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.

Day 2 at Cornbury was always going to be a game of two halves. Caffe Nero had lined up a huge array of unsigned talent on their stage, kicking off at 9:15 and running through to the early evening. After checking out the running order, I was perfectly happy to spend the first eight hours of Saturday watching the Caffe Nero/Talentbanq selection. In fact, I was telling anyone who would listen to get their asses down to Caffe Nero to watch the Saturday lineup.

Katy Hurt got the day started with her UK Country thing before handing over to the 21st century folk of Daisy Chute. It was a fairly laid-back introduction to Saturday morning without a hint of the whirlwind that was about to descend on the Cotswolds. How about a flame-haired Celtic harpist who sings, plays banjo and raps? Yep, that’s Lisa Canny and she’s a force of nature, mashing up pop and roots into a gorgeous musical melange.

And that’s only halfway through the day; there was still Emily Barker’s gorgeous Americana followed by the powerful and soulful Joe Slater (go and see him if you get the chance, he’s a great writer and powerful, charismatic performer) before things got really out of control. Houndstooth (formerly Coffeepot Drive) absolutely tore it up, getting the second standing ovation of the day (Lisa Canny got the first) before handing over to Nuala to close the day for Caffe Nero.

And for the evening, the Songbird stage featured two legends; PP Arnold was back in the game following the release of “The Turning Tide” (originally recorded in the sixties) followed closely by the fabulous Mavis Staples. From the (as yet) unknown to the legendary in one day, and still a day to go.

You can see the photos here.

 

Depending on who you listen to, it’s the posh festival or the older person’s festival. I was in the unusual position of trying to balance taking a few pictures and writing a bit as well; I got to see the first three songs of each performer’s set from the pit before being shuffled on to the next stage. Thankfully, there was an exception to this routine; the Caffe Nero stage opened at 9:00am and featured unsigned artists throughout the day. It’s a great way to kick off the day; live music from about 9:30 and great coffee as well. Before most festival-goers are out of bed, you could hear the twenty-first century folk of Lucy Mair, Megan O’Neill’s take on contemporary country and Key West’s raucous and irresistible rock/Gaelic/Americana hybrid.

Anavae; that’s a name you need to remember. Playing a lunchtime slot on the Caffe Nero stage, their blend of tribal rhythms, Jamie Finch’s fat guitar and keyboard sounds and stunningly powerful vocals from Rebecca Need-Menear generated a buzz that went way beyond caffeine. And then it was time to watch Danny and the Champions of the World do their wide-screen Americana thing. The songs were strong, the playing was superb and Danny Wilson looked totally relaxed on the big stage in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

In the evening, Stereo MCs absolutely owned the Songbird stage; it was tight, it was energetic and Rob Birch was as wired and compelling as ever. UB40; well, Brian Travers worked really hard to sell it, but it’s not the real thing (and I’m sure the Ali Campbell version isn’t either). It made me wish I’d been able to see Jimmy Cliff earlier in the day.

The reason I missed that set was that Caffe Nero had managed to grab Albert Lee and Peter Asher for a set at 5:30. You can google both of those guys, but I can tell you they have an astonishing pedigree with over a century in the music business between them. Sixty minutes passed in the blink of an eye as these legends entertained a packed Caffe Nero stage with songs and anecdotes; it was the first standing ovation I saw over the weekend but certainly not the last.

You can see the pictures from the day here.

There are a lot of things that go a long way to making a great record, in my humble, and a couple of them are great musicianship (controversial, but I include singing in that) and a sense of joy; this album has both of those in abundance. Track Dogs (the name’s taken from the denizens of the deeps of the New York subway) is Garrett Wall, Dave Mooney, Howard Brown and Robbie K Jones (two Irishmen, an Englishman and an American) who met up in Madrid. You might expect a mashing of influences, but “Kansas City Out Groove” goes way further than that. It fuses reggae, string band arrangements, Spaghetti Western and jazz and even hints of pop.

There’s a rare combination of four great players who also have superb voices, creating stunning individual vocal performances and the almost inevitable perfect harmonies. So where do you even begin to start picking out favourites? The Latin trumpet and rhythms and the nailed-on harmonies of the opener, “The Deep End” set the scene nicely, the lead vocal having more than a suggestion of our great British blues and soul hero, Aynsley Lister, and the hundreds and thousands come with the trumpet solo doubling up to two horns as the song plays out.

And from there on in, anything can happen. My personal highlights are the midtempo “Find Me a Rose”, blending folk song themes of life coming from death with Latin rhythms and constant tempo changes. “I Don’t Want to Ruin It” combines clipped funk guitar parts, a powerful trumpet solo and hints of David Gray’s “Babylon” to question where a relationship should go next and “Born in Love” has a chorus that is pure Steely Dan circa “Can’t Buy a Thrill”. Last, and definitely not least, is “My Big Payday” packed with tempo changes, Chicago/Asbury Jukes horns, a classic swing feel and a whole bundle of fun.

The playing is outstanding, the harmonies are superb and it’s joyful throughout; just give it a listen.

“Kansas City Out Groove” is out now on Mondegreen Records.