Here’s a little bit of a sneak preview for you. Gary Hilton and Steve Southern, or Modern Family Unit to you and me, are a Manchester-based duo with experience of the good and bad sides of the music biz. Like most smart musicians these days, they’ve decided to sidestep the system in favour of keeping control of the creative process. They take their inspiration from the first wave of early 80s synth bands like Tubeway Army and The Human League, combining the dirty, retro synth sounds from those groups with twenty-first century technical knowhow and a bit of cheeky theatricality to produce a sound they describe as ‘Burlesque Groove’.

We’ll be having a listen to their album (to be released on April 27th) for you in a couple of weeks but meanwhile, here’s a quick look at their single “Mmm mmm mm aah” which is released on Monday March 23rd.

Just out of interest, what do you think of the ‘burlesque’ element of the video? Light-hearted and innocent bit of fun, or just one step down from Page 3 in that newspaper we don’t like to mention? Let us know what you think.

TitleOk, life lessons for music lovers part two. First, don’t just turn up to watch the headline band; not all support bands have paid to get on a tour, some of them are actually there because the headliners like them or just because they’re good. That was certainly the case with Sound of the Sirens (that’s the temptresses who play enchanting music, not the minor third you hear before an emergency vehicle knocks you down) at The Half Moon. Second, if you’re watching bands at smaller, independent venues, buy something at the merchandising stall. The band’s probably playing for peanuts (if they’re being paid at all) and buying their CDs or memorabilia means that they actually get some kind of income and, let’s face it, they probably need it a lot more than you do.

So, rant over, what were the bands like? Brilliant, thanks, I’m done. What, more specific? Ok, bloody brilliant.

No seriously, Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood (Sound of the Sirens) are from Exeter and they claiming they’re stalking Mad Dog Mcrea on tour. Abbe plays guitar and mandolin, Hannah plays guitar, both sing beautifully and it’s all underpinned by kick drum and stomp box percussion. They shift the mood from happy to sad and back again through the set and they sound equally at ease with the slow, reflective songs and the barnstorming foot-tappers. What they also have is a gently charismatic stage presence; there’s a lot of self-deprecation but it doesn’t hide the fact that they’re very, very good. The playing is spot on and two voices complement each other perfectly whether they’re singing harmony or counterpoint. There you go, I’m happy and the headliners aren’t even tuning up yet.

I’ve heard some really good things about Mad Dog Mcrea, I love “Almost Home”, and I’ve been looking forward to this gig, but how do you follow a support band after they’ve put in a storming shift like Sound of the Sirens have? Well, you could have most of the band starting up on stage while the singer makes an entrance through the audience banging a bloody great drum. That would do it; we’re off and running, but how do you describe what happens when Mad Dog Mcrea hit the loud pedal?

Well, at the risk of repeating my colleague Klare, I think a teamsheet might help. The team is Michael Mathieson (guitar and vocals), Dan Crimp (whistles, flute and vocals), Jimi Galvin (bass), Dave Podmore (banjo, bouzouki and vocals), Pete Chart (drums and percussion) and Nicki Powell (fiddle). The instruments hint at a folky, Celtic feel and that’s part of it but there are an awful lot of other elements in there as well. You can hear jazz, gypsy and eastern European, klezmer, bluegrass, country and bit of straightforward rock and pop all mixed together and marinated in bootleg hooch until its effects are wildly unpredictable. Now that sounds like my kind of night.

It’s no surprise that there isn’t a setlist; the band likes to respond to requests and shift direction if that’s what the audience needs so what we get is a selection of songs from “Almost Home” (the tempo-shifting “Heart of Stone”, the banjo-led “You Can’t Find Me”, the infuriatingly catchy “Cher” with its clever lyrical references, “Almost Home” , “The Sound” featuring Suzie Mac on backing vocals, and the Rory Gallagher cover – not that Rory Gallagher – “Mad Dog Coll”) and a few old favourites like “Raggle Taggle Gypsy”, “Climb a Hill”, “Little Black Fly”, “Am I Drinking Enough?”, the Richard Thompson cover “Bee’s Wing” and “Pikeys Killed my Goldfish”.

But even that isn’t eclectic enough because, on top of all the musical references that are dropped in, there’s a cover of “The Devil Came Down to Georgia” showcasing Nicki’s fiddle playing (with a sneaky reference to “Smells Like Teen Spirit”) and a medley starting with “The Bare Necessities”. After ninety minutes of that, the band and the audience are drained and you can see why the band have built up such a fanatical following; the audience don’t know what’s coming next but they know that the band will give everything until the show’s over (and way beyond if we didn’t have music curfews), night after night.

