wade-scrollerThere was something different about The Borderline; you could sense it in the air. It wasn’t the wall-to-wall double denim and hundred-times-washed black tour t-shirt crowd that I normally see at blues/rock gigs there. No, this was something very different; at least half of the crowd was Texan. Before you ask, yes, I did hear quite a few yee-hahs and I even saw a Stetson. I’m not even sure there weren’t a couple of longhorns lurking over by the cloakroom. The reason for this Texan invasion of W1 was that singer-songwriters Wade Bowen and Willy Braun (of Reckless Kelly fame) were opening their UK tour in London.

As co-headliners, they opted for the song swap format, both players on stage from start to finish and playing songs in turn. If you judge these things by quantity, at around thirty songs, that’s a pretty good deal. Add in the fact that they were all great songs, beautifully performed and that’s a pretty good night. The differing vocal styles added another bit of variety; Willy has more country inflections whereas Wade has more of a modern Nashville style voice, crossing over into a more rock intonation. The whole show was held together by the rapport between the two performers and with the audience, with plenty of chat between songs, explaining their origins, talking about visiting London for the first time and, inevitably, the result of the presidential election two days before.

From Wade, there were a few songs about drinking, including “Saturday Night” and “Sweet Leona” as well as the inevitable hangover song “When I Woke Up Today” while Willy did his bit with “Pennsylvania Avenue”, Tee Champ” and a country version of the Beatles’ “ I Don’t Want to Spoil the Party”. The standouts for me were Willy’s new song “Moment in the Sun” and Wade’s “A Battle Won” with a special mention for Willie’s cover of the Lukas Nelson song “Georgia”. It was an entrancing evening watching two people do what they love.

Just another couple of things; I was gobsmacked at the number of people who thought it was ok to hold conversations during an acoustic performance despite repeatedly being told to STFU. To counterbalance that, with a performer’s instinct, Wade managed to home in on a Spanish fan and his son (both Luis), who had flown into London on the day of the gig and were flying back the same night. Luis and Luis, I salute you; that is true dedication and I’m pleased you had a great night in London.

eleanor-scrollerWell, it was certainly an interesting night out in Camden. I’ve been looking forward to seeing Underhill Rose since I had to miss a show earlier this year and what could be better than watching them play at Green Note. Just one little problem; the queue outside and the absence of any kind of lighting didn’t look too good, but it takes more than a power cut to close Green Note. After a slight delay to position dozens of tea lights around the room, the venue opened and things went ahead pretty much as normal, Underhill Rose had decided to play a completely unplugged set rather than disappoint the sellout crowd. Not having power isn’t necessarily a problem for players brought up in acoustic tradition, and a candle-lit gig does have a certain romance to it. In a typical twist of fate, almost immediately after the stage had been cleared of mic stands and DI boxes at the interval, the power was restored but by that stage, neither the audience nor the band wanted to move away from the acoustic format.

Underhill Rose is Eleanor Underhill (banjo and harmonica), Molly Rose Reed (guitar) and Salley Williamson (upright bass) and they all sing, creating some of the most gorgeous harmonies you’re likely to hear. The songs are all beautifully crafted and the live performances make good use of all the vocal and instrumental textures available to them. After the drama of creating a scene that took us back almost a century, it was appropriate that Underhill Rose opened their first set with “Not Gonna Worry”. It’s difficult to pick favourites from a set packed with lovely songs and performances, but a song dedicated to friends, “They Got my Back”, the swing-tinged “Whispering Pines Motel” and “Montana” did it for me and a cover of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” was a huge crowd-pleaser.

Watching Underhill Rose at any time is a pleasure and a privilege; an intimate performance by candlelight is a once in a lifetime experience. I’ve never been so happy about a power cut (or should that be outage). A wonderful night.

They also played their current single “One Time a Year” which is out now. It’s a great single and a portion of the proceeds from each sale will go to Women for Women International.

You can see some photos from the night here.

wah-scrollerThere was a time in the mid-eighties when the north-west of England, and Liverpool in particular, dominated the music scene. The Crucial Three, Pete Wylie, Ian McCulloch and Julian Cope, were at the top of the pile, bursting with creativity, vision and sheer audacity and never short of an outrageous quote for the press. Fast forward thirty years and Ian McCulloch’s in semi-retirement, Julian Cope’s a scholar and novelist, and Pete Wylie’s still doing what he does best; as the t-shirt says ‘Part-time rock star, full-time legend’. Which is why I was wedged in to a heaving crowd at The Water Rats in Kings Cross, watching him prove it, with the current incarnation of The Mighty Wah. He’s still got it.

