Sunday, July 25, 2021

Bernie Marsden - Kings

Well, it’s a tribute album innit?  And lord knows there are always plenty of them kicking around in the blues music realm.  So what makes Kings any different from all the other runners and riders?  It’s very simple – Bernie Marsden is a master craftsman.  The guy has the blues in his veins, he can capture a modern sound while remaining true to the roots, and he has an incredibly light touch as a guitar player.  So these may be old songs originally recorded by BB, Albert and Freddie King, but our Bernie constantly conjures up moments that make them fresh and interesting.
Bernie Marsden - me and my beastly guitar!
Pic by Fabio Gianardi
Take the Leon Russell-penned Freddie song ‘Help Me Through The Day’, for example.  It’s a blues ballad emotive enough to evoke Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, delivered in deliciously patient fashion, with Marsden offering flickering gems of soulfulness with precision-tooled tone.  Way back in 1979 the song was also covered by Whitesnake on their Lovehunter album, so that one quickly recalls David Coverdale in his prime.  But while Marsden’s light voice will never have the resonance of a BB King, he’s learned over the years to bend his vocals to a satisfying bluesy feel so that DC comparisons soon pass.
Possibly the two most familiar tracks here are ‘Key To The Highway’ and ‘Help The Poor’, both of which were given 24 carat modern readings by BB King and Eric Clapton back in 2000.  Marsden’s versions may not be better, but he does put his own successful spin on them.  ‘Key To The Highway’ opens with some low-down twangery, before giving way to clear-toned, sustain-heavy guitar licks, and gentle vibrato worthy of BB.  And on ‘Help The Poor’ he deploys a chorus pedal, or some other gizmo beyond my ken, to bring a bright harmonising effect to some passages, while dropping his voice into a more meditative pitch than usual.
Major highlights include ‘I’ll Play The Blues For You’, and ‘Same Old Blues’.  The former hangs off a lazy beat from Jim Russell and sinuous, loping bass from John Gordon, while Marsden summons up yet more effortlessly magnetic guitar, making a little go a very long way.  ‘Same Old Blues’, meanwhile, combines a warm guitar sound, tinkling piano from Bob Haddrell, and some of Marsden’s best vocals to produce a great take on a great Don Nix song, suggesting a late night barstool reflection, while the barkeep patiently thumbpolishes his shot glasses.
There are uptempo pleasures too.  The opener ‘Don’t Lie To Me’ is as light as the froth on a cappuccino – a proper Italian one, that is – with tripping, hip-twisting rhythms from Russell.  And there’s plenty of grit in the rocking ‘Me And My Guitar’, on which Marsden well and truly nails the Freddie King vibe well before the teasing outro quote from ‘Going Down’ – as he also does on the self-penned ‘Runaway’, a very Freddie-style slice of instrumental boogie, with Marsden’s guitar constantly finding unusual angles of attack.  I like to imagine them having a hoot in the studio as Bernie knocked out some of the laughter-inducing guitar breaks in evidence here.
Kings is not a museum piece dedicated to BB, Freddie and Albert.  Bernie Marsden may have been inspired by them, but he doesn’t sound beholden on this relaxed, affectionate exploration of their songs.  Kings is a reminder of just how good Bernie Marsden is - which is very good indeed.  I look forward to further episodes in Bernie’s Inspirations Series.  But I’m crossing my fingers that somewhere down the line he’ll give us a couple of original albums too.
Kings is out now on Conquest Records, and can be ordered on CD here, and can be downloaded/streamed here.

