I have got a bit of an apology to make to Tom Robinson. I bumped into him, literally, in the foyer of the Empire early doors and the best I could manage at short notice was ‘Hi Tom. Blimey! Haven’t seen you in years!’

A statement to which there is truly no adequate response beyond vague mumbles about a better optician, etc etc.

No – what I really meant was me and the McKay bloke with the camera here were once doing a DJ / compere gig at the University of Dundee in 1977 in support of a brand new EMI signing called the Tom Robinson Band, whose first single “2-4-6-8 Motorway” had just shot up the charts to number 5 that very week.

The Band were nervously assembling in the wings when we returned to the backstage area having done our ‘bit’ and Tom asked us if we could get a Uni scarf for him to wear as he went out. We quickly procured one and out he went with the rest of the Band to produce one of the most barnstorming sets I’ve ever heard at a British college gig.

Kids wanna rock.

But that was a while ago and you could hardly blame him for not being overly déjà vu’d.

It’s been a while treading the boards for Moston Manc Lee Forsyth Griffiths as well, and by all accounts the last few years have required a degree of fortitude; and this is evidenced by some extremely introspective songs of love and of loss. Lee cuts a small, pained, but defiant presence on stage and his voice, a well-worn piece of kit bearing the scars but capable of quite alarming tenderness at times, weaves through a selection from his latest album; starting with “Crazy Times” and the surprisingly homey “Nowhere Like Home”, the everything-left-bare of “Love Is” and a couple more before the extremely arresting title track “Silence = Death”. He’s probably a bit of a ‘Marmite’ artist – but I must admit I found his songs certainly stood a listen and the pain of loss in his voice at times was sometimes very, very, stark. Have a listen to the album and/or go see him live and make your own mind up about this one.

Tom Robinson is by his own admission 68 years old now and cuts a solid, rather scholarly, professorial figure as he comperes his own show (well, that’s me out of a gig there, then!) and tells a few stories before strapping that old bass on and as soon as he does, he becomes transformed as the band, who, it is immediately clear, are extremely handy, whip through “Up Against The Wall” and the exhilarating youthful capitalist celebration of the joy of property ownership which is “Grey Cortina”. Alright, yes, I am only kidding. But there’s not a good socialist alive who hasn’t coveted his neighbour’s Cortina, I’ll tell thee.

For this is a celebration of “Power In The Darkness”, the album which followed the aforementioned single up the charts and went gold in both the UK and Japan; which for a ‘new wave’ band was indeed none too dusty. EMI must have been rubbing their hands, albeit in a slightly uncomfortable way given the edginess of some of the subject matter for the time. For a young man in his twenties, some of the writing seems very far-sighted; “Too Good to be True”, assisted in the live context by extremely authentic keyboards and a guitar break which did indeed evoke the spirit of original guitarist Danny Kustow, has aged very well. TR showed with his comments during the show that he knew damn well that some of these songs had stood the tick-tock test; and others had ‘yellowed’ a bit – and so he did what could have been awful but actually worked brilliantly; he changed/added some new lyrics at various points.

“Ain’t Gonna Take It” had an anthemic quality then and indeed it has lost none of this with the passing of the years. It is strident and is delivered in 2018 with venom and attack. Similarly, Robinson contextualises “Long Hot Summer” for an audience who might or might not have known it was written about the NYPD’s regular habit in the late 60’s of kicking three shades out of various members of the gay community in order to bump up their ‘figures’. Until the Drag Queens fought back…and from that into the “Winter of ’79.”. At the time, it really did feel like the next couple of years were going to be a paranoiafest – and for good reasons. He might have got the year slightly off but he wasn’t far out with the violent outcomes described in the song; and this one still sounds utterly convincing told by a bloke in his 60’s. He was there, with the rest of us, peering over the abyss.

“The Man You Never Saw” is played with power and considerable pace and, once again, is a paranoia song. It’s pretty clear when he wrote this stuff, he was used to feeling he was being Watched. And he probably was.  

“Better Decide Which Side You’re On” always struck me as a bit of a slogan masquerading as a song and this performance didn’t really convince me otherwise but “You Gotta Survive” is a quite graphic post-apocalyptic vision for the generation which did expect to wake up with eyeballs fried to the back of heads which gives TR the chance to show, once again, that his voice is a fabulous weapon, capable of a surprising range. And finally for the album, the title track “Power in the Darkness”, delivered with funky suppleness which the keyboards certainly gave a real boost to and a strikingly effective reworking of the ‘spoken’ section; where Robinson’s original Home-Counties ‘Colonel Blimp’ character is replaced with a different kind of ‘old git’; the ageing socialist who looks around him and sees the accelerating lack of kindness, decency, understanding, tolerance, generosity….and in these the decline of ‘traditional British values’. It is, put simply, a brilliant turning of the tables; it seems less strident and clumsy than the ‘original’ mock-hectoring tone; and the audience buy into it because it is warmer, more humane – and therefore more accessible – without cynicism.

Throughout, we are treated to anecdotes and stories, involving subjects as diverse as Alex Harvey, Robinson’s own sexuality, Eddy Grant, second album syndrome, and the perils of audience participation. What marks the difference that the years have made is not so much ‘the message’, for the song pretty much remains the same; but the tone. It is less dictatorial, more rueful; less furious, more appalled; less angry, more amused; less an immediate call to action, more a call to think, to consider and then yes, if you feel so moved, to act.

This slightly less ‘megaphone’ approach works sooo well during the encore as we leave the scripted tracks from the album and finish the set with a cluster of TRB classics. “Martin” always was a great ‘brother’ song, even if and even at the time I remember being moved to wonder how I’d feel if it was my car that was being nicked, my brother who was the ‘copper’. And what a singalong vibe it generates, and at the Empire, it briefly returns to being a Music Hall. Those Were The Days.

