Wednesday, January 31, 2024

Ten Top Tracks from . . . The Black Keys

Welcome to the first outing of a new Blues Enthused feature.  Note the wording in the title though.  This ain't no ‘Top 10’, ‘Best Of’, or league table of tunes.  It’s a vaguely chronological overview, a gateway to the Black Keys’ canon if you like, and if I were to compile it next week I might well choose 10 different tracks.  And the first subjects for the Ten Top Tracks series are The Black
The happy-go-lucky Black Keys
Keys because they are, as I’ve suggested before, pretty much where my rediscovery of blues music began.  All clear?  Then pay attention to the links below if you want to listen to a particular track, and let’s rock!
‘I’ll Be Your Man’ from The Big Come Up (2002):  I remember reading an interview in which drummer Pat Carney said that when they got together all his buddy Dan Auerbach really listened to was “fucked up blues”, and this original track epitomises the raw, crackling, don’t-give-a-shit quality of their debut album – that last quality underlined by the very, er, quirky closing “song” ‘240 Years Before Your Time’.  The Akron drums’n’guitar duo throw a few impressive covers into the mix, including a pretty heavy take on the old blues classic ‘Leavin’ Trunk’, but their originals announce their arrival with a sackful of personality. 
‘have love, will travel’ from thickfreakness (2003):  Auerbach and Carney eschewed capitals for the song titles on their second album, but if anything it should be titled THICKFREAKNESS to reflect the mountainous sound the duo generated.  It’s one of my favourite Black Keys albums, partly because of that sound, and also because it’s stuffed with so many good tunes.  But from the various potential picks I’ve gone for this belting cover of a garage rock classic previously best known for the 1965 version by The Sonics.  Worth knowing though, that it was written by
one Richard Berry, who also penned ‘Louie Louie’, and though both these classics were popularised by white kids (The Kingsmen in the latter case), Berry was a black doo-wop and R’n’B artist.
‘Just Couldn’t Tie Me Down’ from Rubber Factory (2004):  The Black Keys continued to mine their productive early seam of punk-ish blues on their third album, which was recorded in – guess what? – a disused rubber factory.  This irresistible original epitomises the strengths in their early sound, with walloping drums from Carney, a humdinger of a choppy riff and ear-
curdling slide guitar from Auerbach, and a seriously catchy melody.  Shake those hips people – you know you want to!
‘Psychotic Girl’ from Attack & Release (2008):  A&R shows the first clear signs of the Keys spreading their sonic wings with the aid of new producer Danger Mouse (aka Brian Burton), who would go on to be half of Gnarls Barkley and here introduces a raft of different instrumentation.  Songs like ‘I Got Mine’ and ‘Strange Times’ still pack a punch and a hook, but when ‘Psychotic Girl’ arrives it’s with a dreamy, psychedelic vibe, accentuated by crooning backing vocals from Carla Monday and a delicate, plinking piano motif from the Mouse fella.
‘Howlin’ For You’ from Brothers (2010):  Brothers seems to me something of a transitional album, coming in the wake of a hiatus in which Auerbach and Carney barely spoke to each other, to the point where Auerbach didn’t even tell his bandmate he was releasing a solo album, while for his part Carney’s marriage was falling apart.  But it’s also the point at which the Keys became a seriously big deal, winning Grammys, registering hit singles, and the album eventually going platinum.  ‘Howlin’ For You’ is one of those gold disc singles, its glam-rock stomping vibe pointing forward to what would come next.
‘Little Black Submarines’ from El Camino (2011):  When I first heard El Camino, I remarked to a friend that it was like Jimmy Page and John Bonham had stumbled across a T.Rex recording session, and Jimmy had drawled, “Nah, that’s not how it’s done Marc.  This is how it’s done!”  That thumping glam-rock vibe produced a couple of mammoth hits in ‘Lonely Boy’ and ‘Gold On The Ceiling’, and it still tickles me that there’s a riff on ‘Run Right Back’ which carries echoes of Mud’s ‘Tigerfeet’.  (Did the Keys ever “really love your tigerfeet”?  Somehow I doubt it.)  But ‘Little Black Submarines’ actually is even more Zeppelin-esque, with a couple of wistful, acoustic verses before ripsnorting chords and crashing drums demonstrate just how heavy they can get, a shout of “Hey!” heralding a lipsmacking Auerbach lead guitar salvo.
‘Weight Of Love’ from Turn Blue (2014):  If ‘Psychotic Girl’ had a quasi-psychedelic feel, the near seven minutes of the opening track of Turn Blue sounds like Pink Floyd having a bash at a soul ballad.  The intro is patient and elegiac, and after the sweetly sad verses (stacked with high harmonies from the wonderful McCrary sisters) the song culminates in a sweeping, soaring,
layered guitar workout from Auerbach.  Turn Blue isn’t the most accessible of Black Keys albums, but ‘Weight Of Love’ is still a statement track.
‘Sit Around And Miss You’ from ‘Let’s Rock’ (2019):  If Turn Blue wasn’t entirely radio friendly, ‘Let’s Rock’ is very much the opposite – carefree and hit-heavy.  I could probably have picked from half a dozen tracks across the album’s breezy 39 minutes, among them the terrifically catchy ‘Lo/Hi’ and ‘Get Yourself Together’, but I’m going for the delightfully woozy ‘Sit Around And Miss You’, which sounds like our boys have been giving Stealer’s Wheel a damn good listening to.
‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ from Delta Kreme (2021):  Having produced an album of face-slappingly upbeat spontaneity, Auerbach and Carney then slammed on the brakes and headed back to some of their seminal influences, recording a bundle of covers typified by the deep grooves of North Mississippi hill country big cats Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside, collaborating with veterans of their bands.  The mood is low-down, slow-down, and ‘Sad Days, Lonely Nights’ is a perfect example of its loping, hypnotic sound.
‘For The Love Of Money’ from Dropout Boogie (2022):  The most recent album from the Akron boys is a bit of an uneven affair, with a few songs that probably won’t do much to turn your head.  Even ‘Your Team Is Looking Good’, which has a killer hook, is a bit of a one-trick pony.  But I’ve fished out ‘For The Love Of Money’ for the way it welds a typically bluesy riff to a late period Beatle-ish melody and rock’n’roll sensibility, with Auerbach channelling John Lennon on his vocals at times.  And frankly ‘Burn The Damn Thing Down’ is even more brazenly Fab Four-esque.  The pair had covered ‘She Said, She Said’ way back on The Big Come Up all of 20 years before, so it seems what goes around comes around.
It's in the nature of this beast that I’ve skipped a couple of recordings along the way, notably the album Magic Potion and the six track tribute Chulahoma: The Songs Of Junior Kimbrough, both from 2006, though there are a few more curiosities out there if you’re minded to look for them.  But hopefully this is a good enough Bluffer’s Guide to Akron’s finest – and will tee you up to make the most of their next album Ohio Players, due for release on 5 April.  Turn it up, folks!

