It’s not the first single I ever bought, but this is my first memory of the combination of music and film, a couple of decades before the pop video and MTV took hold. Where do you think the least likely place would be to see (and hear, because you certainly bloody heard it) a Scopitone film clip of a huge sixties tune. An instrumental that managed to imprint itself on my consciousness because it’s a cracking, ground-breaking tune and for another unrelated reason I’ll revisit later. That place was a pit canteen on the east coast of Fife and the tune was “Telstar” by The Tornados. Unlikely? Maybe, but true nevertheless.

It seems unlikely now, but at that time, nearly sixty years ago, the Fife coast between Kirkcaldy and Methil was a string of mines ripping coal out from underneath the River Forth. The Michael Colliery in East Wemyss was just one of those mines, providing work for the community and blackening the coastline. South-west of Kirkcaldy and north-east of Methil the beaches were golden; between those two towns, the coast was a uniform black and it’s just beginning to recover now, fifty years after the mines closed.

The villages along this stretch of coast, Dysart, West Wemyss, Coaltown of Wemyss, East Wemyss, Buckhaven (Buckhyne if you’re a true Fifer) and Methil were mining communities and the pit canteen was as much of a social hub as the local pub or club. I don’t know about The Frances in Dysart (or The Dubbie as we knew it) or The Wellesley in Buckhaven, but The Michael in the early sixties had a Scopitone video jukebox and it was the eighth wonder of the world. My introduction to this wonderful device changed my life forever.

In a small village and tight-knit community, news spreads quickly and the installation of a jukebox that showed films had as much of an impact as the Cuban missile crisis. Security at the Michael site was non-existent and anyone could walk in to the canteen, so why wouldn’t you just do it, even at the age of seven. Obviously, I didn’t have any money to feed the Scopitone beast when I made my first visit to its lair, but it didn’t matter; someone with incredibly good musical taste had already fed the monster. I looked the Scopitone in the eye and waited for a reaction.

Exciting doesn’t really do it justice; the sound that came out of that beast was breath-taking and it was combined with film of The Tornados and a satellite launch. Like most jukeboxes, the tube amplifier was powerful and definitely not subtle. It was all about excitement and maximum impact; combine the pulsing sci-fi sound effects and the ascending organ pattern of the intro leading up to the eruption of the main melody with a shot of a Saturn I thrusting upwards into space spliced with shots of the band performing on 16mm colour film and you have something that, for me, was literally out of this world. From that moment on I was hooked. I liked the pop music of the time when I got to hear it on the radio or on a small black and white TV, but this was something completely different; it was loud, it was visceral and impossible to ignore. I knew that I wanted more of it, and I still do.

It was only years later that I understood the significance of Telstar’s creator, Joe Meek, in pop history, but I knew at the time that I had heard a glorious noise and I was desperate to hear more of the same.

Le Scopitone was a French invention that achieved limited success despite its great potential as a promotional tool. It was bulky but reasonably reliable, although the number of songs was limited compared to an audio-only jukebox and production costs were obviously much higher where film was involved. Also, Scopitone never managed to lure the real superstars of the time to the format. It managed to survive until 1978 (only three years before the official launch of MTV) when it succumbed to the new, more cost-effective, video tape. I hope Le Scopitone had the same effect on others as it had on me.

Let’s get back to “Telstar” and the other association that explains why I love this tune so much. From about the age of five, my dad took me to Bayview (where the terraces were made of railway sleepers and gravel, with the odd crush barrier) to watch our local team East Fife, hoisting me over the turnstile so it wouldn’t register and he wouldn’t have to pay for me. A huge part of the ritual is applauding your team on to the pitch as the run-on music plays and you can probably guess by now what the run-on music was at Bayview. Fifty-five years and more (and a few relocations) have passed since then, but my team is still East Fife and they still run on to “Telstar” at New Bayview on the banks of The Forth. Some things don’t need to change or be improved.

And I still love to listen to “Telstar”, preferably my 7” vinyl copy. The anticipation as the stylus touches down and, the crackles and scratches and the rush as the intro builds up all take me back to that day in a pit canteen in East Wemyss, a lifetime ago.

Finally, a couple of pieces of trivia for you. The legendary Clem Cattini played drums on “Telstar” and George Bellamy (father of Muse’s Matt) played rhythm guitar – did you ever wonder where “Knights of Cydonia” came from?