Wednesday, July 21, 2021

Christone 'Kingfish' Ingram - 662

Now, I know what all the guitar freaks will be asking about this second album from Clarksdale “prodigy” Christone ‘Kingfish’ Ingram: is the kid still the next generation fretboard hero?  So let’s address that point right away, shall we? Yep, have no fear, the Kingfish continues to shine when it comes to the plank spanking.
Me, I’m more interested in the big picture – the guitar for sure, but also the songs, the arrangements, and Ingram’s singing.  From that standpoint, the opening title track ‘662’ ticks all the boxes.  Titled after the telephone area code for Clarksdale, it’s a rattlin’ rockin’ blues, and though the dynamic vocal mic used on the first verse is an unnecessary gimmick, the fact that
The Kingfish wrings that neck
Pic by Laura Carbone
young Christone has a great voice is still self-evident – it’s big, it’s round, it’s deep, and it’s persuasive.  When Glenn Worf’s bass kicks in on the second verse it really turbocharges proceedings, and after a teasing pause there’s another minute of wing-ding soloing as the cherry on the cake.
But it’s with fourth track ‘Another Life Goes By’ that Ingram embarks on a spree of really impressive material.  It’s a coolly reflective piece with a mellow, boom-chick groove over which Ingram delivers an articulate lyric about the impact of spiralling hate.  “Gotta stop the madness before another life goes by,” he sings, in soulful fashion, backed up by superb, mellifluous guitar playing.
He follows that with ‘Not Gonna Lie’, kick-started by a juddering riff and chops of wah-wah rhythm guitar, matched by a forthright lyric about the importance of singing from the heart rather than mouthing clichés.  It then segues straight into the loose-limbed ‘Too Young To Remember’, featuring funky, spartan rhythm guitar over a stuttering jazzy beat courtesy of drummer and producer Tom Hambridge, while Ingram delivers some easy, breezy soloing, and sings about being too young to have first-hand knowledge of old-fashioned juke joints, but still knowing blues history.  Suggesting that “when you see me playing guitar, you’re looking back a hundred years” is a bit of a stretch though – if Charley Patton were to see the cover pic of Ingram playing a purple Strat, he’d think a Martian had landed.
There’s no arguing with the following ‘You’re Already Gone’ though, a piece of dreamy soul recognising that a still-official girlfriend is mentally out the door, throughout which Ingram scatters delicate, rippling and shimmering guitar licks.  And while this may close a run of tracks that are real attention-grabbers, one way or another, there are several other tracks that aren’t far behind.  ‘That’s All It Takes’ is a smile-inducing soul ballad with horn backing and its roots in Motown, and a couple of impeccable, fluid solos – simple enough, but beautifully done.  And ‘Your Time Is Gonna Come’ is a genuine slow blues, with lazy piano in the background from Marty Sammon, and a bravura solo from young Christone, with changes of pace, twists and turns, and tension and release, sustaining interest with ease.
Ingram’s guitar rings like a bell on the mid-paced boogie of ‘That’s What You Do’, a contemplation of life on the road to which he adds another playful, darting and diving solo.  Then ‘Something In The Dirt’ is a companion piece to ‘662’, a bit of old-fashioned fun with barrelhouse piano to the fore that’s also a meditation on the Delta roots of the blues.
For me, a couple of tracks should have been cut, particularly the uneasily arranged ‘She Calls Me Kingfish’, on which it seems like nobody is quite in the pocket.  But that’s offset by the bonus track of ‘Rock & Roll’ which, far from being a rocker, is a haunting elegy for Ingram’s mother and her encouragement of his music – reflective and heartfelt, right down to the plaintive guitar solo.
662 isn’t perfect, but it does confirm that the Kingish is a special talent.  The material is varied and for the most part top notch, embellished not only with startling guitar but with real-deal vocals too.  Is he the next King of the Blues?  Who can say?  But Christone Ingram is sure to harvest more awards with this display.

662 is released by Alligator Records on 23 July.

Tuesday, July 13, 2021

Eddie Martin - The Birdcage Sessions

So what does Britain’s Eddie Martin have in store for us this time around?
Well, let’s start by saying that The Birdcage Sessions is a primarily acoustic affair, leaning heavily on Martin’s guitar work and rich voice, with some minimalist additional instrumentation from Martin himself, plus a few cello contributions from his son Xavi.
Stylistically much of it draws on country blues.  But there’s a British folk element to Martin’s playing too, in which respect the guy clearly knows his Richard Jansch from his Bert Thompson – geezers who of course had their own take on Delta blues.
Eddie Martin let out of his cage
So the opener ‘Before We Wake Up’ majors on restrained, slinky acoustic picking with hints of slide, complemented by spells of droning cello and flickers of moaning electric guitar.  Add in some sporadic percussion, and the end result is a darkly cinematic blues vibe for a commentary on modern day greed and poverty.  And the following ‘Home’ is a simple, hypnotic blues, embellished by shivers of harp, subtle washes of organ, and some feminine-sounding backing vocals that Martin apparently managed to contrive himself.
Elsewhere though, ‘Skylight’ combines rippling guitar and nicely judged cello accents in a manner that vaguely brings to mind Richard Thompson and John Martyn.  It’s a meditation framed by the skylight in Martin’s home studio, an imaginative contemplation of the world beyond that window, and the world within - or “space . . . both inner and outer”, as Bill Hicks might have put it.  Closing track ‘Country Walk’, meanwhile, has a Bert Jansch feel, with acoustic playing, slide included, that feels like swimming through choppy water.
And speaking of water, ‘River Song’ flows musically like a current passing through both pools and eddies, with kick drum and harp added to the mix.  The river is a common enough metaphor, and one that Martin was also fond of on his previous album Thirst, but he handles it with style - as he does with the lyrics throughout - and delivers it expressively too.
Because the thing is, the songs on The Birdcage Sessions may be rooted in old-fashioned blues, but they’re not stuck in some time warp, with Martin imitating some dirt-poor dude scratching a living in the Mississippi Delta, with hellhounds and mean-hearted women on his tail.  Nope, Martin writes songs that reflect the world around him.
So if ‘Birdcage Blues’ is a fairly straightforward country blues, at first percussive and then less so, lyrically it’s a call for liberty dedicated to Black Lives Matter.  Meanwhile Martin brings some gritty electric guitar to the fore for ‘I Long For A Sail’, augmented by a metronomic bass note, moaning harp, foot percussion and handclaps as he muses on the appeal of sailing in the midst of lockdown.  And minimalist cello lays down an uneasy background for Martin’s slow and steely picking on the tale of relationship pain in the modern world that is ‘Falling’.
Special mention too to ‘Lazy Sunday’, a reverie about doing not a lot that has lap steel to the fore, twanging lazily to create a dreamy vibe that puts me in mind of Geraint Watkins.  And on a free and easy front, there’s fun to be had on the likes of ‘Kitchen Boogie’ and ‘Too Much Choice Blues’.
On the surface The Birdcage Sessions may seem a simple affair – just some old bald fella with a guitar and a harmonica doing ye olde worlde blues, right?  But there’s a depth and a subtlety to it that’s worth exploring, if you have the patience.  As ‘Lazy Sunday’ puts it, why not “lay right here and watch the sun creep across the floor”, let Eddie Martin’s songs wash over you, and see what you think?
The Birdcage Sessions was released on 9 July, and is available here.