A playlist of all ten tracks discussed above is now available on the Blues Enthused YouTube channel, here.
You can pre-order the new Black Keys album Ohio Players here.

Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Quickies - Evan Nicole Bell, Robby Krieger And The Soul Savages, Harpo Walker

Evan Nicole Bell – Runaway Girl EP

Twitter-using blues listeners may be familiar with the name Evan Nicole Bell.  She’s the young thing from Baltimore who shares videos of her sitting outside on the steps in the sunshine, playing covers of blues songs.  Armed with just her guitar, some loops and rhythms, and her honeyed voice, she comes across as something fresh and charming, and has garnered millions of views.
Somewhat disappointingly, her first proper release comprises just three tracks, plus a radio edit of the title track.  But still, what has young Evan got for us?
Evan Nicole Bell - playing on a front step near . . . Baltimore
Opening track ‘Burn’ has a vaguely Latin feel, and if there’s something sunny about the relaxed sway of it, the lyrics are a bit more downbeat.  After a minute drums arrive to pep up the clicking rhythm a bit, but overall the vibe remains a bit too nu-soul, a bit like Sade but without the sleek froideur.
It’s a handbrake turn from there into ‘Catfish Blues’, which Bell launches with a flurry of trilling guitar notes en route to the riff being delivered with Hendrixy fuzz over a steady beat and stutters of bass.  Bell’s vocal ranges from reflective to sultry to hints of raunch, while she saddles up on guitar to deliver a couple of tasty breaks before wrapping up sharpish in three short minutes.
‘Runaway Girl’ itself is the strongest offering here, though some way off what could reasonably be described as blues.  At its core are stop-start piano chords over a lazy beat, while Bell manipulates the interesting melody into a rattle-and-pause vocal.  For a while it sounds like the skeleton of some modern R&B chart-directed tune, but it gets more impressive as Bell’s vocal gets more agitated and soulful, culminating in a guitar break of needle-sharp wiriness.
The Runaway Girl EP is little more than a toe dipped in the water from Evan Nicole Bell.  A full assessment of her talents will have to wait for a more substantive outing.
The Runaway Girl EP is out now.
Robby Kreiger And The Soul Savages – Robby Krieger And The Soul Savages

