Guy TitleSo it’s kind of a bittersweet moment then; the last gig ever for Vera Lynch and it’s at Barfly Camden. The bar service and the lighting are basic, but at least the sound is good. I managed a very quick word with singer Guy Harries before Vera hit the stage for the last time and the inside track is that the split is just one of those things that happen in the music scene today. No-one fell out, no-one got killed and all of the band members looked like they were really enjoying their final gig. It’s always sad to see a good band split, but I’m sure we’ll see the various Veras cropping up in various guises before too long.

The final set was a compilation of favourites from the two Vera Lynch EPs, including the crowd-pleasers “Dog in the Club”, “Horror Doctor”, “Child of Jago” and “Stormy Weather”, which finishes perfectly with “The End of the World”, from the second EP; it’s a lovely note to bow out on. It’s wonderful to see the band giving all they’ve got to make it a memorable final gig and especially to see Guy terrifying the front row of the audience during “Horror Doctor”.

It may be a small ripple on a small pool, but I’ll miss Vera Lynch: I saw the band four times in just over a year; they were always entertaining and bloody nice people as well. There’s a big hole out there now waiting to be filled by a band that can distill evil cowboy punk with mutant funk and camp theatrics; any takers?

My Black Arts TitleSo, here’s an interesting one; “My Black Arts” is the second album from The Dream Logic. The core of the band is singer and guitarist Charles Compo, bass player Jerry Brooks and drummer Camille Gainer but the album also features cameos from guitarists Eric Krasno (Soulive) and Vernon Reid (Living Colour). As far as trying to pin a genre on the band, I’m sticking to guitar-based at the moment.

The first track, “My Red Heart”, opens with some guitar and percussion noodling before dropping into a groove that echoes “Gaucho”-era Steely Dan (right down to a sprinkling of atonality in the guitar solo) with clean guitars and keys under Charles Compo’s very distinctive vocal, which has more than a hint of Sweet Pea Atkinson (more about that later). From here on in, the band takes on a variety of different disguises, as it tackles a range of musical styles.

“Cisco Kid” and “When I Go” have a bluesy feel, the first funky, and the second a slow blues with very clean picking in the style of Albert Collins before a coda which shifts to mid-tempo before a paint-stripping guitar solo. Drums and bass are fairly funky throughout and the songs “”Just Can’t Quit It”, “The Way That I Want It” and “Think I’ll Stay” stick fairly closely to a funk template.

“It’s Murder”, with its driving bassline, “I Hope It’s Real”, with a catchy guitar hook and guitar fills in the verses, the Southern swamp boogie of the single “Drunken Monkey” and the all-out driving tempo of “Headlights Into the Darkness” (with a hint of pastiche in the backing vocals) all help to establish the band’s rock credentials while “Don’t Judge” has slow 70s style soul arrangement with nice laid-back, almost jazz, guitar.

The remaining three tracks are the seasoning which gives the album its unique flavour. “Biznasty” (with a lyric about a music business sleazeball) is propelled along by Stones-style intertwined guitar parts with an added sitar to give the song its individual style. And then things get weird. “Trying to be a Buddha”, a slow piece which evokes 80s-era Prince meeting Tom Verlaine is almost a mantra, while the closing (and title) track, “My Black Arts” is a loose jam which perhaps made a lot more sense in the studio than it does here.

On the positive side, the playing is superb throughout, particularly when the arrangement is for two guitars. There’s a lot of variation; it’s never boring because you just don’t know what’s coming next and the band sounds fairly convincing across all of the genres they tackle. The negatives are that there’s probably too much material here (14 songs) and the title track, “My Black Arts”, comes over as a bit self-indulgent and aimed at the band rather than the listener. The band is obviously influenced by a tremendous variety of styles and the finished product here feels mostly like Steely Dan interpreted by Don and David Was (who also had a penchant for including half-finished jams and other bits of weirdness on their albums) with hints of many other styles. It’s not a bad album at all; it’s a good album which might have been even better with a tighter focus.

