The first time I saw CoCo and the Butterfields was almost exactly five years ago at The Garage, only a few hundred metres away from this evening’s venue. On that night, they were supported by Gentlemen of Few, a band I saw again only six days ago; live music in London can be a small world sometimes. Five years is an eternity in the lifespan of a band on the unsigned and ‘up-and coming’ circuit. I loved both bands the first time I saw them; would I still be so keen five years and a lot of gigs later?

Let’s concentrate on CoCo and the Butterfields, who established themselves initially by busking around Canterbury, playing gigs around Kent and breaking out and on to the festival circuit. They were the perfect band for that circuit, with a raggle-taggle gypsy look and a fusion of folk and pop styles with an ability to write the odd anthem or two. Chumbawamba meets The Waterboys maybe? But they have a couple of secret weapons; the first is Dulcima’s phenomenal voice and the second is keyboard player Jamie, who also happens to  be a world-class beatboxer. They had a fanatical following five years ago; they still have and it’s easy to see why. I was impressed five years ago, I’m even more impressed now.

All of the years they’ve played together have created an incredibly tight musical unit driven along by a locked-in rhythm section and a four-pronged frontline of Dulcima, Tom Twyman, Jamie and banjo player Handsome Rob. They’re confident and they were absolutely on it for the entire set. The set introduced a big chunk of their new material (which the fans knew inside out already, judging by the singalong in my right ear) plus a few old favourites, including the anthemic “Warriors”. Despite a few problems with the sound, particularly on Dulcima’s vocal, and some fairly random lighting, the band was cooking on gas from the start. If you want to sum up the experience, you only need to go as far as the latest single “Monsters”, a song about inner demons and the friends that help you deal with them.

Tom and Dulcima used the stagecraft they’ve learned over the last six years, teaching the audience the refrain (I suspect most of them already had that covered) before launching into the song. It’s another anthem; it’s going to be huge on festival stages next summer but it might even have cracked the radio market before that. The band orchestrated the audience participation halfway through the song, but then something incredible happened. With absolutely no prompting, almost the entire audience spontaneously launched into the refrain exactly on the beat, creating a perfect counterpoint for the band. Honestly, I’ve never seen (or heard) anything quite like it. CoCo and the Butterfields are back and they mean business.

Gentlemen of Few; yep they’re back as well, but that’s another story.

If you want to capture a bit of the CATB experience, have a look at this:

Day 2 at Cornbury was always going to be a game of two halves. Caffe Nero had lined up a huge array of unsigned talent on their stage, kicking off at 9:15 and running through to the early evening. After checking out the running order, I was perfectly happy to spend the first eight hours of Saturday watching the Caffe Nero/Talentbanq selection. In fact, I was telling anyone who would listen to get their asses down to Caffe Nero to watch the Saturday lineup.

Katy Hurt got the day started with her UK Country thing before handing over to the 21st century folk of Daisy Chute. It was a fairly laid-back introduction to Saturday morning without a hint of the whirlwind that was about to descend on the Cotswolds. How about a flame-haired Celtic harpist who sings, plays banjo and raps? Yep, that’s Lisa Canny and she’s a force of nature, mashing up pop and roots into a gorgeous musical melange.

And that’s only halfway through the day; there was still Emily Barker’s gorgeous Americana followed by the powerful and soulful Joe Slater (go and see him if you get the chance, he’s a great writer and powerful, charismatic performer) before things got really out of control. Houndstooth (formerly Coffeepot Drive) absolutely tore it up, getting the second standing ovation of the day (Lisa Canny got the first) before handing over to Nuala to close the day for Caffe Nero.

And for the evening, the Songbird stage featured two legends; PP Arnold was back in the game following the release of “The Turning Tide” (originally recorded in the sixties) followed closely by the fabulous Mavis Staples. From the (as yet) unknown to the legendary in one day, and still a day to go.

You can see the photos here.

