Malcolm Holcombe - 'Pretty Little Troubles' - cover (300dpi)“Pretty Little Troubles”; it’s a lovely example of irony. Malcolm Holcombe’s troubles are never little and they’re rarely pretty. The subjects of his songs may be everyday events, but they have huge significance to the protagonists. It’s fair to say that he’s revered by fellow artists and songwriters for both live and recorded work and this album’s another demonstration of the passion and unshowy skill of his songs. His style is firmly in the country/Americana tradition with hints of other roots showing through occasionally in the lilting Celtic- styled “The Eyes O’ Josephine” where the bass doubles up the guitar riff and the song’s completed with a penny whistle solo and the European-influenced story of an encounter with a female busker playing a concertina, “South Hampton Street”. Both songs evoke the setting perfectly without tipping over into pastiche. 

The transatlantic folk/roots community has almost unanimously distanced itself from the alt-right and Malcolm Holcombe’s affirmation of that stance comes in “Yours No More”, a hymn of praise to the immigrants that helped to build America. It’s not in-your-face radicalism, it’s a gentle reminder that we can all use a bit of historical perspective at times. His rough-hewn, two-packs-a-day voice rasps through the rockier numbers, but adds pathos to the more contemplative stories of the numbing grind of everyday existence, such as “Damn Weeds” and the album’s closer “We Struggle”; the problems may be small in the grand scheme of things, but they can seem like insurmountable objects when you get right up close and personal. 

There area couple of great turnaround songs on the album as well. The uptempo “Good Old Days” feels like a nostalgic romp until the lyrics turn to exploitation, disease , alcohol and dead babies and “Bury England” paints a stark picture of life as a travelling musician, depicting all the minor frustrations (terrible coffee) which are displaced by hearing great music on the house PA (in memory of Guy Clark) then going on to play a great gig with Jared Tyler. Malcolm Holcombe has the songwriter’s skill of creating a perfect vignette from a seemingly mundane series of events and even the title is an ironic play on the phrase ‘Merry England’. 

It’s raw at times, but “Pretty Little Troubles” is packed with lovingly-crafted and passionate songs played in atmospheric and uncluttered settings. It’s a lovely piece of work. 

“Pretty Little Troubles” is released on Friday May 26 on Gypsy Eyes Music.

1479017278061[1]OK, let’s get this straight upfront; this is a good blues album. It covers a lot of the blues bases; you get slow blues, fast blues, funky blues, hints of gospel and some nice horns here and there. It’s an interesting listen and there’s nothing that makes you want to hit the skip button. It covers a lot of the ground that Robert Cray was covering in the late eighties/early nineties and the comparison stands up fairly well, but there is a problem with that. If that niche still exists, Joe Bonamassa has it well and truly covered and it’s a bit like “Highlander” – ‘there can only be one’. And the blues buffs will no doubt point out exceptions to this but while there are thousands of singer/guitar players out there, there aren’t too many, like the Reverend Shawn Amos, who don’t play.

Having said all of that, if you like your blues without too many rough edges, played and sung with a bit of style and well-written (there are ten originals and two covers, “La Joliet” and “Bright Lights , Big City”), you won’t go too far wrong with this. Standout songs for me were the midtempo shuffle “Hollywood Blues” and the closing gospel ballad “The Last Day I’m Loving You”.

And by the way, he isn’t really a Reverend.

“The Reverend Shawn Amos Loves You” is released on Friday May 19th on Put Together PTM006.

Johnny ScrollerNow listen up, because I’m only gonna say this once; well, this year anyway. You have one, and only one, chance to witness the musical phenomenon that is Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes live in the UK this year. Sorry to anyone living outside the home counties, but this one’s in London, at The Forum on Thursday June 22. Now, go on, ask me why you would want to see (and hear) Mr John Lyon and his soulful/bluesy/funky/rockin’ rebels? It’s easy; they are dynamite live, with years of experience behind them, and a lot more in front of them. But why are they so good? Well, it all dates back to the Jersey shore in the early seventies. If you’ve read Springsteen’s excellent autobiography, you might have noticed the name Southside Johnny crop up once or twice.