 

DSC_0078_011 TitleImagine a world where musicians master their instruments and voices by playing (solo and as a group) until they know that their music is good enough for the public to hear. Where musicians get together to play music that they believe in; music that’s passionate and inspired. Where success is measured in emotional response, not midweek chart positions. Where the playing is more important than image, and integrity is more important than overnight success and bread and circuses TV shows. Where bands play live and it sounds better than the vinyl/CD/download because it’s not all about clever production and autotune. Where a singer isn’t some deluded hyper-melismatic Whitney wannabe. Where bands actually respect their audiences. I visited that world two nights ago when I saw Stone Foundation headline the Delicious Junction fifth birthday party at The 100 Club.

After a variety of short support sets, including one from Simon Wells, who was unfairly ignored by most of the audience (despite a guest appearance from SF’s Gary Rollins), it was time for the main event. It was big smiles all round from the audience, and the band, playing their third sell-out 100 Club gig this year; and it was bass player Neil Sheasby’s birthday. The band opened with the title song from the latest album, “To Find the Spirit”, and from that point on it was their night. Stone Foundation doesn’t make any distinction between support and headline sets; the guys just get on and give it the beans. This is a gang in the great tradition of Dexys; it’s not about individual egos, it’s about the big picture and this picture’s a masterpiece where every element counts.

Underpinning the band’s sound is the rock solid rhythm section of Neil Sheasby and Philip Ford; it’s not necessarily fussy, but it provides the core for everyone else to lock in to. They’ve played together for a long time now, and it shows. New recruit Robert Newton’s congas add a subtle new flavour to the live sound, while Ian Arnold’s keys and Neil Jones’ guitar fill out the mid-range and add some melodic flourishes. Neil Jones is one of those singers who sound better live than recorded (and I’m not saying that he sounds bad on the albums). And then there’s the icing on the cake; the horns. Gary Rollins (sax), Spencer Hague (trombone) and Gareth John (trumpet and flugelhorn) are spot on as an ensemble punching in three-part fills but individually they all take solos which fit perfectly with the songs without going over the line into self-indulgence. As an old Stax and Atlantic fan, I’ve always loved the Hammond and horns combo, particularly when it includes the more subtle flavours of trombone and flugel, and these guys are the real deal.

The set was split between songs from “To Find the Spirit”, including the title track, the epic slow groove of “Don’t Let the Rain” and “Wondrous Place”, and old favourites like “No More the Fool” and the stomping “Tracing Paper”. There was even a surprise during the encore as the band motored through a cover of “Jumping Jack Flash” and then it was all over. Oh, and a bit of DJ set from Paolo Hewitt as well; what more do want from a gig?

It’s been a good year for Stone Foundation; “To Find the Spirit” charted well in the independent chart, Paul Weller endorsed it, they’ve had national radio play and Sky Sports is using tracks from it regularly. The band has had support slots with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys and toured as headliners, and with Nolan Porter. They’ve also had a DVD out over the summer, put together by Lee Cogswell and they’re doing a Japanese tour in November. This is a bunch of people who are passionate about their music and willing to put in the hours and the miles to bring it to the public, whatever it takes; I truly admire them for that dedication and I hope their star continues to rise in 2015.

Maybe it’s time to welcome the new soul vision.

Ian Hunter Title

Nick Bowden

So when I was offered the chance to see Federal Charm (who I’ve already seen a couple of times) and Ian Hunter (who I’ve never seen) at Shepherds Bush Empire, I jumped at it. Not literally; obviously I caught the Central Line, and I could write a whole article about that experience alone. It’s instantly obvious that Ian Hunter’s playing tonight; there’s an incredible variety of t-shirts on audience members, starting from his Mott the Hoople days and going all the way to his latest album, “When I’m President” (2012).

As I sidle into the photo pit, I’m surprised by the size of the crowd pushing up against the barrier. Actually I’m worried because if they’re staking out a place for Ian Hunter, then their bladders won’t hold out till the end of his set (two hours, in the end). So I’m pleasantly surprised (and relieved) when Federal Charm stroll onstage and the crowd behind me erupt; it feels like a significant moment in the band’s history.

