Friday, March 31, 2023

Quickies - Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown, and t.Roy & The Smoking Section

Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown – Dirty Work EP
Dirty Work finds Tyler Bryant and pals continuing along the down’n’dirty road they began to revisit on last year’s Shake The Roots album, and for the most also continuing to deliver the rootsy goods.
The opening ‘Strike’ certainly bodes well, an ominous instrumental vignette that’s all spooky guitar, a droning background note, and rumbling snatches of drums.  It sounds like it should be the threatening prelude to a cloudburst of crackling energy – but unfortunately the following
TBSD - "If we drill right about here, we should hit oil."
‘Burnin’’ doesn’t deliver on that promise.  It opens with a rootsy mid-tempo riff, which Bryant pretty much copies for the melody, with his clear, rather boyish vocal, over a lurching beat, before breaking into a brief, urgent two-line chorus of “Keep your fire burnin’”.  There’s squeaking guitar break that suddenly flares into a shower-of-sparks solo, and then that refrain gets repeated, over and over.  Really, ‘Burnin’’ sounds like an assemblage of odds and ends, and it detracts from the good stuff that’s going on elsewhere.
The obvious highlight here is the first single, ‘Sho Been Worse’, which is three minutes of on-point fun. Brisk and catchy in early Black Keys mode, it comes with scratchy guitar and a strong, holler-along-with-it chorus, rounded off by a stiletto-like Bryant guitar solo – and I ain’t talkin’ about shoes.
There’s a good brooding Western vibe to ‘Dirty Work’ itself, kicking off in downbeat style with twanging, banjo-like guitar notes and hushed vocals, before gathering more strength as Caleb Crawford’s rolling drums gain traction, and Bryant sings of “sinking down a little deeper in the well, well, well” in his best bluesy tones.  And ‘Thunder’ brings more blues-heavy light and shade, and a sense of drama in Bryant’s sometimes aching vocal, again following the guitar line in the rhythmic, resonant chorus, before erupting into a brief squall of a guitar outro.
That sense of drama is there in the closing ‘Fire And Brimstone’, with its slow and suspenseful opening, built around a teasing, halting riff that has a twisting, turning resolution they should really make more of.  Still, Bryant’s vocal is strong and assured, ringing out with impressive clarity, before a grabber of a guitar solo rolls out over big solid chords and staggering drums.
This EP makes for a satisfying enough appetiser, with five decent tracks out of six, even if none of them are real knockout punches.  The sense of direction from Tyler Bryant & The Shakedown is sound, but Dirty Work feels like a stepping stone to something bigger.
Dirty Work is out now available from Rattle Shake Records on all digital platforms, and also on shell pink vinyl.
t.Roy & The Smoking Section – The Texas Grit EP
It’s a bit of a curiosity, this outing by the gnomically-named t.Roy.  Texas influences are certainly present here and there, but I’m not so sure about grit, and while the North Carolina collective dubbed The Smoking Section certainly have the chops, they don’t sound that nicotine-stained to me.  Not that seriously damaging your health is recommended, you understand.
‘South East Texas Son’ opens with t.Roy’s smooth, drawling tenor over some silvery piano, before the rhythm section arrives to add more punch. “We take it easy, we take it slow,” he sings,
Enigmatic Texan t.Roy steps into the light
and it’s certainly easy-going fare, enhanced by some ringing slide courtesy of Scott McGill, and some classy Fender Rhodes piano.
The lower pitched ‘Color Me Blu’ is a decent, bright little tune, propelled by a bobbing bassline and skipping drums, and some quirky, thrumming backing embellished by weeping slide remarks.  Then with the gentle, laid back feel of ‘Chaison Park’ a kinda Hall & Oates sensibility comes into play.  Lyrically it’s a bit of a haunting autobiography, our man t.Roy recounting the tale of abandonment by his mother in his hometown of Beaumont, Texas.  The song features more of that tasteful Fender Rhodes piano, over some gently bubbling bass and swirls, and it’s interesting enough to suggest that some further possibilities went unexplored.
‘Give Me Your Heart’ is a bigger, more upbeat affair, the bass fairly throbbing away this time, accompanied by some slinky horns, flaring organ and rumbling tom-toms as backing for t.Roy’s well-executed, white soul type vocal.  And the closing ‘Some Kind Of Secret’ is interesting too, like a quirky Doobie Brothers track leaning on more rumbling percussion and bass, and decorated by low-end horns (I think) and curious, discordant keyboards, while t.Roy – I’m guessing his name is actually Troy, by the way – knocks out another Toto-worthy vocal.
The Texas Grit EP is a surprising kind of release, by no means down’n’dirty, but sonically intriguing all the same.  The songs are tuneful, and there are clearly some decent musicians at work.  There’s a 16 track album on the way, and if this trailer is anything to go by then I’m guessing that the t.Roy fella, who apparently spent several decades playing sacred music internationally, will be taking listeners on a rather more secular AOR journey.
The Texas Grit EP is out now.

