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 Etta 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 led 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 she succumbed 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, 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.  But I find it hard 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 man”, 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 to explore different themes.  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 Spranger’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 Spranger 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 Spranger 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 Spranger 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 Spranger’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 Spranger 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, Spranger’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.

Tuesday, January 5, 2021

Gráinne Duffy - Voodoo Blues

“Please sir, I want some more,” said Oliver Twist.
Which sums up how I feel about Voodoo Blues, the latest album by Irish roots songstress Gráinne Duffy.  I want some more because it’s lip-smackingly tasty, unlike the thin gruel Oliver endured – but also because a little ain’t quite enough.
Whereas her previous album Where I Belong took a mellow, Laurel Canyon singer-songwriterly turn, this time around it seems Duffy and her fellow guitar-wielding husband Paul Sherry decided to, er, get their rocks off.  So four of the ten tracks channel raw and lusty blues roots, starting
Gráinne Duffy - the lady doesn't half sing the blues
 with ‘Voodoo Blues’ itself, which sets forth with an old-fashioned blues riff, faintly distorted vocals, and work song-tinged backing vox, and then uncorks a powerful chorus and some wiry guitar to compete with the vocals on the outro.
It’s a theme that continues with ‘Mercy’, with Duffy casting her soulful voice over a stomping, ‘Red Rooster’-style riff, before letting rip on the chorus.  Later, on ‘Wreck It Up’, ripped out guitar chords preface an emphatic vocal, again a little distorted, on which she proclaims that “We’re gonna boogie and we’re gonna shake”.  I believe you, girl.  The sound is stripped back but in no way soft, and crunches to a raunchy ending with thumping bass and drums from Dale Davis and Troy Miller.  Only - would a howling guitar break have hammered it home to the hilt?  I think it would.  Something to look forward onstage, perhaps, one fine day when live music returns.
‘Hard Rain’ closes the album with another tough, primitive vibe, grinding guitar chords opening up over a sparse rhythm to create an ominous groove befitting the title, then rising on surges of organ towards Duffy letting her inner Etta James loose in testifyin’ fashion – and even supplying her own gospellated backing vocals for emphasis.
In between, songs like ‘Blue Skies’ and ‘Shine It On Me’ signal a convincing return to the crossover soul/blues/country sound of her second album Test Of Time, the former with a strong melody, catchy chorus and Motown-leaning middle eight, the latter with a touch of funk to the rhythm guitar, with brief lead interjections over long organ chords, and a country-ish guitar solo.
There’s more funkiness in the elasticated bass line of the foot-tappingly soulful ‘Roll It’, with its gently ringing guitar chords, lazily snapping drums and bursts of organ.  And Davis’ bass also bumps and grinds to good effect under the squealing guitar licks of ‘Tick Tock’, on which an anthemic bridge runs into some slithering guitar work before Miller’s drums get a serious workout to build a semi-psychedelic crescendo.
But the other standout track is ‘Don’t You Cry For Me’.  Flurries of organ and guitar chords combine on a restrained intro, before evolving into a chunk of gospel-ish soul on which Duffy’s voice is very much the focus.  And when she knocks out a breath-taking long note here, one can only approve.  Then when the rhythm section kicks in, augmented by forceful organ from Miller matters then take on a Steve Winwood-cum-Joe Cocker hue - except, you know, female.
I have only one rather selfish gripe.  The Voodoo Blues menu is short – the whole album clocks in at 32 minutes – and my appetite would have been fully sated if a couple of songs had been developed further.  Please Miss Duffy, I want some more!
Whatever.  Voodoo Blues is a cracking album, and a salutary reminder that Gráinne Duffy is one of the most spine-tingling roots singers out there.  With strong songs, and sympathetic production from Troy Miller, it sounds like she’s back home where she belongs – playing the blues.

Voodoo Blues is available now, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, January 3, 2021

Roy Roberts - Nothin' But The Blues

It don’t mean a thing if it ain’t got swing, wrote Duke Ellington.  I don’t know if that’s Roy Roberts’ musical motto, but it really should be.  Right from the opening track on Nothin’ But The Blues, the breezy ‘I Got A Gypsy Woman’, we’re in the big band-inflected blues realm of BB King – laid back, warm and, of course, swinging.
A large part of the equation is the use of horns, not as sharp punctuation in the R’n’B fashion, but in rolling waves against which Roberts can bounce his always impressive, understated guitar playing, recalling BB King to a degree, but also his namesake Albert circa Born Under A Bad Sign.
Roy Roberts enjoys some sweet soulful blues
The other factor though is his voice, which inclines towards Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland if without the aching soulfulness, or perhaps Robert Cray without the silky smoothness.  Whatever, his rich, relaxed voice, sometimes with a husky edge, is a perfect fit for the material on this digital compilation.  And let’s face it, if the guy could sing at all, he should have got a good vocal education while working as a sideman to the likes of Solomon Burke and Otis Redding back in the Sixties.
The best songs here tend to be in the sensitive Bobby Bland soul-blues vein, in particular ‘The Next Time’, with its typically well-assembled arrangement, appealing interaction between the horns and Roberts’ guitar in the intro, and a tremulous guitar solo.  ‘Why Didn’t You Come Home’, with its ‘Thrill Is Gone’ vibe, has lush horns ushering in an impressive, tension-and-release guitar intro.  (It’s a reminder too, that for every happy back door man in the blues, there’s another being wounded by a woman coming home after hours, all mussed-up.  Quid pro quo, eh?)  And ‘Your Troubling Mind’ takes on a still more reflective tone, with the horns dialled down a notch to provide subtle, lower pitched remarks, and a sax solo adding a different slant.
With a couple of other songs mining the same seam things could get a bit samey, notwithstanding Roberts’ pin-sharp guitar work on ‘What Should I Do’.  But other tracks provide some healthy variety, notably the more uptempo ‘I Got A Gypsy Woman’, with its skipping rhythm and hints of call and response as it closes, and ‘Just One More Blues Song’, which is more modern in a Cray-like fashion, riding in on a funky bass line and featuring smoky sax fills.  ‘I’m A Real Blues Man’ ditches the horns in favour of piano, but while the piano and organ solos are satisfying, I’m torn as to whether the piano turnaround that arrives every few lines is a rinky-dink novelty or somewhat teeth-grating.  And the set drifts to a close with ‘Have You Seen My Baby’, a simple and upbeat blues that hints at Albert King’s ‘Crosscut Saw’.
‘Dirty Old Man’ just about survives a naff lyric, assisted by guest slots from Skeeter Brandon on organ, and Bob Margolin, who delivers a slippery slide solo.  But ‘I’ll Be Your Plumberman’ isn't so lucky – Roberts’ voice may be smooth and seductive, but it isn’t a good fit for one of the least convincing double entendre blues songs you’ll ever hear.
Nevertheless, if you like the quasi-big band soulful blues of BB King and Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, Nothin’ But The Blues is an enjoyable collection that should hit your sweet spot fair and square, with on-the-money arrangements and Roy Roberts playing to his strengths vocally and with guitar in hand.  Oh yeah, and don't forget the swing.

Nothin' But The Blues is available as a download from Roy Roberts' website.