Wednesday, December 22, 2021

Quickies - Jimmy Regal And The Royals, Elles Bailey, Wily Bo Walker, and John Mayall

Here's a chance to catch up with a clutch of recent releases in the EP and single domain.

Jimmy Regal And The Royals – Ain’t Done Yet
As Bertie Wooster might have put it, they interest me strangely, do Jimmy Regal And The Royals.  On one level there’s a sensibility to them that’s as British as roast beef and Yorkshire pudding.  But as the five tracks on their Ain’t Done Yet EP demonstrate, their musical palette extends to more exotic influences.
This openness is most apparent on the tracks that bookend the EP, ‘Ain’t Done Yet’ itself and a radio edit of ‘Can’t Cry No More’, which appeared previously on their album Late Night Chicken.  
Jimmy Regal And The Royals - which one's Jimmy?
The former is built on twitching, pattering drums from Sammy Samuels, and sub-Saharan-tinged guitar lines from CJ Williams – and in due course a squeakin’n’scratchin’ solo - with honking sax from guest Chris Rand providing additional punctuation.  Meanwhile Joff Watkins gets to grips with a tongue-twisting vocal on the verses, and a simple but overly vibrato-prone chorus.  On the closing acoustic version of ‘Can’t Cry No More’ that African undertone is taken further and made more explicit, with more sparkling and shimmering guitar from Williams set to supple Kora rhythms courtesy of the guesting Diabel Cissokho.  Cissokho also adds some additional colour to the mantra-like vocal from Watkins, who earns his corn by adding further textures via moaning, gypsy jazz like harmonica work.
In between these two poles, ‘Mickey Two Suits’ – a title deserving of an award all on its won – is a blast of instrumental boogie on which Watkins’ harp lends an infusion of urgency to Williams’ chunka-chunka guitar.  ‘Way To Lose’ is a more downbeat affair, combining ripples of acoustic guitar, moans of nocturnal harmonica and minimalist, atmospheric persussion as the basis for Watkins’ groaned vocal.  And ‘Show Time’ is an intriguing affair, with Samuels’ patter-and-lurch rhythm matched to fuzzy splutters and splinters of guitar that occasionally get spiky in tandem with Watkins’ bursts of harp.  Meanwhile Watkins vocal may hint at a Brilleaux-esque growl, but this ain’t no Feelgood-like rock’n’roll, it’s a more idiosyncratic example of British blues.
All in all, Ain’t Done Yet confirms the impression that Jimmy Regal And The Royals may not be a big name in the making, but they are an outfit with something original to offer.
Ain’t Done Yet is out now, and available from Lunaria Records here.
Elles Bailey – ‘Stones’
The third single from Elles Bailey’s forthcoming album Shining In The Half Light rides in on a brooding slide riff from Joe Wilkins, grinding along in Resonator-like fashion over subtle, reined-in drums.  Then Bailey’s moody, assertive vocal swings into play, and Wilkins’ slide playing finds slithering groans and moans to harmonise with her on particular segments, while elsewhere some elegant vocal harmonies bring additional richness to Bailey’s delivery.  Wilkins then earns
Elles Bailey wonders where her hat has gone
Pic by Rob Blackham

extra bonus points with a slithering slide solo.  All in all ‘Stones’ makes a far more impressive impact than Bailey’s summer release ‘Cheats & Liars’.
Shining In The Half Light will be released by Outlaw Music on 25 February, and can be pre-ordered here.
Wily Bo Walker Acoustic Band – ‘Long Way To Heaven (Live)’
With which Wily Bo Walker, as is his wont, reworks a song from his back catalogue in a different style, this time taking a 90% acoustic approach to a song previously titled ‘The Ballad of Johnny And Louise’ when it appeared on the album The Roads We Ride recorded with compadre ED Brayshaw.  But while the instrumentation here may be different, there’s still a familiar cinematic tone to ‘Long Way To Heaven’, as a tale of the two characters out on the road in the American night.  Lyle Zimmerman adds twinkling mandolin to Walker’s familiar, Waits-like groan of a voice, while Gary Bridgewood contributes sweeps of elegiac fiddle.  Brayshaw meanwhile (whose latest solo album is reviewed here), is responsible for the non-acoustic dimension, adding harmonic electric guitar notes for colour, and a brief but typically edgy solo.
‘Long Way To Heaven (Live)’ is available now on Mescal Canyon Records.
John Mayall – ‘Can’t Take No More’
It’s remarkable to think that John Mayall is now 88-years old – the likes of Jagger and Richards are mere striplings by comparison – yet here he is gearing up to the release of his gazillionth album in the New Year, from which ‘Can’t Take No More’ is the second single.  And a sprightly affair it is too, even if Mayall’s vocal is, in all honesty, stronger on phrasing than melody.  Horns riff brightly, and Mayall’s organ tootles over a tripping, shuffling rhythm from Jay Davenport and funky bass from Greg Rzab.  Special guest Marcus King brings the guitar quotient, with an extended but relaxed solo, to which Mayall adds subtle remarks on organ, and there’s a spikier King outro to round things off.  ‘Can’t Take No More’ isn’t a humdinger of a track, but delivering something like this is still as easy as falling off a log for John Mayall.
John Mayall’s new album The Sun Is Shining Down is released by 40 Below Records on 28 January.

