Saturday, July 30, 2022

Kirk Fletcher - Heartache By The Pound

The song remains the same, in that Kirk Fletcher continues to be one of the premier exponents of blues guitar out there.
It really doesn’t matter what kind of song it is, Fletcher’s guitar work is the most delicious icing, and indeed cherry, on the cake.  There’s the sparkling and relaxed ‘Shine A Light On Love’, with its slinky horns and the lift given by Jade MacRae in the middle, around which he wraps a jaunty, twisting and turning solo, and some dazzling extra licks besides.  There’s the smoky ballad ‘The
Kirk Fletcher - he knows what to do with that thing in his mitts
Pic by Mitch Conrad
Night’s Calling For You’, a tale of regret about relationship misdemeanours culminating in the moment when a lover “found about me and your very best friend”, the mood set by subtle piano and organ and then crystallised in Fletcher’s delicate, lyrical solo – and stiffened by a very Whitesnakey little background riff that slides into earshot halfway through.  Or there’s the ultra-twangy Carl Perkins-like rock’n’roll picking on ‘Wildcat Tamer’, a slice of fun that sounds straight out of mid-50s Memphis.
I could point to the way the simple, melancholy ‘I Can’t Find No Love’ is elevated by a solo that takes the melody into a different dimension.  Oh, I just did, didn’t I?  And on the closing ‘Hope For Us’, all concerned ramp up the tension before he takes off into a stunner of a solo, culminating in a segment like showers of sparks falling from the sky.
Best of all though, is the brace of songs in the middle of the album.  ‘Wrapped Up, Tangled In The Blues’ is an infectious tune, soulful but enlivened by a spiky, pinging riff, and it’s just not enough to say that Fletcher’s stinging outro solo sounds effortless.  It’s a high-wire, turn-on-a-dime affair, and whatever other metaphors you fancy.  Then he follows that with ‘Wrong Kind Of Love’, its tickling drums and rubber band bass augmented by funky rhythm guitar, the vocal counterpointed by conversational licks en route to another crackling, jaw-dropping solo – though it fades out rather than, as I’d have preferred, reaching for a big climax.
The song doesn’t remain the same, in that while his 2020 outing My Blues Pathway was peppered with songs about asserting oneself and one’s worth, this time around the subject matter is often – well, heartache, but sometimes also the possibility of music as a means of escape, redemption, transcendence.  Or whatever.  Gotta say, I find the notion of Kirk Fletcher as a cheatin’ heart a bit of a stretch.  But hey, dramatic licence and all that, and most of these songs about love’s labour lost hit the spot in terms of mood.
The song remains the same, in that here and there Fletcher falls a little short on the vocal front.  I’m damn sure he’s worked on his singing over the years – he’d be a fool not to – but it’s still not his forte.  There are times when he sounds entirely at home – ‘Wrapped Up’ and ‘Wildcat Tamer’ being prime examples.  But the wavering opening lines of ‘Night By Myself’ plant a gremlin in the back of the mind, tensing for further moments – though in fairness he just about gets away with it most of the time.  If only he had the velvety vocal control of a Robert Cray, or the zip and personality of a Joe Louis Walker, Kirk Fletcher would be an even stronger force to be reckoned with.
Still, as someone once said, “a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for”, and Kirk Fletcher is still stretching and striving to be as good as he can be.  Meantime, there’s no doubt that he’s a sublime guitar player, as Heartache By The Pound once again makes clear.
Heartache By The Pound is out now on Ogierea Records, and can be ordered here.

