Gallery – Now and Then – Graham Parker: wp.me/p1Yhtj-1G6

Graham Parker live @the Union Chapel: wp.me/p1Yhtj-1Fo

GP TitleSo, Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel and I have to say that this one has a special significance for me. The first proper gig I saw was Brinsley Schwarz (the band) playing at Mansfield Civic Theatre on February 25, 1974 and you can read about that gig here. As a student I saw Graham Parker and The Rumour play at Dundee University Students’ Association (April 20, 1978 if you must know, and £1.50 to get in) and the following year at The Odeon in Edinburgh. The songs were great and the band was on fire at that time; Graham Parker should have had huge commercial success, either at that time or without The Rumour in the early eighties, but it didn’t happen. He’s continued to write, make albums, and play as a solo artist and with various group lineups, mainly in the USA, but after 2012’s “Three Chords Good” album which reunited The Rumour, the UK seems to be ready to clasp him to its bosom again.

The audience in The Union Chapel was pretty much what you would expect for this type of gig and surprisingly well-behaved (no loud conversations about how terrible the journey to the gig was or whinges about the bar prices) apart from the bunch that wanted to help GP by braying along like a tone-deaf rugby team; you can’t win them all. With a body of work going back around forty-five years and a new album to promote as well, there’s a chance that you might not get to hear their favourite song; it must have been my lucky night, because I heard two of mine.

The set started with a GP solo version of my first favourite, “Watch the Moon Come Down”, which lends itself to an acoustic interpretation and it’s probably known by most of the old fans so it was the perfect way to ease everyone in before the almost new “Stop Crying About the Rain” from “Three Chords Good”. It’s great to see Brinsley Schwarz back in live action again; his musicianship has always been superb and his harmonies add another layer to the sound. It’s not The Rumour, but it’s a big enough sound to work in an intimate venue like The Union Chapel.

The set spanned the forty years from the release of “Howlin’ Wind” (which was well represented with “White Honey”, “Silly Thing”, “Not if it Pleases Me” and “Don’t Ask Me Questions”) to the new album, “Mystery Glue” which has three songs featured: “Railroad Spikes”, “I’ve Done Bad Things” and “Flying into London”. There was an obvious warmth and camaraderie between Brinsley and Graham as well as between the audience and the performers throughout the set; GP seemed very much at ease with the whole thing and his voice still sounds superb.

As you might expect, there were a couple of interesting choices. The encore opened with an a cappella solo version of the Gershwin classic “Someone to Watch over Me” and ended with the big seventies hit “Hold Back the Night”. Throw in a scattering of great songs (“Turned up Too Late”, “Under the Mask of Happiness”, “Nation of Shopkeepers”, “Passion Is No Ordinary Word”, “Back to Schooldays” and “Stick to Me”) from across the forty year period and you’ve got a pretty good summary of the career of one of our greatest singer-songwriters. And as for that second favourite song of mine – the second song of the encore was one of the best and most harrowing songs I know. “You Can’t Be Too Strong” (from the album “Squeezing Out Sparks”) is a controversial but very brave piece of songwriting which sounds as relevant now as it did in 1979.

So, Graham Parker can still do it live and this was a pretty good selection of his best songs of the last forty years. He looks relaxed in the live partnership with Brinsley Schwarz, but I suspect that the best is still to come with the reformed Rumour promoting “Mystery Glue” which is out on Monday May 18. You can also hear him doing a guest vocal on the new Stone Foundation album “A Life Unlimited” which is released in the UK in August this year.

Leek Blues and Americana Festival, 2018

Well, let’s get this one out of the way to start with; the main reason I found myself actually able to catch a whole chunk of the Leek B and A Fest 2018 was that I was due to visit Holmfirth Picturedrome with me old mucker and noted rock snapper Allan McKay in order to see Graham Parker perform with his band, the Goldtops, and elements of The Rumour.

They were indeed utterly splendid and absolutely what you’d expect from one of Britain’s most soulful singer songwriters with a great new album in “Cloud Symbols” and a back catalogue approaching legendary status.

But that was on Sunday night which gave us the opportunity of meeting up earlier in the week and taking in chunks of the aforementioned – and what a joy it was!