Tuesday, December 14, 2021

Dion - Stomping Ground

Okay, so it’s the season of goodwill and all that, but you know what one of my favourite Christmas movies is?  The Grinch, with Jim Carrey all hairy, green, and most of all grouchy.  So before I get into telling you about the good things on Stomping Ground, I wanna get a couple of gripes off my chest, alright?
Gripe #1:  The album follows the same guest artist formula as 2020’s Blues With Friends.  It’s an approach that can have some artistic value by way of spicing up an artist’s sound and repertoire, but for me repeating the trick seems too much like a marketing tactic.  If the songs are good
Dion - still stompin'!
Pic by Steve Cell
enough, then why not just record with a core band, and pull in name guests on just a couple of tracks if you want some extra stardust?  This is Dion DiMucci fer cryin’ out loud, not Joe Schmo no-one's ever heard of!
Gripe #2:  There are fourteen tracks included here, and while plenty of ‘em are good ‘uns, a few are makeweights.  And are some tracks overextended just to get more mileage out of the guest turns?  Now then it feels like the pudding is being over-egged.
But that’s enough bah-humbuggery for now.  Because when the opening track 'Take It Back' kicks in, it’s a catchy old thing which Dion sells well over a strutting rhythm laid down by the bass and drums.  And Joe Bonamassa, who would probably turn up to provide a guest solo for the opening of an envelope, does in fact elevate the song with a bundle of humorous, on-point and interestingly-toned licks.
The swaying and sinuous ‘Dancing Girl’ lives up to its title with a danceable Latin rhythm fit for your next Salsa class.  And with some pinpoint guitar from Mark Knopfler in his inimitable style, enhanced by some subtle interplay with the piano, it’s very good indeed.  On the other hand, while Eric Clapton brings some decent soloing to the blues shuffle of ‘If You Wanna Rock’n’Roll’, the star of this particular show is Dion himself, singing “I’m a rhythm king baby, I can groove all night long” and other such lines, in a manner that suggests they have less to do with the dance floor than the bedroom.
‘There Was A Time’ is a slow blues with a kinda European feel to its suspenseful melody, and Peter Frampton doesn’t feel the need to fill every crevice with his playing, while there’s plenty more to notice between the deep rolling horns, the rippling piano, and the sweeping strings add to the melancholy feel.  Sonny Landreth delivers suitably weeping slide guitar on the intro of ‘Cryin’ Shame’, but his playing warms up as the song progresses, and instruments interweave on a textured arrangement with a deceptively simple beat.  There’s slide guitar too, courtesy of Keb’ Mo’, on the album’s only cover, a version of Hendrix’s ‘Red House’.  On early listens I was less than impressed, but there is some merit in its rootsy approach and Dion’s plaintive vocal, even if the contributions of Keb’ Mo’ don’t amount to much.
Getting away from the guitars, ‘Angel In The Alleyways’ may not be a classic, but it’s certainly better than ‘Hymn To Her’, Dion’s previous collaboration with Bruce Springsteen and Patti Scialfa.  An acoustic guitar-led piece of Americana, with the Boss and his missus supplying harmonica and hushed harmonies, it manages to combine tension and urgency.  But the two tracks that foreground piano are bigger winners.  ‘That’s What The Doctor Said’ makes lyrical reference to Dr John, and backs that up with a New Orleans groove foregrounding sweeping, swinging ivories from Steve Conn, while horns toot in fine fashion.  And ‘I Got My Eyes On You’ is a rock'n’roll train stoked by Marcia Ball’s piano, rattling along with intermittent horn punctuation and then bright riffs on the chorus, plus twanging guitar from Jimmy Vivino.
There’s more rockn’roll, of the Chuck Berry variety, on the amusing, foot-tapping ‘I’ve Got To Get To You’, on which Dion shares the mic with Boz Scaggs.  But the more interesting duet is the closing ‘I’ve Been Watching’, to which Rickie Lee Jones adds characterful vocals in tandem with DiMucci, the mood shifting between reflective and impassioned in satisfying fashion, while producer Wayne Hood adds fluid guitar that fits the song well.
When you get right down to it, Stomping Ground is a good album.  But it’d be a better one with more focus – focus on fewer songs to maintain the quality, and focus on Dion’s delivery more than a troupe of guests.  Hasn’t the guy earned the right to the spotlight?

