Thursday, February 29, 2024

Ten Top Tracks from . . . Ian Siegal

Roll up, roll up, for the second edition of Ten Top Tracks, a non-definitive, non-ranked overview of tunes by a Blues Enthused favourite – on this occasion the estimable roots troubadour Ian Siegal.
Ordinarily I might go for a vaguely chronological selection of an artist’s material.  But that ain’t so easy with Siegal, because you won’t find all of his output available on YouTube, my channel of choice for these here things.  So we’re going to be ducking and diving a bit, alighting on
Ian Siegal - sharp dressed man and guitar
renditions of certain tracks whenever happens to be convenient.  Watch out for the links to the various tracks on YouTube (or find the link to a playlist of all 10 at the bottom), and we’ll make a start with the first Ian Siegal album to cross my path – 2007’s Swagger.
 
‘Curses’ is a classic example of Ian Siegal’s love of word play – and his penchant for black humour.  It trundles along like a cart on a backwoods track, with flutterings of piano  and pluckings of banjo, fired up by sparks of slide guitar.  Meanwhile Siegal delivers a spoken, basso profundo character assassination of some fella, that evolves into a wish list of inventive curses to be brought down on him. "May he dig up his own father by moonlight, and make soup from his bones,” he suggests before drily concluding “I just don’t like that guy”.   There are several great songs I could have picked from Swagger, but ‘Curses’ demonstrates very nicely that Ian Siegal ain’t just a “my baby done left me” lyricist.
 
‘Sugar Rush’, from 2005’s Meat And Potatoes, finds Siegal getting down to business on a traditional brand of swingin’ R’n’B.  There’s nothing complicated about it, but Siegal and his buddies Matt Schofield on guitar, Jonny Henderson on organ, Andy Graham on bass and Nikolaj Bjerre on drums, inhabit the rhythmic groove brilliantly, while his vocal delivery and phrasing is as expressive as you could wish for.  Little wonder maybe, that he assembled the same gang to record Swagger.
 
Siegal likes to get around though, and at some point touched down in North Mississippi, which produced a series of collaborations starting with the 2011 album The Skinny, under the moniker of Ian Siegal and The Youngest Sons.  The sons in question were the Dickinson brothers, Luther and Cody, of the North Mississippi Allstars, plus other North Mississippi Hill Country scions Garry Burnside and Robert Kimbrough.  And ‘The Skinny’ itself does hint at the deeper, more hypnotic grooves typical of the hill country - without becoming derivative - while Siegal stirs some serpentine slide guitar into the mix.
 
Siegal sometimes likes to stir up a dollop of funk though, of which ‘Hard Pressed’ is a prime example.  It first popped up on his 2009 album Broadside, surfaced again on his collaborative outing Candy Store Kid with the Mississippi Mudbloods, and has been a mainstay of his full band
repertoire over the years.  Here’s the classic version that was available as a bonus download with his live album One Night In Amsterdam, recorded with his long-time band (who perform on their own account as The Rhythm Chiefs).
 
‘Hard Times (Come Again No More)’ represents a different side of Siegal’s repertoire.  He’s a regular “curator” of other people’s songs, of which this is a very old example, written by American folk composer Stephen Foster in 1855.  Musically it may not be a blues song, but it’s absolutely one in spirit.  Siegal often includes this in his solo acoustic shows, just “man and guitar” as one of his album titles has it.  But this version is my favourite, from the acoustic album The Picnic Sessions that he recorded with the Dickinsons, Jimbo Mathus, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and which I picked up when it was originally available at gigs in Britain when he toured as a duo with Mathus.
 
As much as Siegal is a bluesman – and now and then he’s prone to deny it – he also has a soft spot for Americana, or country music if you prefer.  ‘Sweet Souvenir’ was co-written with Jimbo Mathus, and eventually cropped up on his 2018 full band album All The Rage.  But it’s well suited to a solo acoustic treatment, and here he is giving it just that in a 2019 performance.
 
