Here’s a few more of Allan’s pictures from 2021. These ones were all shot in conditions that weren’t particularly suitable for gig photography, but we’ll let Allan tell you all about that.

It’s probably my most over-used phrase – “I like a challenge”. It’s code for “How am I going to get a usable image in these conditions?” My answer is usually “shapes and shadows”. All of the images here were shot in venues with similar challenges. In fact, three of them were shot in the same venue, The Crypt at St Martin in the Fields, just off Trafalgar Square at a new series of events, Jazz Lates and Folk Lates promoted by Talentbanq. Along with usual problems of low lighting levels and cabaret seating, The Crypt has another problem; the huge pillars which hold up the church. Sightlines aren’t very good at all and when people are for a view of the stage, it’s not good etiquette for a photographer to block that view. Anyway, on with the show.

James Sayer @ St Martin in the Fields 06/10/21

After grabbing a few average performance shots, I started to look around for something a little bit different and stumbled across an idea while trying get a full band landscape format shot. Looking at the shot on the camera screen, it was suddenly obvious that the subject was the building itself and the band on the stage was just context. The penny had dropped and all I had to do was find the right viewpoint to capture the symmetry and the sense of perspective created by the receding arches. All that was left to crop to a square format to create a nice atmospheric shot.

Iago Banet @ The Old Joinery  04/09/21 Iago’s a good friend and brilliant Galician finger-style guitar player (he’s a great rock player as well), so when he invited me along to his headlining show at The Old Joinery in September this year it was a no-brainer. The performance space is in a cellar (my theme tune this year should be “Going Underground”, which wouldn’t be a bad thing) and has the classic combination of cabaret seating and low-level lighting, which isn’t always in helpful colours. Usual story, grab a few shots where things look about right and start to look around for a new angle to create something a bit different. I’m a big fan of looking away from front and centre for interesting things going on. It worked; on the wall behind the stage, was a shadow that was recognisable as Iago, apparently stealing his beer. An interesting image and one that we still have a laugh about.

Tom Holder @ St Martin in the Fields 17/11/21

Another night in The Crypt and I’m thinking of changing my name to Bobby ‘Boris’ Pickett. After the successful launch of the monthly Jazz Lates, Talentbanq launched Folk Lates with the brilliant Dunwells supported by Hollie Rogers and Tom Holder. I’ve photographed Hollie and Tom loads of times and they’re great photographic subjects on stage, but the usual challenges apply. So get a few usable shots and find something a novel. Tom was particularly badly lit at the side of the stage and after a couple of circuits of the room and backstage, the realization hit me. Tom has very distinctive hair and a shot from behind the stage with Tom lit from the front would work. I think it did, and it also highlight the architecture of the building.

Jackson Mathod Pizza Express Dean Street 16/09/21

Pizza Express has a long-standing reputation for live music, particularly at this branch in Soho and I was particularly happy to be invited along by So Live Sessions to shoot an evening featuring jazz trumpeter Jackson Mathod. There are many things that make the venue congenial for music fans; the intimacy, the low lighting and good food. The waiting staff are incredibly efficient. Combine that with the venue’s intimacy and you find that every time you find a square foot to shoot from, you’re dodging 80 mph Margheritas coming from all sides. I like a challenge. Looking around for some context to help create something a bit different, I discovered a mural that had potential. After a bit of shuffling around and high-speed pizza avoidance, I found an angle and this was the result.

The Tom Seals Band @ St Martin in the Fields 03/11/21

Back in The Crypt again and the same challenges as above. The sax player in the Tom Seals Band (and I’m sorry but I didn’t get his name) was standing in the same place as Tom Holder did two weeks later but this time the lighting was a very Miles Davis/John Coltrane kind of blue. It took a while to realise that that the contrast meant that I wouldn’t get the player let perfectly but that I could create a decent moody silhouette from it that would have a jazz feel. It needed a bit of work at the editing stage, but I was pleased with the end result.

I See Hawks in LA’s album “On Our Way” was released in the autumn of 2021 and it was a big favourite with The Riot Squad. Here we get the band’s take on some of the positives of 2021.

Well, you know, you need the lows to know you’re high.  So here’s a shoutout to 2020, for letting us know just how low low is.  And thus appreciate this year’s cherished High Fives, to wit:

1. The love and appreciation for our new release “On Our Way,” from critics, DJs, fans, friends.  The reviews are so beautifully written, full of insight, and reveal things we didn’t even consider.  (Music Riot’s piece is great.)  The album was a plague informed foray into unknown sonic/psychic territory for us simple Californians.  We released it into the world as an eccentric and moody child.  But now we see the colors.  A band needs the world’s reaction to know where they stand, how well they communicated.  It’s our lifeblood and our guide.

2. The Road.  Praise be, we got a taste of the road this fall, re-entry into mini touring, a delightful jolt–back on Planet Human and its parking lots and back doors, Northern California and the Carolinas, baristas and The Mission, Waffle House, dairy country gazebo stage, WNCW, Charlotte dream backyard, East Bay Red Meat afternoon love fest, Appalachian barn in the rain, hippie rebirth in the healing wise woods fest-uh-vuhl!!  We love you all and you know who you are.