There can be fewer more pleasurable experiences than strolling about a smart and compact English market town with a few old mates, and wandering into various pubs, clubs and other spaces at pretty much any time of day and night, being reeled in by the lure of live music pouring out of an open door or window and the convivial attraction of good beer and the congregation of the like–minded. Sort of a bit like Memphis, or New Orleans, kind of (but a damn sight colder and with better beer and different accents on the vocals. Not to mention a significantly smaller risk of being shot).

The downside, of course, given the nature of the event (5 days, 20 venues, 60+ acts) is that it’s all a bit hit and miss. Some you are going to really enjoy, some are going to be OK and some you’ll be checking your watch. But beauty is in the ear of the beer holder and it’s best just to stick your pin in the copious and well–prepared guide, try and visit as many venues as possible and whatever you come up against, enjoy it for what it is. And have another beer.

Pre–festival warm–ups were worth a dabble in; Foxlowe Films kicked things off on Tuesday with “Sidemen; Long Road To Glory” which features the long and winding road of Howlin’ Wolf and Muddy Waters ‘sidemen’ Pinetop Perkins, Hubert Sumlin and Willie ‘Big Eyes’ Smith, leading from sharecropping days through to winning a Grammy; after which Pine Top Perkins, then aged 97, virtually went home and died, his two fellow musicians all entering that great Juke Joint in the Sky in the same year. Win a Grammy; Triple Whammy. Ain’t that the blues?

And so we’re off and running with a nice low–key introduction with what K-Tel used to describe as Various Artists mixing and matching in a very agreeable fashion, ably curated by Mike Gledhill, who also presented the previous night’s film with similar aplomb. Labelled Leek Blues Acoustic Session, it was, sort of – and despite a few participants using various pieces of kit with mains leads stuck to them it would have been churlish and indeed probably a bit weird to ‘do a Dylan’ and start hollering ‘Judas!’ at those acts ‘cheating’ with the mains. However and be that as it may, a very lovely and convivial introduction to proceedings.

Friday was kick–off proper and for us it started at The Beerdock at half six–ish. The scheduled “Cold Heart Revue” was replaced at short notice by an amiable young gentleman whose name sadly escapes me with a gruff vocal style, an attacking but pretty limited repertoire on an acoustic guitar and a selection of self–penned songs which didn’t do much for me either but, as I say, if you do Blues Fest right you’ll wander about and some will hit your spot and some will miss but full marks to him for stepping up to the plate. Full marks to the Beer Dock, also, for their ‘cut out the middleman’ initiative where despite a lack of a urinal in the gents, they were creative enough to sell beer from what appeared to be one at the side of the bar.

On, then, to Rewind, where we were to meet Red Berryn and the One Dozen Berries presenting a Chuck Berry tribute act. You have to suspend disbelief a bit here as Chucker himself is white and has red hair. However after that there were certain similarities. Nobody in his life ever accused him of being a great singer, or indeed a great guitarist and so far we’re right with the programme there but the songbook is the best ever and well, you can’t miss with a Chuck, can you? Our ‘Chuck’ also displayed certain key Chuck Berryhaviours which drove audiences to distraction in his lifetime; like inviting the extremely tasty harmonica player forward to play a classy solo and then trampling and clanging all over his efforts with this huge thug of a red Gibson copy whilst he did….which the REAL CB was extremely guilty of, a lot of the time. Ask Keith Richards. It was good fun though….especially when I was taken by the creeping realisation that Santa was playing the drums. I kid you not – I saw the drummer being Santa Claus at a few local events last year! And seeing a white Chuck Berry with red hair doing the duck walk backed by Santa on drums in the middle of Leek is not something I will forget in a hurry. Roll Over, Beethoven.

Funk Station had started at Society at the same time and we’d decided to split our attention between these two acts so by the time we got to said venue the whole place had been effectively transported back to 1979. The décor of the place helped – I have never seen so many mirror balls in one place – and so did the band, who turned their trick with considerable dexterity and panache. Just in case you hadn’t ‘got it’ from the clue in the band name they are a Dance Band. They play late seventies / early eighties disco / funk covers with a few 60s and 70s soul classics lobbed in to the mix. They were dead tight and spot on right for both crowd and venue. 30 years back these people would have been earning a small fortune on the Mecca circuit. Their brass section is Brass Construction punchy, their drummer is as Funky As; and even though the vocalist was a bit ‘functional’ she hurled herself around with enthusiasm and did a great job of working what was for most of the time a packed dance floor of happy, smiling folks. Play That Funky Music, White Boy, indeed.

