Monday, May 31, 2021

Quinn Sullivan - Wide Awake

On his previous album, Midnight Highway, Quinn Sullivan was happy to sow his oats a variety of musical influences and styles.  Four years down the line, having reached the ripe old age of 21, his new outing Wide Awake finds him apparently ready to settle down, and hone a sleek and soulful pop rock sound.
To begin with it feels like a sound that suits him, as he delivers the opening trio of tracks with commendable élan, under the guidance of producer and collaborator Oliver Leiber.  ‘All Around The World’ puts me in mind of Hall & Oates, with its bright, relaxed and sun-drenched vibe, and a
Quinn Sullivan - not too many years on the clock
Pic by Justin Borucki
Summer of Love lyric about peace and harmony, man.  And crucially, it’s long enough to have room to breathe, and give Sullivan the room for some neat, tasteful guitar filigrees.  ‘She’s So Irresistible’ bumps along in a lightly funky fashion, with a hazy pre-chorus and some spiralling organ fills lending a trippy feel, offset by some Morse Code bleeping guitar licks.  And ‘How Many Tears’ descends from Sixties soul via the Commodores, right down to Sullivan’s impressively executed falsetto vocal moments – a club he pulls out of the bag several times across the album.  It’s a good tune, with a pinpoint guitar solo, and at this point it feels like Sullivan is on a roll.
‘In A World Without You’ kicks off with a funky strut underscored by some rubbery bass playing, and if the chorus feels a bit lightweight then Sullivan makes up for it with some synthy-sounding injections of guitar.  It’s all very nicely done, but the shiny pop sensibility coming to the fore is now edging towards Maroon 5 territory.  Nothing wrong with that in principle, even if it’s not really my choice of hooch, but to these ears both the melody and lyrics begin to sound antiseptic.
Songs like the pop ballad ‘She’s Gone (And She Ain’t Coming Back)’, with lyrics about “my blue eyes crying the moonlight”, are just too sweet to be wholesome.  And that’s the way that it is for several songs to follow.
‘Real Thing’ may get some energy from its propulsive drum rhythm, and the return of that busy, elastic band bass may add some oomph to the summery, love-you-loads poptastic fare of ‘You’re The One’, but it’s all a bit formulaic.
There’s some grittier guitar on the intro to ‘Wide Awake’ itself, and some bigger chords get ripped out – well, carefully torn perhaps – to underpin the Beatle-ish melody, with some squealing guitar licks for added spice.  Crunching guitar chords give some thrust to ‘Strawberry Rain’, but it’s only the guts of his guitar solo that can redeem the insipid lyric – eg “I just can’t explain, she’s strawberry rain”.
The remaining two tracks do little to stir the soul, although the mini-epic guitar solo on the closing ‘Keep Up’ at least catches the ear for a spell.  But overall, with 12 songs running to 50 minutes, there’s just too much middle of the road stuff to maintain interest across the whole of Wide Awake.
And that’s a shame, because I’ve no doubt that Quinn Sullivan is a talented guy.  The kid can still play the guitar, that’s clear, and his polished singing is well-suited to the double-tracking Leiber deploys here and there, though I’d prefer his voice to have a few more miles on the clock.  But then again, when you get down to it, maybe I’m not the kind of audience Quinn Sullivan is trying to attract.

Wide Awake is released by Provogue Records on Friday 4 June.

