Sunday, February 27, 2022

Mike Zito - The Cluny, Newcastle, 24 February 2022

It must be eight years or more since I first saw Mike Zito play live.  A tanker load of water has passed under the bridge since then, of course.  That show was with his then band The Wheel, featuring his pal Jimmy Carpenter on sax, but that line-up floated off to the great gig in the sky a few years ago.  Tonight he’s here in Newcastle with a three-piece, and if the focus of the show is slightly different, the quality is the same.
Mike Zito looks for some fresh guitar angles
They hit the ground running with the boogie of ‘One More Train’, and follow that up with JJ Cale’s ‘I’ll Make Love To You’, which he covered on last year’s Resurrection album.  The latter though, has a whole lot more horsepower than Cale would ever give it.  It’s a throbbing, ringing rendition on which Zito proceeds to delve deep into his guitaring box of tricks, while the rhythm section of Doug Byrkit on bass and Matt Johnson on drums manage to both swing and dig in hard at the same time.  By the time they’re done with that, I’m thinking that if this tour had a strapline, it might well be the “Screw Covid Blues-Rock Party” tour.
The set draws in large measure on his just-released live album Blues For The Southside, and on that basis he soon turns to the slow blues of Stevie Ray Vaughan’s ‘Texas Flood’, giving it a big lead guitar intro, and then mid-song making the whole guitar hero malarkey look easy with a solo that never resorts to speed freakery.  A little later there’s an epic quality to their take on Blind Faith’s ‘In The Presence Of The Lord’, with an accelerating mid-section on which Zito puts his wah-wah pedal to work.
Mid-set Will Wilde enters the proceedings as a guest, wearing black leather trousers and a bandolero loaded with harmonicas rather than bullets, and looking disgustingly young and energetic. He takes over on vocals as they rip into some raw, harp-blasting, mic stand-thrusting Chicago-style blues.  Then he sticks around to embark on a guitar-harp duel with Zito on ‘Love Her With A Feeling’, giving it even more of a tough ‘Riot In Cell Block Number 9’ dimension that on its Blues For The Southside outing.
They relax a bit on the stomp of ‘Wasted Time’, with Byrkit and Johnson delivering plenty of
Mike Zito and Wille Wilde give it some welly!
swing, and then cool off even further with Johnny Winters’ reflective slow blues ‘Life Is Hard’.  But then they climb another peak when Zito reaches all the way back to his 2011 album Greyhound for ‘Judgement Day’.  Opening with a moody, Morricone-like guitar intro, it evolves into a dark monster of a tune, with hard riffing passages and then Zito getting into some tuning peg-twiddling axe hero pyrotechnics.  Guitar wrangling ain’t the main reason for my appreciation of Mike Zito, but at times like this I’m inclined to think you could stick him in one of those MMA octagons with Bonamassa, Gales and whoever else, and he could go toe-to-toe with the best of ‘em.  It all turns into something of a guitar extravaganza, which he underlines by flinging in some riffs from ‘Whole Lotta Love’ and ‘Kashmir’ for laughs, as a prelude to a howling solo and a tom-tom walloping finale.
After that it’s a pleasure to unwind with the loose and loping ‘Gone To Texas’, into which they turn on a dime to insert a chunk of the Allmans’ ‘Jessica’.  Dunno what that’s got to do with Texas, really, since the Allmans grew up in Florida, but who cares about such details?
Zito teasingly lifts the strap of his beat-up Strat as if to depart, but it’s just a fake walk-off before they burst into a turbo-charged reading of ‘Fortunate Son’ to end the night.  Which is just the kind of sound I really like to hear from Mike Zito, so I’m a happy bunny.
It’s a very long way from the Gulf Coast of Texas to Newcastle, and Zito and co were zig-zagging Britain through some pretty crappy weather over the previous two weeks.  But for all that, this was a gig that showed the rock’n’roll force remains strong in these guys.