It was a difficult party to leave but leave it we did and headed to catch the dying embers of the Night Owls Blues Band at The Red Lion. This did indeed Take Me Back; these lads were exactly the type of band I’d be featuring some quarter of a century previously when I was presenting music from various ‘Old School’ R’n’B bands on various FM local stations around the Midlands. They sounded spirited enough and with plenty of grit and spit from outside the venue but once inside, oh blimey, were they sold short by the lack of a mixing desk and sound bod. Sometimes bands seem to manage this themselves OK; but sometimes you’re just left with a sibilant mess and the return of tinnitus which is what I took away from The Red Lion; which was a shame because if you stuffed your fingers in your ears, the guitarist was worth the entry fee alone and his mates weren’t far behind him either. My mate who collects guitars and has played on a bona fide American top five pop chart hit reckons it was pretty much the guitar of the festival. I wouldn’t know.

From there it was back to The Cock and Elvis Fontenot. Local people whose ears I respect had been prodding me towards seeing these folks before and I just hadn’t gotten A Round Tuit. Note to self; stock up on a catering pack of rotund Tuits with immediate effect. Elvis Fontenot – an explosion of manic cajun and punk–zydeco energy. The outside area at The Cock is long and quite narrow and so if you find yourself at the front, they are In Your Face in a big way. A gurning bundle of leering, squealing, careening, lurching riot, they are Big Fun. Combining the pace of a Ska band and the intensity of punk with squeeze box and scrub–board tricks and tuneage born on the bayou, this was full of vivacious kick and naughtiness but with extremely high standards of musicianship and let’s hear it for the sound man who kept the whole thing in beautiful balance. Absolutely the best thing at the Festival so far. Mama’s Got A Squeeze Box. Somebody Sign These People – Now.

And so to Saturday and the evening starts early for us at 2PM at The Roebuck. The place is rammed and we only get a passing scent of Pete Latham and Al Bruce but they sounded pretty damn good at long range. Over the road to The Cock and it is time for Steelin’ The Blues. Steve Ajao and Stewart Johnson were up from Birmingham and are we glad they made the trip. An hour of classic country blues and juke joint blues played on acoustic with attitude by a guy who should be doing voices for commercials in near industrial quantities, combined with some of the most appropriate and sympathetic slide playing I’ve heard for some time. It wasn’t just good, it was brilliant. You couldn’t possibly feel better listening to songs of misery and suffering. Cathartic. Just what the blues does for you when it is Right.

With a stunning lack of ambition we then crossed the road again to The Roebuck where Zacc Rogers was holding court. Now, he’s a bit of a ‘Marmite’ act, is Zacc Rogers. You’re either going to be unmoved and feel it’s just a bit weird, or you’re going to be fascinated by his act. He uses sound ‘looping’ tricks with beat box, heavily modified harmonicas and a variety of guitars which look like the bad kid from Toy Story has been doing unspeakable things to them. What comes out of the speakers is sort of Brian Wilson meets Bobby McFerrin at a punk gig whilst busking. Yes, I would agree it is stretching the Blues envelope a bit but Americana, probably fair enough. Dapper snapper Mr McKay was unmoved, saying he’d heard better in this genre, others in our party said they could see it was extremely clever but compared to what we’d just heard from Steelin’ The Blues – so what?

Me? I loved it. This guy has got rhythm in everything he touches and his sense of timing absolutely knocked me over. And was I entertained? You betcha. Go see Zacc Rogers. Make your own mind up. He’d convinced many at The Roebuck, though, who cheered him to the rafters.

We just missed The Extras at Benks and set out towards The Britannia. This is an old style seventies-looking town pub; just right for the sort of London ‘pub rock’ which back in the day would see the likes of Kilburn and the High Roads, Dr Feelgood, The Kursaal Flyers, The Motors and Eddie and the Hot Rods plying their trade. So Reefy Blunt and the Biftas were by no means a bad call. Guitarist does a good line in Wilko Johnson, drummer good and solid, bass player (five strings, not a good sign) seems to think he’s playing jazz and the vocalist is a good, raspy harp player. What you see is what you get. Beery, raspy R’n’B. Old School.

