We asked Allan to come up something a bit different this year and he went all sociological and autobiographical on us before digging into music theory and sexual politics. We find it’s best just to let him get on with it. Here are his not-so-guilty musical pleasures.

You probably already guessed this, but pop culture and pop music fascinate me. The music that you grow up with is part of your identity, it’s part of the uniform of the tribe you belong to or aspire to. I have fairly broad musical tastes and I try to judge artists on merit rather than by which genre or sub-genre they belong to. The roots of those eclectic tastes are in my teenage years in the East Midlands where I grew up on an estate that was built to house an influx of families from Scotland, Wales and the North-east and North-west of England to deal with a labour shortage in the Nottinghamshire coalfields. I passed the Eleven Plus and went to a grammar school with mainly middle-class boys and that’s where my musical schizophrenia started. At home, at the local youth club, I heard lots of singles; Motown, Stax, Northern Soul and a bit of ska. At school I was exposed to albums; rock and prog mainly. There was virtually no overlap; it was all very tribal and each of the groups hated the music of the other group. I loathed my school years but I learned to value music rather than tribal allegiances and that’s never changed.

And that’s a bit of a long-winded way of getting round to today’s theme of songs that I loved (and still do) that weren’t seen as particularly credible at the time. I took flak for loving some of these singles but I didn’t care (and I still don’t). In no particular order.

“Run Baby Run” – The Newbeats

This was originally released in 1964 in the US and was an American hit in 1965 but it was picked up during the Northern Soul era in the UK and was a Top 10 hit in 1971. This was at a time when anything with a four-to-the-floor beat, a BPM over 120 and a vaguely soulful feel would get a speculative release to cash in on the Northern Soul phenomenon. I loved the song, unreservedly, from the first time I heard it. It doesn’t waste any time; two bars of the bass riff and drums, two bars where the riff’s doubled up on over-driven guitar and two bars of the riff reinforced again with the string section before the harmony vocals come in. One of my favourite intros, and there’s even a falsetto vocal to come later as well.

Lyrically, it’s a really simple teen love song. There are no stunning insights there; that’s not the point, it’s a pop song, a great pop song, beefed up by a powerful rock arrangement. They were designed to be catchy but disposable; to be sung or hummed until the next hit came along. “Run Baby Run” bucked that trend by becoming a hit eight years after its original release. Even better, nearly forty years later, the riff resurfaced on “Up the Dosage” on Paul Weller’s 2010 classic, “Wake Up the Nation”. So much for the ephemeral pop tune. I don’t know if all of the UK single pressings were slightly off-centre, but mine is. I bought a Newbeats CD so I could hear a digital version, but I still prefer the analog, even with the slight wowing; it’s more authentic.

“Isn’t It Time” – The Babys

January 1978; punk had run its course, New Wave and Power Pop were still in the gestation period and disco reigned supreme; it was a good time to be a DJ and absolutely the wrong time to release a four-minute single that went through various tempo changes and breakdowns, had strings, brass and backing vocals and featured an androgynous singer in the Bowie mould. The album “Broken Heart” had been released the previous year and, to be fair, the band was probably being aimed at the American market but it was never going to fly in the UK. I’ve been blessed with the awkward gene and I didn’t care about that. “Isn’t It Time” pushed all of my buttons; the lead vocal was stunning, the backing vocals were superb and there was a huge dynamic range, from the quiet piano-backed verses to the gloriously over-the-top chorus with strings, brass, thunderous bass and huge BVs. I’m partial to a bit of overkill now and then and The Babys certainly fulfilled that need in January 1979. I picked up a copy of the album a few years later on a market stall and I still say “Isn’t It Time” was a great single; I can still enjoy it today. Here’s a couple of observations: this widescreen, two kitchen sinks, almost operatic style that would never work was actually the same formula that worked for Meat Loaf and Jim Steinman a few months later. That stunning lead vocal was by a guy called John Waite who, seven years later had a global hit with “Missing You”. Sometimes it takes a while.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” – Graham Bonnet

Released at around the same time as “Broken Heart” was Graham Bonnet’s eponymous solo album. Bonnet had seen modest success as a singer with The Marbles in the late Sixties but had moved into making advertising jingles in the Seventies. The album was the attempt to break into the music business; it was to take a little while.

“It’s All Over Now Baby Blue” was the album’s first single. Bonnet wasn’t renowned as a songwriter and the album’s packed with covers of standards including “Will You Love Me Tomorrow”, “Tired of Being Alone” and “Rock Island Line”. Looking back at it now with a greater knowledge of how the business worked, it was obviously a showcase album covering a variety of styles as part of a longer-term strategy to break through. If you can’t write great songs (and the only Graham Bonnet song on the album definitely isn’t great) then do an interpretation of a Dylan song. Fair play, he did a great job.