Friday, February 25, 2022

Beth Hart - A Tribute To Led Zeppelin

What’s the point of this album?
The story goes that one day during the recording of Beth Hart’s last album, 2019's outstanding War In My Mind, when Hart gave a spur of the moment rendition of ‘Whole Lotta Love’.  Her producer, Rob Cavallo, was so impressed he suggested she do a complete Zeppelin album.  Hart said no, on the grounds that she’d need to be at her most enraged to deliver the necessary vocals. Whether being incandescent is a must to sing all of these songs is a moot point (‘Rain Song’, anyone?), but after living through Covid for a while, Hart decided she was pissed off enough to go for it.
Which is all very interesting, but it doesn’t really answer my question.
Beth Hart gets ready to bring it on home
Pic by Roxanne de Roode
Tribute albums come in different shapes and sizes.  Sometimes an artist will revisit the work of an earlier act, encouraging their own fans to follow them in a voyage of discovery.  Well let’s face it, that doesn’t apply here, ‘cause Zeppelin don’t need anyone’s help to be discovered.  Sometimes a gaggle of artists will come together to compile their distinct takes on tracks by the original – as actually happened a few years back on a tribute to Physical Graffiti put together by Mojo magazine, and quite good it was too.  Obviously that’s not happening here though, as it’s just Beth Hart and a core band, with no sprinklings of guests.  Or an artist could take the opportunity to reinterpret the work of their inspiration – if Beth Hart were to re-do Zep with a piano-led, stripped-back approach for example.  But that ain’t this album.  This is a collection of Zeppelin songs that remain the same, pretty much, without many detours or deviations.
Don’t get me wrong.  I’m not saying that A Tribute To Led Zeppelin is a “bad” album.  Beth Hart is too good a singer, and her supporting cast are too switched on, for that to happen.  In fact Hart often succeeds in channelling Robert Plant’s tones to an uncanny degree.  Witness the way she replicates Plant’s slipping and sliding phrasing on the brightly funky ‘The Crunge’, for example – though wisely she goes for a less anglicised conclusion about the “confounded bridge”.  And if Hart doesn’t depart much from the original template, the same is often true of the guitar work by producer Cavallo and Tim Pierce, very much following Jimmy Page’s lead in the post-bridge solo of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, and also in the solos on ‘Black Dog’ and ‘Good Times Bad Times’ to pick just three examples.  Oh yeah, and drummers Dorian Crozier and Matt Laug pay thorough homage to those signature Bonzo drum patterns, not least when ‘Stairway To Heaven’ takes flight.  That’s a critical step, I reckon, in terms of whether you opt to follow in the path of the originals, or go in search of a different road.
But if the overall vibe is essentially “Zeppelin Redux”, there is one significant point of difference, namely the excellent orchestral arrangements by David Campbell.  These are utilised across the piece, adding fresh textures and hues to good effect.  A notable example is the use of strings on the spooky segment of ‘Whole Lotta Love’, which becomes less electronic and more organic.  But strings aren’t the end of it.  Horns swell to herald the guitar solo on ‘Stairway’, and they pop up discreetly on ‘Rain Song’ too, blending with strings and piano in a beautiful arrangement that lives up to the classic original without gilding the lily.
There are a couple of so-called medleys in the form of ‘Dancing Days’ paired with ‘When The Levee Breaks’, and ‘No Quarter’ being partnered by ‘Babe I’m Gonna Leave You’, though neither instance surfaces any illuminating connection.  In the first case, in particular, ‘Dancing Days’ doesn’t so much segue into ‘. . . Levee’ as abruptly collide with it.  But ‘No Quarter’ piques the interest with John Paul Jones’ synthesizer piano part transposed to guitar, and Hart offering a less murky, creepy vocal than Plant's original.
Full marks to producer Rob Cavallo and engineer Doug McKean for the excellent sound throughout, typified by the clarity of ‘Kashmir’, filled out by the orchestra with some additional embellishments and depth, and with a top drawer vocal from Hart that underlines her capacity to handle this stuff.
I’m still left with that question though – what purpose does A Tribute To Led Zeppelin serve?  I dare say there’s a Venn diagram where ardent Beth Hart admirers and Zeppelin fanatics intersect, and they may salivate over it.  But while I enjoyed it well enough, it doesn’t offer enough fresh insights to make it a must-listen for the future.  That though, is perhaps nobody’s problem but mine.
A Tribute To Led Zeppelin is released by Provogue Records/Mascot Label Group on 25 February, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, February 23, 2022

Dan Patlansky - Shelter Of Bones

Dan Patlansky plays some pretty damned head-turning guitar.  I mean, that Eric Gales fella may introduce himself and then say “Any questions?”, but a legitimate answer to that would be: “Yes dude – have you heard this guy Dan Patlansky?”
This is pretty blues-rockingly obvious from tracks like ‘Soul Parasite’ and ‘Selfish Lover’, both of which feature scalding guitar solos.  ‘Soul Parasite’ also comes decked out in lead-heavy riffing supplemented by explosive drums from Andy Maritz, while on ‘Selfish Lover’ there’s even more
of a trademark Patlansky riff – thumpingly hard-edged, with a lop-sided funk element.  And if that’s not enough there’s the stabbing, trampling underfoot riff on ‘Presence’, underlined by his exclamation of “Wheurgh!” along the way, though here both the chorus and the guitar solo are more fluid.
Smile for the camera Dan, c'mon!
Pic by Tobias Johan Coetsee
So yeah, Dan Patlansky can do blues-rock guitar-wrangling.  No problemo.  But there’s more to him than that.  Vocally he can range from Jimi-like rhythmic vocals to more delicate and thoughtful singing, often double-tracked and very nicely done.  And lyrically he’s a world away from wine, women and song.  He’s big on social commentary for example, as on ‘Soul Parasite’ and the rock-funky ‘Devil’s Dopamine’, the latter a critique of social media and its controversialists.  He gets even more philosophical on ‘Presence’, contemplating the importance of living in the present.
But he’s at his most interesting, methinks, when he invokes the personal.  ‘Lost’ is a wistful slow tune about fear of losing a loved one, the mood underscored by washes of organ from Dean Barrett and his own flickering guitar.  The sensitivity is even more powerful on ‘I’ll Keep Trying’, a plangent reflection on personal failings that opens in muted fashion, with delicate falsetto vocals, before gradually finding its feet.  It also features an ethereal solo that floats and flutters in sublime fashion before rising into more anthemic mode.
‘Shelter Of Bones’ combines the personal and the philosophical with similar conviction, starting with minimalist percussion and piano notes, and gentle, haunting vocals as Patlansky considers the perilous future awaiting his children.  A vaguely prog-inclined ballad, it develops simple, hesitant guitar licks into a patient solo, which could be even better if for once he were to resist his penchant for twirling phrases, and maintain more Gilmour-like suspense.  But with this, and the meditation on lockdown positives of ‘Sweet Memoirs’, it seems to me Patlansky makes common cause with Wille & The Bandits in producing rock music of substance for the 21st century, even if their sounds diverge in some respects.
If all that sounds a bit deep, there’s a more laid-back musical touch on both ‘Snake Oil City’ and ‘Hounds Loose’, the former a swinging, bluesy track on which our Dan lays out some jazzy guitar chops, and the latter a lighter and brighter burst of rock – ironic, given it’s about dealing with the devil – with a spangly bridge and a stiletto-sharp solo.
Reviewing 2018’s Perfection Kills, I suggested Dan Patlansky still had untapped potential.  I think that’s still true.  Shelter Of Bones is another damn good album from him, but one or two songs feel a bit slight, there’s the occasional sense of him repeating himself from earlier work, and I’m convinced there are still new horizons he could explore.  Oh yeah, and it would be nice if he cheered up a bit, on the lyric front.  Just turn and face the sun now and then Dan, y’know?
All the same, it’s good to have Dan Patlansky back, four years down the line from his last album.  The guy is a thoroughly modern guitar hero, and one with things to say.
Shelter Of Bones is released on 25 February by Virgin Music Label and Artist Services, and can be ordered here.
Dan Patlansky is touring Britain from 31 March to 13 April, details and tickets available here.