All The Rage also found Siegal curling his lip at the state of the world on several tracks, and on the album cover too as if to underline the point.  ‘Ain’t You Great’ is a patient tune, with some Hispanic leanings and guitarist Dusty Cigaar digging out some big twanging.  But Siegal’s brooding vocal goes well with lines like “The asylum doors are open and we’re downupon our knees / They’ve found the biggest lunatics and handed them the keys”.  Released in2018, mid-Trump presidency and in the face of post-Brexit vote wheeling and dealing, there was plenty going on to encourage Siegal’s acidic wordsmithing.
 
Faced with the lack of live work created by the Covid pandemic and associated lockdown, Siegal combined with a bundle of other musicians under the quirky banner Birdmens, remotely
Life is too short to smoke bad cigars.
recording a one-off album titled Lockdown Loaded to try and keep the home fires burning, as it were. Given the circumstances, it’s a remarkably creative album, but one of the highlights is the back-to-basics blues stomp ‘Cat Drugged Up’, with Siegal digging out his patented Howlin’ Wolf-esque growl.
 
On his most recent album, Stone By Stone, Siegal got together with Robin Davey and Greta Valenti of Beaux Gris Gris & The Apocalypse, and managed to shake things up again, getting into a gospel/spiritual/work song groove on several tracks, interspersed with some seriously dark and downbeat Americana outings. But as an example of how to make roots music sound fresh I’d submit that the opening track, ‘Working On A Building’, is a masterclass. A work song sorta thing, given a loose and rhythmic treatment that sounds like a bunch of beer buddies having a good time, it’s irresistible.  
 
Siegal loves a good story, methinks. So for the final slot in this selection I’m going for ‘Gallo Del Cielo’, an atmospheric Mexicano-flavoured tale of a fighting rooster and his owner written by American songsmith Tom Russell. Siegal has been carting this pair of tragic heroes around in his set for years, whether he’s doing an acoustic set or playing with a band. Once again, it shows Siegal exploring a different vibe in evocative fashion.
 
Ian Siegal ain’t a predictable artist, trotting out the same sound year after year.  He’s a great songwriter in his own right, but also a terrific interpreter of other people’s songs.  And whether he’s serving up originals or covers, live or on record, you can bet he’ll deliver a characterful performance.

You can find a playlist of all 10 of the above tracks on the Blues Enthused YouTube channel, here.

Check out the Gimme 5 feature with Ian Siegal, in which he shares some of his inspirations with Blues Enthused, here.