The room was packed with fans from the eighties, London-based Scousers and even Liverpool-based Scousers, so he didn’t really have to warm them up. As soon as the stage lights went up, it went, well, chicken oriental, as they say in these parts. Pete Wylie’s gained something that you wouldn’t have expected from his eighties pronouncements; he’s learned to have a bit of a chuckle at his own expense. The chats with the audience between songs are sometimes funny, sometimes political (Thatcher and Trump) and sometimes fond reminiscence (Pete Burns and Wylie’s good friend Josie Jones, who was commemorated with the criminally under-rated “4 11 44”). There was plenty of nostalgia, but some powerful new material as well.

When the band kicked into “Come Back” as the second song in the set, it was an acknowledgement that Pete Wylie has anthems to spare, he didn’t need to save this classic for the end of the set. The rest of the set included “Heart as Big as Liverpool”, “Seven Minutes to Midnight” (record of the week in four music papers), “Story of the Blues” and a version of “Sinful” which morphed into “Heroes” as a Bowie tribute. Just when the audience thought he’d run out of anthems, for the encore the band blazed through “I Still Believe”, a new song from the album that’s as good as anything he’s ever written. The album’s called “Pete Sounds”; now that’s what I meant by audacity.

For ninety minutes, a little corner of Kings Cross turned into mid-eighties Liverpool. Trust the t-shirt; Pete Wylie is an absolute full-time legend.

laurent-mouflier-scrollerYou certainly can’t accuse Time Out of ignoring up and coming talent; they’ve been running the Rising Stars event in various venues across London, including Jazz Café (newly refurbished and looking very nice indeed), 229 The Venue and Green Note featuring half a dozen unsigned acts performing showcase sets. They’ve covered a wide spectrum of styles and featured all sorts of line-ups from solo artists to full bands. The one thing they all have in common is quality; the September selection was no exception.

Mark Sullivan opened the evening with a set of soulful acoustic songs backed only with his acoustic guitar and a loop pedal (oh, and a stunningly powerful voice). He threw everything into the performance and finished with a cover of the unplugged version of “Layla”; job done. If you were expecting Malory Torr to turn up wielding a ukelele, you would have been disappointed, but not for long. Backed by bass, drums and keyboards (and some lovely harmonies), she delivered an atmospheric set including a cover of “She Drives Me Crazy”. Joe Slater (from Liverpool) played a short set in singer-songwriter/Jake Bugg style, finishing off with the by now, obligatory cover, “Live Forever” this time. And then it all got a bit loud.

Nick Howe played a barnstormer with a full band and a beatboxer. Powerful songs, a band who were on top of their game, and a cover of “Black Horse and the Cherry Tree” were the highlights. Wang Dang Doodle hark back to the golden age of blues harp players with Laurent Mouflier’s gritty voice and superb harmonica playing topping off the glorious noise created by Mylon Kosmas, Francesco Cuturi and Ben Heartland. Stellify completed the line-up on the night with their classic rock sound of big riffs and thunderous bass and drums.

Another great night, with only one reservation and it’s about the audience rather than the performers. Why is it that audiences at showcase events (not just Rising Stars) drift away after seeing whichever act has brought them there? Wang Dang Doodle and Stellify played storming sets to a half-empty hall. It wasn’t even 10:30. The artists and Ray Jones and his Time Out team put a lot of work into making these events successful; why would you leave halfway through?

You can see some photos from the night here.

Estuary Fringe DCS ScrollerIt’s not just Edinburgh that has a festival in August. What about Southend? Maybe not as fashionable but there’s a great arts scene around Southend and its satellites. So, on a beautiful sunny Saturday afternoon, why not head out to have a look at The Railway Hotel’s contribution to the Estuary Fringe Festival which is an afternoon session in the beer garden followed by more live bands inside in the evening. I got there just as the belly dancing was finishing and the stage was being set up for live music (with background music leaning heavily on blues classics and some nice Al Stewart songs).