 

Depending on who you listen to, it’s the posh festival or the older person’s festival. I was in the unusual position of trying to balance taking a few pictures and writing a bit as well; I got to see the first three songs of each performer’s set from the pit before being shuffled on to the next stage. Thankfully, there was an exception to this routine; the Caffe Nero stage opened at 9:00am and featured unsigned artists throughout the day. It’s a great way to kick off the day; live music from about 9:30 and great coffee as well. Before most festival-goers are out of bed, you could hear the twenty-first century folk of Lucy Mair, Megan O’Neill’s take on contemporary country and Key West’s raucous and irresistible rock/Gaelic/Americana hybrid.

Anavae; that’s a name you need to remember. Playing a lunchtime slot on the Caffe Nero stage, their blend of tribal rhythms, Jamie Finch’s fat guitar and keyboard sounds and stunningly powerful vocals from Rebecca Need-Menear generated a buzz that went way beyond caffeine. And then it was time to watch Danny and the Champions of the World do their wide-screen Americana thing. The songs were strong, the playing was superb and Danny Wilson looked totally relaxed on the big stage in the mid-afternoon sunshine.

In the evening, Stereo MCs absolutely owned the Songbird stage; it was tight, it was energetic and Rob Birch was as wired and compelling as ever. UB40; well, Brian Travers worked really hard to sell it, but it’s not the real thing (and I’m sure the Ali Campbell version isn’t either). It made me wish I’d been able to see Jimmy Cliff earlier in the day.

The reason I missed that set was that Caffe Nero had managed to grab Albert Lee and Peter Asher for a set at 5:30. You can google both of those guys, but I can tell you they have an astonishing pedigree with over a century in the music business between them. Sixty minutes passed in the blink of an eye as these legends entertained a packed Caffe Nero stage with songs and anecdotes; it was the first standing ovation I saw over the weekend but certainly not the last.

You can see the pictures from the day here.

The Great Escape 2018 saw a huge collection of unsigned musicians from around the world come together and celebrate all that is fresh, new, and up and coming on the global music scene. We managed to catch breakout UK band ABQ at Brighton’s The Mesmerist and their energetic and animated set.

The boys won the crowd over with their first song, a gusty and impassioned rendition of “Something Original”, a song whose interesting rhythmic qualities ensured that the song lived up to the sentiment of the title. “Edge of The Earth” and “Days We Leave Behind” came next and were both songs that showcased the band’s ability to write artful and relatable lyrics.

Next up was “Waiting for Us” and “Neon”, and it was here that the band showed their prowess not just as musicians but as performers as well. They commanded the stage and their stage presence meant that all eyes were on them – it was impossible to look away.

Then it was time for the band to play their final song, their highly-rated debut single “Takes So Long”, a robust and dynamic track about letting go and starting again. With its full on musicality and unbelievably catchy melody, the song exuded feelings of rebellion and revolution. It was high energy, and captivating, and just the perfect song to finish their set.

Having spent the majority of May gigging at various venues across the UK, ABQ are now gearing up for the release of new music, and the potential for more live performances in the not too distant future…

During the weekend of The Great Escape Festival virtually the whole of the UK music business moves to Brighton for a few days; the streets are full of musicians hauling gear round on various wheeled appliances and every pub and club has a live music line-up. With all of those musicians around, why not put together a daytime event with musicians in Brighton for TGE and a few others shipped in for the occasion. Well, that’s exactly what happened in Caffe Nero (huge supporters of unsigned talent) with the help of Talentbanq (also huge supporters of unsigned talent). The concept’s really simple; two days of live music with two artists appearing every hour between 10:00am and 7:00pm for two days. That’s 36 artists over two days. I only did the Thursday but saw a mind-blowing array of talent.

The fun kicked off at an unearthly hour; singers generally don’t like morning gigs but Cloudy Galvez and Penny Riviera totally owned the first hour of the day. Cloudy’s improvisational style followed by Penny’s raw, smoky torch songs started the day off perfectly and set the tone for what was to come. As the day unfolded there were superb performances across a wide range of musical styles from the delicate whimsy of Jasmine Rogers to the looping wizardry and powerhouse vocals of Lawrence Hill and Mark Sullivan. Zoe Wren combined folk and jazz, Louise Golbey and Ky Lewis added a bit of soul while Nuala and Lots Holloway powered through their respective sets in the usual barnstorming style.