Monday, February 21, 2022

Liz Jones & Broken Windows - Assembly Roxy, Edinburgh, 19 February 2022

The Assembly Roxy, a converted church that’s the venue for this one hour show as part of the Scottish Blues Weekend, is very pretty.  Gotta say though, set up as it is just now with rows of socially distanced chairs, it feels a bit sedate.  Needs must in these still tricky times, of course, but I look forward to a more relaxed musical environment becoming more feasible moving forward.
The sound is good though, which means that Liz Jones & Broken Windows are able to put over this genre-hopping set, drawing primarily on last year’s Bricks & Martyrs album, with both warmth and clarity.
They get the ball rolling with the gutsy ‘Call Centre Blues’, all fuzzy chords and steady beat, the
Liz Jones & Broken Windows - get hip to the genre-hopping!
Pic by Stuart Stott
“blues” referring not to the musical form so much as the experiences that inform the lyric.  Then they dial it down into a jazzier mode with ‘Jo’, which rests on a bass line from Rod Kennard that evokes Peggy Lee’s ‘Fever’.  Jones delivers an expressive vocal over the mellow groove, with Jamie Hamilton’s sweet keyboards offset by a salty slide guitar solo from John Bruce.
‘Wendy’ and ‘Angel’ both bring more muscle to the table.  ‘Wendy’ is an intriguing tale of an acquaintance who suddenly dropped out of view, relayed in bright fashion with funky guitar frills, with a biting solo to close.  ‘Angel’ is simply a great uptempo love song, a slice of happy-go-lucky pop that brings to mind Katrina & The Waves.
‘Lover’ then cools things off, opening with no more than mandolin strumming from Suzy Cargill and sparse guitar counterpoint from Bruce on guitar, while Jones delivers an elegiac vocal.  The rest of the band then come in, including Jones’ own acoustic guitar, to swell the sound and elevate the tune with some gorgeous harmonies.  It’s a highlight that the quirky slow shuffle of ‘Karma’ can’t quite match, notwithstanding its dark humour and the eerie flutters emanating from Bruce’s whammy bar.
They get all Latino on ‘Stain’, with Cargill variously using bongos and a triangle to speed up the swinging rhythm laid down by drummer Gary Davidson, while Jones bends her voice into husky mode.  Hamilton gets to work on a jazzy piano solo, and Bruce this time offers up some brittle Hispanic-sounding guitar to fit the vibe.
Turning to their eponymous debut album, they’re able to explore yet another avenue with the trippingly romantic ‘No Classic Love Song’, which probably has gypsy jazz somewhere in its genes, Hamilton coaxing accordion sounds out of his keys while in my head I can still hear the clarinet that floated through the album version.  ‘Strum’ starts off languid, Jones singing the insistent chorus in breathy fashion before it changes gear and becomes a rather more urgent affair.
Jones introduces a new song with the working title ‘Jesus’, exploring another musical facet as Bruce matches some warped, Sixties-sounding guitar lines to Jones’ tale of “Jesus down in Mexico getting high’, en route to a swirling, psychedelic ending.  Then they close with a cover of a Sippie Wallace tune, ‘Women Be Wise’ – a witty, rinky-dink little blues to finish with a smile.
All the material may fall under the umbrella of what I call roots rock, but they certainly manage to cover multiple different bases along the way.  I’m not sure where Liz Jones, as the principal songwriter, draws her influences from, though I imagine she’s acquainted with some artists with whom I’m far less familiar.  Regardless, she and Broken Windows get extra credit for bringing her songs to life with such a broad palette of arrangements.  Next time I see them I hope they have the time to roll out some more of the winners from their two albums – and, in a less stately setting perhaps, their carefree cover of the Faces’ ‘Ooh La La’ too!