 

It’s quite a story; Michael McDermott’s short rise and relatively successful start to a career in the early nineties, through a long downward spiral ending in addiction and jail and, ultimately, recovery and redemption. His previous four albums “Six on the Out” (as The Westies), “Willow Springs”, “Orphans” and “Out From Under” cover those themes pretty comprehensively, although Michael McDermott isn’t showing signs of running out of inspiration any time soon. He’s a songwriter who’s equally at home writing pieces that are intensely personal, straightforward love songs, observational songs, fun songs and, on this album, a couple of powerful songs inspired by the state of America in 2020. Whatever he’s writing, he’s never less than totally honest and always completely believable.

The furious rush of the title song opens the album, pulling no punches as it tears through the state of the USA today, melding the lyrical helter-skelter of “Subterranean Homesick Blues” with the musical punch of “Born to Run” in a scathing attack on the Trump vision (and we’re done with the Dylan and The Boss references now).

The musical stylings are what you would expect from a Michael McDermott album; there’s a lot of variety. From the headlong charge of “What in the World”, through the finger-picked guitar on “Positively Central Park” and “New York, Texas” to the Motown bounce of “Contender”. The album certainly isn’t one-paced and, as always, demonstrates Michael’s range and versatility. As ever the musicians do exactly what’s needed to get the message over, without ever sounding showy.

Lyrically, the album’s a step away from the quartet mentioned above. The title song and the heart-rending “Mother Emanuel” are both protest songs, while the rest of the album focusses mainly on a couple of themes; the post-addiction space that Michael occupies now, and an exploration of some of the events in his personal history that may have been triggers for the dark period. This isn’t about self-justification, it’s more in the nature of a warning to others of the treachery of that particular slope.

So, which songs pushed my buttons? Obviously, the title song with its stinging attack on USA 2020, including the unequivocal message: ‘It’s not to hard to see The Presidents’s a criminal’ is right up there. “The Veils of Veronica”, the story of someone with too few skins to deal with the world is heart-rending, and the gentle “Blue-Eyed Barmaid” turns the tables on the cliché of the customer pouring out his troubles to the long-suffering barmaid. With eleven new songs (plus a bonus of the acoustic demo of the title song), there’s so much to love here; the songs are intense and Michael’s vocal delivery is impassioned, as always. It’s a grim reality of the music business today that Michael McDermott is unlikely to become rich, but that won’t stop him making music and we’ll all benefit from that.

“What in the World” is released in the UK on Friday June 12th on Pauper Sky Records.

BTW, it passes the Will Kimbrough test as well; he’s on pretty much everything I’ve loved over the last five years and he’s also doing his thing here.

“Searching for the Stranger” follows on from Ben’s highly-acclaimed 2018 album “Better Human”, which was a big favourite here at Riot Towers. The production on the album certainly doesn’t follow the live recording ethos. “Searching for the Stranger” is definitely a product of the studio; multiple vocal overdubs and heavy reverb creating an other-worldly atmosphere that weaves and twists its way around you. It’s definitely not an example of recording the songs and doing very little in the way of studio production; the songs will probably sound very different live, whenever we’re in a position to hear them that way.

The opening song “Berlin” is a good example of the approach to production. The song opens with some processed beats and builds with some sparse and doubled-up lead vocals to an almost epic chorus and big string arrangement towards the close. It’s a deeply personal song that uses Berlin as a metaphor, with the repetition of the line ‘Tear down the walls’ throughout the song. The second song on the album, also the second single, “Strangers”, has a more conventional guitar intro and riffs and more multi-tracked vocals and harmonies – the theme of alienation here is one of the threads that runs through the album, with its remote settings and physical and mental displacement. Without getting in to a track-by-track rundown of the album, the third song “Ghost”, builds up from a lone piano fading in, to a full-band finish and deals with sense of separateness and isolation that accompanies the end of a relationship.

But it’s not all melancholy; following the helplessness of “Tornado”, the album ends with its most hopeful song “Spring”, a celebration of love, renewal and the passage of the seasons and a look forward to the future following the previous nine retrospective and introspective songs. “Searching for the Stranger” is classic singer-songwriter material, with songs about relationships, history and alienation, presented in a way that envelops the listener totally as instruments blend into each other and voices are multiplied into a choral tsunami.

“Searching for a Stranger” is out now on Comino Music (BKSFTS001CD).