Stomping Ground is out now on Keeping The Blues Alive Records, and can be ordered here.

Thursday, December 9, 2021

Deacon Blue - Usher Hall, Edinburgh, 8 December 2021

The more that things change, the more they stay the same.
It’s thirty-odd years since Deacon Blue’s glory days, but when they get on stage it seems like yesterday.  Ricky Ross still looks like a cool Modern Studies teacher, albeit now one that’s recently retired.  Dougie Vipond may have branched out into TV presenting, but he still looks and sounds perfectly at home behind a drumkit.  Jim Prime is still the quiet man on keyboards, overseeing proceedings with a sometimes studied, sometimes genial look.  Lorraine McIntosh
"Has anyone seen Lorraine?"
still dances like no-one is watching, still bashes a tambourine like a maniac, still hits the sweetest of high notes as a foil for Ross’s more grounded vocals.  And they still know how to put on a damn fine show.
They play in front of back projected films, photographs and kaleidoscopic images that lend gloss to proceedings, but it’s the human element that makes Deacon Blue a sight still worth seeing – and hearing.  There’s the personal connection that Ross is always pursuing, whether through his occasional bouts of pseudo-Springsteen patter, which he delivers with a knowing twinkle in his eye, or occasional dedications that highlight the meaning songs can convey more than words alone.  There are the thoughtfully rendered covers that nod to influences and put little twists on the mood.  There’s the joie de vivre they’ve rediscovered in this later phase of their career.  And then there’s the songs.
Oh man, the songs!  A clutch of tracks from 2020’s City Of Love stand up well next to their back catalogue, ranging from the opening title track, a sweet but insistent hymn to resilience, through the fresh and piano-led ‘A Walk In The Woods’, to the elegiac ‘Weight Of The World’.  But when a band has three or four albums in their locker that are stacked with magic moments, these newer efforts can really only be appetisers.
They gradually reel the audience in with ‘Twist And Shout’ and ‘Your Swaying Arms’ bracketing ‘Chocolate Girl’, into which they insert a slice of James and Bobby Purify’s simple and soulful ‘I’m A Puppet’.  And then with the foreshadowing of ‘Born In A Storm’, they roll into ‘Raintown’ and really get down to business, the crowd instantly clapping along.  Deacon Blue are often tagged as a pop band, but here it’s evident that Dougie Vipond’s drums make them rock, with the guitar and bass of relative newbies Gregor Philp and Lewis Gordon crunching in to underline the point.  And on the more subtle ‘Bethlehem’s Gate’, embellished by Jim Prime’s Hammond organ and chocolate box piano, Vipond’s drum fills create neat shifts in punctuation.
Ross’s songs are always seeking to connect, whether in relationship tales like ‘Chocolate Girl’, the contemplation of the human and the infinite of ‘Bethlehem’s Gate’, or the connection between the personal and the political - as on ‘Loaded’.  “I have found an answer,” he sings.  “I don’t think you don’t care.  You just laugh ‘cause you’re loaded.  And things look different from there.”  On the day that Allegra Stratton tearfully resigned after being caught laughing about a 10
"Ah, there you are!"
Downing Street party that should never have happened at a time of Covid lockdown, the pertinence is obvious.  But Ross doesn’t leave any room for doubt in a spoken interlude.  “We’ve been singing this song for 30 years,” he says reflecting on the song’s roots in the days of Thatcherism, “and it was always about power and wealth.  But now it’s about power and wealth, and lies.”
The more that things change, the more they stay the same.
“Still,” Ross reflects with a smile, “tonight can be about cheering ourselves up!”
And if they weren’t doing that before, they set about it with a will now.  The optimism of ‘The Believers’ packs a punch, as a warm-up for the everyday rough and tumble of ‘Wages Day’, and the lesser known ‘That’s What We Can Do’ is the cue for footage of their younger selves on the projection screens.  “God, they look so young!” is the natural thought.  But so were we all back then.
So when ‘Real Gone Kid’ is unfurled, the joint starts jumping, though perhaps a bit arthritically these days.  ‘Circus Lights’ is an electro-bleeping, bass twanging, groove drumming swirl, leading to the defiant set closer of ‘Your Town’.
During the encores they stitch a take on the Chi-Lites’ ‘Have You Seen Her’ into their own love-letter ‘When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring)’, which makes me wonder why Ricky Ross presents a country music show on radio, given the delight the guy clearly gets from old soul music and Brill Building songsmithery.  And then the inevitable ‘Dignity’ and the rousing ‘Fergus Sings The Blues’ bring band and audience together in expressions of hope for the future, in life and music.  They deliver a sensitive acoustic reading of Dylan’s ‘Forever Young’ as a parting shot, but it’s those two songs of their own that bring the real moment of communion, rekindling that world of possibility they first sparked years ago.
Even after 21 months, in a world of vaccines, masks and QR codes, live music can still make magic happen.
The more that things change, the more they stay the same.

