Tuesday, February 21, 2023

Connor Selby - Connor Selby

Connor Selby is a talented young fella.  There’s plenty of evidence for that on this self-titled album, which was first released in 2021 and is now coming out in a Deluxe edition via Provogue Records, with four bonus tracks.  But there’s also evidence of room for further development.
Let’s start with the positives.  The kid – he’s only about 23 – has evidently immersed himself in some of the legends of bluesy, jazzy and soulful sounds from a young age, and come out the other end capable of writing some decent tunes in that vein.  Among the best things here are ‘Hear My Prayer’ and ‘Waitin’ For The Day’, both of which carry echoes of Van Morrison in their melodies, their soulfulness, and the easy-going piano elements.  The former features conversational verses, and tasteful female backing vocals helping Selby to give a lift to the chorus, plus a good
Connor Selby does some open air woodshedding
Pic by Rob Blackham
example of Selby’s pitch perfect guitar soloing, while the latter is one of the strongest songs on the album.  Elsewhere, ‘If You’re Gonna Leave Me’ has a bluesy guitar intro, but then leans into a Nina Simone-like jazzy feel, most particularly through its piano part, before Selby comes up with an interestingly squelchy solo towards the end.  And ‘I Shouldn’t Care’ brings to mind BB King, or maybe Sean Costello in mellow mood, with a good quick-quick-slow guitar solo and a mild surge of energy via the organ as it progresses.
The best thing here though, is ‘Emily’, and for a variety of reasons.  It kicks off with a fuzzy riff that incorporates an intricate little twirl, and has more energy about it than anything else on offer.  There are waves of organ, bigger drums than are to be heard elsewhere, and more female backing vocals to help create a big sound that its chorus deserves.  Selby comes up with a stinging guitar solo, and one of his stronger vocals, and the sense of a crescendo late on justifies its six minute running time.
But a few more helpings of that kind of snap, crackle and pop wouldn’t go amiss.  For one thing, there’s a tendency for songs to be overstretched, as on ‘The Man I Ought To Be’ and ‘Anyhow’ to name just two examples.  Both songs have some good elements, but they’re both slow, and subdued, and with the former in particular I’ve had about enough after four of its seven minutes.
What’s more, it often feels like Connor Selby’s middle name could be ‘Languour’.  It’s not just that several songs drag on too long, but that Selby’s preference is to be mellow, laid back and reflective, a tendency underlined by his vocal style. The opening ‘I Can’t Let You Go’ typifies the way his singing leans towards a smooth drawl, to the point where sometimes he lapses into a half-singing, half-speaking approach that’s prone to dilute the melody.  To be fair though, his phrasing is always good, and as the album progresses there are numerous examples of him rousing himself to offer a bit more vocal energy and soulfulness.
But then maybe this vocal torpor is a product of the lyrics, because on that score Selby’s default setting seems to be “lovelorn”.  I mean, I know songs shouldn’t always be regarded as autobiography, and just as well, because otherwise you’d have to reckon Connor Selby has a very unfortunate time with girls.
So yeah, it would be good if young Connor could cheer up a bit, and order a stack of extra beats per minute from Amazon as well.  But still, the musicianship, arrangements and sound in evidence here are all impressive.  And the boy can and does play some damn fine guitar too, with an excellent sense of how to serve the song.  Connor Selby is a decent calling card, and I look forward to more balance and variety next time around.
Connor Selby (Deluxe Edition) is released by Provogue Records on 3 March, and can be ordered here

Thursday, February 16, 2023

Robert Jon & The Wreck - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 13 February 2023