Friday, February 23, 2024

Walter Trout - Broken

Broken is Walter Trout’s 31st album.  That’s a whole lotta guitar notes under the bridge.  Now, I must admit that I’ve really only cottoned on to Walter in the last ten years or so, so I can’t really comment on the quality of all his stuff.  But hell, he can still uncork some eye-popping tunes.
Take ‘Courage In The Dark’, for example, the third track on Broken.  It’s a moody blues, built around low key, hypnotic guitar notes and a hesitant beat, and it’s simple but utterly convincing. The lyric contemplates the fear of bad times, and the need for courage to get through them, and Trout delivers it with real sensitivity, while elevating the song and creating a light in the black by means of some wonderfully expressive guitar work.
Walter Trout - out of the black, and into the blues
Pic by Leland Howard
So ‘Courage . . .’ ticks the “sophistication” box, and then the following ‘Bleed’ confirms that ol’ Walter sure as hell still knows how to rock.  A
 song about the importance of stickability and going the extra mile in order to achieve success, it's a hard-hitting blast of raunch, with pulses of organ brightening Trout’s chugging, fuzzed-up guitar, interspersed with howls of harp from Will Wilde. And there’s a casual wit about Walter’s paternal nudge of “Play your harmonica, son” to Wilde before the latter lets loose on a skating solo.
At the other end of the album, the surging ‘Heaven Or Hell’ is given an original twist by the declamatory, spoken vocal with which Trout embodies the fiery preaching of a blind man he encountered on the street, complemented by a fizzing guitar solo and then an anthemic outro over Michael Leasure’s thumping drums.  And the closing ‘Falls Apart’ offers something distinctive, with an epic vibe triggered by spangly guitar strumming and reverb-treated vocals. Trout has made a tongue-in-cheek comparison with Pink Floyd, but in truth this is always more unconstrained than the pink ‘uns would ever be, even with the embellishment of some stylish, wordlessly soaring harmonies.  But there’s a still a dreamy quality as the refrain of “It falls apart” accompanies Trout’s piercing guitar through to the end.
There’s plenty of solid interest in the middle of the album too, from the electric sitar propelling the melodic ‘Talkin’ To Myself’ to the quasi-talking blues of the loping ‘No Magic (on the street)’, on which it seems Trout has a bash on harmonica himself while reflecting on a lack of connection to the modern world. Meanwhile Dee Snider turns up to partner Trout on the snarling, out-and-out rocker ‘I’ve Had Enough’. Feel the electrical charge in the riffing folks, and if no-one’s around then let yourself go and bang that head!
There’s romance to be had in the instrumental ‘Love Of My Life’, with its string-like keys and liquid, sustain-heavy guitar work, and in the light-touch love song ‘I Wanna Stay’.  And there’s wistfulness too, in the deliberately Faces-evocative ‘Breathe’.
In fact the only songs that don’t hit the bullseye for me are the opening pair of ‘Broken’ and ‘Turn And Walk Away’, and with both it’s down to personal taste.  Beth Hart guests on the subdued opener ‘Broken’, and promptly unwraps the heavy vibrato that always grates on me – she may have toned it down successfully on some recent outings, but sadly not here.  The slowly revolving ‘Turn And Walk Away’ which follows is tidy enough, with a tasteful closing solo, but it’s essentially a cowboy-style blues, and a little of that goes an awful long way for me, pardner.
But never mind my quibbles.  Broken don't need fixin'.  It's top drawer blues-rock, with several imaginative highlights along the way, and a reminder that at 72-years old Walter Trout is still cutting it, still as relevant as any of the young pups that garner all the hype.
 
Broken is released by Provogue Records on 1 March, and can be ordered here.

Monday, February 19, 2024

JJ Grey & Mofro - Olustee

I’m all for artists stretching the envelope, throwing a curve ball, tossing something different into the mix, and JJ Grey & Mofro do a good job of that with ‘The Sea’.  Opening a blues’n’soul album like Olustee with a dreamy, piano-led reverie may be a surprise move, but when it’s as elegant and imaginative as this, featuring falsetto vocals from Grey, rippling acoustic guitar, and swatches of strings, it works just fine, thank you.
Mind you, my favourite track on the album is something from the other end of the spectrum.  'Olustee' is a tale of a wildfire that swept parts of Florida in 1998, and it captures the drama in some
JJ Grey, sans Mofro
Pic by Steve Rapport
style.  It’s urgent and gutsy, bristling with a stiletto sharp guitar riff, throbbing bass, and squeals of harp, topped off with a fiery, attention-grabbing guitar showcase from (I’m guessing) Pete Winders that does the story justice.
There are several more songs in low key styles, which work to varying degrees.  ‘Waiting’ is a soul ballad about the frustration that comes with not giving it your all in life – which is ironic when Grey’s vocal impresses big time with its passion and personality.  The closing ‘Deeper Than Belief’ is another success, a solemn meditation on “all space and time and thought and mind” that references a Zen saying about “chopping wood, carrying water all day” – miracles being grounded in everyday life.  Whether the lyrics really make their point is up for discussion, but the subtle colourings from piano and flute, and the strings that arrive to provide extra elevation, all hit the mark.  Adding three more downbeat tunes seems excessive though, especially when neither ‘On A Breeze’ nor ‘Starry Night’ really do enough to stand out.  And while ‘Seminole Wind’ is better, with its slow-slow-quick-quick-slow melody and a tasteful, low-moaning trumpet solo, I’m still not sure it’s worth six minutes plus.
Upbeat soul songs like ‘Top Of The World’ (not the old blues classic) and ‘Wonderland’  are pleasing enough without being head-turning.  ‘Free High’ is in a similar vein, with a funky Memphis vibe à la Otis Redding, and if it’s nothing mould-breaking or profound it still gets a satisfying groove on, punctuated by some punchy horns.  But ‘Rooster’, a slice of low-slung funk with ticking guitar, stuttering bass, cool semi-spoken delivery from Grey, and sassy female backing vocals, is more focused and convincing.
When Olustee is good, it’s very good.  Several songs are deserving of high marks, no question. But some tracks are merely middling, and for me the balance of the material leans too heavily towards the reflective.  A bit less navel-gazing and a bit more wildfire would have been welcome.
 