3. The people who kept humankind alive.  Health care workers, 12 hour shift delivery and big rig drivers, food growers and distributors, field workers, and the millions we can’t even be aware of.  They risked it all,  many gave their lives, and hey, very few are properly compensated.  Here’s to unionization, real wages, and the collapse of the oligarchy that keeps billions under its thumb while sending themselves into space. 

Amazon Cuts Workers’ $2 Hazard Pay As Coronavirus Continues Spread (businessinsider.com)

4. Brantley Kearns.  A country fiddler like Miles Davis was a jazz trumpet player, spilling way over the banks of convention.  Brantley hails from High Point, NC, where he learned real deal fiddling for dances, mastering old timey and bluegrass repertoire and high lonesome vocals.  And of course headed straight for Berkeley in the 1960s, immersed himself in the counter culture, played with Jerry Garcia and the psychedelic luminaries, which jams and encounters led to musical partnerships with David Bromberg, Dwight Yoakam, Billy Joe Shaver, and may we modestly include? I See Hawks In L.A.  Brantley played with us for years and we’re happy to have him back at his most avant garde on our new release.  Here’s a rare 1985 Houston concert film of Dwight Yoakam’s seminal band, lo fi but a good dose of Brantley: 

We just discovered this gem, a 1975 Good Old Boys live release with Brantley, Jerry Garcia on erratic but occasionally brilliant bluegrass banjo, and Frank Wakefield, madman of the mandolin:  

GOOD OLD BOYS LIVE – Bluegrass Unlimited

5. Northeast Los Angeles.  Hey, we didn’t budge from this sweltering foothills backwater during the plague, and it wasn’t so bad.  Good coffee and food were to be had in safety conscious joints, people embraced walking, bike riding, and the non material side of life, mask compliance amongst  locals hit 100% (eventually), and we froze our covid numbers.  If money doesn’t warp the demographics further, this is a funky multicultural slice of heaven. 

Highland Park: One of Los Angeles’ First Suburbs | KCET

It constantly amazes me that I’m taking pictures of musicians doing their thing on stage. It’s something I love doing and takes precedence over anything else that might be going on in my life. It was a huge blow when lockdown was eventually announced in March 2020. We all knew it was coming, but it took a while to sink in properly. I was lucky in that I got to a few outdoor socially-distanced gigs in 2020 (including a Georgia Crandon gig on the coldest night of the year in December). So when things started to open up again in the summer of 2021, I was desperate to get back into action.

Rebecca Riedtmann @The Sound Lounge 30/06/21

This was a gig that should have happened in December 2020, when Rebecca was heavily pregnant but actually took place on June 30th this year and was her baby daughter’s first gig. There was enforced distancing and mask-wearing but it was still a proper indoor gig at the wonderful Sound Lounge in Sutton. You could sense that everyone in the audience was excited to hear live music again and Daisy Clark (who had played at the G7 summit in Cornwall) played a well-received support set. Rebecca and her band, as ever, looked like they were having a lot of fun. No signs of rustiness and many signs of a group of people who have a solid professional and personal bond doing what they love doing. The response to a storming set was heightened by the anticipation of the audience that had been starved of the live experience for fifteen months. Big shout out as well to Hannah and Keiron at the Sound Lounge for all of the work they put in to keeping venue alive. The shot above was from the soundcheck.

FAERS @The O2 Academy2 Islington 20/08/21 When I told my friend Al Stuart, a great gig photographer, that I’d been shooting at the venue, he asked if the gig was in The Desmond. I was puzzled until I worked out that upstairs at the O2 is known as Academy 2. Bit of a change in the rules for this one – evidence of full vaccination was required, but masks inside weren’t mandatory and no distancing was observed. It was also sold out. Honestly, I was a bit uncomfortable with that. Problem solved – although it’s a fairly small room, it has a pretty wide photo pit to accommodate the one photographer on that night – me. While everyone in the audience got up close and personal, I stayed in the photo pit to shoot ORDERS, Bandit and then the headliners FAERS. As a contrast to Rebecca’s Americana gig, this was a full-on indie rock gig; noisy, sweaty and crammed to the rafters. Great fun to watch from my sanctuary in a spacious photo pit. The night was completed when Stephen Anderson-Howard of FAERS jumped into the pit, climbed up the barrier and leaned over into the crowd creating the shot above this paragraph. Proper gig photography.

Dean Owens & The Southerners @Green Note

The first gig of Dean Owens’ last tour was March 13th 2020 in Edinburgh. The second was almost eighteen months later at Green Note in Camden on September 1st 2021. Again, there were sensible restrictions in place to ensure that Green Note (with a very small team of staff) wasn’t put temporarily out of business by the dreaded COVID ping – fill in an online form, provide proof of vaccination and take a lateral flow test within the twenty-four hours before the gig. I was happy with all of that (although some customers weren’t too chuffed). Dean and his two compadres Jim Maving (guitar and backing vocals) and Tom Collison (keys, electric bass and backing vocals) were totally up for the much-delayed gig and a great night was had by the restricted and socially-distanced audience. If you get a chance to see any of these guys, take it. They’re all great musicians and lovely people. And Dean’s songs are uniformly superb.