Back then to Benks and Malpractice are setting up. Clue’s in the name; expect solid Dr Feelgood and similar. Problem is they ARE actually setting up and the mixing desk, which is right in front of the PA, is being twiddled by the singer, who leaves the faders open whilst holding the mic right next to the PA stack. Dogs Began to Bark, Hounds Began to Howl.

However, once sound checks done, they fair tore into a smattering of Feelgoods leavened with a bit of Sam The Sham and The Pharoahs and Rory Gallagher, even, the singer staggering around threateningly in that Lee Brilleaux sort of style. Totally convincing guitar sound, nice unfussy bass, metronmic drumming. Solid Senders. We left that as the singer was asking me if I’d Ever Woke Up With Those Bullfrogs On My Mind. I was beginning to realise I would wake up with something like it.

A head–clearing walk across town to The Wellington, where local legends The Lester Hunt Band were amiably ambling their way through a set. I’d recently reviewed Hunter at The Foxlowe – but this was an entirely different affair, mainly rock and blues / rock covers for an audience who had seen the band on a number of occasions. It was a pleasant enough listen but some of the tunes just weren’t well chosen; “Summer of ‘69” didn’t work particularly well, a sort of Dire Straits plays “All Along The Watch Tower” didn’t seem like the best idea of the night and a positively soporific “Whole Lot Of Shaking Going On” almost had me ordering a round of Horlicks. However, they kicked it up a notch for Hunter’s Italian number 1, “Rock On”, despite being a fiddle-free zone, played with a bit of fizz, during which a young woman in the audience did the splits, I spotted Santa playing the drums again and that was pretty much your lot for Saturday.

As already explained we were set to head out for Holmfirth and Graham Parker but we’d been invited to attend Foxlowe Arts Centre at 2PM to see Mean Mary and Frank James and it looked like if we pulled our finger out we’d just about manage that. Mr Mckay is much in demand as a snapper these days and he was pleased to pull in a shoot with Lissy Taylor before we had to do a runner. And on both counts it was a good thing to be his ‘bagman’ as Mean Mary and Bro were Quality, writ large. Not only is she some banjo player – she’s some songwriter, too – and despite the warm and welcoming between track raps with the audience, these are songs with teeth and a voice with a real country soul, containing all the pride, pain and steel of a country diva. She’s more than a bit good and you really must catch her somewhere; she’s already being mentioned in tones of reverence at one of the radio stations where I occasionally ‘work’.

And finally before disappearing in a cloud of unfashionable diesel smoke we caught 5 minutes of Lissy Taylor – just long enough to wish it had been longer than five minutes as a ghostly waft of a certain Ms. Winehouse hung in the voice left back in the room.

Leek Blues Festival week is worth making ‘a bit of a do’ out of. It is never less than entertaining and you will, at various points, bump into some truly great music; and in other places you’ll bump into music which might be a bit less than great, but you might well enjoy it – and that’s the point really. Just like a well–stocked real ale bar, you’ll have choices. But you can’t exercise choice if you ain’t there.

My advice for 2019? Simple! Be there.

Steve Jenner, Live from the Denford Delta

In his usual desperate attempt to get as many photos as possible crammed into this feature, Allan has split his photos into male and female artists. The photographer’s ego knows no bounds. Anyway, in no particular order, here are the photos and his helpful comments:

Glenn Alexander – If you’ve been following closely, you might have heard about one of my favourite nights of the year watching Southside Johnny in Kentish Town. I’ve been photographing various incarnations of The Jukes for about 10 years now and this was probably the best opportunity I’ve had. You have to be on the ball to photograph these guys because you have no idea what’s coming next; trust me, I’ve seen them dozens of times. What you can predict is that there will be plenty of photo opportunities. Glenn Alexander is a stunningly good guitar player (and a lovely guy) who has been known to throw a few guitar hero shapes. During the three songs I had (before the Gilson Lavis guest appearance), I managed to catch this during a solo.

Andy Teece – You might not have heard of HVMM (pronounced ‘hum’) yet; I’m pretty certain you will. They’re a bunch of very good musicians who have gone down the loud route but don’t just produce noise; the rhythm section’s one of the best I’ve heard in a long time and guitar player Ebony and singer Andy Teece constantly compete for attention musically and visually. The first time I saw them, the lighting was so bad that I only managed to get one good shot of Ebony, but promised myself (and the band) that I would be back for more. So I found myself at The Sebright Arms on a Wednesday with heavy duty earplugs at the ready. Every member of the band is eye-catching, but Andy struts and prowls around the stage like a pinball hitting invisible bumpers. He’s difficult to capture but the rewards when you do are exceptional. This was my favourite shot.

