circle-round-the-signs-scrollerIt’s hard to think of a point in my lifetime when the banjo was ever seen as fashionable and its reputation hasn’t been helped by John Boorman’s product placement in “Deliverance”; even the ukulele’s a lot more socially acceptable. You don’t find twenty people playing an ensemble banjo version of “Bad Moon Rising” in basements of London pubs (I was only going to the toilet and now I have that horrible, indelible memory to haunt me). Anyway, what I’m saying is that the banjo’s become the guitar’s weirdo cousin that no-one invites to parties, which is a bit unfair. Have a listen to Al Scorch, and you might realise that our little five-stringed friend isn’t such a weirdo after all.

Al’s from Chicago, he’s a tremendous banjo player /singer/songwriter and his second album “Circle Round the Signs” might just change your preconceptions. The banjo playing takes centre stage on the album, but it’s not just about banging out five hundred notes a minute. His style has a bit of a punk attitude at times, but the slower “Poverty Draft” and “Lonesome Low” (imagine “Harvest”-era Neil Young with a banjo) are great songs that offer a contrast to the fast and furious opener “Pennsylvania Turnpike” and the harmonica-fuelled Woody Guthrie cover “Slipknot”. As an even greater contrast, the lovely midtempo “City Lullaby” evokes theme tunes from seventies American TV shows.

Ten tracks, heaps of inventive arrangements (including a couple that feature French horn) and some deft dynamic shifts; “Circle Round the Signs” is out now on Bloodshot Records (BS 241).

If you want to see Al live (and you really should), he’s currently touring the UK and his remaining dates are:

Friday September 9                                       The Square & Compass, Worth Matravers

Saturday September 10                                Dacorum Folkfest, Hemel Hempstead

Tuesday September 13                                 Major Tom’s Social, Harrogate

Wednesday September 14                           Harry’s Bar, Wakefield

Thursday September 15                                Heaton Perk, Newcastle upon Tyne

Saturday September 17                                The Grove Inn, Leeds

Sunday September 18                                   The Grapes, Stranraer

Monday September 19                                 The Cock Inn, Sarratt, Herts

Tuesday September 20                                 The Troubadour, Earl’s Court, London

HF UK Flyer 2016 ScrollerYou could hear huge sighs of relief in guitar shops all over Britain earlier this year when Henrik Freischlader announced his return to playing and recording music. His playing’s very accessible to all, but guitarists just can’t get enough of him. Whatever the reasons for his extended sabbatical he’s come back firing on all cylinders with a great new album “Openness” and he’s now coming back to the UK to play some dates as the Henrik Freischlader Trio with  Alex Grube (bass) and Carl-Michael Grabinger (drums) working in the engine room. His playing alone will have the guitarists in the audience salivating, but he has another secret weapon; he has a very, very good blues/soul voice. This isn’t just a guitarist who sings a bit, this is someone who’s a guitarist and a singer and he’s completely at home in both areas.

If you want to see him in the UK in 2016, here are your choices:

Wednesday September 21                            The Borderline, London

Thursday, September 22                                ABC, Glasgow

Friday, September 23                                     The Flowerpot, Derby

Saturday, September 24                                Yardbirds Club, Grimsby

Sunday, September 25                                  Komedia Studio, Brighton

Special guests are still being confirmed but the Henrik Freischlader Trio will be joined by  Stuart James Band for the London gig and Ben Poole will play in Brighton.

shoulder to shoulder scrollerIt can be easy to define an album by what it isn’t rather than what it is. “Shoulder to Shoulder” doesn’t push anything up to eleven, there aren’t any self-indulgent solos and there isn’t any autotune or electronic trickery to fool you into hearing substance where none exists. What this album has is eleven powerful and beautifully-crafted songs, superb vocal performances and arrangements that allow the quality and emotion of the songwriting to shine through. The album features the current single “Here It Comes Again”; it’s probably the most radio-friendly, but it’s not entirely representative of “Shoulder to Shoulder”.

The album is strongest when the songs deal with serious subjects. There’s absolutely nothing wrong with the two Charlie Dore/Chris While co-writes “Slim to Nil” or “Nothing Yanks My Chain (Like You Do)”; they’re bouncy and full of clever wordplay and they offer a contrast to some of the more serious songs that define the overall mood.

