Thursday, June 29, 2023

Nine Below Zero - Piazza Molinari, Fiorenzuola d'Arda, 23 June 2023

While hordes of intrepid festival goers were traipsing around the vast Glastonbury playground on Friday, I was sitting in the bijou Piazza Molinari, in the northern Italian town of Fiorenzuola d’Arda.  I’d had me a good dinner and a couple of glasses of wine, and I was waiting to see Nine Below Zero do a show under the banner of the Festival Dal Mississippi Al Po – an annual series of blues gigs taking part in the area.  This is, you might say, la dolce vita.  You might also say that with Nine Below Zero on stage tonight should have been billed From The Thames To The Po, but let’s not complicate matters.
Don't point your finger, Dennis!
On the other hand, let’s.  Because this isn’t yer typical NBZ show.  Whereas I’ve seen them in their 8-piece mode a few times, their Italian agent has teamed Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham up with a guitar and drums duo from Brescia called Superdownhome for a few gigs, including this one.  Which is intriguing, because when Superdownhome buddies Henry Sauda and Beppe Facchetti come on stage to warm things up with a few tunes of their own, it’s clear that they inhabit a rather different wing of the blues mansion.
The pair cook up an eerie intro with European-sounding influences, before igniting a back-to-basics blend of resonator twang and whipcracking drums on ’24 Days’.  Bequiffed guitarist Sauda starts off sitting on a drum stool, but as they embark on a driving descendant of ‘Got My Mojo Working’ he discovers enough ants in his pants to jump to his feet and start some eager shape-throwing.  Meanwhile the bewhiskered, bowler-hatted, waistcoated Facchetti sits erect at his kit, knocking out a snappy rhythm like Jeeves revealing himself as a drum savant.
Among the albums they’ve released is one titled Blues Pyromaniacs, which is a reasonable description for their fiery approach, without being as iconoclastic as a Jack White, fr’instance.  Sauda swaps his resonator for a 3-stringed contraption combining a cigar box body and a broom handle neck for a bout of serious swing and groove, before getting well bendy on another song, and at one stage throwing something like an early U2 vibe (I’m talking 1980 here) into the mix.
At which point Dennis Greaves and Mark Feltham enter the fray and introduce Motown into the equation, combining with the Superdownhomers on the Four Tops’ ‘I Can’t Help Myself’.  The Nine Below Zero fellas were pretty hard-hitting themselves in their early days of course, but in recent years their soul’n’Mod influences have become more apparent and less angular.  So the
"Help, Dennis!  Someone's superglued my mic!"
juxtaposition with the thistly groove laid down by Sauda and Facchetti is interesting as they rattle through ‘Watch Yourself’ and the train-clacking ‘Riding On The L&N’, with Feltham on vocals and knocking out some wonderful harp that’s a foretaste of more to come.
It's a set that gives a new spin to some old classics, but in balanced, varied fashion.  There’s a wonderful, soulful take on Ry Cooder’s ‘Why Don’t You Try Me Tonight’, and later the Willy Deville-inspired ‘Carmelita’, which evokes Jimmy Buffett’s laid-back ‘Margarita Time’. And further in the soulful vein there’s a great reading of ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, flitting from a sweetly marvellous Feltham harp solo to a wildly discordant Sauda break.
But there’s also rock’n’roll in the shape of ‘Woolly Bully’, chugging NBZ fave ‘Homework’, and Chuck Berry’s ‘Move It’, which comes with a ‘Peter Gunn’ undertow and typically evocative Chuck imagery.  And there’s classic blues too, with a bubbling ‘Ice Cream Man’, a very much down’n’dirty ‘Shake Your Money Maker’ with the Superdownhomers to the fore, and a guttural, ‘gertcha’ gut-punch of ‘Stop Breaking Down Blues’.  And on a tasty encore centred on ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’ Sauda cuts loose with a bonkers falsetto vocal.
It's not a desperate clash of styles between the two outfits, but I sense it took a fair bit of focus to hold it together and keep it tight, so kudos to both parties for making it work.  It was great to catch up with the inimitable Greaves’n’Feltham combo in a different setting, and an encouraging intro to Superdownhome too.  “Tutto a posto,” as they say in these parts!