Saturday, March 25, 2023

Eric Bibb - Ridin'

I owe Eric Bibb an apology.  Initially I was reluctant to even listen to this album, far less review it.  The reason?  Well, at some point in the dim and distant I heard a bit of Bibb, and put him down as a purveyor of the kind of twee, folky acoustic blues that turns me right off.  Well, however true or not that judgement may have been at the time, it certainly doesn't fit the bill for Ridin’.
As soon as I dropped the metaphorical needle on the opening track, ‘Family’, I pricked up my ears good and proper, lured in by the combination of Bibb’s warm, hushed voice, spare banjo notes, and junkyard-type percussion.  The lyric is a hymn to unity and dialogue rather than
Eric gives serious consideration to Blues Enthused's apology
Pic by Jan Malmstrom
division, suggesting we’re all brothers and sisters under the skin – a laudable ideal, if a bit of a stretch right now, precisely because society is so divided these days.  But still, with some backing vocals adding to the aural embrace, and hinting at gospel, Eric Bibb had got my attention.
Fact is, while ‘Family’ is an appealing opener, Bibb serves up several even better songs here.  ‘Ridin’’ itself, for example, is a groove-perfect affair, initially built just on a loping train rhythm picked out on low guitar strings, expressing a determination to keep “riding on the freedom train”, even if it’s periodically derailed by incidents such as the assassination of Martin Luther King or the gruesome lynching of Emmett Till.  And it gathers extra musical strength when subtle drums and a spooky slide solo are added to the mix, and towards the end some ripplingly finessed guitar lines.
‘Ballad Of John Howard Griffin’ is more of a folky-bluesy acoustic affair, while jazz guitarist Russell Malone gradually adds some embellishments over the cool finger-snapping groove. But what’s really gripping is the true story it tells.  The titular Griffin was a white journalist who in 1959 medicated and tanned himself in order to walk a mile in the shoes of a black man in the American South, eventually recounting his experience of racism and contempt in the book Black Like Me – and being pegged as a traitor by white people in his Texas town.
In a similar lyrical vein, ‘Tulsa Town’ tells the story of the Tulsa race massacre of 1921, in which one of the wealthiest black neighbourhoods in the country, dubbed the “Black Wall Street”, was burned to the ground, with dozens killed and hundreds of blacks illegally interned.  It’s set to a simple but strong melody, over a nagging rhythm and chiming guitar chords, and works like a dream.  Meanwhile ‘Call Me By Name’ is an assertion of identity and self-respect, that after the contribution black people have made to America, “I’m a man, not your boy”.  It’s built on a classic, twirling old blues riff, while the guesting Harrison Kennedy contributes some suitably strong vocal.
‘Joybells’ is a more delicate, lyrical song, with a beautiful blending of voices elevating the chorus line “Joybells keep ringing in my heart”, over subtle banjo and more of that basic percussion.  It’s an elegy for all the (known) victims of lynching in American, in the wake of the 2018 opening of a memorial to them in Montgomery, Alabama.
Other tracks to catch the ear include the old-fashioned, hypnotic blues of ‘I Got My Own’, with its clacking rhythm, conversational vocal, and flickering guitar remarks courtesy of Mali’s Amar Sundy, and the brief instrumental ‘Onwards Interlude’, which comes over like an ambient folk/blues piece with its pattering rhythm, shimmering guitar picking and strumming, and long, eerie slide notes.
A couple of tracks are more slight, and could have been dropped without doing any harm, but all in all Ridin’ is a captivating listen, with real resonance in both its lyrics and its musical focus. So yeah, I did you wrong Eric, and I’m glad to better acquainted now.
Ridin’ is out now on Repute Records. 