It’s hard to believe that Federal Charm have been together for less than two years, they have the confidence and swagger of a band that has been together for a lifetime. And it’s obvious that they really enjoy what they do. From the opening Page-like riff of “I’m Not Gonna Beg” Paul Bowe, Nick Bowden, L.D. and Danny Rigg hit the ground running and the crowd, their own fans and Ian Hunter’s, are with them all the way. It’s a short set, featuring songs from their first album so after about thirty minutes we’ve had “Too Blind to See”, “No Money Down”, “Somebody Help Me”, “Tell Your Friends”, the show-stopping “Reconsider”, “Reaction” and “Come on Down” and the crowd is nicely warmed up for Ian Hunter. The band pulls together some traditional rock elements (the big riffs, two lead guitars and strong songs) to create a powerful sound completed by a voice that has no right to come from someone with Nick Bowden’s physique. They’re working hard and it’s paying off.

Ian Hunter has surrounded himself with a bunch of great musicians (Andy York, Steve Holley, Paul Page, Jack Petruzzelli, James Mastro and Andy Burton) giving him the freedom to play a bit of acoustic, bit of piano and a bit of harmonica with a solid band to back him up. After watching him play a two-hour set, it suddenly occurs to me that he’s only five years younger than my mum; incredible really.

As there’s no album to promote on this tour, it’s pretty much a greatest hits set running through the Mott the Hoople hits and solo material from a career spanning almost forty years. The only Mott hit in the main set is “All the Way from Memphis”, but I think we all know what’s coming at the end. Second song in is one of my favourites, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”, his first solo hit and from here on every song is a Hunter classic including “Now is the Time”, “When I’m President”, “All American Alien Boy”, Irene Wilde”, “Wash Us Away”, “Girl from the Office”, “Bastard”, “Ta Shunka Witco” and the Velvets cover, “Sweet Jane”. I don’t think any Ian Hunter fan is going to complain about that set list.

And then comes the encore and the band seems to have expanded; yep, that’s Mick Ralphs up there as well for a rollicking run through “Roll Away the Stone”. The next song, “Life”, shifts seamlessly into the crowd-scene anthem, “All the Young Dudes” with all of the backing vocalists and Federal Charm onstage to help out with the choruses and then, with one quick chorus of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”, it’s all over. I really didn’t know what to expect from Ian Hunter but he’s obviously still got it and deserves his rock legend status and his faithful fans. As for Federal Charm, they’re still on the way up and I don’t think the peak is even close yet. Keep your eyes and ears open for them.

Sexploitation titleOk, I admit it, we’re a bit late out of the blocks with this one and the reason we’re finally reviewing “Sexploitation” is that Anna-Christina from Lilygun pointed me in the direction of Star Scream; good spot A-C, as ever. Songwriter Adam Lightspeed fronts the band mixing guitar and keyboards with lead vocals and the trio is completed by Natalie Cherry (bass and backing vocals) and Sky London (drums and percussion). With that particular line-up, you probably won’t be too surprised if I tell you that Muse is acknowledged as a major influence. The album is dotted with references to a wide variety of styles and eras, stitched together with such skill, style and unpredictability that the end result is a unique collage.

The album opens with the camp theatricality of “Roseblood (Weeping Willow)”, a seedy, sordid tale of exploitation in the skin trade and an arrangement which echoes the Sensational Alex Harvey Band from the early 70s. “Die on the Floor” is another reference to the 70s, fusing a Marc Bolan vocal style with a Sweet stomp and maybe even a bit of early Giorgio Moroder to set the scene for the rest of the album.

When the playing and the dynamics are this good, it’s easy to focus on the music at the expense of the lyrics; if you do, you’re only getting half the picture. Adam is obviously a writer who likes a bit of wordplay and it comes through in some of the titles: the riff-monster “Harlot’s Web”, “Frightmare” and the stomper, “Kill me Kate”. And it doesn’t stop at that; there are some clever turns of phrase in the lyrics as well; how about ‘knight in shining Armani’ from “Frightmare”, and my favourite portmanteau word for the week ‘conspiranoia’, from the hard-riffing glam satire of the current music scene, “Death Shower Scene”. I suspect they ordered in extra kitchen sinks for that one.

Towards the end of the album there are three songs linked by the theme of transgressive or dysfunctional relationships. The trio starts with “Kill me Kate”, progresses through “As the Earth Dies Screaming” with its very effective use of loud-soft dynamics to “Heart of Ice (Falling Out of Love)” which builds by adding instrumental layers for each verse. For once Adam’s voice isn’t on the ragged edge throughout and in the opening verses there’s a hint of Stephen Duffy’s voice (remember him?).

