Twenty albums in twenty years; that’s not bad going, particularly when you have a day job fronting up for Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra. You probably know that Ruby Turner has a fabulous voice, but she’s much more than the chanteuse with Jools Holland; Ruby Turner is a genuine British soul phenomenon with a career stretching back into the mid-eighties and some astonishing live and recorded performances (if you haven’t already heard it, check out her version of “Stay With Me Baby”). So, what’s the deal with Ruby’s latest album, “Love Was Here”?

A couple of things; this is mainly about Ruby recognising the influence of the people she listened to as she grew up and trying to create the feel and grooves of those artists without creating carbon copies. The second thing is that Ruby has pulled together a fabulous soul band (mainly from Sheffield, a very fertile ground for British soul musicians). The band is: Kat Eaton (backing vocals), Nick Atkinson (guitars), Joe Glossop (keys), Jeremy Meek (bass) and John Blease (percussion) – Google any one of them and see just who they’ve worked with. This is a quality outfit, and they do what quality outfits do; they create arrangements that support the song and the vocal perfectly without any fuss or showboating.

The songwriting team is Kat Eaton and Nick Atkinson and between them they pull off the very clever trick of creating a groove and style that suggests a particular artist while still sounding fresh and original. Of course they have a huge advantage in that the songs are being delivered by one of the UK’s finest soul voices. The songs and the arrangements pull in structural elements from the styles they’re emulating; there are a lot of examples of the old gospel technique of call and response, not just with vocals but also between instruments as well. The other technique that appears a lot is unison playing in various instrumental configurations.

You can listen to the songs yourself and work out which song is influenced by which musical hero; there are nods in the direction of Al Green, Curtis Mayfield, BB King and Ry Cooder mentioned in the sleeve notes but you’ll also find references to Marvin Gaye, Sam Cooke and Otis Redding (and probably many more if you dig deep enough). It’s a fitting tribute to the pioneers of soul.

“Love Was Here” actually started life as an EP with four or five songs, but gradually grew to full album status over a period of eighteen months. The songs hang together well and it’s generally a coherent piece of work, apart from the bonus track “Chasing Love” from the film “The Host”. It’s the only song that wasn’t recorded at The Foundry in Sheffield and it’s very different, featuring a haunting solo violin and orchestral backing. It’s not better or worse than the other ten songs; it’s just very different.

“Love was Here” is the sound of great musicians lovingly evoking their musical influences, fronted up by a great British soul voice and it’s out now.

 

“Blood Brothers” has a very familiar sound; it’s the sound of 1970s Laurel Canyon. That’s not a criticism; the Canyon was a creative hub in the seventies California music scene and it’s no coincidence that Don Henley, a member of that scene covers Jeffrey Foucault’s songs in his live sets. The arrangements and stylings all have the feel of those classic Elektra/Asylum albums of the early 70s. Jeffrey Foucault also has a voice that’s straight out of that era with hints of Randy Meisner and Jackson Browne in there. And, like those albums, the musicianship is of the highest quality while being largely understated. No flash, just perfect settings that allow the ten songs to breathe and shine. And the whole thing was recorded directly to tape over three days in Pachyderm Studios in Minnesota.

The opening song “Dishes” sets the tone for the album lyrically and musically. It’s gentle, laid-back and extols the virtues of domestic simplicity, whereas the second song, the apocalyptic, end-of-days “War on the Radio” is less typical. It has a country-rock feel with more of an emphasis on the rock, and is driven along by fiddle fills as we look into the abyss.

The rest of the album has the same DNA as “Dishes”, gentle arrangements pulling out the best in stories of domesticity in small-town America peopled with the characters that we can all relate to: the frustrated singer-songwriter in ”Cheap Suit” and the father looking back at his wedding day (with the album’s second reference to washing dishes) in “Little Warble”, with its clever lyrical device of ‘warble’ appearing at the start of the song in relation to the car’s tape player and at the end in relation to the singer’s heartbeat.