Sunday, February 20, 2022

Elles Bailey - Shining In The Half-Light

Let’s not mess about.  Shining In The Half-Light is the best album yet from Elles Bailey.
It was obvious from her first two albums, Wildfire and Road I Call Home, that the girl could go far.  This time around the block though, she’s taken a big felt-tip pen and ticked a whole heap of boxes with a flourish.
The songs here are strong, and more consistent than on past outings.  The production by Dan Weller is uncluttered but warm and bright, bringing out the best in some excellent arrangements.  For my money she’s also benefited from recording the album here, with her own band alongside her, rather than going to Nashville as planned – this sounds like the work of an ensemble who
Elles Bailey is tickled pink by the Blues Enthused review
Pic by Rob Blackham
are quite naturally more than the sum of their parts.  And while the quality of Bailey’s voice is a given, Shining In The Half-Light is given an extra lift by some stellar backing vocals, arranged by Izo Fitzroy and delivered by her, Jade Elliot and Andrusilla Mosley.
Songs like ‘The Game’, with its crunchy guitar chords, and surging organ from Jonny Henderson, are pleasingly muscular.  It sounds like they’re having fun when they strip back one of the choruses to just voices and handclaps, and the only problem with the slide break by Joe Wilkins – the long-time guitar yin to Bailey’s vocal yang - is that it’s too short.  Never mind, his slide is back right away on the patient but punchy ‘Stones’, providing a moaning intro and then extra grit with a brief solo – and in general becoming one of the signature sounds across the album.
Bailey is at her best on ‘Colours Start To Run’, with a low key arrangement highlighting her voice on a delicious, swoonsome melody.  And her phrasing is then terrific on the romantic ‘A Different Kind Of Love’, which opens with a sensitive Wilkins guitar line that carries echoes of Gladys Knight’s ‘Help Me Make It Through The Night’, and has an extra layer of soul courtesy of the superb, gospel-inflected contributions of Fitzroy and co.  It’s all about Bailey’s delivery on the slow and haunted ‘Halfway House’ too, the only song here with distinct Americana leanings, and she shows excellent control and clarity as she’s backed by just acoustic guitar for much of the track.
Contrastingly, ‘Sunshine City’ is an upbeat, booty-shaking highlight, with a fuzzy, rocking riff and Bailey singing about “Tom Petty hits on the radio”, while Wilkins spices things up further with injections of slide and eventually a shivering solo.  And ‘Riding Out The Storm’ is even better, a hazy, bluesy affair on which Bailey brings to life the lyric about “what a beautiful mess we have made of the story”, underscored by some sweet slide guitar commentary, flutters of organ, and more of those gospel-tinged backing vocals.
The album closes with the title track, a spooky tune held together by relaxed rubber band bass lines from Matthew Waer over lightly skipping drums from Matthew Jones, with twinkling piano and guitar notes in the margins.  The lyric meditates on the challenge of overcoming the isolation of precarious times, and Bailey captures the mood well, culminating in the nagging melody she circles around as they build a tense bridge, before subsiding to a hopeful close.
There’s little to get picky about on Shining In The Half-Light.  The opening ‘Cheats And Liars’ is too Elles-Bailey-by-numbers for me, and in the future she could perhaps curb her enthusiasm for “woo-ooh” vocal phrases – but hey, I’m praising with the faintest of damns here.
“Elles Bailey brings the sounds of Nashville to our side of the pond with her blues-ridden third album,” it says in the PR bumf, as these things do.  But it’s wrong.  The great thing about Shining In The Half-Light is that it doesn’t sound like Nashville.  It sounds like Elles Bailey dancing, as she puts it on ‘The Game’, to the beat of her own blues.

Shining In The Half-Light is released on 25 February, and can be ordered here.

Thursday, February 17, 2022

Mike Zito - Blues For The Southside

Full disclosure.  First, I think Mike Zito is great.  One of those artists you like right away and you root for them from then on.  But casting an eye over the track listing for Blues For The Southside, his first live album since 2014’s Songs For The Road, my initial reaction isn’t unbridled glee.  I’m seeing three tracks from 2016’s so-so Make Blues Not War, four from the subsequent First Class Life, a couple from the excellent Gone To Texas, three everybody-plays-‘em covers (‘Voodoo Chile’?  Really?), and three titles that don’t mean anything to me.  Nothing from Keep Coming Back, or from Quarantine Blues or Resurrection, his two most recent releases before this set was recorded last autumn.  Three albums full of great stuff, and they don’t get a freakin’ look in!  Aw c’mon Mike, what’re you doin’ to me man?
Well, let’s play this thing and see how it goes.
Mike Zito ponders the never-ending road
Pic by Danya Artimisi
Okay, I get it.  What this is, is Mike Zito delivering a really big guitar album.  And that’s cool, because as much as my appreciation of him is also down to his song-writing and characterful vocals, Zito is a guitar player who’s way better than the average bear, Boo Boo.
Let’s talk about ‘Voodoo Chile’ for a minute, because praise be, this ain’t the re-tread of '. . .(Slight Return)' that I anticipated and many a guitar freak would perpetrate.  Nope, this is a monster of a slow blues rendition of the lesser-spotted non-Slight Return version, a six-foot deep groove worthy of Buddy Guy’s Sweet Tea.  Oh yeah, and Eric Gales steps up to guest on it.  It’s Gales, I’m guessing, whose ducking and diving solo collides with a mountainous descending riff, before scrabbling around it as if searching wildly for a foothold.  Then their two guitars bend and warp that riff out of shape before easing off, in readiness for a tense and wiry Zito excursion that leads to the two guitars wrestling with each other all the way to the finish.  It all makes for an absorbing, enthralling, 12-minute outing.
There’s guitar showmanship of a different kind from Zito on 'Blues For The Southside' itself, a new instrumental on which Zito delivers a delightful showcase of lyrical, thematic guitar early on, then later gets into more expansive mode, folding in hints of something Celtic en route to a speedy, spiralling passage with superb clarity of tone.  Then eventually he downshifts into a final segment that sparkles like reflections from a mirrorball.  It’s so good that one might say it makes the following cover of ‘Texas Flood’ redundant, except that the latter features a suspenseful solo, like a guy doing a high wire act in which he shifts forward from one moment of teetering drama to the next.  These may be lengthy tracks, but they’re not noodle zones, they’re purposeful.
There’s more energetic fare on the opening ‘Mississippi Nights’, with Zito’s guitar bouncing off the piano playing of Lewis Stephens, and the pair then criss-crossing like a pair of jitterbugging dancers.  And when Zito gets to soloing, his playing here – slide guitar included – is fiery, vibrant stuff, as it is on the following 'First Class Life'.  Later, ‘Highway Mama’ redoubles that energy, with Zito and his guesting buddy Tony Campanella powering along on a hard-as-nails descending riff.  The two guitars trade off each other, giving it large with bursts of wah-wah, until all concerned whack the thing into submission at the end.
There are two Willie Dixon-style stop-time riffers, in the form of Zito’s own ‘Make Blues Not War’, which is a bit prosaic in spite of the laudable lyric, and a tough reading of Tampa Red’s ‘Love Her With A Feeling’ – one of those titles I didn’t recognise.  It’s sassier and more emphatic than versions by Tampa Red himself, Freddie King, and more recently Bernie Marsden, but then eases into syncopated drums and bass from Matt Johnson and Doug Byrkit over which Zito lays out a mazy solo.
And then there are the different kinds of Zito song that are part of his particular charm.  ‘Hell On Me’ is loose-limbed, intriguing storytelling over an easy groove, that then picks up energy with a rollicking organ solo from Lewis Stephens, while Johnson’s drums snap at his heels and Zito knocks out spiky chords.  The following ‘Back Problems’ offers some quintessential Zito funkiness, funny lyrics about everyone being on his back, and a conversational solo that does a fair impression of a sniping, nagging partner.  Later, on ‘Dying Day’, he and his band turn into swingin’ cats as this time he spells out his commitment to his woman.  Zito serves up some stinging licks as an appetiser, and Stephens steps in with a playful organ solo.  Then they take a breath that sets up some relaxed, witty guitar from Zito over jazzy strokes of piano, strolling bass and behind-the-beat drums.  It’s great fun, as is the bouncing ‘The Road Never Ends’, on which Dave Katz guests to allow two guitars to get going in tandem, before counterpointing each other to the finish line.
There’s some other stuff too, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.  This is a double live album – an hour and three-quarters worth – that simply has lots and lots to enjoy.  If you liked, say, Gary Moore’s Live From London, then there are more than enough guitar fireworks exploding here to keep you happy.  But for me this live set is even better than that.  A couple of tracks may be inconsequential, but over the piece Blues For The Southside is blessed with the variety, and the light and shade, to grab your attention and keep it.  Like I said, Mike Zito is great.
Blues For The Southside is released by Gulf Coast Records on 18 February.
Mike Zito is touring Britain until 26 February - details available here.

