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.

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