Monday, May 24, 2021

Mike Ross - The Clovis Limit: Tennessee Transition

Mike Ross may be a multi-instrumentalist, but on The Clovis Limit: Tennessee Transition he demonstrates what you can achieve with just a good voice and an acoustic guitar.  This batch of ten tracks (plus three bonus tracks on the CD) brings together eight songs from his The Clovis Limit Part 1 and Part 2 albums, plus an old Ross tune and a few classic blues covers.  Ross delivers them in stripped back fashion, with total conviction, and the results are pleasing to say the least.
That sense of conviction is captured perfectly in tracks like the opening ‘Driftwood’, and later the
Mike Ross - have guitar, will play the blues
likes of ‘None Of Your Business’ and ‘The Only Place You Ever Take Me Is Down’.  ‘Driftwood’ floats along on a current of slide-accented rolling guitar, but it’s the lyric and Ross’s delivery of it that really grab the attention.  We’re “made from piss and vinegar, and tiny bits of star,” he sings, in a strong and punchy vocal that displays great character and phrasing.  The riff and vocals of ‘None Of Your Business’ are stridently assertive on a song that sounds like you must have heard it years ago.  And ‘The Only Place You Ever Take Me Is Down’ whacks out a grabber of a melody over slippin’ an’ slidin’ guitar, coming over like a roughed-up, first person sequel to the Eagles ‘Life In The Fast Lane’.
But Ross knows how to tone it down too, as evidenced by the delicate guitar, and the light and shade in the vocal, on the patient ‘Grow In Your Garden’, and the country blues stylings of ‘Young Man’.  The latter opens with twangy blues guitar, and continues in ruminative fashion until the energy levels (and slide injections) become more intense towards the end.
‘Leviathan’, meanwhile, is a moody and mysterious blues that sounds like it was dragged out of the backwoods at midnight, with – like so much of this material – whipsmart lyrics.  Ross’s take on Bukka White’s ‘Shake ‘Em Down’ is taken at a leisurely pace, as if in the aftermath of a few healthy glugs of moonshine.  It’s straightforward and excellent, capturing the spirit of the song, and  bizarre as it may sound, it somehow carries echoes of early Zeppelin.
He manages to pack a lot in to the brief but jolly guitar rag of ‘Blow Away’, and also makes a lot out of a little on Charlie Patton’s ‘Screamin’ And Hollerin’ Blues’, with an insistent, pushing-and-pulling guitar figure, and a plaintive vocal.
The bonus tracks include a version of ‘Statesborough Blues’, with the familiar melody overlaying satisfyingly textured guitar, all rich strumming, darts of slide, and classic blues turnarounds.
Considering that Ross was born in Durham and lives in Brighton, the American bent he gives to his vocals isn’t half convincing.  More importantly, the way his voice invests the back-to-basics delivery of the material with personality is downright impressive – and underlines some of the thoughts I shared recently on the subject of “the singer and the song”.  Tennessee Transition is a crackling collection of acoustic Americana and blues that hits its intended target smack bang in the bullseye.

The Clovis Limit: Tennessee Transition is released on 28 May, and can be ordered here.

