Monday, December 18, 2023

Mike Zito & Albert Castiglia - Blood Brothers: Live In Canada

Reviewing these guys' Blood Brothers studio album back in March, I expressed a “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”.  Well, friends, I am here to tell you that THIS IS THAT FREAKIN’ ALBUM!
From the minute they crack open ‘Hey Sweet Mama’, everything is just as it should be.  The Quo-like boogie-ing riff rings out like a bell to pave the way for a Skynyrd-like blast of rocking blues, their voices fitting together perfectly as Mike Zito provides high harmonies to complement Albert Castiglia’s growl, while Lewis Stephens flings in piano trills as an extra spark.  Oh yeah, and there are rock’n’rollin’ solos from both parties to top things off.
"Hey Mike, I think he likes it!"

The following ‘Tooth And Nail’ confirms that they mean business.  It starts off as a sturdy strut, with harmonised guitars cranking out its ‘Green Onions’-ish riff, with slamming punctuation from the doubled up drums of Matt Johnson and Ephraim Lowell and a snarling vocal from Castiglia.  But it builds up a head of steam through rollercoaster passages of slide guitar, till it turns into a tyre-squealing, siren-blazing, bodywork-crunching car chase of a thing.
And so it goes on.  ‘In My Soul’ is a Southern-sounding epic to give recent leaders of that pack Robert Jon & The Wreck a run for their money and then some, bringing together spangly, mirrorball-like strumming, thudding drums, sweeps of organ, and more great harmonies, before lifting off into a whole other, stratospheric level of spiralling guitar and Zito singing feelingly that “I need love in my soul”.  ‘A Thousand Heartaches’ opens with simple chords and a tumbling guitar line, as a precursor to the swoonsome melody that illuminates its achingly romantic lyric, with dashes of perfectly complementary piano and organ.  With all its light and shade, and a stunning, intense solo, it’s a real delight.
Ten of the eleven tracks on the studio album feature, but the likes of ‘No Good Woman’ and ‘My Business’ seem transformed.  The former is a relaxed, loping blues of the kind Zito has made a speciality over the years, and in this rendition is bristling with character.  Meanwhile John Hiatt’s ‘My Business’ rides a Willie Dixon-style Chicago blues riff that sounds like it’s being attacked by a panel beater with a grudge, and features a screeching, buzzsaw-on-metal slide solo to go with the acidic distaste of the vocals.
Fans of the Allmans are likely to drool over ‘Hill Country Jam’, a lengthy but structured instrumental that evolves from its loose, conversational opening full of neat guitar harmonising into a funky strut that’s the cue for a pumped-up organ solo from Lewis Stephens, building until they downshift into a breezy section. There’s fine guitar work and clever shifts in pace, with swinging drums and grooving bass from Doug Byrkit, culminating in several minutes’ worth of bass and drums showcases – some of which is even quite interesting.
More pointed is the bitter, teeth-gritted slow blues ‘You’re Gonna Burn’, on which Castiglia observes convincingly that “I don’t get mad but I get even, if it takes me a hundred years”, and adds a fiery guitar solo to live up to the title.  And ‘Bag Me, Tag Me’ is a burst of heads down, no nonsense rock’n’roll, like Chuck Berry hopped up on amphetamines, fit to make you to dance like no-one is watching.
Which just leaves two tracks that didn’t feature on the studio outing.  Firstly there’s a laid back rendition of Zito’s atmospheric, swaying ‘Gone To Texas’, extended to accommodate guitar harmonies and counterpointing that eventually resolve into the theme from ‘Jessica’ – a trick that’s become a cliché nowadays, but I’ll let ‘em off on this occasion.  And then they close by laying waste to all and sundry with a pulverising, guitar-scrambling, neck-snapping take on ‘Rockin’ In The Free World’ that does justice to Neil Young’s frothing rage.
In short, Blood Brothers – Live In Canada is 78 minutes of electrifyin' bluesifyin’ from two of the good guys, and you need it in your life. But check your insurance, because it may indeed blow your bloody doors off.
Blood Brothers – Live In Canada is out now on Gulf Coast Records.