The album’s third and fourth songs also share a theme both poking fun at the faces, the alpha males and females at the forefront of any scene. “Break the Night” is probably the album’s most heavily Muse–influenced song, particularly the vocals and the guitar solo, while “Scenester” pulls influences from everywhere. The song opens like the Clash version of “Brand New Cadillac”, has a breakdown with manic left to right percussion panning, a second breakdown for live audience participation and a guitar solo which would fit perfectly on a Joe Meek record and a crash ending. What more could you want?

The more reflective moments are all towards the end of the album, starting with “When Crimson Lips Spell Murder” which makes good use of dynamics before ending with a delicate string quartet coda. The final big production number, “Obsession”, is built around a sequenced synth riff which loops almost throughout the song, while a piano hook on top adds to the over-the-top Muse feel of the song. The album closes with the stripped-back “The Girl Who Was Death” (just acoustic guitar, strings and some lovely harmonies) and a lead vocal which sounds a lot like Greg Dulli.

“Sexploitation” is an album that grips you because you just don’t know what’s coming next; imagine throwing a lit match into a box of fireworks and you’re about halfway there. The influences are all very transparent but they’re woven so subtly into the rich and contrasting fabric of the songs that they seem to belong there. But it isn’t just about big guitars and thunderous drums; the band use dynamics really effectively and the lyrics are actually worth listening to. In a world of manufactured pop pap and over-hyped ‘next big thing’ acts (did someone mention Royal Blood) this album is a reminder that the real talent is still out there.

Available now from Amazon, iTunes or the band’s website.

Title picSo Southend-on-Sea on a Sunday night and what’s happening? Well, the Bob Malone Band is playing at the Railway Hotel, that’s what. So you obviously want to know what’s so special about the venue and the performer, don’t you?

Southend has a thriving local music scene and the Railway Hotel is positioned firmly at the centre of that scene, featuring local talent and artists touring the UK. The venue isn’t a highly-polished chrome and mirrors palace; the priority here (apart from the excellent food) is live music. If you want anything else, then you’re in the wrong place. The management team excel in putting together a varied selection of live acts and providing a performance environment which is perfect for artists and audiences.

So, Bob Malone time. Bob has been working as a professional musician for around thirty years since graduating from Berklee, playing keyboards for a very impressive list of rock names while doing his own thing, touring with a small band and releasing six albums (and counting). The UK tour which ended at the Railway Hotel was in support of a UK-only EP which is a sampler for the upcoming seventh album.

The stage at the Railway is about the same size as a postage stamp, which makes for a cosy performing environment, particularly when most of the stage is occupied by a Bӧsendorfer grand piano, but the multinational band (Paul Carmichael on bass, Stefano Sanguigni on guitar and Marco Breglia on drums and backing vocals) just got on with it, although Paul Carmichael had to play most of his superb basslines with his back to the audience.

From the opening chords of “Why Not Me?”, Bob’s engaging manner between songs and his blues growl have the audience eating out of his hands, and that’s before you hear his superb piano playing, particularly on the skewed ragtime of “Chinese Algebra”. You can find any amount of versions of this on YouTube, but the live performance with a good band is something else. The set was split between material from the new “Mojo EP” (including “A Certain Distance”, “I’m Not Fine” and the audience favourite “Rage and Cigarettes”), older original material and a few high-profile covers. Bob Dylan’s “Tangled Up in Blue” is the first of the covers and the set ends with a version of The Faces classic, “Stay with Me”. It’s the end of the set and the end of the tour and the guys (particularly Bob and Stefano) are having great fun trying to be even looser live than Rod and the boys were in the 70s. I could happily listen to Bob on his own doing the New Orleans piano, voice and stomp box thing, but Paul’s fluid, funky bass, Stefano taking a few solos and Marco supplying the beat and some lovely backing vocals are the icing and the candles on the cake.