And speaking of singalongs, “Glad to be Gay”. Even fully paid up members of the hetero club, then and now, can’t and couldn’t resist this one; and Robinson does give us a welcome opportunity to actually look back and see how much has been achieved in terms of tolerance, understanding and the right to celebrate who we REALLY are; but also to remind us that nothing is ever Safe in this respect, nothing can be assumed, no state of affairs is a permanent and foregone conclusion which doesn’t need protecting and nurturing. 

It has always struck me as weird, then, that a bloke who wrote so many protest songs should come up with arguably the nearest-to-perfect British drivetime tune ever written (possible exception “Road to Hell”, Chris Rea.) In retrospect it is a very good thing “2-4-6-8 Motorway” didn’t turn up on “Power in the Darkness”. It would have had all the contextual integrity of putting “The Birdie Song” on “Deep Purple in Rock”. And the band plays it, if you don’t mind me using the word here, straight. If you’ve got a stadium anthem, play it as a stadium anthem and let it happen as it should. And that’s what they do. And it brings the house down, in my experience for the second time in 41 years and as it has undoubtedly done a few times in the intervening period as well.

TR then tells us a little story about his journey through big initial success, flop second album, losing his record deal, bad business, losing the plot, losing the lot…and starting over, as an independent. And hitting the centre of the target again in the eighties, as the band treated us to an extra encore of the ‘comeback hit’ ‘War Baby’. Me? I would have liked to hear “Atmospherics” but I’m just a radio geek and appreciate I’m probably in a minority and to be fair I can’t see how he’d have worked that into the set, so I won’t gripe. And a real, hard-earned and sincerely felt standing ovation for a quite terrific performance. I really hadn’t expected it to be THIS good.

No, I emerged into the damp and chilly night air and headed for the tube feeling I owed Tom Robinson a bit of an apology. I bought into the whole radical socialist thing and railed against the stuff he railed against back in the day. It was all about personal politics as well as ‘macro politics’. And it was a fairly easy time to be an ‘angry young man’ in 1977. There was plenty to be angry about. But as the seventies gave way to the eighties, and Thatcher, and the pits closed and my home town had the heart ripped out of it…..I began to feel like I’d been ‘had’. I began to feel like for a short while, a ‘middle – class kiddie’ had briefly had me ‘manning the barricades’. Won’t Get Fooled Again. Meet The New Boss. Same as The Old Boss.

However, I can now see that he was – and still is – sincere. With a few tweaks and a spirited live performance to ‘sell’ them all over again, the songs have stood the test of time. Despite the clear advances which have been made, the old dragons are by no means dead. And the “Power in the Darkness” tour is a timely reminder of this from a man who is, I predict, on his way to National Treasure status.

Typical; you wait over 40 years and then two come along at the same time. Books, that is, from our own Man Oop North, Steve Jenner. We reviewed his collection of gig reviews a few weeks ago and this time he’s gone full-on autobiography. Now, if you know Mr J, you know that he wouldn’t just sit down and write the story of his life. Oh no, that would be far too easy; not nearly enough of a challenge. It would have to be much more complicated than that; well, a bit more complicated. The Broadcast Brothers tag is a bit of a clue really. The Broadcast Brothers are Steve and Paul Jenner and guess what? They’re brothers; that’s shocked you hasn’t it?  

“On the Radio” is the story of a lifelong obsession with pop music and the way it’s woven into the fabric of our lives. The story takes us from the era of the Dansette, through the pirate stations that led to the introduction of Radio 1, the mobile disco, live bands and back to radio, this time from the other side of the microphone. Now that doesn’t sound too complicated, does it? So, what if the story was told from two points of view, the two brothers intertwining their feelings and recollections (which isn’t a portmanteau word for record collections) together to give a 3D view of a journey from life in a Northern town to life in several other Northern towns with a route that takes in most of the United Kingdom. Steve and Paul have very different writing styles that dovetail neatly to give a rounded, detailed and often bloody hilarious peek into their personal odyssey. 

As well as the fascinating biographical detail of two brothers who have had, how can I put it, interesting lives, “On the Radio” is a historical document of an era, starting with local pirate stations ducking and diving to stay one step ahead of the enforcers to small, just-about-profitable and, most definitely legal, stations serving parts of the country that the big conglomerates won’t touch. It’s a success story, but one that demonstrates that the route to success isn’t a motorway; it’s a winding road through the Peak District. You go up, you go down and, more often than not, you get stuck behind a tractor. The message that shines through the book is that it doesn’t matter how talented and enthusiastic you are (and these guys are alpha in both of those categories), the thing that makes the difference is sheer bloody hard graft. 

“On the Radio” is a spellbinding roller-coaster ride from the sixties to the millennium narrated by two passionate, committed and hugely entertaining raconteurs. It had me spellbound from start to finish and at times made me laugh out loud on my London commute. It’s out now and you can get your hands on a copy by following this link. You won’t regret it. 

 

Leek Blues and Americana Festival, 2018

Well, let’s get this one out of the way to start with; the main reason I found myself actually able to catch a whole chunk of the Leek B and A Fest 2018 was that I was due to visit Holmfirth Picturedrome with me old mucker and noted rock snapper Allan McKay in order to see Graham Parker perform with his band, the Goldtops, and elements of The Rumour.

They were indeed utterly splendid and absolutely what you’d expect from one of Britain’s most soulful singer songwriters with a great new album in “Cloud Symbols” and a back catalogue approaching legendary status.

But that was on Sunday night which gave us the opportunity of meeting up earlier in the week and taking in chunks of the aforementioned – and what a joy it was!