Bringing events to a perfect close, Joe Slater gave his usual passionate performance of his own beautiful and spiritual songs and a cover of George Harrison’s “My Sweet Lord” before Natalie Shay ended the day with her own powerhouse performance. My only regret was that I had to miss day two; the idea of loads of hungover music biz types being assailed by caffeine and the phenomenon that is Hollie Rogers. I think that might actually wake the dead. Anyway, I think we’ll be doing it all over again at the Caffe Nero stage at Cornbury Festival in July.

Photo courtesy of Richard Bolwell

Beth Hart is at the tail end of her USA and British tour that culminates at the Royal Albert Hall on the 4th May, but I’m glad I went to Portsmouth with its bright, clear acoustics and more intimate setting.  It may be nearly game-over for this tour, but Hart showed no signs of tiring, she began singing confidently in the auditorium while the band struck up. Working her way through the aisles, shaking extended hands as she sung her opener, “Somethings Got a Hold on Me” towards the stage, dressed in a simple black shift dress.

It’s a small set-up, with a drummer, bassist and lead guitarist, multi-instrumentalist Beth is left to rotate between keys, guitar and acoustic bass (which she is still learning) while doing vocal duties as well.  Hart has no new studio album to promote, but has just released “Live & Centre, Live in NY”, not a greatest hits package but an eclectic showcase of mainly more recent material but we get mostly a different selection tonight.

Hart is a long-time collaborator with blues guitarist, Joe Bonamassa, with whom she has made a few albums, but on this tour the lead guitar is taken up by John Nichols.  Hart has chosen a set list that moves a little away from the kind of wailing blues she has a reputation for and maybe she has picked songs that her new guitarist can cope with.  Nichols arrived on stage with a Telecaster, more known as a rhythm instrument, and my heart sank a little.  Although he swapped guitars after every song, it was mainly Telecasters so there were no flourishes or stunning solos to melt the lighting track or thrill the audience.

However Hart clearly loves her craft and a grateful crowd and her charisma shines out, with a more attacking version of “Don’t Explain” and Tom Waits’ jaunty “Chocolate Jesus”.  Although she makes covers her own with her heady brew of blues, jazz, soul and country, she also showcased her own writing talents.  “Tell Her You Belong to Me” is an emotional rendition of a daughter’s plea to her father regarding his infidelity.  Hart’s Mother was in the front row and there was some banter with her on some of the more autobiographical tracks, eventually dedicating “Baddest Blues” to her Mum.  Beth Hart easily held the large room, she was engaging with just the right amount of chat.  Hart talks openly about her mental health issues, she has bipolar disorder and addiction issues and once blew the $100k she won on a talent show on hard living in 6 months, but sobriety has brought a new focus for her talent, though the sparks of wildness show through in her tough but tender voice.

Watching Hart, you get the feeling that she really loves performing, clocking up a 2 hour show and eventually, after singing “My California” to her tour manager husband, he kissed her then physically pulled her off stage.  A three-song encore ensued, ending on “There’s no Place like Home” and a wonderful evening flew past successfully.

The photograph for this piece was taken by Richard Bolwell. You can see more of his excellent photographs and reviews here.

Oh me, oh my. What a tangled web we weave, when first we practise to deceive. Have I just watched The Wailers? I think I have, but it required a degree of mental flexibility, upfront, to convince myself of this.

The present line-up of The Wailers features Aston Barrett, Jnr., on drums; the son of the legendary Carlton Barrett, drummer with the Wailers at the time of Marley’s death, and, let us not mince words here, an amazing drummer. To be a proficient reggae drummer is to understand rhythms within rhythms and to use percussion in a way that is just other-worldly. To be expert at this is to be one of very, very few. To be in direct bloodline to this remarkable musical collective is to be unique, especially given that his father was murdered in Jamaica in 1987.

The sadly deceased Carlton’s brother, Aston, is generally referred to as ‘Familyman’ due to his organisational skills in getting the band together following Marley’s untimely death; a label he earned sometime before fathering what are claimed by some to be 52 children. And he’s only 71. He was/is the bass player who provided the ‘thump’ behind so many of the Marley biggies; indeed the combination of the two brothers could pretty much be described as the reggae version of Motown’s legendary Funk Brothers, having worked with Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry as part of The Upsetters. They were very much the nucleus of the musicians who became Bob Marley’s backing band, along with vocal back-up from the I Threes, when the original Wailers split in 1974. But Aston is pretty much confined to a wheelchair tonight, and bass duties are largely being looked after by ‘Dreadie’ Reid.