 

Graham Parker – I first photographed Graham Parker nearly forty years ago at Dundee University Students’ Association. This year, Stone Foundation gave me another opportunity when Graham guested at their Shepherds Bush Empire gig in October (thanks for the pass guys) and I was determined to make the most of it. I knew he was guesting during the band’s set, but I wanted to get a good shot during the solo set that capture the passion of his delivery. It was a surprisingly upbeat set, but still delivered with blood and thunder. The white lighting from behind just made the shot perfect.

Dean Owens – If you ever read anything on MusicRiot or my Facebook page, you’ll know that I’m a fan of Dean Owens; his songwriting combines lovely melodies and lyrics that focus on contemporary Scotland with some excursions into history and more remote locations. Did I mention his voice? Oh, he can sing and then some; you should really go and see him. I have, quite a few times, but I’ve never been able to get the killer shot that really did him justice. So you keep trying and when he announced that he was supporting Grant-Lee Phillips at The Borderline, I was there (with the Riot Squad of course, they’re huge fans as well). After a bit of experimentation with angles, I managed to grab this; I think I finally got that killer shot.

Grant-Lee Phillips – And how about this? It’s a bit like buses; you wait months for one and then two come along almost side by side. After Dean had done his set, Grant-Lee Phillips took the stage for his set. After the work I’d put in on getting ideal angles for Dean, it was a lot easier with Grant-Lee. The completely uncluttered stage helped as well because there were no unwelcome visual distractions. After seeing this one on the screen, I decided that it couldn’t get better and the best thing to do would be to go and drink tequila with Dean, his manager Morag and my gig buddy Paul. You can guess how that ended.

As gigs go, music journalism and photography is about as good as it gets for this ‘wee boy fae East Wemyss’. When you do something for over a decade you’re going to have a few frustrating experiences; what you hope for is that the genuine bangers even up the balance, maybe even tip it into the positive. It’s no exaggeration to say that 2017 has been astonishing year with some moments that would have my eighteen-year-old self wondering how on earth all that happened. But even with the volume anchored at ten, there were some moments when it sneaked up to eleven (‘it’s one higher’). In no particular order, these are some of those moments.

Stone Foundation @Islington Assembly Hall – I’ve been a fan of Stone Foundation since the moment I stuck a promo of their album “To Find the Spirit” in the CD player about four years ago. It hit me with that sucker punch of Hammond and horns from the first bell and followed it up with a hit of pure twenty-first century British soul. I’ve watched as the band’s abilities and sheer bloody hard work have steadily moved them up the rankings. I guess it helps that they’re such a great bunch of people as well.

Their latest album “Street Rituals” was recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studios with Mr Weller guesting on a couple of songs and now they can headline at the bigger London venues. So when they announced a tour gig at Islington Assembly Hall, it looked like a reasonably good punt for a Paul Weller guest appearance, the odds shortening when, collecting my photo pass, I discovered that access to the pit was for the entire set. It wasn’t just limited to one Magic Moment either. Not only did PW join the band to take the lead vocal on the gorgeous “Your Balloon is Rising”, he also appeared later for a cracking version of “What’s Goin’ On” (with a hint of “Something in the Air”). Not only two great performances that might never be repeated, but one of my favourite photos of the year (above). More SF to come…

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes @The Forum, Kentish Town – I first heard Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in 1977 and I was hooked instantly. I’ve never fallen out of love with that voice and the sound of that band (Hammond and horns again, with big rock guitars as well), but I could never have imagined the first time I heard “The Fever” it would mean the start of a long-term relationship rather than a one-night stand. Fast-forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century and things get a bit intense – I was asked to do some green room shots of Gilson Lavis presenting Southside with a pen and ink portrait of himself he’d done a few months before. And then I was asked to interview Gilson about his upcoming New York art exhibition and to take some photos of the gig.