Wednesday, March 22, 2023

Ally Venable - Real Gone

Uneven, there’s a word.  Predictable – there’s another.  Honeyed, well that’s a more positive sounding thing, so let’s start there.
Ally Venable delivers some very good vocals on Real Gone.  The song on which this thought first struck me is ‘Blues Is My Best Friend’, which starts off stripped down to just voice and guitar, and yes, Venable sings in pleasingly honeyed tones that at times hint at Bonnie Raitt.  Then the rhythm section kicks in to frame a guitar solo that starts off nicely, before subsiding into the kind of twiddling fare that occurs too often here.
Whenever Venable gets the room to make her singing the focus, her voice starts to shine through. 
Ally Venable - tell 'em about the vocal honey!
Pic by TIno Sielin
Take ‘Any Fool Should Know’ for example.  It sounds like a soulful pop ballad from days of yore.  Like something by Sam Cooke perhaps, delivered yearningly by a quality country artist who sings clear and steady – and with a neatly complementary guitar break too, as well as some sweeps of horns.  Or there’s ‘Going Home’, a dreamy song visualising her native Texas, as if watching the landscape from the window of a Greyhound bus.  Venable captures this wistful air well – and then things change gear as she heads into a guitar solo, and the patient delivery gives way to predictability.
Venable is good on ‘Gone So Long’ too, a meditative tune about memory and change, delivered in subdued fashion and with a guitar solo that this time fits the bill nicely.  Even on the slowly pulsing ‘Hold My Ground’, a song about relationship breakdown that’s lyrically a bit clichéd, she lends some truth to the verses, and also conveys some emotion with a patient guitar turn.
It's when things get more uptempo that standards slip, as on the opening ‘Real Gone’.  Bright and chugging, the sound is certainly great, with chunky rhythm guitar and walloping drums and bass, but the autobiographical lyrics are so-so, and the wah-wah guitar licks strewn everywhere are an example of quantity over quality.  Much of this is also true of the crunching ‘Justifyin’, a pretty clunky bit of social commentary on which that wah-wah pedal gets cranked out again.  Meantime ‘Kick Your Ass’, rolls out yer typical “useless boyfriend” story to the accompaniment of a grinding, revolving riff, and while it’s punchy, it says all it’s got to say in the first verse, and Venable’s lead guitar defaults to a widdling tone once again.
Thankfully there are a few exceptions to these rules.  Buddy Guy turns up to duet on ‘Texas Louisiana’, enlivening an infectious if predictable boogie with his distinctive voice and guitar playing.  To be fair Venable concocts an enjoyable guitar break herself, but Buddy’s ability to veer outside the white lines brings extra zip to matters.  ‘Don’t Lose Me’ is funky á la Ana Popovic, with a steady, tugging beat and horn flourishes, while Venable delivers a neat solo devoid of wah-wah and showing more imagination.  And ‘Two Wrongs’ reveals the influence of Stevie Ray Vaughan, with a jabbing, gritty riff and stop-start vocals reminiscent of ‘Crossfire’, though the licks that Stevie interspersed between lines were more pointed and restrained, and Venable’s solo is her standard fare.
See what I mean?  There are good things going on here.  But the quality of the songs is erratic, with some mundane lyrics kicking around, and Venable needs to find some different angles and tones on the guitar front.  Producer Tom Hambridge, who also has writing credits on all 12 tracks, has to take some responsibility for these issues. This may be Ally Venable’s fifth album, but she’s only 23 fer cryin’ out loud, and a much vaunted pro like Hambridge should really be coaxing more out of her.
So Real Gone is a "not bad" album rather than a standout.  But if Ally Venable can accentuate the positives on display here, and eliminate some of the negatives, there’s still plenty to suggest she can have a bright future.
Real Gone is released by Ruf Records on 24 March, and can be ordered here in Europe, and here in the United States.

Saturday, March 18, 2023

Elles Bailey - The Caves, Edinburgh, 16 March 2023

When I first saw Elles Bailey here in Edinburgh, nearly six years ago, I reckoned she was a promising young artist.  Nowadays though – blimey, when she and her band come onstage and get cracking with ‘The Game’, it’s clear that that promise has absolutely been fulfilled.  The song is a gutsy belter, the band are cooking, and Bailey is a commanding presence, a vibrant performer both vocally and visually.
And that, really, is the story of the night.  This is Bailey’s first UK tour since releasing Shining In The Half-Light a year ago, and that game-changing album is inevitably the backbone of the show.  They roll out the pulsing, rolling ‘Stones’ to keep the momentum going, with Joe Wilkins
Elles Bailey - "Oh god, what's the next line?"
making his first delivery of gritty slide guitar, then turn down the heat for the reflective ‘Colours Start To Run’.  Now, you could stick a pin in the track listing of . . . Half-Light and be sure to find a cracking song just about every time, but this ballad is a real gem, with a chorus that rolls one hook into another, while Wilkins gives it an extra lift with a spiky solo.
Bailey is celebrating the tour by releasing a Deluxe edition of . . . Half-Light that includes four newly recorded tracks, and all of them get an outing tonight.  ‘Spinning Stopped’, a product of Bailey becoming a mother, is a simple lullaby which she delivers with assured simplicity.  ‘Hole In My Pocket’, in contrast, is a sturdy animal with an offbeat, lurching rhythm and an explosive coda, emphasising the range of Bailey and co, as they rock out in style.  And if their cover of John Fogerty’s ‘Long As I See The Light’ is played pretty straight, embroidered by some jazzy piano from Jonny Henderson, they achieve the unlikely feat of transforming John Martyn’s ‘Over The Hill’ (now 50 years old, fer chrissake) into an upbeat opportunity for dancing - an opportunity Bailey grabs with enthusiasm.
A few older songs get an outing, the pick of them perhaps ‘Perfect Storm’, her tribute to the music of Muscle Shoals on which Wilkins coaxes out subtleties on guitar, and the loping, shuffling and soulful ‘Help Somebody’, on which Bailey undertakes a brief stroll through the crowd.
But the real highlights are the newer songs, especially ‘Shining In The Half-Light’ itself, on which Bailey makes the most of the strong melody, over elastic bass from Matthew Waer, and swooping, moaning, e-Bow inflected guitar from Wilkins, en route to a drum thumping conclusion.  ‘Cheats And Liars’ is by turns magnificently brooding and angry, as Bailey vents her spleen about government dishonesty and offhandedness during the pandemic.  And ‘Riding Out The Storm’ is an irresistible set closer, with another great chorus and some slinky organ and guitar tag team work from Henderson and Wilkins.
They come back for two contrasting encores, with Mary Gaulthier’s emotive, politically charged ballad ‘Mercy Now’, which Bailey recorded on her Ain't Nothing But album, and then the emphatic finale of ‘Sunshine City’, a grooving and rocking justification for hip-wiggling if ever there was one, bringing the night to such an exuberant close that Bailey even casts her trademark hat to one side
Throughout all of this Elles Bailey is really quite marvellous.  Her voice is terrific, with great range and depth, and the versatility to tackle every facet of her genre-crossing repertoire with style.  She always had the gift of being likeable, but now her performance seems that much more mature in every respect, whether it’s her look, her movement, or her relaxed chat between songs.
It was no surprise to me that The Caves was packed for this show.  It seems to have happened almost casually, but all of a sudden Elles Bailey has become a star of the British roots music firmament.  Next time around she's going to need bigger venues.