First on stage was Pick Yer Feet Up, or Eleanor Donne (fiddle) and Dave Murray (twangs and bangs) playing a selection of ‘bogus Bulgarian bangers’. It was relatively low-key but very melodic in an Eastern European way with a nice line in dry patter from Dave between songs. In the great old Python tradition of ‘now for something completely different’, next up was Dirty Captain Scott. What can I say? A twentieth-century estuary poet backed with cajon beats (and guitar towards the end of the set). The rhythms were insistent and the delivery, well, imagine Adele rapping and you’re most of the way there. A great set that you just couldn’t ignore.

Next? The Timlins (Matt and Victoria) played a lovely set of melancholy (maybe even miserable) songs, reminding me a lot of Turin Brakes and (bonus points if you remember this band) Budapest. Victoria’s keyboard filled out the textures created by Matt’s acoustic guitar and the harmonies were sublime. Personally, I like a bit of miserable; always have. Dead Air next, playing their first (and possibly only) gig, played a set of folky Americana with a female lead singer, acoustic guitar and mandolin backing and some lovely harmonies. If you wanted a backing track for an English summer day you wouldn’t go far wrong here.

And on to Phil Burdett, backed by long-term collaborators John Bennett (guitar), Steve Stott (mandolin and fiddle) and Colleen McCarthy (backing vocals). This was only Phil’s second live appearance after major surgery earlier in the year and he was a man on a mission, determined to get songs from his two (yes, two) new albums out there in a live setting. Throughout the set, the arrangements were a masterclass in understatement; the instruments created a framework that allowed the songs to shine. John Bennett is subtle and understated in a way that reminds me a lot of Steve Cropper; no fuss, but just try to imagine The MGs without the guitar parts. Even “New Greyhound Rag”, which was written as full band piece with bass, drums and various other bits of percussion is driven along nicely by the two guitars.

But just focus on the songs. From the opener “Sea Change” to “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”, the short set was packed with melodic and lyrical invention.  The lines ‘you switch the channel in your mind – and on the news voices buzz like cracked kazoos the needle stuck on tombstone blues’ are a great example of Phil’s ability to create a striking, evocative image. All delivered to perfection in Phil’s mellow growl. You really shouldn’t get music this good for free in a pub beer garden, even if the pub is The Railway.

I’m looking forward to seeing Phil officially launch “Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” on November 5th in Southend.

If you haven’t seen them before, here are some pictures of the event.

05) CarinaIt’s great to get a gig where you have no idea to expect and it turns out to be an absolute banger; this was one of those gigs. Until I reviewed her recent retrospective, “Deranged to Divine”, Carina Round was only a name that rang a very faint bell. Now I know she has a huge fanbase and can easily fill a decent small venue like The Lexington on Pentonville Road. Actually, the venue’s quite a bit better than that; the sound is excellent and the lines of sight are good because of the raised area in front of the bar. So far, so good.

Support act for Carina’s UK tour is She Makes War (or Laura Kidd) who made her way on the stage with help of a crutch, which gave her lots of material for chat between songs about compensation claims. She delivered a fine set of introspective songs (some about ex-partners) with some innovative backing courtesy of a Les Paul, a ukulele, a megaphone and a loop pedal. I’ve been suffering from loop pedal fatigue for a while now, but Laura, and later Carina, showed that it can still be a creative tool. Highlights of Laura’s set were “Drown Me Out”, “Please Don’t”, ”Paper Thin”, “Scared to Capsize” and the raucous “Cold Shoulder”.

Carina wasn’t going to just turn up with a guitar and run through a few songs; her perfectionism means that she needs to create a complete performance, and this extended to a stunning light show created by one projector and a small screen. She opened the set with an astonishing, moody, loop pedal a cappella interpretation of “The Secret of Drowning”, setting the tone for a set of powerful interpretations of her songs, including “You and Me”, “Mother’s Pride”, “Back Seat”, “For Everything a Reason” and the haunting “Lacuna”. The performance had an intensity that comes from a desire to be exceptional combined with a natural fear of exposure on stage, which leaked out in a couple of snappy comments, although the overall impression was that (eventually) Carina knew that it was an outstanding show.

And I’m not underestimating the part that the audience played. They were obviously devoted fans desperate to hear every little nuance; they were completely silent during the songs and wildly enthusiastic in their applause. They were also the most polite audience I’ve ever experienced.

You can get some idea of the stunning visuals from the photos here.