This was easily the best headliner and support I’ve seen in ages. Just don’t ask me how I felt when the alarm went off at 5:45 this morning.

“Almost Home” is out now on God Dam Records Ltd (GDR004). CDs and downloads available from Amazon and downloads from iTunes.

“Sound of the Sirens” CDs and downloads available here.

Jar Family TitleOk, some life lessons for music lovers from tonight. First, if you get a chance to go and see a band (even on a school night), do it, because life’s too short. Second, when a mate recommends a band, go and see them. Third, the escalator at Angel station is the longest on London Underground and I’m not getting any younger; running up any escalator is for the young and fit, as I discovered. So, pulling all of this together, my mate Paul in Middlesbrough (closely followed by Graeme Wheatley from The Little Devils) told me I should have a look at The Jar Family, who were playing at The Islington.

The Jar Family is another example of a group of people who have realised that the music business as we knew it doesn’t exist now. A bunch of players and songwriters from the Hartlepool area decided that the best way to get their songs heard was to work together as one unit drawing on the creative input of all the members. After a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice, they’ve come up with something really special which Teesside has known about for a while and the rest of the country is just beginning to catch up with.

The band members are: Max Bianco (vocals, guitar, harmonica, percussion), Dali (vocals, guitar, slide guitar, percussion), Richie Docherty (vocals, guitar, percussion), Chris Hooks (vocals, lead guitar), Keith Wilkinson (bass, vocals) and Kez Edwards (drums). If that sounds like a lot going on, it’s even busier when you put them on a stage, with the look of a Victorian street gang infiltrated by Tim Burgess. There’s a lot of movement between songs as the three singers take turns centre stage and guitars are swapped around, but it’s smooth and professional in a way that reflects the amount of work they’ve put in over the last few years.

The set opens with the latest single “In the Clouds” and rattles through a mainly uptempo set including “World’s Too Fast”, “Machine”, “In For a Penny”, “Footsteps”, “Paint Me a Picture”, “She Was Crying”, “Moya Moya” and “Tell me Baby” before a two-song encore of “Debt” and the appropriate closing stomper “Have to Go”. There are plenty of committed fans in the audience who have made the journey down from the North-East but by the end of the set, the rest have been won over as well by a combination of a varied bunch of songs delivered in ever-changing instrumental settings by a very tight and solid group of musicians, but that still doesn’t tell the full story of The Jar Family’s appeal and why they’ve built up such a fanatical following so far.

There are a couple of things that single this band out from the crowd. The band members interact with their audience on and off stage in a way that creates a shared experience; this isn’t about us and them, it’s about everyone together. The other thing is the songs; they’re accessible (whether they’re raucous or quietly melodic) and the lyrics deal with themes that most of us can relate to our daily lives. When you put a group of people like us on stage singing songs that could be about us, it’s a difficult combination to resist, particularly when the vocal and instrumental performances are so good. I understand what all the fuss is about now.

 

Cowgirl BoudoirSo, Kimmie Rhodes. Singer-songwriter, former Willie Nelson collaborator and duet partner and generally overlooked talent from way back when, she has been quietly taking care of business by writing, recording and performing since 1981 without ever achieving the recognition she deserves. Well, maybe now is the time to put that right. On “Cowgirl Boudoir”, Kimmie works with multi-instrumentalist Johnny Goudie, producer Gabriel Rhodes and Sunbird Studios house band to create a poignant, forthright and sometimes achingly beautiful set of songs that deserve a wider audience. And it’s not just a collection of songs, the album has a narrative which flows from the hauntingly world-weary opening duet, “I Am Falling” with Johnny Goudie to the positive and uplifting closer, “Yes”.

With “Cowgirl Boudoir”, you get a lot of bang for your buck. There are fourteen songs on the album and absolutely no filler; every song is there on merit. It’s fair to say that there aren’t too many cheerful little toe-tappers but the songs are well-constructed, beautifully played and sung from the heart. There’s a theme which runs through the album; about half of the songs are about dysfunctional and flawed relationships, but that’s not really news in the singer-songwriter genre or in country music generally, is it?