“Pride” opens slowly with a gentle guitar intro and picks up momentum to become a full-on anthem to sexual tolerance and standing shoulder under the rainbow banner; it’s a cracking song with a potent message. “Are We Human” challenges insularity generally, and in particular our attitudes to the current refugee crisis and the haunting “Pinjarra Dreams” shines a light on the scandalous treatment of British children sent from homes and orphanages to Australia. The songs have a definite political edge, but they’re generally told from a human perspective.

“Leap of Faith”, the final While/Dore composition is the joyful and poignant story of a mother about to be reunited with her daughter after twenty-five years apart on opposite sides of the world, closing out beautifully when the two actually meet. Equally moving is Julie Matthews’ “Ordinary Day”, a bleakly tragic piece of the everyday pathos of bereavement (with a little hint of WH Auden). It’s not happy but it’s beautifully observed.

“Shoulder to Shoulder” is a hugely accomplished piece of work that reflects the talents and experience of Chris While and Julie Matthews. The songs are varied musically, moving with ease from gentle contemplation to pop inflections and even anthems, and the lyrics range from whimsical to profound. I don’t think you can ask for much more than that.

“Shoulder to Shoulder” is out on Friday September on Fat Cat Records via Circuit Music (FATCD 035).

Elevation ScrollerWe Are the Catalyst; so what is the genre? I could spend half the review listing categories they’re listed in. I’ll cut to the chase and go for Dark Rock/Metalcore and hope we don’t fall out over it. The first good choice I made was to listen in a car; volume up, foot down. The opening song, “Delusion” sets the tone perfectly; four bars of Morse Code keyboard gives way to Håkan Strind’s fast, clinical, precise and absolutely thunderous bass drum and toms. If all else fails, WATC will blow you away with sheer power, but there’s a lot of subtlety and use of loud/soft dynamics there as well. “Delusion” is fairly representative of “Elevation”; there are thick wedges of Kenny Boufadene’s dirty, distorted guitar packing out the mid-range, underpinned by Joni Kaartinen’s solid bass to create an alternative Spector – the Dark Wall of Sound. And then Cat Fey’s powerhouse voice cuts through the glorious noise like a serrated knife.

The mood of “Elevation” is dark throughout (no surprises there) with titles like “Our Dark World”, “Never Ending Night” and the album’s final song, the surprisingly slow quiet “Life Equals Pain”. The lines ’Up against a million claws, ripping out our beating hearts’ give a good feel of the mood of the album. The quiet verse/ear-bleedingly loud chorus dynamic is fairly common, but the song tempos generally vary from fast to very, very fast and there are breakdowns using synth washes and clean guitars as well. There’s a lot happening besides white noise guitars and percussion artillery.

“Askja” builds from a clean detuned guitar and keyboard intro to a massive distorted guitar sound in the chorus and some uncharacteristic male/female harmonies (as a change from Kenny’s archetypal thrash metal strangled orc vocal) and is a nod in the commercial direction of Paramore, while “Home” is the dark parallel universe of “The Wizard of Oz”. We’re definitely not in Kansas anymore. I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of the metal genres, but it’s difficult not to love the power, passion and percussive attack of We Are the Catalyst.

“Elevation” is out on Friday 2nd September and you can pre-order here.

Just have a look at the official video for “Delusion” here before you go:

Jericho_Summer_Night_Train_2016[1]So where do we start with this one? Well, I’m going to mangle a metaphor, a football one at that. It’s a game of two halves and, at times, the two halves are being played simultaneously. Jericho Summer are Jay Zeffin (guitar and vocal) and Vanessa Joy (Vocals) plus core band Tom Tyson (bass/production), Rodders Rodders (guitar) Guy Lancaster (Hammond) and John Marcangelo (drums and piano). Marco Mendoza (bass) and the legendary Albert Lee (guitar) also make guest appearances. With that kind of line-up you would expect something very special musically from the album, and you wouldn’t be wrong.