“Little Warble” has a country feel, while the rest of the album is Elektra/Asylum (you’d swear David Lindley was there) apart from the Neil Young-tinged “Blood Brothers” and “Rio” which is pure “Harvest Moon” with picked guitar, drums with brushes and pedal steel. If you’re a fan of the Eagles/Jackson Browne school of music, then you’re probably going to enjoy this album.

“Blood Brothers” is out now on Blueblade Records (BB-006).

I’m sorry, I really am. I should have written this review about six weeks ago. What makes it even worse (and this wouldn’t ever cloud my judgement) is that the band are good friends of mine. And this EP’s quite a big event; you don’t get a studio release from Dana & the Stolen Band every five minutes and they’re worth waiting for. So, apologies again folks, and I hope this is better late than never. Let me tell you a little bit more about the phenomenon that is Dana Immanuel & the Stolen Band.

Easy bit first; where did the Stolen Band name come from? Dana looked out for great musicians and stole them from other bands. She did a bloody good job as well; she created an Appalachian string band with overlays of electric guitar and Eastern European and gypsy jazz fiddle and superb vocal harmonies. Seeing the band live always reminds me of Pennie Smith’s description of The Clash as The Bash Street Kids on a commando raid; but a female version with brighter clothes.

The songs? Thought you’d never ask. They’re all thoroughly road-tested and anyone who follows the band live will recognise them. The opening three songs are in classic Stolen Band style with banjo, guitar and fiddle duelling with harmony and dissonance over the creative and solid rhythm section of cajon and upright bass in support of the vocal. “Mama’s Codeine” isn’t necessarily literal, but it’s about the things we do to deal with the life we live, whatever they are; there’s even a distorted and atonal codeine coda. “Turn Up the Lights” is based loosely on an incident from a book by Cixin Liu, while “WD40 and Duct Tape” is an anthem to two of the three panaceas, the third being ‘Whisky for a broken heart’.

“Shady Grove” (which I originally typed as Shady Gove) is an old Appalachian folk tune which was the first banjo tune Dana learned, and which she played at her best friend’s funeral. Which just leaves the reprise of “Mama’s Codeine” to carry on where the deranged coda of the original finishes.

I would normally finish off a piece like this by saying that, yes, the songs sound fabulous in their studio versions, but you really need to see Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band live to get the full picture. They are a phenomenal live band, musically and visually and when the current situation is behind us, you should all go out and see them. You won’t regret it.

“Mama’s Codeine” is out now and you can get it right here in physical form or from all the usual online sources.

Is there a video? Of course there is, you’ll see what I mean about the coda:

 

At the risk of spoiling the impact of this piece and giving readers the chance to skip out before the end, I’m going to tell you what I think of this album straight away; it’s a lovely piece of work and, if you’re keen on a bit of melancholy (among other things), you’ve come to the right place. “Hi-Line” is Amberly Chalberg’s debut album and a huge amount of inspiration and dedication are evident in the finished work. If you want something to make you cry, you’ll find plenty of that here, but you’ll also find a few things to make you smile as well.

I touched on melancholy earlier and I just want to clarify something here. A lot of the songs on ‘Hi-Line’ are could be bracketed as ‘Heartbreak Country’. I don’t mean the sentimental, maudlin nonsense about having to shoot your horse or your dog, but songs about situations that real people face every day; broken relationships, deaths and fractured families. It’s real heartache and there’s nothing manufactured about it.

And one other thing. I’m a bit cynical about the practice of including a single swear-word to get a ‘Parental Advisory’ sticker; that’s definitely not the case here. There are five songs on ‘Hi-Line’ with swearing featured, and I’d argue that in each case it adds to the power of the lyric, particularly on the cautionary “Slippery Slope” with its economically-drawn connection between ‘needles and dope’ and ‘fucking for dimes’. Throughout the album, no matter how smooth the arrangement may be, there’s a gnarly realism underlying the whole piece, from the bar pick-ups and casual sex of “Whiskey Song” and “Drunk” to the vengefully protective, Crazy Horse-like “Family’s Just a Word”. The album has its lighter moments; “Crazy ‘Bout You” neatly channels “These Boots Were Made for Walking” and “Harper Valley PTA”, while “Lil Bit Country”, with its country-rock feel pokes fun at some of the country stereotypes.