It’s a rock treatment of a folk song with a bit of Talk Box lead guitar and a sinew-straining vocal from Bonnet that was later to become his trademark. Again, I fell in love instantly when I heard this on Radio 1. The single did nothing chartwise (except in Australia). The album did even worse but a couple of years later he was singing with Rainbow on “Since You Been Gone” and “All Night Long” and in 1981 he got his solo hit single with “Night Games” and he’s been in and out of rock bands ever since.

“Build Me Up Buttercup” – The Foundations

The Foundations started their career as a soul band. “Baby, Now That I’ve Found You” was a classic piece of early piece of British pop/soul. Following that they were condemned to walk that line between soul credibility and pop success. Like many Sixties bands they had management problems, personnel problems and issues around the production of their songs. “Build Me Up Buttercup” straddles that line between bubblegum pop and soul. It’s catchy and I’m fairly certain it was never intended to be anything other than an ephemeral sixties hit. It didn’t quite work out that way. For me the performance of Colin Young (who replaced the original singer Clem Curtis) elevated the song to classic status. And it’s stuck around; when I was doing a weekly DJ set to a packed 1500-capacity student venue in Canterbury, it was a guaranteed floor-filler with people that were born at least ten years after it charted. You can call it cheese, I’ll say it’s a mature classic.

“I Will Survive” – Gloria Gaynor

This song is a bona fide anthem. When it was released in 1978, it was a bit of a lightning rod for the anti-disco sentiments that were coming from the rock world. Looking at it from a twenty-first century perspective, it wasn’t about the music, it was homophobia pure and simple, and I think I knew that at the time. Disco tracks were being made by hugely gifted musicians (Nile Rodgers is an international treasure now) and they were complex rhythmically and melodically. More importantly, they were hugely popular. A couple of years ago, I looked up the chords to the song. I hadn’t really thought about it before, but I wanted to try an acoustic guitar version of the song. It was a bit of a wake-up moment; the song’s chord progression is circular, moving up in fourths from the tonic chord of A minor and eventually finding its way back there via a few jazz chords. Sorry for the basic music theory, but it just confirmed my gut feeling that the song was a bit special. As for the reaction to the song in the Seventies, two things. I’m Scottish, don’t tell me what I should and shouldn’t like; I love rock music, but I don’t take kindly to homophobia from hairy-arsed rednecks – burning albums isn’t so far from burning books and look where that ended. This is a great song.

If there’s a message in all of this, it’s to be open-minded and respect the musical preferences of others. All the best for 2022.

Sorry if I got a bit carried away with this one.

We reviewed Afton Wolfe’s debut solo album In June 2021 and Allan loved it. “Kings for Sale” covered a wide range of styles and emotions and was one of those pieces that send you to your search engine to seek out more information about the themes covered in the songs. Afton has kindly agreed to share his favourite covers from his shows this year. As you would expect, it’s an interesting list.

Photo by Madison Thorn

2021 has been such a transformative year for me personally, and like so many other folks like me who live to write and perform the Language, it was a chance to get back on stage and make that Connection with people – on and off stage – that I covet so. I write (or discover) songs primarily, and I know that many of my sistren and brethren have different opinions about playing covers, but I personally love playing songs that mean a lot to me and have influenced my search for the Magic Connection of Music. I try to keep it to one or two cover songs per performance, and I don’t typically play standards or wedding songs like Mustang Sally or Margaritaville (though those are both wonderful songs), but I have no reservations about playing others’ songs in general. Like Dylan said, “I’m a song and dance man.” So, for my High Five, I wanted to highlight a few performances of songs I didn’t write (or discover) that were a part of this special year. These are in chronological order I think.

Photo by Lisa Linn Manley

Please Don’t Let Me Be Misunderstood – June 11 – The Lounge at the City Winery, Nashville, Tennessee.

This song, written by Bennie Benjamin, Horace Ott and Sol Marcus for the great Nina Simone, but popularized shortly after by The Animals, is one of the greatest songs ever written – universal lyrical theme, fantastic melodic interplay, and raw, bluesy foundation. I fell in love with Elvis Costello’s version first, before ever hearing Nina Simone’s. My friends and I performed this on the night of the release of my record Kings For Sale. It was a magical night, and this song was one of my favorite moments of the night. The version we ended up with had elements of Nina, Elvis and the Animals, but we really just let the song guide us.

I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.

Photo by Riley McNeel Johnson

Something’s On Your Mind – July 19 – The Basement, Nashville, Tennessee

Written by Dino Valenti, this beautiful song was originally recorded by one of my favorite vocalists, the great Karen Dalton. It is also a favorite of my friends that I play music with, and one day, while driving my dear friend and fantastic violinist Rebecca Weiner Tompkins to a rehearsal, it was playing in the car, and we decided that we should perform it. My voice doesn’t sound anything like Ms. Dalton’s ghostly wail, so we thought it would make a unique performance. I think it did.