Sunday, February 13, 2022

King King - O2 Academy, Glasgow, 12 February 2022

“It’s been a long time coming,” sang Sam Cooke, “but I know there’s a change gonna come.”  Okay, so Sam had some weightier matters on his mind, like civil rights.  But still, it’s an apt sentiment as music fans emerge blinking from the depths of our long Covid winter to enjoy the thrills of live music again.  Hell, it’s been so long since I last had an overnight trip for a gig that I forgot my toothbrush.
What’s more, this is the first time I’ve seen King King since the arrival of Zander Greenshields
Have you got something in your eye Alan, or are you just pleased to see us?
and Andrew Scott on bass and drums, and of Alan Nimmo’s big bro Stevie on guitar and vocals – and also since the release of their latest album Maverick.  So all things considered, it’s a pleasure to report that this was a great show from King King – and also one that held out the promise of more to come.
They open up in bright fashion with ‘(She Don’t) Give Me No Lovin’’, and boy do they make a big, fat sound nowadays – and that’s not just about the extra guitar, it’s about the vocals too.  It was inevitable that Stevie Nimmo’s voice would make a difference, as he adds power but also top-notch high harmonies.  But now there are four of ‘em pitching in vocally, with both Greenshields and Jonny Dyke also making solid contributions on the harmony front.
The following ‘Fire In My Soul’ and ‘One World’ signal a welcome shake-up in their set since our last encounter - the latter notably solo-free, but standing out for the vocal arrangement, with voices not just backing Alan Nimmo, but bouncing off and around him in bravura fashion.
There are some tweaks to the arrangement of long-time standard ‘Waking Up’, particularly in Stevie Nimmo’s wah-wah rhythm playing, and it’s a good thing he picks up the lead guitar reins on ‘Rush Hour’ too, as brother Alan’s amp chooses this moment to go snap, lots of crackle, and phut for the first time, he suggests, in 5 years.  No matter, the malfunction doesn’t affect the return of the King King Choir for the traditional 'Rush Hour' audience singalong.
Pleasingly, they reach back to the Standing In The Shadows album for the warm and soulful deep cut ‘Coming Home (Rest Your Eyes)’, with flourishes and waves of Hammond organ from Jonny Dyke, which in turn lines up the highlight of ‘Long History Of Love’.  Alan Nimmo’s voice is in such fine fettle here that it’s easy to forget the vocal problems he had a few years ago – and let’s hope they’re banished for good.  But it’s a classic track for more than just that, as Dyke weighs in with an impressive organ solo, only to be outdone by Nimmo on guitar, aided and
Stevie Nimmo whistles a happy tune to brother Alan
abetted by drummer Andrew Scott giving his kit a fearful pounding that’s so good Stevie Nimmo turns and gives him a fingertip-kissing salute at its conclusion.  Then ‘You’ll Stop The Rain’ maintains the intensity, gradually rising from its singalong’n’clapalong intro to the peak of Alan Nimmo’s searing second solo.
After that, it’s perhaps inevitable that ‘Everything Will Be Alright’ feels like a bit of a come down, but to my mind they have stronger songs at their disposal, both old and new.  No matter, they jack things up again with the excellent ‘Whatever It Takes To Survive’, which is full of dynamic twists and turns, and features the Nimmo boys facing off to deliver its harmonised guitar segment – though I’m thinking, “Come on guys, don’t be shy.  Get yourselves side by side stage front, and take this to the limit!”  This moment, in fact, points the way to future possibilities in the combination of the brothers’ guitars.  Sure, this is Alan Nimmo’s band, not the Nimmo Brothers, but the dynamic between them carries huge potential.
They close with ‘I Will Not Fall’, a slab of defiant funk that ends up rocking out big time, with a blazing Stevie Nimmo solo and some more on point drum thrashing from Andrew Scott.  And there’s still time for a triple encore, kicking off with the spellbinding piano and voice emotional pull of ‘When My Winter Comes’, on which the crowd, blissfully, keeps schtum.  Then they get big and gutsy with ‘Stranger To Love’, featuring Alan Nimmo’s sotto voce guitar solo passage, now no longer going down to near-silence but varied with some big, ripped out chords to go with Scott’s walloping accompaniment.
They knock out the breezy fun of ‘Let Love In’, and they’re done.  It’s a set that’s fresh, powerful,
and well balanced.  Most importantly though, it lives up to the moment by delivering that sense of communion and release that we’ve all missed through much of the last couple of years.  As my better half put it, it was joyous.
Support band The Damn Truth hail from Canada, which is a hell of a long way to come to pitch
up in Glasgow on a dismally rain-sodden evening, then get yourselves onstage to face a still relatively thin audience who aren't yet properly in the mood.  Fair play to ‘em though, they set about the task with a will, right from the drum-pummelling intro to ‘This Is Who We Are Now’.
Lee-la Baum of The Damn Truth gives it big licks
First impressions are positive, even if the headbanging, stage-crossing, shape-throwing antics of guitarist Tom Shemer and bassist PY Letellier can seem a bit Spinal Tap at times.  There are two reasons for this.  First up, they have some not bad material.  Secondly, lead singer Lee-la Baum has one helluva set of pipes – think Elles Bailey on steroids, maybe.  Her power and clarity are such that she scarcely needs the lashings of reverb occasionally draped around her voice, albeit sometimes for dramatic effect.  Also, the woman has bags of personality.
They’re a tight combo, impressive on ‘Lonely’, with its hummed, work-song bluesy passages and stop-time riff.  And from that point on, I gotta say, they’re on a roll.  They manage to both hit heavy and swing on ‘Only Love’, a jangle-riffed power pop affair that has hit written all over it – and I don’t say that lightly.  Then they provide both light and shade on the sorta power ballad ‘Look Innocent’, on which Shemer delivers his best solo of the night, before his byzantine intro heralds the closing ‘Tomorrow’, complete with another powerful hook.
The Damn Truth certainly did enough to win me over, and I wasn’t alone.  I was even moved to hit the merch desk and buy their new album Now Or Nowhere.  Hell, they’ve come all the way from Canada – they might need a few extra shekels to get home.

