Tuesday, April 13, 2021

Gary Moore - How Blue Can You Get

How Blue Can You Get is about as good as it gets.  Set aside any fears that this posthumous Gary Moore release might be an incoherent batch of outtakes.  It’s the real McCoy.
This eight-track collection hangs together beautifully, split evenly between covers and originals but with Moore putting his stamp on everything in the breeziest fashion.
The opening take on Freddie King’s ‘I’m Tore Down’ sets the tone, with swinging drums, jogging bass and grooving organ creating a tight but relaxed vibe.  Moore’s vocal feels totally at home,
Gary Moore - bluesy from any angle
Pic by Jesse Wild
and if his first solo is on the money his second outing is even better, with a clear and biting tone as he goes to town without ever overdoing it.  There’s bags of tension and release, and as he raises the stakes towards the end the drums complement his moves to good effect.
The cover of Memphis Slim’s instrumental ‘Steppin’ Out’ that follows is spot on right from its staccato opening.  Moore’s playing around with the theme is fluid, and sets the scene for soloing that’s by turns witty, conversational, and then scorching, over more corking backing even if the organ feels a touch too high in the mix, competing with Moore at times rather than complementing him.
BB King’s 'How Blue Can You Get' is a classic slow blues that floats along beautifully, with patient bass and drums providing the foundation for slow, slow, quick-quick-slow Moore licks on the intro, before he brings the lyric to life with his vocal.  There’s a stop-time bridge, and then Moore embarks on the most tasteful of less-is-more solos, suspense colliding into fluttering quick passages.  Restraint isn't the word I’d most associate with Gary Moore, but his relaxed playing here is a model of it.
Of the four covers, Elmore James’ ‘Done Somebody Wrong’ feels most like a makeweight, but still hits the mark as a slice of straightforward blues in a ‘Who’s Been Talkin’’ vein.  It swings in lightly funky style, and Moore has fun on a squealing, high tension wire solo.
Of the four originals, three are slowish affairs.  ‘In My Dreams’ could be ‘Parisienne Walkways Mark 2’ with Moore’s use of heavy sustain, and a simple arrangement that privileges precision over fireworks, while Moore adds a good, suitably romantic vocal – in spite of his repeated, frankly preposterous, proncunciation of the word “night”.  ‘Love Can Make A Fool Of You’ is a soulful ballad, again kept simple, with vocals, lyric and guitar all working in harmony even as Moore ramps things up with a cracking solo to close.  And the closing ‘Living With The Blues’ is a romantically inclined slowie that nods towards ‘Still Got The Blues – a strong song, well-constructed, with a perfectly pitched vocal and guitar work that’s full of feeling.
Which just leaves ‘Looking At Your Picture’, which is perhaps the most interesting song here – even if it’s not the best – simply because it’s a little bit different.  It combines an unusual, shuffling rhythm with tense, prickly guitar and brooding bass, while Moore’s vocal is low-pitched and hushed.  Superficially a song about heartbreak – “I’m looking at your picture through my tear-filled eyes” – it conveys an unsettling sense that somebody might be about to come to harm, self-inflicted or otherwise.
These songs may have been captured at different times, but there’s a relaxed air about them all that’s warm and engaging.  Leisurely but never lazy, even when Moore is opening up the throttle there’s no sense of strain or going over the top.  How Blue Can You Get is the perfect reminder, ten years after his death, of just how good Gary Moore could be.

How Blue Can You Get is released on 30 April by Provogue Records.

Tuesday, April 6, 2021

Mary Stokes Band featuring Sarah Michelle - Comin' Home

Ever watch Masterchef on the telly?  You know when they get a likeable contestant, who cooks something that tastes good, and looks okay, but which the judges think lacks the “wow factor”?  That, in essence, was my initial response to this “live in the studio” album from Ireland’s Mary Stokes Band.
My first impression, listening to the opening title track of Comin’ Home, was of your favourite local blues band.  That’s a compliment – they’re good enough to be reliably enjoyable, without bum notes or poor playing marring their performance.  But it’s also a reflection of a less than
The Mary Stokes Band do a good job of saying "cheese"!
adventurous first couple of verses and choruses.  Sure, the chugging groove is inviting, Mary Stokes’ vocals hit all the notes satisfyingly enough, and Brian Palm contributes some tasteful, songbird-like harmonica.  But it all seems a bit decorous, a bit tame.  Until, that is, guitarist Sarah Michelle goes to work.  She cuts in with a fuzzy, edgy guitar solo that dirties things up and brings more character to the party.  After which, to be fair, all concerned rouse themselves in pursuit of a more animated ending to the song.
And this recipe is pretty much repeated on the following ‘Moonshine’, which swings well enough but also sports some prosaic lyrics.  So at this point I’m asking myself if they’ll continue to play it safe and rely on Michelle’s guitar work to enliven proceedings, or if they can get out of their comfort zone and serve up something different.
Fair play to them though, they do find some fresh ingredients to spice things up.  ‘Mattie Won’t Write’ is a stuttering slowie, with a minimalist, repetitive lyric – and it’s a mood piece that works.  There’s more depth to Palm’s harp playing, more variation in Stokes’ singing, and a sense of more dynamics all round.  ‘Fine And Mellow’ is exactly what it says on the tin.  Slow and jazzy, it plays to Stokes’ strengths vocally, and she ups the interest quotient accordingly.  Harp and piano make fluttering contributions – the latter, courtesy of Dermot Stokes, not much in evidence hitherto – and a Sarah Michelle guitar solo adds extra guts.  The following ‘Mola Di Bari’ adds a different flavour too, with a funky guitar riff and slinky bass from Chris Byrne, and another less-is-more lyric.  A Palm harp break slots in well, but the real centrepiece – again – is a teasing solo from Michelle.
Along the way ‘Baby How Long?’ combines a bright and bubby riff with harp filigrees, and Stokes’ piano flits into earshot to good effect.  It swings for sure, and if it’s still a little on the safe side there’s still some urgency to the harp solo, with an extra helping of guitar solo sizzle.  And later on ‘Can’t Hold Out Much Longer’ and ‘Help Me’ both cut the mustard, the former with its strong, winding riff and guttural guitar solo, and the latter with its enjoyable turn around a ‘Green Onions’ groove.
The highlight though, is ‘Story Of Bo Diddley’, a seven minute plus excursion that still manages to be brisk and spiky, leavened with light, shade and wit, and with Michelle at her best as she stretches out on some slithering, scraping, serpentine guitar work.  And after the live-without-able ‘At The Christmas Ball’ they close strongly with ‘Long Way From Home’, locking into a strutting, gritty riff, with stabs of piano and an energetic vocal, while Michelle sharpens her six-string blade and slices through the middle like Sweeney Todd feeling peckish for a fresh pie.
The Mary Stokes Band do what they do like pros, and when they stir some imagination into the poy they create some pleasing fare.  It’s only right that guitarist Sarah Michelle is given a specific namecheck though, because where there’s a “wow factor” on Comin' Home it’s down to her confident, assertive playing.

Comin' Home is available now, and can be ordered here.