The Shining In The Half-Light Deluxe Edition is out now, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Quickies - Elles Bailey, Robert Jon & The Wreck, and Austin Gold

Elles Bailey – Shining In The Half-Light Deluxe Edition
Okay, so I’m gonna do something a bit odd here, and review half an album.  How come?  Because I reviewed the original release of Shining In The Half-Light last year, that’s why.  So you can go read that review, though I'll just reaffirm what I said then - that it’s the best album of Elles Bailey’s career so far.
What about these bonus tracks that put the Deluxe in this Deluxe Edition then?  Are they just outtakes’n’filler swept up from the studio floor?  No, dear reader, they are not.  What you get for
Elles Bailey posing in the half-light
Pic by Rob Blackham
your money includes two brand new songs, two newly recorded covers, and live-in-the-studio versions of five tracks from the original album.
The first of the new tunes is ‘Spinning Stopped’, a delicate twirl of folkie Americana whose stripped back tones wouldn’t have sounded out of place on Bailey’s Ain’t Nothing But album.  The lyrics combine a mother’s fascination with her new child, a meditation on the world-stopped period into which that child was born, delivered with subtlety and warmth.
‘Hole In My Pocket’ is a more muscular affair, even if it opens in controlled fashion.  Matthew Waer adds supple bass lines to offbeat drum patterns from Matthew Jones, while Joe Wilkins delivers sparse flourishes of bendy guitar.  Bailey’s vocal is assertive, gradually supplemented by more of those delicious backing vocals that adorned the original album.  And then – crash, bang, wallop!  They put their collective foot down and give the thing a proper seeing to, just to make clear they can rock.
The covers also come in two different flavours.  It seems like a bold move to cover anything by the maverick genius John Martyn, but Bailey and co take his wistful, acoustic ‘Over The Hill’, and propelled by bristling electric guitar from Wilkins and waves of organ from Jonny Henderson they turn it into a joyfully rhythmic, muscular animal – hell, danceable even!  By way of contrast, the cover of Creedence’s ‘Long As I See The Light’ is contemplative and downbeat, with Bailey nailing the vocal to render unnecessary any comparisons with John Fogerty, while Henderson adds piano embellishments and Wilkins digs out a scraping slide solo.
To be honest, I’m not sure that the five live takes explore much territory beyond the originals – seems to me that Bailey might have been better revisiting a few songs from her back catalogue, armed with all the learning she and her chums have done since.  Because make no mistake, the new stuff here shows that Bailey and her band have matured big time over the years, and now ooze confidence as they go about their work.  
I’m looking forward to seeing Elles Bailey live tomorrow night – and I'm hoping she plays ‘Over The Hill’!
The Shining In The Half-Light Deluxe Edition is released on 17 March, and can be ordered here.
Robert Jon & The Wreck – One Of A Kind EP
Robert Jon & The Wreck like an EP – they’ve released a few of them over the years.  And maybe it’s a particularly good idea these days, to get some fresh material out between albums, to go alongside continued touring.  Of course, it’s got to be quality “product” – and One Of A Kind, produced by some time Stones knob twiddler Don Was, is just that.
I know, it's only wreck'n'roll, but I like it!
Pic by Trees Rommelaaere
They open up this quartet of tracks with ‘Pain No More’, a dynamic thing that veers between surging, pulsating passages and dialled down verses, with some squealing slide thrown in along the way.  It’s not got the strongest chorus they’ve ever produced, but given their songwriting standards that’s a bit like saying a second hand Porsche is nothing to get excited about.
They put that right on the catchy ‘Who Can You Love’, a lower key song with a dialled down vocal from Robert Jon Burrison, subtle injections of twanging guitar, and trademark quality harmonies on the chorus.  It’s a bit too countrified for my taste mind you – what I really wanna hear from these guys is high quality wreck’n’roll.
And that’s exactly what they deliver on the remaining two tracks.  ‘One Of A Kind’ wades in with staccato riffing and rat-a-tat vocals, boosted by slithering, serpentine lead guitar from six-string whizz Henry James.  It’s a punchy, emphatic adrenaline rush of a tune – but if anything it’s bettered by the closing ‘Come At Me’.  Throbbing bass and twisting and turning, twinkling guitar lines drive the verse – and then it explodes into a scruff-of-your-neck chorus, followed by a wild guitar solo.  Then they smack you around the head with that chorus a couple more times, before heading for the exit.
One Of A Kind is a like a weekend city break to some city that never sleeps – short, intense, and highly enjoyable.
One Of A Kind
 is out now on Journeyman Records, and can be downloaded or streamed here.
Austin Gold – Those City Lights
I don’t often venture into reviewing straight-up hard rock on this site, even though it’s why I first got bitten by the music bug – one of the reasons being that not much of the new stuff I hear floats my boat.  But I’m happy to make a brief exception for this latest release by English band Austin Gold, because they refresh the musical parts a lot of modern rockers don’t reach.
David James Smith - subtlety personified
Their main man David James Smith brings a lot to the party, with a clear, powerful voice and bags of range, suggestive of Toby Jepson, some damn fine guitar work, and serious songwriting chops – and the rest of the AG crew live up to his example.
Think Thunder maybe, or a less angry Wayward Sons perhaps.  Those City Lights is melodic hard rock, with plenty of light and shade.  So ‘Mountain’ is a soaring rush of energy akin to some kid with a parachute chucking themselves off, well, a mountain.  ‘Morning Light’ is a sensitive breather, which is much needed amidst the forceful gale blowing elsewhere.  And ‘Real You’ is an demi-prog extravaganza packed into five and a half minutes, incorporating hop, skip and jumping drum rhythms, big guitar motifs, ethereal, stratospheric backing vocals, chocolate box piano, and more besides.  You could liken it to Magnum at their very best.  Well, I could, anyway.
Oh yeah, and Smith is a declared Beatles nut, which may seem strange when he wasn’t even born when the Fab Four called it a day, but as it emerged when I interviewed an earlier line-up of the band a few years back, his dad’s music tastes have been a big influence since he was a kid.  So on a song like ‘Get In Line’, and elsewhere besides, you can hear distant echoes of late 60s rocking Beatles.  Mind you, with the blend of guitar and keyboards, you might equally compare them to modern day Uriah Heep (if that doesn’t sound like a contradiction in terms).
Whatever.  If you like your hard rock to have a healthy dose of sophistication, Austin Gold could be just the band for you.  Go experience Those City Lights, and see what you think.
Those City Lights
 is out now, and can be ordered here.