I think it’s safe to say that I’m not really the target audience for this all-instrumental album from one-time Doors guitarist Robby Krieger.  Whereas the Doors came up with a string of great, distinctive songs that I could absolutely get behind, the Soul Savages offer up a sleek brand of jazz-fusion that doesn’t do much for me at all.
The musicianship is certainly high-level, focused largely on the interplay between Krieger’s
Robby Krieger - not such a savage soul
guitar and the keyboards of Ed Roth, but the chops of bassist Kevin Brandon and drummer Franklin Vanderbilt are also self-evident.  The trouble is that they’re collaborating on material
that, despite their name, lacks any real soul.
For example, there are interesting things going on in the opening ‘Shark Skin Suit’, from the funky bass groove to some queasy, oddball keyboard fills, and low-bending guitar picking up the main theme before Roth and Krieger get busy on an organ break and a more upscale guitar solo respectively.  But the whole doesn’t really sum like even the sum of its parts.  And could ‘A Day In LA’, with its laid grooves, form the background to a movie scene involving beautiful people messing around on a sun-kissed West Coast beach?  Or is it just elevator music?
‘Contrary Motion’ is interesting in so far as it’s built around a theme – nothing so vulgar as a riff on display here – that sounds maddeningly familiar.  Is it a facsimile of something from Colosseum II’s Variations, or an echo of some 60s/70s movie theme?  Whatever, Krieger adds some interestingly warped guitar play, and Roth some pseudo-classical organ, but it all feels rather like an exercise in cleverness, without any emotional content.
On ‘Bouncy Betty’ it feels like Betty isn’t so much bouncy as a bit coquettish, fluttering her musical eyelashes.  Meanwhile ‘Richochet Rabbit’ has neither the zing of a ricochet nor the scurrying energy of a rabbit, comprising largely inconsequential noodling.
I’ll give ‘em some credit for ‘Blue Brandino’, on which an intriguing opening groove is interrupted by peremptory bursts of twiddling guitar and organ, in a manner vaguely redolent of Paice Ashton Lord’s ‘Ghost Story’.  Krieger adds a more muscular guitar solo, and late on there’s aheap of phasing going on to maintain the attention, but that’s about as good as it gets.
Tom Walker plays invisible harp
I have visions of Fagen and Becker sitting in the control room while some session guns for hire doodle away for a few minutes at the end of a recording session, and Fagen saying:  “Yeah, well we don’t need any of this shit, do we?”  “Hell no,” replies Becker.  But like I say, this really just isn’t my scene, man.
Robby Krieger And The Soul Savages is out now on The Players Club/Mascot Label Group, and can be ordered here.
Harpo Walker – Bruised Heart Blues

This is one of the more interesting instances of “ones that got away” from last year – kept meaning to write about it, but never quite managed it.
British singer, harp player, guitarist and songwriter Tom ‘Harpo’ Walker emigrated to Australia a couple of years before the pandemic, and shortly afterwards rediscovered his musical mojo after walking into a Sydney pub and tripping over a blues jam.  And so here he is with Bruised Heart Blues, covering a few blues bases, mostly in a laid back kinda vein.
A couple of tunes carry hints of JJ Cale, the more convincing of them being the opener ‘I’m A Fool’, with its groaning vocal, sporadic moans of harp and squeaks of conversational slide guitar.  A couple of others explore a folkie-pop groove, ‘Nothing Worth Knowing Comes Easy’ is warm, mellow and acoustic-driven, and if the melody is a bit thin, it’s still nice enough, while ‘Don’t Stop’ is a jaunty little outing with echoes of Stealer’s Wheel.
Two of the most pleasing tracks feature guest appearances from British blues chanteuse Dani Wilde.  ‘Ride On’ centres on a very ‘Smokestack Lightning’ riff, but it’s Wilde’s smoochy vocal that catches the ear, forming a nice contrast with Walker’s more gravelly tones, while Ewan Lund adds pleasing spurts of pinging guitar.  Then Wilde reappears to get all breathy on the dreamy, Ray Charles-like soul of ‘Start Again’, with Lund contributing some more tasteful solo-ing.
‘Time Bomb’ brings a smoky groove and some wheezing harp to a decent, rolling tune.  Meanwhile ‘Tearing Me Up Inside’ approaches Wily Bo Walker’s ‘Voodooville’ territory, with a noir-ish, characterful narrative atmospherically delivered by Walker overly a Latin-tinged groove, to which Lund this time adds some biting guitar embellishment.
Bruised Heart Blues comes over like an easy-going session in the back room of a pub on a sunny afternoon, with a few beers and some enjoyable chat in friendly company.  If that sounds like your kind of thing, then get a round in.
Bruised Heart Blues was released in May 2023 on Big Rock Records.