I’m guessing most of us won’t be seeing live music for a while, so you could do a lot worse than have a listen to this great set of powerful songs from an artist who understands how to write heart-breaking songs that you’ll remember for all the right reasons.

“Hi-Line” is released in the UK on Friday March 20th.

If anyone asks, I’ll always identify as Scottish. In terms of music, it’s a heritage that I tap into. There’s a Celtic feel to many Scottish writers and performers that strikes a chord and I guess it’s because of shared cultural references (it applies to books as well; I love Ian Rankin’s novels, among others). But enough about me; this is all about Dean Owens and his latest album, a greatest hits package titled “The Man from Leith”. Many of the themes of the songs are universal, but there’s also a clear Scottish theme that runs through the album (the title might be a giveaway).

Dean’s been releasing work as a solo artist for about twenty years now and, with a release about every three or four years (not including collaborations and side projects), that’s a substantial back catalogue. Although Dean’s an album, more than a singles, artist, there are still standout songs that have been tried and tested live and are consistently popular. These are the songs that Dean has played solo, as a duo with various guitar players and with various band configurations (with some incredible musicians) and they’ve been thoroughly road-tested; they’re all great songs.

Dean imbues his songs with a very clear sense of place, whether it’s Scotland or the arid desert of Arizona and he loves to tell a story. More than half of the songs on “The Man from Leith” are set in Scotland, particularly Edinburgh (with the obvious exception of “Raining in Glasgow”) and Dean has a genuine appreciation of Scottish songwriters who paved the way for the latest generation and might not be particularly famous outside Scotland (including luminaries like Rab Noakes and Michael Marra).

“The Man from Leith” is seventeen songs spanning Dean’s solo career, demonstrating the range of his songwriting skills from the intensely autobiographical (“Man from Leith” about Dean’s dad and “Baby Fireworks” about his daughter) to the anthemic Ronnie Lane/Ian McLagan tribute “The Last Song”, co-written with Will Kimbrough. If you’re not moved by those songs, your heart is a swinging brick and you shouldn’t even be reading this. And “Lost Time”, which closes the album, is a poignant reminder that we don’t get a second chance at life; make the most of it while you can. In fact the album closes with a run of three songs, “Raining in Glasgow”, “The Last Song” and “Lost Time” that bears comparison with any closing trilogy I’ve heard.

While I’m on the subject of song themes, not all songs are written in the first person; I’ve seen one review of this album get that really badly wrong. Great songwriters pull out themes from their own lives but also the lives of their friends and from stuff that they see on the news or in the papers; don’t make the assumption that everything’s autobiographical, there’s much more to songwriting than that. If you see Dean live, chances are he’ll tell you the stories behind the songs. That’s the best way to get an insight and you’ll probably get a laugh as well; Dean’s songs might be somewhere between melancholy and miserable but he has a wicked, dry sense of humour that you can only appreciate if you see him live.

So, is “The Man from Leith” the best of Dean Owens? It captures the breadth and depth of Dean’s songwriting from the autobiographical “Raining in Glasgow” to the historical WW1 song “Closer to Home” and everything else in between. There isn’t anything even resembling a mediocre song here, and I haven’t even mentioned the award-winning “Southern Wind” (co-written with Will Kimbrough) yet. Die-hard fans might pick out other songs that they think should be included, but this is a pretty good selection. If someone gave me this album and I hadn’t heard any of the songs previously, I’d be really chuffed. Is that good enough for you?

If I’ve met you at a gig, I might have mentioned that “The Last Song” is an absolute anthem; I’m more convinced of that every time I hear it live. Things aren’t looking too good for live music at the moment, but this will certainly give a good impression of what a Dean Owens gig sounds like.