Monday, March 13, 2023

The Cash Box Kings - Oscar's Motel

Step this way, ladies and gentlemen – mind your head as you come on board.  That’s marvellous, take your seats and fasten your seatbelts please.  Now make yourselves comfortable, and very shortly your time machine will be taking off, and whisking you all the way back to 1960.  Approximately.
Which is to say that The Cash Box Kings are specialists in good old-fashioned Chicago blues.  Sure, there may be nine originals among the 11 tracks here, and a few references to Facebook get chucked into the lyrics of ‘I Can’t Stand You’, but the vibe of Oscar’s Motel is still resolutely, disarmingly old school.
The tone is set on the opening track, ‘Oscar’s Motel’ itself, a testimonial to the kind of joint where
Joe Nosek and Oscar Wilson noise it up and party on down
Pic by Janet Mami Takayama
you can party till you drop, and when you do drop you’ll still be in the right place.  The tune channels ‘Smokestack Lightning’ big time, with singer Oscar Wilson’s resonant voice evoking the spirit of the Wolf without resorting to brazen imitation.  If that doesn’t tell you where these guys are coming from, then the mournful slow blues of Muddy Waters’ ‘Please Have Mercy’ with its squawking harp commentary from Joe Nosek, probably will.  And if you want another touchstone, ‘Hot Little Mess’ pretty much lifts a chunk of melody from Sam Cooke’s ‘Wonderful World’ that’ll have you pondering whether maybe you can be an ace student, baby.  A slice of crossover rock’n’roll soul’n’pop, with a smooth vocal from Joe Nosek, some sweet Fats Domino-like piano, and low-down parping sax, it wouldn’t sound out of place on the soundtrack to Happy Days.
Some of this is a bit lightweight, it has to be said.  ‘I Want What Chaz Has’, a slight tale of male envy, is a prime example, notwithstanding its swinging, toe-tapping backing, with a call-and-response chorus, jazzy blues piano solo and guest vocals from John Nemeth.  And one might say the same of ‘I Can’t Stand You’, a squabbling duet between Wilson and Deitra Farr, though it’s still a bit of a hoot.
‘Nobody Called It The Blues’ is meatier fare.  With its field song-styled intro it harks back to slave times, and extols the value of music as a form of freedom and even defiance, culminating in a shoutalong chorus and some spiky guitar from Billy Flynn.  ‘Trying So Hard’ also adds some emotional weight, in the form of a slow but rhythmic blues on which slithering guitar, tinkling piano and – especially – Nosek’s moaning harp all go to plaintive work, while Wilson sounds like a man drowning his sorrows.
Quite why they’re including ‘Ride Santa Ride’ on an album released in March I don’t know, but with its twanging guitar break from Flynn and chiming piano chords from Lee Kanehira it adds Chuck Berry into the mix in pretty neat fashion.
Oscar’s Motel may often sound like an audio time capsule that was buried in 50s Chicago, but that’s okay.  The Cash Box Kings are doubtless capable of heavier duty stuff, but their simple aim with this album was to be the catalyst for a real good time.  So go grab a beer, and let 'em entertain you.
Oscar’s Motel is released by Alligator Records on 17 March.