They played in the same bars on the Jersey shore and they learned the same lessons. You had to be good and you had to work hard; five sets a night wasn’t uncommon. It’s a philosophy Bruce, Johnny and Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven or Miami Steve) share; get the best musicians you can and work them hard every night. If you don’t, then good musicians get bored and fractious. So the E Street Band and The Jukes play long sets where the written setlist point roughly in the direction of the actual set. Both singers like to throw the band curve balls to make sure the attention doesn’t start to drift; Bruce picks requests from placards in the crowd and Johnny calls the tune that he thinks continues the journey best. With a huge back catalogue of great songs written by Springsteen, Little Steven and Johnny himself (along with keyboard player Jeff Kazee) and the odd cover, the band never plays the same set twice. You might get lucky on the night and hear an a cappella version of “Walk Away Renee” (or at least part of it) that will stop you in your tracks, or you might hear a horn solo suddenly morph into full-blown New Orleans jazz. You might hear bass player John Conte sing “Tutti Frutti”; you just never know.

And that’s why Southside Johnny still has a fanatical following in the UK; you go to a Jukes show with only two expectations; you’ll be entertained by great musicians and you won’t know what’s coming next. And those expectations will be met, and surpassed, every time. It’s real songs, real instruments, no autotune, no sneaky recorded fill-ins or ‘vocal reinforcement’; it’s for real. You can find out just how good they are at The Forum on June 22. See you down at the front.

And, in a bit of breaking news, Southside’s new vinyl EP “Live from E Street” made the Billboard Blues Album Chart last week at #10.

NGG Scrolleribbles and fizz in Soho on a Friday evening, followed by an intimate gig in The Library in St Martin’s Lane; you’d be mad not to. The point of this little intimate soiree was to focus our attention on GG, a Russian singer-songwriter trying to make an impact in the UK. GG did all the meet and greet with genuine warmth, entertaining us grizzled old music business hacks and winning them over her sense of humour. All very civilised, but then it was time for the showcase at The Library. Now, I like a bit of variety as much as anyone, but a bearded Scandinavian singer/songwriter performing songs about how much he loves his sister in an Estuary/Bob Marley accent is outside my comfort zone – the audience weren’t too keen either.

So, up next was GG, stripping her recorded arrangements back to just her vocal and the subtle and delicate piano backing of Molly Laws. You could hear elements of Tori Amos, or maybe even Kate Bush in there; the songs were strong with almost mesmeric repetition of half-lines, the piano providing the perfect musical setting for GG’s hugely charismatic and theatrical performance. Showcase gigs can sometimes be bearpits, with audience factions only interested in the artist they’ve come to support, but from the moment GG started to sing the background chatter stopped and all attention focussed on the stage. You get four stars just for achieving that in a showcase environment.

GG’s single “4 Days” is out now.

Redwood-Mountain-Side-1-ALT-desat-40[1]If everyone was rewarded fairly for talent, creativity and pure hard bloody work, Dean Owens would be a very wealthy man. If the day job is being Dean Owens, singer-songwriter, the part-time jobs include his full band Whisky Hearts, his Deer Lake collaboration with Larry Lean, his Buffalo Blood project with Neilson Hubbard, production duties for Ameripolitan singer-songwriter Ags Connolly and the occasional project featuring covers or, more accurately, interpretations of other people’s songs (Johnny Cash for example). It’s fair to say that he doesn’t have a lot of downtime.

With all of those projects simmering away, why not do something else to stave off boredom? So what’s next? What can we cram into that fifteen minutes of the day that’s left? Well, someone gave Dean a copy of Alan Lomax’s “The Book of American Folk Songs” and Dean, having a bit of down time, decided that it would be a great idea to give some of the lyrics new musical settings and record the resulting songs with Whisky Hearts fiddle player Amy Geddes and bass/piano player Kevin McGuire. Although the project was about creating new settings for existing lyrics, Dean and Amy managed to sneak a few of their own compositions, which fit perfectly with the originals. Amy’s “Amang the Braes O Gallowa” has the Celtic authenticity of early American folk tunes, while Dean’s “Take it Easy, but Take it” is a perfect lyrical fit with the Lomax collection. There’s even that very rare beast, a Dean Owens instrumental, “The Two Davies Waltz”. As a creative concept, it works perfectly.

The minimalist arrangement of the songs (two voices, guitar and fiddle, with occasional piano and bass) works perfectly, Amy’s plaintive fiddle reinforcing the melancholy tone of the album while her vocal harmonies lighten the lyrical harshness that play such a large part in these folk ballads. The quality of the album’s so high that it’s difficult to pick favourites, but I loved “On the Range of the Buffalo” and “Rye Whiskey”.