“The Man from Leith” is available on CD and vinyl on Eel Pie Records from 20th March 2020.

The first proper gig; it should be memorable, shouldn’t it? For some of us it’s the start of a lifetime of queuing in the rain twenty minutes after doors while the drummer gets his floor tom sound right, of missing the last train home and paying £60 for a cab and of explaining that you just spoke to the band’s manager twenty minutes ago and you are definitely on the guest list, besides the singer’s a mate of yours. All of those frustrations are forgotten when the sticks click and the band hits their groove (sorry anyone that doesn’t have a drummer, but you know what I mean).

Do you remember the first time?

I certainly do, and I made a reference to it on this very website nearly eight years as part of an appreciation of the wonderful Nick Lowe. Here’s the unedited album version.

It was the East Midlands in the mid-seventies: a time of industrial unrest and political instability. The UK had been in the Common Market for a year and in the US, Nixon was living on stolen time (he resigned almost six months later). On Monday 25th February 1974, none of that mattered; I was going to my first proper gig, to see a proper band that I’d seen on the Whistle Test and had already released five albums. And they were playing at The Civic Theatre in Mansfield of all places. I’m pretty certain the sixth forms from all of Mansfield’s grammar schools were in the audience, after visiting the pubs with the most lenient bar staff. Fair to say there was a sense of expectation.

With hindsight, I can see that there wasn’t a huge budget for the tour and that support bands were picked up locally. It makes financial sense, and a local support will bring along some of their fans to swell the audience and that’s a good thing, yeah? The support band this time was a local rock covers band called Care, whose singer lived on the same estate as I did and who were popular with the local biker gang. Any alarm bells ringing yet? They played their set, got a great response from their own fans and were actually pretty convincing. So, after a quick break to top up the alcohol levels it was on to the night’s headliners.

By this stage, following the 1970 Fillmore hype and the bad feeling it generated with the rock press, Brinsley Schwarz as a band were back on creative form but commercially pretty much finished. They had some great tunes were a superb live band on their night. What they weren’t, crucially on this night, was a heavy rock band; you would colour them moody blue rather than deep purple. The majority of the audience had paid to see Brinsley Schwarz and were perfectly happy to hear their well-crafted and crisply-performed soul-inflected pop/rock. Not the leather-jacketed fans of the support band; from the opening of the set they bayed menacingly about the lack of red meat and thud and blunder. The natives were restless and hammered; not the best combination.

The inevitable happened a couple of songs in when Mansfield’s finest mild boys took advantage of the lack of security to invade the stage in protest at the lack of power chords and screaming vocals. Everything happened surprising quickly and suddenly the stage was engulfed in greasy leather. It looked like a fairly even match between rockers and roadies until one deluded delinquent took a lunge at Nick Lowe, who was sporting his Gibson EB bass; and then he wasn’t. The rocker was wearing the headstock of the bass in his mouth and nose and spitting blood and teeth. Game over; Brinsleys 1, Mofos 0, shortly followed by the ignominy of the rockers’ retreat and vaguely threatening noises.

The roadies went back to the day job, got the stage reset for the band and the gig went ahead as if nothing had happened. The band were on good form and did the business for the rest of the set and then everyone went home happy, apart from a few broken bikers. As first gigs go it was memorable; a bit of underage drinking, a support band with a lead singer that I knew, a full-scale stage invasion and a great set from a band that I really wanted to see. And it happened in Mansfield of all places; I didn’t think for a second that forty years later I would be watching Brinsley Schwarz (with Graham Parker) and Nick Lowe (with his band and Geraint Watkins) at gigs in London, but that’s the way it panned out. That first gig showed me a way out of a small provincial town and the events of that night still influence my life now.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I wrote briefly about that gig eight years ago and a couple of interesting things happened. Someone else who was at the gig contacted me via a website comment and we’ve met up for a couple of beers in London, then Ian Gomm, who was the guitar player in Brinsley Schwarz, contacted me to say that the band never actually knew why the stage invasion had happened and were a bit concerned about getting a kicking outside. Unlikely; the rockers had probably retreated to their base in the Midland Hotel to compare war stories and intimidate the under-age drinkers that hadn’t gone to the gig.