Sunday, May 16, 2021

The Black Keys - Delta Kream

This, in a sense, is where I came in.  As I’ve said before, The Black Keys’ early albums were among the catalysts for my rediscovery of blues-influenced music.  But I reckon that for any Keys fans who’ve only got on board in the hit-laden years of El Camino, Turn Blue, and ‘Let’s Rock’, new album Delta Kream could be quite a puzzle.
This collection of covers, focusing largely on songs by those masters of North Mississippi Hill Country blues Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, is back-to-basics, but not in the rough and ready manner of their debut album The Big Come-up.  Here the vibe is more akin to their lesser known 2006 mini-album Chulahoma: The Songs Of Junior Kimbrough. (Chulahoma being the name of Kimbrough’s hill country juke joint.)
Delta Kream finds Dan Auerbach and Patrick Carney recording live on the hoof, mostly with just
The Black Keys clock off and have some laughs
Pic by Joshua Black Wilkins
bassist Eric Deaton and guitarist Kenny Brown, both veterans of Kimbrough and Burnside bands. Together they create a signature sound that’s low key and restrained, right from their opening take on John Lee Hooker’s ‘Crawling Kingsnake’.  They lay down a loping, mesmeric groove, prone to sudden surges, while Auerbach’s vocal is contemplative and half-keening rather than the deep rumble of Hooker.  Then bursts of edgy, discordant guitar soloing arrive periodically to disrupt the groove.
“Hypnotic” is a word that’s often about hill country blues, with its winding, repetitive guitar lines, and it’s certainly relevant across much of Delta Kream. Whether it’s Mississippi Fred McDowall’s ‘Louise’, stumbling into earshot and ambling along on a back-and-forth riff like a world-weary take on ‘Rolllin’ An’ Tumblin’’, the halting and haunting interwoven guitars and chilly vocal of ‘Stay All Night’, or the downbeat reading of the Burnside classic ‘Going Down South’, with its nagging, nagging, nagging riff, falsetto vocal, and fluttering guitar breaks, there’s a tension like a storm that’s constantly threatening to break, but never quite does.
But if tracks like these are mesmeric, the suspense is leavened by shafts of light elsewhere.  ‘Coal Black Mattie’ is the prime, booty-shaking example.  Carney lays down an offbeat, not quite straight rhythm, then adds smashes’n’splashes of cymbal to augment Auerbach’s squeaking, skating slide amid the grinding rhythm guitar.  ‘Poor Boy A Long Way From Home’ is more upbeat than its title, a bout of jangle-and-oomph driven along by a shuffling rhythm.  Its lyric may be little more than the title, but that’s set against some wiry, slithering guitar soloing.  They have fun too with ‘Do The Romp’ (previously explored by them on The Big Come-Up).  It’s all rollin’ an’ bumpin’ riffing, with a tambourine rattling erratically in the background, punctuated by squealing slide and Morse Code guitar.  And ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ is sprightly, weaving in subtle variations around its ebbing and flowing riff, while Auerbach lays out some more crackling guitar work as it gains intensity.  “That was great man,” says a voice at the end, and they’re right.
My one gripe is that the album feels overlong at 55 minutes.  You can, in fact, get too much of a good thing.  ‘Mellow Peaches’ earns its keep with swirls of organ from Ray Jacildo creating a counterpoint to the pulsing, swaggering groove, and there’s a slide solo that’s razor-like in its sharp ascent.  But ‘Walk With Me’, with another surge-and-subside riff, feels a little redundant, even it Pat Carney cranks it up a bit towards the end.
But there’s no arguing with the closing ‘Come On And Go With Me’.  It’s a reflective, “I need love so bad” slowie, with more high-pitched organ accents over the ultra-patient guitar motif.  Auerbach’s vocal feels like that of a self-pitying character, and the closing instrumental section winds down as if his pleas are doomed to end not with a bang but a whimper.
This ain’t no party, this ain’t no disco.  Instead, as it draws you into the vortex of those hill country blues grooves, Delta Kream creates its own absorbing world.  Pack your bag, and let The Black Keys be your guides.

Delta Kream is out now on Nonesuch Records.

Wednesday, May 12, 2021

Quickies - Dust Radio, Jed Potts and the Hillman Hunters, Troy Redfern, and Fattore Rurale

Dust Radio – Shotgun Shack
 
Over the years I’ve developed a real liking for rough and ready stuff in a North Mississippi Hill Country vein, from the early Black Keys albums to the North Mississippi Allstars themselves, and beyond.  So I’m well primed for the kind of sound with which Dust Radio, a duo formed last year in the north west of England, kick off their five track debut EP Shotgun Shack.
‘Dead Man’s Crawl’ sets sail with a twitching, fuzzy groove courtesy of guitarist Tom Jackson, over minimalist percussion, to which his buddy Paddy Wells adds complementary squawks and
Messrs Wells and Jackson - which is which, I wonder?
wails of harp.  Wells’ vocals are sufficient unto the day – as in, they’re perfecty acceptable and never misfire, but aren’t especially adventurous.  But backing vocals add a touch more beef to the chorus, while Wells essays a decent harp solo, and they make neat use of handclaps to brighten up the bridge.  ‘Shotgun Shack’ itself treads similar terrain, with a deeper, simpler riff over a stomping kick drum, augmented in places by harmonising harmonica from Wells, and some interjections from a tasteful descending motif.
‘Fault Line’ is the standout track though, and of a different ilk.  Languid and dreamy, it leans on more fulsome drums and bass, while Jackson lays down more sparse and glittering guitar lines, with hints of Keef-like twanginess.  Wells’ vocals are stronger here, making the most of the appealing melody to show more of his range and convey more character, and he adds some plangent injections of harp into the bargain.
‘Backslider’ has a good revolving riff at its core, back by offbeat drums, and there’s a decent chorus, bolstered by vocal harmonies, while Jackson lays down a neat slide solo while the riff continues to roll forward.  On ‘Siren Song’, a “me and the devil” affair, the vocal melody and guitar work follow each other, without drums or bass, and the overall effect is a tad simplistic, notwithstanding a mournful harp solo from Wells.
All in all Shotgun Shack is a solid first outing by Dust Radio, whose debut album is scheduled for release in the autumn.  But for my money they’d benefit from a bit more imagination in the songwriting department.
 