I’ve seen the writing on the wall.

Who cannot maintain will always fall.

Photo by Elizabeth Wiseman

Come On Up to The House – September 22 – Brooklyn Bowl, Nashville

You may be aware of this already – I don’t go out of my way to keep it secret – but I’m a pretty big Tom Waits fan. My voice, strangely enough, was actually shredded up by being in a metal band in my teens before ever hearing Mr. Waits’ music, but I admittedly have since used said voice to cover Mr. Wait’s Music and my pursuit of accuracy has not done my nodules any favors. In any event, this was a really fun time, because it was an invitation from my friends Cordovas, who are at the same time some of the coolest, nicest, most generous and sweet dudes and also one of the best live bands you’ll ever be fortunate enough to see, if and when you do. They asked me to come join them for their AmericanaFest pre-party at the Brooklyn and Joe hand picked this song for me to sing with them. I eagerly and gratefully accepted, and I predictably killed.

Come down off the cross;

we can use the wood.

Photo by Chad Edwards, MCE Photography

Cure For Pain – 320 Fifth – October 2 – Laurel, Mississippi

Morphine is objectively the greatest band that’s ever been; I actually wrote a paper about it in a philosophy class in undergrad. But the crux of my objective argument comes down to how hard it is to cover a Morphine song well, considering how unique their entire project was. So, when I went on a little tour this fall, I figured I’d give this song a try, because I had great musicians with me that I knew could pull it off. It didn’t sound like Morphine, but I also believe that it’s hard (if not impossible) to play a great song too poorly.

I propose a toast to my self control.

See it crawling helpless on the floor.

Someday, there’ll be a cure for pain.That’s the day I throw my drugs away.

Photo by Madison Thorn

Acadian Driftwood – Basement East – East Nashville, Tennessee

A tradition in Nashville for the last several years has been The Last Waltz tribute show, where the coolest folks in Nashville come together and pay tribute to one of the greatest concerts in music history. This was my first time being a part of it, and it was an honor. The Band was a huge influence on me growing up, and The Last Waltz the movie is one of my favorite films ever. I sang half of Acadian Driftwood, sharing lyrical duties with the fantastic Van Darien, as a part of the great Jon Latham’s band The Lifers. I have no problem admitting that pretending to be a Canadian for one song, while an honorary member of the Lifers, though, is the height of my own pretension, as far as I can remember. Oh well. I had a blast.

This isn’t my turn; this ain’t my season.

Can’t think of one good reason to remain.

Time for another selection of Allan’s photos from the few months when we actually had proper gigs happening again. We’ve asked him to be a bit creative with themes this year so he’s come up with a title that no-one under the age of fifty will understand to link the photos.

Why black and white? Well, a variety of reasons; sometimes it’s a creative decision, made in advance, that monochrome will look better. It might be the artist’s choice; that’s happening more often these days. And sometimes it’s about the stage lighting. It’s a frustrating but understandable situation in small venues. The smaller rooms that are the essential first step on the ladder for upcoming bands will always struggle financially, particularly after an enforced closure over a long period of time. When the money’s tight, you look after the essentials first and that’s always going to be the sound. If it doesn’t sound right punters and band are unhappy. If the lighting’s not dramatic, or even bright, no-one cares (well, maybe the photograpers. So, I don’t complain, I just get on with the job. It helps that technology gives us the option to edit in colour or monochrome with one mouseclick. Here are a few examples.

Lina Stalyte @Servant Jazz Quarters

My first shoot in this venue. Like so many in London, it’s in a basement; not a criticism, just a statement of fact. This one was promoted by Lorraine Solomons at Success Express and featured two artists I’d shot before and three I hadn’t. The lighting on stage was patchy; if you found the right spot, you were well-lit. Lina Stalyte was last on the bill was one of those performers that are easy to photograph; she’s elegant, expressive becomes totally immersed in the song, shutting out everything else. This shot, where Lina looks totally unself-conscious was acceptable in colour, but monochrome emphasized the contrast between Lina’s fair skin and top and the dark background. It doesn’t always happen, but I knew this one was a winner when the shutter fired.

Jim Maving @CTZN Brew Twickenham

The first gig at CTZN Brew was only a few weeks earlier, so this was relatively new territory. Dean Owens and Jim Maving (great musicians genuinely good guys) were performing and the gig was promoted by Phil, Kevin and Lucy from Eel Pie Records. The lighting was, well, it was pub lighting; no interesting colours but bright enough to work with. The sightlines weren’t great, but the customers were really tolerant about having their view blocked for a few seconds (with their permission obviously).