Saturday, July 10, 2021

Ivy Gold - Six Dusty Winds

Atlantic Crossing may have been the title of an album by Rod the Mod, but it’s also a good description for this blues rock/classic rock pot pourri from Ivy Gold, given that Six Dusty Winds is a transatlantic collaboration between Avalon guitarist Sebastian Eder and singer Manou from Germany, drummer and bassist Tal Bergman and Kevin Moore from the States, and Swedish keys man Anders Olinder.
But wherever they come from, the initial impression when they press play on ‘Face Of Deceit’ is encouraging.  There’s a latterday Purpleness to proceedings as Bergman and Moore kick in with a big fat rhythm section sound, over which Eder essays some – let’s get technical here – twiddly
Ivy Gold get photographically tricksy
guitar on the intro.  Fair play to ‘em, here and throughout Ivy Gold whack out a great sound, with the benefit of Eder’s experienced production skills.  Olinder adds some appealing, burbling organ fills, female singer Manou delivers a satisfying vocal, and Eder takes the biscuit with a stinging, slow-slow-quick-quick-slow solo.
Some of these positives remain a constant across the piece – strong musicianship and arrangements, great sound, and some ear-catching soloing from Olinder, and especially Eder.  And in the latter part of the album the more blues-tinged tracks like ‘Shine On’, ‘We Are One’ and ‘Without You’ show them at their best.  On ‘Shine On’ Manou produces a smoother than usual vocal, while on ‘Without You’ she gets dramatic and angsty but still on point.  Eder offers a clever, teasing guitar solo on the first of these, while on ‘We Are One’ funky rhythm guitar and bass underpin an appealing organ solo.
Mind you, they also have some traits that are more creeping ivy than burnished gold.  There’s a tendency towards melodies that, while pleasant enough, are less than startling.  And on ‘We Are One’ Manou leans towards a declamatory vocal style, which she deploys across much of the first half of the album, and which doesn’t do much for me.  Which is a pity, because on the other hand the lady deserves credit for the lush harmonies and backing vocals that bring a sheen to songs like ‘This Is My Time’, with its choppy rhythm guitar and swells of organ, and a cool bridge leading into a soaring solo from Eder.  Sadly it’s also one of several songs to feature a hackneyed lyric, in this case asserting that “This is my time to change my life, it’s not a crime to break free” – though in mitigation, I imagine English is Manou’s second language, and I’d like to see yer average Brit muso deliver quality wordsmithery in German.
Still and all, there are other impressive moments to be found.  There’s the solemn and spangly, mirrorball-ready intro to ‘Retribution’, on which Olinder serves up a tastily reflective organ solo, that in turn segues into a stiletto-sharp guitar solo over a switched up chord sequence.  Slapping bass from Moore kicks off a twitchy funk intro on ‘Believe’, with stuttering drums from Bergman, developing into a savvy arrangement in which Olinder’s organ solo is the icing on the cake of a prog-funk-rock vibe, while Eder’s guitar break plays around with tension and release to good effect.  And in spite of another clunky lyric, they just about nail the demi-epic aspirations of the well-assembled closer ‘Born Again’, a chunky mid-paced rocker on which pulsing keys form the backdrop to another polished guitar showcase from Eder, ahead of a neatly coasting outro.
On Six Dusty Winds the whole ain’t really more than the sum of Ivy Gold’s parts, but some of those parts are still stylish.  The challenge for Ivy Gold next time around is to accentuate the positive and eliminate the negative, because it sounds to me like they have the tools to do the job.
Six Dusty Winds is out now on Golden Ivy Records.