We think this one deserves a bit of explanation. Mike Butterworth, good friend of the Riot Squad and  bloody good bloke, was recovering from a very serious illness when we launched 2019’s High Fives in December last year. He still managed to write about a compilation of his favourite live performances of 2019 and give us some cracking images from each gig, just a little bit late. Then things started to get a bit complicated as we had problems with file compatibility and junk folders. Anyway, we decided last week to have one final attempt to get it all sorted out; it seemed appropriate to be celebrating live music at a moment in time when we hadn’t had any for nearly two months and no prospects of any in the immediate future. Over to Michael:

In spite of a forced three-month absence from the music scene, it has been another great year of music. Following the independent music scene again this year has bought me to explore more new venues and artists, as well as catching up with some I’ve known for a while.

Louise Marshall and the Brethren @ PizzaExpress Live, Holborn

The year started with another new venue for me, PizzaExpress Live in Holborn. We celebrated 10 years of Success Express Music and the first Birthday of Talentbanq.

 

 

Louise, who I’ve known for a number of years thanks to the diversity of The Cornbury Music Festival, I saw was also playing in a couple of weeks. Most of the performances I’ve seen, were as part of other artists’ bands, but this time I had the privilege of seeing her perform with her own band. 

Louise has a smoky voice, the by-product of fiery passion, that lilts between octaves, smouldering in the embers of truth’s tinderbox.

The evening covered both of her own albums which included lots of daring ideas that are perfectly executed, especially a new twist to The Bee Gees classic – Chain Reaction – 2 up-tempo tunes showing her mainstream Soul/Pop skills, mixed in with a collection of gems that shows her soft side, written especially for her daughter Alicia, ‘First thing in the morning’ & ‘You’re my Princess’. The Album name, Beautiful, is dedicated to Louise’s husband Danny, who also plays sterlingly in both the brass ensemble and solo performances.

“Valentine Moon”, a track written by Jools Holland and Sam Brown, adds the icing to this varied performance, with Marshall showing her true northern roots.

The Brethren, that night, consisted of a group of talented musicians who deliver sheer perfection every single time they perform, without fail. Carlos Hercules on Drums, Mike Brown on Lead Guitar, Luke Smith on Keyboards, Orefo Orakwue on Bass, and Karl Vanden Bossche on Percussion.

These guys have toured with George Michael, Belinda Carlisle, Marti Pellow, Jimmy Cliffe, The Eurythmics & Lulu. Karl is one of the leading percussionists in Europe, and has played for the likes of Robert Palmer, Simply Red, Joss Stone, Sade, Blur, Natasha Bedingfield, Steve Winwood, Gorillaz, Mark Ronson, Nigel Kennedy and many more. In the summer Karl appeared at Glastonbury as part of Damon Albarn’s super group ‘The Good, The Bad & The Queen’ Including Paul Simonon, Simon Tong and Tony Allen.

Louise herself, also tours extensively with Jools Holland and his Rhythm and Blues Orchestra and has worked with Beverley Knight, David Gilmour, Michael Ball, Robbie Williams, Bryan Ferry, Ronnie Wood, Sam Brown, Russell Watson, Steve Winwood, and Paul Young, to name a few.

Grace Petrie @ SJE Art, Oxford

Grace began performing in 2006 as a solo vocalist and acoustic guitarist, and self-released an eponymous album that year, followed in 2007 by second album “Feeling Better”. In 2010, the advent of the Conservative-led coalition government following the (UK) general election influenced Petrie, who is a socialist, feminist, and lesbian, towards an increasing emphasis on politically focused songwriting, from a left-wing perspective. She made her debut appearance on Glastonbury‘s Leftfield stage at the invitation of Billy Bragg in summer 2010, and widely praised third album “Tell Me A Story” followed, including signature song “Farewell to Welfare”.

It was interesting to see her performing her, two-part set, in a church. However, the sellout crowd really appreciated her perspective on the world and the irony of the venue given her outlook on life. What I found particularly interesting was the contrast in pace and delivery between her fierce, punchy and fast paced protest song which were very reminiscent of her mentor Billy Bragg and her light and beautiful singing voice she has during her more personal songs.

In spite of performing a solo acoustic set in a big venue, she captivated the audience and got them to join in the chant of “You Pay Nothing You Get Nowt” from “You Pay Peanuts, You Get Monkeys”.