Musically, the core of the studio band is Kimmie Rhodes (vocals, guitar), Johnny Goudie (vocals, guitar, piano), Gabriel Rhodes (just about everything), Dony Winn (drums, percussion) and Glen Fukunaga (bass) with the seasoning supplied by Jolie Goodnight (backing vocals), Tommy Spurlock (steel guitar, Dobro) and Stephano Intelisano (keyboards). The musical settings emphasise the mood of each song on the album, from the plaintive steel guitar of the opening track and “Lover Killing Time” to the uplifting piano on “Me Again” and folksy feel created by mandolin and guitar on “Always Never Leave”. Not forgetting the psychedelic feel of the electric sitar on “The Sky Fell Down” and the Hammond B3 filling out the mid-range of “Worthy Cause”.

The lyrics are deceptively simple; they sound very straightforward, but they’re actually very well-crafted. “Me Again” uses themes and characters from fairy stories and fables to evoke childhood, and buying “Eight Days a Week” to represent a rite of passage into adulthood and music, while “Trouble Is” has the listener trying to work out what trouble actually is before working out that trouble just is. And I could go on, but the best bet is for you to have a listen for yourself.

“Cowgirl Boudoir” is out now on Sunbird Records (SBD 0021) and you can see Kimmie Rhodes on tour here.

 

 

Sonic Boom TitleOK, so it’s about time we started another one of our occasional features. How about digging out those albums that had an instant impact on us and maybe even changed our musical tastes and lives. It could be something which went on to sell millions or it could be selling for 50p in the Oxfam shop (or both), but it was an album that made a difference. It was an album that made you see things in a different light and an album that you can drop the stylus on today, or stick in the CD player and it still makes you feel good. Oh, and you can listen to it from start to finish without skipping any tracks.

We’ll give you a starter for ten in the next couple of days and the Riot Squad will throw in the occasional contribution after that, but from that point on, it’s up to you. We want to hear about your personal album epiphanies; the impact they had when you first heard them and the effect they still have on you. We’re going to be asking for contributions from artists we’ve featured on Music Riot in the past and artists we’re hoping to feature in the future and anyone else who feels like having a go at enthusing about an album which influenced them.

Sound good to you? Watch this space and, if you feel like it, tell us about your Sonic Boom.

 

West TitleIt’s great to see that after twenty years together, Pete and Maura Kennedy are celebrating by releasing three albums in 2015, following the live Nanci Griffith set and Pete’s solo instrumental album last year. I can’t think of a more compact, complete and self-sufficient creative partnership than Pete and Maura. As live performers, they both sing beautifully, with Maura generally leading while Pete supplies perfect harmonies. Instrumentally, Maura provides the rhythm guitar backdrop while Pete plays lead lines to complement the songs and occasionally gets the chance to demonstrate his mastery of guitar and several more (mainly) stringed instruments. They’re both fine songwriters together and individually who aren’t afraid to include songs by other writers with their own material. This might all sound a bit general, but all of this applies to the duo’s latest studio album, “West”.

The eponymous opener, “West”, is a mid-tempo country rock exploration of a theme which dates back to eighteenth century, moving west as voyage of discovery. It just happens to have the most insanely catchy one-word chorus you’re ever likely to hear. As openers go, a road song with the perfect chorus is a pretty good start. “Elegy”, the second song in, is a folk-tinged celebration of the work of American folk singer-songwriter Dave Carter featuring banjo, mandolin, and even dulcimer from Pete. “Sisters of the Road” is a celebration (that word again) of the female voice and the bond between the sisterhood of performers who criss-cross the USA (and the rest of the world) meeting up whenever their schedules happen to coincide. “Signs” has a very 60s psychedelic folk feel with some electric sitar from Pete and a lyric inspired by a week spent by Maura in the New England woods. The mid-tempo country feel of “Jubilee Time” features a lead vocal from Pete and the uplifting message that however bad things are , they can always get better: ‘And when you’re standing with your hat filled with rain, Just remember that we will meet again’. And this may just say more about my record collection than anything else, but it reminds me a lot of Bob Seger’s “Fire Lake”.

From the opening low-register guitar intro, it’s obvious that “Locket” is inspired by Buddy Holly. It’s musically very simple, and lyrically it’s built around a metaphor of a locket representing a heart; simple but hugely effective. It also alludes to the genesis of Pete and Maura’s relationship twenty years ago, but that’s another story. “Southern Jumbo” returns to a country style, pulling together the themes of a family get-together for cooking and singing and a love song to a guitar and, again, it works perfectly. “Black Snake, White Snake” is a supernatural story of two sister snakes (one bad, one good) based on a piece by poet B.D. Love (who has also been collaborating with Maura on an upcoming album) with Pete’s sitar adding a psychedelic sound which emphasises the sinister tone of the piece.