Shotgun Shack is released by Lunaria Records on 28 May.
 
Jed Potts And The Hillman Hunters – How’mi’mentuh
 
That’s as in “How am I meant to love you,” in case you were wondering.
The fourth in the Hillmans’ ongoing series of original singles is a tale of a misfiring love affair set in New Orleans – which was also the musical trigger for the tune, with Jed Potts attempting to reproduce a Professor Longhair piano boogie vibe on guitar.
The shuffling guitar riff raises the curtain unaccompanied, and when Potts starts to add his vocal it feels like it needs to be dialled up in some way.  But then Jonny Christie’s drums and Charlie Wild’s bass kick in, and the whole thing takes off, with that bouncing riff worming its way into your brain in tandem with a grabber of a chorus, en route to a neat change in rhythm at the end to round things off.
‘How’mi’mentuh’ is another indicator that Jed Potts & The Hillman Hunters are developing a solid repertoire of original material.
And while I’m on the subject, I’ll also mention the first in this run of singles, ‘Where’s Your Man’, which I didn’t cover when it was released last December.  It’s a tasty slice of Chicago blues-styled bump’n’grind, with a lurching beat from Christie and Potts summoning up his most rasping vocal, and there’s nicely controlled use of dynamics in the bridge and the third verse.  But I’m most taken with the way Potts brightens up the old “back door man” blues trope with some lively
The be-hatted Troy Redfern
Pic by Haluk Gurer
rat-a-tat lyrics, such as “You know I try my best to make sure you ain’t neglected / But it’s bad for my constitution when your husband comes in unexpected.”  That’s worth a quid for a download all on its own, I reckon!
 
‘How’mi’mentuh’ is released on 15 May.  All four of the singles series are available on Bandcamp, here.
 
Troy Redfern – Waiting For Your Love
 
Another new single on the conveyor belt comes from British slide guitarist Troy Redfern, with ‘Waiting For Your Love’ an appetiser for his forthcoming album . . . The Fire Cosmic, set for release in August.
This sure ain’t no sappy love song.  Rather it’s an impactful chunk of boogie that’s all churning rhythm guitar, stomping drums from Darby Todd, and a snarling vocal and healthy topping of sidewinding slide from Redfern.  ‘Waiting For Your Love’ is the aural equivalent of a double quarter pounder cheeseburger’n’fries with all the trimmings – greasily satisfying.
 
‘Waiting For Your Love’ is released by RED7 Records on 21 May.  The album . . . The Fire Cosmic is released on 6 August, and can be pre-ordered here.
 
Fattore Rurale – Morsi
 
Morsi is the latest EP from Italian left-fielders Fattore Rurale, comprising two tracks – ‘Punto g’ and ‘La luna in leone’.
I don’t often quote directly from PR bumf, but on this occasion I think it might help to put you in the picture:  “Fattore Rurale was born . . . in a gash of earth and mud circumscribed by the slow
Morsi - it means "bites", folks
flow of three rivers, where the fog hides the sins of the human being and desolation gives way to silence.”  They’re a cheery bunch, Fattore Rurale.
‘Punto g’ - be warned, the video is a bit, er, eyebrow-raising - opens with some fairly breezy acoustic strumming, and some weeping slide guitar in the background from Riccardo Polledri, while Marco Costa adds his trademark subterranean croak of a vocal, previously encountered in these columns in the guise of Crudelia, and subsequently Ruins Barren.  As the tune progresses drums kick in, and Polledri adds a meaty guitar riff as Costa proceeds to get himself all worked up, in gruff fashion, before giving way to a rumbling, fuzzy, feedback-laden guitar solo.
‘La luna in leone’ is a more restrained affair, starting with a sombre acoustic guitar riff before Costa weighs in with his Leonard-Cohen-on-downers groan.  There’s some tasteful, elegiac cello, and brooding electric guitar lurking in the background that eventually steps forward for a brief, patient, razor-like solo.
Morsi isn’t music that adds boogie to the woogie, to be sure.  But if you’re in the market for a molto serioso smorgasbord of Americana, indie-folk, and the feel of Gogol Bordello gone very downbeat, then it might float your boat.  In Italian.
 