Katey Brooks @ St Pancras Old Church

For better or worse, it’s hard to imagine a songwriter with a deeper well of life experience to spill onto her lyric-sheet. Katey’s troubled childhood in a religious cult, her debilitating illness in her twenties and the shattering loss of her mother and her best friend: all were blows that might have swallowed up a lesser character. But music was the balm, and it was always made on her terms – evidenced by Katey’s early decision to reject a place at the star-making BRIT School and walk her own path.

Katey performed her new album in the amazing setting of St Pancras Old Church. With her full band, the incredible acoustics really suited her beautiful, clear and powerful voice.

Katey’s scars and redemptions are poured undiluted into the new material of REVOLUTE, inviting all who hear it to wear their pasts on their sleeves without shame. Written and self-produced by Katey herself – with a beautiful and intimate mix from Paul Quinn – these songs run the gamut of genre, but are bound together by their emotional honesty. The standard is set by “Never Gonna Let Her Go” haunted yet rousing, this gospel-soul single hums with defiance as Katey kicks out against past shamings for her sexuality.

“All Of Me” is a wrench of a breakup ballad, pairing sparse guitar with intimate vocals, and slow-burning to a gospel-flavoured conclusion. “We The People” offers a moody stomp and a salute to a lover who’s moved on, while “Golden Gun” is a glowering standout, with choppy guitars and a lyric full of emotional violence, Katey’s voice soaring as the song escapes its moorings.

Already released as a single to blanket acclaim, “In Your Arms” is an intimate moment, with Katey’s almost-operatic voice and shimmering guitar locked in unison. “The Sweetest Things” has folky fingerpicking and a nakedly honest vocal that reminds us that “sometimes the sweetest things were meant to pass you by”. And on an album of personal truths, Katey isn’t afraid to turn her observational powers on the social landscape, with the impassioned soul of “Burn It Down” reminding women in the #MeToo era that victimhood is not their fault.

“Jeremiah” is a beautiful piano-led ballad that sails to the stars, while “Call Out” is a stunning moment of quiet defiance (“Don’t let anybody take you down”). “In Light Of You” combines ethereal guitar with treasured memories of a departed loved one – then throws a curveball as it breaks into a double-time groove. Finally, there’s traditional standard Trouble So Hard, here utterly owned by Katey, with ghostly chords and a vocal that never stops building.

 

“REVOLUTE” isn’t just an album – it’s an awakening for both artist and listener.

KT Tunstall @ Cornbury Music Festival

I’ve been a long time fan of KT Tunstall and 2019 saw her return to The Cornbury Festival with her all female band; Mandy Clarke on bass and Cat Myers on drums.

Her first album “Eye to the Telescope” was released fifteen years ago and inspired by her late father. It was such a fresh new sound for me and I was so glad she still play songs from it in her set. With various events in her life she found her self on her own and moving to Tucson, Arizona. This is where wrote Invisible Empire/Crecent Moon a different album and perspective from her earlier work.

“There was literally a rebirth of me as a happier, more thoughtful, more self-aware person with different priorities in my life. Writing and recording ‘KIN’ was a real unexpected pleasure; it was a way back in, to rediscover that feeling of purpose in going out and playing a gig for people, and essentially being a purveyor of joy for the night, whilst managing to tap into that deep sense of personal fulfilment in the process. Playing live is definitely a kinetic meditation for me.”

What else did Tunstall know in that moment on the Tennessee grass (not that kind!)? That her new album would be her ‘body’ album. That it would be called ‘WAX’. The title a nod to the viscous pungency of one of the body’s natural substances. “Wax evokes colonies of bees, candlelight, the material that the first long-playing records were made of”, she explains, “but more than that, wax is produced inside your own head. You unconsciously create it, and then weirdly that same basic substance has been used for centuries to make the most lifelike replicas of human beings. It has a life glow to it. It sticks to you. We have these strange, ancient connections and relationships with wax. How odd is it that the body produces all these substances from all these holes!” laughs this stoutly down-to-earth singer, songwriter and guitarist.

Finally, KT Tunstall knew how “WAX” would sound. “I knew before I started writing that I wanted it to be an electric guitar record. It had to be visceral, about the physical, and the weight of that, and the obstacles of that. It’s a record about human-ness, which we so often just write off as ‘flaws’.

KT Tunstall and her band, motivated by ethos of the new album ‘WAX’, gave an energetic and joyful performance, with mixture of her classic songs and the new.

