The Blue Train Scroller‘And why lump two gig reviews in different counties on different days together?’ I hear you ask.

  1. I am bone idle.
  2. These gigs are thematically linked. Bear with.

It has been a weekend of musical ‘barn finds’. This is where you stumble across a classic car hidden under a bale of straw in a barn somewhere and begin to unravel a story, finding in the process something which is rare and worth saving. And yes, this has happened to me a few times so I do know what I’m on about in that respect.

Hunter

Never, ever, give your band a name which ends in ‘er’. Look throughout musical history of the last century. It is simply the quickest way to buy a return ticket to whatever you wanted to escape from in the first place. 

Hunter is a bit of a local leg end in Leek. The band played the first Leek Festival 40 years ago when the world was new, back in 1977. They absolutely sizzled about 5000 folks in a local park before disappearing off as Leek’s one and only truly international rock band. Which is why they’ve returned for a hometown reunion gig – as a highlight of the Leek Arts Festival, 2017.

There’s is a strange story. A very competent pop / rock band of the kind that were just blown away by punk, they had a nice line in some decent tunes, a ‘novelty’ USP in that they had a fiddle player in formal dress (albeit with a less – than – formal – fiddle; this one has a Golden Virginia tin built into what might be described as ‘bespoke’ lines). They signed with one of the last pre – punk ‘pop impresarios’, Larry Page, and his Penny Farthing label which as I recall had the likes of Paul Da Vinci, Shocking Blue and Daniel Boone recording for it.

They struggled to make a breakthrough in the UK and always seemed about three months ‘off trend’ somehow; and were more than a little surprised to hear, in 1978, via a phone call from the label owner that a tune called “Rock On” that they’d knocked out as an amusing set closer and that none of the band members much cared for had gone to number 1 in Italy.

There followed hits and foraging parties to Australia and Japan; but time had caught up with them and the punk revolution did for any chance of being anything other than local heroes in the UK, despite an appearance on Tiswas.

But you can’t keep good musicians down; front man and prodigiously talented guitarist Les Hunt went on to join the Climax Blues Band and tonight, all of the original members bar the bass player have come together – and the current bass player has been playing with them for years – to play this reunion gig in front of a packed house.

I must admit to a enormous faux pas here; despite the consumption of nothing more than a very rock ‘n’ roll small bottle of Aldi water – much favoured by the gigeratti these days I think you’ll find – I somehow contrived to lose my notes including the set list; and so I’m restricted to overall impressions here, but really, I don’t think it matters all that much. The tunes are likeable enough, the sound authentic and engaging. Les Hunt plays a guitar which is warm and melodic when it needs to be and also a seriously blunt instrument when it needs to be; and it plays to best effect when weaving in and out of the extremely supple layers of sound from the keyboards. Indeed, as the set progressed it became more apparent that this is the key to how these lads seem to ‘bottle’ the spirit of the seventies; the keyboards could run the gamut from a funky “Superstition” – type vibe, a classic Steely Dan – style ‘smoking jazz’ rework, through the ‘old school’ Moog squeaks and blasts to a cheeky nod to ‘Close Encounters’ at the close of “Do You Believe in UFOs”. And the rhythm section was as solid as a rock and the two guest singers, who had also doubled up as the support act, really added some nice tonal touches to proceedings.

Re. UFOs; that title, though. You have to laugh. We don’t now, we did then. That’s because we know everything now. Which sort of spoils everything a bit. Destroys wonder.

And not because they played a string of covers by Mud, Sweet and Slade, because they stuck to their course of playing their own original body of work of their album tracks and singles released in different territories, I came away feeling more like I’d been immersed in the spirit of the seventies than if I’d been to a ‘revival’ show full of household names. And in for the kill they went at the end of the set with a lively blast through their Italian number 1 hit – the one they never really thought that much of. And to be honest, there isn’t much to it; a seventies mash – up of Sailor (Glass of Champagne, Girls Girls Girls etc circa 1975ish) and the Wombles, complete with that scraping, screeching but somehow compelling fiddle all welded to a sort of three minute schlock and roll pastiche (you may recall recalling the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll was a favourite musical pastime in the seventies). And the audience went bananas and danced in the aisles and all went home smiling. There are times when 40 years maybe doesn’t feel as long as it really is. Music can do that, when it so pleases. And as I made my way back home I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics of Kevin Johnson’s one – hit wonder ‘Rock n Roll (I Gave You All The Best Years Of My Life)….when he says of the music biz….

’You were changing your direction, never even knew…

..that I was always just one step behind you’.

And that, I think, is why the members of Hunter are very, very, very nearly men. And the fact that they are great musicians and they turn their trick with justifiable pride makes them a four-star listen.

The Blue Train

Saturday night and off to the leafy Nottingham suburb of Long Eaton to see The Blue Train go through their paces for the first time in donkey’s years.

There’s is another strange story.

It’s 1991. Having a hit in America is the Holy Grail for most musicians. As a territory – especially back in the days when people bought lorry loads of physical product – the numbers an American hit could generate were truly eye – watering. And once the juggernaut starts to roll…..it all makes the UK market look like a lightweight. Culturally important and yes, absolutely essential if you aspire to play Butlins one day, but tiny compared to The US of A.

Which would be fine if it was easy. Ask Robbie Williams. Ask the Specials. Etc etc. America has been the graveyard of dreams for generations of musicians. Many careers have collapsed while this particular ace was being chased.

But, quietly and inexplicably, The Blue Train did it.

They absolutely cracked it, first time out of the box.

Virtually no UK success to build on, no “Big In Japan” to open a few doors….signing to a small company which was a subsidiary of a bigger company, they released an album entitled ‘The Business Of Dreams’ from which the company, rather tentatively and with a modest budget in American terms, released a single entitled “All I Need Is You”.

Now, at that time in the UK, a song was released, entered the chart and if it was going to get anywhere it would be up there and doing fine, thanks, pretty much nationally with a few exceptions, within about 4 to 6 weeks, often less. 

In America, the sheer scale of the place means you have to stooge around as many of the states as your budget will allow, playing acoustic sets in radio studios, talking to journalists, appearing in record stores etc etc on a state-by-state basis. And as a consequence it is quite possible to have a hit on your hands in one state whilst being unable to get arrested in the next state. It’s a bit like trying to get elected as President but without the stupid haircut. The whole thing has to roll out across the country and build. Build a momentum.

And amazingly for this bunch of lads, that’s just what happened. Within a few months the single was at number 3 all the way across Los Angeles and was top 3 in Austin, Texas and Denver in Colorado, sharing the upper reaches of the charts with the likes of David Bowie and Tina Turner. And then it broke into the Billboard Top 30 nationally.

In just 3 weeks, this very English export had clocked up 83,000 plays on radio stations across the USA. That’s around a quarter of a million minutes of exposure to the biggest market for anything in the world at that time. The tune was then picked up by the producers of ‘Baywatch’ and as such still turns up at various far – flung locations around the globe in a thoroughly unlikely setting.

The record company was thereby presented with an open goal and for various reasons which need not detain us here, they ‘pulled’ the follow-up single when it was at number 15 on the US breaker’s chart and the whole thing fell to pieces.

Over a quarter of a century later and it is drummer Paul Betts’ birthday. The Blue Train decide to play a reunion gig at his party……and a few hundred people are to get the chance to see and hear what the fickle musical gods decided the UK would barely get to hear of or from.

The band open their set after a ground barrage of late 80s – early 90s American FM radio hits has been laid down by the DJ. They start with “Rain On The Way” and what immediately strikes compared to the slightly metallic and ‘automated’ sound on some of the album is the way in which there’s more reliance on a more ‘natural’ sound with singer Tony Osborne’s acoustic really ‘plumping up’ the overall ‘feel’ of the songs.

They really are an unusual sight to behold; both the above and lead picker Alan Fearn are southpaws and it feels at times as if you’re watching the gig ‘upside down’. Nothing ‘wrong way up’ about the sound, though; the lead weaves deftly in and out of the thick keyboard layers and the acoustic chops just serve to sweeten the mix. Birthday boy Paul Betts and newbie bass player James Hartley had clearly decided ‘they’re having it’ and don’t miss a thing all night. Indeed, one – off reunion gigs have something of a reputation for being messy, under – rehearsed affairs; no evidence whatsoever of that here.

Keyboard player Simon Husbands now lives in Minneapolis and has flown in especially for this gig and it doesn’t take much time to work out why. His contributions add drama and striking effects and contrast to the songs – like in “Hero Of The Hour” where the keyboard absolutely propels the song forward and his vocals are a great counter – point to the lead voice; and Tony Osborne’s voice is absolutely crystal and a fabulous vehicle for these songs.

Set highlights are a thunderous, anthemic “Hungry Years”, the aforementioned ‘Hero’ which gained some traction on the airwaves in the UK but nowhere near what it deserved, the spiky, Britpoppy “Fools” and an absolutely gorgeous version of “The Hardest Thing”, recently heard by millions of people worldwide propping up some video of Piers Brosnan on YouTube (and of course at the moment of absolutely no financial advantage to the band themselves). 

The band take a break after a spirited dash through “Reason” and return for a well-earned encore to play the hugely infectious “Wild Heart” and then, yes, it’s That Tune…..the huge American FM smash of “All I Need Is You”. And the crowd are up and they’re dancing and suddenly, and for just a few minutes, The One That Got Away has finally come home.

Conclusions to draw?

Here are two bands who, in their own times, enjoyed huge success in two different markets, but the problems they now face are remarkably similar. If you base yourself in Blighty, you really need to convert the success abroad into a homespun hit or two; but for their various different reasons, for these bands it just wasn’t to be.

But something else was and fair play to them for what they’ve achieved.

Both bands still play their own, original music and whilst various musicians in both bands make a living out of playing music which isn’t original to them, it is quite clear they both realise and understand the privilege and responsibilities of being able to play their own body of work.

Hunter will no doubt go on as a live entity, playing one-off showcase gigs in the Potteries for as long as they’re able and for as long as they enjoy it. And they’ve managed to ‘freeze’ that sense of the time which produced this music and they seem to take it with them.

The Blue Train, on the other hand, seem to have evolved their sound into something which to these ears sounds contemporary and in a way almost timeless, and because of this it would be a shame and something of a loss if this proved to be ‘just’ a one – off gig to celebrate a band member’s birthday.

Musicians can be extremely frustrating people. But, in turn, it must be extremely frustrating being a musician at times.

Especially when the ‘it’ you made when you ‘made it’ is an ‘it’ which doesn’t show up in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles and doesn’t turn you into the answer to a pop quiz question, alongside Chicory Tip. But compared to the journey both of these bands embarked upon, and are still on….does it really matter that much?The Blue Train Scroller

imgID72704821.jpg.gallery[1]‘Well, I said hello to the spirit of 1956,

Who was stationed in the bushes next to ’57….’

Thus sang Jonathan Richman on one of the dozen best songs ever recorded, “Roadrunner”.

I encountered the same spirits on a soggy Thursday night in Leek. It’s not what you expect, really and I would have appreciated fair warning but there it is.

A modest but politely enthusiastic audience was more a reflection of the night rather than ‘the turn’. Leek, one of the highest towns in England – ‘Queen of the Moorlands’, baby – was sloshing about in the remains of the tropical storm which had brought a well-morphed spirit of the Caribbean many miles away from source. This exotic and fantastical weather ‘bomb’ was well named by the time it reached these climes.

Doris. Queen of the wet and windy.

So one for the hardy, very local or true believers.

First up, support from a local musician and leading light in the Leek Blues Fest – end of last week in September 2017 for those of you young enough to believe in the idea of forward planning – Mike Gledhill, an affable singer-songwriter who played an amiable bunch of self-penned songs, one of which he entertainingly claimed he wrote with J.J. Cale….”he just doesn’t know it yet…!” all of which amounted to a pleasant enough starter-upper.

John Lewis is, in his solo incarnation, a revelation from the second he hits the strings. Within the first four songs it is pretty obvious we’re in the presence of something a bit special here. His repertoire wanders with total comfort between 1956 rockabilly skeletons, Hank Williams-esque country painfests, straight-ahead four on the floor R’n’B – tinged rock ‘n’ roll that Chuck Berry made his own, and the prehistoric pop sensibilities of Buddy Holly. How does he manage this?

Well, for a start, this guy has A Voice. And it’s usually the voice which lets down a perfectly acceptable ‘Americana’ (hate the term – but bear with me) act, especially the blues. But this guy has got the whole thing going on. I find it incredible that one bloke’s voice can capture the essence of the pained ache of the aforementioned Hank Williams (done badly it just sounds like mawkish sentimentality – and John Lewis doesn’t appear to do mawkish sentimentality), the tremulous, vulnerable majesty of Roy Orbison, the mean, gritty swagger of some of the other Sun-era originals like Sonny Burgess, Charlie Feathers et al, and the popped-up sweetness of Buddy and yes, at one point, Elvis and of course, Johnny Cash. Not only that, he is positively expert on a range of guitars that look like they really ought to be nailed to the wall in a museum in Nashville or used as agricultural instruments.

Here is a man who is on top of his game, big style. You don’t have the likes of Imelda May helping out on his beautiful celebration of dadness, “Waltz Around the Kitchen”, or The Jets providing back-up on some of his recordings without knowing your chops. What I find similarly astonishing is the authenticity which having a ‘stamping board’ – which looks like a heavily-modified pallet – as your rhythm section. And to keep that going with metronome precision throughout a set which requires a variety of pace changes mid-song can’t be easy, not to mention physically exhausting.

What is it about the Welsh? Why do they produce such brilliant rock ‘n’ rollers? Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers; the much-maligned Shakin’ Stevens; Geraint Watkins; Ricky Valance (first Welshman to have a UK number 1 hit; ask your grandma.) Even Sir Thomas The Jones started out with beat-group derivatives of old-school r and r. And John Lewis sits fairly and squarely in the middle of this tradition. Already. And you feel there’s still plenty to come.

Perhaps the best compliment you can pay an artist who features a number of ‘covers’ in their set is that the originals are not fillers you sit through politely before he chucks in a crackling, impatient “Help Me” or an incendiary “Baby Please Don’t Go”. By focussing on the fundamentals, family relationships (“Waltz”) paying the bills or not (“Money Troubles”) or social exclusion (“Not Quite the Not”) his own stuff sits in perfect context with a whole range of classics which span early skiffle, work songs, blues and country. Modern sensibilities, mark you; “Money Troubles” is a beaut, naming the beast in a direct and modern setting. I mean, if he was writing ‘baby left me and mah mule got lame, lost mah money in a poker game’ you’d wonder quite what the point was. So he doesn’t.

And that quite stunning voice enables him to interpret an old and well-worn song with vision and flexibility. I mean, “Always on My Mind” sung by Elvis always sounds to me like ‘I may not be perfect but regarding our relationship I’m always Elvis Presley.’ Sung by Willie Nelson, it sounds like ‘I’m nowhere near perfect but regarding our relationship, this is the about the best I can manage.’ Here is an interpreter of other people’s songs who thinks about what they mean to him, not just his own material, and that isn’t necessarily a given.

Note to self; go and see The Real John Lewis, as the microphone stand proclaims, as a trio and see how that changes the dynamic of things. I’d imagine that freed from having to be his own personalised rhythm section there’d be some real pyrotechnics then. And also, must go see him in an over-full, sweaty cave somewhere filled with the drunk and the raucous rather than the sparsely-populated but admittedly lovely high-ceilinged Victoriana of the Foxlowe Centre.

I stop mid-gush to voice two slight concerns. Firstly, regards old rockabilly and rock n roll, (I flatly refuse to use the term Americana as I hate it with a vengeance) virtually the entire world is looking in a direction away from the original source of music as we know it at the moment. How is this phenomenal talent to break out of the limitations of the genre? And secondly, what exactly IS the genre? And DON’T say Americana, I will not be held responsible for my actions. Sooner or later, a ‘breakthrough’ airplay track may well compel The Real John Lewis to define himself a little more precisely than his talent would probably feel comfortable with. At that point The Real John Lewis – or a version of – might be forced to stand up. (At which point the rhythm section will fall silent, ‘cos you can’t do the stomp rhythm thing unless you’re sitting down.)

But neither of these things are the artist’s problem and neither are they particularly within his control, either.

And the latter might be a nice problem to have. It would be no more or less than he deserves.

New acoustic album “His Other Side” comes out on February 26th, I’m told. Website www.therealjohnlewis.com

Mike & the Mechanics ScrollerValentine’s Night in Buxton. You can’t get a table for a pre-concert meal without somebody thrusting a bunch of roses up your nose and insisting sir has the pink almond parfait cluster as a starter and you can’t get to the bar for snoggers, both the partnered and the furtive. Why do we keep foisting these ridiculous American celebrations of nothing in particular upon ourselves? Anyone for Black Friday….!

Gratitude, then, that tonight there’s a very trad Brit serving at the Opera House and not some awful American import. Bah, humbug.

Ben McKelvey has the task of opening for the rude mechanicals tonight and he’s clearly still trying to get over the shock of being asked to do so. His debut album “Life and Love in England” did rather well on the I-Tunes songwriter chart and you can see why. There are a couple or three contenders in his short set, hammered out with gusto and conviction on acoustic guitar, voice and tea-chest, including the rather lovely “Sunday”. Ben McKelvey inhabits a somewhat overpopulated sector of the musical universe and it is difficult to cut through the mediocrity and the ‘heard-it-all-before’; but he’s refreshingly honest, clearly delighted to be given a shot at playing some decent venues on a ‘proper’ tour and worth a listen.

And so, we present – Mike and the Mechanics. Pretty much an FM radio staple in the UK. They have been since the late 80’s. They seem to have been built on the same principle as Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, in that the Mechanics seem to change and adapt to personnel changes and the requirements of that whilst also adapting to the demands of the songs which Mike Rutherford is writing at the time, with a variety of collaborators.

The first point to note is that if you’ve come out to revel in a night of Genesis nostalgia, this probably won’t be for you. There are Genesis tunes in the mix; specifically two tonight, “I Can’t Dance” and “Land Of Confusion” but their own repertoire is too wide and varied to become overly taken up with that; both songs were extremely well played but felt rather like a crowd-pleaser for the many Genesis fans in the audience; indeed, at one point Rutherford, rather endearingly, referred to Genesis as his ‘school band’. There was also a brief interlude where Andrew Roachford, now one of the Mechanics, sang his big solo stadium anthem ‘”Cuddly Toy”; the rest, however, was an interesting mash – up of Mechanised classics and tracks from the forthcoming album “Let Me Fly”.

If I might be permitted to deal with the matter of “Let Me Fly” first, the tracks from this which were given an airing seemed extremely tidy and show yer man Rutherford still knows how to pen a tune which flatters the FM medium beautifully; “The Best Is Yet To Come”, “Are You Ready” and the gloriously optimistic manifesto title track “Let Me Fly” are well worth a listen, preferably in an open-topped car (serving suggestion).

The Mikes’ classic hits are played with verve and a tremendous ear for detail and are a timely reminder that Mr Rutherford knows the difference between an airplay confection of the highest order (eg. “All I Need Is A Miracle”; check the intro. Music radio hour-starter all century long, trust me) and a stadium anthem (eg. “Word Of Mouth”). And of course the show-stopper, “The Living Years”, which I suspect is probably a ‘Desert Island Disc’ for a massive number of people who would only claim to have a passing interest in music. And in fairness, I think this is probably the biggest greatest achievement of Mike and the Mechanics; without a screamingly strong or obvious image and with a devoted but understated fan base, they do attract an audience who, along with the expected Genesis diehards and fans enjoy the music, don’t necessarily think about it too much, wouldn’t claim tribal allegiance to any particular ‘type’ of music or specific band, but like what they like and they like this. A bit like being an ELO fan, I suppose.

Probably the greatest compliment I could pay to the current line – up is that the phenomenal talent that is Paul Carrack is not missed in the slightest. Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford bring an excellent rock / R’n’B balance to the songs and Roachford definitely adds a whole slice of soul to tunes which, in their studio manifestation, might to some ears appear as a little sterile on occasion. On “Get Up” they even seem to create a sort of Sam and Dave vibe – and when Roachford disappears off into a seemingly-effortless vocal ‘fill’, the ghost of Sam Cooke suddenly enters the room. Which might appear to be a bit weird in the context of this kind of party – but the apparition is strangely appropriate and indeed welcome.

And that’s pretty much what you get; an extremely professional, fabulously well played body of largely original but familiar hit music and some nice new tunes thrown in. If you’re looking for ground-breaking creativity, probably not for you, but only the most churlish would be unmoved by the remarkable musicianship, finely-crafted songs and careful onstage recreations of productions of the highest standard. They’re touring the length and breadth for the next thirty dates and if you miss them, it’s your loss. I will also admit I might now wish to catch Andrew Roachford on his solo tour this autumn.

 What’s not to like?

BW ScrollerMy mate can drink 3 pints of lager through a straw in less time than it takes to boil a kettle.

According to some, this makes him a ‘legend’.

Brian Wilson is regarded by many as a ‘genius’.

I would argue these labels have caused problems for both men and have probably influenced their behaviour and probably not in a good way.

Fortunately, these days, Brian Wilson is old enough (73) and wise enough to realise that Einstein was a genius and yer man Brian Wilson is extremely good at what he does and what he did. It kind of takes some of the pressure off.

Crushed up against the barrier for one of a very small number of UK dates at the ‘Together The People’ Festival in Brighton on a soaking wet and windswept evening that screamed ‘Autumn!’ very loudly isn’t really the vibe you want upfront of the appearance of the guy most responsible for connecting music and summer in America in the sixties, but this is Britain after all, and all that a temperate climate implies. Or to put it another way I’m cold and wet and I really hope this is worth it.

The ensemble set-up is promising though, with a massive array of instruments you aren’t likely to see at many festivals this year. This is perhaps unsurprising as Wilson’s band intend to recreate “Pet Sounds”, the 1966 album which forced the Beatles to ‘up their game’; a fantastically complex concoction which even with today’s technologies must be a challenge to present. For it is 50 years since Brian Wilson recorded “Pet Sounds”, and this tour honours that landmark.

It is also a ‘good sign’ when the best part of a dozen musicians troop on, including The Man Himself and fellow founding Beach Boy Al Jardine, who is so fabulously wealthy he CAN’T be doing this for the money. This clearly isn’t going to be a bargain basement cabaret trip. These boys look like they mean this.

But what are we going to get? Fabulous though it is, the album is not two hours long. Intentions stated straight away, though and after the briefest of intros Wilson announces the band’s intention to start with the ‘finest record The Beach Boys ever made’ – a sentiment Al Jardine seemed to concur with – “California Girls”. Cue the mellotron-style opening and flatulent orchestration, which sounds like distilled essence of summer, and off we go. Rinky-dinky, rinky dinky, rinky dinky, rinky dinky, Game On, we’re off and running. “I Get Around”, ”Shut Down” and “Little Deuce Coupe” in short order, followed by Jardine taking the lead on “California Saga”.

So, twenty minutes in and we’ve already had songs about girls, cars, California surf culture. That’ll do me, lads, we can all go home happy now. Quit while you’re ahead.

On, then, troops Blondie Chaplin, a South African guitarist who was a Beach Boy for a year or so in the early 70’s. He’s a real old Les Paul-totin’ rocker and he’s been in with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and insert name here. Some observers have been a bit unkind about his contribution to the tour but I must say I really think it added a bit of mid-set ‘grit’ to proceedings and he made a fine job of “Wild Honey” and the massively under-rated “Sail On Sailor”.

After that Wilson introduces the “Pet Sounds” section of the show, slightly apologetically announcing that we’ll be back to some good old rock n roll later; but for now, the band will present us with the more personal and intimate delights of probably the most influential American album of the sixties (a claim I make despite the fact it took America about two decades to realise this).

And sure enough that’s exactly what they do, from the angel’s harp and six-ton drum strike which announces “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, through the Folkeoke of “Sloop John B” and the song which Jardine blithely reminds us is Paul McCartney’s favourite song, the majestic, dignified and perfect “God Only Knows” through to the crystalline beauty of “Caroline, No”, complete with the audio train charging across the stage marking the end of the album with the barmy barking dog et al.

And did they pull it off?

Too right they did.

But how? It is no secret that the ageing process and the difficulty of the journey has robbed Brian Wilson of some of that fabulous range and vocal flexibility. He also seems to need a bit of help with the lyrics, using a sight screen linked to a tablet computer. No shame in that. That’s just using technology to support what you’re doing. No different to using a PA system or an FX pedal. And he has another formidable weapon in his armoury as well. He’s in fine voice trucking through the mid range sections of the likes of “California Girls” but when it all gets a bit much he chucks the ball across to Matt Jardine, who was pitch-perfect all night and reached the places which a 73-year voice could no longer be reasonably expected to scale (and in fairness, sometimes never did; many of the most striking voice parts on the original recordings weren’t Brian Wilson).

He’s also got Al Jardine. We were warned upfront of the tour that he might not be at all the dates, but I don’t see how. Quite apart from his audible contributions to proceedings he did seem to be a key part of Traffic Control on stage; a lot of what happened seemed to be going ‘through’ him and if that’s the case then you can call me Al, for this was a masterclass.

And Wilson’s penultimate secret weapon; the band. With a total age somewhere around 10,000 years or so they are probably the oldest collective I have ever seen at a rock gig; but what you get is the sum total of a great many misspent youths. If I were Brian Wilson, even if I reached the point where I couldn’t sing anymore or tinkle the ivories I’d probably still want to tour with them just for the sheer joy of hearing my compositions played before a live audience with such love and craft. They are very special musicians.

All great musicians attract the best musicians. That’s a given. But these are something else. At times the sound from percussion, through keyboard to the bass sax and back through the spectacular control of the often mind-boggling bass guitar parts, was breath-taking.

And the final clincher is the material. “Pet Sounds” played live is an earth-shattering experience. And to think this guy created this when he was only 23. It is a work of, errm…..

And just in case anybody thinks it is home time; how about “Good Vibrations”, “Help Me, Rhonda”, “Barbara Ann” – played more rocked-up than I recall and evoking the ‘garage’ feel of the original version by The Regents – “Fun Fun Fun” and a balls-out “Surfin’ USA”. Ensemble bow, no encore, PA system plays “Beach Baby” by British band First Class, and a slightly stunned and absolutely soaked clutch of folks make their way back through the Brighton mud.

Now hear ye. We’re in the 90th minute with this now. Catch this tour. I don’t care what you have to do. Go to Oslo if you have to. Yes, Brian Wilson will barely move throughout the evening. Yes, his voice isn’t capable of doing all the things it did a while ago. But…..the body of work, the range of songs played, the virtuosity of the band, the sheer richness of the sound. And the voices. The Voices, plural. Unfortunately due to the age-related limitations I’ve already referred to I can’t give this the 5-star review it probably deserves because as I’ve said before, you can only review what is in front of you. But it was pretty clear to me I had been in the presence of genius.

Damn. That G – word again. Sorry, Brian.

Rude Boys ScrollerOK I’ll admit it. I’m in a bit of a 2 Tone loop at the moment. As part of “Tales From the Towpath” we struggled up the Coventry canal to, well, Coventry, and I can cheerfully admit I have never seen more rats or prostrate drunks on a section of canal than on the section between the junction with the North Oxford (Hawksbury for all fans of the genre) and the Coventry Basin – but we had set our hearts on visiting the 2 Tone village complete with the Coventry Music Museum. And after an extortionate taxi ride from the Coventry Basin, at which we duly arrived albeit not without incident.

And brilliant it was, too. The guys here clearly have a firm grip on the 2 Tone heritage, but at the same time they realised they wouldn’t pull in the ‘heritage’ funding without the general Coventry music stuff. So along with the 2 Tone saga – probably the world’s most accurate record of the last great working class youth music movement in the UK – you get everything you need to know about Frank Ifield and Vince Hill. Mock ye not; Four UK number 1 toons for Frank. Come back and laugh after you’ve managed likewise and I’ll listen to you. Until then, Look and Learn.

I did wonder if the irony of having his biggest hit being a cover of a toon most favoured by Teutons most likely to bomb your chip shop was lost on our Vince (“Edelweiss”, just in case you missed that one) but I dwell not on such matters.

Incredible number of One Hit Wonders, though. Jigsaw, Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours, King. Remember “Love And Pride”? Thought so. And what about The Primitives? There you go you see. The only area to produce more one hit wonders seems to be Wales. “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”. Anyway. Where was I?

Yes.

So, fully fired up on 2 Tone and having listened to very little else but old Trojan masters on the way up from Warwickshire to Staffs, we happened to chance upon The Swan at Stone. Somewhere between Coventry and here you cross the border into The North. The temperature drops by about five Celsius and it starts to rain with a near-professional intensity, and whereas in the beautiful south, the rain is warm, up here it is cold. I mean you wouldn’t call a town ‘Stone’ if it was in the South, would you. Course not. Stands to reason.

So we stopped at Stone and there are two things which make Stone exceptional. A Mexican restaurant called Chico’s and a superb real ale pub (at least it would be if they could just keep the beer a degree or two cooler) called The Swan which is about twenty yards off the Trent and Mersey canal, which do indeed sweep right though the middle of the town, and tonight they are hosting The Rude Boys, and you can guess the rest.

The Rude Boys have toured incessantly in various guises but are Staffordshire’s only serious 2 Tone /ska band. They start proceedings tonight with a melange of Paul Weller, kicking off with “Peacock Suit” and “That’s Entertainment” before morphing into a whole range of back catalogue stuff including more Jam (eg “Strange Town”), more Weller (eg “Changing Man”) and Style Council (“You’re The Best Thing”).

After the break they’re back with a mix of 2 Toners – particularly courtesy of The Beat and The Specials – and a chunk of true ska beat courtesy of Toots. They were very well received by a pretty full pub, for a Thursday night, and despite the occasional vocal frailty, Hank the bass player knew how to handle a fully-grown Rickenbacker, Ryan the guitar player knew his chops, and Neil the drummer hit the rimshots like a good ‘un. Some may say a classic pub night and not a lot else but for me this is your new British folk music. Make of it what you will. The Rude Boys are taking this into the future and are making a living out of it, and good for them I say.

They’re a good night out, especially if you’re in the mood.

City Funk OrchestraIt may be stretching a point to provide a ‘tales from the towpath’ where we had to catch a combination of trains and tubes to get to this gig, but hey, this is London after all – and unless you’re going to Dingwalls you really shouldn’t expect to float to a gig.

The crowd might have been a bit sparse for a Saturday night but a whole bunch of people had decided to spend another two hours of life watching Germany win on penalties after extra time. Clearly, in a week of surprises no doubt a predictable, nay, inevitable outcome was a comfort to some. But those who did so missed a storming, uplifting Saturday night out.

And that, in essence, is what City Funk Orchestra are about. From the get-go you just know you’re in safe hands. Within the first half a dozen songs we’ve had a slick, uptown “Back Together Again” where the blend of voices paid genuine homage to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Not” featuring some real ‘period’ bass playing from the absolutely imperious Rick Mitra, a great version of “Love TKO” which took the pace down briefly before the first set ended with a very acceptable “Ain’t Nobody”.

The voices of Noel McCalla and Louise Warren matched each other beautifully, even if Noel was occasionally a little bit found out when ‘doing’ Barry White. Quite simply, he’s very competent in the lower register but he’s absolutely astonishing and has a genuinely soulful intensity when he heads up the scale. By the same token Louise was astonishing when she let fly at Aretha’s ‘Rock Steady’ but seemed a little at sea on material which perhaps needed a little more control such as Sister Sledge’s “Thinking Of You”.

High points of the set for me were a warm and sinuous version of Luther Van D’s “Never Too Much” and a crowd-pleasing “I’ve Found Lovin” which really rolled back the years for many of the assembled.

As already alluded to, the rhythm section of Rick Mitra and Geoff Dunn never missed a beat. Guitarist Nial Tompkins showed he was equally at home playing the funky scratch you need for the likes of “Good Times” alongside occasional pyrotechnic lead fills, and Gary Sanctuary on keyboards had his hands full providing the depth and breadth of backing needed to ‘trick’ the assembled into not missing a horn section – which is probably the main thing that was missing.

But you can only review what is there – and what was there was enough to have the floor full of dancers and a room full of smiley Saturday night. City Funk Orchestra go out there and Do The Deed. They really are a party on legs. The set may have been a tad predictable but what did you want for your money? And to be fair they were considerably less predictable than Germany on penalties.

Mad Larry ScrollerThere’s nothing quite like it is there? I mean, music. Sometimes it just creeps up on you and whacks you over the noddle when you’re least expecting it.

The game plan as I wander through England picking out the odd gig here and there was to catch Henry Cluney, of Stiff Little Fingers fame, who was due to play The Wheatsheaf, a pub in central Oxford, on the particular Sunday afternoon in question.

And I got there late and missed him. However, this being a sort of package bill straggling across Sunday afternoon into the evening promoted by local hotshots GiddyUp Music, I thought I’d swing by and at the very least grab a beer and an earful, the way you do.

Walk through the door of the authentically cramped and sticky-floored Wheatsheaf and suddenly you’re in pubrock heaven, circa 1975. Mad Larry and his band are on stage – well, more accurately just to the left of the bar – and are blasting through an incendiary “Drinkin’ Man’s Blues” which gives way to a cheeky and well-played reggae tune which I must confess I didn’t recognise and then an absolutely storming version of “You Keep A Knockin’” which would have shamed many of the pantheon of greats who have had a tilt at this one. We then get some self-penned ditties, liberally laced with tales of beer, drugs, naughtiness and more naughtiness, stirred in between a Bo Diddley, a BB King and all played with Feelgoodian pace and attack culminating in Mad’s album title track “Dirty Work” before a wham-bam encore featuring some exceedingly tasty guitar work by Dan Collis – who’s full-on ‘yer ‘aving it’ approach reminded me more than a bit of the late, great Gypie Mayo – and honking harmonica of the greasy, sleazy variety from Kevin Busby. Blooming great engine room as well; take a bow Ron Wyatt and Anthony Christmas on bass and drums respectively.

Despite this being the last set of a long afternoon, the pub was rammed with punters all grinning that silly grin you do when the beer and the live music combine most agreeably. And for the life of me, I couldn’t think of an occasion which more accurately summoned up the spirit of the pub rock RnB gigs of the mid seventies when, if you lived in the right bit of the country, you could stumble through the door you could hear music leaking from and catch The Kursaal Flyers, The Motors, The Feelgoods, Lew Lewis, Kilburn and the High Roads, and insert name here. The only thing missing was the nicotine and I don’t smoke. And I have to say that’s how I like my nostalgia; not in pre-packaged compilation form, but about a yard away from you, at ear-whistling volume, with some own recent tunes flung in for good measure (Mad’s album was released in 2014) and played with enthusiasm and conviction.

I implore all right-thinking people in Oxfordshire and thereabouts to beat a path to The Wheatsheaf whenever GiddyUp promote one of these jollies and indeed specifically to go see Mad Larry’s Band either here or when out and about elsewhere (they have been a regular guests of The Pretty Things just recently, which is no mean accolade).

Bit of a disappointment he didn’t do “Zoom” though. Or is that Fat Larry? And did he just lose weight or go mad as well?

Blues Summit ScrollerI have seen the future of rock n’ roll.

Ever feel that you’ve been ‘ad?

These two famous rock n roll misquotes sort of sum up my reaction to one of the strangest live music events I’ve ever attended anywhere. No – make that any kind of event, anywhere.

Indulge me a moment whilst I attempt to explain the venue. A convent, formerly the home to a silent order of four nuns, in an extremely quiet and secluded corner of England at a discreet distance from the bright lights and fleshpots of, err, Stroud.

Bands play on the altar of the convent chapel, replete with stained glass windows, and the obligatory(!) trombone wedged behind the altar and sewing machines and alarm clocks scattered around the huge stone windowsills.

The rest of this huge venue appears to be part hotel, part bar, part restaurant. The whole place has a sense of brooding oak darkness about it and the sleep of centuries of silence.

The chapel itself has around 100 or so seats arranged tidily on the chapel floor and further seats in the pews around the edge.

There appears to be no signage to speak of and getting into the venue is more by luck than by judgement, as is finding the bar as you wander around the gloomy, doomy corridors in search of a pint of 6X. Or absolution. Or both.

Eventually, showtime, and this is a very precise showtime as the show is being filmed.

The audience tonight appears to be about 30 people or so, many of whom appear to be here by invitation. By now, the casual observer would be wincing for the poor promoter who would undoubtedly be facing a night dedicated to St. Flatbroke, Patron Saint of The Unsustainable Loss.

So, Blues Guitar Summit take to the stage, unfeasibly close to the declared 9PM start time for rock n roll. The three – guitar attack of Chris Corcoran, Mal Barclay and Paul Garner  are very good value, having distinctly different guitar styles, having a wide and varied repertoire from blues shuffles to solid rock boogie-woogie tunes to four on the floor 50’s rock n roll and some classic gems, such as a very likeable version of “Tequila”, for example. The rhythm section, Jamie Lawrence and Robert Pokorny on slap bass and Gretsch sticks and pans form a solid and confidence-inspiring backdrop to whatever direction the assembled guitarists head off in. The voices are workmanlike and functional, as tends to be the case, but some of the playing is genuinely inspired and very enjoyable, especially “Crawl” and ‘High Heel Sneakers’.

But something feels, very, very weird – and it isn’t just the rather ‘creepy’ venue. The band are almost treating me like I’m not here. I feel like a sort of irrelevancy. And the reason why slowly begins to dawn.

We were told at the start of the show by the smiley, jolly MC that the show was being filmed, and streamed. Nothing unusual in that, perhaps, but what became rapidly clear was – that was the whole and only point. The kit being used to film, record and stream the gig was light years in front of virtually anything I’ve seen outside the BBC and the stage / altar lighting was clearly set up with this in mind. The venue claims to be the world’s first ‘pay-to-view’ subscription live venue. Punters, anywhere in the world, pay a fee to stream the show or pay a subscription fee to stream a sequence of shows – and, worldwide, there are sufficient numbers of fans of particular musicians or a particular genre of music to make this a viable exercise.

And therein lay the problem with the performance. The band were playing directly to the camera. I was just there to be another pair of clapping hands. My ten quid ticket purchase made not a jot’s worth of difference, nor my attempts to help support the venue by purchasing another pint of 6X. I felt rather like the telly equivalent of canned laughter.

So, if you like your Rock n roll without the muck, the stale beer and the piss, this is for you. Me? I felt a little bit like I’d been used as a prop. True, I was offered free pizza and drinkies afterwards and the staff and management of the venue were kindness itself but almost as soon as the band had finished – without an encore of course as the transmission end time had been reached (an ironic request for an encore was greeted with nervous laughter) – I felt a rather tremendous urge to leave. Ten minutes later given the lack of signage we were still trying to leave. Eventually we gave up and asked one of the management team where the exit was as we wished to leave; and was told, with jolly candour and good cheer, that they didn’t like it when people left and why not stay for some pizza, at which point my companions and I did actually start to do that odd run-walk thing they do in all the best horror films.

In summary, a good but sterile performance in a very strange circumstance. The Blues under laboratory conditions. Not for me.

Donnie ScrollerAnd by tortuous means we ended up at the above on Sunday. Solid Entertainments promote a series of live presentations in what aren’t normally the trendiest of locations, often as mini-festival type packages and very good value they are too if you fancy a day of live and 80% original music.

The day started around 2PM with a young band called Southbound. A bunch of schoolmates aged 18, you get a bunch of original songs in a covers-free set presented by a handy two guitar attack, a tight and well rehearsed rhythm section and a great Lighthouse Family-style vocal which had more warmth than the usual bruiser blueser. What they lacked in conviction and confidence on occasion they certainly had in quality playing and some very serviceable, if on occasion derivative songs. Enjoyable. One To Watch.

Two’s up, The Rainbreakers. From their gig sheet you can see they’ve pretty much played everywhere over the last year or so and it showed. You can absolutely expect a competent, square-jawed bluesy rock band. They started with a few of their own songs, including an OK ballad which might have been a cut above with a bit more of a soul twist in the vocal department. These were followed by the first covers of the day, a melange of Hendrix and Albert Collins, but they really weren’t looking like the time of day / week was doing much for them. A couple more fairly so-so songs and then Free’s “Fire and Water”, which was probably standout tune of the set along with set finisher “Nothing Going On”. They were OK, extremely good musicians, a safe pair of hands. And that was the crux of the problem really.

Rebecca Downes and her band have that sort of swagger that suggests they feel like they’re on their way and on the strength of this they have every reason to do so. The band have an elastic, Steely Danesque keyboard player who adds an extra dimension to what they can do and this meant their set had an interesting range. It took her a couple of songs to get into her stride vocally – by her own admission her throat was in a bad way, but hey, a trouper’s a trouper – but once she got to the cover of Erma Franklin’s “Another Piece Of My Heart” you knew it was going to be alright. Don’t know about the etiquette of playing “Rather Go Blind” when Chicken Shack were due on later but let us not dwell on that. Own stuff was interesting and well worth a listen. They done good and earned a decent reception.

Now then, now then. The Brew. Let me start by saying they got the best response of the whole day from the rather dour crowd and impressed all and sundry including me with their spectacular guitar trickery, and the amazing drum solo, which the drummer completed in barnstorming fashion with his bare hands. They were due off to mainland Europe the following day and if they can get the kit to hold together (repeated problems with the bass lapsing into acoustic mode and the bass player’s mic sounding simply dreadful) they will undoubtedly do well Over There. For me, though, it was a strange kaleidoscope of 21st century prog rock meets power trio. They are undoubtedly Onto Something and all three of them are ridiculously talented and if I had to pick one band from the line-up that was likely to Do Very Well In Future, it’d be these lads. Not for me though. It was a bit like going to see an early round of the FA Cup and instead being treated to a virtuoso display of keepy-uppy. Impressive but somehow unsatisfying. And I feel a bit churlish saying it as they didn’t half put a shift in and undoubtedly won the audience award.

So by the time Stan Webb ambled onto the stage with Chicken Shack it all had a slightly ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’ feel to proceedings.

Stan Webb has been in with them all, seen it, done most of it and remains one of the genuine British Blues legends who has a string of hit albums and hit singles, even, to his name. Generally regarded as a guitarist of rare ability and touch, what tends to be relatively overlooked is his extraordinary voice, a sort of high – intensity fog horn which even past the first flush of youth can hold a note which can break glass. He has a waspish sense of humour onstage and as the set started off slightly creakily (sound all over the place, some band members seeming to pick tempo or key more or less at random) his mood blackened and he took to introducing songs off mic as it was easier to be heard! Whereas many of us did find this highly amusing he did receive some choice Yorkshire vernacular, especially when he claimed it was like playing Batley Variety Club (at which point a punter who accused him of never having been there got both barrels and a glowing tribute to Ken Dodd for his pains). Never heckle an old ‘un. They HAVE heard it all before.

