Thursday, August 24, 2023

Coco Montoya - Writing On The Wall

If you’re a fan of classic electric blues stylings, then this album by Coco Montoya may be just the ticket.  Let’s face it, as an alumnus of John Mayall’s bands in days gone by, Montoya should know what he’s doing in this musical sphere – and Writing On The Wall confirms that he does.
Opener ‘I Was Wrong’ is a archetypal slow-ish blues, with a lyric that pleads for forgiveness complemented by stinging but conversational guitar licks, and an interesting arrangement featuring some staccato segments and flutterings of organ adding colour in the background. And Montoya goes on to confirm his chops in this department with both ‘Stop’ and ‘What Did I Say?’. The Lonnie Mack slow blues ‘Stop’ is nothing special as a song, but it’s still sensitively delivered,
Coco Montoya - "Hi ho, hi ho, it's off to work we go!"
Pic by Victoria Smith
with an expressive solo from Montoya that’s augmented by organ from Jeff Paris. And ‘What Did I Say?’ is even better, a smoochy ballad that has echoes of the Clapton/Cray tune ‘Old Love’, with controlled playing and tone from Montoya, and a sincere, contemplative vibe that puts me in mind of Walter Trout in slowie mode.
It's not all solemn fare though, and in a more upbeat vein a couple of the highlights are Frankie Miller’s ‘Be Good To Yourself’ and the title track.  ‘Be Good To Yourself’ is suitably lively, and just about lives up to Miller’s version, though Frankie probably had a touch more personality vocally. Meanwhile ‘Writing On The Wall’ underlines Montoya’s range, with a JJ Cale-like country-ish feel founded on shuffling drums from Rena Beavers, and featuring acoustic guitar, honky tonk piano, and a piercing guitar solo from multi-instrumentalist co-conspirator Paris, while Montoya contributes a rasping vocal.
‘Save It For The Next Fool’ is bright and bouncing too, with an undulating bass line from Nathan Jones bringing extra suppleness to the laid back rhythm, while some neat and playful Montoya soloing emulates novel lyrics like “You can’t talk the jam back in the jar”.  And there’s much fun to be had too on the Chicago R’n’B stylings of the Don Robey song ‘You Got Me (Where You Want Me), with Montoya duelling with Ronnie Baker Brooks on guitar in fine fashion, over tripping drums.
Songs like ‘(I’d Rather Feel) Bad About Doin’ It’ and ‘Baby, You’re A Drag’ may be a bit lightweight, but in the former case it’s still a neatly loose and funky shuffle, with producer Tony Braunhagel taking over the drum stool as it delivers some humorous takes on biblical episodes.‘Late Last Night’ is a simple but satisfying slice of mid-tempo boogie, a tale of a night on the tiles for which the title is a serious understatement, with a sparkling guitar solo to partner neat lines like “I climbed Blueberry Hill, sure enough got my thrill”.
The album closes with two more songs that go down melancholy and sunny roads respectively.‘The Three Kings And Me’ is a mellow reflection on being alone at Christmas – sounding a bit out of place as I’m listening to it in August – apart from the music of the titular three Kings on the stereo, with subtle guitar remarks and a couple of nods to ‘Winter Wonderland’ along the way.  Contrastingly, ‘Natural Born Love Machine’ is a breezy strut with a swinging chorus, in which the narrator reflects that he’s punching above his weight with a sexy woman.
Writing On The Wall is a good solid album, with numerous highlights and no out-and-out duds. Credit is due to Montoya and his writing partners Jeff Paris and Dave Steen for fashioning ten enjoyable originals to go with the three covers, and overall it’s assembled admirably (and economically) under the direction of producer Braunhagel.  It’s not an album to shake your foundations, but it should make you nod along with satisfaction.
Writing On The Wall is released by Alligator Records on 1 September.