Sunday, January 28, 2024

Gimme 5 - Mississippi bluesman Robert Connely Farr is our latest musical travel guide

Born in Bolton, Mississippi, and now resident in Vancouver, Robert Connely Farr's ass may be in Canada, but his heart remains in the South.  A champion of the Bentonia blues tradition maintained by famed juke joint owner Jimmy 'Duck' Holmes, Farr is a purveyor of spooky, soul-searching stripped-back blues, typified by his latest album Pandora Sessions, released in October 2023.  So what's the music and who are the people who prick up his ears when he's not hanging around the crossroads at midnight, waiting for the Devil to give him inspiration?  Tell us, Robert!

Gimme 5 songs, old or new, that have been on your radar recently.  [Click on the links to listen to Robert's selections.]


‘02.02.99’ by That Mexican OT:  “I came across That Mexican OT on YouTube, I have an insatiable desire for all things Southern, including Southern Rap. This guy is actually out of

Robert Connely Farr - "Are you looking' at me?"
Pic by Rustin Gudim
Houston and brings a lot of Latin influence to his music & style – which I find really intriguing. The beat and his delivery are incredible, in my opinion.”

‘Dylan Phase Again’ by We Found A Lovebird:  “We Found A Lovebird is a band out of Vancouver and their single 'Dylan Phase Again' really stuck out to me when it was released. I downloaded it right away and been playing it daily – I love it when a song hits like that.”


‘Heritage of Arrogance’ by Adeem The Artist:  “This whole album by Adeem the Artist is a real kick to the gut, in a good way in my book. I believe I originally heard of them through YouTube in one of my many wormholes looking into new artist. I really enjoy the vulnerability and spirit of conviction in this album.”


‘Outlaws’ by Lee Bains III & the Glory Fires:  “Another band out of the South that I’ve immense respect for.  Lee Bains is a prolific and accomplished songwriter with political views that seem very similar to my own.  ‘Outlaws’ is an incredible song that speaks to an important job for those who wish for a better America and South.”


‘Burn In Hell’ by Junior Kimbrough:  “Junior Kimbrough is the man. Hands down. And this live album is a great example of why. ‘Burn In Hell’ is killer, how the song comes in – eerie and abrupt – 7 minutes of juke joint hill country blues y’all. I love the “train going down the tracks and never gonna stop” vibe to this one.”


Gimme 5 artists or bands who have had a big influence on your work.


Jimmy Duck Holmes:  “Hands down changed the trajectory of my music career. His teachings and mentorship brought music home for me.  After a decade of searching for my sound, he showed me it was at home - quite literally in my backyard. "  [Check out the Blues Enthused review of Jimmy's 2020 album Cypress Grove.]


Mac Pontiac:  “A Vancouver songwriter and troubadour who passed away a few years back. His songs and public performances were breathtaking, as tragic as he was. He helped a lot of people in need, myself as well in some of my darkest moments – encouraging me to keep on keeping on.”


RL Boyce:  “His smile and his energy were infectious. He recently passed away, but damn could that man play!  I remember at the 2023 Bentonia Blues Festival he asked me to join his set. I
remember telling him “Ain’t no way I can hang with you RL!!!”  But he pulled me on up to the stage and hollered “I’m gonna show you how”.”


Jimmy 'Duck' Holmes plays host in his Blue Front Café
Neil Young:  “He was really the first songwriter that I remember influencing me, not so much how I played, but how I wanted to write - songs that were critical and asked hard questions.” 


Drive-By Truckers:  “I’ve been seeing ‘em live since ’98 and I’ve been blown away by their work, convictions and live performances since. To this day, one of my favourite bands/songwriters out there.”


Gimme 5 guests you’d love to invite to your ideal long lunch.


My brother:  “He makes the best Angus steaks you’ve ever had. He’s my best friend in this world and one of the best men I know. And I don’t get to see him near enough. Any time I get to spend with him – hell, just thinking about it brings a smile to my face.”


Jimmy Duck Holmes:  “He’s like a grandfather to me. I love his outlook on life. We both grew up on the same stretch of the Big Black River. And some of the best fried catfish I ever ate came out of the kitchen of his juke joint the Blue Front Café.”


Jason Isbell:  “I look up to that fella. His vulnerability and honesty are hard to stomach sometimes – mostly because it’s a reflection of myself. His process and perspective are very encouraging to me.”


Charles M Blow:  “The author of the book The Devil You Know: A Black Manifesto, which is a hard and unflinching look the state of race relations in America. I have a deep respect and

admiration for his work.”