I’m only guessing here, but I suspect that Bob Malone could live quite well on the proceeds of the day job, playing live and in the studio with people like John Fogerty, and living in the bubble created by that lifestyle. Instead he chooses to do his own thing, recording his own work and taking his live band out on the road, driving a white van from town to town and playing in venues where the equipment’s held together by gaffer tape. I have the greatest admiration for anyone who chooses to step between those two worlds to pursue their own musical vision, whether it’s financially viable or not (the fee for the night at The Railway was a bucket collection from the audience). As long as some performers are true to their own vision and keep doing gigs like The Railway, we’ll all know that individualism lives on and the corporate monster hasn’t got complete control. I can’t wait for the new album now.

ResultsNow this one’s going to be a surprise. Unusually for a Closet Classic, it charted fairly high on its release (six in the UK) and was certified gold but “Results” is one of those albums that seems to have been unfairly dismissed as a product of its time. To many people it seemed like a bit of a strange combination; Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe were at the peak of their popularity and Liza Minnelli (who had recorded a few albums) was much better known as a nightclub and Broadway singer and the actress who gave a stunning performance as Sally Bowles in John Kander and Fred Ebb’s “Cabaret”, adapted from Christopher Isherwood’s short novel, “Goodbye to Berlin”. So far, so good.

The album’s lead single, “Losing my Mind”, was being played to death on the radio and that, as well as a recommendation from a musician friend who was a huge Pet Shop Boys fan made me go out and buy the album. It’s no exaggeration to say that I played it solidly in the car and at work (the advantages of working in a music bar) for a month and I can still quite happily listen to it from start to finish now. So what’s so special apart from the fact that it’s Liza Minnelli and the Pet Shop Boys?

The album opens in the way you might expect with an uptempo Tennant-Lowe song, “I Want You Now” followed by “Losing my Mind”, a Stephen Sondheim song from the musical “Follies”. You can’t accuse the team of sticking to the original arrangement too closely; it’s a 119bpm monster with Fairlights on steroids and Liza Minnelli belting out the vocal. The original is wistfully obsessive, but Liza sounds like she’s delighted to be losing her mind; bring it on and double helpings please.

The following three songs are Tennant-Lowe originals, but that’s about the only common factor. It’s a tough call, but “If There was Love” is probably the most audacious song on the album, with paranoid and prescient lyrics (‘Men of affairs, women with power, satellites talking to clutter our lives’), sax from Courtney Pine and a recitation of Shakespeare’s Sonnet 94 during the coda. “So Sorry I Said” is played at a very un-PSB tempo of 70bpm with a breathy Liza vocal and a bit of programming help from C J Mackintosh. “Don’t Drop Bombs” is back to house tempo again with a spoken verse/sung chorus structure and a completely mad programmed cowbell percussion track.

Twist in My Sobriety” takes the Tanita Tikaram original, gives it hip-hop beats, a rap intro taken from “Liza With a Z” (Ebb and Kander again), creating a truly original take on a classic song (and, yes, Tanita loves it). “Rent” reverses the process of “Losing my Mind” by taking an uptempo PSB original and slowing it down to ballad speed while using a string arrangement by Angelo Badalamenti to create drama and pathos underneath a close-miked and perfectly-controlled vocal.

The album’s final cover (also released as a single) is “Love Pains”, which was a hit for Yvonne Elliman ten years earlier and was also covered in 1989 by Viola Wills and the evergreen Hazell Dean. It’s a house stomper, which also received the the obligatory remix treatment from Steve “Silk” Hurley, and features some real guitar from British session player JJ Belle. The verse and pre-chorus feature Liza’s voice solo and upfront in the mix, while in the chorus she has to compete with Katie Kissoon, Carole Kenyon and Tessa Niles, wringing out every last bit of emotion. You even get a trucker’s gear change thrown in for good measure.

Tonight is Forever” feels like the second act of “Rent” with similar lyrical themes, and strings arranged and conducted by Anne Dudley sounding more lush and less overtly dramatic than Angelo Badalamenti’s work. Like “Rent”, this would be perfectly at home in a Sondheim show. The final track, “I Can’t Say Goodnight” is the joker in the pack; it’s the only song which relies mainly on traditional rock and pop instruments and sounds like an updated 60s American pop song with a breathy vocal and guitar and sax courtesy of JJ Belle and Courtney Pine again. Lyrically, it’s not a bad way to end an album.