Various – Leek Blues and Americana Festival 30/09/21-03/10/21

I have a bit of history with Leek (the one in Staffordshire, not the Netherlands). I worked there for about two years in the mid-1990s and loved the experience. I was an outsider in a small, fairly remote town and I was made to feel very welcome. A few years ago Music Riot’s northern correspondent and very old friend of mine, Steve Jenner, moved to Leek and, in 2018, invited me to this festival. I took the cameras along on the off chance. It worked out because in 2019 I was back there as official guest photographer. If you want to know what that means, it means getting up on a Saturday morning to go and shoot the kids’ matinee performance (which was great fun) among other things. Obviously the 2020 festival didn’t happen but I was raring to go for 2021 and I wasn’t disappointed. The festival is mainly free events in pubs in the town centre (and there are a lot of pubs in Leek town centre) and paid events in The Foxlowe Arts Centre and other performance spaces. The whole thing is put together by volunteers who are, without exception, lovely people and total musicheads. I absolutely love it and always block out the start of October in the calendar every year. This year was quite strange in that I met up with a few people that I know from the London scene, which was all a bit strange, as well as all of the people I now know in Leek. I recommend it to anyone as a great mix of local and international artists. The shot above is the incredible Ian Siegal performing in The Foxlowe as Saturday night joint headliner.

The Black Mamba and Ru @Union Chapel 23/11/21

There were virtually no COVID restrictions by this time (and the ones still in place were being largely ignored). I’m still wearing a mask in enclosed spaces but, towards the end of November, I was in a minority. I was at the gig to photograph Ru, who was doing a short support set for her Portuguese compatriots The Black Mamba, who represented Portugal at Eurovision. Don’t let that put you off; they’re a seriously funky band. Also, I’ll grab any opportunity to shot at Union Chapel; it’s such a lovely venue. The shot above is Ru during her set. It was a special night, but the icing on the cake was guest performances during The Black Mamba set by Bumi Thomas and Omar.

There are a couple more honourable mentions as well. The second High Tide Festival in Twickenham, organised and curated by Eel Pie Records (big shouts out to Phil, Kevin and Lucy). The weather was perfect and there was a great selection of artists on the main stage and in various locations around the town centre. A great day out. There was also a lovely night curated by Success Express (thank you Lorraine Solomons) at Servant Jazz Quarters in Dalston. Five very different artists played short but powerful sets on the night. Si Connelly, KT Wild, Russell Jamie Johnson and Lina Stalyte were wonderful but the night belonged to Cloudy Galvez who made her first live appearance since a long COVID diagnosis in 2020. It’s great to see her back on stage again. And it’s always good to end on a high note.

Photo by Matthew Gilson

Confusingly, there are two Steve Dawsons on the Americana scene, both very highly regarded and both featured on Music Riot at various times. This Steve Dawson is the one from Chicago and member of Dolly Varden and Funeral Bonsai Wedding whose powerful album “At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” was reviewed here earlier this year. Here are some of the things that made 2021 a good year for Steve.

For me personally 2021 was a peak year. A project I’d been working on for over 3 years was released as “At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree,” and very well received. The contrast of my good fortune with so much loss and hardship in the world due to the pandemic was sobering and clarifying. I do think (hope) that the pandemic and the uncertainty it caused has made people more grateful for the things that matter, and that includes live music and connection. Here’s a few things that I am grateful for in 2021.

Waxahatchee singing Dolly Parton’s, “Light of A Clear Blue Morning” This came out in 2020 but I started listening to it in the spring of 2021 and it was the perfect song to slowly emerge from the nightmares of the Trump era and lockdown. I taught online guitar and songwriting classes during the lockdown and sang this version of this song with them all. It was healing. Katie Crutchfield’s voice on this track is otherworldly.

The long-delayed release concert for my album from 2020, “Last Flight Out,” at the Old Town School of Folk Music, Chicago
I recorded an album called “Last Flight Out” with my folk-jazz group, Funeral Bonsai Wedding, that featured the Quartet Parapluie String Quartet in 2019 and it was released in May, 2020, at the height of the pandemic. The release concert for the record had to be rescheduled four times. This past October we finally were able to do the show and for many it was the first live event they’d been to in over 18 months. I’ve never experienced a show that was that cathartic for the audience and musicians together and I don’t know that I will ever again.

Pravda Records

My new album, “At the Bottom of A Canyon In the Branches Of A Tree,” was released on a legendary Chicago indie label called Pravda Records. I couldn’t be happier to be a part of their roster of artists. Thank you Kenn, Melissa and Sheila!!

Bandcamp

Bandcamp really shines in the online music world. They really showed up for indie musicians by creating “Bandcamp Friday” on the first Friday of each month since the pandemic began – by waiving their share and having the artists and labels get all the income. In a world enamored by the greed of Spotify and Amazon, Bandcamp is a miracle.

Kath and Kim Diane and I were introduced to this super wacky Australian sitcom from the early 2000’s by a friend and now we can’t stop watching it and quoting lines back to each other. “Look at moy, look at moy, look at moy…”

It’s time to introduce a visual element to this year’s High Fives. We like to have interesting photos as part of this feature and Allan’s managed to make the most of the times when live music was on offer this year. As we emerged from serial lockdowns, al fresco music was the first to break out and Allan was there to capture it.

