‘Roses’ is Jadea Kelly’s first post-pandemic release and the timing couldn’t be any better. We’re in the middle of the hottest summer in decades and ‘Roses’ is the coolest of the cool; it’s a gentle breeze and an iced drink on a parched August day. It’s a very laid-back album; it never feels like anyone is overstretching and although there might be many layers of sound, it never sounds cluttered. The album has a very unified feel although it’s created by too many musicians to list and four separate producers. The musical stylings are varied as well, but there is one thing that pulls together the whole endeavour. Jadea’s voice has a purity that’s reminiscent of Suzanne Vega or maybe early Joni Mitchell or the quieter elements of Rickie Lee Jones (‘Last Chance Texaco’ maybe). Whatever comparison you make, her voice is a thing of rare beauty.

Jadea’s obviously not superstitious – the album has thirteen songs and, not surprisingly following a pandemic and moves between Canada and California, there’s a strong theme of impermanence running through the songs, hinted at by the title. Roses and flowers generally are used in art to symbolise beauty and evanescence and there are three songs here ‘Roses’, ‘Picking Flowers’ and ‘Ten Roses’ that use the flower motif. There’s also another theme appearing in the last two songs; the support and affirmation of a mother throughout our lives, and her ability to show us how to learn from our experiences. ‘When I Fly’, with its lovely harmonies and ambient slide, focusses on the aspirational side of that support, while the violin and acoustic piano-led ‘Running to You’ looks forward to a future maternal reunion.

The album’s not all about loss and fading away. The appropriately named ‘Happy’ has two simple messages – do whatever makes you happy and make sure you have someone to share the happiness with, while ‘Any Old Boat’, with its layers of instruments and vocals, has the equally simple message that happiness isn’t about the way things are dressed up, it’s about people.

The songs on ‘Roses’ (mainly co-writes) are economical; they generally take one idea and express it succinctly with powerful imagery. This is mirrored in the instrumental stylings. They may be densely packed, but no-one plays anything they don’t absolutely need to; it’s perfectly performed. Coming back to the vocals, there’s always something different going on, whether it’s choral harmonies, layered vocals in the middle of the stereo spectrum or harmonies panned hard left and hard right, which all creates variety while enforcing the unity of one truly beautiful voice. ‘Roses’ is a lovely piece of work; give it a listen.

‘Roses’ is released in the UK on 26th August 2022 on Darth Jadea Music/Tonetree.

Here’s the video for the title song:

One of those strange phenomena arising out of the pandemic is that many artists have spent a lot of time writing and maybe even recording but haven’t released too much material. It makes sense to keep the material under wraps while there’s no way of promoting it by touring; now that artists can tour again, there’s a lot of material waiting behind the floodgates and it’s starting to break through now. Banjo player and multi-instrumentalist Mary James (Mean Mary) must have a huge number of songs pushing at the dam; she’s just released the first of two albums of songs and four weeks later she’s releasing the first of four EPs. The albums are being released under her Mean Mary solo identity, while the EPs are under the imprint Mean Mary & The Contrarys with bassist David Larsen and drummer Allen Marshall and have a more electric feel with Mary playing electric guitar, electric banjo and keys in addition to her usual acoustic banjo. Of the four songs on ‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1), three are co-writes with her mother Jean, while the opener, ‘Penelope Rose’ is a solo effort.

And that’s a good place to start. ‘Penelope Rose’ is driven along in a country-rock style by a banjo riff and a melodic electric bass line as it tells the story of the archetypal criminal woman of mystery who enthrals everyone including the detective sent to bring her in. ‘Fugitive’ combines a relentless driving and menacing arrangement with a pure, clear vocal at the high end of Mary’s as it deals with another folk archetype, the kid who develops an obsession with guns and loves a woman who inconveniently has a lover already. It ends the way you would expect after a musical journey that features over-driven and wah-wah guitar solos and hints of Western film themes.

And while we’re talking about folk archetypes, ‘Seven League Shoes’ taps into the European folklore idea of seven league boots, relating it to the need to keep moving fast in today’s music business in order to stay ahead, or sometimes just to stand still. Mary’s banjo drives the piece along in a country style up to the coda where the change in speed represents the frantic running, even including a stumble, as the piece rushes to a close.