Friday, March 10, 2023

Mike Zito & Albert Castiglia - Blood Brothers

It’s no big secret that I think Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia have, individually, done some great stuff in recent years.  In particular, your honours, I would like to enter into evidence Castiglia’s 2019 album Masterpiece, which was in fact produced by Zito, and on which the two of them played all the instruments to terrific effect.  So it’s easy to see how the Blood Brothers album has come about – these two guys are mucho simpatico.
But if Masterpiece seemed like a brilliant DIY affair, the pair have gone in the opposite direction for this collaborative effort, wheeling in the big name production partnership du jour of Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, plus a bundle of other musicians to contribute as necessary.  And the results are – well, rather good.
Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia - lean on me, brother
Pic by Norma Touchette
The best moments here are when they get expansive.  The Zito tune ‘In My Soul’ starts off with acoustic strumming and an aching vocal from Zito himself, gets elevated by some soaring backing vocals from Jade Macrae and Danielle DeAndrea, and then kicks into a higher gear with a staccato electric riff.  The light and shade has a vibe similar to Whitesnake’s ‘Ain’t Gonna Cry No More’, but more American – more Southern perhaps.  Castiglia’s ‘A Thousand Heartaches’ also leans on acoustic guitar, and subdued organ, to develop an atmosphere of love and melancholy, decorated by a sparkling little turnaround on its way to a lyrical Bonamassa solo, and the spare but perfect lines:  “All I wanna do is see you happy / That’s all I ever want for you / Although we ain’t together / Doesn’t mean that it’s not true”.  It’s not a complicated song, but it’s a classy one.
The slow blues ‘You’re Gonna Burn’, which interleaves a patient Castiglia vocal and fluttering guitar licks, builds a sense of bitter relationship failure, with stabbing chords heightening the effect of Albert’s dynamic guitar solo.  And if Zito’s mid-paced ‘No Good Woman’ has a touch of swagger to its riff, and some spikiness in the pair’s combined lead work, it stills conveys an air of resignation summed up by the line “I’ll be happy when you let the back door slam”.
Elsewhere the mood is largely more upbeat, as on the infectious boogie of opener ‘Hey Sweet Mama’, embellished by some tootling rock'n'roll piano from Lewis Stephens.  But it’s noticeable that six of the 12 tracks are written by others, which ain’t what I expected, and it feels like a missed opportunity to pool their writing talents. So while Tinsley Ellis’s ‘Tooth And Nail’, with its twisted around ‘Green Onions’ riff, is given a suitably tough and sassy Castiglia vocal, and has some scraping Zito slide en route to a duelling guitar outro, I reckon AC himself could have produced something more potent.  Similarly, while John Hiatt’s ‘My Business’ leans towards the tongue-in-cheek stuff that Zito does so well – like ‘Don’t Break A Leg’ for example – it’s lacking a bit of zip, a bit of spark, a bit of je ne sais quoi as they rarely say in these parts.
In another mode, ‘Hill Country Jam’ is an instrumental penned by Zito and Josh Smith, and a well executed, breezy affair it is too – but I’d prefer these guys to be sticking a shot of their own brand rock’n’roll in my ear.  Still, ‘One Step Ahead Of The Blues’ makes for a laid back, thoughtful finish, as the two of them share the work on a tale of resolve and stoicism.
Fans of Mike Zito and Albert Castiglia will like this.  Hell, I like this.  I just have the nagging feeling that this album could have been so much bigger, so much bolder – a fusion of Zito and Castiglia to blow the bloody doors off.  Hopefully one of these days they’ll hunker down together again, and give us that album.  Meantime, Blood Brothers is an enjoyable downpayment.
Blood Brothers is released by Gulf Coast Records on 17 March.