The main focal point and powerhouse in all this, though, is Junior Marvin. Recruited to And The Wailers in 1977 after working for Island Records on a Steve Winwood project, he featured on the majority of those later Marley jukebox hits and he was very much the right man in the right place at the right time; and in fairness it is pretty difficult to see how the 2018 incarnation of The Wailers could function without him. On stage and in the context of a gig which might be described as ‘challenging’, he certainly emerged as nominal band ‘leader’.

Donald Kinsey adds the ‘rock’ to Marvin’s reggae chops. Not only has he toured with Bob Marley and the Wailers and Peter Tosh, he’s toured with the likes of blues legend Albert King amongst others as well  – and his rocky roots are very much in evidence when he cuts loose on one of many deft and sinuous solos.

And to top this off, singer Shema McGregor is daughter of one of the original I Three; Judy Mowatt. And the front man, in the eyes of most of the audience having to shoulder the mantle of Bob Marley for the night, John David Barrett, is a distant relative of Aston Barrett.

Live audio engineer Dennis Thompson is on keyboards of various kinds and knobs and twiddly bits and he is the guy who was largely responsible for ‘that sound’ on the band’s output and on tour in the seventies. His importance to The Wailers is – and was – as Billy Preston to The Beatles or Ian Stewart to The Rolling Stones.

Blimey.

Anyway.

What sort of deal do you have to make with yourself before going to see The Wailers in 2018? Well, the first and most important part of the deal is that you have to accept that Bob Marley Is Dead. Get Over It.

That part of the deal is particularly important. It’s a bit like going to see The Blockheads since the death of Ian Dury.

So, what are we left with? An impressive body of work, great songs captured on memorable recordings and a collective of musicians with the spectacular skills, passion and desire to carry the music forward in a live context.

Like it or not and as time goes by, we will see more of this. Ageing or ill members of bands will step down, or will just leave, to be replaced by other musicians who have earned the right to take their place, and we will be in a situation where we will be paying very straight-faced money to see a band with a particular name, with none of the ORIGINAL members, but with member or members who joined the band later in life, but are still part of the band’s organic development. This is by no means far-fetched. And sometimes it can work out very well, and mean that the music goes forward into the future. Dr. Feelgood is an honourable example of this.

And what’s the alternative? The music dies in a live context with the death of the main man or woman? Is that what we REALLY want?

Maybe it is. Maybe it isn’t. You pays your money. Or you doesn’t.

Well, I did and after a delay getting into the venue I arrived just in time to hear the support band, Common Kings, playing their last tune.

And the sound was positively hideous. The stage and all that surrounded it was reverberating with a horrible bass rumble that returned once The Wailers ambled into position. “Irie” was a booming mess, and a bemused-looking band stumbled into “Rastaman Vibration” with no great sense of commitment or confidence. Many meaningful looks were exchanged until part-way through “Buffalo Soldier”, Junior Marvin threw his guitar off and stalked to the side of the stage where a harassed – looking technician was engaged to try and do something about the awful mess, which was clearly driving Dennis Thompson, on keyboards, etc., for the night, to the point of distraction. And so it should have done. I really don’t know what happened between sound check and gig but…..anyway, you get the picture.

Once the band had slipped into “I Shot the Sheriff”, (see what I mean? Do you REALLY never want to hear this again live and as intended?) things seemed to right themselves. This isn’t of course the case; someone on the desk would have been frantically rebalancing, re-patching, etc., but whatever and whoever did what, well done, because suddenly most of the clouds lifted and whilst the vocals were a little ‘muddy’ all night it did become a hugely enjoyable gig, with some qualifications.

The band slipped into “Easy Skankin” before a show-stopping “No Woman, No Cry”. Having shots like this in your locker means never having to say you’re sorry.