Somewhat Damaged ScrollerAnother Saturday, another venue to tick off the list. The Unicorn on Camden Road seems incongruous in this area; you think it should maybe be a mile down the road with all the vibey places in Camden Town. But maybe it works because of the distance. Anyway, the reason for this excursion from the well-travelled path is to check out a pub that’s daring to put on live music six nights a week; tonight’s offering was the “Somewhat Damaged” night offering four very different live sets. It wasn’t packed to the rafters, but it was reasonably busy, with an enthusiastic audience.

So, first up was a solo set from Adam Lightspeed playing acoustic versions of some new songs and some from his band Starscream’s debut album. It was a valiant attempt, but the album versions lean heavily on big productions and the songs weren’t the same in the stripped-down format. Full marks for effort; it can be a lonely place on stage solo when the room’s nowhere near full. The album “Sexploitation” is definitely worth a listen though.

Next up, Loose Joints were from the badlands of south-east Essex, mashing up funky rhythms with riff-driven rockers and generally getting the audience off their seats on their feet. They even threw in their own take on the James Bond theme. Great tunes, inventive arrangements and loads of fun. I’m sure I’ll be seeing Loose Joints again.

So, what about Sister Witch? The songs are the work of David Ryder Prangley and Lux Lyall, guitarist and singer respectively and they were joined on stage by Belle Star and Anna Christina (drums and bass) from Lilygun and another two guitarists to create a very seventies-style line-up; three guitars, indeed. There’s more than a nod to seventies iconography as well, with DRP’s low-slung guitar and the routine of sharing Lux’s vocal mic à la Bowie and Ronson. And the glam references don’t stop there, some of the riffs could be T Rex at their noisiest and they’re interspersed some classic Stones-style interwoven guitars. And that’s before we get on to the studied ennui of Lux, sitting down to read a Zelda Fitzgerald biography mid-song. A bit theatrical maybe, but it’s all part of the show, and she really can sing, so it’s not just a distraction; it never harmed Bowie or the New York Dolls to introduce a bit of performance art. On a crowded stage there was always something interesting to watch; no way you’re going to ignore Sister Witch. Style yes: substance definitely.

As for Black Sixteen, well, not for me really. Two guitars, bass and drums knocking out muscular riffs and a singer who didn’t quite have the voice to compete. Maybe not helped by the minimal soundcheck, but they just weren’t doing it for me. Nice venue, but one little whinge on behalf of the photographers. Red stage lighting; just say no.

Have a look at some of the photos from the gig here and here.

Review ScrollerEvery time I visit The Half Moon the evening starts out with something a bit surreal. This time it was a Scottish musician at the bar asking for a pint of the weakest bitter they had. And before I get complaints, I’m Scottish and I’m allowed to make those jokes; it’s called self-deprecation apparently. The headliner this time was Lisa Mann from West Virginia via Portland, Oregon on her first UK tour supported by (fairly) new kid on the block Katie Bradley, each offering their own their own particular take on twenty-first century blues and its offshoots.

Katie’s band kicked off with a statement of intent, a storming version of the Jimmy Reed classic “Baby What You Want Me to Do”. With two lead guitars, one fairly clean and jazzy and the other over-driven and rocky plus Katie’s harmonica, there was plenty of variety throughout the set. Although Katie’s the lead singer, the vocals were shared with the two guitarists as the band ran through a set of slow blues, jazzy blues and funky blues that included the BB King classic “Thrill is Gone” and lovely duet of “Tennessee Whiskey”. Any headline act would be grateful for a support that warmed the audience up as thoroughly as this.

What strikes you immediately as Lisa Mann and the band take the stage is the contrast between the giant Dudley Ross making his Telecasters look like toys and the petite Lisa Mann with a six-string bass slung John Lee Hooker-style over the right shoulder. The band line-up highlighted a slightly different emphasis after the mainly blues-based opening set. The combination of Dudley Ross’s crisp clean guitar and Steve Watts’s keys created a soulful sound more in the vein of Stax than Chess, offering the perfect complement to Lisa’s powerful vocals and melodic basslines.

The ninety-minute set took in blues, funk, soul and even had a jazz-funk interlude to allow Steve Watts a chance to shine, and showcased excellent songs from Lisa’s five albums including “Doghouse”, “Big Long List” and the closer “Hard Times, Bad Decisions”. The playing was spot on throughout, making it easy to forget that the band had very little rehearsal time together before the start of the tour; only the very good ones can do that and make it look so effortless. Let’s hope it’s not too long before Lisa Mann’s back in the UK again.

You can see some photos from the gig here.