Lots Holloway @ Hard Rock Hotel, London

Lots Holloway, is a talented young singer-songwriter, multi-instrumentalist and producer. Creating emotional and infectious music with a warm and vintage feel; Lots is inspired by the sounds of the 60’s and 70’s.

Holloway writes authentic and genuine music based around guitar and piano; with lyrics that immediately connect and strong melodies that stay with you long after you first hear them.

Lots has been independently releasing music throughout 2019 and along the way has been garnering support from music publications such as Clash and Wonderland Magazine, who have quoted Lots as ‘a true star in the making’ and ‘a vivid pop newcomer’. She has also seen strong support from BBC Introducing London’s Jess Iszatt, who described herself on air as a “big fan” of Holloway, with a love for Lots’ “raspy tone”.

Lots’ on stage presence is second to none; a compelling performer, with a silky voice. Holloway also plays with a full band but is an enchanting and captivating performer, even when stripped  down to a solo acoustic set, as she was at The Hard Rock Cafe.

As well as covering George Michael’s ‘Last Christmas’, which was appropriate having just had a cameo appearance in Emma Thompson’s film of the same name, oh and it was Christmas too. She performed a couple of new songs including ‘Bones’ a reflection on the then cold weather.

Finishing the links with these artist, Lots has also worked with KT Tunstall, just a couple of days before, in a writing workshop led by KT.

These are just a few of the many amazing performance I’ve seen this year. Another great year of live music. Once again I’m looking forward to catching up with old friends and discovering new and amazing artists.

The Kennet and Avon Canal might not be the Mississippi Delta but Devizes, one of the towns it passes through, is the home of Joe Edwards, and its café and bar scene gave Joe the chance to develop his intimate style and delivery. My notes for this album use the word intimate a lot; actually, I use it an awful lot, because it sounds like it was recorded in an empty basement bar. The actual recording was tracked live over a period of ten days with Canadian guitarist and producer Steve Dawson adding various slide instruments to the mix. The album’s mostly blues-based, although the uplifting title song is closer to uptempo country with a full band including organ and pedal steel.

The stripped-back and laid-back production and tasteful playing might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no doubt about the quality of the playing on “Keep On Running”,  and Joe’s vocals are strong and distinctive on both the slow and the uptempo songs. On a couple of songs on the album, particularly “Trouble”, Joe sounds a lot like Gerry Rafferty on the “City to City” album. If your thing is bluesy songs played with lots of feel and no grandstanding, then this album should be just right for you.

“Keep On Running” is released in the UK on Tiny Mountain Records (TMRCD101) on May 22nd.

This piece started as a review of “Prayer for the Sane”. As I was writing that, an email from the promo company representing Danny in the UK came through, announcing another single that was being released immediately; two singles out at the same time – that’s pretty unusual. After listening to both singles, it was obvious that they had to be reviewed together; they look at the current situation in America through different lenses. “Prayer for the Sane” is the wide-angle view, looking at the state of the nation as a whole, and “2020 Vision” is the telephoto view, zooming in on the impact on individuals and small communities. Danny feels so strongly about these songs that he’s bypassed the whole planning and scheduling business to get the songs out there while fresh (and raw) and contemporary. Both songs were recorded in quarantine.

Danny Schmidt’s a strikingly good songwriter. His songs are witty, clever, original and most important, memorable. I can’t think of another writer who’s come up with a song about string theory. “A Prayer for the Sane”, however, is a bit of a departure; it has all the elements mentioned above, but it’s also a call to arms. Danny’s a very laid-back kind of guy, but the political situation in America today has pushed him down the protest singer route. He never actually uses the ‘T’ word but it’s obvious that he’s alluding to the orange one and the social impact of his term in the White House.

The arrangement for the song is a single guitar with a relatively simple finger-picked backing and some multi-tracked harmonies (The Dannettes, I guess). It’s as stripped-back as the lyrical theme is broad; this is a state of the nation song, a clarion call that highlights the schisms in America today (‘Fences make for consequences, we’re prisoners of our own defences’) and points the way to the solution – ‘It’s time to shake the voting booth, It’s time for us to scream the truth’. It’s a protest song that nails the problems of the States and the wider world today.