‘Sparrow Alone’, which also appears on Mary’s album ‘Alone’ closes the EP. It’s played in a traditional folk style with instruments that would be more at home on a rock piece, including keys, and it features another folk archetype, the plucky little sparrow small enough to escape the violence of the storm. In the second half of the piece, the band evokes the power of the storm before the closing banjo solo lifts the mood and takes us to a place of survival and renewal.

‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1)’ is an interesting shift in direction for Mean Mary. The quality of the songwriting and Mary’s playing is as high as ever and the band dynamic creates new ways of interpreting the songs. It’s an impressive start to the project and whets the appetite for the following three volumes.

‘Hell & Heroes (Vol 1)’ is out now on Woodrock Records (WDRK-4304).

Here’s the video for ‘Penelope Rose’:

Now that the live music scene has come back to something resembling normality, our Man in the North has been getting out to a few gigs again. Here are his thoughts on four gigs in the north of England by George Thorogood, Joe Jackson, From the Jam and Lil’ Jimmy Reed, including a gig at one of Music Riot’s favourite venues, The Picturedrome in Holmfirth.

Cats are supposed to have 9 lives but this cat (in a Keith Richards stylee) enjoyed 4 lives in 9 days (or thereabouts) in various bits of England in amongst a heavy-duty  studio schedule back here in the Staffordshire Moorlands…starting with George Thorogood and the Destroyers at the Nottingham Royal Concert Hall. Nottingham’s love affair with George Thorogood started at Rock City over 40 years ago, and now he’s a Major Rock Star, he’s played the Royal Concert hall a few times.

Bless him, he looks a bit ‘lived in’ now compared to the pumped-up All-American guitar slinger who bust out of Rounder Records at me way back in the seventies, in fact he’s 72 years old so he’s excused, but his arm looks in much better nick than when we last saw him in Manchester a fair few years ago when he was all strapped up and heavily reliant on his second guitarist to do some of the ‘heavy lifting’. He certainly seemed to be shifting around the gee-tar quite comfortably this time, and joy of joys as this cannot be said for many of a certain age, his voice is still a very useful weapon.

The rather ‘cartoon’ ‘Rock Party’ gives way to a spirited romp through Bo Diddley’s ‘Who Do You Love’ and as he correctly surmises…’and we’re away…’ and the middle eight’ of the gig comprises some good ol’ George favourites, ‘Night Time’, ‘I Drink Alone’ and a rapturously received ‘One Bourbon, One Scotch, One Beer’. Nowt wrong with that. No, Sir. More or less at this point he switches to a beautiful white Epiphone and slide tube, and we get ‘Gear Jammer’, ‘Get A Haircut And Get A Real Job’, and to enjoy the irony of that you have to go back to the days when there was such a thing as a ‘Real Job,’ a crowd-pleasing ‘Bad To The Bone’ and a joyous romp through the Champs ‘Tequila’ and then sprinting home with the title track from ‘Move It On Over’ before an encore of ‘Born To Be Bad’ and a bizarre awarding of a single rose to a lady on the front row whilst the National Anthem played (not the American one). His slide work is still gold standard stuff, The Destroyers, including the old 1970s  originals Billy Blough and Jeff Simon still pound along with enthusiasm and yes, there aren’t the physical pyrotechnics and Chuck Berry ‘duck walks’ anymore and it does look like hard work on occasion, which it assuredly is. But these are card-carrying American musicians. You’ve paid to see a Rock Show in the grand manner, and you’re getting your money’s worth. For how much longer, I wouldn’t like to hazard. But right now, you’re unlikely to see and hear a better set of rocking blues here in the UK.

From there to Manchester and the Albert Hall, which is actually a converted Methodist Hall which is over a hundred years old and is perhaps best described as ‘shabby chic’. A medium-sized venue, it has probably the longest walk to the rest rooms outside of a festival setting and significantly more stairs. However, it did, on the face of it, appear to be a charming venue for us to see Joe Jackson go through his paces for the first time since the early 80s.