Monday, March 6, 2023

Marc Broussard - S.O.S. 4: Blues For Your Soul

Once upon a time, back in 1978, Whitesnake included a song called ‘Ain’t No Love In The Heart Of The City’ on their Snakebite EP.  It was a resonant introduction to the work of Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland, and when I later heard the work of the man himself I was pretty smitten with his warm, soulful, bluesy delivery.  I’ve had a liking for voices in a rich, soul-drenched vein ever since.
All of which makes me a prime candidate to lap up the singing of Marc Broussard, when he opens up his latest album S.O.S. 4: Blues For Your Soul with an aching, pulsing take on Bland’s ‘I’ve Got To Use My Imagination’.  Broussard absolutely nails it, and co-producer Joe
Marc Broussard - "Hey, is this mic turned on?"
Pic by J Auger
Bonamassa follows his example with a taut, evocative guitar solo.  It’s a vibe effortlessly recaptured on the closing ‘When Will I Let Her Go’, the one original on offer.
With just that one new song among the 12 tracks here, it’s fair to say that if you’re looking for something ground-breaking then step right along, ‘cause this album ain’t it.  But what might be lacking in novelty is made up for in quality.
Johnny ‘Guitar’ Watson’s waltz-like ballad ‘Cuttin’ In’ is given a relaxed and romantic reading that stands comparison with the excellent version by Sean Costello, with pinging guitar licks from guest Roddie Romero played off against sweeping strings.  ‘Love, The Time Is Now’ mines an even softer soul seam just as effectively, with Broussard effortlessly evoking a Sam Cooke vibe.
It's not all sensitively lovelorn stuff though.  The spikier blues of ‘I Asked For Water’ is one of the highlights, as Broussard digs out a suitably Wolf-ish growl, counterpointed by some moaning harp courtesy of JJ Grey.  Also at the tougher end of the spectrum is ‘Locked Up In Jail (Prison Blues)’, which is as primitively low key and insistent as you might expect from a John Lee Hooker song, studded with shivering guitar from co-producer Josh Smith, and with a wearily reflective vocal from Broussard.  Meanwhile ‘I’d Rather Drink Muddy Water’ starts out easy, with tinkling piano, and laid-back guitar and vocals, it gets revved up more on the second verse, then swings and punches in big band style on the third, prefacing a jazzy, low end piano solo and some stinging guitar.  There’s a horn backdrop on ‘Driving Wheel’ too, which rolls along behind the beat in swaggering style, with Broussard getting soulful in increasingly agitated, testifyin’ fashion, and Bonamassa knocking out a solo with bite.  
There a couple of misfires, mind you.  BB King’s ‘I Like To Live The Love’ is a lightweight, happy-clappy affair that sounds as if it would be better suited to some pastel-suited 70s vocal quartet than either King or Broussard.  And while I love a good blues ‘train’ song, their efforts to do something different with the railroad rhythm on ‘Empire State Express’ actually end up a bit of a mess.
But here’s the thing.  In the PR bumf for this album, Marc Broussard says that while blues is in his wheelhouse, “It’s not really my field of expertise”.  Well, you could have fooled me.  S.O.S. 4: Blues For Your Soul – and boy is that a cumbersome title – showcases a guy who is vocally right up there with the classic blues’n’soul groaners, moaners and crooners.  Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland would be impressed, never mind me.
S.O.S. 4: Blues For Your Soul is out now on KTBA Records, and can be ordered here.

Friday, March 3, 2023

King King - Barrowland Ballroom, Glasgow, 2 March 2023

It’s not so much a homecoming as a homegoing gig for King King, as they kick off their latest UK tour with their first headline show at the Barrowlands in Glasgow.  But whether coming or going, they seem well limbered up as they crack into the swinging, driving fun of ‘Dance Together’, on which the tidal wave of Jonny Dyke’s organ is well to the fore.
The front end of tonight’s set represents a bit of a shake-up, with an opening batch of songs drawn from their latest album Maverick and its immediate predecessor Exile & Grace.  They
King King get the widescreen treatment

freewheel their way through ‘Long Time Running’, which is right in their blues-rock wheelhouse but also underlines the degree to which vocal harmonies are now part of their armoury, even
more on the money now than when I saw them a year ago.  Meanwhile both a tough ‘Heed The Warning’ and ‘Broken’ speak to Alan Nimmo’s state of the world concerns, both environmental and social.  It’s over five years since these tracks first saw the light of day on Exile . . . , but his introductions confirm – in very Nimmo-like unstuffy fashion – that he believes the lyrics are as relevant now as then.  The sensitive ballad ‘By Your Side’, on the other hand, leans into the personal space, capturing the emotional tug of seeing someone in pain and being unable to help them.
Good as these songs are, there’s an inescapable change of gear when they reach back to the classic ‘Long History Of Love’, which despite Nimmo’s comment that it’s about his “miserable love life” is as uplifting as ever, with Dyke getting properly soulful on organ as a preface to Alan Nimmo getting to grips with his hallmark scorching guitar solo.  ‘Waking Up’ provides a familiar upbeat groove, before ‘Whatever It Takes To Survive’ slips into more reflective territory, full of
Alan Nimmo has a "jaggy kilt" moment
light and shade and featuring startling, pinpoint harmonies on a line of each verse – vocal teamwork that’s surely the product of some precision rehearsal.  There’s precision too in the crackling guitar harmonies that follow, but the Nimmo brothers make these seem as easy as falling off a log.
These elements are pointers to fresh possibilities, but ‘You Stopped The Rain’ is an old friend in the set, and if it’s now smartened up with an a cappella harmony intro, the highlight is still Alan Nimmo’s dramatic, diamond-sharp closing solo.  ‘Rush Hour’ lets the King King choir stretch their tonsils in time-honoured fashion.  Which is fun, of course, but not as invigorating as what they do with the following ‘I Will Not Fall’, which may start off as a tough funk strut but is then transformed when Stevie Nimmo lets rip with a stonking solo, leading to another bout of sizzling brotherly guitar harmonising.
To my mind these twin guitar moments are where new horizons may appear, to paraphrase a Thin Lizzy line.  Not that I’m suggesting they should recreate their Nimmo Brothers vibe.  No, but I reckon that with two guitarists this good, there’s scope for them to explore a new level of six-string interplay, especially live.  (Pondering this, my mind flitted back to 70s outfit Lone Star – remember them, anyone? – whose debut album featured a couple of blazing twin-lead wig-outs.  But I digress.)
Back in the present, Alan Nimmo demonstrates his blues credentials with his wonderfully fluid soloing on set-closer ‘Stranger To Love’, again featuring his trademark “silent running” spot, with the crowd just about managing to respect the need for quiet.  And when they roll out ‘Old Love’ as an encore – a special selection for the night, perhaps – Stevie Nimmo, not to be outdone, delivers his own brand of top flight bluesifying.
This latest line-up of King King are now thoroughly bedded in and comfortable with each other – a bit of a daft observation when three of them were playing together when they were metaphorically in short trousers, but it’s still true.  They’ve got a new album coming later in the year, and I look forward to them really stepping up and showing what they can do.
Glenn Tilbrook of Squeeze, with just a couple of guitars for company, might seem like an odd fit
Glenn Tilbrook - cool for cats, of course
for a support slot with King King – and I encountered some folk at the end of the night who said as much.  And to begin with I was inclined to think an hour-long set might be a bit ambitious.  I needn’t have worried. Tilbrook is a real pro who knows what he’s about, he still has a terrific, distinctive voice, and with a set full of great songs he had a big chunk of the audience lapping it up.
It wasn't all just Squeeze hits either, as he chucked in their lesser known but excellent ‘From The Cradle To The Grave’, and a cover of The Human League’s ‘Don’t You Want Me Baby’ of all things – a song many a veteran rocker might run a mile from, but which fitted in very nicely indeed.  He also had a bit of fun with ‘My Boy Lollipop’, but the real delights were the likes of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’, revved up by some nifty guitar riffing; ‘Another Nail For My Heart’, with the crowd providing rhythmic backing for his classic solo; and the picture-painting of ‘Is That Love’.  And of course more besides.
Back in the 80s the BBC revived the hoary old pop programme Juke Box Jury.  One week the panel included Green Gartside of Scritti Politti, who opined on a new Squeeze single that it was probably what some people would call “well crafted”, and he hated “well crafted”.  Twat.  On his best day Gartside couldn’t get near the songwriting genius of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook, as this solo set by the latter neatly demonstrated.
King King and Glenn Tilbrook are touring Britain until 30 March – full details and tickets available here.