There can be fewer more pleasurable experiences than strolling about a smart and compact English market town with a few old mates, and wandering into various pubs, clubs and other spaces at pretty much any time of day and night, being reeled in by the lure of live music pouring out of an open door or window and the convivial attraction of good beer and the congregation of the like–minded. Sort of a bit like Memphis, or New Orleans, kind of (but a damn sight colder and with better beer and different accents on the vocals. Not to mention a significantly smaller risk of being shot).

The downside, of course, given the nature of the event (5 days, 20 venues, 60+ acts) is that it’s all a bit hit and miss. Some you are going to really enjoy, some are going to be OK and some you’ll be checking your watch. But beauty is in the ear of the beer holder and it’s best just to stick your pin in the copious and well–prepared guide, try and visit as many venues as possible and whatever you come up against, enjoy it for what it is. And have another beer.

Pre–festival warm–ups were worth a dabble in; Foxlowe Films kicked things off on Tuesday with “Sidemen; Long Road To Glory” which features the long and winding road of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters ‘sidemen’ Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, leading from sharecropping days through to winning a Grammy; after which Pine Top Perkins, then aged 97, virtually went home and died, his two fellow musicians all entering that great Juke Joint in the Sky in the same year. Win a Grammy; Triple Whammy. Ain’t that the blues?

And so we’re off and running with a nice low–key introduction with what K-Tel used to describe as Various Artists mixing and matching in a very agreeable fashion, ably curated by Mike Gledhill, who also presented the previous night’s film with similar aplomb. Labelled Leek Blues Acoustic Session, it was, sort of – and despite a few participants using various pieces of kit with mains leads stuck to them it would have been churlish and indeed probably a bit weird to ‘do a Dylan’ and start hollering ‘Judas!’ at those acts ‘cheating’ with the mains. However and be that as it may, a very lovely and convivial introduction to proceedings.

Friday was kick–off proper and for us it started at The Beerdock at half six–ish. The scheduled “Cold Heart Revue” was replaced at short notice by an amiable young gentleman whose name sadly escapes me with a gruff vocal style, an attacking but pretty limited repertoire on an acoustic guitar and a selection of self–penned songs which didn’t do much for me either but, as I say, if you do Blues Fest right you’ll wander about and some will hit your spot and some will miss but full marks to him for stepping up to the plate. Full marks to the Beer Dock, also, for their ‘cut out the middleman’ initiative where despite a lack of a urinal in the gents, they were creative enough to sell beer from what appeared to be one at the side of the bar.

On, then, to Rewind, where we were to meet Red Berryn and the One Dozen Berries presenting a Chuck Berry tribute act. You have to suspend disbelief a bit here as Chucker himself is white and has red hair. However after that there were certain similarities. Nobody in his life ever accused him of being a great singer, or indeed a great guitarist and so far we’re right with the programme there but the songbook is the best ever and well, you can’t miss with a Chuck, can you? Our ‘Chuck’ also displayed certain key Chuck Berryhaviours which drove audiences to distraction in his lifetime; like inviting the extremely tasty harmonica player forward to play a classy solo and then trampling and clanging all over his efforts with this huge thug of a red Gibson copy whilst he did….which the REAL CB was extremely guilty of, a lot of the time. Ask Keith Richards. It was good fun though….especially when I was taken by the creeping realisation that Santa was playing the drums. I kid you not – I saw the drummer being Santa Claus at a few local events last year! And seeing a white Chuck Berry with red hair doing the duck walk backed by Santa on drums in the middle of Leek is not something I will forget in a hurry. Roll Over, Beethoven.

Funk Station had started at Society at the same time and we’d decided to split our attention between these two acts so by the time we got to said venue the whole place had been effectively transported back to 1979. The décor of the place helped – I have never seen so many mirror balls in one place – and so did the band, who turned their trick with considerable dexterity and panache. Just in case you hadn’t ‘got it’ from the clue in the band name they are a Dance Band. They play late seventies / early eighties disco / funk covers with a few 60s and 70s soul classics lobbed in to the mix. They were dead tight and spot on right for both crowd and venue. 30 years back these people would have been earning a small fortune on the Mecca circuit. Their brass section is Brass Construction punchy, their drummer is as Funky As; and even though the vocalist was a bit ‘functional’ she hurled herself around with enthusiasm and did a great job of working what was for most of the time a packed dance floor of happy, smiling folks. Play That Funky Music, White Boy, indeed.

It was a difficult party to leave but leave it we did and headed to catch the dying embers of the Night Owls Blues Band at The Red Lion. This did indeed Take Me Back; these lads were exactly the type of band I’d be featuring some quarter of a century previously when I was presenting music from various ‘Old School’ R’n’B bands on various FM local stations around the Midlands. They sounded spirited enough and with plenty of grit and spit from outside the venue but once inside, oh blimey, were they sold short by the lack of a mixing desk and sound bod. Sometimes bands seem to manage this themselves OK; but sometimes you’re just left with a sibilant mess and the return of tinnitus which is what I took away from The Red Lion; which was a shame because if you stuffed your fingers in your ears, the guitarist was worth the entry fee alone and his mates weren’t far behind him either. My mate who collects guitars and has played on a bona fide American top five pop chart hit reckons it was pretty much the guitar of the festival. I wouldn’t know.

From there it was back to The Cock and Elvis Fontenot. Local people whose ears I respect had been prodding me towards seeing these folks before and I just hadn’t gotten A Round Tuit. Note to self; stock up on a catering pack of rotund Tuits with immediate effect. Elvis Fontenot – an explosion of manic cajun and punk–zydeco energy. The outside area at The Cock is long and quite narrow and so if you find yourself at the front, they are In Your Face in a big way. A gurning bundle of leering, squealing, careening, lurching riot, they are Big Fun. Combining the pace of a Ska band and the intensity of punk with squeeze box and scrub–board tricks and tuneage born on the bayou, this was full of vivacious kick and naughtiness but with extremely high standards of musicianship and let’s hear it for the sound man who kept the whole thing in beautiful balance. Absolutely the best thing at the Festival so far. Mama’s Got A Squeeze Box. Somebody Sign These People – Now.