I was desperate to photograph live performers as we eased our way out of the lockdowns this year and Talentbanq gave me that opportunity with a series of outdoor gigs at Eccleston Yards in Victoria. Four of these shots are from that venue and the fifth is from a festival in Parsloes Park in Dagenham. Here are the shots, with a bit of background information.

Erin Bowman @Eccleston Yards

Erin’s an American singer-songwriter who has a great knowledge of the classic American rock catalogue. She ended her set at Eccleston Yards in June with her version of the Bob Seger Classic “Against the Wind”, which happens to be one of my favourite songs. Here she is, giving it absolutely everything.

Brooke Lawrence @Eccleston Yards Brooke is one of my 2021 discoveries. This was the first time I saw her perform. She did this as a solo acoustic gig and I saw her a few weeks later with a full band doing the whole rock star thing. She’s going all the way.

Sadie Horler @ Eccleston Yards I first photographed Sadie 5 years ago when she supported Sound of the Sirens at Bush Hall. She has a fabulous smile but she also has a rock star look with the hair and the shades. That was what I was trying to capture here; I think I just about got away with it.

Logan J Parker @Eccleston Yards

Gig photographers always want to get the big shot. On this day, I had a plain white backdrop to work with (which was good) but everything was looking a bit monochrome. Georgia Crandon was still blonde at the time and was wearing a black top. Joe Slater wore a white t-shirt. They both looked great but there was no colour. Maybe Logan J Parker would be different. Logan turned up and she was wearing a white dress. My disappointment at that evaporated when she opened her guitar case to reveal a cherry-red Gretsch guitar. I emphasised the colour contrast by dialling down all the colours apart from red and managed to grab a shot where Logan was using the tremolo bar. One of my favourite shots of 2021.

Amy from Nova Twins @Becontree 100

This gig was just a bus ride away from my home and I really wanted to see Nova Twins again. I’d photographed them five years before in Dalston and I’d followed their career since that time. They’re smashing it. I could have picked any one of a dozen shots of Amy or Georgia from this set but this one captured something a bit special.

Photo by Allan Mckay

It’s that time of year again; time for the ninth edition of the Music Riot High Fives. It’s been another difficult year for everyone involved in making music but that hasn’t stopped the flow of creative juices. Apart from the positive takeaways Rod describes below, he also released a great album in September of this year and had plans to tour the UK until travel restrictions brought it to a grinding halt. Let’s hope it happens in 2022. In the meantime, here’s Rod’s thoughtful look back at some of the positives to come from 2021.

The Dad Reports

 With the passing of my mother in April of 2020 I started writing out my nightly conversations with my father. He is eighty-one and an authentic northern New England character. I write only his part of the conversation and write it out phonetically so that readers can hear his voice as they read. Here is one of The Dad Reports:

The Dad Report:

“So, it was pretty cold and cloudy but they said it was gonna warm up so I waited for my walk. Bandit stays behind me till I get ‘bout halfway ‘round the bird path then Christ he takes off and when he sees the house he’s runnin’ like crazy and he beats me back and he’s waitin’ at the doah. So I says, Jesus I gotta vacuum this place. So I vacuumed the whole house, top to bottom. Got all that damn cat hair up of the sofa. Guess what? The cat started sleeping with me. I get up the othah day and I says “what the hell is that?” It was the cat. Sleeping right up against me. Been doing it every night since. I don’t care long as it don’t do that pawing. It’s funny. I go up, she follows me up. I go down she follows me down. Bandit’s not scratching like he was so I guess that spray worked. I had to do a load of whites and a load of dahks. So I loaded up the dahks first. Got them in the dryer then I says I’m gonna take a ride to Williamsport then I come out on sixteen down by four corners, went back through Milo. I says I’m gonna stop and get a sausage egg and cheese on a English muffin. It was pretty good and the best thing was there was only ‘bout foah people in Tradewinds and I was the only one at Dunkin’ Donuts. Then I went home and switched the laundry and haint done nothin’ since really, but I was glad to get the cat hair offah the couch. No games tonight. Green Bay won last night. I love you. I’ll talk to you tomorrow. You have a good night…”

The Strand Theatre This is a beautifully restored theatre in Lakewood NJ. I’ve played there many times over the years but this year was particularly special. Aside from online shows, I hadn’t played a show in eighteen months. I usually play between one and two hundred shows each year, so these last eighteen months have upended a career I’ve scratched and clawed for. Playing for an audience is the most alive I feel as I walk through my time on this rock. The Strand show was my re-entry after a very long time. The audience was magic. I nervously worked through the first song, heard that applause, threw the lyric sheet on the floor and I was gone – transported to that magical place that can exist between a performer and audience when the air is right. There is nothing like it that I’ve experienced. I’ll always remember this show. It was pure magic for nearly two hours. We were all one.