Morsi is available now on Spotify, Apple Music, and You Tube.
 

Monday, May 10, 2021

Adventures In The South - New Orleans, Part 3

Our final day in New Orleans, and the rain poured down.
No, I’m kidding.  Once again, it was wall to wall sunshine, with added humidity.  Taking a break from hiking around, we decided to saunter down to Canal Street, and catch a hop-on, hop-off bus tour around the Garden District.
This was another side to the city, where once upon a time wealthy types had moved from the French Quarter – though Garden District is a misnomer, because the gardens of the early nineteenth-century mansions were gradually sold off to provide plots for new houses in the later
A Canal St streetcar, on our way to the Garden District
nineteenth century.  Still, the architecture was impressive, in that typically Southern white-painted fashion.  But although our open-topped bus created its own light breeze, the heat was still oppressive as we tootled around.
We hopped off the bus as it approached the Warehouse District, and ducked out of the heat into the National World War II Museum, where a diner offered an option for lunch – and where all the accumulated heat of the bus tour was suddenly blast-frozen beneath our clothing by the air-conditioning.  Suitably cooled off, we then took in the Museum itself, founded by the war historian Stephen Ambrose – the guy who wrote the book Band Of Brothers.
If you think New Orleans seems an odd location for America’s National World War II Museum, there is a worthwhile pretext.  NOLA is the home of Higgins Industries, which manufactured a variety of naval equipment during the war, including the landing craft – or “Higgins Boats” – used during the D-Day landings.  In any event it’s an impressive and interactive collection, with a number of World War II veterans acting as guides at different points, and a collection of genuine aircraft suspended from the ceiling.  During our visit it also included the temporary exhibit “Final Mission: The USS Tang Submarine Experience” – which included a number of alarms and excursions reflective of the “Final Mission” tag.
Everyday Bourbon Street traffic
Having completed our tour of duty, we headed back towards the French Quarter, and took another wander up Bourbon Street to take in one more tourist attraction, Lafitte’s Blacksmith Shop – the oldest building in the French Quarter, dating back to 1772.  But no, it’s not actually a blacksmith’s forge.  More prosaically, it’s a pub, and has been for a very long time.  It’s still lit by candlelight, and has pretty basic wooden furnishings, creating an overall effect that is – well, dingy, to be honest.  So after a quick beer we headed back to the hotel, and had a spell in the outdoor pool, cocktails in hand, to chill out for a while.
Refreshed, we set off for a nearby eaterie and our most upmarket dinner in about a week.  Sadly I can’t be sure of the restaurant’s name – Antoine’s, possibly – but it was smart and airy, with an acoustic jazz trio to keep us entertained as we ate.  Nothing fried, for a change  but instead some light and elegant fish, as I recall.
Fortified, we strolled on to our entertainment for the night, at d.b.a., a bar and club in Frenchmen Street.  After a warm-up drink in the welcoming bar - where I was amused to find McEwan's Wee Heavy, a resolutely old man's tipple back in Scotland, listed among the imported British beers - we headed to the adjoining room, and were treated to some genuine funky blues from local legend and recording artist Walter ‘Wolfman’ Washington.  This, I’m pleased to say, was the real deal for the final night of our odyssey, with Walter singing and
The Wolfman gets funky!
playing classy guitar in front of an impressive, grooving band.  (A year and a bit later I came across the saxman playing with Mike Zito, at a gig back home in Edinburgh.  After the show I accosted Jimmy Carpenter – for it was none other – and, showing him a pic from the Wolfman show, said I was amazed to have encountered him again.  “Yeah, you look kinda familiar too,” he deadpanned in response.  He has a dry sense of humour, does Jimmy.)
Walter’s set was so good that a guy and a woman suddenly got together and started dancing – a real jiving display, with overhead lifts and all sorts, that earned applause and whoops of appreciation from the audience.  Remarkably, it turned out that they weren’t even a couple, and had just spontaneously hooked up together and done their thing.
And on that high note we stepped out into the still warm night air, and ambled back to Hotel Le Marais for a final nightcap and debrief.  Our adventures in the South were over, and the next day we’d be making the long haul back home to Scotland.