I was in the green room with one of my all-time heroes and his incredible band, shooting the breeze and listening as the band arranged a guest performance with Gilson before being thanked by one of the band for a review I’d written of his side project. HTF did that happen? And then they went on to play a storming set with Gilson guesting on “Key to the Highway”. I still can’t believe it.

Stone Foundation @The Empire – This one’s easy; you can get all the background above. No surprises this time, I knew from the off that Graham Parker was the support for this gig. I’ve always been a huge fan and I was at the gig with my old friend and sometime MusicRiot contributor Steve Jenner and his lovely wife Sue. While I was backstage sorting out my accreditation, I bumped in to Neil Sheasby, bass player and co-songwriter with Stone Foundation, who was also having a ‘pinch myself’ moment because Graham Parker had brought along Dave Robinson, former Stiff Records supremo, who was regaling the band with his seventies music business stories.. One of the things I was sorting out backstage was photo pit access. I mentioned earlier that SF had allowed access for the whole gig in Islington; This time they went one better; they highlighted the songs that would feature guest appearances later in the set and ensured that that the photographers had pit access. That’s proper attention to detail.

The real magic moment came towards the end of the evening with a guest vocal by Graham Parker on his old Ann Peebles cover “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”. Magical because of a stunning performance by everyone on stage, but also because GP hasn’t played with a horn section in years and he’s said GP and The Rumour will never play live again. And a big shout to Jalen N’Gonda, the first support act (who was superb in a Marvin Gaye-style) and popped up during “What’s Goin’ On”. These guys know what they’re doing.

Hannah Aldridge & Jetbone @Windlestock – The night after the gig above as it happens with the same audience plus Mrs M, who can go out because it’s not a school night. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Aldridge. She writes powerful and moving songs, she has an incredible voice and she has those cheekbones. I never get tired of photographing Hannah; it’s a different visual image every time, but that bone structure is always there. Anyway, this time she’d brought along Jetbone from Sweden to play a support of their blues-inflected Southern boogie and as her backing band.

I love a chance to photograph artists in different environments and this was a great opportunity. Towards the end of the set Hannah put her guitar to one side (got my interest already), picked up a tambourine (camera in hand) and went into full Janis Joplin mode (jeez, never thought I’d see that). It was a night packed with stunningly good performances (including the opening set by Rebecca Reidtmann), but the tambourine thing made my night.

Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band (private gig) – I had a significant birthday a few days ago and invited a couple of bands, Deep Blue Sea and Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band to play at the event. They were both superb. I’ve seen Dana a couple of times and the band is great, the original songs are superb and she knows how to deliver a powerful cover. Now these gigs are difficult, because audience chatter (seriously frowned upon I serious music venues, and rightly so) is almost inevitable as people catch and are perhaps introduced for the first time. Dana and the band took it in their stride and won over a crowd that ranged in ages from three (my great-nephew, who was completely smitten) to eighty-one (my mum and mother-in-law).
They took a short break after a storming first set and returned for a second set with an audience that was particularly noisy. With no introduction they launched into an almost a cappella (a little percussion) two-part harmony version of the Janis Joplin classic “Mercedes Benz” which completely silenced the audience and immediately dragged attention back to the stage. Unconventional certainly, but they had the audience eating out of their hands after that. I’ve seen a lot of classic pieces of stagecraft, but that was probably the finest.

If you’ve got any moments like those that you want to share with us, message us on the Facebook page or email musicriotboy@gmail.com. And thanks for following us.

Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.

A Life Unlimited Title“A Life Unlimited” – Stone Foundation

It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.

Soultime Title“Soultime!” – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes

You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Heart of Gotham” – Pete Kennedy

This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Razor Wire” – Hannah Aldridge

This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.

Black Casino Scroller“Until the Water Runs Clear” – Black Casino and the Ghost

Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.

And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.

 

So how about five great gigs this year? Well, I’ve had plenty to choose from and I can’t say that I’ve seen a bad one, so it hasn’t been an easy choice to whittle it down to the top five (and no cheating this time either). These are all gigs that I walked away from feeling elated, feeling that I’d seen something special that I wanted to tell the world about. So I did, and here’s a reminder of how good these gigs were.

01) High Fives John FairhurstJohn Fairhurst @Rich Mix

On a freezing February Friday night in Shoreditch, Rich Mix was a welcome respite from bars full of bankers and ‘exclusive’ lap-dancing joints. The venue is a social enterprise where the motivation isn’t purely profit and programming of events is always interesting. On this particular night, John Fairhurst, along with Pete Episcopo (bass) and Toby Murray (drums) played a raw and raucous set of blues focussing on the 2014 album “Saltwater”. Some of the album versions of the songs were fairly big production numbers but the live performance was strictly a power trio affair with John’s blistering guitar topping off the mixture. The journey back through Shoreditch didn’t seem quite so bad after a night of proper blues with electric guitars playing way up loud. You can see some photos from the gig here.

Mollie and Izzy

Mollie and Izzy

Mollie Marriott @The Half Moon

This one was firmly in the eagerly-anticipated category. Mollie’s been working quietly for some time putting together a great band for live and studio work featuring her Jim Stapley bandmates Izzy Chase-Phillmore, Sam Tanner and Johnson-Jay Medwik-Daley. After an interesting acoustic support set from her nephew, Mo Evans, Mollie’s full band made their first live appearance in a Half Moon packed with fans and a few well-known faces as well. It was obvious from the start that this isn’t just a bunch of hired hands; this is a bunch of really good mates as well. None of their playing is showy or attention-seeking; everything serves the songs and underpins Mollie’s phenomenal voice, and it all works perfectly. The audience were onside anyway, but Mollie and the band gave a great performance of material from the upcoming debut album and a couple of covers as well. Here are some photos of this one.

14) MichaelMad Dog Mcrea and Sound of the Sirens @The Half Moon

This was a very special gig. I’d been invited along to see Mad Dog Mcrea and I had no idea about the support on the night, Sound of the Sirens. It’s such a great feeling when you see an artist for the first time and you know instantly that they’re something special. And it’s not just me; apparently Chris Evans was quite impressed with them as well. Anyway, they played a storming set completely winning over the audience with their powerful songs, dynamics, and harmonies. If the night had stopped at that point, I would have been perfectly happy, but we still had Mad Dog Mcrea to come, with an energetic run through material from their album “Almost Home” plus a few old favourites and crowd pleasers. Two great bands with enough in common to appeal to the whole audience but with enough differences to create a very varied night. And there are some photos here.

10) Chris DiffordSqueeze and Dr John Cooper Clarke @Indigo2

Another interesting double bill, this time with two very different artists, linked by the era which saw the start of their careers. John Cooper Clarke (now making the most of his honorary doctorate) has been doing poetry and comedy events for a few years but the tour with Squeeze put him back in front of big audiences filled with people who remembered him from the first time round. He throws more one-liners and gags into his routine now but a lot of the old favourite poems are still there, although some of them, particularly “Twat”, have evolved over time. On this night he was a barnstorming crowd-pleaser, building up the audience nicely for the headline act.

This year Squeeze had a new album to promote so the setlist was varied, to say the least, with material covering almost forty years from “Take Me I’m Yours” to new songs like “Cradle to the grave” with the usual smattering of different interpretations of Squeeze classics. What made this performance so special was the group of musicians (mainly Glenn Tilbrook’s Fluffers) now making up the rest of Squeeze who add upright bass, melodica and other esoteric instruments to the mix as well as adding rich vocal harmonies. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have never sounded better and what an incredible set of songs. Guess what, some photos here.

Union Chapel 050515

Union Chapel 050515

Graham Parker and Brinsley Schwarz & The Union Chapel

And finally. One of the greatest talents never to break through in the seventies and eighties, Graham Parker, who toured twice this year; once with The Rumour and once with Brinsley Schwarz. With a songbook which again covers almost forty years and a new album to promote as well, Graham Parker mixed up some established classics, some surprises and some new songs to delight an audience which might have been a little biased anyway. His voice is still remarkable and the songs are all strong enough to work in stripped-back arrangements. This wasn’t just a nostalgia thing; there were new songs to promote and they all sounded as good as anything he’s done before. He’s a remarkable man and it was a real pleasure to hear these songs in such a beautiful venue. How about a look at GP in the seventies and now?

 

 

In December 2014, I made a conscious decision that I would get to as many gigs as I possibly could during 2015. Not all of those gigs became reviews or picture galleries, but I certainly broke my previous record, which has stood since my second year at university. I love those moments at gigs when something happens which is either so unexpected or so exceptional that the hair stands up on the back of your neck and you know that you’ll remember it forever. Here are five of those from 2015:

Interview ScrollerSound of the Sirens – In mid-March this year I was at The Half Moon in Putney to see Mad Dog Mcrea. I’d just reviewed their “Almost Home” album and thought they would be good to see live. I hadn’t heard of the support band, Sound of the Sirens, but I like to see support bands because you never know when you’ll make a great discovery; this was one of those nights. Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood grabbed my attention from the opening notes with superb songs, perfect harmonies and counterpoint and a huge dynamic range combining to create a set of acoustic anthems for the twenty-first century, all of it completely new to me. The entire set was stunning, but “Faith in Fire” had me transfixed; I had to just stand and watch, open-mouthed as the song progressed from the quiet intro to a rousing finale. Just perfect.

Union Chapel 050515

Union Chapel 050515

Graham Parker & Brinsley Schwarz at The Union Chapel – My first visit to the lovely Union Chapel and I was there with Phil Burdett to see one of my teenage heroes play a stripped-down set with Brinsley Schwarz (who was in the first proper band I saw live). Graham Parker has such a huge catalogue of songs that it’s impossible to predict which ones would make the cut on the night. Over the pre-gig pint, I came up with a small wish-list; one of which was almost a certainty, and the other a bit of an outsider. The opening song “Watch the Moon Come Down” ticked the certainty box, but it wasn’t until much later in the set that the harrowing “You Can’t be Too Strong” completed the list. The audience reaction of awed silence throughout the song and an explosion of applause at the end showed that I wasn’t the only person waiting to hear that one. I think I may have had something in my eye at that point.

Hannah Gallery ScrollerHannah Aldridge at Green Note – This is another gig that came out of hearing an album and deciding that I had to see the artist. Hannah’s debut, “Razor Wire”, is a wonderful piece of work featuring some brutally honest and sincere depictions of her life and I was keen to hear how these songs would strip down to an acoustic format. As expected, the songs worked perfectly in their original forms with Hannah’s pure, clear voice and acoustic guitar; Hannah was engaging between songs, giving some background to each piece, explaining the inspiration behind it. The song which completely silenced the full house at Green Note was “Parchman”, a song that, uncharacteristically, isn’t autobiographical; it’s the story of a woman on death row for murdering her abusive husband. I swear you couldn’t even hear anyone breathe as Hannah pulled the maximum emotion from the song by playing it completely straight; no vocal tricks or adornments, just a perfect song and a beautiful delivery, leaving the audience emotionally drained.

02) DeanDean Owens at The Union Chapel – It’s fair to say that Dean Owens is a bit of a Riot Squad favourite and it’s great to see that he’s having some very well-deserved success this year. Landing the support slot for Rosanne Cash at The Union Chapel gave Dean a chance to play in front of a full house and an appreciative audience in London with only his guitar and a bunch of great songs. He had the audience with him from the start and got a great response for the whole set but saved something very special for the end. He went completely unplugged; no amplification for guitar or voice. I’ve seen this done in smaller venues (Hannah Aldridge did it at Green Note) but it was big moment in a venue this size, however good the acoustics are. Dean hit the ball out of the park; he pulled out a rip-roaring version of Buck Owens’ “Love’s Gonna Live Here” which rightly earned him a huge response from a slightly stunned audience. A magical moment.

Rosanne Review TitleRosanne Cash & John Leventhal at The Union Chapel – I know, I’m just being greedy here; two epiphanies on the same night. Rosanne Cash featured a lot of songs from the award-winning “The River and the Thread” and, with husband John Leventhal, was superb throughout, taking time to tell some of the stories behind the songs and establish a warm rapport with the audience. Strangely enough, the entire set seemed to come into sharp focus on someone else’s song, Bobbie Gentry’s enigmatic “Ode to Billy Joe”, which pulled all of the other threads together. A very simple arrangement and heartfelt performances pulled the audience into the song and generated a response that was part acclamation and part relief at escape from the song’s interwoven strands of tragedy and banality.

And I suppose that’s one reason that we go to gigs; we always hope that we’ll see those moments that you can’t capture on film or record/CD/MP3; the things that only happen once. I think five in one year’s pretty good going. Thanks to Sound of the Sirens, Graham Parker, Hannah Aldridge, Dean Owens and Rosanne Cash for those fabulous memories.