Listeners And so, what to do with my time as Covid closed the world down? All of my shows were gutted in one single day. Weeks of planning dissipated into thin air. After wringing my hands for a few weeks, I knew I needed to do something, but what that thing would be was outside my vision. Then an epiphany. What would I like to have from my own favorite artists? The answer came quick. I would love for Patty Griffin, Steve Earle, Bruce Springsteen or Jason Isbell to sit down and record a handful of songs just for me. I’d like them to talk to me as they recorded, to feel that profound connection and feel it in my bones – to know that this was my album. What an amazing thing that would be? So that’s what I did. I had no idea how on point I was. I anticipated maybe twenty or thirty folks to be interested enough. It was an expensive price tag because each recording had to be performed one at a time, mastered, printed onto a CD then mailed out – all by my own hand. By the end of the first week, I had more orders than I had time. It was a glorious experience. Most of the folks I recorded for, I at least knew a bit, so it was incredibly fun as well as very hard work. It was a project that kept my head above water and simultaneously kept that personal connection to my listeners. There were glitches and great performances. One day my eighty-year-old father started his chainsaw right outside the window. It all went onto the recording. If I screwed up a song, I simply played it again. Each person received whatever happened while I was recording – all on one long track. My listeners saved me.

My Father We were not particularly close when I was a child. I was a bit of a misfit, uninterested in his world of hunting and fishing, football and dirty jokes. I was a reader, drawn to the arts, incredibly shy and uncomfortable in my own skin. He was a man’s man; easy with cars, tools and the things of the masculine world. My world was my inner world. My father’s world was in his hands and the things he did. I lived inside my head. My mother was a notoriously bad gift giver. She gave me a giant plywood rabbit as a wedding gift and few years ago a stack of used heavy metal guitar magazines for Christmas. It made no difference to me and in fact I found it comical. It was astounding how far from the bullseye she could land with a gift. She’d give a diabetic a cake. When she passed on there was no one at the ready to help my father through the maze of legal issues that inevitably come with death and so I stepped in. I drove twenty-four hours straight to get to him in rural Maine. Then I methodically rounded up the issues to resolve and went through them one by one. I don’t wish this task on anyone. At one point I realized my father needed me. It wasn’t just a matter of helping him. He was utterly lost without my mother and needed me to take care of these things and the universe shifted. My mother’s final gift to me – was my father. Now, I split my time between flashy Nashville Tennessee and dire Brownville Maine. We walk every day. We watch football. He repeats the weather report the weatherman just reported two minutes earlier and I listen. Everyone needs someone to listen.

The Vaccine We all waited…and waited. I am in the firm grasp of middle age but it took time for my date of birth to be eligible. The roll out of the vaccine was not perfect, but in hindsight it was an impressive effort. I know this issue is rife with controversy. Covid continues its cruel march forward after we all hoped the vaccine would take it out at the knees and we would return to normal. It was not to be – as my own cancelled U.K. tour informed me. It was simply too soon and there were too many variables. The protocols seemed to change daily. I will, however, never forget the feeling of getting that first injection. Hope. It was hope that rang through my head. With the second dose an enormous relief and sense of gratitude overwhelmed me for all the people it took to make it happen. From the doctors and scientists to the volunteers who stuck arms all day long, day after day, to the old man directing traffic at the Nashville site, it was pure gratitude. We’re not there yet. But there is hope. Somewhere out there someone is working sixteen hours a day for that silver bullet. And we hope.

This isn’t so much an obituary as an appreciation of a great player and arranger who didn’t necessarily get the credit from the public for everything that he put into the success of UB40. RIP Brian Travers.

Saturday February 16th 1980 was another one of those musical epiphanies. The university circuit was a crucial part of the plan to break new bands and Dundee University Students’ Association was part of that circuit. We booked acts that went on to be huge for ridiculous money (Tom Robinson Band at £250); I didn’t know how lucky I was until I graduated and didn’t have access to those gigs any more. This particular night was going to be good; we had The Pretenders headlining. They had already had three hit singles, including “Brass in Pocket” which went all the way to the top. I loved the album and couldn’t wait to see them, but I had a big surprise coming.

The Pretenders had a very black and white thing going on at that time (apart from Chrissie Hynde’s red leather jacket) and the overall vibe was studied cool. I’d heard the buzz about the support and was curious to hear them live. I’d been a fan of reggae and ska through my teenage years, but it was a whole new ball game when the UK-based bands started to break through, so UB40 looked interesting with double A-side single “King”/”Food for Thought” to be released imminently. From the opening seconds I was completely blown away.

The contrast with The Pretenders couldn’t have been greater. It was a laid-back and monochrome four-piece rock band against an eight-piece reggae band in riotous colour with a huge desire to succeed. UB40 really wanted it and they had political messages they wanted us to hear as well. There was something going on wherever you looked and you couldn’t take your eyes of the stage. Brian Travers was a player who defined the band’s sound, playing melodica (not unusual in reggae at the time) and tenor sax (a bit more unusual). “Food for Thought” was built around an incredibly catchy sax hook that you couldn’t ignore. I was instantly converted, bought the album “Signing Off” when it was released and the follow-up “Present Arms”, which had a harder musical and political edge. I even took a chance on trains over Christmas to go to a gig at Birmingham International Arena where the other acts on the bill were Elvis Costello, Rockpile, Squeeze, Madness and The Selecter. I saw the band a few more times over the years, including the 2010 “Signing Off” thirtieth anniversary tour, but I only really understood the importance of Brian Travers to the band when I photographed them at Cornbury Festival in 2018.

There were now two versions of UB40; this one was fronted by Duncan Campbell as singer. I know I’m not the only one to make this observation; this looked like a band that were taking the big payouts while they still could with phoned-in performances, with one exception. Brian Travers was on fire; he didn’t just play well, he was a showman who was working really hard to sell a package that was way past its sell-by date and mired in controversy and bitterness and just about succeeding. I didn’t envy him that job but he gave it everything. Brian Travers was still the livewire performer that I saw thirty-eight years earlier in Dundee; that’s how I’ll remember him.