You can find New Orleans, Part 1 here.

Tuesday, May 4, 2021

Samantha Fish - Tipitina's, New Orleans, 1 May 2021

A solo show by Samantha Fish, armed with just a few guitars and her singular voice, ain’t your everyday occurrence.  I wasn’t there in N'Awlins of course.  Chance would be a fine thing.  But I could still see it via the wonders of YouTube – and you can too.
Strapping on her Taylor acoustic, Mam’selle Fish embarks on a no-half-measures performance comprising 21 songs and lasting nearly 2 hours.  It takes her a few songs to really hit top gear and capture the crowd, perhaps, but there’s no doubt she gets there in the end.
Of course, Samantha has recorded numerous acoustic or semi-acoustic numbers over the
Samantha Fish - Taylor in hand, just not in NOLA!
years, that offer up natural cornerstones for this kind of set.  Early on for example, ‘Blood In The Water’ is tense and spooky, with some steely soloing, and delicate vocals towards the end.  And at the other end of the show, the first encore ‘Go Home’ is a perfect fit, so disarmingly simple and with a wonderful lyric.  I’ve seen her stun an audience into silence with it, and it works its magic here too.
‘Blame It On The Moon’ is swinging and relaxed, before getting sturdier as it progresses.  Late in the set her take on ‘Jim Lee Blues’ is sprightly, witty and charming, and goes down a storm, and she follows that up by with an achingly vulnerable and delicate reading of ‘Need You More’.
There are moments of soul with a capital S drawn from Chills And Fever.  The title track is as cheeky as ever, if not more so, even reduced to minimalist ticking guitar.  She does a great job of stripping back Bettye Lavette’s ‘You’ll Never Change’, with an infernally catchy guitar backing for her warm vocal, and ‘Hello Stranger’ is aural comfort food.  Her own songs in this vein add a layer of complexity to the formula though.  ‘Kill Or Be Kind’ is a dark and edgy tune, a bitter-sweet dare to the object of desire, while in its acoustic form ‘She Don’t Live Here Anymore’ combines restraint with rich guitar playing in a boundary-blurring manner.  Is it soul?  Is it Americana?  Does it matter?
She throws a few wild cards into the mix to keep everyone guessing.  Her swaying and rippling cover of Townes Van Zandt’s ‘I’ll Be Here In The Morning’ underlines her Americana interests, but is that a grimace at a fluffed note in the solo?  Rather better, for me, is her version of Gladys Knight’s ‘If I Were Your Woman’, a terrific, impassioned take on a dark love song.  But the best surprise of all is a rare performance of her own ‘Let’s Have Some Fun’.  It’s intimate and sexy, and a reminder that though she doesn’t draw much on Runaway and Black Wind Howlin’ these days, there are still more than a few little gems on those albums.  (And if she’d like to haul ‘Kick Around’ out of the closet for her next British tour, that would do me very nicely, thanks very much!)
But there’s still room in the show for Fish to apply a bit of muscle.  Her SG at the ready, she rouses the audience into a singalong on the loping, insistent ‘No Angels’, on which she sets up a loop with the riff as a foundation for her most rockin’ and rollin’ solo to that point.  The rollicking middle-finger-salute of ‘Gone For Good’ features some helter-skelter slide playing, and on the spiky ‘Black Wind Howlin’’ her jagged, shrapnel-like soloing raises hollers from the crowd.
Her now legendary cigar box guitar is introduced from the wings to whoops of appreciation, unleashing a fuzzed-up, hair-tousling (hers not mine, of course) run through ‘Bulletproof’ – though I remain to be convinced that her use of a dynamic vocal microphone for the chorus adds any real value.  Never mind, the second encore of ‘Runaway’ is a pulsating, rocking, revved-up affair to dispel such details.
Throughout all of this, despite being all on her ownsome for this performance, Samantha is relaxed, funny, and engaging, even happy to ask “You ready for the silliest guitar solo you’ve heard?” in the middle of blasting through the punkish rock’n’roll of ‘Love Your Lies’.  The coronavirus pandemic has been a brutal time for professional musicians, but it’s good to see that Samantha Fish, at least, is still smiling.