The album’s title track (and opener), “Night Train”, choogles along nicely. There’s a big chorus with some nice Hammond and the song’s punctuated with some really nice guitar fills. It’s not ground-breaking but it’s enjoyable, good-time Southern rock. So far, so good, but what about that other half I was telling you about. Well, the lyrics don’t always match the standard of the music. I’m not saying they’re bad, just a bit predictable. For example ‘She grew up in a real small town, Everybody tried to put her down’ from “Lonely Town”; from the end of the first line, you know exactly what the second line is. “Bitchin’ with a Woman” is a real seventies throwback with lines like ‘I got pain like Cain and Abel’, and attitudes that are at least forty years old.

If you focus on the diamonds you might be able to ignore the dust; “Good One Comin’ On” is an Eagles-like good time party song in the mould of “Take it Easy”, “Coming Home” has some nice twin guitar work and multi-layered vocals, while the closer, “Running Free” has a stomping Black Crowes/Led Zeppelin riff driving the song along. Musically there’s a lot to like about “Night Train”, but most of the lyrics are a bit forgettable. How about four stars for the music and two stars for the words giving an average of three? Sounds about right to me.

“Night Train” is out on Friday August 26th on Devil’s Blade Records (DBL017081).

Estuary Fringe DCS ScrollerIt’s not just Edinburgh that has a festival in August. What about Southend? Maybe not as fashionable but there’s a great arts scene around Southend and its satellites. So, on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, why not head out to have a look at The Railway Hotel’s contribution to the Estuary Fringe Festival which is an afternoon session in the beer garden followed by more live bands inside in the evening. I got there just as the belly dancing was finishing and the stage was being set up for live music (with background music leaning heavily on blues classics and some nice Al Stewart songs).

First on stage was Pick Yer Feet Up, or Eleanor Donne (fiddle) and Dave Murray (twangs and bangs) playing a selection of ‘bogus Bulgarian bangers’. It was relatively low-key but very melodic in an Eastern European way with a nice line in dry patter from Dave between songs. In the great old Python tradition of ‘now for something completely different’, next up was Dirty Captain Scott. What can I say? A twentieth-century estuary poet backed with cajon beats (and guitar towards the end of the set). The rhythms were insistent and the delivery, well, imagine Adele rapping and you’re most of the way there. A great set that you just couldn’t ignore.

Next? The Timlins (Matt and Victoria) played a lovely set of melancholy (maybe even miserable) songs, reminding me a lot of Turin Brakes and (bonus points if you remember this band) Budapest. Victoria’s keyboard filled out the textures created by Matt’s acoustic guitar and the harmonies were sublime. Personally, I like a bit of miserable; always have. Dead Air next, playing their first (and possibly only) gig, played a set of folky Americana with a female lead singer, acoustic guitar and mandolin backing and some lovely harmonies. If you wanted a backing track for an English summer day you wouldn’t go far wrong here.

And on to Phil Burdett, backed by long-term collaborators John Bennett (guitar), Steve Stott (mandolin and fiddle) and Colleen McCarthy (backing vocals). This was only Phil’s second live appearance after major surgery earlier in the year and he was a man on a mission, determined to get songs from his two (yes, two) new albums out there in a live setting. Throughout the set, the arrangements were a masterclass in understatement; the instruments created a framework that allowed the songs to shine. John Bennett is subtle and understated in a way that reminds me a lot of Steve Cropper; no fuss, but just try to imagine The MGs without the guitar parts. Even “New Greyhound Rag”, which was written as full band piece with bass, drums and various other bits of percussion is driven along nicely by the two guitars.

But just focus on the songs. From the opener “Sea Change” to “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”, the short set was packed with melodic and lyrical invention.  The lines ‘you switch the channel in your mind – and on the news voices buzz like cracked kazoos the needle stuck on tombstone blues’ are a great example of Phil’s ability to create a striking, evocative image. All delivered to perfection in Phil’s mellow growl. You really shouldn’t get music this good for free in a pub beer garden, even if the pub is The Railway.

I’m looking forward to seeing Phil officially launch “Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” on November 5th in Southend.

If you haven’t seen them before, here are some pictures of the event.