And so to Saturday and the evening starts early for us at 2PM at The Roebuck. The place is rammed and we only get a passing scent of Pete Latham and Al Bruce but they sounded pretty damn good at long range. Over the road to The Cock and it is time for Steelin’ The Blues. Steve Ajao and Stewart Johnson were up from Birmingham and are we glad they made the trip. An hour of classic country blues and juke joint blues played on acoustic with attitude by a guy who should be doing voices for commercials in near industrial quantities, combined with some of the most appropriate and sympathetic slide playing I’ve heard for some time. It wasn’t just good, it was brilliant. You couldn’t possibly feel better listening to songs of misery and suffering. Cathartic. Just what the blues does for you when it is Right.

With a stunning lack of ambition we then crossed the road again to The Roebuck where Zacc Rogers was holding court. Now, he’s a bit of a ‘Marmite’ act, is Zacc Rogers. You’re either going to be unmoved and feel it’s just a bit weird, or you’re going to be fascinated by his act. He uses sound ‘looping’ tricks with beat box, heavily modified harmonicas and a variety of guitars which look like the bad kid from Toy Story has been doing unspeakable things to them. What comes out of the speakers is sort of Brian Wilson meets Bobby McFerrin at a punk gig whilst busking. Yes, I would agree it is stretching the Blues envelope a bit but Americana, probably fair enough. Dapper snapper Mr McKay was unmoved, saying he’d heard better in this genre, others in our party said they could see it was extremely clever but compared to what we’d just heard from Steelin’ The Blues – so what?

Me? I loved it. This guy has got rhythm in everything he touches and his sense of timing absolutely knocked me over. And was I entertained? You betcha. Go see Zacc Rogers. Make your own mind up. He’d convinced many at The Roebuck, though, who cheered him to the rafters.

We just missed The Extras at Benks and set out towards The Britannia. This is an old style seventies-looking town pub; just right for the sort of London ‘pub rock’ which back in the day would see the likes of Kilburn and the High Roads, Dr Feelgood, The Kursaal Flyers, The Motors and Eddie and the Hot Rods plying their trade. So Reefy Blunt and the Biftas were by no means a bad call. Guitarist does a good line in Wilko Johnson, drummer good and solid, bass player (five strings, not a good sign) seems to think he’s playing jazz and the vocalist is a good, raspy harp player. What you see is what you get. Beery, raspy R’n’B. Old School.

Back then to Benks and Malpractice are setting up. Clue’s in the name; expect solid Dr Feelgood and similar. Problem is they ARE actually setting up and the mixing desk, which is right in front of the PA, is being twiddled by the singer, who leaves the faders open whilst holding the mic right next to the PA stack. Dogs Began to Bark, Hounds Began to Howl.

However, once sound checks done, they fair tore into a smattering of Feelgoods leavened with a bit of Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs and Rory Gallagher, even, the singer staggering around threateningly in that Lee Brilleaux sort of style. Totally convincing guitar sound, nice unfussy bass, metronmic drumming. Solid Senders. We left that as the singer was asking me if I’d Ever Woke Up With Those Bullfrogs On My Mind. I was beginning to realise I would wake up with something like it.

A head–clearing walk across town to The Wellington, where local legends The Lester Hunt Band were amiably ambling their way through a set. I’d recently reviewed Hunter at The Foxlowe – but this was an entirely different affair, mainly rock and blues / rock covers for an audience who had seen the band on a number of occasions. It was a pleasant enough listen but some of the tunes just weren’t well chosen; “Summer of ‘69” didn’t work particularly well, a sort of Dire Straits plays “All Along The Watch Tower” didn’t seem like the best idea of the night and a positively soporific “Whole Lot Of Shaking Going On” almost had me ordering a round of Horlicks. However, they kicked it up a notch for Hunter’s Italian number 1, “Rock On”, despite being a fiddle-free zone, played with a bit of fizz, during which a young woman in the audience did the splits, I spotted Santa playing the drums again and that was pretty much your lot for Saturday.

As already explained we were set to head out for Holmfirth and Graham Parker but we’d been invited to attend Foxlowe Arts Centre at 2PM to see Mean Mary and Frank James and it looked like if we pulled our finger out we’d just about manage that. Mr Mckay is much in demand as a snapper these days and he was pleased to pull in a shoot with Lissy Taylor before we had to do a runner. And on both counts it was a good thing to be his ‘bagman’ as Mean Mary and Bro were Quality, writ large. Not only is she some banjo player – she’s some songwriter, too – and despite the warm and welcoming between track raps with the audience, these are songs with teeth and a voice with a real country soul, containing all the pride, pain and steel of a country diva. She’s more than a bit good and you really must catch her somewhere; she’s already being mentioned in tones of reverence at one of the radio stations where I occasionally ‘work’.

And finally before disappearing in a cloud of unfashionable diesel smoke we caught 5 minutes of Lissy Taylor – just long enough to wish it had been longer than five minutes as a ghostly waft of a certain Ms. Winehouse hung in the voice left back in the room.

Leek Blues Festival week is worth making ‘a bit of a do’ out of. It is never less than entertaining and you will, at various points, bump into some truly great music; and in other places you’ll bump into music which might be a bit less than great, but you might well enjoy it – and that’s the point really. Just like a well–stocked real ale bar, you’ll have choices. But you can’t exercise choice if you ain’t there.

My advice for 2019? Simple! Be there.