Tuesday, December 7, 2021

E D Brayshaw - Random Repeat

It’d be fair to say that E D Brayshaw, a gentleman of a certain age with a thinning hairline to match my own, doesn’t immediately bring Ziggy Stardust to mind.  But like Ziggy, boy can he play guitar!
That's not all there is to his second solo album, Random Repeat, but it’s a pretty good place to start.  Regular readers will know that I can get most disgruntled at guitarists who ramble on for ages as if songs are just excuses for them to solo.  But here we have Mr Brayshaw, who undoubtedly likes to spread himself a bit when it comes to the ol’ guitar pickin’, taking 56 minutes to deliver ten songs – and I like it.  I like it a lot, in fact.
E D Brayshaw - not quite Ziggy Stardust
Pic by Sally Newhouse
On the opening ‘Storm Warning’ his barbed-wire delivery of the twisting and turning opening guitar riff provides the perfect setting for the dramatic pen picture of the titular storm.  It’s one of at least three tracks that have seen the light of day before, in this case in cahoots with his mucker Wily Bo Walker on their album The Roads We Ride – he’s evidently been infected by Walker’s penchant for frequent reworking of material – but that doesn’t detract from its power.  His voice is more billy-goat-gruff than Walker’s velvet growl, but that doesn’t matter either, because he sings with real intent.  And then there are the solos, intense affairs that fizz and crackle like forks of lightning, taking the main guitar theme and shaking it in all directions.
Penultimate track ‘After The Storm’ offers a more subdued, Celtic-tinged arrangement that suggests the skies clearing and the rain washing away, but only as the backdrop to some Dire Straits-like storytelling about a man’s life left in ruins by the tempest, his anguish captured in Brayshaw’s plaintive soloing.
The less intense ‘Just Another Night’ humorously recounts nights onstage in different settings, during which he feels the presence of Stevie Ray Vaughan, Duane Allman and Roy Buchanan at this side, and if his payoff line of “I’ll do everything that I can” is a tad weak, that can’t be said of the steady, laid back backing, or his well-paced, sizzling guitar breaks.
But different styles are explored too.  The easy-going, semi-acoustic ‘Take It Away’ is in shuffling JJ Cale territory.  And there’s a Knopfler-like feel to the lilting ‘Tennessee Blues’, with its tripping rhythm and simple, bobbing bass, to which Brayshaw adds some jauntier guitar work, tinkling piano, and what sounds like banjo and lap slide into the bargain.  Or possibly something else, since the guy is a multi-instrumentalist who also takes care of bass, drums, mandolin and dobro duties, with only a little help from Lee Feltham on the drum stool for a few tracks.
Adding to the variety, things get swinging and jazzy on ‘Probably Correct’ and the closing, more restrained ‘Petite Fleur”, the former with a conversational, tongue-in-cheek lyric, and the latter a cover of an instrumental by the long gone jazz clarinettist Sidney Bechet, that comes over like a more fluid forebear of ‘Parisienne Walkways’.
‘Fade Away’ is a highlight in a very different vein.  It kicks off with a rapidly throbbing, undulating bass line over a snappy beat, sounding like a speeded-up sample from Michael Jackson’s ‘Billie Jean’, but as the basis for a tune with a bit of a snarl.  Brayshaw’s voice is straining and angsty over the fuzzy guitar riffing, and he knocks off a tearaway solo as the bass goes into rollercoaster mode.  It’s the one here track that harks back, pleasingly, to some of the rough’n’ready R’n’B sounds on his previous album Fire Without Water.
There's nothing random about this album.  E D Brayshaw doesn’t attempt anything fancy.  He may be a black belt of guitar tone, but I don’t hear a phalanx of effects pedals at work here.  His voice is nothing special, to be sure, but it’s got character and a certain charm, and he writes a good song.  Random Repeat is the sound of a man happy in his work, and if you like razor-sharp, imaginative guitar-playing then you should be happy with it too.
Random Repeat is out now on Mescal Canyon Records, and can be ordered here.