As things settled he ran through a series of Chicken Shack latest and greatest and during “Rather Go Blind” he went walkabout and ordered a pint of Carling from the bar, chatted up the young barmaid and did a sort of mid-gig soundcheck whilst the guitar tech faffed around with his guitar. Well, as he correctly observed, what else to do?

Given a diffident and rather tired audience, they went down well by the end of the set, the crowd won over by the sheer class on display, but he and his band will play better gigs and consequently they are – still – well worth catching.

Well done, Solid Ents – a brave and hopefully worthwhile enterprise with more of these shows in the pipeline. Catch one or stay in and watch the telly and the whole thing eventually falls over.

 

Frankie Valli TitleBecoming a bit of a debate this. Do you go and see your heroes in their later years or not? Do you leave it to those old vinyls and grainy images to tell the story or do you expect the passage of the years to have taken a bit of a toll and turn up regardless?

Circumstances meant it would have been ridiculously easy for me to get to Manchester to see one of rock n roll’s true originals. Now about 80 years old, this guy has been taking money off of people for singing to them since 1955. His band, admittedly along with Motown and The Beach Boys, almost single-handedly held their own against the British invasion in the early to mid-sixties, enjoyed some absolutely classic hits in the later sixties, had a string of solo international hits in the seventies before his band came back to produce albums and singles which defined American FM radio in the mid to late seventies. During this period they made a record which for many people defines ‘great night out’ and is probably one of the most played ‘feelgood tunes’ ever. He is Frankie Valli, front man of The Four Seasons, the man who inspired “The Jersey Boys” and upon whom the storyline is based and who I wasn’t particularly surprised to see twinkling away on the BBC Breakfast sofa a couple of mornings previous.

In amongst the questions about collar size, stage costume fabric colours etc etc one of the presenters asked him if he could still reach the high notes, some of the earlier tunes having stratospheric highs. ‘Yes, I can,’ came the answer. And guess what?

He can.

The set was split into two halves with a straightforward intermission between the two halves of the show (oh come on, the guy is 80-ish!). The band are on the lavish side of what you’d expect; an array of the best musicians in the business, a horn section which could and did Blow (and you need it with some of the arrangements) and four relatively youthful male singers who were just what was needed. Frankie Valli can still hit the high notes; his voice still has that fantastic slightly nasal quality but fabulous range and emotional power that engages so completely but the support given by the backing singers complemented him brilliantly – sweeping in to add some depth when he ran out of air on occasion, thickening out the sound where it was needed but NOT by ‘becoming’ Frankie Valli. Yer man himself did all that.

The band took the stage and swung into a swinging, greasy “Grease” and popped through a couple of earlier originals – “Dawn” being a particular high point. They then montage the fabulous “My Eyes Adored You” with a welcome acknowledgement that Brit fans got this one first before it broke in the States, along with other hits which were recorded as solo pieces for Private Stock records in the seventies, “Fallen Angel” and “Swearing to God”. This was followed by an intriguing run through various sixties covers from the ‘Frankie Valli “Romances The Sixties” album released a couple of years or so back, featuring “Spanish Harlem”, The Everly Bros “Let It Be Me”, an interesting choice of crowd-pleaser mixing The Temptations “My Girl” with The Young Rascals summer of ’67 beauty “Groovin’” before rounding out with a gorgeous falsetto on Maurice Williams and the Zodiacs “Stay”.

Two ways of looking at this or course, you could reflect on during the ‘intermission’; Either it’s a bit of a cop – out especially when your own back catalogue will be dripping gems which will not get an airing tonight; or, (and I prefer this version) if anyone has the solid – gold right to cover this stuff and do so with affection and understanding, Mr V has earned the right about fifty times over.

The referee blows the whistle for the second half and the band strikes up with “Working my Way Back to You” (and yes, millions still think this is a Detroit Spinners original – many of whom would no doubt be flummoxed by the later Bay City Rollers ‘cover’, “Bye-Bye Baby”) followed by a rabble-rousing “Opus 17”, one of many hits adopted by soul and Northern fans everywhere at the time. A particular high spot for me in more ways than one was the sumptuous harmonies on “Silence Is Golden”, a UK number 1 for The Tremeloes but originally and in global terms a double-A-sided ‘flip’ hit on the back of “Rag Doll” (in the days when records has ‘sides’.)

All stage lights set to stun (note to person with follow-spot; it’s the little guy in the middle who keeps singing, OK?) and smoke effects on full and it’s time for Frankie to set to cruise for a couple whilst he ‘leans’ on the band a bit whilst they perform a spirited “Who Loves You” and everybody’s favourite dance-like-your-dad song “December ’63”. He stayed on stage and did the odd bit and led the audience vocal contributions – and that’s absolutely as it should be as Frankie didn’t actually perform ‘lead’ vocal on either of these although his contributions are clear and obvious on the originals. And the Showbiz wasn’t overdone either; the band intro was probably a bit too long and of course there were plenty of opportunities for the audience to indulge in communal karaoke but it never became overly gooey and happy-clappy for its own sake (pet hate of mine). It always seems to me the Americans are the masters of this, especially those who have learned their craft and paid ‘proper’ dues and I shudder to think how many live gigs this guy has played. I’d be surprised if it is less than the Beatles, Stones and The Who – added together.

We were then treated to a joyously-arranged and lovingly sung “Can’t Take my Eyes Off You”, which was worth the ticket price alone, before the final dash through a melange of Four Seasons greatest hits. This started with a show-stopping acapella “Sherry” and included “Walk Like a Man”, “Rag Doll” and of course “Let’s Hang On”.

It seemed to me that the venue was completely sold out – touts outside were trying to buy rather than sell – which was in contrast to the Paul Simon / Sting gig I went to at this venue recently at which, although it was extremely well patronised, the touts were flogging, not buying. And off the back of that tour, of course, Paul Simon gets to number 1 on the UK album chart with his latest ‘greatest hits’ compilation. (Note to record company; errr….?)

Tarnished memories? Wish he hadn’t bothered? Nope. Not even slightly. By excellent set pacing, the deployment of extremely skilful backing singers and a world-championship bunch of musicians, the world-eating class of Frankie Valli is still a top ticket. Go along whilst you can, and whilst he can.