Monday, July 25, 2022

Todd Sharpville - Medication Time

Let’s get one thing straight right from the start.  Medication Time is a blues album, not a blues-rock album.  Oh, it rocks’n’rolls a fair bit, but this ain’t no heavy, heavy monster sound.  At the same time though, Todd Sharpville doesn’t restrict himself to yer common or garden blues knitting patterns either.
For example, there are four ballads on the album, but Sharpville is in no danger of getting stuck in a slow blues rut.  Only the last of them, ‘I Don’t Need To Know Your Name’, really comes over
Todd Sharpville, tangled up in thought
Pic by Al Stuart
 as a conventional slow blues, and even then it still leaves its own romantic mark.  But ‘Tangled Up In Thought’ cleaves to a more soulful vein, to which Sharpville really does justice with his excellent, emotive vocal, over strokes of organ and sparse chimes of guitar.  Meanwhile 'Medication Time' itself is a dramatic ballad that sounds to me as if it has as more in common with Gershwin than Stevie Ray Vaughan.  And ‘Silhouettes’, with its minimalist delivery, feels like a downbeat meditation in an old-fashioned, smoky jazzy styling.  All four of these slowies, though, feel like genuine quality.
It’s this kind of range that allows Sharpville to keep the pot boiling for more than an hour, across 12 tracks (even if a few do linger at the out door longer than necessary), whereas many an artist would be treading water several times along the way.
In the simplest upbeat mode, ‘Get Outta My Way’ under three minutes of horn-inflected rock’n’roll, but these notes wot I have wrote say it’s brisk, danceable, catchy and infectious.  In fact, taking into account Sharpville’s stinging solo and a warbling sax break, you might say it’s irresistible.  The single ‘Brothers (From Another Mother)’ swings perfectly down a similar bluesy road, with great horns and the added attraction of Larry McCray, totally in sync on both the guitar and the vocal "blues hound" vibe.
‘House Rules’ though, is a more relaxed offbeat shuffle, with witty lyrics trotted out from the perspective of an old-fashioned male chauvinist pig.  But if ‘Stand Your Ground’ also shuffles along, it’s with a New Orleans, second line funk inflection, with Hispanic piano touches, and some vituperative words.  ‘God Loves A Loser’, meanwhile, takes a more direct route, with driving guitar and bass as the backing for a tale in which “Hope is a stranger, anguish is my best friend”.
There are three covers, and two of ‘em work a treat.  The album opens with Dylan’s ‘Walk Out In The Rain’, coming over like the Stones in laid back mode, though Sharpville’s voice, with its throaty quality, owes far more to Ian Siegal than Mick Jagger.  ‘Money For Nothing’ – yes, that one – pulls off the difficult trick of an imaginative treatment that’s actually down to earth, as the 80s megahit is given a harp-rasping Chicago blues reading, with a guest turn by Sugar Ray Norcia.  Only Springsteen’s ‘Red Headed Woman’ doesn’t really hit the mark, with its lurching rock’n’roll arrangement, though Sharpville’s rockabilly solo is still worth a listen.
Much of the material on Medication Time originates in Sharpville’s reflections on a period, some years ago, when he succumbed to a breakdown and needed treatment for severe mental health issues.  The resulting lyrics are sharp regarding both the downs and the ups of that experience – and the music lives up to them.  I didn’t really know what to expect from either Todd Sharpville or Medication Time.  What I got was a damn good, original blues album.
Medication Time is out now on Dixiefrog Records, distributed by Proper Music Group in Europe.