So, what it is about this album that really got under my skin? Well, it’s the only time that Liza Minnelli has really stepped out of the chanteuse comfort zone, and what a way to do it; forget that acoustic piano and complicated orchestral arrangements and let’s have full-on programmed beats and wall-to-wall Fairlights. You could be cynical and say that it was a marketing ploy to get even further into the gay market, but “Results” is too full of joy and the sound of musicians having fun and doing everything to excess to be a clinical exercise. It’s the sound of two great songwriters and arrangers giving a wonderful singer a contemporary sound and pushing their own boundaries a little at the same time. There may only be ten songs, but they’re all highly-polished little gems.

220px-Ssilverstein[1]How did I discover Shel Silverstein?  Easy, I bought a copy of the Dr Hook and the Medicine Show album “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon” (a contractual obligation “greatest hits” package put together by CBS before the band departed to Capitol and commercial success).  As an introduction to early ‘70s Dr Hook, it’s a belter.  Released in 1975, it was obviously a vinyl album; you remember those, don’t you?  I bought it on the strength of the chart hit “Sylvia’s Mother”, but that wasn’t even close to being the best song on the album; that’s at the end of the album and the end of the next paragraph.

A quick look at the album sleeve showed that fifteen of the sixteen songs were written by someone called Shel Silverstein, who wasn’t even a member of the band, and they were a fascinating collection of songs, ranging from the country pastiche of “The Wonderful Soup Stone” through the Rabelaisian comedy of “(Freaking at) the Freakers’ Ball” and “Roland the Roadie and Gertrude the Groupie” to the superb ( and much-covered) story of a suburban breakdown, “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon”.  If you don’t listen to anything else picked out in this piece, you really should listen to the Marianne Faithfull version of this song.

I know this is a nostalgia piece, but there are a lot of things that weren’t better in the old days.  In the 21st century, you can find out almost everything about a group or artist within seconds; you can get a biography, you can listen to their material (released and unreleased), you can probably get a message to them directly and they might even reply.  In the mid-to-late 70s, you had NME, Sounds, Melody Maker, John Peel and some independent record shops to let you know what was going on.  Although I was only really interested his music, I discovered that there was much more to Shel Silverstein than songs; he was also a gifted cartoonist, poet, screenwriter author of childrens’ books.

Eventually, I managed to track down a couple of imported albums (“Songs and Stories” from 1978 and “The Great Conch Train Robbery” from 1980).  While the albums didn’t have the polish of the Dr Hook material, they covered a lot of the same territory and gave the impression that once Shel had an idea he had to get it down and move on quickly because there were ten more ideas banging on the door behind it. I loved “Songs and Stories”, from the sheer silliness of “Goodnight Little House Plant”, “Someone Ate the Baby” and “Never Bite a Married Woman on the Thigh” through “The Father of a Boy Named Sue” (he also wrote “A Boy Named Sue”)  to the epic stoner poem “The Smoke-Off” and the ode to cop-outs, “They Held Me Down”. It had all the manic energy of a live performance by Robin Williams, who was just emerging as a stand-up at the time.

Shel Silverstein was that rare example of genuine Renaissance Man; he had gifts ranging across the field of creative arts, but it was as a songwriter (and ramshackle, shambolic performer) that I love his work. His serious work, such as “The Ballad of Lucy Jordon” was superb, but he also wrote comedy songs that were actually funny ( I still laugh out loud at the lines: ‘Everybody ballin’ in batches, pyromaniacs strikin’ matches’ from “Freakin’ at the Freakers’ Ball”) and you could bear to listen to more than once. It helped that he drew a lot of his humour from the fringes of society and legality, which gave it an extra frisson to anyone looking in to that world from the outside.

You rarely hear Shel Silverstein’s name mentioned these days, which is a shame, but he has left a huge legacy in print and in music. If you’re still not convinced, just ask yourself what these songs have in common: “A Boy Named Sue”, “Queen of the Silver Dollar”, Sylvia’s Mother”, “25 Minutes to Go” and “Daddy What If”? Yep, all written by Shel Silverstein. Most songwriters would kill to have written any one of those songs, and that’s before you even get to “The Cover of the Rolling Stone” and the sadly under-rated “Last Mornin’”. He’ll make you laugh and he’ll make you cry, but he’ll never bore you.