fuqua, including Willie Dixon’s ‘Spoonful’.  Then in 1960 she signed with Chess, where she stayed until the mid-Seventies, releasing albums mostly on subsidiaries Argo and Cadet, and racking up numerous Grammy nominations for her vocal performances – though without winning.  But if this was her heyday, it also coincided with her slide into decades of alcohol and drug abuse which often left her penniless, and even left to spells in prison.
One of the hallmarks of James’ singing is her versatility.  On the one hand there’s the rasp and power well suited to R’n’B which may have been the stimulus for producer Jerry Wexler to dub her “the undisputed earth mother”.  But on the other hand she could pull off a romantic ballad in the Great American Songbook vein such as ‘At Last!’, creating an enduring hit that reached number 2 on the Billboard R’n’B charts.  And she could also bring a singular aching quality to a torch song like the ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’ – a classic that’s become ubiquitous in the blues world since its release in 1968.
You have to wonder though, how much better some of James’ output could have been during the Chess years.  In the early days with Leonard and Phil Chess producing, many of her songs were slathered in string arrangements, to good effect on a ballad like ‘At Last!’ to be sure, but of less
Still rockin' in later life
value elsewhere.  Why they didn't take more of a cue from the R'n'B of 'W-O-M-A-N' is a mystery.  And while the quality is evident on ‘I’d Rather Go Blind’, at two and a half minutes the studio cut is little more than a vignette; a more savvy producer would surely have seen the potential in letting James stretch out and explore the emotions to the max.
Which is a shame, because her ability to communicate is obvious.  On her version of Muddy Waters’ ‘I Just Want To Make Love To You’ (another Willie Dixon composition), there may be jaunty strings up front, but the attack Etta brings as soon as she opens her mouth on the line “I don’t want you to be no slave” blows them into the background – and sets up the emphatic sexuality of the song.  It may have been made famous again by a Diet Coke TV commercial in the Nineties, but one senses that Etta James wouldn’t have been content to stand at a window drooling over the beefcake like the women in the ad – she’d have been out there getting his number, ready to make a booty call that night.  But it doesn’t come across like a clichéd “bad girl” either – just a real woman, asserting what she wants.  (Though over the years it seems her live act tended to push the boundaries rather more overtly.)
If the Sixties were the time of her hits, she still managed to produce strong albums thereafter, like 1974’s Come A Little Closer, when she was just about at rock bottom, The Right Time (1992), and Let’s Roll (2003) among others, and picking up a Grammy for her 1995 jazz album Mystery Lady: The Songs Of Billie Holliday.
James had continued to be hamstrung by alcohol abuse and heroin addiction until the Nineties, decimating her live work and eating up her income, and more ill health lay in store in the 2000s, before succumbing to leukaemia in 2012.  You probably couldn’t call it a life well lived, but Etta James was still one of the biggest stars in the blues firmament.

With credit to American Legends: The Life Of Etta James, a brief biography by Charles River Editors.
Also available, Rage To Survive: The Etta James Story, by Etta James and David Ritz.