With fairly harsh and uninteresting lighting, monochrome was an obvious choice, but there was another deciding factor. Jim, like me, is silver-haired and, unless the lighting is dramatically coloured, just looks better in black and white. I’ve shot him a few times now and I’m starting to think of him as Monochrome Jim. Given a choice, I wouldn’t have the mic and stand in the shot, but I don’t think it detracts too much from a shot of a great musician in action.

Hannah Aldridge @The Half Moon, Putney Keeping it really contemporary, this was shot two days ago at a gig where Hannah was supported by Isabella Coulstock. I’ve shot in the Half Moon and few times and I’ve shot Hannah loads of times; she’s a joy to photograph. I know the good angles at The Half Moon and I had that rare experience of the lighting being more interesting than I expected. Monochrome processing was a choice rather than an imposition for this shot. It was originally processed in colour, but the lighting and contrast are perfect in black and white. The distance between Hannah and the dark red backdrop means that the background is barely reflecting any light, emphasizing the perfect lighting on Hannah’s face.

Amy (Nova Twins) @Becontree 100

The first time I shot Nova Twins was in a basement (see what I mean) in Dalston six years ago. They’ve been working constantly since then and now they’re playing festivals – this one was Parsloes Park in Dagenham. They’re a lively performers and with decent stage lighting (even in bright sunshine), it wasn’t going to be difficult to get good action shots (it definitely wasn’t). Amy and bass player Georgia design their own outfits and they’re usually pretty lively and colourful, which would make you think that colour would be the right processing choice, and it was for most of the gig – I got some really vibrant shots of Amy and Georgia. Then this one came along; as hard as I tried to make the colour shot work, the combination of the hazers and the lights created a horrible colour image. Obviously with an image as striking as this, you don’t give up easily, so it was the black and white click and it was easy from there on in.

Down with the Stereotype @High Tide Festival

Promoted by the great people at Eel Pie Records, this was the second High Tide Festival with bands playing in venues around the town and on an outdoor main stage. The opening band on the main stage was Down with the Stereotype, winners of the local Battle of the Bands, organised by the Basement Door Charity.

Lighting on the stage was hit and miss. In sunshine it was perfect and the colours were vibrant, but when a cloud passed over, everything was muted. I got some nice colour shots during the set (the band were magnificent, by the way) and bass player Will is a force of nature, constantly creating photo opportunities. This classic foot on the monitor shot happened when a cloud passed over, but it’s a nice monochrome.

Anna Elizabeth Laube has always been a bit of a favourite here at Riot Towers particularly her albums “Tree” and 2021’s “Annamania”. We still can’t believe it came out less than a year ago. She also has previous as a High Fives contributor, so we’re really pleased to welcome her back with another interesting contribution for 2021, complete with accompanying videos.

I’ve been listening to a healthy dose of Taylor Swift lately, so impressed with her 5 albums in 2 years. It seems she has had the best pandemic of anyone! Here are my Top 5 Taylor lyrics.

1. “We were both young when I first saw you

I close my eyes and the flashback starts I´m standing there

On a balcony in summer air”

Song: Love Story

Album: Fearless

Year: 2008

I fell in love with this song while driving in rural Kansas during the Thanksgiving holidays, 2008. It was a rare moment away from the big gathering (I think I was making a coffee run), and I loved escaping into the story of the song. It really hit me and I remember tearing up a bit!

2. “I´ve been the archer, I´ve been the prey”

Song: The Archer

Album: Lover

Year: 2019

I listened to this song a lot on my first trip to Portugal, so it will always remind me of this. I really loved the sonic textures and how you could tell that the protagonist had been doing a lot of self-reflection and was really owning herself and taking responsibility for her life in a new way. Super-inspiring.

3. “Oh my God look at that face

You look like my next mistake

Love’s a game, wanna play?”

Song: Blank Space

Album: 1989

Year: 2014

This one is self-aware in a fun way, and I relate to knowing something isn’t necessarily good for me, but doing it anyway.

4.”Time, mystical time
Cutting me open, then healing me fine
Were there clues I didn’t see?
And isn’t it just so pretty to think
All along there was some
Invisible string
Tying you to me?”

Song: Invisible String

Album: Folklore

Year: 2020

I love this idea of being tied together even before meeting someone, and also feel time as mystical and magical. It’s another romantic saga song akin to Love Story, but this is the grown-up, real-life version, as opposed to the make-believe fairy tale version 12 years earlier. It’s the real magic of life, suffering and joy, hurt and forgiveness.

5. “And you call me up again just to break me like a promise

So casually cruel in the name of being honest
I’m a crumpled up piece of paper lying here
‘Cause I remember it all, all, all too well”

Song: All Too Well

Album: Red

Year: 2012

Why do humans hurt each other so much? It’s a tough time. Luckily we recently got a new, 10-minute version of this song to fill in some of the gaps in the story, and maybe help put that past in the past. Here’s to a new, more peaceful year ❤️

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 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.