Marcus Bonfanti (Photo by Allan McKay)

I’ll be quite honest, The Hippodrome Casino is probably one of the last places in London I thought I’d be sitting in watching a British blues player. Marcus Bonfanti’s show is part of a solo tour which is mainly about trying out songs from the new album (out in May) live in an intimate setting.  The Matcham Room is on the first floor of the Hippodrome Casino in Leicester Square and you get there by making your way through the main gaming floor and lots of squeaky-clean and hyper-polite staff.  The room is set up cabaret-style with tables (table service only), small booths and a balcony; and don’t even ask about the drinks prices.  Ok then, I’ll tell you; over a fiver for a bottle of Corona.

All of this is irrelevant when Marcus Bonfanti ambles on stage; the audience are his and they’re very enthusiastic.  He’s best known for his guitar playing, so obviously he started his set with an unaccompanied blues holler.  He has a powerful blues voice but, the second he picks up a guitar, you know you’re in the presence of a huge talent.  The solo format leaves the performer with nowhere to hide on stage but it’s obvious from the outset that it holds no fears for Marcus Bonfanti.  He’s very engaging and self-deprecating, and casually throws out humorous anecdotes between songs which keep the performer/audience rapport alive during the inevitable guitar changes and re-tunings.

On this tour Marcus uses 3 guitars; a 6-string acoustic, a Telecaster and a resonator.  Although this is a solo set, there’s a huge variation in style and dynamics from the modern misery of “Sweet Louise” to the traditional stomp of “God’s Gonna Cut You Down” and the rousing slide workouts.  During the 2 sets Marcus played, he demonstrated his mastery of finger-picking, bottleneck slide and Chicago electric blues (and the rest) using old and new songs including “Blind Alley”, “Jezebel”, “The Bittersweet”, “My Baby Don’t Dance” and “Cheap Whisky”.  As a taster set this works perfectly, because I can’t wait for the album now and the chance to hear the songs played live by the band when they tour to promote the album.

Marcus Bonfanti is a major British talent as a blues guitarist, songwriter and singer and this solo showcase emphasises his abilities while whetting the appetite for the full band appearances which will come in support of the new album.  If you’re even vaguely interested in blues, then you really should make the effort to see Marcus when he tours to support the album.

Product DetailsMore often than not, it’s pretty easy to decide the message of a review.  You like the album or you don’t; it’s original or it’s derivative; it’s played well or it’s played badly.  It can get a bit more complicated when the album provokes both  positive and negative reactions; for me, this is one of those albums.

Throughout Martin Harley’s “Mojo Fix” the playing is exemplary, from the distorted slide and raucous riffing of the title track (with a nod to “Seven Nation Army” in the chorus) through the gentle finger-picking and delicate strings of “Cardboard King” to the electric reggae treatment of “Rum Shack”.  The quality of the songwriting is consistently good throughout the album and, generally speaking, the arrangements work well for the songs.  I love “Cardboard King”, “Treading Water” and “Tightrope” and I could get really enthusiastic about virtually every song on this album if I could accept the necessity for filtering out all of the lower frequencies from the lead vocal on over half of the tracks on the album.  It’s a technique (or gimmick, you choose) which works when it’s used sparingly, but becomes incredibly grating when it’s over-used.  “Wrecking Ball” is a perfect example; it’s an uptempo swing song with horn and violin arrangements which evoke a particular era in the development of pop and rock music between big band jazz and rock ‘n’ roll, but it doesn’t need a megaphone-style vocal to hammer home that message.

If you listen to Martin Harley’s previous work, it’s obvious that he has a powerful, resonant voice which works well against a background of electric or acoustic guitar and it seems like a strange production decision to strip out all of that character for the majority of this album.  Musical taste is always subjective and I’m quite prepared to be shot down in flames, but I’d prefer to hear his voice with all of the frequencies coming through rather than a vocal which sounds like it was recorded in the 1930s.

The quality of the songs, playing and arrangements on the album would earn it a 4/5 rating but, for me, the production is 2/5 at best (feel free to disagree) and, overall, it averages out somewhere in the middle.  On a much more positive note, the contradictions of this album forced me to go back to Martin Harley’s earlier work and I have to say that I loved “Drumrolls for Somersaults”.  I’m also interested to hear how this material is arranged in a live setting, so I’m still looking forward to the 100 Club gig next month.