He died on August 23rd after a long battle with cancer.

The Guardian published an article a couple of weeks ago by Tim Burgess of The Charlatans about the state of the music business in the light of Brexit, streaming and downloads. It’s an interesting read as far as it goes and it set the cogs whirring about why we got here, where we go next and will it be better or worse, or just different.

In my lifetime, the music business has been turned upside down. In the seventies, bands went out on tour to build up a following and to promote singles and albums, which is where the real money was. If you’ve survived this long and remember all this, bear with me, it’s worth getting some historical context. No internet, no mobile phones, only three TV channels and (until October 1973) no commercial radio. So you were left with the pirates like Caroline and the erratic reception of overseas stations like Luxembourg to let you know about new music. And the music press…

Every week I bought the NME, Melody Maker and Sounds and my paper round meant I could sneak a look at Blues & Soul and Disc/Disc and Music Echo as well. By 1973, with a bar job and a Saturday job with an entertainment agent booking acts for local pubs and clubs, I had a few bob to spend on some of the music I was reading about. Add the cost of my print habit to the cost of buying an album (about five percent of the average weekly wage in the mid-seventies) and being into music was a real financial commitment (even if you took the risk of doing a few temporary swaps with your mates to dip into their choices).

Buying music in the seventies wasn’t just an investment in listening to a piece of music. You exchanged your hard-earned (cash of course) for something physical that you carried home in a bag before lowering it on to the turntable, gently caressing the vinyl with the stylus and waiting for a glorious noise to erupt from the speakers. But let’s just rewind that a few minutes. If you bought an album and you were taking public transport home, you had the chance to look at the album artwork as well. A good album sleeve was so much more than a bit of on-shelf advertising; a twelve-inch square format created opportunities for quality photography and graphic design to enhance the musical content of the package. When it worked, it was an extra visual dimension to a piece of aural art:

Dark Side of the Moon – Artwork by Hipgnosis

When it didn’t, it looked a lot like this (which proves that you can’t get it right all the time):

Tormato – Artwork by Hipgnosis

The gatefold sleeve doubled up the visual real estate (exploited perfectly on Thin Lizzy’s “Live and Dangerous” double album with a shedload of Chalkie Davies pics all over the outer and inner sleeves of the album):

Designers started to exploit die-cut sleeves and all sorts of interesting innovations; PiL’s “Metal Box” looked really clever, but only if you hadn’t seen The Small Faces’ “Nut Gone Flake” packaging twelve years earlier.

The visuals were only part of the album experience; you could get a lot of text on a sleeve, particularly if you had a printed inner sleeve or three as well. There was all the obvious geek stuff; musicians involved, instruments played (or not played if you were Queen) and lyric sheets, but some bands made a real effort; UB40’s cover for the first album “Signing Off” in 1980 was a copy of the unemployment benefit attendance card, they’d been filling in before they broke through. Ten years later, Squeeze released a live album with a boxing concept, “A Round and A Bout” with a little bonus – they listed every gig they’d done between 1974 and 1990 on an insert with the album. Thanks guys, you’ve no idea how useful that’s been to me over the years. Seriously.

I’m sure you get the message by now. During the first vinyl era, the experience was about much more than just listening to the music. You could carry an album around at school as a sign of your taste and discernment and to impress the other gender (I pitied the guys who carried Groundhogs and Genesis albums, but that’s Darwinism for you). It was a bit like creating a mixtape a few years later and a playlist many years later. Or drinking bottled designer lager in the eighties. If you were a fan of music in the seventies or eighties you were committed and attached to it; it had a financial and emotional value. And it had a longer lifespan; since the mid-nineties, the norm is for singles and albums to achieve their highest chart position in the first week of release, but fifty years ago the climb to the top of the charts could take weeks (and probably a few bulk purchases in chart return shops to help it along).

This isn’t a dewy-eyed, rose-tinted trip down memory lane. The seventies and eighties weren’t perfect; the music business was still a business, but it was one where labels invested in bands with a view to development over several years. A moderately successful band writing their own material could make a living for a few years with royalties on sales, radio, juke box and club plays and independent labels were few and far between. Things are a bit more polarised these days; the business only supports guaranteed winners and everyone else has to do their own thing. Time for a bit of a polemic: the technology that enabled the digital revolution degraded our experience of music. Listening to compressed audio on inadequate playback systems is the norm for most people now, despite the vinyl comeback, and the majority of listeners don’t pay any attention to artwork, credits or sleeve notes. We’ve walked blindfold into accepting a gradual erosion of the musical experience in the name of progress and fashion. We also have at least one generation that doesn’t believe in physical musical formats and certainly doesn’t believe in paying for them.

Fortunately the same digital technology that devalued music by making no-degradation copying possible, then compression, along with affordable storage and massive improvements in internet bandwidth, have enabled affordable home recording. Technological improvements cut both ways and musicians are a resourceful bunch; if you can’t get a deal with a major label, what have you lost? You don’t need access to a studio; you can set up at home. You don’t need access to a major label’s mastering and pressing facilities; you can find any number of those online. You don’t need a distribution network; you can load your music up to download and streaming services and make peanuts, or you can sell CDs and albums on your website by mail order and alongside other merchandise at your gigs.