“Heathen” and then “3 Little Birds” had Manchester’s finest in full voice; especially when the band morphed the song into “One Love”. Put another coin in the jukebox. “Waiting In Vain”. And played so beautifully. The band pass vocals between Josh David Barrett, Junior Marvin and Dennis Thompson as well as I Two (!) and such was Marley’s vocal prowess, it took all of them to pull the trick, if indeed it is a trick, off.

A funky, sweaty “Roots, Rock, Reggae” gives way to one of Marley’s most beautiful and enduring love songs – “Is This Love”, played and sung spookily faithfully and by now I have bought into Marvin’s assertion that in order to gain Marley’s blessing to carry on as The Wailers, they had to agree to make sure the music was played live as well as it had been; and a thoroughly stirring “Stir It Up” confirmed this. And by now the place is going absolutely berserk. Doubts dispelled, cynicism put quietly to bed with a warm drink and a good book. And then the band blasts into “Could You Be Loved”.

And the whole thing falls over after about five seconds.

Usually when something goes horribly wrong and a band stops dead after a few seconds, there is either an extended period of recriminations and swearing and the very public apportioning of blame, or a similarly extended period of forced smiles and giggling apologies, concentrated tuning up and associated farting around.

But there isn’t the time for this and the musicians in the band know this. They’ve been on the road between them for probably approaching a thousand years and they know that at this point in the gig, especially if you’ve been fighting technical difficulties of various kinds, you have to strike whilst the force is with you; and indeed within about three nanoseconds we’re off again, all-important momentum maintained – and Friday night is saved for the assembled. The reception is rapturous and becomes increasingly so as they strike up “Jammin” and the place erupts.

And that’s just about all for now, folks. The band wander off severally, some looking rather sheepish as if they’ve just about gotten away with it…..but in fairness they had far surpassed this. There were times during this gig where the band’s performance was little short of transcendental.

It is a shame, then, when the band returns – well, some of them do – and simply perform “Redemption Song” before taking a bow. I know from the setlist drummer Aston Jnr. kindly gave me afterwards that the intention had been to play “Lively Up Yourself”, “Get Up, Stand Up” and “Exodus” amongst others but either one of two things happened. Either the band had taken to the stage later than they had intended and were caught the wrong side of a curfew, or because the technical problems, which diminished but never disappeared entirely, made it so that they really hadn’t enjoyed the gig as much as the audience clearly had; for the skeletal encore was rapturously received. But you can’t tour the album ‘Legend’ without playing ‘Exodus’. It ain’t my bandstand, but you just can’t.

However, be that as it may, what a night they are. And you will end up telling your grandkids about this one, and you will probably subtitle your bedtime story ‘The Night I Saw Marley’s Ghost’.

Or not.  Been done before.

Not so much a gig review as a triumphant celebration, I think. On March 16 2017 I was talking to Martin Harley after a gig he’d played with Daniel Kimbro at The Forge in Camden. He told me that he’d booked The Union Chapel for a gig in March 2018 and he was hoping he could make it work because he’d always wanted to play there. That’s the kind of romantic idealism that will always blindside me; I was sold on the idea instantly. Flash forward fifty-one weeks and I was listening to Martin, standing in front of the stage at The Union Chapel two hours before showtime telling me that the night was almost sold out on pre-sales. It was a bit of a “Field of Dreams” moment; flying in the face of the best professional advice, he filled The Union Chapel and decided to film the event as well.

I suppose you want to know what actually happened on the night. Well, it was opened by Mike Dawes, an incredible finger-style guitar player who combined virtuoso-level technique and passionate playing with outrageous stagecraft and a wicked sense of humour. You should really make the effort to see him play; you’ll fall in love instantly. Just for trivia fans, his first ever gig was supporting Martin Harley eleven years ago.

As for Martin and Daniel, this gig was the perfect demonstration of what they do. They’re gifted songwriters, they have superb voices (Daniel’s sweet tones complementing Martin’s more bluesy and soulful rasp) and they each play a couple of instruments incredibly well, Martin playing acoustic guitar and Weissenborn while Daniel plays upright bass and acoustic guitar. The atmosphere on stage was so relaxed that a thousand-capacity venue had the intimacy of a house gig where the performers were sipping and chilling and just enjoying the vibe. The highlights are completely subjective, but Martin’s Weissenborn tour-de-force on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and Daniel’s environmental ballad “Loyston” are difficult to beat, apart from two very special moments.