Tuesday, August 8, 2023

Robert Jon & The Wreck - Ride Into The Light

What can I say about Robert Jon & The Wreck that I haven’t said already?  Precious little perhaps, but here goes anyway, with their latest album Ride Into The Light.
Some of this album may sound familiar to you, because it includes all four tracks from their One Of A Kind EP released back in March, just a month before their hefty Live At The Ancienne Belgique outing. Now, in this day and age I think the Wreckers may be onto something by departing from the “album every two years” kinda release schedule of past decades, especially when many artists overburden those albums with 13 or 14 songs.  Of course, it helps when you’re as prolific at writing belters as Robert Jon Burrison and co,
Robert Jon & The Wreck draw straws to decide who's not getting a seat
Pic by Rob Bondurant
but maintaining your profile with regular new music seems like a good scheme to me.  Can’t say I’m quite so convinced about including the entirety of an EP on your next studio album just a few months later, but hell, what do I know?
Whatever.  Ride Into The Light underlines the Wreck’s sublime talent as purveyors of good rockin' tonite.  Like the Stones, they’re not heavy like metal, but they sure do rock’n’roll.  Opener ‘Pain No More’ clatters into life with a staccato riff before downshifting for Burrison to deliver a conversational verse, then they ramp up through a harmony-enhanced chorus before cycling back to that neck-snapping riff.  And then lead guitarist Henry James (aka Schneekluth) gets to work in typically fine fashion.  But here’s the thing – they’re just getting warmed up.
A little later ‘Come At Me’ is a trump card and then some – top quality, in yer face rockin’, chock-full of big riffing, clever little turnarounds on the tense verses, and a surging, headbanging, shoutalong chorus, to which James adds a sharp, stinging guitar solo.  But the Wreck really do know when they’ve got their hands on a killer hook, and they batter you over the head with this one to create three minutes and fifteen seconds of dynamite.  Then they follow that with the juddering, slamming ‘One Of A Kind’, replete with slaloming slide fills and another blistering James solo.  I mean shit – what do these guys take of a morning to get this juiced up?  A quart of OJ and Red Bull?  Each?  And just to be clear, I mean all of ‘em, because while Burrison and James are out front shaking up a storm, that vibrant sound is an ensemble affair, driven along by a crack rhythm section in drummer Andrew Espantman and bassist Warren Murrel, plus additional organ voltage and piano decoration from Jake Abernathie.  Oh yeah, and they dial up killer harmonies all over the place too.
And those harmonies are well to the fore on their more mellow side, typified by the excellent Eagles-style country rock of ‘Who Can You Love’, which surfs in on some shimmering guitar before conjuring up another chorus to die for.  Seriously, where do these guys find all these hooks?  Did they stumble over a treasure chest of ‘em buried in their backyard or something?  Or sell their collective souls to the devil in Joshua Tree National Park on some chilly Californian night?  Mind you, their other ballady-type outing here, the Thrills-like ‘West Coast Eyes’, is a smidgen too mellow for my tastes, notwithstanding some more standout slide guitar from Henry James.  Is it a duff tune?  Hell no, it’s plenty stylish and well put together – just a bit too sweet to be wholesome. 
Along the way there’s ‘Bring Me Back Home Again’, a dynamic affair veering between a slow, storm-laden mood with stomping drums from Espantman and slithering slide commentary from James, more reflective piano and vocal moments, and soaring vocals from Burrison on the chorus.  ‘Don’t Look Down’ features another rattling, helter-skelter riff, a punchy melody with Robert Jon giving it less than his full tilt holler – just – plus some guitar duelling and a nah-nah-nah singalong to close.
After all that, the closing ‘Ride Into The Light’ is a lighter, summery affair to send you on your way, possibly cruising down the highway through Big Sur to the accompaniment of its catchy harmonised guitar line.
If you haven’t been Wrecked by Robert Jon and his buddies before now, it’s not too late.  Ride Into The Light is a lip-smacking introduction that will have you digging into their impressive back catalogue until their next release comes along – which will probably be in a month or two.
Ride Into The Light is out now on Journeyman Records.