Tuesday, June 20, 2023

Luke Morley - Songs From The Blue Room

If you go down to the woods today, and start playing Luke Morley’s Songs From The Blue Room in the expectation of some Thunderous hard rock befitting the lead guitarist from Britain’s premier rock combo of recent times, then you’re sure of a big surprise.  To say that Blue Room is a different kettled of potatoes is putting it mildly.  I mean, there are moments here that sound like . . . Mary Hopkin?
For those who don’t know, Hopkin was a Welsh folk-pop chanteuse of the 60s and early 70s, who came third in the 1970 Eurovision, married Bowie producer Tony Visconti, and was one of the first signings to Apple Records.  More to the point though, her biggest hit was ‘Those Were
Luke Morley gets down to some songwriting in, er, a brown room
Pic by Jason Joyce
The Days’, an English language rewrite of an old Russian song – and Luke Morley’s ‘Nobody Cares’ veers towards similar Eastern European-leaning musical terrain.  Yes, really.  Morley delivers a meditative vocal set to a romantic melody, over lilting guitar strummings and a low-key rhythm section, sweetened by the arrival of mandolin and crystallising in a swaying, gypsy-like “La la la” chorus and similarly bohemian-styled guitar break.
Okay, so it’s just one track, but there are two other points worth drawing from this little diversion.‘Those Were The Days’ was a hit in 1968, and was produced by a certain Paul McCartney. These are the real keys to Songs From The Blue Room, which is steeped in melodic pop sounds from Morley’s childhood in the late 60s and early 70s - and particularly The Beatles and their ilk.
Opening track ‘I Wanna See The Light’, for example, features a descending guitar line that owes a few quid to ‘Here Comes The Sun’.  It evolves though, into something more akin to Del Amitri (which is, I hope we can all agree, a good thing), with a sunny feel and a catchy, driving chorus that’s given a lift by backing vocals from Julie Maguire and Carly Greene.  And there’s a very latter-day Fab Four feel to the following ‘Killed By Cobain’, especially in the gossipy backing vocals of the bridge, as Morley twinklingly recalls the revolution of grunge, and how it put paid to Thunder’s ambitions in America.
There are more echoes of Del Amitri with ‘Watch The Sun Going Down’ – though Del Amitri in cheerful mode, as Morley never approaches the withering lyrical darkness Justin Currie often musters – combining acoustic chording and a brief harmonica break that could have been sampled from ‘Love Me Do’.  And there’s tootling harp on ‘Lying To Myself’ too, to go with a clip-clopping rhythm, jangly acoustic guitar and mandolin, and Hollies-like harmonies.
Morley goes down some different avenues with ‘Errol Flynn’ and ‘Damage’.  The former is a simple country-ish tune with an elegiac tone as it contemplates the fading away of heroes.  Meanwhile, ‘Damage’ has a whimsical oompah feel, with Morley’s right hand plonking away at just one or two piano chords, and then a very Brian May-like guitar solo arrives on the scene, together with some lush, offbeat backing vocals. Think ‘Good Old-Fashioned Lover Boy’ but, y’know – less Mercurial.  Well, a bit anyway.
The most muscular thing here is ‘I’m The One You Want’, with its snappy drums, jabbing electric guitar chords, and twangy bass.  It bumps along merrily on a summery tune, colliding with a squibbly (technical term there) little funk-tinged bridge that’s reprised at the end, with some scrabbling guitar work in between.  ‘Don’t Be Long’ then closes things out in Beatles-ballad fashion, led by piano and voice and with strings and woozy slide guitar adding a dreamy feel. 
Songs From The Blue Room isn’t an especially impactful album, really.  But Luke Morley being the pro that he is, both as a songwriter and a musician, it’s still a neat, enjoyable diversion - and suggests that if he's ever in need of a new gig, he could usefully get together with, say, Macca, Ringo and Jeff Lynne.  Nobody's ever done anything like that before.
Songs From The Blue Room is released by Conquest Music on 23 June, and can be ordered here.