Olustee is released on 23 February by Alligator Records.

Saturday, February 17, 2024

Philip Sayce - The Wolves Are Coming

If you’re someone who judges the quality of a guitar player based on the key metrics of: 1) the speed at which they can pick dem strings; and 2), the level of, shall we say, Hendrixity in their style, then I’d say Philip Sayce is going to be near the top of your league table.
As evidence of the former, I submit ‘Backstabber’, a track with a sledgehammer riff and cacophonous guitar sound, reinforced by seismic drums from Michael Leasure, on which Sayce delivers a guitar solo of blistering velocity – before the whole damn thing goes further into overdrive for a short'n'sharp finale like a goddamn drag race.
Play that funky rock music, Philip!
Pic by Amp Photography
As for metric 2, I draw your attention to ‘The Moon Is Full’, an Albert Collins tune that Sayce gives the full Jimi treatment, with rhythmic, funky, choppy, wah-wah inflected riffing, and a solo you could visualise Hendrix delivering on some black and white Sixties TV show.  I mean, I know Sweet Fanny Adams about guitar effects, but I gather Sayce’s pedal board features a few gizmos symptomatic of the classic Jimi sound, and by the sound of The Wolves Are Coming he makes plenty use of ‘em.  Check out, for example, ‘Your Love’, which starts with some Vocoder-ish guitar articulation and ends with a solo encoded in intergalactically “wobbly” tones, all bracketing a mid-paced, lop-sided kinda groove enhanced by some guitar/vocal harmonising.
Which is not to suggest that Sayce is a one-trick pony.  Sure, Hendrix played funky, but ‘Lady Love Divine’ squelches and bumps along happily in a vein more suggestive of Stevie Wonder à la ‘Superstition’.  Although, to be fair, near the end it deploys a very ‘Hey Joe’-like staircase-descending riff to good effect.  Meanwhile ‘It’s Over Now’ is a melodic ballad that kicks off with a hazy guitar sound, builds to a soulful, quasi-anthemic chorus, and features a gentle, bluesier guitar solo.  And ‘Blackbirds Fly Alone’ combines acoustic strumming, some more brittle guitar tone, and swirling, phased vocals.  There’s a nice bit of dynamics, dropping down for Sayce to solo, and if he then gets his wail on for the conclusion, it’s without going OTT.
Opening track ‘Oh! That Bitches Brew’ sets out Sayce’s stall, with a distorted, push’n’pull guitar riff and distorted vocals too for good measure.  It’s driven along by pounding drums from Leasure, who is well suited to this kind of modus operandi, before some descending chords herald a yowling guitar solo, interrupted by a neo-psychedelic, “merman I shall turn to be” type interlude.  But Sayce’s ability to get heavy with some different engine components is demonstrated later by ‘Black Moon’, which is propelled by a boom-da-da-boom glam rock stomp suggestive of The Black Keys in El Camino mode, with well and truly fuzzed up guitar chording for good measure, complemented by an off the wall tone that produces an acupuncture-by-guitar Sayce solo.
The closing coupla tracks offer contrasting moods.  The instrumental ‘Intuition’ starts off mellow, all moonbeams and starlight embellished by keyboard flavourings from Fred Mandel, then it steps into a grinding riff, full of foreboding, as the backdrop to some no-holds-barred guitar acrobatics that reach a whooshing conclusion.  Then the closing ‘This Is Hip’ is a perky, relaxed little blues, penned by John Lee Hooker but not in his typical brooding mood.  Instead it’s all easy acoustic guitar and rippling piano, and might have been better positioned as a mid-album palate cleanser, but it still makes for a breezy finish
In the midst of all the guitar wrangling Sayce is actually a pretty good singer, by the by.  But then, y’know, singing and lyrics probably aren’t why Philip Sayce fans will be shelling out for The Wolves Are Coming.  They’ll be holding their breath waiting for some kitchen sink guitar work driven by metrics 1] and 2] above.  And they won’t be disappointed.
 