Sunday, January 24, 2021

Selwyn Birchwood - Living In A Burning House

I like Selwyn Birchwood.  And one of the reasons I like him is that he dares to be different.  Not in a radical way like, say, Fantastic Negrito.  But in a way that makes the most of his assets to stand out from the modern blues crowd.
He’s blessed, of course, with a molasses-rich bass voice that’s guaranteed to draw attention.  But his sound has also capitalised for years on the baritone sax playing of bandmate Regi Oliver, bringing extra depth to the bottom end.  Add in the lap steel playing that Birchwood brings to bear alongside his regular six-string skills, and the freshness of his lyrics, and you get a distinctive, winning combination.
Selwyn Birchwood - you can't steal his shine!
Pic by Jay Skolnick
Much of this is apparent from the git-go, on ‘I’d Climb Mountains’, a funky affair driven along by Donald ‘Huff’ Wright’s gurgling bass, with Oliver folding in layers of tenor sax and even chirps of piccolo, and Birchwood’s zinging guitar solo providing contrast.
Birchwood’s lap steel is in evidence on the following ‘I Got Drunk, Laid And Stoned’, describing a scorched earth response to being cheated on.  “Love is a blessing should be celebrated, not just another burden to be tolerated,” sings Birchwood, over rumbling drum rhythms from Philip ‘Squeak’ Walker and his own jagged guitar, before teasing his way into a slaloming lap slide solo. And ‘Freaks Come Out At Night’, a paean to the last surviving juke joint in Florida, is another lap steel showcase, as Birchwood scrapes, squeals and moans his way around the thudding beat of a grinding boogie that shifts gear into the punchy chorus, and then again into a stinging lap steel solo.
They have a fondness for curious rhythmic turns, as with the stuttering interjections into the shuffling soul of ‘Living In A Burning House’, and the odd little rhythmic twitch that ends some couplets on the mid-paced, lyrically reflective ‘Searching For My Tribe’.  “They wanna put you in a box, so you’ll be square like them,” Birchwood sings on the latter, underlined by bass and sax that are all corners, while the guitar and Walker’s impressive drums get to explore more freely.  The staccato rhythms of the downbeat ‘Rock Bottom’ work less well though, feeling more like a rut than a groove, in spite of Birchwood’s skating lap steel solo.
But this is also a band who can sure swing.  ‘She’s A Dime’, about a partner who’s a “10”, combines a lazy, behind-the-beat rhythm, wiggling bass and some slinky sax in support of an old-time kind of melody, to create faint echoes of trad jazz.  Better still, the swinging blues verses of ‘Mama Knows Best’ trigger a witty mother-and-son dialogue, with Diunna Greenleaf’s finger-wagging vocal nailing the role of Mama.  “Mama turned around,” reflects Birchwood, “brought her cigarette to her mouth, and exhaled her doubts.”  With its perky bridge, ‘Mama Knows Best’ works a treat.
Birchwood and co can boogie too, as on the effervescent ‘You Can’t Steal My Shine’, with chiming rhythm guitar double-timing over a snapping snare drum, and the low down honking sax and cantering bass counterpointed by tweeting organ from Walter ‘Bunt’ May.  It’s a tune that packs plenty in, including a quirky, layered guitar bridge from Birchwood.  And ‘Through A Microphone’ is similarly bright, with a bouncing intro featuring a ringing guitar break, and later an energetic solo over swinging drums and quick-quick-slow bass.
‘My Happy Place’ closes the album in a different and dreamy vein, laid back and acoustic, with a muted rhythm section and subtle sax accompaniment combining in a mellow, engaging finale.
Photographs of Birchwood, with his beaming smile and wild afro, suggest a carefree, happy-go-lucky figure, and that’s the vibe at the core of Living In A Burning House.  When it comes to keeping the blues alive, Selwyn Birchwood is doing his bit - this is electric blues that's fresh and modern and comfortable in its own skin.

Living In A Burning House is released by Alligator Records on 29 January.

Tuesday, January 19, 2021

Rusty Ends & Hillbilly Hoodoo - Last Of The Boogiemen

What have we here, wending its way from Kentucky?  Well, it ain’t Dolly Parton, that’s for sure.
The Last Of The Boogiemen was released in mid-2020, but didn’t land in my lap, via a circuitous route, until the autumn.  And the kind of boogie that Rusty Ends & Hillbilly Hoodoo have in mind is most often of a toe-tapping, rockabilly flavour.  It’s not knock your socks off brilliant, to be sure, but it is fun.
They take a couple of songs to get going, but hit their stride when they funk things up a bit on ‘Hillbilly Hoodoo’, with drummer Gene Wickliffe teasingly behind the beat.  Over the course of the album our Rusty could often do with a bit more rough’n’tumble in his vocal, but here he adds
Rusty Ends - old-time shake, rattle'n'roll
some character through the rapped verses and a bit of attitood as he sings about “Hillbilly hoodoo-ah, mountain magic ju-ju-ah”, before adding a typically entertaining solo, all shivering notes and trebly, twangy chords.
They’re in good rock’n’rollin’ form too on ‘Rockabilly Boogie #1003’ and ‘Cottonmouth Rock’, both of which gain some extra zip from shoutalong backing vocals on the chorus.  The latter in particular is in shake, rattle’n’roll territory, with Ends throwing a twinkling solo, tension-and-release imbued solo into the mix.  And he sounds like he’s fun as he delivers a tune about a gang of snakes – yes, really - heading down to the local roadhouse and “wiggling and jiggling” to the music, just one example of our Rusty knocking off an enjoyable, amusing lyric.  And there’s a country-inflected paean to the Western Swing of Bob Wills and the Texas Playboys that contributed to the development of rockabilly.
But they get more imaginative on slow blues choons like ‘I Forgot To Say I Love You’ and ‘We Love Our Way Through The Blues’.  Ends’ languid vocal on the former shows good phrasing and personality, added to gentle, rippling guitar with some offbeat, jazzy chords and a mellow, inventive solo.  The latter paints a convincing picture of young and penniless love, with Ends’ quavering voice benefitting from a touch of reverb, and his guitar solo taking on an interesting, buzz-toned quality.
There are a couple of atmospheric mid-paced affairs too.  ‘Stiletto Heels And Fishnet Hose’ combines ticking drums, and a brooding bass line from Dave Zirnheld, to evoke warm night air as the hero meets his ladies as the sun goes down, no longer in the market for “sweet sixteen” but ready for “nicotine breath and whisky voice” in addition to the titular attire.  Ends’ drawled vocal and relaxed guitar solo are right on the money here too.  ‘Midnight Angels’ kicks off with a spoken intro, Ends coming over like George Thorogood as he recalls nights spent playing dens of iniquity up and down Kentucky, and the impact on his impressionable young self of the ladies of the night who frequented them.  It rolls and strolls along with ease, Wickliffe lazing along behind the beat again, and with Ends’ humorous patter it is, once again, great fun.
Gotta say, I reckon that if Brian Setzer had got his hands on Rusty and co as they were recording this, he’d have kicked their butts into delivering more.  More reverb!  More twang!   More slap in that bass!  More of that sax!  More raunch in those vocals, Rusty!  More freakin’ ruckus, guys!
Ahem.  Still an’ all, Last Of The Boogiemen is an innocent pleasure, with a twinkle in its eye.  Like I said before - it's fun!