Wednesday, March 1, 2023

The Cold Stares - Voices

I like ‘em.  I mean, I can compare The Cold Stares’ sound to a few familiar names – and I will, in a minute – but whatever influences they’ve soaked up from down the blues-rockin’ ages, in the end that’s just for reference purposes.  The important thing is that the noise this Indiana trio make on Voices has their own stamp, their own personality – and it’s convincingly good.
They set out their stall with the archetypal if-it-can-go-wrong-it-will tale of woe that is ‘Nothing But The Blues’, an in-yer-face chunk of blues-rock given extra impetus by a wailing, distorted guitar solo from Chris Tapp.
The Cold Stares audition for a musical remake of Usual Suspects
Pic by Alex Morgan

There’s a Bad Company/Free-ish strut to the mid-paced ‘Come For Me’, but with its own spikiness, and if Tapp’s voice doesn’t have the warmth of Paul Rodgers there’s still admirable assurance to his delivery – and in fact they sound confident all round, with rhythmic shifts from drummer Brian Mullins and bassist Bryce Klueh to keep the pot boiling.  There’s a similar swagger to ‘Voices’ itself, with a twirl in the tail of its rockin’ bluesy riff, guitar effects that don’t sound typically off the shelf, and flutters of organ adding colour.  Oh yeah, and when they’re done they’re done, with no wasteful sprawling around to no effect.
The roots of both ‘Light’s Out’ and ‘Got No Right’ also sound like they go back a bit, the former with whispers of Hendrix in its fuzzy, revolving riff, reverb-heavy licks, and scampering drums, and the latter with a bright, Creamily descending riff – again with a bit of a strut, this time evident in the chorus, to which harmonies add an extra flicker of panache.
There’s a bit of a Bonamassa epic vibe to ‘Sorry I Was Late’, which opens with what sounds like a Mellotron picking out a ‘Stairway’-like motif, while Tapp offers up a suitably reflective, patient vocal.  And though it’s an altogether gutsier affair, there’s a similarly cinematic quality to ‘Waiting For The Rain Again’, with muscular bass and drums augmenting the Byzantine feel of the riff, and a strong, piercing solo from Tapp.
They get real edgy with the crunking ‘It’s Heavy’, which has a low-slung, funkin’ riff that puts me in mind of Them Crooked Vultures, and bends your ear with its urgency and slithering wah-wah solo.  And there’s a hint of psych-rock to ‘The Joy’, with its ringing chords, blissed-out ascending riff, and yearning, harmony-enhanced chorus.
But they also do a good job of stripping things right back, as on ‘Throw That Stone’, a plangent acoustic blues that’s kept simple but sounds like it’s drifted in from the desert rather than emerged from the bayou.  And closing track ‘The Ghost’ is as sparse and moody as its title suggests.
Praising them with faint damns, the riff and tone of ‘Sinnerman’ are a good deal more intriguing than the melody and the lyric, while the slow-ish ‘Thinking About Leaving Again’, with its strum’n’twiddle riff, falls a bit short of the interest levels they arouse elsewhere.  And a little shot of humour somewhere along the line might have given matters an extra lift.  So they ain’t perfect – but then, who is?
Voices is the sixth album by The Cold Stares, though I can’t say I’d heard of ‘em before last year.  It’s their first as a three-piece though, following the arrival of Klueh on bass, and in that context they're making a fresh mark in convincing, characterful style..  Like I said, I like ‘em!
Voices is released on 10 March by Mascot Records, and can be ordered here.