Redwood Mountain is a little gem of an album and it’s out now.

how-animal-are-you[1]We’ll have more to come on this one in a few days, but in the meantime just wrap your ears around this little beauty. Slydigs are from the North-West (that’s the grim-up-north place) and they’re four school friends led by songwriters Dean Fairhurst (vocals/guitar) and Louis Menguy (guitar). “How Animal Are You” (the lead track from the EP of the same name) is a classic slice of melodic rock fusing the melodic nous and rock stylings of Def Leppard with the attitude of Oasis. And when the lead vocal comes in after the Lenny Kravitz-esque intro, it’s a potent mix of Liam and Roger Daltrey. “HAAY” is three and a half minutes of melodic rock with all of the classic rock ingredients spiced up with a little bit of Cool Britannia swagger. Let’s just start the weekend right here:

“How Animal Are You” is released on Friday May 12.

Harrow Fair - 'Call To Arms' - cover (300dpi)Harrow Fair comprises Miranda Mulholland (vocals, violin and percussion) and Andrew Penner (vocals, guitars, drums, piano, bass, organs, synths, vibes, glockenspiel, banjo and percussion); just another Americana duo? I don’t think so. Just one look at the instrumental credits will tell you that. Miranda and Andrew have all the traditional skills for the duo line-up; they play a variety of stringed and percussion instruments, sing beautifully and build great harmonies, but they’re not content to stop at that. “Call to Arms” is experimental Americana. The opening song, “Hangnail”, gives you a few clues to the direction that they’re taking with its overdriven guitar, fiddle refrain and thudding percussion taking a decidedly lo-fi direction. 

As the album progresses there are more unexpected instrument sounds; there are a few songs with some evil distortion on the fiddle sound and “How Cold” has the feel of a Gaelic dirge with a constant drone, but with overlaid synths and some thunderous bass. The disparate elements gel to create a satisfying song. The preceding song, “Harrow Fair Pig Auction” isn’t quite so successful, featuring a recording of two auctioneers overlaid with freeform improvisation, but that’s experimentation for you. Definitely worth a listen for the bending and warping of musical forms.

 “Call to Arms” is released on May 19th on Roaring Girl Records.

 

Nuala ScrollerSometimes it feels like every time you turn around, another iconic venue vanishes, but it’s not all doom and gloom; some entrepreneurs are bucking the trend and I had the chance see the opening night at a new venue just off Pentonville Road this week. From the outside, 2Northdown looks completely anonymous. Only the presence of security staff hints at something interesting inside; there wasn’t a green door, but I told them Ray sent me and someone laughed out loud but I was in. the priorities of the management team are obvious as soon as you walk through the door. The bar is basic, and cash only, but the sound system is good and the stage is very photographer-friendly with a completely uncluttered black backdrop and some basic but effective white floods to light the stage. Top marks there.

For the opening night of Acoustic Sex, Ray Jones (formerly of Time Out) put together a bill of artists who have been attracting attention for some time now. Nuala’s mix of busker attitude, a huge voice and the ability to incorporate distractions like a phone ringing and breaking a string into her lyrics was a great start to the night. The string-breaking incident gave Ray a chance to hustle a quick guest spot from Steve Young, who also loaned Nuala his guitar to finish the set. Next up was Lisa Marini with her fusion of traditional singer-songwriter and smooth jazz (featuring Arthur Newell on drums and Jack Tustin on upright bass). It was eclectic, with Lisa starting the set with a uke before switching to a lovely nylon-strung Godin guitar for the rest of the set. The audience were completely engrossed and you could have heard a pin drop, or the shutters of half a dozen Nikons on burst mode.

To close the evening out, the final set was from Joe Slater, down from Liverpool for the day, full of cold or flu germs, but still game for a raucous half-hour set. As always, in the words of Ray Jones, he knocked it out of the park. He’s a natural songwriter and his voice and delivery are huge. His penultimate song, “Rainbow”, is what “Imagine” could have been if John Lennon had still been hungry and not living in a mansion in Weybridge; this guy has talent, and the balls to finish with a cover of “Champagne Supernova” which had the entire audience singing along.

Great venue, great atmosphere and great performers; what more do you need to know?

If you want to see some pictures of the event, go to Nuala, Lisa or Joe.