Product DetailsI’ve been keeping a very close eye on Tegan and Sara for a few years now, the Canadian twin sister  duo (and both of them  are gay shocka!) have gradually gone from a shrill, somewhat 2-dimensional alt-indie band to assured songwriters and performers over the space of 6 albums  and this, their seventh, promised what had surely been on the cards for some time now, the recruitment of a massively talented and successful pop producer to allow the girls to fully realise their top 20 potential, in sound at least if not sales.  Greg Kurstin has, amongst others, written for and produced Kylie, Santigold, Sia, Devo, Kelly Clarkson and Pink (alongside the work of his own group, The Bird and The Bee) with Lily Allen being his most frequent, distinctive and creatively diverse collaborator (he produced some of her debut and all of her very good second album “It’s Not Me, It’s You” and is currently working with her on a musical).

Tegan and Sara have in the last couple of years embraced dance remixes of their songs (in particular the brilliant wonky pop of “Alligator” from their last album, 2009’s “Sainthood”) and have  added their guest vocals to trance artists DJ Tiesto and Morgan Page’s work.  “Heartthrob” (and that’s definitely a heart throbbing in pain and not that of a pop idol’s appeal) is not a joyous, arms aloft, life-affirming, dance floor departure for the twins though.  It has its euphoric moments such as the rushing, power pop chords of lead single “Closer” and “Goodbye,  Goodbye” which has a huge, two-part chorus hook and exploits repetition very effectively as the song’s title suggests . But just by looking at the remaining song titles alone massive clues are given to the sisters’ general mood and along with Kurstin, who is responsible for the majority of “Heartthrob”’s production, have created a warm and full, mid-eighties influenced (Cyndi Lauper’s first album, Fleetwood Mac ‘Tango In The Night’, Madonna’s ‘Vision Quest’ soundtrack) mix of guitars and synths that sonically support the girls tales of distrust, disappointment and devastation.

With those kinds of themes and influences you shouldn’t be surprised if a power ballad (they usually terrify me) were to make an appearance and there are 2 amazing ones to choose from here. “Now That I’m Messed Up” ( ‘Now I’m all messed up, sick inside and wondering where you’re leaving your make up’ ) and in particular “I Was A Fool” both bring to mind Abba at their most domestically troubled and saddest when vocally and melodically Agnetha and Frida would somehow be both subtle and overwhelming at the same time. This album sees the first time that the girls have written songs together, they usually write tracks alone with a sole writing credit per track. If the outcome of the sibling’s teamwork is songwriting of this quality then I sincerely hope it continues along with Kurstin, I’m presuming, pushing vocal performances to a new level of soulfulness (many of the melodies are rooted in R’n’B structures).

I Couldn’t Be Your Friend” starts with pounding piano and a 60’s girl group aesthetic and by the time the vocal stutter effects arrive in the last 30 seconds has morphed into 80’s pop anthem that would befit the best of Stock, Aitkin and Waterman’s repertoire . If I had a gripe, and it would be a small one, this album could do with a few more of these kind of belters. This is a short album, just over 30 minutes, and at 10 songs can’t afford an attempt at flirty upbeat grooves like “Drove Me Wild” which only diminishes the sisters’ returns with a characterless vocal and lack of hook and “Love They Say” which sounds like a drab “Sainthood” reject which even magic pop dust can’t save. My favourite track is also the shortest, at 2.53 minutes, “How Come You Don’t Want Me” which  has an edge and a spike to it that none of the other tracks here do and sounds as though it could have been lifted from the sisters’ most satisfying and interesting album from 2007, “The Con”, containing all the best elements of the essential Tegan and Sara DNA.

“Heartthrob” is an album that is a little bit backward in coming forward; it isn’t as instant as you might expect given its credentials and rewards are definitely reaped through related listens. It might not be the sisters’ best album but it definitely contains some of their best and most emotionally engaging work. If you’re lucky enough to still have a record shop near you, then I recommend you spend a tenner on this.  Come summer, when you know all the words off by heart and are belting them out on your car journey to the coast, you’ll thank me.

Image of album by Laura MvulaSo, what’s coming up now that we’re well and truly into 2013?  Well, I’m glad you’ve asked because we’re going to be very busy over the next few weeks.  We’ve got some tour schedules for you from some of our favourite artists, including Anna-Christina from Lilygun doing an acoustic mini-tour and Dean Owens visiting everywhere from the far north of Scotland to the south of England.

John Preston has reviews of Tegan & Sara, Sally Shapiro, Major Lazer and Laura Mvula coming up and I’ll be reviewing anything that pops into the MusicRiot inbox, including the new Martin Harley Band album and many more albums and gigs.  Anything else?  As it happens we’ll be bringing you updates on the progress of the Radio (in my) Head project which is motoring along at the moment as we get closer to the release date.

And just one other thing; we’re working on a new look for the website with loads of new visuals and presentation ideas which we should launch within the next few months.  Apart from that, it’s all a little bit quiet really.