The local support act were almost inaudible and that should have set the warning bells a-jangling but as they were of the hyper-sensitive acoustic singer songwriter duo I was inclined to put that down to the genre. But Sadly Not. Joe Jackson took to the stage with his band, and as ever the main man cut a dapper figure, almost painfully tall and thin, and straight away we’re in trouble. The opening song is just a muddy mess, ‘One More Time’ completely ruined, Jackson’s voice almost completely drowned. OK, a sighting shot. Come on, mixing desk guy, get it sorted. ‘Big Black Cloud’ is slightly better, but this isn’t saying a great deal. ‘Sunday Papers’ is knowing and brisk, but once again, the cacophony which surrounds him seems to be fighting the voice rather than supporting it.

Jackson’s keyboard work is nothing less than sumptuous, though. ‘Real Men’ is a compromised delight and this leads to tonight’s cover where he wryly observes he usually likes to do one cover in a set from a band he likes….but this time he’ll do one by a band he really doesn’t like, and promptly launches into an extremely well-arranged and thoroughly enjoyable cover of Abba’s ‘Knowing me, Knowing You’.    And then a bit of a break before ‘Blaze of Glory‘ ‘Tomorrow’s World’ and ‘Fool’, and it becomes increasingly apparent that either 1. It is nigh-on impossible to get a decent sound in the venue, OR; 2. The sound guy is clueless. In any case, the drummer plays with a lack of sensitivity and touch which is almost breathtaking. It’s as if he’s employed Animal from the Muppets to ruin the set for him. A couple of songs where Jackson plays and sings solo underlines this. In mine own humble, he’d have been better off touring solo with his keyboard and maybe somebody on a cajon or something. ‘Sing You Sinners,’ a cover of the Tony Bennett standard leads into what for me was the highlight of a frustrating gig, a re-arranged and vocally – led ‘Is She Really Going Out With Him’. And it is apparent, as it has been all night, that his voice is still Right There. ‘Different For Girls’ is played completely straight down the line and is a serious high point and ‘I’m The Man’ is played with an energetic, punky joy which gets them dancing in the aisles. So we’re all warmed up and it looks like He’s The Man and he’s going to pull triumph from the teeth of near – disaster; the assembled knows what’s coming. ‘Stepping Out’, top ten hit both sides of the Atlantic, and they’re ready to celebrate and dance. So the band elect to play it as a slow ballad. Which of course it can be sung as, lyrically that much is clear. But under the circumstances, Why Would You? Classic case of just because you can doesn’t mean you should. F for frustrating. He was good, It could have been soooo much better. Would I go see Joe Jackson again? Probably. Would I go to Manchester Albert Hall again? Probably not.

Ah, well. Sup up your beer and collect your fags. A hop and a skip around the uncharacteristically parched Pennines and here we are in gorgeous Holmfirth, and all dressed up for my favourite music venue in the entire country, the Picturedrome. And a revisit to From The Jam for the first time in a good few years as well.

And they are on top form from the off. Neither of the main men, Bruce Foxton or Russell Hastings are in the first flush of youth and the intersong raps often focus on the effects of statins and the magic of stents but they play with brutal conviction and drive. ‘Broooos’ even manages a couple of eye-watering scissor kicks and I’m speaking as a contemporary here.

We are Having It tonight, it seems.

Early set highlights are a stinging ‘David Watts’ which really underlines the band’s (yes, this one and the ‘previous’ one) links back to the 60s beat boom, but without the corny guitar tricks, angelic harmonies and ersatz American accents which compromised so much of the home-grown, R’n’B based pop music of the time. They go for ‘A Town Called Malice’ early in the set which is, some might say, brave; a nailed – on encore barnstormer all day long, but with a body of work like this I guess you can afford to take a risk or two.

‘Pretty Green’ and ‘Saturday’s Kids’ are just a joy to hear. What great songs they are – and they’re played with power, energy and verve and – the voices work SO well together. Russell Hastings seems very comfortable in his role and it is gratifying that there are almost as many ‘Russell’ shouts as there are shouts for ‘Broooos’.