Steve Jenner, Live from the Denford Delta

If you’re looking for a reliable way of identifying quality roots and Americana, you could try looking for Black Hen Music or the name Steve Dawson on the label. Please don’t tell me you won’t get this information because you don’t buy music in physical formats; we might fall out. Kat Danser’s fifth album scores on both of these counts and, of course, it’s a cracking good listen. It’s an interesting mix of half uptempo electric songs and half in a more contemplative style with a huge variety of stylistic influences. Kat’s an academic ethnomusicologist (Dr Kat Danser, no less), but the approach to the material on this album is practical and pragmatic.

Each of the songs on the album sounds like it was intended to be played live. There’s very little in the way of studio trickery, just great arrangements and even better playing. It’s noticeable that each song has at least one solo and some have several. It’s a great way of keeping really good musicians motivated; play the meat and potatoes stuff and you get the opportunity to improvise and play your solos as well.

The album splits broadly into two halves; the first half uptempo and ranging across rockabilly, country, blues and Southern swamp grooves, while the second half is generally slower and with more of an introspective singer/songwriter feel. It’s also interesting that the first half is generally about movement, featuring trains and cars (OK, I know “Train I Ride” is in the second half of the album), while the second half deals with standing still, establishing roots and telling home truths about “My Town”.

There’s absolutely no shortage of great songs on “Goin’ Gone”; “Train I Ride” menaces with a “Smokestack Lightning” feel to the guitar riff and some close-miked saxophone, “Kansas City Blues” makes a nod in the direction of Chris Izaak, but the icing on the cake is “Memphis, Tennessee”, a swampy twelve-bar love song to the city that references the fabulous Mavis Staples. It doesn’t get a lot better than this.

“Goin’ Gone” is released on Friday October 12th on Black Hen Music (BHCD0087).

So, where would this little Ben Kunder gem sit in the racks of your local music store? It’s almost impossible to say but I guess it’s going to land in that current catch-all, the Americana section because it features that well-known roots instrument, the synthesiser. The lasting impression of the album is of positivity; the two words of the title cropping up across various songs. It certainly ends on a positive note with a celebration of the birth of a baby in “Night Sky”. Lyrically, the album falls squarely into the introspective singer-songwriter category, but the stylings vary dramatically across the nine songs; let me explain. 

While “Fight for Time” “Better Days” and “Hard Line” fall in to fairly standard arrangements for this genre (okay “Hard Line” features a string section towards the end), “Jessi” has the feel of a eighties drive-time classic driven with some insanely catchy synth hooks thrown in for good measure. In common with the rest of the album, there are hints of Jackson Browne in the writing and the vocal intonation. “Lay Down”, however, is pure E Street Band with perhaps a few hints of Bob Seger in there as well. It’s over five minutes long and the combination of piano and organ from the beginning set the tone; maybe there are hints of The Band in there as well. As the song builds, no opportunity’s missed to gild this particular lily, with extra percussion from congas and tambourine, a falsetto vocal and a huge slide solo. The frantic drumming towards the end sums up the production; if it’s worth doing, it’s worth overdoing. “Come On”, which follows immediately, is a welcome chance to catch your breath before the album closes with the lovely “Night Sky”. 

“Better Human” is an immensely uplifting album, focussing on the ways we can make things better for ourselves and each other. The fact that the sentiment is helped along by interesting and innovative arrangements lifts it well above the ordinary run of singer-songwriter albums. 

“Better Human” is released on Comino Music (BKBH002) on Friday September 28th.

It’s obvious that this is a soundtrack of sorts from the get-go. The first thing you hear is the sound of a film projector running as an intro to the opening track as a gorgeous mournful fiddle theme gradually fades in before the themes of the album (and possibly a film) are established. It’s the soundtrack for a possible film based on a novel co-written my Mary James (Mean Mary) and her mother Jean James and the themes of the film are well established by the end of the opener “Harlequin”. No-one is ever what they seem to be and everyone, on screen or off, is playing a part. And not many people make the grade.

The album is an interesting mix of original songs, instrumentals and a version of the hymn “Rock of Ages” which demonstrates a delicacy of touch in the banjo backing, that’s a few steps away from the virtuoso picking of the instrumentals, and a pure vocal that contrasts the rawer delivery of the rest of the album.

Weighing in at ten tracks, “Blazing (Hell is Naked)” may look a little lightweight, but there’s no doubt about the quality of the playing and the variety of musical styles the album covers from the exhilarating improvisations on a theme of “Rainy” through the string band stylings of “Sugar Creek Mountain Rush” and the tango rhythms and tempo changes of the instrumental “Lights, Gun, Action”. Of the two companion pieces that give the album its title, the instrumental “Blazing” opens with a menacing solo banjo and becomes increasingly frantic as it progresses, while “Hell is Naked” carries a more subtle threat and the message that in a world this wicked, Hell can actually show its face without any attempt at disguise.

“La La Hoopla La”, with its nonsense lyrics underlines the endless vacuity of the Hollywood wannabe experience while the album closes appropriately with “I Face Somewhere”, a gentle sixties-inflected piece with some understated, clipped reverb guitar and the lyrical message that a healthy relationship is so much more important than the Hollywood myth.

The album’s a great demonstration of Mary James’ instrumental prowess and the songs powerfully convey the futility and infantile nature of the La La Land experience. If you listen to it as a stand-alone piece, it works very well. If you look at it as a taster for a novel and a movie, would it make me want to read or watch them? It would, without a doubt, so it’s a winner on all counts.

Out now.

The first time I saw CoCo and the Butterfields was almost exactly five years ago at The Garage, only a few hundred metres away from this evening’s venue. On that night, they were supported by Gentlemen of Few, a band I saw again only six days ago; live music in London can be a small world sometimes. Five years is an eternity in the lifespan of a band on the unsigned and ‘up-and coming’ circuit. I loved both bands the first time I saw them; would I still be so keen five years and a lot of gigs later?