The Wolves Are Coming
 is released on 23 February, and can be ordered here.

Monday, February 12, 2024

Mike Zito - Life Is Hard

Track four on Life Is Hard gets right to the heart of the matter.  ‘Forever My Love’ is a song that Mike Zito wrote for his wife Laura several months before she finally succumbed to cancer.  It’s a personal and passionate blues ballad, a soulful affair on which Zito delivers a soaring, heartfelt vocal.  A simple song at heart, it’s beautifully arranged, with subtle French horn contributions and some transcendent Zito guitar, and boy does it have emotional impact.
The moods of the songs on Life Is Hard may vary – they’re not all as emotive as ‘Forever My Love’.  But in essence this album is a memorial to Laura Zito, a concept the couple agreed on before she died, on which Zito undertook to open his heart through the blues.  It’s a catharsis, if you will. And holy moly but it delivers.
Mike Zito - finding a light in the black

If ‘Forever My Love’ is a keynote track, ‘These Eyes’ is another.  A heightened, deepened overhaul of a 1969 song by The Guess Who, it’s a wonderful, soul excursion fit to compete with anything on Springsteen’s Only The Strong Survive album, and then some.  Over a patient beat, washes of organ, moans from those French horns, and marvellously Motown-ish harmonies from Jade Macrae and Danielle Deandrea set the tone for Zito to take the spotlight. It’s sweet and dreamy, but never saccharine, and is set off by some gorgeous, FX-treated guitar.
The album gets under way with something less intense, mind you, with the vibrant, funky boogie of ‘Lonely Man’, a Little Milton tune that’s upbeat in spite of its protagonist’s tears, and which features a lush organ solo from Reese Wynans and a zinging Zito guitar break.  The lazy swing of ‘Have A Talk With God’ is a similarly easy-going, with breezy backing vocals and guitar soloing, and if I don’t really go with the lyrical sentiment that’s just me; given Mike Zito’s status as an alcoholic in recovery – a process in which his wife was pivotal – it’s a philosophy he’s entitled to follow.  Meanwhile ‘No One To Talk To (But The Blues) provides some different light relief, of a rock’n’rolling, Texas blues kinda variety, more muscular and immediate than the 2019 reading by Jimmie Vaughan.
But this album ain't titled Life Is Hard for nuthin', and the title track is the first to look into the void. Another blues ballad, it comes with more soul-drenched organ from Wynans, while Zito is absolutely in the zone both vocally and on guitar, as he laments that “I can’t count the tears I’ve cried, ‘cause life is hard, and then you die.”   ‘Darkness’ is more solemn yet, a solemn blues over a dragging beat that shifts in tone from sparse to epic, Zito’s guitar swirling and darting around like a kite in the wind.  And at the very end there comes the stark ‘Death Don’t Have No Mercy’, which starts with Zito singing alone, unaccompanied and staring death squarely in the eye. Gradually the voices of Steve Ray Ladson, Macrae and Deandrea arrive to add an even deeper moaning-the-blues vibe, and then the song swells further, spooky guitar notes evolving into a writhing danse macabre until it comes to a sudden stop.
There are some other flavours along the way, like the tough and fuzzy ‘Dying To Do Wrong’, with its grinding riff and eerie middle section with washes of organ and sparse, reverb-inflected guitar notes.  And the cover of Walter Trout’s ‘Nobody Moves Like Me You Do’ is a strident declaration of love in a gritty blues-rock vein, with a ‘Mistreated’-like riff and a wiry guitar solo.
Life Is Hard was co-produced by Joe Bonamassa and Josh Smith, and credit to them for capturing Mike Zito’s vision to life with a perfect sound palette, while the assembled musos all contribute to a marvellous ensemble effort.  But it’s always Mike Zito who is in the spotlight, as singer, guitarist and interpreter.  God knows how he pulled his off, with the emotional baggage he must have been carrying, but he did.  Life Is Hard is an open-hearted blues triumph.
 