Wednesday, July 20, 2022

Samantha Fish - Ex-Convento di Santa Chiara, Piacenza, 17 July 2022

On Saturday night Samantha Fish and co were in Haapsalu, Estonia.  On Sunday they’re here in Piacenza, Italy.  Two countries and two very different languages, 1500 miles and probably 10 degrees Celsius apart.  Such is the European blues festival circuit.
Tonight’s gig is among the semi-ruined, scaffolding-propped cloisters of a former Convent, which is in the process of being salvaged as a community space.  You think Delta blues is old school?  
"Now, which knob do I twiddle here again?"
This place is way, way older.  But it swiftly gets jolted into the 21st century when the Fish ensemble take the stage and let rip with a gutsy and rocking rendition of ‘Bulletproof’.
‘All Ice No Whiskey’ continues the latterday slant to the set with its funky dance feel, and I could have enjoyed it going on longer before an organ glissando heralded a crunch into ‘Twisted Ambition’, which Fish elevates – if that’s the word – from the album version by chiselling out some screaming guitar breaks.
The show is evidently sold out, but to a surprisingly small audience, who are all plonked on plastic seats while a bundle of professional snappers patrol the front of the stage with fearsomely large cameras.  So Samantha is being a bit optimistic, I think to myself, when she says she hopes she’ll see people up and dancing before long.
It doesn’t matter for now though, as they roll through ‘Hello Stranger’ in a manner that shows the song is anything but a stranger.  It’s gentle and sparkling, cool and sassy, before being ratcheted up into a crescendo.  A rumbling opening to ‘No Angels’ follow, and if the crowd still aren’t on their feet there are at least pockets of singing along to the “No there ain’t” lines of the chorus.  Sam essays a downbeat slide passage, then breaks loose into a solo that rises to fever pitch, cooled off with a slinky final vocal segment.
‘Better Be Lonely’ is a spiky pleasure, while ‘Kill Or Be Kind’ now seems to make more of the incipient menace in a character who offers her lover the alternatives of the title, having already “put the fear of god in you”.  It segues into a slide passage for which Samantha straps on a peachy looking Les Paul, building towards some big, torn-out chords then escalating frenzy over walloping drums from Sarah Tomek – so much frenzy in fact, that two cymbals take a tumble from the drum riser – all in the service of introducing a fierce take on ‘Watch It Die’.
The band take a break as Fish picks up an acoustic and underlines the blues theme of this ‘Dal
Have Les Paul, will travel!
Mississippi Al Po’ series of summer shows by playing ‘Jim Lee Blues Pt 1’, with some nice picking and a truly bluesy vocal, followed up by a very personal and intimate sounding take on ‘Need You More’.
As the band get back on stage another prompt from Fish finally gets the crowd down the front in time to dance and sing along to ‘Bitch On The Run’, which is followed by the scratchy and infernally catchy ‘So Called Lover’, which could easily be taken for a homage to Blondie, and if the high-flying vocals on the chorus can’t cut through the density of the guitar and rhythm section it doesn’t matter – its infectious, ragged energy is enough to make it work.
The sweet swirl of ‘Dream Girl’ offers some respite for a while, until eventually it soars skywards on Fish’s solo, driven on by Ron Johnson’s propulsive bass.  This is a mere appetiser though, for the wild rollercoaster of ‘Black Wind Howlin’’ with which they close the set.  You need to do something dramatic to pull anyone’s focus from Samantha Fish during a live performance, but Holy Moly, Sarah Tomek does just that on this occasion, with a display of ferocious, jaw-dropping batterismo, as they might call it in these parts.
As she tunes up for the encore, Fish notices a poster for a Sam Fish tribute band dubbed The Runaways, after the title track of her first album.  “You probably know the words better than I do these days,” she observes.  Which is a shame, because like a lot of her early material, it’s better than she seems to think.  Still, it’s good to see that songs from Faster, state-of-the-art twists and all, slot in nicely alongside older stuff to produce a coherent, rocking show.  And just to underline her blues-heavy roots, they bring down the curtain with a substantial, hard-hitting, and dynamic rendition of ‘Shake ‘Em Down’ that draws satisfied cheers from the now dancing audience.
It was a pretty darned hot night in Piacenza.  This show from Samantha Fish and her band added their own cocktail of chills and fever to the atmosphere.  (See what I did there?)
You can watch some clips of the Piacenza show here.

Check out Samantha Fish’s upcoming shows in Europe and the United States on her website, here.

Sunday, July 17, 2022

Starlite Campbell Band - Starlite Campbell Band Live!

Suzy Starlite and her husband Simon Campbell aren’t averse to being a bit quirky, musically speaking, as some of the sounds on their last album The Language Of Curiosity demonstrated.  But this live excursion makes clear that at heart they’re a throwback to an earlier time, and a brand of British blues-rock in which bands treated being on stage as an adventure, stretching and bending songs to get the most out of them.
This sensibility is underlined by the closing track here, a cover of ‘Whiter Shade Of Pale’, included in this set on the basis that Hammond organ duties were undertaken by one-time Procul Harum keys man Josh Phillips.  It’s a song that has a soulful vibe, but of course also
Simon Campbell and Suzy Starlite, living it up
Pic by Peter Putters
reaches out beyond a blues framework by appropriating a bit of Bach.  Campbell may be at the edge of his vocal capabilities here, but proves it’s worth the effort with a dandy delivery.
The Hammond focus is no accident either, as the rest of the album demonstrates that Campbell, a wing-ding guitarist who can put lots of young guns to shame, loves to have an organ to bounce off.  So it is that the opening track, ‘Brother’, runs to eight and a half minutes as all concerned pinball around in pursuit of different angles.  And bounce is the operational word for a rhythmic groove centred on Suzy Starlite’s bubbling bass line.  Campbell adds stinging guitar, and on this occasion Jonny Henderson delivers the classic, surging Hammond sound. They take it down for a stuttering, Morse Code guitar solo, and do some smart call-and-response guitar and organ stuff before they’re done. Oh yeah, and it’s a good song to boot, with a nifty hook.
A couple of songs, ‘Cry Over You’ and ‘Said So’, show off different sides of Campbell’s guitar prowess.  The first is a blues ballad, but not by the numbers.  It’s a romantic affair, with clever lyrical phrasing, and Campbell reinforces the mood with a swooning, gentle solo reminiscent of Gary Moore at his most melodic.  And again, there’s a marvellous organ solo that captures the requisite sensitivity and drama.  ‘Said So’ is an altogether different animal.  At first a crunching mash-up of a ‘You Really Got Me’-type riff and a melody that owes a few quid to the Temptations, it downshifts into some moody meandering, before some wailing and bleeping guitar wrangling that sounds like it’s being transmitted from Space Station No. 5 heralds a psychedelic instrumental storm, in the course of which Campbell lets rip – to the evident satisfaction of the crowd at its conclusion.
The quality of the songs is an important factor though, as the reflective and melodic ‘Take Time To Grow Old’ demonstrates, even if its “na-na-na” vocal bridge is a bit daffy.  Campbell still comes up with a gripping guitar refrain though, controlled in both pace and tone before a more explorative solo that eventually resolves into a closing theme.  Meanwhile Suzy Starlite produces a steady, patient vocal on the contemplative ‘Guilty’, with a classy melody over a spare backing consisting of metronomic drums, locked in bass, and flurries of understated guitar and keys.
‘Misgivings’ shows just how well they swing, on a bright shuffle with a lightness of touch and another strong chorus, while the rhythm section and organ combine marvellously to underpin a Campbell solo that sizzles without burning itself to a crisp, and Jonny Henderson produces another classy Hammond excursion as they shift up a gear.  Only ‘Preacher Of Love’ – taken like ‘Brother’ and ‘Misgivings’, from Campbell’s 2011 solo album ThirtySix – leaves me wanting more.  Not that it’s a bad song – it’s got drive and an intriguing twitchiness – but to my mind they’ve got a heap of stronger options in their locker.
Be that as it may, Starlite Campbell Band Live! confirms that this husband-and-wife pairing are under-rated gems of the blues-rock firmament.  Their musicianship is top notch, they write really good, smart songs, and they’re great fun. If you hanker after that classic British rock vibe of yesteryear, then . . . Live! will satisfy your appetite.

Starlite Campbell Band Live! is released by Supertone Records on 22 July, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, July 13, 2022

Gov't Mule - Pistoia Blues, 9 July 2022

If you look up the Wikipedia entry for Gov’t Mule, it will tell you they are a “Southern rock jam band”.  Well, jam band sure.  But Southern rock?  Seems to me that’s a pretty narrow, lazy description for the Mule.  Yeah, Warren Haynes played with the Allman Brothers Band, and once upon a D chord the Allmans pioneered a Southern sound.  But Gov’t Mule have a lot more bandwidth than yer typical modern-day Southern rock exponents, that’s for sure.
Three-legged Mule - with Danny Louis out of shot
They open with the spooky blues of ‘Dark Was The Night, Cold Was The Ground’, from their latest album Heavy Load Blues.  Haynes plays slide on a 12-string Gibson, while delivering a moaning vocal against the backdrop of rippling piano from Danny Louis, and before they’re done with it they summon up a Zep-like heft.  But the following ‘Mule’ (aka ‘Where’s My Mule’) really begins to show their range, combining cantering drums from Matt Abts and propulsive bass from Jorgen Carlsson with ringing guitar and swirling organ, before developing into progressive, jazzy blues jamming.
Danny Louis comes over all Jon Lord with soulful organ to open the swinging ‘Wake Up Dead’, on which Haynes’ guitar playing looks effortless, and not remotely choreographed as it would be for many a modern guitar slinger.  That soulful aspect continues on ‘Snatch It Back And Hold It’, with its cymbal-ticking rhythm and bum-shifting scratchy riff before it sparks a wig-out jam segment.  And if the classic ‘Ain’t No Love (In The Heart Of The City)’ has been done to death over the years, it’s still an opportunity for Haynes to make clear that he's a natural blues singer.
Their own ‘Rocking Horse’ is worthy of classic status too.  Danny Louis certainly seems to enjoy it, smiling and threatening to dance as he watches Haynes kicking off on guitar as Abts comes on strong on drums, then scat singing as they get funky for his keyboard solo.
Louis is also to the fore with some squally keyboard effects that presage throbbing bass from Carlsson that evolves into Floyd’s ‘One Of These Days’, which turns into the launch pad for some more jazzy improvising, with Abts scampering around his kit, and Carlsson’s bass careering along underneath ripped out chords from Haynes.  Then they chill out with a gentle and cool execution of slow blues on ‘Need Your Love So Bad’, on which Haynes’ vocal is again excellent.
They begin to meander a bit for this listener as the show pushes, in typical Italian festival fashion, past the midnight hour.  But then I’m not a Mule aficionado, and I tend to find lengthy jams interesting rather than exhilarating.
That doesn’t stop the crowd whoopin’ an’ hollerin’ on the first encore though, as they recognise the piano intro to the Allmans’ ‘Soulshine’, which has a real 60s/early 70s vibe.  Hands are in the air, and Haynes conducts what turns out to be a pretty half-assed singalong – the melody may be catchy, but the words aren’t really simple enough to be singalong fodder, at least for an Italian audience.  Never mind, they segue into Ann Peebles’ excellent ‘Feel Like Breaking Up Somebody’s Home’ to end the night, Haynes smiling at the crowd’s enthusiasm in spite of the bitter lyric.
They’re a curious live act in a way, the Mule.  Haynes isn’t particularly chatty, and he doesn’t move around much.  But still, he has undeniable presence.  Alongside him Carlsson grooves in gangly, grinning fashion on bass, while Louis is a twitchy presence on keys, serving up more than just the everyday Hammond’n’piano offering, and occasionally wriggling out from behind his set-up to chip in with rhythm guitar.  But as a band they’re more than the sum of these parts.  There’s chemistry in this quartet.  And together they make, not Southern rock, but their very own brand of bluesy, soul-weighted Mule-rock.

Friday, July 1, 2022

Gimme 5 - The one and only Ian Siegal gives us the Grand Tour

The incorrigible, indomitable, always interesting Ian Siegal released his latest album Stone By Stone in May, and is now heading out on tour in the UK.  Wanna know what turns him on?  Then read all about it as he shares 5 songs that have had his ears twitching, 5 key influences, and 5 people he'd love to get round the table for a long lunch.  Hit it, Ian!

Gimme 5 songs, old or new, that have been on your radar recently.  [Check out the links to hear Ian's selections.]

'I Thought I Heard Buddy Bolden Say' by Jelly Roll Morton:  "Two of the artists who should be considered the true Godfathers of the Blues are mentioned here, sadly the former never got
Ian Siegal - Man and Guitar
recorded. This was how the original Blues (and that’s what they called it) sounded when it came out of New Orleans (before the Mississippi Delta was even populated by humans) in the late 19th
'I’m A Ram' by Al Green:  "Because this song gets either played, sung or referred to pretty much every day in my house. It appears simple but that groove is heavy."
'All Cranked Up' by His Lordship:  "Hands down the best live act I have seen in a long time - and I had to follow them on stage! My friends James and Chris. Fan-f*cking-tastic. Rock and Roll. They deserve to be enormous." 
'Lust For Life' by Iggy Pop:  "This Saturday [2 July 2022] I am playing a one-time-only set with a one-off group of musicians [Amor, Barrett, Barry, Fisk and Siegal], just for kicks at the Linton Festival. We decided to pick three of our own songs and one cover each. Since I have always wanted to perform this it was a no-brainer. Can’t wait. There may be stripping . . . ."
'The Grand Tour' by George Jones:  "The Possum never lets you down. One of the greatest vocals ever put to record."
Gimme 5 artists or bands who have had a big influence on your work.