You can find Samantha Fish's Tipitina's show on YouTube, here.  (Or search for "Tipitina's Samantha Fish.)  Her performance starts 6:35 into the stream.
The YouTube stream is free, but you can 'tip' Samantha Fish via Paypal.

Saturday, May 1, 2021

The Singer And The Song: Making It Real

“Blame it on Eric Clapton and the myriad hordes who followed in his bluesbreaking creamy footsteps, but the present-day perception of the blues is that it’s all about guitars, mostly brandished by men.  But while many of the blues greats wielded the six-string razor (alongside those who blew the harp and those who pounded pianos), most of those Real Guys would tell you that the Real Deal was about the singing and the song, rather than the solo: the instrumental flourishes were the icing on the cake rather than the cake itself.”
-  Charles Shaar Murray, The Blues Magazine Issue 10, November 2013
 
I couldn’t have put it better myself.  No really, I don’t think I could.  But I’m still going to bang on about it for a bit.

When I was in my early teens back in the Seventies, getting into hard rock, the greatest acclaim was reserved for the “axe heroes”.  Sure, there were some singers who stood out from the herd for their voices, and/or for being cracking front men.  But still – guitarists were the real gods.  
Put that fag out Bob - it'll ruin your voice!
And a lot of the time, listening to current day blues albums and going to gigs, it seems to me that that attitude still prevails – except now among middle-aged blokes rather than impressionable teenagers.
But with all the music I’ve listened to in recent years, I’ve begun to think that, as Charles Shaar Murray (a self-confessed guitar geek) put it in that intro to a piece on Etta James - the Real Deal is about the singing and the song.  Often nowadays though, the vocal duties are taken on by the guitarist/band leader, regardless of their aptitude.  Sometimes they're great, of course.  But sometimes, to these ears, it’s the wrong move.  Maybe they don't think the singing bit is that difficult, or that important.  Maybe they just don't want to split the pay check another way.  But for me, whatever potential there may be in their music, they’re hamstrung if the vocals don’t cut it.
But here’s the thing.  What does “cutting it” mean when you’re singing popular music?  It can’t always mean being technically perfect with a four-octave range.  If it did then half the blues, rock’n’roll and rock music over the last 80 years would have gone straight in the bin.  And for many music fans, me included, the ironing out of vocal imperfections with auto-tuning is a sin, not a virtue.  So what is it that works then?

A couple of years ago I heard Ian Hunter, of Mott the Hoople fame, talking to Johnnie Walker on his Sounds of the Seventies radio show.  He said that if hadn’t been for Bob Dylan, he could never have made it in rock music.  Dylan was nobody’s idea of a quality singer, Hunter suggested, but he made it okay to be a “personality” singer.  Keith Richards, in his autobiography, also commented on the impact of Dylan’s vocals:
“Bob has not got a particularly great voice,” says Keef, “but it’s expressive and he knows where to put it, and that’s more important than any technical beauties of voice.  It’s almost anti-singing.  But at the same time what you’re hearing is real.”
Guess who?
In other words, if you’ve got something to say, and your voice can communicate that to people whatever its weaknesses – I mean, really get it across like you mean it – then that’s an instrument as valuable as any guitar.  That “something to say” though, brings us on to the matter of the song.
Okay, I know I just mentioned Dylan.  But a rock’n’roll song doesn’t need a Nobel Prize-winning lyric to be great.  Take Little Richard and ‘Tutti Frutti’.  The lyrics of ‘Tutti Frutti’ are pretty much doggerel, but it still takes off like a runaway train, powered by Richard’s urgent, whooping delivery.  If this song and singer convey anything, it feels like pure exhilaration – amped up, maybe, by the knowledge that in its original, illicit version, the lyric was a paean to gay sex.  Did “getting away with it” add to the rock’n’roll thrill?  A wop bop a loo bop a lop bam boom!
A singer has to have a certain something to make a song like ‘Tutti Frutti’ work – so-so just won’t do.  (Okay, so the godawful Pat Boone managed to shift shedloads of his cover of ‘Tutti Frutti’, but who gives a shit about his recording now?)  Maybe too, it needs to be just the right “certain something”.  The voice needs to fit the song and the sound.
In a more subtle vein than Little Richard, the song that first turned me on to King King was 'A Long History Of Love'.  It's a smouldering, slow bluesy affair, and Alan Nimmo's warm, soulful voice brings the emotion of the lyric to life with total conviction, aided and abetted by a guitar solo that weaves its way deliciously around the melody.  Alan Nimmo isn't the only singer who could have done this - I can well imagine Paul Rodgers delivering the goods, for example - but
Alan Nimmo - I second that emotion
it's still a vocal performance that really makes you believe every word.