Let’s concentrate on CoCo and the Butterfields, who established themselves initially by busking around Canterbury, playing gigs around Kent and breaking out and on to the festival circuit. They were the perfect band for that circuit, with a raggle-taggle gypsy look and a fusion of folk and pop styles with an ability to write the odd anthem or two. Chumbawamba meets The Waterboys maybe? But they have a couple of secret weapons; the first is Dulcima’s phenomenal voice and the second is keyboard player Jamie, who also happens to  be a world-class beatboxer. They had a fanatical following five years ago; they still have and it’s easy to see why. I was impressed five years ago, I’m even more impressed now.

All of the years they’ve played together have created an incredibly tight musical unit driven along by a locked-in rhythm section and a four-pronged frontline of Dulcima, Tom Twyman, Jamie and banjo player Handsome Rob. They’re confident and they were absolutely on it for the entire set. The set introduced a big chunk of their new material (which the fans knew inside out already, judging by the singalong in my right ear) plus a few old favourites, including the anthemic “Warriors”. Despite a few problems with the sound, particularly on Dulcima’s vocal, and some fairly random lighting, the band was cooking on gas from the start. If you want to sum up the experience, you only need to go as far as the latest single “Monsters”, a song about inner demons and the friends that help you deal with them.

Tom and Dulcima used the stagecraft they’ve learned over the last six years, teaching the audience the refrain (I suspect most of them already had that covered) before launching into the song. It’s another anthem; it’s going to be huge on festival stages next summer but it might even have cracked the radio market before that. The band orchestrated the audience participation halfway through the song, but then something incredible happened. With absolutely no prompting, almost the entire audience spontaneously launched into the refrain exactly on the beat, creating a perfect counterpoint for the band. Honestly, I’ve never seen (or heard) anything quite like it. CoCo and the Butterfields are back and they mean business.

Gentlemen of Few; yep they’re back as well, but that’s another story.

If you want to capture a bit of the CATB experience, have a look at this:

We don’t get too many chances to do book reviews, but I’m absolutely insisting on doing this one. “Rock ‘n’ Roll Twilight” is the work of our very own contributor, and friend for longer than either of us can remember, Steve Jenner. The central premise of the book is very simple; the golden age of rock ’n’ roll, for a variety of reasons, is over and we’re now witnessing what my friends who still live Up North would call its last knockings. I’m not going into that in detail, because I’m hoping you’re going to read it for yourself and find out.

Besides the basic premise, what Steve has done is collected a series of reviews written during his lengthy odyssey to try to catch as many of the bands that we have loved over the years while we still have the opportunity. Sometimes the attempt to catch the bands has only been partially successful; in the period between buying tickets for Steely Dan and seeing the show, Walter Becker (one half of the partnership) died and the show had some of the feel of an upbeat memorial. The artists reviewed cover a diversity of musical styles and range from global megastars to not-even-a-hit-in-the-UK. It’s a perfect cross-section of the music that is only rock ‘n’ roll (but we like it). Some of the reviews have appeared here in the past; some haven’t and I’m hoping we’ll see more in the future.

Don’t get the idea that this is a favour for a mate. We only feature bands, gigs, albums, singles and even books on MusicRiot that we love and we want to share with the world. The other thing is that Steve can write; no argument on that at all. Here’s an example from the book and my favourite intro to a review:

‘My 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.’

Steve has also given credit to some unsung heroes; the actual venues hosting these events. The final section of the book is a series of short pieces about the places these bands were seen in, ranging from the Foxlowe Centre in Leek to the O2 in Greenwich and all shapes and sizes in between. Part fact/part personal opinion, it gives real feel for ambience of these buildings.

Writing’s a skill; you can learn, you can make yourself better. The unique qualities that make this a standout piece of work are Steve’s knowledge of his subject (trust me, most of this stuff is in his head) and his sheer enthusiasm for all aspects of music. Passion, knowledge and skilful writing combine to create a little gem that you won’t want to put down.

And I was almost too modest to mention that I took the cover shot; almost.

John Bulley, Steve Stott & Phil Burdett

When I get a message inviting me to visit the Railway in Southend to interview Phil Burdett, there’s only one possible response – when do I have to get there? Well, it was a mid-July Friday afternoon and the interview was livened up by the presence of Steve Stott, superb fiddle and mandolin player with Phil’s ever-evolving band. As always where Phil Burdett’s involved, it was interesting and sometimes controversial. I’ve left out some stuff to protect the innocent and the guilty – sorry Phil. Anyway, here’s how it went.

Allan – To start on familiar territory, with the last album, “Psychopastoral”, the thing that immediately struck me was releasing it as one continuous track, which gets round the whole iTunes download thing about single tracks or whole albums.

Phil – I’m sure they’re quaking in their boots at iTunes, it is a little victory but it’s the best I can hope for these days; Pyrrhic victories. I crave more Pyrrhic victories.

Allan – It took me a while to get this while I listened to it on my trusty old media player on continuous cycle as it went from the end straight back to the beginning, that the album was a cycle from the early morning to early morning a day later. I said at the time that I thought it was an outstanding piece of work, as good as anything you’ve done, I think.

Phil – I must admit, I was surprised, in the sense that it was different from what I used to do and I thought I’m either going to get some new people who like it and hate everything I’ve ever done or just everyone will hate it. You get so involved with it and you think you’re creating Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and someone tells you ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all. What are you doing? You’ve lost your mind.’ It was pleasing that some people that liked what I do liked it and also some people some that haven’t particularly liked what I’ve done before seem to like it as well.

Steve – There’s probably some of the style that you used to do still remaining but combined with what you’re feeling now, so it covers both ends.