Are you ready to rock?  You’d damn well better be, if you’re going to see Robert Jon & The Wreck.
The Californian five-piece assemble on the stage, count themselves in, and BLAM!  Right from the off these guys make a big, big sound.  And they also make it look very easy, as befits a bunch of workaholics honed by countless gigs every year.
Robert Jon Burrison gets a bit worked up
Take a song like ‘Do You Remember’.  Crunching into life with slamming chords, it goes on to harness sparkling, Allmans-like guitar harmonies, clobbering drums, spot on vocal harmonies, and some blazing lead guitar.  Oh yeah, and it has a cracking, Seger-like tune too.  This is not an isolated example.  This is not an accident.  These guys know how to write a barnburner, and they knock ‘em out with frightening regularity.
‘Waiting For Your Man’ opens up with a kit-thrashing into from drummer Andrew Espantman, and brackets gut-wrenching chords and a Morse Code riff around another solid hook.  Late in the set they crack open ‘Oh Miss Carolina’, and if the fact the audience waste no time belting out its anthemic chorus indicates that it’s a real earworm of a song, I’m here tell you they have even stronger songs that don’t even make the set list tonight.  But ‘Shine A Light On Me Brother’ does, on which all and sundry have a rock’n’rollin’ blast right through to its drum-hammering ending.
But it’s not all wham-bam-thank-you-mam melodic rockers.  They get funky on ‘High Time’, with lead guitarist Henry James finding a new guitar tone to match the squelchy keys solo from newbie Jake Abernathie.  And ‘Who Can You Love’ is a cooler, country-ish affair, with James pulling another style of solo out of the hat.
Even more to the point, their mastery of dynamics means that they can grab your attention and keep it when they stretch out on songs like the bluesy epic ‘Rescue Train’, which brings together a towering vocal from Robert Jon Burrison and a dizzying slide solo from James before they take things right down for an organ solo from Abernathie.  They’re smiling all round, in readiness for
Henry James and Warren Murrel get the lead out
the guitars of Burrison and James to plough back in, and for the latter to deliver an eyeballs-out solo.  ‘When I Die’ is slower, with lots of romantic, shimmering piano from Abernathie, and James wrapping his spidery fingers around a spidery solo.
But it’s at the end of the night that they really pull out all the stops, with ‘Cold Night’.  There are more of those vocal harmonies, more of those guitar harmonies, and then James goes nuts on guitar, fingers dancing feverishly on the neck as the band ramp it up behind him.  He hands over to Abernathie for a barroom piano segment, and then the two of them get into a guitar and piano call-and-response jam, before all concerned dive into a final headlong slalom down the rock’n’roll mountainside, with Burrison, James and gangly, ever-grinning bassist Warren Murrel gathered together and rocking out centre stage.
And that might seem to be that.  But no.  With the crowd baying for more, the Wreck re-emerge, and with rippling guitar, mellow organ and hushed vocals they embark on – Hallelujah! - the stunning ‘Last Light On The Highway’.  Big chords, a big motif, and sparkling piano combine on this tour de force, a dramatic affair on which they reach their absolute peak.
Robert Jon Burrison’s name may be out front, and wiry little dude Henry James in his 1981 Blue Öyster Cult t-shirt (the guy has excellent taste) may be a Premier League guitar wrangler, but the Wreck are yer gen-yoo-wine, more than the sum of their parts rock’n’roll band.  Miss ‘em at your peril!
In case you’ve missed them, check out the Blues Enthused reviews of the Wreck’s albums Last Light On The Highway, Shine A Light On Me Brother, and Wreckage Vol.2.

And you can read a 'Gimme 5' feature with Robert Jon Burrison, selecting songs that have crossed his radar, key influences, and the people he'd love to lunch with, here.

Sunday, February 12, 2023

Alice Armstrong - Voodoo Rooms, Edinburgh, 10 February 2023

Before tonight my only previous acquaintance with Alice Armstrong was her impressive guest vocalist appearance on the Stevie Watts Organ Trio album Mission To The Moon, an outing that leaned towards jazzy soul.  Well, this ain’t that – or at least, not often.
What becomes absolutely clear in the course of this show is that Armstrong is no one-trick pony, stylistically.  Or to put it more bluntly, she’s a singer so damn good that she can do absolutely anything that takes her fancy.  Blues, soul, funk, jazz – you name it, this girl can sing it.  Heck,
Alice Armstrong leans into the groove
on ‘Auto Assassin’, a weird and warped epic kinda thing about being loved near to death, she even uncorks a totally on point quasi-operatic passage.
Now, this kind of all-round vocal brilliance is undoubtedly a blessing, but can it also be a curse?  Reason I ask is that at times this set felt a bit unfocussed, as it flitted from the chunky and funky, sashaying ‘Head To Toe’, to the work song vibe of the dramatic ‘Graveyard Shift’, to the slightly flimsy soul-funk of ‘Motel’, and later the oddball jazz-funk of ‘Boomerang’.  Perhaps the absence of aforementioned keys professor Stevie Watts, who shoulda been here but couldn’t make it, accounted for the sense of a missing ingredient, some Hammond colourings that would have pulled things into a more coherent whole.
Whatever, let’s accentuate the positive, because there’s still plenty of that.  The avowedly Aretha-influenced ‘Better Late Than Never’ is a crackling torch song, and the cue for an intense Armstrong vocal full of power and dynamics.  She hits another sweet spot on the BB-styled ‘B-Side’, complemented by guitarist Matt Long (yes, he of Catfish) going off the deep end with a squealing solo.  ‘Upbeat Baby’ is a bump’n’grind blues on which our Alice digs in deep to add pleasing heft, while Long delivers a Stratocastic solo before Armstrong really lets rip at the end.  And ‘Love Song’ is a stunning ballad involving just Armstrong’s voice and Long’s guitar, as she
sings that she “can’t write a love song when I ain’t got no one” – forget genre labels, this is sheer quality whatever you call it.
They deliver a cracking take on BB King’s ‘How Blue Can You Get’ too, to crown the set, inviting Leo from support band Blue Milk up to inject a star turn harp solo, and his buddy Jonny Mac to add a delicate guitar solo on the way to a wild conclusion.  Debut single ‘Speed Dial’ makes for an enjoyably funky, where-have-I-heard-that-riff-before set closer, though personally I could have done with a bit less of the solos-all-round padding.
It's early days for Alice Armstrong, but she’s already good enough to have garnered a UK Blues
Blue Milk - Mac'n'Whyte, not Mac'n'Cheese
Award nomination, and I have every confidence that she and her amigos will hone their sound to make even more impact before very long.
And the same may be true of Glasgow-based opening act Blue Milk.  It’s four years since I last saw them in a similar support slot, and at that time I thought they had a certain something, raw as they were.  Tonight they feel tighter and more confident, but still edgy.
They kick off with the brisk blues of ‘Street Corner Man, with tub-thumping drums and squawking harp contributing to a Yardbirds-like rave-up vibe.  ‘Take Me There’ features a twangy intro, a coolly meandering bass line from Ike Malinki, and a  satisfyingly rambling slide break from Mac.   Then drummer Taylor Whyte lays down an enthusiastically snappy beat on a rumbling reading of ‘Shake ‘Em On Down’, embellished by some good interplay between Jonny Mac’s slide guitar and Leo Glaister’s harp.
‘Coal In The Fire’ serves up more driving Delta blues, while ‘River’ (I think) witnesses some smart finger-picking from Mac and a drumming wig-out from Whyte.  It’s no great surprise that ‘Come Back Around’ explores a North Mississippi hill country sound, given their stated love for the likes of Junior Kimbrough and R L Burnside, and their latest single ‘No Sleep Blues’ provides a suitably punchy conclusion to a punchy set.
Blue Milk’s straightforward electrified blues went down well with this audience.  They may still be rough diamonds - and in a way that's a good thing - but they clearly enjoy what they’re doing, and they have the potential to develop further.