Monday, June 12, 2023

Ashley Sherlock - Just A Name

He does his own thing, does Ashley Sherlock.  He’s been tagged as blues-rock, but that doesn’t feel like an entirely accurate label on the strength of Just A Name.  I mean, there’s bluesiness in there from time to time, but over the piece his style is often just a little different.
The opening track ‘Trouble’ sets out his stall pretty well, combining his keening vocals with some big, plunging chords on the chorus, in a manner that’s interesting and not derivative, set off by a
Ashley Sherlock dares to wear flares
Pic by Charlotte Wells
needling guitar solo.  There’s an angsty kinda vibe going on here that probably owes as much to rootsy pop and indie influences as to anything of a bluesy persuasion.  Think Kings Of Leon, maybe.  Or, y’know, not.
He and his bandmates Charlie Rachael Kay (bass) and Danny Rigg (drums) share all the songwriting duties, and display a liking for quiet-loud dynamics at times.  ‘I Think That She Knows’ combines twirling bass and flickering guitar notes as the foundation for Sherlock’s earnest vocal, with its occasional falsetto catch of emotion, but if the chorus feels a bit lightweight, there’s a rousing bridge to compensate, and a wobbly sounding guitar theme that prompts a tasteful, melodic solo.  And there’s light and shade in ‘Empty Street’ too, which shifts between daydreaming country-ish verses to a punchy chorus underpinned by big ringing chords that seem like a Sherlock trademark, and go well with the slight Celtic tinge to his guitar break.
There gets to be a “more of the same” pattern to some of these tunes, as on the lovelorn ballad ‘Our Love, which has more quiet vocal and shimmering guitar stuff, but without any eruptions of power; or on the meditative ‘Something’s Got To Give’, though it lives up to its title with a burst of energy for its chorus, and revs up in its second half with a frenetic guitar break.  And while the trio of songs that close the album are okay, they don’t really add much to this stylistic equation.
There are some different, better moments to be had before then though.  ‘Realise’ has a bit more edge to it, its jagged, bristling guitar chords conjuring up gritty texture rather than a distinct riff, while Sherlock chucks in a heap of falsetto.  ‘Time’ goes down a different path, with ripples of gypsy-ish acoustic guitar as the backing for a lilting vocal.  It’s an appealing tune with a straightforward, catchy chorus, and Sherlock kicks it up a notch with a couple of flurries of sparkling guitar.  And if ‘Dear Elizabeth’ is a reasonable tune that meanders a bit, it’s also elevated by some nifty guitar from Sherlock, developing a tasty theme that weaves its way back to the melody, while Kay and Rigg pack some convincing wallop on bass and drums.
This is a creditable, encouraging debut outing from Sherlock and chums, and they get extra points for developing their own distinctive sound.  A bit more emphasis on quality and variety in the songwriting department wouldn’t go amiss, but hopefully that’ll come with experience.  I’m not sure they’re really my cup of Lapsang Souchong, when all’s said and done, but Just A Name was a pleasant surprise all the same.
Just A Name is released by Ruf Records on 16 June, and can be ordered here.

Wednesday, June 7, 2023

Joanna Connor - Best Of Me

That fidgety scraping sound you can hear?  That’s me scratching my head.  Why?  Well, because I’m mightily puzzled by this new album from Chicago blueser Joanna Connor, that’s why.
See, if you cast your mind back, you may recall that in 2021 Joanna Connor released 4801 South Indiana Avenue – an absolute belter of an album that grabbed the attention because, as I wrote at the time, Connor delivered rip-roaring slide guitar and sang with Joplin-esque abandon.  But if 4801 was a passionate, feral creature, Best Of Me is more of a drowsy house cat.
True, a few tracks here are invested with proper drive and rock’n’roll conviction.  ‘Highway Child’ is tootling Texas-style blues, on which Joe Bonamassa makes an appearance to tear things up a bit in tandem with a gritty, turbo-charged slide solo from Connor.  But the production feels thin
Joanna Connor - "Ouch!  That hurts!"
Pic by Allison Morgan
and the song pretty much fizzles out.  ‘Mercury Blues’, however, really cuts the mustard.  The only cover on the album, it’s a blast of boogie dating back to 1948 that’s propelled by some energetic skins-bashing from David Abbruzzese, while Connor herself lets loose with a strident vocal and some buzzing, fizzing slide guitar that really should be higher in the mix.  And the closing ‘Shine On’ rocks away merrily, with crisp drums and a tumbling, ear-catching riff, and if the melody and lyrics don’t exactly set the heather on fire the guitar soloing of Connor and the guesting Gary Hoey compensates in darting, quicksilver fashion.  Sadly, these grabbers are in the minority.
When ‘House Rules’ kicks the album off, it’s in a good-time soul-funk vein, with Connor’s snaky slide guitar playing second fiddle to a welter of flaring, parping horns.  From there they downshift into ‘Pain And Pleasure’, a cooler soul groove that features a metronome-clicking beat and stop-start bass and is, in spite of a swooping slide break from Connor, something of a non-event.  These songs are just about passable, but the same can’t be said of something like ‘All I Want Is You’, a horribly dated slice of soul weighed down by some dire, soppy lyrics.
There are some decent moments along the way, mind you.  ‘Best Of Me’ itself may be bland easy listening, but it develops an interesting rollercoaster-tinged riff and Connor adds a sensitive, swirling slide solo.  She takes that sensitivity further on the emotional mother-to-son ballad ‘I Lost You’, veering atmospherically from firefly flickering to taut sustain in a manner worthy of Gary Moore, augmented by subtle piano colourings from Dan Souvigny. Meanwhile the hip-twitching ‘Two Of A Kind’ is the best stab at funk here, Connor bringing a kinda sexy, girlish timbre to her vocal, and adding a bristling guitar solo while the rhythm section and horns strut their stuff to good effect.  Oh yeah, and Mike Zito turns up to enliven ‘Shadow Lover’ with some tasteful guitar work.
It pains me to mark Best Of Me down like this, because I expected so much more from Joanna Connor after 4801 South Indiana Avenue.  Of course, she wasn’t compelled to repeat that album’s formula of high-octane takes on a bundle of well-selected covers.  Still, if she’d explored different avenues here with the same intent and clarity, all might have been well.  But with the 10 original songs here, Connor and her bassist/co-writer Shaun Calloway have unfortunately come up short too often.  Fingers crossed this is just a bump in the road, and next time we really will get the best of Joanna Connor.
Best Of Me
 is released by Gulf Coast Records on 9 June.