Carnabys ScrollerLet me just say this from the start; we like The Carnabys here at Riot Towers, we like them a lot. We like the melodies, we like the two guitars playing off each other, we like the variety of the rhythms, we like Jack Mercer’s lyrics and we love the incredible energy that’s injected into each and every song.

You can look at influences as far back as the beat boom groups of the sixties, but the sound of the suburban power pop bands of the late seventies/early eighties (and I’m including The Jam in that) resonates strongly in the sound of The Carnabys. And finally, Jack Mercer’s lyrics bring the contemporary edge to the songs with tales of life in the modern metropolis. The songs are about people, real people, people you can believe in, people you could bump in to in the pub or down the shops. The people that appear in songs by Jamie T, Mike Skinner and Akira the Don.

“Too Much, Never Enough” sounds like it  was meant to capture the band’s fresh, spiky and exuberant live sound without squashing the dynamics too much, and it’s worked a treat. The single “Elizabeth” pulses along, powered by Ben Gittins and Frankie Connolly’s guitars alternating beats from the left and right of the stereo spectrum and punctuated by an almost a cappella breakdown, while the album’s opener, the slightly surreal “Great Dane in the Graveyard” (a true-ish story) is so fast it could easily fall apart if the guitars weren’t so locked in to James Morgan’s frenetic drums and Mike Delizo’s pounding bass. This is a band in the proper sense of the word. They create a glorious noise by playing together; no big guitar solos, no egos, everyone plays a part in creating each perfectly-crafted little suburban story.

Special mentions as well for “Peaches and Bleach” which in Jack’s words is about ‘working on something important and someone else inadvertently fucking it up’, the self-harm and self-denial of “Scars and Safety Pins” and “Down He Goes”, the story of a friend of the band who finds trouble whether he looks for it or not; apparently he has a glass jaw as well. Not a great combination.

No glass jaws, Achilles’ heels or cauliflower ears for “Too Much , Never Enough”, though. It’s arms of iron, tapping toes and brass necks all the way.

“Too Much, Never Enough” is out Friday August 19th or you can still pre-order here. All profits from pre-order sales go to the Music Venue Trust.

Here’s the video for the current single “Elizabeth”:

05) CarinaIt’s great to get a gig where you have no idea to expect and it turns out to be an absolute banger; this was one of those gigs. Until I reviewed her recent retrospective, “Deranged to Divine”, Carina Round was only a name that rang a very faint bell. Now I know she has a huge fanbase and can easily fill a decent small venue like The Lexington on Pentonville Road. Actually, the venue’s quite a bit better than that; the sound is excellent and the lines of sight are good because of the raised area in front of the bar. So far, so good.

Support act for Carina’s UK tour is She Makes War (or Laura Kidd) who made her way on the stage with help of a crutch, which gave her lots of material for chat between songs about compensation claims. She delivered a fine set of introspective songs (some about ex-partners) with some innovative backing courtesy of a Les Paul, a ukulele, a megaphone and a loop pedal. I’ve been suffering from loop pedal fatigue for a while now, but Laura, and later Carina, showed that it can still be a creative tool. Highlights of Laura’s set were “Drown Me Out”, “Please Don’t”, ”Paper Thin”, “Scared to Capsize” and the raucous “Cold Shoulder”.

Carina wasn’t going to just turn up with a guitar and run through a few songs; her perfectionism means that she needs to create a complete performance, and this extended to a stunning light show created by one projector and a small screen. She opened the set with an astonishing, moody, loop pedal a cappella interpretation of “The Secret of Drowning”, setting the tone for a set of powerful interpretations of her songs, including “You and Me”, “Mother’s Pride”, “Back Seat”, “For Everything a Reason” and the haunting “Lacuna”. The performance had an intensity that comes from a desire to be exceptional combined with a natural fear of exposure on stage, which leaked out in a couple of snappy comments, although the overall impression was that (eventually) Carina knew that it was an outstanding show.

And I’m not underestimating the part that the audience played. They were obviously devoted fans desperate to hear every little nuance; they were completely silent during the songs and wildly enthusiastic in their applause. They were also the most polite audience I’ve ever experienced.

You can get some idea of the stunning visuals from the photos here.