Phil – It’s like Tom Waits, but not quite such a radical change (that’s the next album). He lost a lot of his old fans who said ‘I liked him when he was drunk and living in a dodgy hotel and being a sort of dharma bum’, but you get bored with it. You can come up with many artistic reasons ‘I decided to embrace the idea of a concept album, in my late fifties…’, but basically you’re bored and I couldn’t get into music after the operation and the stuff I went through there. I started playing and did a couple of gigs and I felt like a Phil Burdett tribute act and I thought ‘What am I doing this for? I’m trying to write more songs like this.’ If you’re trying to write something don’t do it. So I thought let’s do something I can’t do, so we’re doing a film now.

I’ve got to do a film soundtrack; there will be songs, and that’s made me and write the songs because I think I need a song here to go over this bit of film.

Steve – There are some great songs, actually, from the demos I’ve heard.

Phil – Thank you. I hope you’ve got that on tape.

Allan – When we were chatting earlier, you were saying something the film being a bridge between “Psychopastoral” and the next album.

Phil – It is; there’s a lot of stuff I wrote in the hospital; morphine is a wonderful thing. I read it back when I sobered up and I thought I have no idea what this man is talking about, then it started making sense gradually and I realised that a lot of it followed on from what I did on the last album but I didn’t want it to be the middle album before I get really depressing with the hospital songs. I thought it wold be nice if it had some other element to it, so I thought ‘Let’s make a film!’  And directly, I thought there was no way I could make a film with on no money, no budget and no actors

Steve – Not strictly true…

Phil – So we are, and the fact that it’s actually happening is what’s keeping me going because even the prospect of doing the bunch of songs I had written felt like ‘Here we go again’ but this will spark it off and it’s also got a visual element to it, which I like the idea of. It’s not a series of music videos joined together, but you know The The did that film, I want it to have that sort of feel to it, but there’s a bit more drama involved (with a small d). We’re not talking “Apocalypse Now”, we couldn’t afford the helicopters…

Allan – And this is not the only film you’ve been involved with recently, is it?

Phil – No, I’m a regular luvvie now. ‘Just in between films, dahling’. It’s a documentary about growing up in Basildon. It was initially about brutalist architecture but it seemed to evolve when the director met a lot of artists from Basildon and they were all so different but they all had a similar theme of a love/hate relationship with Basildon so it was about that; it was good fun. He let me witter on then edited it down to something that was almost coherent, so I was quite pleased with that.

Steve – The people the film’s about, or featured in the film, have all left Basildon, haven’t they? There’s not a single one actually lives in Basildon now.

Phil – Which was hilarious. A lot of the Irish diaspora sing “From Clare to Here” and “Off to Dublin in the Green” but they’re all in Finsbury Park now. ‘We all love it but we’re not going back there. Fuck that.’

Allan – As an ex-pat Scot I completely get that. So, without giving too much away in terms of plot, what’s the story with the film?

Phil – Well the “Psychopastoral” album was basically, the narrative throughout was called ‘the long walk home’ and it’s an idea that I’ve discovered that many of the people I like, in music and literature and poetry, were always disappearing into the wilderness looking for something and what they were looking for was somewhere they could go home and that was the vague idea. A lot of them went to nature; it was based around William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud. They all disappeared to derange their senses and they all found out they were miles from home: ‘I don’t feel at home and that’s what I wanted in the first place. I wanted to feel something.’ That’s the idea of that album and going through my traumas, I thought ‘They were all walking’.

John Clare famously walked from High Beach to Helpston; he walked from this lunatic asylum, going home to what he thought was his wife, but was actually his mistress, who had actually died anyway so it was an exercise in the definition of futility. I used him as the central character and Blake was another one who didn’t actually wander, but he wandered in his head. He was seeking angels in the trees; he was a cockney mystic, like the Russell Brand of his day. They were people who had ideas beyond their station and then realised that they wanted to get back to their station. It was the idea of comfort without being comfortable and when you derange your senses there is a sense that nothing makes sense and that can be liberating but, after a while, it becomes just derangement.

Rimbaud gave up altogether and became a gun-runner, Blake started to write about Heaven-knows-what and Clare lost his mind. He thought he was Shakespeare, he thought he was a boxer at one point. So I thought the halfway house of madness is fine because you get the little insights. When that’s happening, that’s great, but once you’re in an asylum and you’re thinking you’re Shakespeare, that’s really not useful as an artist.

Brian Wilson’s an example. Everyone thought ‘How on earth did he write “Good Vibrations”?’ Look at the stuff he wrote once he reached his destination and it’s like a five-year-old writing; wonderfully produced and interesting, but still like a five-year-old. I wanted to avoid that, so while I was in the hospital I wrote all this really depressing stuff because I thought everything was coming to an end but when I came out, I thought it’s not coming to an end but I couldn’t think in the same way as I did.

 I thought it was a continuation. I’d lost a leg; Rimbaud lost a leg; Captain Ahab lost a leg searching for something and I grabbed the idea of the long walk home without a leg. That’s basically what this is all about. The further out you get, through drink, drugs, mysticism, anything, the less able you are to communicate it to people because they just think you’ve gone mad. But there’s a point just before it ends, before you do go mad, where it’s really interesting and that’s point I’m trying to hold on to in this film. And then it descends into depression and madness which is what the really interesting third album of the trilogy is about, but we’ll get to that later. I want to make it sound like Steely Dan actually because that’s the only way it’s gonna sell anything, either that or “Berlin” by Lou Reed, which I love, but it’s unlistenable to most people. This will make “Berlin” sound like Five Star

Allan– Looking beyond that, have you got any more plans for live stuff coming up?