Friday, January 15, 2021

Reading Matters: Cassius X - A Legend In The Making, by Stuart Cosgrove

What’s this?  A book about a boxer on a music blog?  For why?
Well, while the “hook” for Cassius X may be the early professional boxing career of Cassius Clay, and his migration from that identity to Islam and Muhammed Ali.  (For the purposes of this piece, I’ll refer to Cassius Clay rather than Ali, to avoid confusion.)  But the book also echoes Stuart Cosgrove’s recent Soul Trilogy by exploring the development of black music in the Sixties, against the backdrop of the wider black experience in the period.  
Cassius Clay/Muhammed Ali - jive talkin'!
The primary timeframe of Cassius X runs from November 1960 to February 1964.  At the start of this period the young Cassius Clay lately crowned Olympic light-heavyweight champion, arrives in Miami to begin his professional career in the gym of trainer Angelo Dundee, and it ends with him winning the world heavyweight title from Sonny Liston.  Cosgrove dots around related events either side of this period as the fancy takes him, but the primary focus is the development of the young Cassius.  In Miami, and on his travels around the States for a succession of fights, he encounters black icons such as Sam Cooke and Malcolm X, who fuel his interest in black music on the one hand, and the Nation Of Islam on the other.  In essence, the book is a study of emerging black consciousness and empowerment through the lens of Cassius, as under the influence of the Nation Of Islam, he first quietly divests himself of the surname Clay to become Cassius X, and then having won the world title is re-named Muhammed Ali.
As Cosgrove says in his foreword, on one level Cassius X “can be read as a prequel to my soul trilogy . . . in that it details the emergence of soul music”.  This seam in the book contains numerous interesting nuggets, such as the bewildering - with hindsight at least - story of Sam Cooke’s live album, Sam Cooke Live At The Harlem Square Club 1963, recorded in Miami in front of a black audience.  Cosgrove tells us that the performance was “too black” for management at Cooke’s record company RCA.  The tapes were shelved, and weren’t released on record until 1985, twenty years after his death.  Having bought the album on the strength of Cosgrove’s description, I can say that, drenched in a vibrant, party atmosphere, those RCA executives really didn’t get it.  Check out his performance of 'Somebody Have Mercy' to see what I mean.
Miami was also the early Sixties home of the dynamic duo Sam and Dave, and Cosgrove