Bruce himself doesn’t look entirely comfortable at some points in the set or indeed totally happy though goodness knows why, if I was caught up in the middle of that lot I’d spend all my time delighting in the fact that I’d found a way to take these songs out on the road again and put them in front of people in the manner they were intended. ‘That’s Entertainment’ is a full – on pull out the stops electric version and ‘Start’ is pure 60s beat-boom magic. I absolutely delight in The Jam’s Motown and soul covers from way ‘back in the day’ so it is with ‘throw myself about all over the place’ abandon I greet ‘Heatwave’ which even includes the headlong vocal ‘call and response’ stuff towards the end. ‘Strange Town’, ‘In The City’, ‘Eton Rifles’, ‘Going Underground’ (after an EXTREMELY lengthy wait for the band to come out for the encore, apparently due to ‘discussions’ about the encore songs) but by this time the whole place is reduced to a sweaty, heaving dysfunctional mess, the front is in full mosh mode and that magic feeling you only get when a top bunch of musicians have taken the place with them has broken out and pervades the sweat – soaked air.

That’s the way you do it. GO and see them and that’s an order.

Home and a big breakthrough for me – I’ve been asked to do a ‘cover’ shift on the main Radio Caroline album channel, having produced over 200 shows for the Caroline Flashback ‘oldies channel’ and I am totally made up. But before I lock myself away in the studio and start to understand the way all that works, gig number 4, a short drive across the moors through England’s highest village to Buxton and a visit to the charmingly sedate Pavilion Gardens, where Louisiana blues legend Lil’ Jimmy Reed is on the bandstand.

Now, Lil’ Jimmy is not actually called Lil’ Jimmy Reed. His real name is Leon Atkins but that’s where the kidding stops. This guy learned his trade playing gigs with the REAL Jimmy Reed, you know, ‘Shame Shame Shame’ and all that, and his peers, so it is not unreasonable to assume our man is knocking on a bit. Indeed, he is the dangerous side of 80 and can reasonably lay claim to being one of the last ‘original’ purveyors of Louisiana Blues.

And what a bunch of ‘sidemen’ he presents to us tonight (or doesn’t, he barely addresses the audience at all apart from through his music). On keyboards, Bob Hall, long-time collaborator with Alexis Korner, and a relatively youthful 80, Hilary Blythe on a U-bass, and the drummer with Ten Years After during the glory years, Ric Lee.

Hang on, let me do that again. This guy has played Woodstock. Yes, THAT Woodstock. He’s not going to waste his time.

And he isn’t.

The band shuffle on, looking like a group of retired schoolteachers albeit in a concession to ‘showbiz’ dressed in cabaret-style glittery stage apparel (with the exception of Ric Lee, he’s clearly having none of that old malarkey).

And promptly proceed to light up the stage with some of the best and most authentic blues you’ll hear this year or probably ever again.

We get ‘Hoochie Coochie Man’, we get ‘Caress Me Baby’, we get ‘How Blue Can You Get’, ‘We Get Big Boss Man’…but it almost doesn’t matter what we get. Reed just glides around his guitar with the assurance of a man who has HAD to play for a living for years and years and years, wherever there was a dollar to be earned and the band just roll with it. There are a few hilarious interludes where Reed, who sure don’t say much, tries to let the band know what key to start in by mouthing it across from one side of the stage to the other. Now, communicated like this there ain’t much difference between A,D,E or G, with, as critics might say, hilarious consequences. I’d be tempted to get different coloured paddles and wave them about at the start of each song but that would probably just lose some of the charm. Nope, he don’t talk much. I think I’d also advise against the audience walkabout with the guitar. He’s so stick thin and frail-looking, I was genuinely worried he’d ‘have a fall’ as people say about elderly folks. But then again you also get the impression that Nobody Tells Him What To Do. After the break, where the merch stand is hammered so much they actually run out of CDs, he disappears to the bar for three songs, which is unusual as he’s doesn’t drink, giving the band opportunity (which it didn’t look like they were expecting!) to do a few of their own songs prior to his re-appearance.

But sing….he opens his mouth and the pain and weariness, struggle, soul and strain of slowly lifting himself out of the shotgun shack in which he was born and raised, all fall out amongst a magical cascade of scattergun electric blues. He plays slide with just his fingers. He uses his hands as percussion. What A Player. What A Voice.