Different singers, different capabilities.  Jimi Hendrix, it's said, wasn't keen on his own voice, couldn't bear to be watched while recording his vocals, and used to insist on spurious extra takes because of his insecurities.  But as his engineer Eddie Kramer put it, "Jimi was not a great vocalist in the classic sense, but his vocal style was suited to what he did to the nth degree."  The warmth of his voice, his sense of rhythm, and his playfulness all combined to make his singing a perfect fit for his overall sound.  Take a relatively simple track like 'Freedom', for example.  If it weren't Jimi singing, how well would it work?  He even managed to take on Dylan's 'All Along The Watchtower' - as I've observed, another singer with a unique voice - and make it his own.

Whatever the limitations or idiosyncrasies of your voice, rock'n'roll will still give you a shot at the title, if you can find a way to make it work.  I don't mean that any old shit will do - my heart sinks when I'm sent an album to review and hear a vocalist who doesn't realise, or perhaps doesn't accept, that they're trying to sing in a key they can't handle.  No, getting it right demands awareness of your capabilities, and of the possibilities.
A little while back I watched the Joe Cocker documentary Mad Dog With Soul, in which Billy Joel said that there was such a thing as "shouting in key", but that wasn't what Joe Cocker did.  The thing is though, that "shouting in key" can be just peachy, if you understand the possibilities of
Sean Webster - emotional gold
what you can do with it, and "find a way to make it work".  Hell, just listen to Lemmy barking his way through 'Motorhead'.  His voice may be as rough as a badger's arse, but he fucking owns that song.
The opposite is true too though.  One can have a voice that's technically fine, but fail to be expressive with it.  For example, I'm not a big fan of Kenny Wayne Shepherd, and one of the reasons is that his long-standing vocalist may be blessed with a good singing voice, but he leaves me cold.  His voice comes, and it goes, and it leaves no mark on me whatsoever.  The same is true of John Mayer, however good some of his songs might be.  His voice is frictionless, it generates no traction.  Whereas the criminally less well-known Sean Webster has a voice that takes Mayer's 'Slow Dancing In A Burning Room' and turns it into an emotional tour de force.
Personal taste comes into it too, naturally.  I really enjoy Ian Hunter's English-accented delivery, but a very credible fellow blogger once likened it to "a coalman shouting down a back alley."  Whereas for my part you can argue all day long that Buddy Holly and Roy Orbison were landmark artists, but I just don't like their voices.  You pays your money, and you picks your poison.

Some of my favourite lines in poetry are by Hugh MacDiarmind, in his epic poem 'A Drunk Man Looks At The Thistle':
And let the lesson be - to be yersel's
Ye needna fashion it's to be ocht else.
To be yersel's - and mak that worth bein',
Nae harder job to mortals has been gi'en.
That's the challenge for the rock'n'roll singer.  To be yourself, and make that worth being - to do it your own way, but still connect.
Of course, you could argue that the same principles apply to a guitarist.  But the singer is more exposed, at the mercy of their physical abilities.  As Neil Peart said, the drummer has the hardest job in a rock band, but the singer has the worst job.
I remember asking the singer and guitarist Marcus Malone about the challenge of reworking studio arrangements of songs for live work.  "A song's a song," he said, explaining that he has stripped songs back to two-person acoustic arrangements at times.  "I think people go for the voice mainly, it's the main melody.  All those other things are good around it - it's like, y'know, dessert!"
I still love great guitar playing.  But it's not the be all and end all.  With most of the artists I've grown to love over the last decade - like King King, Samantha Fish, Ian Siegal, Thorbjørn Risager & The Black Tornado - there's a distinctive voice in there, working its personal brand of magic.  There's a singer, and a song.