King King and The Damn Truth are on tour till 24 February, details available here.  And The Damn Truth have some additional headline shows, details available here.

Thursday, February 10, 2022

North Mississippi Allstars - Set Sail

There was this music documentary a year or two back.  The legendary drummer Bernard Purdie was on it, recalling a session for those studio-tanned perfectionists Steely Dan, after a gaggle of other skinsmen couldn’t satisfy them on a track.  “We don’t want a shuffle!”  Fagen and Becker insisted.  “Yeah sure,” Bernard thought to himself, “but you ain’t heard the Purdie Shuffle yet.”  Then he started playing his patented rhythm – but quietly, using just his fingertips on the snare drum.  “What the fuck is that?!” exclaimed the Royal Scammers - instantly ensnared, as it were.
North Mississippi Allstars audition for a remake of The Usual Suspects
A subtle approach, you see, has its own power.  And so it is with this latest outing from the North Mississippi Allstars, aka the brothers Luther and Cody Dickinson and whichever pals they’ve co-opted this time around.  When I first came across NMA, via their crackling 2000 album Shake Hands With Shorty, their modus operandi was shake, rattle’n’rollin’ North Mississippi Hill Country blues.  Nowadays though, the brothers are more like cognac poured over ice – warm but chilled, dudes.
So here we have drummer Cody Dickinson adopting a Purdie approach on both the opener ‘Set Sail Part I’ and the following ‘Bumpin’’, tip-tapping away at mischievous stop-start rhythms.  On ‘Set Sail Part I’ this accompanies spare, low slung guitar fills from brother Luther, who then harmonises with the guesting Lamar Williams Jr (son of the late Allmans bassist) on a cool, mantra-like vocal about how “The water may rise again”.  Dickinson adds occasional slide guitar frills, and then for good measure they introduce shivers of strings and moaning horns.  ‘Bumpin’’ is then similarly low key, with some laid back guitar’n’bass chit chat between Luther and bassist Jesse Williams, as they create a vibe to reflect the line “Life is but a dream”.
There’s less-is-more percussion on ‘Didn’t We Have A Time’ too, something of a throwback to the title track of their previous album Up And Rolling.  It starts off simply, with some shimmers of guitar and lap slide, then nifty little themes gradually take shape, swirling around on guitar and vocals, while electric piano adds further remarks.  It all gets quite psychedelic, like they’ve been at the mushroom tea again.  The rhythmic groove is a smidgen more emphatic on ‘Rabbit Foot’, but still low key on a reverie reflecting on a classic blues lyrical theme – death.  “Give me an unmarked grave, and a box of bones” they sing, and if that sounds pretty morbid, it’s stirred into life by spells of iridescent blues-jazz fusion.
There’s upbeat fun going on too though.  ‘See The Moon’ has a soul-funk groove grounded in a solid backbeat and throbbing bass, coming over like Prince with the kink ironed out and replaced by swampiness.  Luther D sprinkles guitar glitter over the top while glistening keys flutter in and out, and Lamar Williams and Sharisse Norman get together on some guy/girl call and response vocals.  ‘Never Want To Be Kissed’ is classic Memphis soul, graced by the classic, rich soul voice of William Bell, who weaves himself around a simple melody with a great hook.  It’s embellished by swooning strings, nods and nudges of horns, and Motown-like female backing vox, with filigrees of teasing guitar to the fore on the coda.  And ‘Juicy Juice’ has a bass-pumping funk groove over a slippin’and’trippin’ drum pattern, with some borderline hip-hopping backing vocals adding another rhythmic texture – all in all rather like a relaxed take on something from Beck’s Midnite Vultures album.  I’ll leave it to you to ponder exactly what beverage they’re enthusing about.
The closing ‘Authentic’ just about sums up the North Mississippi Allstars.  You could call it a manifesto, but that sounds too kinda radical, ya dig?  Call it a meditation maybe, on community, and on love, peace and respect.  In mellow, cheerful style, they proclaim harmoniously that “We don’t need to see the guns in the streets”, and “Music and love is what I believe”.  NMA are indeed for real, but always with the audio equivalent of a knowing wink, right the way to Luther Dickinson’s grinning, witty lap slide excursion to finish.
Set Sail won’t be everyone’s cup of cappuccino – too blissed out, not enough geetar horsepower.  So be it.  While the Dickinson brothers continue to be true to themselves, we can always bank on some musical originality and humanity coming down the line.  Dig it, people!
Set Sail is released by New West Records, available digitally now, and on CD/Vinyl from 1 April.

Monday, February 7, 2022

Quickies - Malone Sibun, Naked Gypsy Queens, and Ritchie Dave Porter & Debra Susan

On your marks and get set folks, for a quick sprint through a selection of two current EPs and a single.
Malone Sibun – Ashes To Dust EP

It’s two years since the duo of Marcus Malone and Innes Sibun released their first album Come Together, and now they’re back with a four-song EP knocking out more of their earthy brand of blues-rock.
‘Makin’ It’ opens up with a rat-a-tat drum intro, setting up a shuffling rhythm to go with a booty-shaking bass groove from the ubiquitous Roger Inniss, rocking organ, and bright and bopping
Malone and Sibun scan the horizon for that confounded bridge
rhythm guitar.  All of which is the platform not just for Malone’s trademark sassy’n’soulful vocal, but for some yowling, FX-heavy guitar breaks from (I assume) Sibun.
‘Ashes To Dust’ itself features a nagging, stuck-needle riff combined with more eye-popping guitar licks around the verse.  It’s the precursor to a slower, grander chorus draped in swathes of organ from Moz Gamble, while Malone goes for an epically framed romantic lyric, all “winds of change,” “the future is burning stars,” and, of course, “ashes to dust”.
Their take on Willie Dixon’s ‘Evil’ doesn’t carry Howlin’ Wolf’s air of lurking menace, but it’s still a rip-snorting affair built on clattering drums and a Zeppish stop-start stairway of a riff, while Malone agonises about relationship devilry.  Then they close the book with the yearning, plangent ‘Restless Heart’.  Here we have a rootsy, folk-soul-blues type tune featuring rolling and rippling Dobro, over long notes of chapel-like organ, with sensitive, sometimes harmonised vocals on the top.  It’s a second cousin to the acoustic sections of ‘Taste Of Your Love’, from their debut album, but worth repeated listening in its own right.
Ashes To Dust is a strong and focused appetiser from Malone Sibun.  Bring on the next main course.
Ashes To Dust is out now on Redline Records, and can be ordered here.
Naked Gypsy Queens – Georgiana EP
Naked Gypsy Queens may be from Tennessee, but don’t go expecting them to sound all country-ish so-called Southern rock, no siree.  Okay, the closing track of the five here, ‘If Your Name Is New York (Then Mine Is Amsterdam)’ may have some hints of the Black Crowes, but that’s it – and I’ll get back to that curiously titled outing, inspired by a line in the Scorsese movie Gangs Of New York, in due course.
What we have here is modern classic rock, if you like, derived from sweating over plenty of the old school variety.  Opener ‘Georgiana’ sets out their stall with the twin guitar combination of
Naked Gypsy Queens, thankfully fully dressed
Pic by Juan Ibanez
Cade Pickering and Chris Attigliato, and if the latter’s voice isn’t quite as throat-shredding as Steven Tyler, it’s heading that way.  It rolls in with grinding slide guitar and ringing rhythm chords, rolling over crashing drums from Landon Herring, before breaking out into a turbo-charged riffing bridge halfway through its two-and-a-half-minute sojourn.  The riff on the following ‘Down To The Devil’ comes over like an illegitimate descendant of ‘Stormbringer’, while Attigliato rattles out the lyrics in teeth-chattering fashion.  The old-fashioned phrase that springs to mind is “Let’s rawk!”
‘Strawberry Blonde #24’ kicks off with gritty guitar over a thudding beat, before they switch things up into a big, ringing refrain around the repeated line “She’s gonna kill you dead”.  (Like, there’s another outcome possible?)  Then they cool their jets to usher in a scratchy, serrated-edge guitar solo that eventually achieves lift-off and meanders back to that bang-your head riff.  ‘Wolves’ opens up slower, with doomy drums’n’bass from Herring and Bo Howard, before getting into a twitchy groove powered by resonant guitar chords.  Attigliato’s vocals are at their most rasping here, but with a delivery that also leans, Chili Pepperishly and ear-catchingly, towards Anthony Kiedis.  Oh yeah, and there’s some atmospheric, high-wire guitar soloing too.
And then there’s the aforementioned ‘If Your Name Is New York’ thing to close.  As previously stated, there are some echoes of the Robinson bruvvers in its melodic, evocative acoustic opening, but then that Kiedis-esque vocal phrasing kicks in again to produce something more distinctive.  And speaking of distinctive, those big, ringing guitar chords turn up again as something of a trademark, before a Page-like guitar break beats a path to the grandissimo motif of the outro.
Fans of Tyler Bryant and his gang will probably dig the Gypsy Queen sound, but I don't need that comparison to like 'em.  Georgiana is a mucho impressive calling card.
Georgiana is released by Mascot Label Group/Mascot Records on 11 February, and can be ordered here.