In normal times, this isn’t a bad business model; you might be able to stay afloat if you have another job, have good merchandise to sell on tour, or both. And along comes lockdown; no gigs and no pop-up shop opportunities. I wish I could honestly say that I recommended live streams, but it’s not for me; I really miss the eye contact and (selfishly) I miss the opportunity to take pictures at gigs. If it works for you, that’s great; enjoy it and make a contribution; I’ll be waiting for the moment when live music re-emerges after this terrible disease is brought under control.

Me, I’ll continue to avoid the mainstream by buying (in order of preference) vinyl or CDs directly from artists’ websites, from independent record shops and at gigs. Two people I know have opened vinyl shops in the last few years and both are succeeding despite the current trading situation; long may they continue.

And that resourcefulness and creativity that musicians always demonstrate wasn’t going to be stifled by any number of lockdowns; no way. All of those skills developed and equipment bought to set up home studios have been subtly repurposed to enable musicians to collaborate by sharing audio and video files online. I don’t know any musicians who see this as an ideal situation, but, like solitaire, it’s the only game in town. After nearly a year and millions of audio files bouncing around the internet, albums that were in progress have been completed remotely and albums have been conceived, gestated and born. It doesn’t matter how difficult you make life for musicians (or artists generally), they will always find an outlet.

Whenever we reach the new normal, whatever that may be, spend your money in a way that benefits the people making the music you love. Buy physical copies of music either directly from bands or from independent record stores – there are loads of them. Most importantly, get yourself out to as many gigs as possible. I’ll see you at the front.

Ray Jones – CEO Talentbanq

Today’s High Five contribution is from someone who’s had a huge impact on the independent music scene in London over the last few years. As Business Development Director at Time Out he hosted the Time Out Rising Stars events at various London venues including Jazz Café and 229 The Venue, showcasing new talent and creating great nights out. After leaving Time Out, Ray became CEO of the start-up enterprise Talentbanq whose mission is promote and represent independent musical talent in London. Talentbanq was launched officially three years ago at 229 The Venue and has been promoting artists and events around London to critical acclaim (and full houses) ever since. Until COVID hit in March 2020. We all know the impact the virus has had on live music over the last ten months, despite the best efforts of Ray and some of the people mentioned in his contribution. Here’s Ray’s thank you to some of the people promoting grassroots music:

Thanking Champions of Grassroots Live Music Scene

At this extraordinarily difficult time I wanted to give a High Five to just a few of the people who champion the grassroots live music scene.

I have to start with Immy and Risa at The Green Note. This Camden hideout is beyond special. The tiny stage, the slightly higgledy-piggledy furnishings, the totally bonkers second tiny venue in the basement, the bifold toilet door and just about everything about the place. It’s all magic – especially the music. Immy and Risa are custodians of authenticity.

Perhaps the only thing wrong with The Green Note is that it’s not a short walk to The Spiritual Bar.

Raphael Pesce has truly created a spiritual home for musicians. This is a place for kindred spirits to meet. It’s a safe space with a small stage where audiences go to listen, to discover, to adore.

Next I’m heading south of the river. To Balham in fact, where Tony Moore provides one of the best stages in Britain for rising talent. Tony is a legend – and not just because of his history with Iron Maiden and Cutting Crew. No, it’s because he knows more about promoting live music than most on the planet. To talk with him is humbling – and to present a show at the recently refurbished Bedford is such a buzz.

Tony Moore

I want to give mention to special people who each deserve their own paragraphs but I think these high fives are meant to be brief.  Kate Jones ( Busk London ) Vin Goodwin ( Big Night In ) , Harriett JW ( Secret Sessions ) , Katie Smith ( Front Room Songs ) , Neil March ( Fresh on the Net ) Kate Bond ( This is Wired ) Ian Forteau ( So-live ) Ilana Lorraine ( Sessions 58) Dom Chung ( Soho House ) Joy Warmann ( Imaginary Millions ) Sep Cole ( Pizza Express ) Karen D’Arcangelo ( Vibe Village ) Alex Kerr-Wilson ( Discovery 2 ) Peter Conway ( Nashville Meets London ) Rob Lewis ( Richer Unsigned ) Beth Keeping ( Write Like a Girl ) Isi and Lewis ( The Round Up ) and Louise Wellby at Jam Sandwich. Apologies to those not listed. It’s not easy remembering stuff during the lockdown !

One lady worthy of special mention is Lorraine Solomons of Success Express. She was first mentioned to me by The Carnabys when I was running Rising Stars at Time Out. Lorraine is a tireless champion and promoter of new music and independent artists. She is a prolific promoter exuding passion and enthusiasm. From Omeara to The Strongroom to The Century Club – Lorraine is there. And where she goes, music goes too. 

Lorraine Solomons

Before writing a book rather than a post I am going to close by saluting the youngsters coming through – and at the same time pay due respect to promoters outside London.

I choose Alice Banister ( and Jake Etches) at Hope Valley Promotions, Manchester.

Watch out for those names. They have energy, ambition and refreshing ideas.