Thursday, December 7, 2023

Robert Connely Farr - Pandora Sessions

We’re talking down and dirty, people.  And I don’t mean some kind of greasy boogie.  I mean a corner of some juke joint you’ve stumbled into after losing your way in the dark, and losing your boots too, god knows how; and there's no floorboards and you can feel the dust messing up the soles of your feet; and there’s some guy over there with a guitar groaning like he needs a doctor. That kind of down and dirty.  And yeah, that fella with the battered six-string may well be Mississippi-born Robert Connely Farr.
I mean, there is a groove to the cheerfully titled opener ‘Everybody’s Dyin (Oh Lord I’m Getting Old)’, but it’s a primitive sounding thing, chugging and rattling and wheezing along while Farr growls his despair until it eventually expires.  And I’ve described Farr’s guitar sound as “warped” before, when reviewing his previous album Shake It, but it’s still a good fit for the bent and
Robert Connely Farr and Jay Bundy Johnson - sharp dressed men
Pic by Tyler McLeod
twisted notes that struggle to mesh with the dragging rhythm laid down by Jay Bundy Johnson on ‘Prowler’, while Farr drawls spooky musings about heading to Chattanooga and Vicksburg.
These guys’ modus operandi is very much less is more – as Farr puts it, “you set up, start playing, and the songs come”.  Now, you could call that jamming, but it sounds more organic, like that ol’ Zen poem: “I fetch water. I break sticks. Miracles happen!”  Or not, maybe, when the instrumental ‘Runnin Hidin Jam’, with its clanking percussion and abrasive guitar, sounds less like the path to enlightenment than scratching your head with a cheese grater.  In a good way, mind you.  And ironically, considering its title, ‘Take It Slow’ is also relatively upbeat – relatively, I say – with its spiky guitar and stop-start drums combining in a lurching groove.
On the other hand, ‘Gettin Tired Of Gettin Old’ is contemplative, with low down, slowly spiralling guitar notes and prickly chords as the foundation for Farr’s world-weariness.  Meanwhile ‘Night Train’ sho’ ain’t no James Brown cover, with stuttering, twanging guitar over the pattering drums sketching out a loose rhythm.  Similarly ‘Train Keep Rollin’ bears no relation to the Yardbirds or (heaven help us) Aerosmith, but features some geezer riding the rails who “Ain’t got nowhere to go”, to the accompaniment of Farr’s guitar looping and scrabbling like barbed wire tangled across no-man’s land.  And if you think the bonus track ‘Go Cat Go’ might be a bit of rock’n’roll then think again, because it finds Farr moaning “I bet I’m gonna walk now I bet I’m gonna Go Cat Go” over stumbling drums and fuzzy guitar, sounding trapped and ever more frustrated, like a prisoner on Death Row willing a pardon to turn up before the clock ticks down to midnight.
Less is more, like I said, and on Pandora Sessions Farr and his drummer/producer Johnson pretty much dispense with the bass that gave an extra layer to earlier albums.  Hell, they scarcely bother with drums on the bleak, droning ‘Where I Come From’, while ‘Oh Lord’ is boiled right down to a rolling guitar line and a plaintive, moaning mantra from Farr.
So sure, Pandora Sessions is nobody’s barrel of laughs.  And being honest, a few tunes are just a bit too under-nourished to latch onto.  But let yourself fall into it, follow Farr into its heart of darkness, and even if you don’t like it there’s something you’ll recognise.  It’s the blues, Jack.
Pandora Sessions is out now.

Monday, December 4, 2023

Bernie Marsden - Working Man

When Bernie Marsden died back in August, at the age of 72, it felt to me that it was untimely, that he’d gone too soon.  The fact that he’d just completed this album of new material earlier in the summer underlines that feeling.  He was still, in the words of the album title, a working man – still making music.  So it’s sad to be thinking of him in the past tense when getting to grips with this collection.
His name has always been associated with blues and blues-rock, but don’t come to Working Man those styles to dominate.  In fact just two of the 12 tracks on the album walk in the shadow of the blues, as it were.  The mid-paced opener ‘Being Famous’ strides in with a crunching riff  
Bernie Marsden - a working man with tool of his trade
Pic by Adam Kennedy
and some wiry lead lines, announcing a strong tune about the high life lived by rock stars back in the day,
Bernie’s punchy vocal backed up nicely by female voices.  Is it startlingly original?  No, it’s not – but it is very satisfying.  And so, later on, is the strutting, edgy ‘Bad Reputation’, with its piercing solo.  It’s a song to make you wish David Coverdale, with his stronger vocal muscle (in his better days at least), had still had Marsden’s skills at his disposal all these years.
These may be the only out-and-out blues-rockers on the album proper, but if you want more in the same vein, then grab the limited first pressing which comes with a bonus album of ten tracks.  Here you’ll find a couple more rockers in the shape of ‘Look At Me Now’ and ‘Who’s Fooling Who’, which both come with tough, gutsy riffs, especially the latter.  Bernie knocks out an effortlessly classy solo on ‘Look At Me Know’, and on ‘Who’s Fooling Who’ leaves room for a powerful, surging organ solo, which I’m guessing is delivered by Bob Fridzema.
Back on the main album, Marsden goes down a more melodic, AOR-ish road on several tracks, such as ‘Midtown’, ‘Invisible’ and ‘Valentine’s Day’.  The first of these starts out acoustic-led, and when it changes gear suggests Toto as much as anything bluesy, with lots of backing vocals (male this time) giving it an extra sheen.  ‘Invisible’ has a thumping beat, a swaggering riff, and some squealing lead guitar notes, and with guest vocalist Jaime Kyle at the mic comes over like something by Pat Benatar.  Meanwhile ‘Valentine’s Day’ is romantic but upbeat as Bernie urges “Stay with me darling, hold onto my hand”, and gives the song a little twist with a harmonised guitar break.  And on top of these, the title track has its own lush, melodic rock vibe to go with to with some sympathetic story-telling about a character experiencing “hard times for a working man”.
There are also a couple of brief instrumentals exploring different vibes, with ‘Steelhouse Mountain’ going down a folkie/bluesy road leaning on shimmering acoustic guitar and some pinging lead, while ‘The Pearl’ is a more fluid, mellow affair, like a soundtrack of waves rippling on a beach.
Back on the bonus album meanwhile, the most interesting departures are on the closing three tracks, comprising fresh readings of the Whitesnake tracks ‘Til The Day I Die’ and ‘Time Is Right For Love’, and the Robert Johnson classic ‘Come On In My Kitchen’.  On all of these Tom Leary contributes violin to a largely stripped back sound.  So ‘Til The Day I Die’ acquires an occasional Celtic air, dreamy rather than brooding, while ‘Time Is Right For Love’ lopes along gently, and on ‘Come On In My Kitchen’ the scraping violin and reverb-tinged vocal create an eerie feel over the top of the subtle rhythmic groove.
Over the course of the two discs there’s nearly 90 minutes of music to get your ears around, and yes, the quality dips a little in places.  But there’s still plenty to demonstrate the quality of  Bernie Marsden’s songwriting, guitar playing, and ability to interpret songs in fresh ways.  The man may be gone, but he’s left lots of music that lives on.
Working Man is released by Conquest Music on 8 December.