Little Richard:  "If I had to name the single person who had the most impact overall it would be between him, Muddy and Wolf but Richard came first. I was very young. Just overwhelming - the ferocity of him. But if you hear his later 60s and early 70s material there's a lot more subtlety. And funk! Not sure how he has influenced my work directly but he is always in the back of my
Who wouldn't want to be influenced by this man?
The Band:  "Their approach to songwriting and the eclectic mix of all forms of American music. And they inspired me to include more harmony singing which I find is often lacking from UK and European artists in Blues and roots music."
Tom Waits:  "I slowly eased out his heavy influence on my early career. He’s held in such high regard but also it’s deemed kinda uncool to be too much under his spell. Still, there's his approach to recording - found instruments, and nothing being off-limits. The beautiful poetry of his lyrics juxtaposed with the sometimes tragic or lowdown subject matter, clanking percussion….the extremely analogue, warm nature of the instrument sounds (sometimes) and at other times the clanking percussion. They all get in somewhere when I am recording. I could have gone for Costello for similar reasons. I recall the first time I saw Waits on The Tube tv show and being blown away by this seemingly unique character. A huge impact for sure."
Townes Van Zandt:  "Can’t tell you when I first discovered him. What’s important to me about Townes is that he taught me (just as Rick Danko did) that true soul/soulfulness can come in many forms. It isn’t always obvious and can be incredibly subtle. Plus those lyrics. The imagery. The heart. Untouchable."
Sam Cooke:  "Because he’s the greatest singer of all time. A mark I will never hit. But even knowing I’ll never get near, now and again I’ll try. Just for kicks. I hear him in so many heroes.
Ian Siegal announces future heavy metal album - Jürgen Klopp approves
Nick Lowe for one. And he gets close."
Gimme 5 guests you’d love to invite to your ideal long lunch.
Chris Thomas King:  "His recent book, The Blues: The Authentic Narrative of my Music and Culture, has been an incredible education as well as a remarkably well-researched and downright interesting read. It should be taught in schools. The history we have all been taught about the genre is pretty far from the actual truth. I’d love to just sit and chat with him about it."  [Chris Thomas King has also hosted a linked podcast.]
Jurgen Klopp:  "Manager of the finest team on the planet. We could discuss tactics for next season."
Dave Chappelle:  "Greatest comedian of his generation, an intellectual and an inspiration."
Mavis Staples:  "Her infectious positivity is something I’d get a kick out of and combined with guest number five . . ."
Matthew McConaughey:  ". . . the overwhelming positive vibes from the two of them would be fantastic and I’m certain would lead to one of the most memorable lunches in living memory!  And his autobiography is a fantastic read and an excellent set of guidelines for a good life."
Just one track – pick one of your tracks that you’d share with a new listener to introduce your music.
"Tricky of course. But I’ll go for my song 'The Fear'.  I wrote it around ten or so years ago and recorded it for an album I made in Mississippi called The Skinny.  But it was too “country” for that album.  Couple years later same studio we decided to record a band version which was great BUT I always wanted to record it as intended.  Acoustic, just me and a guitar really (although there’s harmonica on it too, but more on that in a minute).  So I re-did it on my recent album Stone By Stone in California.  I actually wrote it with Kris Kristofferson in mind as I was in a deep-dive on him at the time, but like a lot of my songs it’s about a bunch of people maybe personified in one character.  Also like a lot of my better stuff it felt like it wrote itself and it all came out in a flash. I think it’s some of my best work lyrically and I honestly couldn’t pick one line - it has a flow to it that I am really proud of.

"A beautiful coincidence is that the harmonica on it came from my Hollywood pal Jimmie Wood,  who was in the studio to contribute to another song entirely.  But I remembered the whole thing was actually inspired by something he said to me, wandering between rooms on the second floor landing of a hotel, TWENTY years ago.  It came back to me from somewhere in the depths ten years after the event and that’s where the whole song fell out. 

"I love the way the whole thing came back around and he ended up, by pure fluke, being on the finished product. Tied the whole thing together, like The Dude’s rug . . . ."

Ian Siegal is touring Great Britain till 22 July.  Full details of his dates can be found here.