Country singer-songwriter Margo Price:  “I’m a long-time fan of hers. I appreciate her story and what she stands for.  It seems like she’s always fighting the good fight – I like that.”  [Margo Price was a new name to me, so here's a link to her song 'Been To The Mountain'.]

And what would be the first album you'd put on as background music?

"That would have to be Most Things Haven't Worked Out by Junior Kimbrough - a huge inspiration to me and my drummer pal Jay Bundy Johnson over recent years!"


Finally, just one track – pick one of your tracks that you’d share with a new listener to introduce your music.


“I’m going to pick ‘Getting’ Tired of Getting’ Old’.  This song just came out of nowhere one day.  I totally remember sitting on my couch, thinking I needed to do something productive but being tired as shit! I grabbed my 12 string Gibson and the song just fell out of that ol' thing right into my iPhone voice recorder and the rest was history. It’s a blend of the Bentonia Style that Jimmy’s been teaching me and the Hill Country style that the late RL Boyce was encouraging me to implement into my playing.”

Tuesday, January 23, 2024

Emanuel Casablanca - Strung Out On Thrills

Grooves.  Big fat grooves.  Big, fat, bass-heavy grooves.  That’s the first thing that grabs my attention on this second album by Brooklyn-based singer and guitarist Emanual Casablanca. EC and his co-producer Paul Howells must have really liked the rolling rumble laid down by, variously, Julian Chabot and Sam Lazarev on eight of the tracks here, because they sure do capture it in guttural, reverberating splendour.
Now, there’s more to Strung Out On Thrills than the low-down plunking stuff, but it’s a good start. The opener ‘Dogshit’ uses it as the launchpad for a grinding complaint about a deceitful woman, its toughened-up ‘Born Under A Bad Sign’ kinda tune given an extra boost by guest guitar slinger
Emanuel Casablanca - Is that the face of a bad boy?
Pic by Natalija Bubalo
Joanna Connor’s sizzling, squealing slide playing. There’s a similar insistent swagger to the title track, as Casablanca edgily bemoans the fact that none of his familiar thrills, whether drugs, booze or women, do it for it him anymore.  Then, cleverly, some acoustic strumming surfaces, and the track mellows out as Casablanca discovers that the thrill he really needs is love.  Which in turn is a prompt for the sweetness of the following ‘Visceral’, on which our Emanuel explores his inner Sam Cooke over washes of organ and some lyrical guitar – until things turn sour with his baby, and guitar-laden angst ensues in tandem with the guesting Laurence Henderson. There’s more restraint on display with ‘The Farm’ though, twinkling acoustic guitar over a throbbing rhythm forming the basis for a conversational vocal.
I wouldn’t call what Casablanca does blues-rock, but ‘King’ is still a rocking strut of a thing, as he insists that wherever he takes his guitar folks’ jaws are going to drop at His Royalness – and the wiry guitar tone he deploys here is definitely attention-grabbing.  And there’s plenty swagger to the following ‘Pistolero’ too, a don’t-mess-with-me gunman tale on which Big Apple Spanish guitar picker Salvo pops up to throw a Hispanic curve into the churning mix, before Casablanca digs out a piercing solo as drummer Blaque Dynamite (yes, really) flexes his muscles.  Then the incongruously titled ‘Lass’ pairs up Sam Lazarov’s booming bass with the signature scraping slide of Joanna Connor once again, while one Kelli Baker pops up to deliver a fierce vocal on the tail end of the track.
Truth be told the melodies aren't exactly that original.  But Casablanca, while not a pull-out-all-the-stops blues bawler, is a smart enough vocalist to give his songs plenty of character. His voice is hot-chocolate-rich when he wants, or assertively in-your-face, or higher and edgier à la Cedric Burnside on occasions.  There are twists and turns to liven things up too, whether it’s the squelchy guitar tone he finds on ‘Bastard’, the nippy slide from the aptly-named Elliott Sharp on ‘Morning Wood’, or Casablanca’s poetic quasi-rap over the funky drums of Max Freedberg on the second half of the previously straightahead, bass-grooving ‘Pearl’.  And on the bonus track ‘My Life’s Fire’ he conjures up a distinctly airy, acoustically-orientated vibe, with a lighter vocal, snappier drums and a dreamy synth line.
Casablanca’s uses “badboyofblues” for all his social media handles, and with his often cocksure lyrics is maybe trying to cultivate a rogue-ish persona.  Yeah well, whatever – I reckon he’s a more intriguing character than that.  Strung Out On Thrills is a grower of an album, subtler than it might seem at first blush. Emanuel Casablanca may not be a household blues name just yet, but on the strength of this outing he has buckets of potential, and is definitely one to watch.
Strung Out On Thrills is released by Vinyl Recording Group on 2 February.

Thursday, January 18, 2024

John Primer - Pleasance Theatre, Edinburgh, 13 January 2024

The thing about Chicago blues legends is that they are, inevitably, pretty old fellas, and at 78-years old John Primer is no exception.  So when he comes onstage and starts puttering about, sorting his guitar strap, plugging in, turning on his amp, and (with a grin) taking a couple of attempts to find a plectrum in his pocket, the impression is of an affable, somewhat absent-minded grandad.
He's a sharp dressed man though, in his charcoal shirt and trousers and well-shined black shoes, complemented by a smart waistcoat, black and white striped tie, and nifty trilby hat.  And
John Primer, going down easy
when he starts to play, John Primer absolutely commands attention, as befits a guy who has worked with Muddy Waters and Willie Dixon.
Song titles aren’t that relevant really, though they provide a few points of reference.  More important is the weaving of swinging blues grooves, which Primer decorates with supple guitar on extended intros and instrumental sections, his right hand curling up deftly from below the strings as he knocks out a fluid combination of lead and rhythm playing in relaxed fashion.  He regularly cedes the spotlight to harmonica player Giles Robson, who has set up this tour, but even then it’s Primer that I attend to most, as he plays around with the groove, giving it an organic rather than rigid feel.  And it seems to me that Robson, an accomplished and award-winning artist in his own right, latches on to Primer’s effortlessly in-the-pocket vibe, finds some deeper gearsl with his own soloing.
Truth be told, the pace doesn’t vary much across the various songs, but the textures and rhythms do.  Primer produces a slide for a song that may or may not be titled ‘She’s Too Much’, giving it a sharper edge.  There are hints of North Country Hill Country blues on ‘Hard Times’ – Primer was born in Mississippi, but further south – and he brings some spikiness and jangling licks to ‘Look Over Yonder Wall’.
When he brings a touch of funk to the proceedings with ‘Gotta Love Somebody’, introducing it as a song he played often with his old band-mate Magic Slim - bassist Antoine Escalier steps up to the busier groove, evidently in his happy place.  But Primer then gets into a slinkier, smoochier mode with ‘Feel Like Going Back Home’, a song he mischievously introduces as “belly rubbing music”, suitable for cuddling up to the missus, and which over time metamorphoses into ‘Rainy Night Georgia’, underlining the romantic mood. Which then just leaves time for him to rope the audience into singing along with the chugging boogie of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Close Together’.  And then they’re done, to be met with a standing ovation from the full house in the Pleasance Theatre.
John Primer’s nickname is “The Real Deal”, and it fits him well.  There’s nothing flash about him – he brings a hypnotic quality, moulding and shaping the essentially simple blues form, making a real connection to old-school Chicago blues roots.

Monday, January 15, 2024

Wayward Sons - Riverside, Newcastle, 14 January 2024

Lightning-strike riffing. Wah-wah howling, hair-tossing lead guitar. Thunder-cracking, skins-flaying drums. Shape-throwing, bassist pogo-ing stagecraft. Soaring, machine gun vocal delivery. Buckets of charisma. Oh yeah, and a hatful of irresistible tunes.
Doubtless I’ve left half a dozen impressive qualities out of that list, but you get the picture.  Yep, Wayward Sons are a proper, hard-hitting rock’n’roll band - one of the most thrilling around today, Jack.  
They come onstage to an entry tape on which Johnny Cash singing ‘Folsom Prison Blues’
Toby Jepson reaches up, Nic Wastell gets down
morphs into fairground music, which just about sums up the balance of the serious purpose in Toby Jepson’s lyrics and the rock’n’roll frolics of their performance. Then they launch into the hard-riffing ‘Big Day’ with smiling, kinetic intent. They follow that with the rollicking, lives -up-to-its title ‘Feel Good Hit’, at the end of which Jepson observes that the line “Feel good hit of the summer” feels ironic on a winter night when the Riverside is “bloody freezing”.  And then they set about heating the place up with a pace that barely slackens over the next hour and a half as they blast out one hard rock anthem after another. 
How to describe the Wayward Sons’ vibe?  Think Ian Hunter and Mick Ronson cranked up into the red zone and covering The Ruts ‘Babylon’s Burning’ maybe, with lead axe picker Sam Wood nicking Brian May’s piercing guitar tone every now and then just to spice things up.  Nah, that doesn’t really cover it, but it’ll do for a start.
It's full throttle stuff, except when they downshift a gear or two for what passes for a breather on ‘Faith In Fools’, with its ELO-like chorus, complemented by airy backing vocals.  They dial things down here and there though, to create a sense of dynamics, as on the power-popping ‘Fake’
with its harmonies, whopping great riff and a “na-na-na” ending reminiscent of the Banana Splits, no less.  Most of the time though, they're powered along by Phil Martin making like Cozy Powell on drums, while bassman Nic Wastell charges around in rollercoaster fashion.
Smiling Sam Wood knocks out another solo
Did I mention riffs?  There are belters here, there and every which where, from the twist and slam of the aforementioned ‘Feel Good Hit’ to the blitzkrieg of ‘Even Up The Score’, the tense but melodic ‘Bloody Typical’ to the ringing-then-climbing affair on ‘Crush’ which is the catalyst for a bouncing, singalong highlight.
But they’re more than just riff merchants, because Toby and chums don’t half know how to put a song together.  Sadly the caustic polemic of Jepson’s clever wordsmithing tends to get lost in the Riverside’s high-ceilinged acoustics, but there’s no ignoring the quality of the melodies, arrangements and hooks.  Did I say hooks?  Nah, when you get to the focal points of tracks like the set closer ‘Until The End’, and the second of three encores ‘Ghost’, they’re not so much hooks as red-hot rivets slammed into your noggin with a hard rock sledgehammer.  And those aren’t isolated examples, no siree.
All of which leaves me with one question.  Why the hell are these guys still playing modest clubs like the Riverside?  Don’t get me wrong – I’m happier seeing ‘em here than fifty yards away in some aircraft hangar of an arena, but that’s just me being selfish.  Hopefully 2024 is the year Wayward Sons achieve lift-off.
Finally, a quick word for local lads Thieves of Liberty, who opened the evening.  My first impression was that they were pleasingly solid, but I ended up enjoying them more than that. Their twin Les Paul attack and whomping rhythm section gelled tightly, the lead guitar playing was engaging, and if the sound was a bit unkind on the vocal front they still knew how to put on a show.  They looked like they were enjoying themselves, and rightly so.
Wayward Sons play Nottingham on 19 January and Wolverhampton on 20 January, details here.

Thursday, January 11, 2024

Danielle Nicole - The Love You Bleed

When this third album by Danielle Nicole kicks off with ‘Love On My Brain’, it doesn’t take long for one of her prime assets to come into play.  The song starts off sultry, over strong’n’steady drums from Go-Go Ray, rising to a catchy chorus, then after a turn around the block, it hits a bridge on which Nicole lets loose her towering voice over crunching chords, socking it to the listener with both range and lung-busting force, reinforced by a sizzling guitar solo from Brandon Miller.
Now, sometimes your biggest strength can also become your biggest weakness, and if Nicole were to let rip here, there and everywhere the result could be overpowering, and not in a good way.  But The Love You Bleed shows that she’s canny enough to realise the value of dynamics.  Her vocal power is kept on a leash enough for it to really make animpact when she does let
Danielle Nicole, a little lady with a big voice - and a big bass
Pic by Missy Faulkner 
go.  And as on her previous outing Cry No More, that discipline is allied to material that offers plenty of light and shade.
So yeah, she gets strident and angsty on the tougher, rockier ‘Head Down Low’, with its bluesy undercurrent and hesitant guitar over her own throbbing bass, and she brings some raunch to ‘Walk On By’, with its jagged, stop-time riffing and stinging wah-wah guitar solo.  But she mines different grooves elsewhere.
‘Make Love’, for example, is a slinky, sunny swatch of soul with hints of – where?  Motown? Memphis?  It comes with a herky-jerky section to shake things up, plus a piercing solo from the consistently impressive  Miller, while La Nicole underlines her vocal talents by adding some smooth harmonies.
A trio of torch song kinda thangs crop up along the way.  There’s ‘Right By Your Side’, with its tasteful slide playing from Miller, and also the lovelorn ballad ‘Say You’ll Stay’ sung from the perspective of someone hanging onto a fragile hope of reconciliation, with an ethereal chorus complemented by cello and violin from Stevie Blacke.  And things get properly fraught with emotion on penultimate track ‘Who He Thinks You Are’, Nicole keeping her voice in check over the slow and soulful, acoustic-led opening, then cranking it up a notch or three on the chorus, in readiness for the tension and release of a spine-tingling long note in the very last line.
But one of the best moments comes when they dial it right down for the delicate ‘A Lover Is Forever’.  Relying on just Nicole’s reflective voice and Miller’s understated, perfectly pitched acoustic guitar, it’s an absorbing, beautifully simple song.  And the closing ‘Young Love On The Hill’ also plays a different, Americana-ish card, with its mandolin and acoustic guitar foundation courtesy of Miller, and cello undertones from Blacke to underscore the elegiac reverie about happy moments in an affair that will never become the real deal.
None of the songs here are going to disappoint, though maybe a few arrangements follow predictable lines, well delivered though they are.  ‘Fool’s Gold’ is an exception though, a bitter tale about someone who isn’t what they seem, well-seasoned by an edgy slide break from Miller, and given an extra twist by some quirky synth inflections from keyboard player Damon Parker.
Danielle Nicole’s name is on the tin, but on The Love You Bleed she benefits from mucho simpatico backing from Miller, Ray et al, and well-balanced production from Tony Braunagel, helping her vocal and songwriting skills to shine.  And shine she does, making this her third soul-stirringly impressive album on the trot.
The Love You Bleed is released by Forty Below Records on 26 January, and can be ordered here.

Saturday, January 6, 2024

Chris O'Leary - The Hard Line

First impressions, eh?  I mean, the first time I played this new album from Chris O’Leary, I kind of half-listened to it while pottering about at something else, and thought “Okay, pretty straight up this-and-that – sounds alright.”  Wrong.
To be honest I’d never heard of him before.  But when I got properly acquainted with The Hard Line, I realised that Chris O’Leary is way better than “alright”.  This guy is a top-drawer blues singer, a teeth-rattling harp player, and a seriously talented songwriter.  All 12 of the tracks here come from his pen, and his alone, and he delivers the goods with plenty variety and no filler.
‘No Rest’ kicks things in Chicago blues fashion, with O’Leary knocking out some wheezing harp
Chris O'Leary gets good and emotional
Pic by Paul Natkin
over a lazily shuffling rhythm, and then giving a first inkling of his quality as a wordsmith with lines about how “Mr Sandman must have lost my address”.  Okay, so it’s not Shakespeare, but it’s fresh, and far from isolated in that regard.  Oh yeah, and just to show off a bit more, O’Leary contributes some of the sparkling guitar breaks that enliven the track.
There’s plenty more of this upbeat kinda stuff.  The brisk and amiable jump blues of ‘Lost My Mind’ picks up the baton right away, with more sharp lyrics and change-ups in the arrangement that hold the attention.  Ivory tinkler Brooks Milgate’s boogie-woogie piano leads the way on ‘Need For Speed’, as the foundation for O’Leary to do his stuff on a fun, rat-a-tat vocal about a woman who’s “never seen a speed limit she didn’t break, and speaking of brakes that’s the pedal she hates”.  And when Milgate whacks out a lipsmacking solo, his left hand pumping away like a piston, O’Leary matches him with a wailing harp break.
‘Funky Little Club On Decatur’ shows the influence of N’Awlins on O’Leary, who relocated there from New York State in 1997 at the behest of Levon Helm, no less.  With its tip-tapping shuffling from Michael Bram on drums, woozy slide from Chris Vitarello, and swooping trombone from Darren Sterud, the tune carries echoes of Royal Southern Brotherhood’s ‘Sweet Jelly Donut’.  Meanwhile ‘Love For Sale’ is a rollicking, high-tempo closer, a rock'n'rollin' good-time boogie about a marriage coming to a crashing end with a yard sale, O’Leary whooping as he insists “Our love’s for sale, I’ll take cheque, cash, credit or card” for all the marital goods.
And all of that is just fine and dandy, but O’Leary really underlines his credentials with downbeat material that’s just as good.  ‘Ain’t That A Crime’ is a slow blues from the voice of a guy brooding about his woman done him wrong, which then takes a darker path, captured broodingly by O’Leary’s characterful low-down vocal and Chris Vitarello’s warped, burrowing wah-wah solo.
But the real cream in the coffee is when O’Leary steps into Bobby ‘Blue’ Bland soulful blues territory with ‘I Cry At Night’ and ‘Lay These Burdens Down’.  Over the former’s dragging beat, and subterranean baritone sax from Ron Knittle, O’Leary lays out the emotions of a vulnerable man, backed up by some emotive guitar work from ‘Monster’ Mike Welch.  Meanwhile ‘Lay These Burdens Down’ is a languidly paced meditation from a troubled man, O’Leary groaning with conviction about the need to “Wash the blood off my hands in dirty water”.  It’s a song with real emotional weight, delivered with sensitivity by O’Leary and his buddies.
There’s plenty more to like here, but I’ll leave you to discover that for yourself.  Suffice to say that Chris O’Leary is a singer, harp blower and songwriter to compare with Curtis Salgado, but still very much his own man.  And that’s saying sump’n.  With The Hard Line, Chris O’Leary is a guy to give retro blues stylings a good name.
The Hard Line is released by Alligator Records on 12 January.