records their early false starts and travails, in the process mentioning the worthwhile B-side ‘Lotta Lovin’’, en route to their 1964 discovery by Atlantic's Jerry Wexler and reinvention with Stax Records.  (Though as a point of detail, Stax was not a “subsidiary” of Atlantic, as Cosgrove puts it.  They had a loose production and distribution deal.)
Cosgrove also paints a pen picture of Sonny Liston that is rather more rounded perception than
Sam Cooke - blowing up a soul storm in Miami
the usual caricature of a thuggish former jailbird.  Born the twenty-fourth child in a family of twenty-five – think on that – Liston was an illiterate teenage delinquent who inevitably ended up in jail, where he was rescued by boxing.  But those who knew him, Cosgrove notes, told of a shy and sensitive man with an IQ much higher than that of Cassius, who was appalled by Clay's invasion of his personal life in pursuit of promotional stunts.  In the midst of this account, Cosgrove reveals Liston’s fascination with the song ‘Night Train’ – the 1952 original, by Jimmy Forrest, in preference to the James Brown version – which was played over and over in the gym as he trained for fights. I find it hard, though, to discern in the Forrest version “the shuddering image of a relentless train rumbling in the black of night” that Liston may have thought matched his own image.
For me though, the most striking aspect of Cassius X is the litany of black people’s oppression throughout the era; not just the segregation which was drawing protests, or the fierce defending of it by white communities, but the parade of black people being killed in the most despicable fashion.  And here we are 60 years later, and it seems that so little has changed in America.  When Cosgrove describes George Wallace proclaiming, in his 1963 inauguration speech as Alabama governor, that “the heel of tyranny does not fit the neck of an upright”, my immediate reflection is that in 2020 the knee of authority could still fit the neck of a black man, George Floyd, for over eight minutes until he was dead.
Cassius X has its flaws.  Like some of Cosgrove’s soul trilogy, it could have done with more rigorous editing.  A better chronology of Cassius’s fights than the one in the index would also have been helpful to track the course of events as Cosgrove flits here and there.  But it’s still a captivating account of an emerging black hero: hyperactive and curious; hip but disciplined; mischievous and occasionally cruel.  Stuart Cosgrove captures all these facets of the young Cassius Clay and how events, people and music shaped him into the man who would become “the Greatest”.

Cassius X: A Legend In The Making is published by Polygon.
Stuart Cosgrove’s Soul Trilogy comprises the books Detroit 67: The Year That Changed Soul (2015); Memphis 68: The Tragedy Of Southern Soul (2017); and Harlem 69: The Future Of Soul (2018).  All published by Polygon.
 
Also recommended is documentary movie The Two Killings of Sam Cooke, available on Netflix.
The movie One Night In Miami is also available on Amazon Prime from 15 January 2021 – a fictional account of the closed doors encounter between Cassius Clay, Malcolm X, Sam Cooke, and American Football star Jim Brown that occurred immediately after the world title fight with Sonny Liston.

Tuesday, January 12, 2021

Alabama Slim - The Parlor

Juke joints and back porches.  That’s where Alabama Slim is at.  Oh yeah, and bedrooms, a coupla times.  The Parlor may have been recorded in New Orleans, Slim’s adopted home, but the ten tracks it serves up are country blues.  Born in Vance, Alabama in 1939, Slim’s music is still the product of childhood’ and summers on his grandparents’ farm.  “Them old folks would get to moanin’ while they worked,” he says, “and I just started moanin’ with them.”
The connection to those days is evident in song choices such as ‘Rock Me Baby’ and a reading of Sleepy John Estes’ classic ‘Someday Baby’.  The former was around for many a year before
Alabama Slim - sharp dressed man gets down
BB King made it famous, and here is reduced to its core, with rudimentary drums and bass, and sparks of guitar.  The latter lopes briskly along on jingling and jangling guitars from Slim and his cousin Little Freddie King, gathering a touch more urgency before fading out.
There’s also a strong nod to John Lee Hooker in the opening brace of ‘Hot Foot’ and ‘Freddie’s Voodoo Boogie’.  ‘Hot Foot’ lays down a twisting, foot-tapping groove, with a bopping bass line from Matt Paton, underpinning rumbling rhythm guitar and trebly guitar embellishments.  ‘Freddie’s Voodoo Boogie’, with cousin Freddie on vocals, is an even more Hooker-esque slice of boogie, one guitar chugging while the other chimes, over a minimalist patter of drums.  And later on ‘Midnight Rider’ is boogie in looser-limbed vein, combining bright guitar chords, stuttering bass, and a clipping beat from drummer and producer Ardie Dean.
But if these tracks tell the tale of the juke joint dance floor, others sound like the dark night of the soul.  ‘Rob Me Without A Gun’ is a slow and sombre meditation on abandonment, with quietly doomy bass, spare guitar notes and chords, and some ghostly flutters of organ chords from Jimbo Mathus.  ‘All Night Long’ seems a tad sketchy by comparison, with its undulating guitar line and sprinkles of glittery licks, this time enhanced by Mathus with subtle strokes of piano.  The haunted closer ‘Down In The Bottom’ – not the Howlin’ Wolf song of the same name – is rather better, with Slim moaning and groaning doubts and uncertainties over whispered percussion, while the sparse guitars push and pull, creating a tense and unpredictable vibe.
‘Rock Me Baby’ and ‘Rock With Me Momma’ are about sex, plain and simple.  If the former is somewhat dulled by familiarity, the latter feels steamy and sweaty, its groove relaxed and insistent at the same time as Slim croons his appreciation of his “momma”.  There’s life, it seems, in the old dog yet.
In the midst of all this, ‘Forty Jive’ is a contemporary little diamond.  “Aw, look at that fool standing up there,” Slim’s semi-spoken vocal begins, “with the mail-order bride and the dead cat for hair.”  It’s the opening sally in a stiletto-like skewering of a certain Donald Trump.  If brevity is the soul of wit, this funky little charmer is a prime example.  “Undertaker,” Slim concludes, “you have to screw him into the ground.”  Amen to that.
The Parlor is like the ghost of country blues past, captured with the clarity of modern recording techniques - stripped back but embroidered by the intertwining guitars of Alabama Slim and his cousin Little Freddie.  It’s not going to change the world, but if you like real deal blues, look no further.
 