Sarah Review ScrollerAnother Friday night, another new venue in Shoreditch. Deep in the basement of the Ace Hotel on Shoreditch lurks a bar called Miranda with a small stage, nice sound system and reasonable stage lighting. The audience was a bit of an eye-opener as well; sparkly dresses and bright eye make-up as opposed to the jeans, cowboy boots and faded tour t-shirts I usually see. The reason for all the finery was the launch of the first EP by Daisy and the Dark, the latest incarnation of Sarah Kayte Foster, a former Mediaeval Baebe.

Not surprisingly, Sarah has a superb voice and she’s surrounded herself with quality musicians, including Keltrix violinist Sharon Sullivan to create a full live sound augmented by backing tracks and accompanied by back projection and four dancers; not so much a gig as a multi-media event. Opening with the EP’s lead song “Circus”, the set was well-paced and demonstrated Sarah’s stunning voice in a variety of musical settings as well as across a huge dynamic range.

If you like your live music with a bit of theatre and glamour, this is for you. There’s a lot going on, with guitar, drums, two backing singers and four dancers, not to mention the illuminated, flashing hula hoops. All of this is cleverly woven in to the songs themselves and it works in the same way that a Kate Bush or Bjork show does; there’s always plenty to watch. Sarah has a voice that has been compared to both of those singers (and Florence Welch), but a setting like Miranda also gives her the chance to relate to the audience and create a more intimate experience.

It’s been a while since I saw anything quite like this; a spectacle rather than just a gig, but Daisy and the Dark do it very well indeed and by the end of a short set, the audience was hooked and I was impressed by Sarah’s new material. It’s time for this Daisy to see some daylight. Here are some photos from the gig.

Have a look at the video for “Circus” to get some idea of what it’s all about:

 

What's Cookin' ScrollerI shouldn’t have found it funny when Steve Jenner’s latest “Tales from the Towpath” was a gig that coincided with the Germany/Italy Euro quarter-final on Saturday. Four days later, karma kicked in and I found myself in Leytonstone for the Wednesday What’s Cookin’ session at Leytonstone Ex-Servicemen’s Club while Wales played Portugal in the semi-final. So now we know where my priorities lie.

What’s Cookin’ has been a fixture in East London since 2004, occupying various venues around Walthamstow/Leyton/Leytonstone under the direction of Ramblin’ Steve (Ferguson) and has landed in a function room above one of the few surviving social clubs. The venue scrubs up nicely when dressed with a few lights, a mirror ball and some faux foliage to create a nice domestic ambience that enhances the relaxed feel of the night. If you add proper, well-kept beer that doesn’t involve taking out a second mortgage, you’ve got a recipe for success, football permitting.

First out of the blocks was Dan Webster from York. He’s touring with Amelia White at the moment and the two helped each other out through both of the opening sets. Dan’s songs are mainly in the folk storytelling tradition and his laconic delivery worked perfectly as an opening to the evening as he ran through a selection of his material including “Haul Away”, “Dancers” and “Elvis”. The songs are well-crafted, combining folk tradition with the modern singer/songwriter idiom; a lovely way to start of the evening.

The volume increased a few notches with Amelia White as she ran through an electric set, most of which was accompanied by Dan. “Dogs Bark” and “Home Sweet Hotel”, an insight into life on the road, stood out in a set of fine songs from. Amelia’s voice is individual and intriguing, lending a plaintive touch to her succinct and slightly skewed lyrics. Not mainstream and not for everyone on the night, but it worked for me.

After a last-minute travel hitch the planned headliners, The Uptown Toodeloo String Band were replaced at the last minute by Morton Valence, fronted by Robert Hacker Jessett and Anne Gilpin. The set started with Robert performing a solo version of the wordy “Lower Middle Class Dilemmas” before being joined by Anne and, a little later, the rest of the band. The full band line-up introduced some superb harmonies and some fascinating textures, including Anne Gilpin’s Ebow guitar, which added a layer of brooding menace. Their musical vision felt a little out of place on this particular bill, but I’ll be making an effort to see them again.

What’s Cookin’ was a great midweek night out, with a friendly atmosphere, interesting setting and an eclectic choice of performers. The only jarring note was the number of people leaving just before the collection to pay the musicians. Maybe it was about public transport, but it left a sour taste to see so many people refusing to contribute. Anyway, check out the What’s Cookin’ website; you may just find a reason to go to Leytonstone on a Wednesday or Saturday night.