So I wouldn’t normally go to a small, glamour-free, square (in shape) venue like Bush Hall in Shepherd’s Bush on a cold Wednesday evening in February; my editor Allan and his camera would and probably has but I’d rather stay in and press play. The thought of seeing and more importantly hearing Mancunian Josephine play songs from her sweet and soulful debut album proved too strong though and at 8:30pm I was standing in said hall and looking at a nervous young boy with a guitar called George Ezra whilst he passionately and skilfully sang his 5 or so songs before dashing out to get his train back to Bristol.

At 9 o’clock Josephine and musical partner, Steve, walked onto the tiny stage (with Josephine looking more Studio 54 than you might have imagined in skyscraper heels and a silky bustier pant suit), strapped on their guitars and the beauty begun to unfold. Opening with the stately “I Think it was Love”, Josephine finished the song revealing relief that the hardest song was thankfully out of the way and she could now relax, not that you would have ever known she was anything other than comfortable and confident in front of a pretty packed room. This was a tight 55 minute set consisting mainly of tracks from the surprisingly strong “Portrait” debut album; Josephine is a masterful vocalist with a charming stage presence. The more uptime pop of “A Freak A” and big, warm-hearted “Original Love” were crowd favourites, well-known enough for people to sing along but it was on the waltz-time, Cabaret-like album closer and her most distinctive track “House of Mirrors” that Josephine, stripped of the guitars she had held close to her all night, made for a humble, vulnerable and moving presence.

As a warm up for her first tour proper in April after completing her current support slot with Paloma Faith, Josephine proves that she can hold a room’s attention and I, for one, look forward to experiencing her with a full band in a venue that can fully accommodate her blossoming and considerable talent.


Henrik Freischlader 290113 (Photo by Allan Mckay)


Billy Walton 290113 (Photo by Allan McKay)

Oxford Street on a wet Tuesday night in January can be a really miserable place, but not if you’re on your way to see The Billy Walton Band and the Henrik

Freischlader Band at the 100 Club, which is exactly what I was doing last Tuesday.  Both bands did the Skegness Butlins Blues festival last weekend before setting off on their UK tours.  Henrik is touring in support of his latest album “House in the Woods” and Billy is touring because the band love playing here and they have a lot of fanatical supporters in the UK.  The Stuart James Band was also on the bill as openers, so, three bands for a tenner in central London; you can’t argue with that.

At this kind of gig, the headline/support distinction doesn’t really apply; each band has its own following and they generally respect the work of the other bands on the bill.  I’m not saying there’s no tribalism, but there is a huge amount of mutual respect between the bands which is reflected in the attitudes of their followers.  Everyone came to hear good music and they weren’t disappointed.

The Billy Walton Band played a much, much shorter set than they would play as headliners and focussed on the latest album, “Crank it Up!”.  They packed in all of the highlights of a headline set into 45 minutes which featured Billy’s wonderful playing and showmanship and the improvisational interplay between Billy’s guitar and Richie Taz’s sax over the rock-solid rhythm section of William Paris and John D’Angelo.  If you’re looking for highlights, I’d go with “Deal with the Devil”, “The Deal went Down” and “Hot Blues” from the album and the inevitable show-stopping “Cannonball”.  I may be biased, but you really should make the effort to see these guys.

If you want a bit of background on the Henrik Freischlader Band, there’s a review of “House in the Woods” here.  Like the Billy Walton setup, this is a classic 70s power trio with an added twist.  In this case it’s the smoky Hammond sound of Moritz Fuhrhop which fills out the sound while Henrik plays his riffs and fills and solos. Again, the rhythm section of Bjorn Kruger (drums) and Theofilos Fotiadis provided a solid foundation for the creativity of the 2 lead players.  Henrik, like his hero Gary Moore, is equally impressive playing heavy riff-based songs and the slower ballads but he still has another weapon in the locker; he has a powerful, lived-in and careworn, voice which delivers both the rockers and the slower songs perfectly.  The band is tight and convincing in both styles and also sounds great with funkier and reggae-tinged material.

The set was dominated, unsurprisingly, by material from the new album (which is very, very good) and “Nowhere to Go”, “1999”, “House in the Woods” and “Breaking my Heart Again” all

sound stunning live; we even had a cover of “Come Together” thrown in for good measure.  There was a minor glitch with the bass sound during Henrik’s set, but it didn’t detract from a powerful live performance from two dynamic bands.

If Henrik and the band are wondering why the audience were leaving halfway through their set, it puzzled me as well.  Transport out of central London isn’t great late at night, but I really don’t understand an audience leaving at 10:30 when a headline band is absolutely on fire.  Anyway, I was there with Plus One until the end and it was a great night; two superb bands with incredible guitarists and great songs.  It doesn’t get a lot better than that.