Here’s the video:

“2020 Vision” is a much more personal take on the current situation and an even more minimal production. The song structure is a very basic strummed I-IV-V chord progression (three chords and the truth) and the lyrics explore the way we’re dealing with the social changes springing from the pandemic, from social distancing to supermarket shelf clearances and comparisons to our forebears’ experiences in WWII. I won’t quote the lyrics because I’m going to recommend that you watch the video. Amid all the references to our transformed way of life, Danny even manages to fit in a reference to the late, lamented John Prine in the final line of the song.

And here’s the “2020 Vision” video:

These two songs, taken together, are a perfect musical summary of life in the USA in 2020. They convey anger and empathy and demonstrate why Danny Schmidt is so revered among songwriters worldwide.

“Prayer for the Sane” and “2020 Vision” are out now on Bandcamp to download free or pay what you want and will be available later on streaming platforms.

And there’s some late news just in. On Saturday May 9 at 8pm UK time, or 2pm CDT, you can watch Danny and his wife, the equally talented Carrie Elkin, do a free lockdown gig on this link.

This album is like a sea-breeze on a hot summer’s day; it’s cooling and soothing, and once it starts, you don’t want it to stop. Canadian Maya Rae isn’t eighteen yet and she’s already been singing professionally for six years. Six years! She recorded her first album of jazz covers at the age of thirteen, but this is an entirely different beast; it’s a batch of songs co-written with her brother Evan that display a remarkable maturity while still retaining a sense of wonder and innocence. They’re delivered by a set of highly-accomplished musicians, and the end of result is my favourite new album of the year so far. If your interest has been piqued by what you’ve read so far, check out some of the Spotify song links as well. If you want a few quick and easy reference points, try early Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones and maybe even (completely coincidentally) the first Corinne Bailey Rae album.

You would expect someone who’s been singing professionally since the age of twelve to have a good voice and you won’t be disappointed. Maya’s voice is rich and clear, and she has an impressive range as well. We all know that often that isn’t enough; you need the right team and usually you need a good throw of the dice at some point.

This album came about as a result of Maya sending a demo to Canadian uber-producer Steve Dawson, who managed to pull a bunch of musicians together in Nashville to record the album in just three days. The result sounds anything but rushed; it all fits into place perfectly and the arrangements create the perfect picture-frame for all of the delicately-crafted songs. And there are so many insidious hooks. Whether they’re the work of Steve Dawson or the musicians involved in the project, I don’t know, but each one pulls you in to the song, and they come from all directions, violin, guitar, organ, synthesiser; you name it.

I recommend that you give the entire album a listen, but if you twisted my arm, my favourites would be the incredibly catchy opener “Can You See Me”, which talks about the masks we wear to hide our true selves, the optimistic “The Sun Will Come Out Again” and the sinuously funky, Bill Withers-esque, groove of “New to Me”. I could go on, but I really want you to listen to the whole album and then buy it. This classy bunch of songs, beautifully interpreted, and sung with such clarity and precision, is something your collection needs.

“Can You See Me?” is out now on Black Hen Records (BHCD0092).

It’s time for the third Danberrys (Dorothy Daniel and Ben DeBerry) album, “Shine”. The Nashville duo has taken four years over this piece and it’s a marked departure from their more acoustic Americana sound. Just a quick look at the album credits tells you, in addition to the usual guitar, mandolin and even pump organ, there’s another palette of sounds created by the addition of trombone, tuba, vibes, drums and percussion, the last three contributed by co-producer Marco Giovino. The innovative way percussion is used throughout the album is a clear indication of the involvement of drummer on the production team. The instrument tally on the album is impressive, but they’re used sparingly in a minimal and stark production. And let’s not forget the superb vocals, harmonies and counterpoint.

The album’s opener “Shine” sets the tone, building from a sparse primal rhythm to a brooding, supernatural mantra. The message is that we have to continue to shine a light to penetrate the darkness that surrounds us. There’s a melancholy thread that runs through the album although the message is ultimately one of hope; from “Shine” and the simple, folky “Love Conquers War” which references the protest movement and hammers the message home with the final line, ‘We shall overcome’, and the uplifting exhortation to self-belief of the Bo-Diddley-inflected “The Mountain”. The variety of the arrangements means that there aren’t too many reference points, although “Undertow” does hint at Fleetwood Mac.

The lyrics are interesting; they’re very subtle and they’re more about pointing you in a certain direction and allowing you to make your own interpretation. Although there are repeated references to darkness and dying, the album ultimately feels like a positive experience.

“Shine” is a compelling and haunting set of songs with innovative arrangements which holds your attention throughout with its stark intensity.