Sunday, June 4, 2023

Selwyn Birchwood - Exorcist

Exorcist may sound like a pretty menacing title for his latest album, but I reckon there ain’t much darkness on the edge of Selwyn Birchwood’s town.  The Floridian singer and guitarist’s modus operandi is generally of the upbeat variety.
Sure, the title track conjures up some metaphorical voodoo for an imaginative lyric about being trapped in a bad relationship, but the music is cool and rhythmic, heightened by a moaning tenor sax break from Regi Oliver, rather than heavy and threatening.  And this is still about as gloomy as our Selwyn ever gets – which isn’t, y’know, any kind of crime.
‘Underdog’ may tell the tale of someone who’s written off by others, but the message is one of
Selwyn Birchwood smiling up a storm
Pic by Jay Skolnick
resilience, of someone who says “I thrive on doubt, and this dog bites back”, set to a bubbling, loosely funky groove, with fizzing guitar tones surfacing now and then around Birchwood’s insistent vocal, and with a cheese-wire sharp lap steel solo.  And if ‘My Own Worst Enemy’ is a litany of self-criticism, it kinda feels like Birchwood’s heart isn’t really in it, to the extent that the tune and guitar work may be okay, but overall it feels a bit underwhelming.
Yup, positivity and fun are where Selwyn is really at.  ‘FLorida Man’ is an amusing take on batshit crazy behaviour in his home state, “Where the Wild West meets the Dirty South”, bopping along to a lurching rhythm, with Birchwood firing off some grinding, squealing slide along the way.  ‘Swim At Your Own Risk’ is a companion piece, a comic take of law and disorder, with a bubbling bass line from Donald ‘Huff’ Wright to go with some aquatic sound effects and conversationally squeaking lap steel.  Meanwhile ‘Hopeless Romantic’ is a celebration rather than a lament, a slice of spiky, twitchy funk given some caramel sweetness by cooing backing vocals from Charlyce Simmons and Vanessa Hawkins, while Birchwood sprays plenty of guitar glitter around.
By and large Birchwood goes for a very modern blues sound, but a few songs suggest he’s also a keen student of blues roots.  ‘Call Me What You Want To’ is straight up jump blues, with Jim McKaba on piano plinking away with his right hand while rocking with his left, bolstered by stand-up bass from Andrew Gohman, and Birchwood cutting a rug with some flip-flop-flying, jitterbugging guitar.  Opening track ‘Done Cryin’’ is in a BB King/Robert Cray soulful blues mode, Birchwood’s molasses-rich growl supplemented by Oliver’s smoky sax, and counterpointed by stinging, cleverly phrased guitar.  The slower ‘Plenty More To Be Grateful For’ takes this further, Birchwood encouraging an optimistic outlook over some smoochily old-fashioned backing, with female backing vocals adding to the mood – although Birchwood’s fluttering solo gets a bit too jazzy for my taste.
The wackily titled ‘ILa-View’ is swinging blues that deploys a ‘small big band’ sound, full of rinky-dink piano from McKaba, while Birchwood trots out a heap of similes for the strength of his love, á la “I love you baby, like a wino loves grapes”, and adds a skating lap steel solo.  And there’s room for gospel too, as he gets into a biblical vein with ‘Lazarus’.
Losing a couple of tracks, and trimming a couple of others, would have made Exorcist tighter and more focused.  A couple of stronger hooks wouldn’t have gone amiss either.  But hey, there’s still plenty good stuff to enjoy here – and who wouldn’t want to spend an hour or so accentuating the positive in the company of a cheerful fella like Selwyn Birchwood?
 is released by Alligator Records on 9 June.