The Parlor is released by Cornelius Chapel Records on 29 January.

Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Bad Day Blues Band - Table By The Wall

“Brim-full of vim!”  That’s the phrase that first came to mind on first acquaintance with this first studio album from The Bad Day Blues Band.
As the opening three tracks unwound my first impression was of something . . . hectic, the guitar, bass, drums, harmonica and vocals all fighting for space.  With a retro-looking album sleeve, it comes over like The Yardbirds’ ‘Train Kept A-Rollin’’catapaulted into the 21st century.  On their cover of Sam and Dave’s ‘Hold On (I’m Coming)’ Sam Springer’s harp deputises for Stax horns, while Adam Rigg whomps away on bass, and Nick Peck’s guitar scrambles for attention along with Rigg’s rather tremulous vocal.  On the title track drummer Andrea Tremolada lets loose with a cacophonous bombardment as Springer and Peck jostle for the foreground around a riff that
The Bad Day Blues Band psych themselves up for rock'n'roll rabble-rousing

sounds like it’s been yanked unceremoniously from Skynyrd – and though Rigg sings about something or other tasting like “black coffee and sweet Mary Jane”, I’m thinking that if this lot have a preferred narcotic it’ll something of a speedier variety.  Then on ‘Burn It Down’, trilling guitar and harp try not to be overwhelmed by the rhythm section, while Rigg shakes off his earlier reediness to snarl his way through proceedings, and Springer whips out a simmering harp solo.
By this stage I’m rehearsing phrases like “endearingly ramshackle” and “naïve enthusiasm”.  But after several spins of Table By The Wall in its entirety, I’ve changed my mind.  Their sound may be unvarnished, but this is not the work of raw recruits.  There’s more to this musical maelstrom than at first meets the ear, and as the tracks go by it comes into sharper focus.
There’s some imagination to ‘Be Careful What You Wish For’, for example, with the curious yelps of its chorus over rumbling jungle drum backing, before Peck starts to carve out a high-octane Bo Diddley riff, all rough-hewn slabs of guitar chords.  This becomes the foundation for another impressive Springer harp turn, followed by a tightly-wound, bleeping and squealing guitar break.  ‘Hurricane’ is a rocker that bursts into life with a roaring, twiddly-accented guitar riff, but also demonstrates their sense of balance, with good dynamics in the bridge and some jolting halts to proceedings – oh yeah, and a helter-skelter slide solo.
‘Wandering Man’ kicks off with a Stonesy, ringing guitar riff, and features a taut, whip-cracking drum sound, as well as to-ing and fro-ing harp, while the lyric raises a smile as the protagonist-of-no-fixed-abode reflects that he’s “got five little kids and no damn socks”.  Then ‘Jump’ is straight up rock’n’roll blues, with a riff that in racing parlance is by John Lee Hooker out of ‘La Grange’, with a reverb-plastered snare drum and Springer’s harp wailing over the top.
They slow things down a mite for the primitive mid-paced chug of bass’n’drums’n’guttural guitar on the spelling song ‘Forget’, with Rigg’s quivering vocal veering towards an Elvis lip curl at times, while Springer shudders away on harp and Peck adds a couple of teeth-grating guitar solos.  Then they get real mellow, romantic even, on final track ‘Luna Rooms’ – until it explodes into a rock’n’roll frenzy a minute and a half in, Peck’s spiky guitar clambering all over the rhythm section, Springer’s harp elbowing in, and Rigg wailing away fit to bust as the things careers along like a runaway train.
Some stronger hooks wouldn’t go amiss in the song-writing department, but all twelve tracks are still solid fare.  And though on the whole I prefer Rigg’s wigging out to his crooning, the contrast in vocal styles does offer light and shade.  But get this - Table By The Wall is way too polite an album title for this malarkey.  Table Chucked Through A Plate Glass Window would be closer to the mark.  The Bad Day Blues Band mean business.

Table By The Wall is released by Lunaria Records on 5 February, and can be pre-ordered here.