Robert Jon & The Wreck are touring Britain from 13-24 September.  Full details of all tour dates, and tickets, are available here.

Wednesday, August 2, 2023

Jimmy Regal and the Royals - First And Last Stop

What to make of Jimmy Regal and the Royals?   With a set-up that’s essentially harp and vocals, guitar, and drums, they don’t follow yer typical blues group rules of engagement. Mind you, they’re not quite as stripped down as that on First And Last Stop, because guitarist CJ Williams also contributes bass and lap steel when occasion demands it, and harmonica man Joff Watkins picks up a guitar now and then to augment Williams’ picking.  And what’s more, they call on a gaggle of horn players for some tracks, plus djembe player Alan Hughes, and backing vocalist Tricia Davies Nearne here and there.
Jimmy Regal & The Royals - "Which one's Jimmy?"
So what kind of sound do they make from these varied resources?  Well, the Royal boys don’t plough a single furrow, and dare to be different on several tracks.  But the results include some pluses and also some minuses.
Among the high points are ‘Empty Streets’ and  ‘Bones To Dust’, both of which show their handy way with North Mississippi Hill Country influences.  ‘Empty Streets’ majors on a revolving, typically hypnotic North Mississippi guitar groove, peppered with slide remarks and some zinging soloing from Williams to create interesting textures.  And later on ‘Bones To Dust’ deploys a classic push-pull guitar riff’n’rivvum, which they then play around with to good effect, adding a halting, interesting guitar break from Williams, a bee-buzzing bridge, and a punchy sax intervention from Chris Rand.
They also have fun on a couple of tracks that travel further down the Mississippi.  The opening ‘(Got To Make A) New Flame’ has a tub-thumping rhythm, some fuzzy rhythm guitar, and a second-line funk vibe from the horns that hints at N’Awlins, with an appealing chantalong chorus, and a pinging guitar break from Williams.  And penultimate track ‘Fat Man’s Chicken’ is something of a Cab Calloway-like blast, with paradiddling drums, shouted out chorus, more NOLA-like horns – including a piercing trumpet solo from Titch Walker - and a train-chugging harp break from Watkins.
They’re interesting too, when they tap into some different blues roots.  ‘Ain’t Done Yet’ for example, brings together tripping drums, bobbling bass and Morse Code horns, but most interestingly some undulating guitar work from Williams that suggests he’s been listening to Malian types like King Sunny Ade and Songhoy Blues.  Rippling guitar and djembe percussion are also key to the title track, which develops a mesmeric feel even as Tricia Davies Nearne chips in with backing vocals and Watkins adds a layer of tootling harp.
A different upbeat moment – and a familiar-sounding one – is ‘You Can’t Run’, featuring tooting horns over a stumbling rhythm and more pattering drums from Sammy Samuels.  It took me a while to figure out what it reminded me of, but ultimately the answer, with the horns and that rhythm, is Fleetwood Mac’s ‘Tusk’, embroidered with some spiky, edgy guitar and a squawking harp break.
There are some less positive aspects though, one of which is Joff Watkins’ singing.  He gets better as the album progresses, but on the first couple of tracks, ‘(Got To Make A) New Flame’ and ‘Ain’t Done Yet’, he leans towards a quavering tone that just isn’t my thing.  He sounds a bit more confident on the loping, slinky groove of ‘Can’t Keep From Losing You’, with its woozy slide guitar and moaning harp, but he’s still outshone by Nearne’s warm backing vocals.  And a few songs are on the thin side too, such as the languid ‘Do Whatever You Can’ and the twitching, skipping ‘Show Time’.
Still, credit is due to the Royals for trying to find some new grooves.  When they start playing off New Orleans, North Mississippi and West African sounds they get particularly interesting – and they may have the potential for even better blues-fusion cooking with those ingredients in the future.
First And Last Stop is out now, and is available from Lunaria Records here.