Phil – It’s a bit tricky. I’ve lost all my mojo, although I don’t know what a Mojo is apart from a middle-class magazine for people who still like Crosby, Stills and Nash, but I don’t know. I’d like to do it but I want to have a point to it. It’s the same way I feel about the writing; I don’t want to do all this differently and feel I’ve changed my approach and then think ‘Oh, we’ll go and do some gigs’.

I’m having some poetry published at the end of the year and I’d like to include some of that in it because there’s a lot more poetry on the album. I wouldn’t mind dipping my toe in the water by doing stuff with Steve. We did a thing in a church, didn’t we?

Steve – Yeah, St Paul’s church. That was beautiful actually; it was purely acoustic, just a selection of songs that suited the venue. I suppose it was a kind of folky thing.

Phil – It was. I’d like to do that with some poetry, just to see if I can read the poetry. There’s a couple of poetry evenings here where you can just get up and read.

Steve – I think the other thing is to enjoy doing it rather than have the pressure of putting on a big gig and inviting lots of people.

Phil – When we planned to do the album launch gig, I got to the rehearsal and then thought ‘What the fuck am I doing?’. If it had all been rehearsed without me there, I might have been able to turn up and sing it but I was just sitting there thinking that I wanted to do something else, I didn’t want to be sitting there churning out this stuff. It felt it important that the whole process changed, and what I don’t want to do is just get back to ‘let’s do a gig then. All the creativity has stopped, let’s go and regurgitate it live with some feedback.’

Steve – We were doing gigs to promote the albums that we all produced, so the was the reason for the gigs.

Phil – And that’s why they’re all platinum sellers…

Steve – So the question is, do we really need to do that?

Phil – The Leigh Folk Festival, I’d like to do something there next year; not just for ‘Oh, Phil’s singing again and he’s got one leg. Oh, well done, Phil.’ Unless I have my head chopped off, I can fuckin’ sing; Ella Fitzgerald managed and I’m a better singer than she is. (Followed by a loud cackle).

Allan – I suppose the thing is, whatever you decide to do, you’ve got a great bunch of musicians working with you.

Phil – I have, just don’t tell my band. No, it’s true; I’m really appreciative of the musicians I’ve been able to talk into doing stuff for nothing because it would have been very difficult otherwise. I don’t like having a regular band. I used to but now I feel like everything we do something it’s a new band almost because we evolve with this particular bunch, except the drummers…

Allan – That’s all a bit Spinal Tap isn’t it?

Steve – I don’t even know if I’ll be on the next album…

Phil – You are, but you’re playing drums. Just don’t get the drummer’s job, because then you know you’re out. No, it is a bit Spinal Tap with the drummers. The last one did actually spontaneously combust.

Allan – I suppose, Steve, you’ve got double the chance of staying in the band, playing two instruments.

Phil – He sneaks in with a false nose and moustache. ’I’ve found a new fiddle player – fuck it’s Stott’

Steve – I try to make myself as indispensable as possible.

Phil – He does; he’s currently learning the oboe. It’s great; I’m getting in touch now because I’ve got these demos for the soundtrack of the film, so I’m going to send them the stuff and we’ll get together at some point and we’ll go and record. We’ll record it at Senor Al’s (Al Franklinos) because it’s my favourite place at the moment.

Steve – It ties in very nicely with “Psychopastoral” because of the park…

Phil – Well, the songs are very different from “Psychopastoral”, so I would like it to have some continuity and that will come from whatever Al does.

Steve – And it’s the location in Peckham, where Blake’s tree is, so there’s a catharsis there.

Phil – I’d like to point out that he used the word catharsis there. Always avoid the words journey and catharsis.

Allan – And what about some of the other collaborators on “Psychopastoral”?

Phil – One of the linking voices throughout this three-album thing will be Lyndon Morgans (Songdog) who did the narration for the album (“Psychopastoral”) and he’s going to do the narration for the film, the subsequent album and the album after that, so I’m really pleased about that. He’s an old Welsh wanderer, a Celtic wanderer and I need his Richard Burton-like authority. I’ll be making him read stuff he doesn’t understand for the next two albums.

Allan – I must admit, those links on “Psychopastoral” worked really well. His voice is fabulous for those.

Phil – It was the thing I was worried about because it was the thing that was going to make it different in a way and with my zero knowledge of arrangement of the quasi-classical stuff that’s going on in the background, it was either going to be great or it was going to be shit; there is no middle-ground. And it was almost great…

Allan – And is there anything else to throw in before we wrap it up?

Phil – There’s my collection of reggae covers… I’m looking forward, in a way, to finishing this trilogy because I don’t know what I’m going to do after that, and I never felt like that. It was always just ‘Here’s another bunch of songs that I like, I’ll record them with musicians I like and we’ll put it out and some people will like it and some won’t and then we’ll do the Leigh Folk Festival, then we’ll do this, then we’ll play The Railway’. That’s not going to happen, so I’m really interested in what I want to do after that.

Steve – I think we ought to base that on whatever the outcome of the film is. You might want to do another film.

Phil – I’d love to. I’m not sure anyone else will; I’m putting many people in to therapy with this film but that would be great. But then again, I might just think ‘I’ve done that’. I won’t do it just because I’ve made a film and invent some spurious half-arsed concept…

Steve – I was just trying to generate some work for myself…

Phil – I know you were. Talking of which, there’s a collection of folk-based songs that I want to record, so I might do that as a little side project with some real folk musicians. Radical concept, I know. It’s simple; you don’t rehearse, you just have to sober them up. That’s something I wouldn’t mind doing as a side project; it’ll be nice, it’ll be my stardust memory. It was so much better when we wrote songs…

And that was where I switched off the recorder before the descent into totally scurrilous alcohol-fuelled conversation. The Basildon film that Phil refers to is ”New Town Utopia” and it’s a fascinating exploration of the development of the town and its impact on the creative artists living there. You really should watch it.