Life Is Hard is released by Gulf Coast Records on 23 February, and can be ordered here.

Monday, February 5, 2024

Jack J Hutchinson - Battles

It’s time for one of our periodic expeditions into the Valley of Hard Rock, folks, where today we will explore Battles, the new album by Jack J Hutchinson.  Now, our Jack’s name is often associated with blues-rock, but on Battles he generally steers away from that kind of sound. Instead Mr Hutchinson has mounted an earth-mover, and dug up a few mighty, mighty riffs for your consideration.
Opening track ‘Constellations’ is a case in point, serious head banging stuff with a crunch-and-twirl riff that, like one or two other outings here, puts me in mind of Dio-era Sabbath.  Which is ironic, because Hutchinson’s voice is of a distinctly more Ozzy-like timbre – though better, because less whiny, and benefitting here and elsewhere from some judicious double-tracking
Jack J Hutchinson - think he needs the decorators in
Pic by Rob Blackham
which rounds it out.  Oh yeah, and there’s a tyre-squealing wah-wah solo that very much fits the bill too.
‘Bullets’ is another hard-charging affair, steaming along like a locomotive powered by Phil Wilson’s drums and Charlie Rachael Kay’s bass, and with some interesting “stings” of guitar giving a pleasing twist to the riff towards its conclusion.  There’s a Diamond Head-like intensity to ‘Rip It Up’, with its guttural-meets-spiky riffage, a melodic chorus concluding that “The reflection that you see is love not hate”, and a guitar break that’s short’n’sharp.  And there are two more out and out rockers with ‘Don’t Let the Fuckers Get You Down’ and ‘Overdrive’.  The former is all whirling, spiralling guitar punctuated with cowbell to go with Wilson’s wrecking ball kick drum, before it hits the accelerator for a turbo-charged solo over a storming backdrop that ultimately crashes into a bundle of ringing, semi-discordant power chords.  Hutchinson has suggested the riff to ‘Overdrive’ carries echoes of Metallica, and he may well be right.  Not being an aficionado of the Sandman chaps, I’ll just say that its simple, chugging groove has plenty of oomph, the bass and drums locked in tight.  But there’s a decent tune in there too, and Hutchinson adds satisfactorily wailing wah-wah commentary too.
It's not all heads down, no nonsense stuff though, as Hutchinson throttles back a tad for the moodier ‘Days Are Gone’ and lurching ‘Running On Empty’.  Then three tracks are even more diverse.‘Road To Hell’ goes for a slower, widescreen Western kinda vibe about a man who has “one hand on the bottle, one foot in the grave”, which is a bit hackneyed for my taste even though it’s done nicely enough, with more of a keening, reverb-treated vocal.  ‘Love Is The Law’ is also toned down, and more soulful, with good harmonies layering a lush, appealing chorus, and a subtle solo over fuzzy guitar chords.  And ‘Stay With Me’ is a properly sensitive ballad, opening with twinkling guitar and solemn vocals from Hutchinson, ahead of an aching, harmony-embellished chorus, adding up to an impressive slice of radio-friendly melodic rock that Def Leppard would be happy with.
Hats off to producer Josiah J Manning, who has worked with a host of British acts including the Kris Barras Band and Wille & The Bandits, and does a sterling job here, co-writing the material and capturing the heavy stuff with a diamond-hard edge, and also buffing up Hutchinson’s vocals to a fine lustre.
Battles isn't what you'd call a revolutionary recording.  But it is a well-conceived, clearly executed piece of handiwork on Jack J Hutchinson’s part. The arrangements are short and to the point, and there are no extraneous tracks to dull the senses.  So, if you’re ready to rock, dive in!
 
Battles is released on 9 February, and can be ordered here.