Friday, February 10, 2023

Savoy Brown - Blues All Around

As most readers here will know, Savoy Brown main man Kim Simmonds passed away last December, succumbing to the cancer with which he was diagnosed in September 2021. Blues All Around, the final album that he and his bandmates completed shortly before he died, bears witness to him sticking to the blues roots that inspired his career for over 50 years, if maybe in simpler and less heavy fashion than on recent releases like Ain’t Done Yet and City Night.
Simmonds plays a lot of slide guitar on Blues All Around, a response to chemotherapy deadening the nerves in his fingers and making single-string playing difficult.  But hey, he
Kim Simmonds - Music is energy
Pic by Arnie Goodman
doesn’t half make a virtue out of necessity.  Take ‘My Baby’ for example, a simple enough little blues excursion with, it has to be said, a pretty hackneyed lyric, but which lays down a crunking groove, with Simmonds demonstrating that he absolutely knows how to generate a magnificently grinding slide guitar sound, backed up by walking bass by Pat DeSalvo.
That grinding slide sound is the backbone of Blues All Around, whether on the ‘It Hurts Me Too’ Elmore James throwback of the slowish ‘Winning Hand’, with its strong, atmospheric slide solo, or the swing’n’sway of ‘Hurting Spell’, its heavier riff offset by some curly Wurly organ sounds en route to a gritty solo. Meanwhile ‘Black Heart’ riffs away fuzzily, veering between stinging and guttural over a rock steady beat as Simmonds groans out a tale of a betrayal by a woman.
‘Blues All Around’ itself is brighter fare, with distant echoes of Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Stop Messin’ Round’ and some rhythmic variations as a shaker and even a cowbell are thrown into the mix, while Simmonds wends an impressively lick-strewn path through proceedings, counterpointed by the bright splashes of organ that add colour to several tracks.  ‘California Days Gone By’ is one of the more interesting tunes, a shuffling groove with bumpalong bass to which Simmonds brings ringing slide chords, over plonking, Morse Code-like piano notes, as he sings of some personal West Coast memories.  And ‘Can’t Go Back To My Hometown’ is a bit sweeter, Garnet Grimm’s drums hinting at a Latin feel while Simmonds serves up some call-and-response between his vocal and piercingly toned guitar remarks.  The song feels over-stretched, and the words are a bit thin again, but really it’s all about the guitar work, peaking with a lyrical solo.
The album opens with the brief guitar-and-voice vignette of ‘Falling Through’, a very old-sounding fragment of basic blues, given some electrification.  It’s a mood Simmonds returns to at greater length with the closing ‘Falling Through The Cracks’, backing himself with just two (I think) intertwining guitars.  Ostensibly about giving up on a woman (again), it naturally has something of a valedictory feel, as Simmond’s patient vocal perhaps implies a broader sense of acceptance.
Blues All Around could have done with some judicious trimming and stronger wordsmithing – ‘Texas Love’ is a bit lightweight and clichéd, for example.  But as a final chapter in the Savoy Brown story, it still speaks convincingly of Kim Simmonds’ love of the blues.  As he says in the sleeve notes, "Life is energy.  Music is energy."
Blues All Around is released on 17 February by Quarto Valley Records, and digital versions can be ordered here.