As you might expect with that pedigree, the drums are absolutely rock solid and perfectly in context and in fact all the musicians manage to make a telling contribution to the evening’s events without ever drowning or obscuring the business end of it all, which would have been near-sacrilegious.

Make no mistake, this man is the Real Deal and he might well be able to lay claim to the title Last Man Standing. I left the venue thinking that I probably won’t see anything like that again.  And that doesn’t happen every night.

So, four very different live experiences. You pays your money, you takes your pick. But what I will say with total conviction is it is SO good to be able to get out and enjoy a whole range of live music again. What was once a lifestyle, now feels like a privilege. Whatever it is that floats your boat, GO. Just go.

4 for George Thorogood, 3 for Joe Jackson, 5 for From The Jam, and 5 for Lil’ Jimmy Reed.

OK, with this one it’s time to share some insights into the way my thoughts and feelings about new music turn into an article on a website. The starting point is that Music Riot doesn’t do negativity; you can get plenty of that anywhere else on the internet. We want to share good live and recorded experiences in the hope that a few music lovers will buy in to them and spread the word. So the first question is, do we like it and there’s only one way to decide that and that’s by listening to it; not once or twice, probably half a dozen times and make some good, old-fashioned, scrawled hand-written notes. At that point, I know whether I want to share it and I’ll probably have a look at the press release for the first time.

By now, you probably want to know what this has to do with ‘Phantom Threshold’. Fair question; after a few listens, it’s obvious that the eleven instrumentals on the album are all soundtracks for movies that haven’t been made and might never be made. The instrumentation (more about that a bit later) and structure of the pieces are cinematic in scope and depth and that’s the starting point for the press release. It’s always nice to know that you’ve tuned in to the artist’s creative vision, however limited your understanding of that vision might be.

Steve Dawson is one of those players in the mould of David Lindley that seems to see every stringed instrument as a challenge to be conquered; he plays a lot of pedal steel on ‘Phantom Threshold’, but there are some standard electric and acoustic guitars as well as resonators, a Weissenborn and a Marxophone. Yeah, I had to search it online as well – it’s a fretless zither and you probably remember the zither from the soundtrack of ‘The Third Man’. And we’re back into movie instrumentation territory again.

You might ask why a guitar player and producer would want to create an album full of mood instrumentals, but that’s missing the point; when you’re a player and writer as gifted as Steve Dawson, why wouldn’t you do it? And with his previous record, you know it’s going to be worth listening to.

‘Phantom Threshold’ is packed with innovative arrangements and classy but unfussy playing. The stylings range from solo pieces such as the album’s Weissenborn closer ‘Whirlwind’ and the pedal steel solo interlude ‘Burnt End’ to full-on band arrangements with layers of guitars and keyboards on most of the rest of the album. On a couple of tracks, including the opener ‘Cozy Corner’, the combination of organ and slide guitar hint at Pink Floyd’s ‘Wish You Were Here’ era. While most of the titles hint at scenes, there are a couple that are more literal; ‘Tripledream’ is a piece in three sections, one of which is based around a New Orleans jazz styling, while ‘That’s How it Goes in the Relax Lounge’ starts with a lounge music feel before dipping into some Latin rhythms.

The complex arrangements on the full band pieces are even more impressive when you know that the musicians recorded their contributions remotely. Quite a feat of arrangement and stitching together, particularly when the opening track, for example, features seven different keyboard instruments on top of Steve’s guitars and the rhythm section. And clever is all very well, but Steve Dawson has created an album that you will want to listen to; you want to know what each new track is going to bring. There are so many different styles and textures that ‘Phantom Threshold’ never becomes predictable as it rattles off references to dozens of musical genres and sub-genres using most of the popular music instruments you’ve ever heard of and a few that you probably haven’t. It’s an album that musicians will love, but there’s something here for everyone and you’ll get something new from every listen.

‘Phantom Threshold’ is released on Friday August 12th on Black Hen Music (BHCD0097).

Here’s Steve playing live over the ‘Twig Bucket’ backing track: