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.

Horns ScrollerWant to know why Southside Johnny still has a fanatical fanbase after over forty years? It’s really simple: he has a stellar group of musicians working with him, they have a lot of fun, and the audience never knows what’s coming next. There are a few songs that are non-negotiable, but for the remainder of the set it’s like “Thunderbirds”; anything can happen. Where else would you hear someone drop a verse of the Ramones classic “I Wanna be Sedated” in the middle of an instrumental break. And, talking of surprises, who expected Gilson Lavis (Squeeze and the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra) to make a guest appearance for the blues classic “Key to the Highway”? And did you know that Johnny and Jeff Kazee are huge fans of Squeeze?

It isn’t just about Southside Johnny; it’s about a group of eight people who are very good at what they do – take a bow Jeff Kazee (keys), John Conte (bass), Tom Seguso (drums), Glenn Alexander (guitar), John Isley (tenor sax), Chris Anderson (trumpet) and Neal Pawley (trombone) – and to enjoy every minute of it. They can all sing, so the harmonies are spectacular, and they’re a band, not eight individuals (don’t take my word for it, read Jay Lustig’s just-published interview with the man himself).

Now if you come to a Jukes show expecting a carefully-choreographed run-through of the same songs they played last night, and the night before and so on, you came to the wrong show. The audience at a Jukes show expects to be surprised, they expect randoms (though I bet not too many expected “I Wanna be Sedated”) and they want the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Hell, most of the band don’t even know that. And what they got, from the piano intro and horn riff of “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” was about 135 minutes of old songs, new songs, Lyon/Kazee songs, Little Steven songs, covers, blistering solos from the horns, guitar and keys and just enough quiet moments to offer a contrast to the power of the rest of the set.

And standouts for the night? Well, they hit the ground running with punchy versions of two early classics, “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” and “This Time It’s for Real” and then time-warped forward forty years to “Spinning” from “Soultime” and for over two hours it was a roller-coaster; all killer, no vanilla. You wanted blues; you got it. You wanted soul; you got it. You wanted rock; you got it. You got a singer who’s been in the business over forty years and still wants to go out every night and give every audience a unique experience aided and abetted by the best band in the business. It really doesn’t get any better than that, and every UK gig now is a bonus; make the most of it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes – living legends.

You can see the photos from the gig here.

Temp-5944The band’s name is HVMM (pronounced ‘hum’, you know like Chvrches) and they were playing Camden Rocks Presents at Proud Camden. An early evening slot on the hottest weekend of the year didn’t look too promising, but this band were determined to go on and kill it. HVMM is Sam Jenkins (drums), Andy Teece (vocals), Ebony Clay (guitar) and Jack Timmis (bass) and they’re based in Worcester, which might be relevant because they’ve got a bit of a Peaky Blinders image including some serious facial hair (apart from Ebony).
On stage they erupt in to a six-song set with their upcoming single “Lacerate” and from the outset it’s blindingly obvious that this isn’t some shambolic indie outfit or Shoreditch hipsters. This band means business and they ain’t taking prisoners. Powerhouse drummer Sam stokes things up from the back and alongside bass player Jack builds a platform for Ebony’s monster over-driven riffs and Andy’s manic, demented prowling and half-shouted/half-sung vocals. It’s loud, aggressive and in-yer-face but make no mistake, they’re great players and the songs are all carefully crafted. When they crank out “Pummelling a Monk” and “Modern Pussy” to close the set, you know you’ve witnessed something a bit special. As for musical genre, who knows; it’s hard and heavy but the lyrics are fairly leftfield, maybe nu-metal indie? Anyway, they make a glorious noise and you can’t take your eyes off the stage. That spells great gig to me.

We’ll be down at the front again some time soon, meanwhile have a look at this:

Carrie Elkin ScrollerEvery once in a while a gig comes along that restores your faith in London audiences; this was one of those gigs. The basement of The Slaughtered Lamb was packed to bursting with music fans and every single one of them wanted to listen and pay attention to two superb and engaging performers, Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt. Both were on stage throughout the two sets, but the opening set featured Danny Schmidt’s songs with Carrie supplying harmonies while the second set was mainly songs from Carrie’s outstanding new album, “The Penny Collector”. Throughout both sets, Carrie and Danny, singly and as a double act, kept the audience entertained with jokes, anecdotes and outright weirdness as a counterpoint to the beauty of the songs.

Danny’s opening set demonstrated the huge range of his writing and performance, from the barnstorming opener with about half a dozen false endings to the intensely personal song “We Need another Word” and the very wordy closer “Stained Glass”. As a songwriter, he can do the simple, moving songs but also has the more unusual ability to create songs that are packed with witty ideas without sounding self-consciously clever.

For the second set, the emphasis shifted to Carrie and the new album while Danny played guitar and added some gorgeous harmonies to a set of songs written at a pivotal and emotional point in their lives. The context of the album is made fairly clear by the narrative, but in the live setting Carrie and Danny added observations and anecdotes to flesh out the picture; some are poignant, some are just hilarious. Their set featured a couple of covers, Paul Simon’s “American Tune” (featured on the album) and Richard Thompson’s “Dimming of the Day” with the remainder of the set coming mainly from the new album, including “New Mexico”, “Always on the Run”, the hauntingly beautiful “And Then the Birds Came”, and “Live Wire” and “Tilt-a-Whirl” which explore different eras in the process of growing up. Carrie’s energy and good humour would pull you in to her orbit even if the songs were average (they’re not), and the fun between songs acts as a a counterpoint to the seriousness of the material.

Carrie Elkin and Danny Schmidt poured heart and soul into creating a performance that kept the audience transfixed and lifted the spirits of everyone in the room. They even dispelled the gloom of public transport in London late at night. Good work Green Note for promoting the show, and you can still see Carrie and Danny around the UK until Sunday June 11.

NGG Scrolleribbles and fizz in Soho on a Friday evening, followed by an intimate gig in The Library in St Martin’s Lane; you’d be mad not to. The point of this little intimate soiree was to focus our attention on GG, a Russian singer-songwriter trying to make an impact in the UK. GG did all the meet and greet with genuine warmth, entertaining us grizzled old music business hacks and winning them over her sense of humour. All very civilised, but then it was time for the showcase at The Library. Now, I like a bit of variety as much as anyone, but a bearded Scandinavian singer/songwriter performing songs about how much he loves his sister in an Estuary/Bob Marley accent is outside my comfort zone – the audience weren’t too keen either.

So, up next was GG, stripping her recorded arrangements back to just her vocal and the subtle and delicate piano backing of Molly Laws. You could hear elements of Tori Amos, or maybe even Kate Bush in there; the songs were strong with almost mesmeric repetition of half-lines, the piano providing the perfect musical setting for GG’s hugely charismatic and theatrical performance. Showcase gigs can sometimes be bearpits, with audience factions only interested in the artist they’ve come to support, but from the moment GG started to sing the background chatter stopped and all attention focussed on the stage. You get four stars just for achieving that in a showcase environment.

GG’s single “4 Days” is out now.

Nuala ScrollerSometimes it feels like every time you turn around, another iconic venue vanishes, but it’s not all doom and gloom; some entrepreneurs are bucking the trend and I had the chance see the opening night at a new venue just off Pentonville Road this week. From the outside, 2Northdown looks completely anonymous. Only the presence of security staff hints at something interesting inside; there wasn’t a green door, but I told them Ray sent me and someone laughed out loud but I was in. the priorities of the management team are obvious as soon as you walk through the door. The bar is basic, and cash only, but the sound system is good and the stage is very photographer-friendly with a completely uncluttered black backdrop and some basic but effective white floods to light the stage. Top marks there.

For the opening night of Acoustic Sex, Ray Jones (formerly of Time Out) put together a bill of artists who have been attracting attention for some time now. Nuala’s mix of busker attitude, a huge voice and the ability to incorporate distractions like a phone ringing and breaking a string into her lyrics was a great start to the night. The string-breaking incident gave Ray a chance to hustle a quick guest spot from Steve Young, who also loaned Nuala his guitar to finish the set. Next up was Lisa Marini with her fusion of traditional singer-songwriter and smooth jazz (featuring Arthur Newell on drums and Jack Tustin on upright bass). It was eclectic, with Lisa starting the set with a uke before switching to a lovely nylon-strung Godin guitar for the rest of the set. The audience were completely engrossed and you could have heard a pin drop, or the shutters of half a dozen Nikons on burst mode.

To close the evening out, the final set was from Joe Slater, down from Liverpool for the day, full of cold or flu germs, but still game for a raucous half-hour set. As always, in the words of Ray Jones, he knocked it out of the park. He’s a natural songwriter and his voice and delivery are huge. His penultimate song, “Rainbow”, is what “Imagine” could have been if John Lennon had still been hungry and not living in a mansion in Weybridge; this guy has talent, and the balls to finish with a cover of “Champagne Supernova” which had the entire audience singing along.

Great venue, great atmosphere and great performers; what more do you need to know?

If you want to see some pictures of the event, go to Nuala, Lisa or Joe.

Winter Mountain Review scrollerWinter Mountain’s album “I Swear I Flew”, which was released in mid-November last year was one of those that worked perfectly as a coherent, self-contained project; you should really listen to it. It was also one of those that made you want to hear the songs played live. I got the chance to do that at 229 Venue 2 and I was absolutely right; it was exceptional, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. The album is mainly (but not completely) quiet and introspective but the live show was a very different beast.

Support on the night was Cornish singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer, who warmed up a gradually-increasing crowd with a mix of the traditional (“Cadgwith Anthem”) and twenty-first century protest songs like “Build a Wall” – you can probably guess what that one’s about. With a decent voice, some interesting chat between songs and a playing style that uses a thumb instead of a pick (anyone remember Richie Havens?), Josiah got the audience onside and ready for the headliners.

Winter Mountain’s set opened with the wistful, impassioned romanticism of “Girl in the Coffee Shop”, a chance to set the tone for the evening, demonstrating Joe’s soulful voice and allowing the band to ease their way in before the Springsteenesque roar of “Sunlight, Good Roads”. Joe Francis has created a unique mixture with Winter Mountain, blending influences from the worlds of folk (mainly Gaelic), roots, country rock, southern boogie, straight ahead rock and many others. Springsteen aside, you can hear echoes of Hothouse Flowers, The Waterboys, Rob Thomas and Gin Blossoms (remember them?). The set had its quieter, more reflective, moments, particularly the (almost) solo interlude featuring “The Morning Bell”, the poignant “January Stars”, “Lucky Ones” and “Stronger When You Hold Me” but the set really caught fire when the band were playing full-tilt songs like “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” in balls-out Lynyrd Skynyrd mode as Joe started throwing lyrics from Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” into the mix. So hats off to Alik Peters-Deacon (guitar), Jake Galvin (bass) and Garry Kroll (drums) for a great, dynamic set and also to 229’s sound man, who did a lovely job in a venue that was barely half full.

Anything else you should know? The songs were split almost evenly between the first and second albums and the set ended with a Beatles cover, the early “Oh! Darling”. The audience was completely silent during the quiet songs and went bananas during the raucous ones. The band covered all the bases of the glorious musical mash-up perfectly, while Joe’s powerhouse voice left you in no doubt that he has a massive rock voice as well. It wasn’t quiet the night I‘d expected, but it was a belter; that’s the way to spend a Thursday night in London.

Coming to a festival near you soon, I imagine.

You can see some photos from the gig here.

Rackhouse Pilfer review scrollerIf you look at the star rating at the top of this piece, you might think I was a bit lukewarm about Rackhouse Pilfer, but the band was very good; that wasn’t the problem. There are a lot of other things that can take the shine off a potentially great evening, so let’s get those out of the way before we go any further. There are notices all around the venue reminding the audience not to talk during performances; it didn’t make any difference, particularly during Elly O’Keefe’s support set. To add insult to injury, the sound, particularly the vocals, was pretty muddy throughout the night (maybe the position of the sound desk, to one side of the stage, doesn’t help) which isn’t helpful when there are six instruments and some lovely vocal harmonies featuring all six band members. And that’s before we mention the snare rattling constantly throughout Elly O’Keefe’s set. So what about the good stuff? 

Well, Elly’s set was solid singer-songwriter material delivered, mainly her own songs with one cover, John Martyn’s “Over the Hill”. Her chord progressions were interesting, she strummed and picked and her voice went all the way from a delicate whisper to a bluesy shout. As the audience chatter got louder, so did she and eventually she won the contest. 

Rackhouse Pilfer was another proposition entirely; six musicians, all of them singers as well, is a very different kind of sound. With various combinations of drums, upright bass, mandolin, acoustic guitar, fiddle, slide resonator and banjo the band is totally at ease with a variety of textures and they sounded convincing across a spectrum ranging from Irish traditional through bluegrass, Hank Williams country (“Why Don’t You Love Me Like You Used to Do?”), the seventies Laurel Canyon scene and Steve Earle’s “Copperhead Road”. I missed murder ballads, didn’t I? 

The original songs from the last album, particularly “Angela” and “Two Oceans” are powerful live and the playing (individually and as an ensemble) is spot on, but Rackhouse Pilfer have one more trick. When all six members sing and when all the voices are working together perfectly, it’s something very special indeed; it’s hard not to make that Eagles comparison when you hear those harmonies. The niggly little things that tarnished the night a little were out of the band’s control and only made me determined to see Rackhouse Pilfer doing their eclectic mix in a more congenial environment next time. You should keep an eye out for them.

Here are some pictures from the gig.

Howard Jones Gallery ScrollerWell, that was an interesting experience. For most of the evening I felt like a gatecrasher at a meeting of a benevolent religious sect. I never felt unwelcome but, as an impartial observer (I liked the run of singles between 1983 and 1986) I couldn’t share the devotion of the fans who had all the albums, knew all the songs, B-sides included, and had stayed with Howard Jones for over thirty years. And I’ve never seen so many couples in their forties/fifties cuddling at a gig. These were people who had grown up with Howard’s music and made it part of their lives. Taking their cue from his Buddhist beliefs, they were ready to welcome outsiders to the celebration; they certainly extended their welcome to Rachael Sage as a support act.

I’m slightly biased; I saw Rachael a couple of times last year and loved her “Choreographic” album. Accompanied by her usual duo partner, violinist Kelly Halloran, she played a short (thirty minute) set taken mainly from the latest album, featuring “Loreena”, “I Don’t Believe It” and “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and a new, unreleased, song about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the plight of the people of Standing Rock Reservation. The Howard Jones fans warmed to Rachael’s very personal style of writing and the powerful performance of her guitar and keyboard-driven songs punctuated by Kelly’s violin (ever heard wah-wah violin before?) and occasional backing vocals. A great audience response and the stage was set.

Howard Jones performs solo, with only a digital piano as accompaniment and it’s quite a challenge to deliver a set featuring songs that were mainly driven by big eighties synths, but he’s worked hard to pare down the arrangements for this format. Unlike a lot of eighties nostalgia acts, he sticks to his own material (with one exception) because he knows his audience and he knows what they want to hear. He knows what they want to hear because they’ve been emailing their requests for months and the set’s based on those requests. Value for money? It’s a full two hour set with the songs (including “New song”, “What is Love?”, “Like to Get to Know You Well” and “No One is to Blame” and lots of album tracks) interspersed with Howard’s anecdotes and the fans’ reasons for requesting particular songs. And that’s the only real problem for me; the stories of people’s lives, with the triumphs and tragedies, attached to particular songs evoke memories of the sickly Simon Bates “Our Tune” feature which premiered on Radio One in the eighties.

That aside, Howard Jones’ solo piano accompaniment works perfectly and his voice is holding up really well. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this gig, but I was entertained without being totally engaged and it was fascinating to see such a loyal audience. And the one non-Howard Jones song was a George Michael tribute – “Careless Whisper”.

You can see photos of Rachael Sage here and Howard Jones here.

imgID72704821.jpg.gallery[1]‘Well, I said hello to the spirit of 1956,

Who was stationed in the bushes next to ’57….’

Thus sang Jonathan Richman on one of the dozen best songs ever recorded, “Roadrunner”.

I encountered the same spirits on a soggy Thursday night in Leek. It’s not what you expect, really and I would have appreciated fair warning but there it is.

A modest but politely enthusiastic audience was more a reflection of the night rather than ‘the turn’. Leek, one of the highest towns in England – ‘Queen of the Moorlands’, baby – was sloshing about in the remains of the tropical storm which had brought a well-morphed spirit of the Caribbean many miles away from source. This exotic and fantastical weather ‘bomb’ was well named by the time it reached these climes.

Doris. Queen of the wet and windy.

So one for the hardy, very local or true believers.

First up, support from a local musician and leading light in the Leek Blues Fest – end of last week in September 2017 for those of you young enough to believe in the idea of forward planning – Mike Gledhill, an affable singer-songwriter who played an amiable bunch of self-penned songs, one of which he entertainingly claimed he wrote with J.J. Cale….”he just doesn’t know it yet…!” all of which amounted to a pleasant enough starter-upper.

John Lewis is, in his solo incarnation, a revelation from the second he hits the strings. Within the first four songs it is pretty obvious we’re in the presence of something a bit special here. His repertoire wanders with total comfort between 1956 rockabilly skeletons, Hank Williams-esque country painfests, straight-ahead four on the floor R’n’B – tinged rock ‘n’ roll that Chuck Berry made his own, and the prehistoric pop sensibilities of Buddy Holly. How does he manage this?

Well, for a start, this guy has A Voice. And it’s usually the voice which lets down a perfectly acceptable ‘Americana’ (hate the term – but bear with me) act, especially the blues. But this guy has got the whole thing going on. I find it incredible that one bloke’s voice can capture the essence of the pained ache of the aforementioned Hank Williams (done badly it just sounds like mawkish sentimentality – and John Lewis doesn’t appear to do mawkish sentimentality), the tremulous, vulnerable majesty of Roy Orbison, the mean, gritty swagger of some of the other Sun-era originals like Sonny Burgess, Charlie Feathers et al, and the popped-up sweetness of Buddy and yes, at one point, Elvis and of course, Johnny Cash. Not only that, he is positively expert on a range of guitars that look like they really ought to be nailed to the wall in a museum in Nashville or used as agricultural instruments.

Here is a man who is on top of his game, big style. You don’t have the likes of Imelda May helping out on his beautiful celebration of dadness, “Waltz Around the Kitchen”, or The Jets providing back-up on some of his recordings without knowing your chops. What I find similarly astonishing is the authenticity which having a ‘stamping board’ – which looks like a heavily-modified pallet – as your rhythm section. And to keep that going with metronome precision throughout a set which requires a variety of pace changes mid-song can’t be easy, not to mention physically exhausting.

What is it about the Welsh? Why do they produce such brilliant rock ‘n’ rollers? Crazy Cavan and the Rhythm Rockers; the much-maligned Shakin’ Stevens; Geraint Watkins; Ricky Valance (first Welshman to have a UK number 1 hit; ask your grandma.) Even Sir Thomas The Jones started out with beat-group derivatives of old-school r and r. And John Lewis sits fairly and squarely in the middle of this tradition. Already. And you feel there’s still plenty to come.

Perhaps the best compliment you can pay an artist who features a number of ‘covers’ in their set is that the originals are not fillers you sit through politely before he chucks in a crackling, impatient “Help Me” or an incendiary “Baby Please Don’t Go”. By focussing on the fundamentals, family relationships (“Waltz”) paying the bills or not (“Money Troubles”) or social exclusion (“Not Quite the Not”) his own stuff sits in perfect context with a whole range of classics which span early skiffle, work songs, blues and country. Modern sensibilities, mark you; “Money Troubles” is a beaut, naming the beast in a direct and modern setting. I mean, if he was writing ‘baby left me and mah mule got lame, lost mah money in a poker game’ you’d wonder quite what the point was. So he doesn’t.

And that quite stunning voice enables him to interpret an old and well-worn song with vision and flexibility. I mean, “Always on My Mind” sung by Elvis always sounds to me like ‘I may not be perfect but regarding our relationship I’m always Elvis Presley.’ Sung by Willie Nelson, it sounds like ‘I’m nowhere near perfect but regarding our relationship, this is the about the best I can manage.’ Here is an interpreter of other people’s songs who thinks about what they mean to him, not just his own material, and that isn’t necessarily a given.

Note to self; go and see The Real John Lewis, as the microphone stand proclaims, as a trio and see how that changes the dynamic of things. I’d imagine that freed from having to be his own personalised rhythm section there’d be some real pyrotechnics then. And also, must go see him in an over-full, sweaty cave somewhere filled with the drunk and the raucous rather than the sparsely-populated but admittedly lovely high-ceilinged Victoriana of the Foxlowe Centre.

I stop mid-gush to voice two slight concerns. Firstly, regards old rockabilly and rock n roll, (I flatly refuse to use the term Americana as I hate it with a vengeance) virtually the entire world is looking in a direction away from the original source of music as we know it at the moment. How is this phenomenal talent to break out of the limitations of the genre? And secondly, what exactly IS the genre? And DON’T say Americana, I will not be held responsible for my actions. Sooner or later, a ‘breakthrough’ airplay track may well compel The Real John Lewis to define himself a little more precisely than his talent would probably feel comfortable with. At that point The Real John Lewis – or a version of – might be forced to stand up. (At which point the rhythm section will fall silent, ‘cos you can’t do the stomp rhythm thing unless you’re sitting down.)

But neither of these things are the artist’s problem and neither are they particularly within his control, either.

And the latter might be a nice problem to have. It would be no more or less than he deserves.

New acoustic album “His Other Side” comes out on February 26th, I’m told. Website www.therealjohnlewis.com