Ritchie Dave Porter & Debra Susan – 'Sugar And Spice'
‘Sugar And Spice’ is the latest in a string of singles from Birmingham blues guitar stalwart Ritchie Dave Porter and vocalist Debra Susan, and Porter certainly gets it darting off its starting blocks with some meaty and life-in-the-fast-lane-intricate riffing.  Susan’s rather girlish vocals aren’t really my thang, but the double-tracking and reverb on the chorus an introduces an interesting Sixties vibe.  Porter catches the ear again with some tasty guitar work, well complemented by his own assertive, rumbling bass.  But overall the mix feels a bit off, with the drums pushed too far back.  There are good things going on in there, but some work is needed to make them gel more definitively.
‘Sugar And Spice’ is out now on iTunes, Amazon and Spotify.

Thursday, February 3, 2022

Hollis Brown - In The Aftermath

Hands up who’s got a copy of the Stones’ 1966 album Aftermath?  I don’t.  I’m guessing it’ll be the domain of greybeards even older than me, and completist fans.  Oh, and by the way, I’m talking about the American release of the album, which left out three tracks included on the UK version.  Okay, you can put your hands down now.
Why do I mention this?  Well, because In The Aftermath, the new album from Noo Yoikers Hollis Brown, is a re-creation of the Stones’ (US) album, which the HB crew apparently knocked together in the course of a 24-hour session, aided and abetted by buckets of booze.  Spoiler alert: it’s good fun!
Hollis Brown, looking full of the joys of Spring
Pic by Nick Karp
At first blush it seems like a bit of an odd thing to do.  But when I looked at the track listing, I found I was only familiar with three or four songs.  So the Hollis Brown fellas probably aren’t going to be encumbered by comparisons across all 11 tracks.  O
n the other hand though, as I was listening to In The Aftermath, I found myself wondering what these songs – some of them entirely new to me - said about the evolution of the Stones back in 1966.  It’s weirdly like trying to review two bands at the same time.
First things first though.  Hollis Brown get it.  They know how to rock’n’roll, and more besides.  Their take on ‘Stupid Girl’ is satisfyingly edgy, combining the choppy riff with twangy fills, making hay with its nap hand of hooky moments, and nailing the Beatle-ish bridge with harmonies.  Meantime ‘Doncha Bother Me’ is an old-school R’n’B stomp, with a scudding, Elmore James-ish slide riff.  Maybe my favourites in this vein though, are ‘Flight 505’ and ‘It’s Not Easy’.  The former is a breezy, Chuck Berry-ish romp, with a whomping backbeat from drummer Andrew Zehnal and a pinging, pinballing solo – job done in three minutes flat.  ‘It’s Not Easy’ has a propulsive, snapping rhythm too, to go with a chugging riff and ringing chords on the side, while Mike Montell delivers a characterful, semi-snarling vocal as it periodically threatens to break into‘Route 66’ in delightfully ramshackle style.
They can do the more novel stuff to good effect too though.  Dunno how they pull off the sitar element of ‘Paint It Black’, but they do, and knock it out in snappy fashion, with some fair old snare drum bashing from Zehnal, and a quivering urgency to Montell’s singing – capturing the Jagger vibe without, wisely, trying to mimic him.  ‘Lady Jane’ sounds like a faux English folk tune, with a rather naff courtly lyric, but they give it a suitably wistful air, with a patient guitar line and romantic strokes of piano.  Then they convey the vibrancy of ‘Under My Thumb’ to a tee, translating its signature marimba theme to electric piano, adding handclaps to another whacking beat, and finding plenty of rhythm guitar textures.  And the skiffling hoedown of ‘High And Dry’ feel like a boisterous pub session, all acoustic guitar spanking, squalls of harp, and honky tonk piano.
But back to the rock’n’roll voodoo that they do so well.  ‘Think’ may kick off in Fab Four spangly guitar fashion, but its chorus is jagged and Montell gives off a Jagger-ish whine at times, before lead guitarist Jonathan Bonella rips out a firecracker guitar break over scooting bass from Chris Urriola, in a dress rehearsal for the the 7-minute long closer ‘Goin’ Home’.  The latter starts off languidly enough, in a simple, British Invasion style, until a wiry solo from Bonella encourages them to wind things up into a frenetic garage rock rave-up, before collapsing over the line, spent.
Aftermath, the first all-original Stones album, evidently caught them in a state of songwriting flux, still revelling in Chicago blues crossed with Chuck and Bo, but with one ear on the Beatles and maybe the Kinks too, and with Brian Jones chucking different ingredients into the musical soup even as he was going off the rails.  Hollis Brown do all of that justice, and bring their own peppery energy to the table too.  In The Aftermath may be a tribute album, but it feels energised by the originals, not slavish.  It had me cueing up the old codgers’ 1981 live excursion Still Life for some extra satisfaction too.  Can't say fairer than that.

In The Aftermath is released by Cool Green Recordings/Mascot Label Group on 4 February, and can be ordered here.