“Bodhisattva Blues” is a flat-picked country blues pulling together concepts from Eastern and western religions sung in two-part harmony throughout and it’s great acoustic fun, while “Travel Day Blues” moves firmly into electric twelve-bar blues territory combining the legend of the Comte de Saint Germain with a list of some of the distractions that help to pass the hours spent moving from gig to gig. There’s also a nod in the direction of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” and proof that all Chuck’s children are still out there playing his licks. “The Queen of Hollywood High” is a tribute to a Kennedys favourite, the late John Stewart. It’s perfect West Coast pop and Pete and Maura are also helped out here by John’s former band members.

If you know anything about The Kennedys, you probably know that they are Byrds fans, so it should be no surprise that John Wicks of The Records wrote a song for (and about) them, “Perfect Love”, which they perform here. It’s a lovely song and works really well with Pete and Maura’s voices. And what better way to end the album with a twentieth anniversary love song from Pete to Maura with Everlys-style harmonies? “Good, Better, Best” isn’t a song about everything always being perfect, but about how the right person helps you deal with the inevitable bad times.

“West” is a gem of an album; thirteen varied and beautifully-crafted songs played and sung with taste and sensitivity by two very gifted people. There aren’t any instrumental or vocal pyrotechnics, just proper playing and singing; there isn’t anything here that isn’t absolutely necessary. Besides the themes of love, celebration and remembrance, there’s a bit of the supernatural and a light-hearted look at religious enlightenment and fulfilment; I haven’t heard a better album in a long time.

The album is self-released on May 13th 2015, but Pete and Maura will be happy to sell you a copy at any of the following tour dates in the UK:

April

Thurs 30 Glasgow                   Woodend Bowling & Lawn Tennis Club

May

Friday 1                                   Basingstoke, The Forge at The Anvil

Sunday 3                                 Birmingham, Kitchen Garden Café

Wednesday 6                          Southport, Grateful Fred’s at The Atkinson

Thursday 7                              Milton Keynes, The Stables

Friday 8                                   London, Kings Place

Saturday 9                              Leeds, Seven Arts

Sunday 10                               Haile, Cumbria Haile Village Hall.

 

 

 

 

Smoke and MirrorsUnless you’re the most jaded and cynical old hack ever to have had any connection with the music business, then surely an email with the header ‘Slovenia’s ShadowIcon to release Symphonic Metal EP’ has to grab your attention. I mean, we know that symphonic metal exists, so why shouldn’t it exist in Slovenia? It’s easy to dismiss the genre as clichéd, over-the-top and predictable, but if you threw Paramore, My Chemical Romance and 1970s Queen into a blender you’d probably end up with something very like ShadowIcon (or a few litres of very messy genetic material).

The EP opens with “(Now I See) Through a Mirror Darkly”, a duet between Ana Prijatelj Pelhan and Helloween’s Sascha Gerstner and blasts in with a high-speed guitar riff and strings which break down briefly for the entry of the vocal, but carry on at 100mph (sorry 160kph) for the rest of the song. “If I Was the One”, the lead track from the EP is up next; slightly slower with loads of keyboard arpeggios under the vocal and a synth solo at the two-thirds mark which doubles up with guitar before the final chorus comes in. Here’s what the video looks like:

The Edge” (and it isn’t about the guitarist from U2),opens like a Phil Spector classic, breaking down briefly again for the entry of the vocal before building to wall of sound climax with strings and bells. Of course it’s over the top, but isn’t that the point? “The Beauty of a Rose” starts with slow solo piano and voice, but it doesn’t take long before it becomes a big production number, trading string and guitar riffs before the obligatory impassioned guitar solo and epic finish with massed choir vocals and a plaintive synth line. “My Plea” again opens with just mid-tempo voice and keyboard but doesn’t even make it to the end of the first verse before the rest of the band starts to pile in, building up to an epic final chorus with the usual massed backing vocals, guitars and keys all turned up to eleven. The final track is a non-duet version of the opening track which doesn’t really add anything, but it doesn’t take anything away, so I guess the decision was easy; just put it on there and the fans can decide which version they prefer.

In addition to Ana, the band comprises Tomaž Lovšin (guitars), Bojan Kostanjšek (guitars), Matej Ravšelj (bass), Peter Smrdel (keys) and Žiga Ravšelj (drums) and they’re all good musicians. It’s easy to criticise bands like ShadowIcon but the music’s dramatic and dynamic; the drums thunder, the guitars scream, and the lyrics stand up to scrutiny pretty well. If you like your metal melodic and melodramatic, then you’ve come to the right place.

Out on March 16th.