And here’s a bit of trivia for you. The person playing guitar, trombone and tuba is Neal Pawley, trombone player with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes and Southside’s Americana project, The Poor Fools.

“Shine” is released in the UK on Friday May 8th on Singular Records.

 

 

It’s heart-breaking to see so many press releases at the moment that tell that a band or artist will be touring to support their new album. This stuff is planned months ahead, and longer, to coincide with the album coming out. The press release for “Blue Sky” refers to band touring through 2020 to promote the album; even with Trump’s best bluster, that’s unlikely to happen now, so one of the few things to do is look out for the good reviews and make sure that you get them out there. But I’m sure that The Reverend Shawn Amos will have that under control, because of his background in digital marketing (among other things). Ok, here’s another one for you.

In a career that’s been characterised by fairly dramatic shifts, “Blue Sky” is no exception. After embracing the broad church of blues, Shawn Amos had very little interest in writing; he wanted to sing and play harmonica. Things changed, however, after his move to Texas from California and a long-term commitment to The Brotherhood (Brady Blade – drums, Christopher Thomas – bass, and Chris ‘Doctor’ Roberts – guitar); he’s also totally committed to writing now as well as performing.

The album’s opening song, “Stranger Than Today”, feels like a bridge between California and Texas. The styling is pure West Coast (synthetic beats aside) although the subject matter is pure blues; the life and death of Little Walter, blues harmonica innovator. And from there on in, it’s blues in its many hues, from the heartbreak blues of “Her Letter” through the New Orleans, gospel settings of “The Job is Never Done” to the straightforward jump blues of “27 Dollars”, harking back to KC Douglas’ “Mercury Blues”, with the theme of buying a Coupe De Ville at all costs. Other highlights include the uptempo rock of “Hold Back”, hinting at the driving Seventies sound of Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band and the album’s closing song “Keep the Faith, Have Some Fun”, which is simply structured, but throws in everything, including Latin horns and gospel call and response vocals.

“Blue Sky” covers most of the blues spectrum from dark, swampy Southern blues to uptempo horn-driven Latin-tinged blues. It’s a collection of great players working together to make great music with a strong political agenda, led by a charismatic and committed frontman. Give it a listen.

“Blue Sky” is out in the UK now on Put Together Music (PTM-00008).

If you want reference points for “Pigeon and the Crow”, I’d go for something between “Sweet Baby James” and “Graceland”. It has the simple, laid-back feel of James Taylor and the experimental rhythms and instrumentation of Paul Simon’s classic. There’s a lot going on, but it never feels cluttered or claustrophobic. There’s something that sets this album apart from the two classics, and it’s the lyrical invention of Nels Andrews’ songs, which are mostly allegorical and metaphorical rather than following straight-line narratives and it makes for a very interesting mixture. It’s a compulsive and beguiling set of songs. And before we move away from the comparisons, you could say that there are hints of Jackson Browne, and Nels’ voice at times sounds a lot like Ian (or Iain) Matthews at the time he was trying to crack the American market in the seventies.

The press pack for the album contains a lyric sheet for the album (it’s in the album packaging as well), but also a very helpful set of writer’s notes for each song, which share the sort of detail you would never pick up on otherwise. “The Lion’s Jaws” is based on the story of an in-law who, at one time, was the only Jewish lion-tamer in history, which is an interesting coincidence, given that Scottish singer-songwriter Dean Owens (recently reviewed here) has also written about a not-too-distant ancestor who was a lion-tamer.

To get some idea of the musical variety of the album, you only need to take a look at the credits. There are thirteen musicians involved and a list of fourteen instruments (not including the many under the umbrella of percussion) from various musical traditions including kora, steel pan, harmonium and flute; it’s not just a lot of instruments, it’s a lot of musical styles melding together seamlessly by producer, flautist and singer Nuala Kennedy.

Highlights? The title song’s hard to beat, with its supernatural love story theme and its lilting Gaelic feel; the opener “Scrimshaw” in triple time and with mid-life memories of happiness and regrets is a perfect evocation of the singer-songwriter genre, and the slightly rockier “Table by the Kitchen” is a fiddle-led, fear-of-missing-out anthem satirising the me generation. What remains in the memory when you reach the end of the album, is the sheer variety of musical settings used to project these songs and support Nels’ mellifluous voice and the way that none of it seems out of place.

“Pigeon and the Crow” is out now.