It’s so great to see a new generation of promoters fearlessly coming into a business currently suffering such trauma.

Alice Banister

Live music will return and I hope all of those mentioned above will be there plus a whole army more.

We like Stage Door Guy here at Riot Towers. We had a copy of his latest album in 2020 which arrived just before things got really hectic towards the end of the year and we didn’t have time to get a review out. It’s a cracking album; the production is as raw as it comes, working perfectly with the post-punk/post-blues poetry packed with American musical references and very British lyrical references, particularly to Manchester bands. It’s somewhere between bonkers and brilliant and it spent a long time on the office stereo in November. Stage Door Guy is two people, Adam Brody (performer, writer and singer) and CJ Williams (guitar player) and each of them has shared their High Fives with us.

Adam

Over the last 8 years we have been organising an event called ‘Cocaine for Christmas’ in little basement venues in South East London. Always supported by some of the finest musicians in London. The event is named after our Xmas song we released many years ago (can be found on all streaming sites as can our recently released 2nd album ‘Wroclaw’) and is actually a love song about a broken heart and spending Xmas alone. We always have a packed room full of people singing heir hearts out to this song. It’s sing-a-longa Stage Door Guy. Of course, this year was different. We didn’t believe it would happen and then we got contacted last minute by a local venue, the New Cross Inn. London was in Tier 2. The venue capacity was halved. People seated. Table service. Masks. The staff were amazing. At short notice we got The Nathan Osgood Trio and The Jujubes to play. Two wonderful, wonderful bands. We did our little set and, as ever, it finished with ‘Cocaine for Christmas’ It felt like the whole room needed this sing-song. It felt communal. Everyone in that room of course had taken some risk just by being there. We all had measured that risk but I have never heard the song with so much meaning and passion. I guess at some point during this pandemic all of us have felt alone and isolated. We have all been increasingly atomized and his felt like a communal howl.

CJ

Witnessing Biden win the US election, in the company of friends and an incontinent greyhound with a broken leg. The dog had the broken leg, not me. The dog was also doped up to the eyeballs on painkillers, whereas I was supping champagne.

Adam

 I was lucky enough to have a little break with my partner in Cornwall towards the start of winter. We travelled with our pandemic dog. A Greyhound that my partner had fostered and then adopted from Romford Greyhound kennels. Jackflash was a former racer retired last December 6 wins out of 22 (we found that out from the code tattooed inside his ear). Greyhounds often have difficult lives in the racing world. Jackflash was nervous and wary when we first made his aquaintance. But it was about 4pm, it was cold and we were on a completely deserted beach. Finally, we let Jackflash off the lead!! And the joy of watching that dog tear across the beach was something that will stay with me forever. Unrestrained and absolute in his happiness. After that we sat in an empty restaurant overlooking the beach and momentarily the world felt all right.

CJ

Recording whoops and hollers for a song using a Tascam recorder ‘in the field’. Bunch of us stood in a small park in Forest Hill, safely spaced, and made it sound like a beach party.

Adam

Two albums I have enjoyed over the last year, one of which has made a lot of lists and the other less so (although it was well-received) are Fontaines DC’s, ‘A Hero’s Death’ and Jim Bob’s ‘Pop Up Jim Bob’

I like the vocal delivery and articulation in the Fontaines DC album (odd I know to mention articulation but so many vocalists eat up the lyrics they have spent so long working on) and the Jim Bob album I just find tremendous fun. Looking at the world and reflecting on the fact we might be fucked. It’s political in a world where artists are a little afraid of the political and prefer the personal.

CJ

Being dressed as a tree for the “Stop Your Whining” video. I got many compliments for my portrayal. (See video below)

Adam

For the last 12 months when you leave my partner’s flat you have to slam the door. There seemed to be nothing else that could be done. Sometimes it took 2 or 3 slams. She lives on the 2nd floor of a 3 storey building.and the slamming must have been infuriating for the neighbours. I am not known for my DIY. My brain doesn’t do logic or detail. However, a week or so ago I noticed a little latch on the lock which you have to press in every time you close the door. The slamming stopped. The door closes smoothly. This has been one of my greatest triumphs in life, never mind just this year.

CJ

The annual SDG ‘Cocaine for Christmas’ gig at the New Cross Inn, with everybody singing the lyrics to the song and everybody really feeling it: “It’s cocaine for Christmas, how hard can it be, to find me some solace, and good company…”

Adam

In the first lockdown, in the summer heat, I started reading again in the front yard. I absolutely appreciate the context. Compared with many people who had families to worry about, difficult relationships to deal with, idiot landlords or letting agents (idiot letting agents I have plenty of experience with) and deep financial worries. Within that context I was lucky enough to sit in my front yard, leave the phone switched off and read ‘Small Island’ by Andrea Levy. What an absolute joy – a beautiful and heartfelt tale of the Windrush generation. Sadly, all so relevant in the last few years. Not only was the book a highlight of the year but my concentration began to return. As a child I used to read for hours on end but that had reduced year on year until I was only really capable of reading for 15 minutes in between train and tube journeys in London but now I was reading again for hours. My attention once more returning to a tie before the phone became a master and I became an algorithmic consumer.

CJ

The nicest couple ever who let us rehearse in the basement of their coffee shop, and even let Adam lock up. Amazing kindness.