 

 

There are a few people whose work always gets my attention; Sam Lewis is one of those. The first thing you need to know about Sam is that his voice is a phenomenon. He sounds great on the studio material but live he’s something else. His voice is equally convincing with soul, country and blues stylings and he writes a pretty good song as well. He’s been compared with the greats and he’s worked with quite a few of them as well. In a live setting he’s very laid-back, relaxed and happy to shoot the breeze between songs; the whole experience has the feel of someone doing something that he knows he’s really good at and doesn’t have to strain to get right in that environment.

The idea of a live album recorded on the floor at the famous Southern Ground studio has a certain logic to it. One voice and one guitar (plus good acoustics); there’s nowhere to hide and it’s a huge test of the quality of the songs when you take away the studio techniques and leave just the ideas and emotion. If you’ve seen Sam live you know that he can do it, so it’s just a question of getting the recording right and there you have it – bottled essence of Sam Lewis.

I’m guessing that the album is a start-to-finish record of Sam’s set; at nineteen songs, it feels like a single set, coming in at about the hour mark. It’s a pretty good mix of songs from across his three studio albums plus four previously unreleased songs; for any fan, it’s a great souvenir of his work so far and some of your favourite songs are bound to be there. Standouts for me were “3/4 Time” (which isn’t), “Virginia Avenue” and “Waiting On You” (which are all from my favourite Sam Lewis album, “Waiting On You”), but I was also spellbound by the autobiographical “Southern Greek Tragedy” from Sam’s first album, which unsentimentally tells the story of a broken family and an itinerant childhood. High fives to the audience as well; they listen when Sam plays and applaud when he finishes. I’m privileged to see a lot of gigs in ‘listening rooms’ where the audience knows the rules, but I know it’s not always like that.

Fans of Sam Lewis will love this. Sam knows how to pick good musicians to work with, but the bottom line is that he can do this all on his own and keep audiences enraptured; here’s the proof.

“Solo” is out now in the UK on Loversity Records and you can catch the Sam Lewis live experience on his current tour of the UK and Europe (details here).

Stephen Fearing’s thirteenth solo album’s very personal and, at the same time it’s also political, but this isn’t just one for the social theorists because those elements are inextricably linked with the musical settings for the songs. Three of the songs on the album are named for people and there’s a strong vein of nostalgia running through the lyrical and musical stylings of “The Unconquerable Past”, although this isn’t by any means wallowing in the past; it’s much more of a realisation that there’s always a danger of dismissing older musical styles as no longer relevant in the headlong rush to be on-trend. It’s not a new thing, those wonderful old cynics Becker and Fagen nailed it in their own beautifully sleazy way in “Hey Nineteen” in 1980: ‘Hey, nineteen, that’s ‘Retha Franklin, she don’t remember the Queen of Soul’.

To come back to Stephen Fearing, this album is a bit of a departure from his solo material in that, at times, there’s a full rock band behind some uptempo tunes, one of which, “Christine”, goes way back to classic rockabilly styling and it’s a lot of fun. The other notably uptempo song, “Stay with Me” has its roots firmly in drivetime rock that Bob Seger seemed to knock out for fun in the late seventies.

If there’s one theme above all others pulling the album together it’s empathy, particularly where people with differences are dealing with harsh and unforgiving society we live in today. “Sunny” is a great example as the story is gradually revealed of a transgender individual leaving home to eventually find a relationship that works. The writer isn’t judging, and preaches the same tolerance in “Someone Else’s Shoes”; we should always try to understand the pressures someone else is facing rather than rushing to condemn.