Friday, December 3, 2021

Mark Pontin Group - Kaleidoscope

Eek – a concept album!  Prog-phobic readers needn’t panic however – there are no wizards, castles or magic swords to be found on Kaleidoscope.  Instead it recounts the emotional rollercoaster experienced by a fella after he wakes up one morning to find that his baby has, indeed, done left him.  But while musical history suggests that’s a topic destined for a 12-bar blues setting, Mark Pontin has other, rather more grand ideas.
After the brief instrumental intro of ‘Sunrise’, on which shimmering guitar chords give way to the sound of pouring rain, Pontin sets out his stall on ‘Everything (Today)’, with sweeping strings and flurries of horns laying the foundations for a romantic torch song fit to send Dusty Springfield into
Mark Pontin puts his best foot forward
full hand-twiddling mode.  And fair play to Pontin, his own clear and airy voice does justice to the intended vibe, while his razor-edged guitar playing adds a decidedly non-Dusty dimension to proceedings.
Songs like ‘Don’t Sleep’ and ‘Roll With Me Easy’ convey a wistful tone to good effect, the first featuring more shimmering, twinkling guitar backing and gliding harmonies to produce a mellow and sophisticated piece of pop, topped up with a quiveringly processed guitar solo.  The latter outstays its welcome a little, as our hero ponders happy memories of his girl, but it still has a winning intro combining more weeping strings and some ‘Slaughter On 10th Avenue guitar work à la Mick Ronson.
Pontin and co exercise their funk chops here and there too, as on the ironic ‘This Will Never Be A Hit’, which departs from the conceptual narrative, its lazy, slinky beat elevated by bright horns and some squelching, synth-like guitar.  ‘Freeway Fantasy’ is a low-key strut, embellished by some jazz-funky guitar, and Fender Rhodes soloing from Owain Hughes.     Best in this vein though, is ‘Hell’s Kitchen’, on which the lip-smackin’, thirst-quenchin’, breath-gaspin’ vocal of the verses gives way to a very retro, catchy chorus and guitar refrain, like the Fab Four’s ‘Taxman’ given a shot of funkification.
Okay, there are a few more prosaic tunes, though usually they’re perked up by some aspect of the arrangement - my knee-jerk response to the REO Speedwagon AOR of ‘Forever’ is to say “no thanks”, for example, but Pontin’s sharp and to the point solo still appeals.  There’s no arguing though, with three tracks that hit diverse targets with panache.  ‘Starmaker’ has a slowed down, grinding, vaguely blues-rock character, with a gravelly, fuzzy guitar figure shifting into brighter, ringing chords, topped off by Pontin’s light and soulful voice.  But it really hits pay dirt when a couple of twiddly guitar licks turn out to preface a sustained, distorted, Hendrixy wah-wah attack, with James Garvey cranking up his drumming in support.  ‘Everything (Tomorrow)’ returns to Burt Bacharach/Jimmy Webb territory with more lush strings, but less romantically as the lyric – rather too opaquely – has our hero battling with addiction, while Pontin adds more FX-laden guitar solo-ing over some cool bass lines from Tim Hamill.  And the closing ‘Phoenix’ opens with more bendy, reverb-inflected guitar chords and sweeps of strings to fashion a sense of calm summation and clarity, before lifting off into a sense of renewal with the strings soaring and darting in pseudo-Arabic style, echoed by Pontin’s guitar, while Garvey underlines the epic feel with tub-thumping drums.
Mark Pontin’s reach may exceed his grasp at times, with some of his lyrics not up to the standard of his impressive string and horn arrangements for example.  But I still applaud the ambition, and the Mark Pontin Group make a good fist of delivering on it, with convincing musicianship all round.  All things considered, Kaleidoscope is a breath of fresh air.
Kaleidoscope is out now on Lunaria Records, and can be ordered here.