The first was the opening song of the encore, an unplugged, stage-front-and-centre version of Martin’s gorgeous ballad “Winter Coat”. It was breath-taking. The second was the well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the encore; it was a celebration of a wonderful performance and an artist who had the faith to follow his dream. Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, I tip my hat to both of you. Book it and they will come.

You have to love Green Note. With my photographer’s head on I whinge about the lighting, but I’ve taken some of my favourite shots in there. Anyway, it’s about the overall ambience, and that’s unbeatable. There aren’t too many places that could drag me out of a lovely warm house on a bitter winter night without even the consolation of industrial quantities of alcohol but, within minutes of arriving at the venue and grabbing a coffee the effort felt worthwhile. And that’s before The Lynn(e)s even got near the stage.

Lynne Hanson and Lynn Miles are two Canadian singer-songwriters. They decided to team up for their current “Heartbreak Song for the Radio” project (which is superb, by the way) and a tour featuring songs from the album and from their previous solo projects. They both have superb voices and play beautifully, although the Americana technology police might want to have a look at some of that hardware.

So, what was so good about this particular Sunday?  Well, some of the usual things; a bunch of powerful songs, two exceptional and complementary voices, some interesting twists on the arrangements (including a bit of electric twang and some haunting ebow effects) and a great rapport with the audience between sons. Stack all of that up and you have a pretty memorable night.

The tour was mainly about promoting “Heartbreak Songs…”, but, with two sets to fill, the Lynn(e)s featured songs from their albums either solo or as a duo. The quality throughout the two sets was one hundred per cent, but I’m going to try to pick out a few highlights. The gorgeous “Heartbreak Song for the Radio” has a very Carpenters feel and works perfectly in the live setting while the harmonies on “Cost so Much” are just superb, but there was one final trump card Lynn and Lynne had to play.

I’ve seen a few impressive unplugged encores at Green Note, but this one was sublime; after the first verse Lynne Hanson moved towards the bar while Lynn Miles stayed in front of the stage and the duo created perfect two-part harmonies across the venue on the lovely “Gotta Have Rain”. I’ve seen a few gigs at Green Note, but I’ve never seen an ending quite like this. Have a listen to their individual albums, but make a point of listening to this. You won’t regret it.

 

Ronnie Scott’s: it’s not the first venue you associate with performances by American comedy legends, but Sandra Bernhard’s not your average American comedy legend and this was far from the average twenty-first century stand-up gig. The style and structure of the performance harked back to the jazz and cabaret clubs where music and comedy took equal billing across the night and often across individual performances; the band stayed on stage throughout the comedian’s set and often helped out with improvisations. This was how Lenny Bruce delivered his routines.

The stage line-up for “Sandemonium” is Sandra plus piano, drums and guitar; her act has developed over the decades from purely stand-up to a combination of songs, observations of everyday New York behaviour, politics (almost inevitably), showbiz stories, family stories and some stream of consciousness, Lenny Bruce-style riffing and spritzing. And that’s before you get to the impressions, which are seamlessly stitched in to the tapestry of the performance, not as stand-alone routines but as a way of smoothly moving the narrative along. Here’s an example.

The show opened with the usual introductions, Sandra talking about the greats who performed on the Ronnie Scott’s stage, segued effortlessly into a Nina Simone in Paris story that evoked the subject perfectly. And another; a routine about talking the subway to work on her “Sandyland” radio show led into a powerful interpretation of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”. The framework of the set was tightly constructed but gave the impression of total spontaneity; that’s the work of an artist with a genuine gift and a commitment to hard work. The songs, you ask? Well, it was an eclectic mix that included “Little Red Corvette” and a Pachelbel’s Canon mash-up featuring “Let it Be” and “Take on Me” among others.

This particular show was the third over two nights as part of a short visit combining the gigs and a hectic promotional schedule. Even starting at 11:15, Sandra Bernhard gave her adoring audience a full-on, inspirational performance and was willing to spend time after the gig with every fan who wanted an autograph, a selfie or just to say hello. I’m converted.