Personal highlights are the poignant “Emigrant Song”, co-written with Andy White, dealing with the conflicting tensions of moving and looking back at happy memories, and the title song, with the message that we are products of our past but we don’t have to be defined by it. The album closes out with “No Country”, a solo acoustic ballad that positions the troubadour as a citizen of nowhere at all.

“The Unconquerable Past” is a collection of ten high-calibre songs performed with quality and taste that will make you tap your feet and make you stop and think. Not a bad combination.

“The Unconquerable Past” is out in the UK now in various physical and digital formats of Fish Records (FRCD03).

This is the second time Track Dogs have crossed our paths at Riot Towers and it was always going to be an interesting experience. The line-up of Garrett Wall, Dave Mooney, Howard Brown & Robbie K. Jones (two Irishmen, an Englishman and an American, which sounds like it’s just waiting for a punchline) is resident in Madrid and created a bit of a buzz across European festivals last summer. There’s a reason for that; they’re great players across a range of instruments and three of them take lead vocals on the album as well as creating some lovely vocal harmonies; and that’s before we even start on the quality of the songwriting.

From the 2018 album “Kansas City Out Groove” we learned that you can rely on Track Dogs for esoteric influences and exotic arrangements; “Fire on the Rails” doesn’t disappoint. In addition to the band’s own extensive line-up of instruments, guest artists supply banjo, fiddle, mandolin and strings to create different textures and tonal colour. The net for the esoteric influences seems to have widened since their previous album; “Better Off On Your Own” is driven along by African rhythms and punctuated by a chorus that leans so heavily on the off beat that it’s firmly into reggae territory. The trumpet’s in evidence pretty much throughout the album, evoking South American sounds, muted melancholy and even hinting at easy listening at times on, for example, “On the Last Night”, which subversively creates a deliberately unthreatening arrangement for a song about the apocalypse.

There’s a tribute to Freddy Mercury in “And the Piano Sings” which has the catchiest of catchy hooks and a perfectly-formed trumpet solo, but the band save the best of the left-field inventiveness for the album’s final song. “All Clapped Out” (a play on words) is a cappella throughout with all the percussion coming from handclaps and footstomps and the harmony from the four voices. It’s novel and interesting and it rounds off the album perfectly.

“Fire on the Rails” continues where “Kansas City Out Groove” left off; packed with invention, unusual textures, hooks and memorable melodies. It’s out on in the UK on Friday January 24th on Mondegreen Records (MGR0120).

It’s the first album review of 2020 and we’re gently easing our way into the new decade. “Ohbahoy” (the title is taken from the name of Miles’ imaginary childhood friend) is an example of how to create a varied and very listenable album full of hooks without ever having to resort to vocal or instrumental pyrotechnics. The building blocks of this album are very simple hooks and riffs; the clever thing is the way the jigsaw is put together to create something that’s much more than the sum of the parts.

 

You won’t get very far into the album before realising that Miles has another useful songwriting talent; he knows how to take an influence and turn it into something that sounds vaguely familiar without sounding like a complete steal. And it’s not a criticism. I have a huge admiration for the musical magpies of the world; the people like Jeff Lynne and, more recently, Guy Chambers who recognise the tiny snippet that makes something work and morph it into their own compositions. The album’s opening song, “Hands Up”, is naggingly familiar, suggesting a distant relationship to Steve Miller’s “Abracadabra” (and Steve wasn’t above nicking a riff or two himself, “Rock ‘n’ Me” for starters). The trick with this game is to blend the influences into something completely new, which is exactly what Miles does. There are nods in the direction of many influences, Tom Petty (particularly in the uptempo rocker “Overpass”) and the Beatles jump out instantly, but there are undertones of The Cars, Steve Miller, ELO and probably many others.

There’s a lot to like about “Ohbahoy”. It’s a bunch of strong songs that’s interpreted by a band with enough talent and versatility to make four-part harmonies, twin guitar workouts and perfectly-judged horn parts sound like just another part of the day job. I have a sneaking suspicion that they might just be a bit tasty live as well.

“Ohbahoy” is out now in the UK.