The first time I saw Nick Lowe play was the first proper gig I saw. It was at Mansfield Civic Theatre in the early 70s when he was singing, playing bass and writing songs for the criminally under-rated band Brinsley Schwarz (who later became the nucleus of Graham Parker and the Rumour). The support bands on the tour were picked up locally and the support for the Mansfield show was a rock covers band named Care with a substantial following from the local Hell’s Angels chapter. Care did their set and went down pretty well; we were all ready for Brinsley Schwarz.

Nick Lowe 1979 St Andrews University (Photo by Allan McKay)

The band hit the stage and, after a couple of songs, it was obvious that something was wrong. The Angels didn’t like melodic pub rock and they were determined to show exactly how much they disliked it. With virtually no security there was a stage invasion which became a battle between Nottinghamshire’s finest bikers and a bunch of Southern musicians and their road crew. The turning point in the battle came when an Angel threw himself at Nick Lowe and found his mouth full of Gibson EB bass machine head; Southern softies 1, northern bikers 0. So my first gig had a stage invasion, a proper fight and an important lesson; it’s not about how big or ugly you are, it’s about how wisely you deploy your resources. I still like to think that his nickname “Basher” came from that night.

Anyway, Brinsley Schwarz dwindled into commercial obscurity and went their various ways. Nick Lowe signed to Stiff Records as a solo artist (the first Stiff EP was Lowe’s “Bowi” 7″, a verbal riposte to David Bowie’s “Low” album ) and also as a hired gun producer for the label’s early artists including The Damned and Elvis Costello. From 1977 to 1980, Nick Lowe was everywhere. He released his own “Jesus of Cool” album, which featured the hit single “I Love the Sound of Breaking Glass” and he formed Rockpile with Dave Edmunds achieving a couple of hits with “Girls Talk” and “I Knew the Bride (When She Used to Rock and Roll)” and had a writing credit on Dr Feelgood’s “Milk and Alcohol”. He toured extensively with Edmunds as Rockpile playing sets which featured their solo hits and collaborations, including the 1979 hit “Cruel to be Kind”.

Following his production credit for the first Graham Parker album, “Howling Wind” (featuring some of his old Brinsley Schwarz bandmates), he produced the third Graham Parker album “Stick To Me” at short notice after problems were discovered with the original master tapes. The final mix suited Parker’s material but some music writers were unimpressed; Greil Marcus complained about the sound, so Nick paid him a visit. He looked at the critic’s state-of-the-art hi-fi and announced that it was fine for listening to Boston and Foreigner but “Stick to Me” was mixed to sound good on a Dansette (readers under the age of 40 might need to Google that one).

From the mid-80s, he gradually faded from the commercial scene while still working with highly influential musicians such as John Hiatt, Ry Cooder and Paul Carrack to produce high quality albums. The commercial decline ended in 1992 when a Curtis Stigers cover of a song written for Brinsley Schwarz in the mid-70s was featured on the soundtrack for “The Bodyguard”. The album sold 44 millions and finally guaranteed Nick Lowe a decent income.

From this point onwards, he was able to develop, and succeed with, the later-life Nick Lowe songwriting and singing style which is much more relaxed, concentrating on lyrics and melody rather than volume and production techniques. The critics started to wake up to the new Nick Lowe sound with the release of “The Impossible Bird” in 1994 and the momentum has continued to build (very slowly) ever since. The release of “The Convincer” in 2001 stepped up the process as more critics got on board, although mainstream commercial rebirth was still a few years away.

The release of the album “The Old Magic” in 2011 cemented Nick Lowe’s reputation as an elder statesman of the British music scene. Backed by the same group of musicians who have featured on recent live and recorded appearances, the album is a perfect statement of Nick Lowe’s singing and songwriting abilities. The songs don’t need a perfect snare sound or a banging bass drum to work well; they just need to be captured in a way that conveys a message to an audience that wants to listen.

Back in the 70s, Nick Lowe had a reputation as the kind of songwriter who could write a song on the bus on the back of a cigarette packet and he’s certainly been very prolific since joining Kippington Lodge in 1967, before it evolved into Brinsley Schwarz. He’s written many, many very good songs and a few great songs in styles ranging from pop through rock to country crooning and he’s still having a good time playing live over 40 years down the line with a critically-acclaimed album to support.

It’s great to see that a hugely talented musician/singer/songwriter/producer can come through the highs and lows of a long career in a business which worships youth more than talent retaining the respect of his peers and real music fans alike. If you use Spotify and you want to have a listen to some of his songs, try these links:

If you don’t already use Spotify you can download it here:
Enjoy.


Well, back at the Leicester Square Theatre again. I knew that this was a great venue for comedy, but it’s also a great venue for an intimate gig like this one, with a capacity of about 500 and 2 bars; it’s comfortable and you don’t wait 45 minutes for a drink. The sound was crystal clear all night and the audience was knowledgeable and appreciative; all you need now is good performances. I’ve seen Nick Lowe a few times in the past, including the first proper gig I saw. There’s a great story behind that gig, but I’m saving that for the book.

The tour is in support of the latest album “The Old Magic” but, as Nick Lowe points out, the set is structured to include old favourites going back to the early 70s. The fun starts with a 30 minute solo set from the band’s keyboard player, the legendary Geraint Watkins, who plays a mixture of ballads and boogie-woogie and wins the audience over with his musings between songs, great playing and a very powerful voice.

After the interval, Nick Lowe takes the stage on his own to start the set with a solo acoustic version of “Stoplight Roses”, the opening song from “The Old Magic”. From the outset, it’s obvious that he’s a great performer; he doesn’t do anything too showy but it’s all entertaining. He gently reassures the audience (probably unnecessarily) by explaining that he won’t play lots of new songs that they don’t know but we get about half of the new album and the audience know the songs anyway.

After 2 songs, Lowe is joined by the Geraint Watkins (keyboards), Robert Treherne (drums), Johnny Scott (guitar) and Matt Radford (double bass). They’re all great players and 3 of the 4 contribute tight harmonies as well. This isn’t about huge productions and pyrotechnics; it’s about 5 great musicians performing great songs for an audience that actually listens.

As well as “The Old Magic” material, we heard a sprinkling from “Dig My Mood”, “The Impossible Bird” and “The Convincer”, all performed with great skill and taste by a great group of players. Predictably, the big hits got the best response. “Cruel to be Kind” was popular and a rockabilly version of “I Knew the Bride” raised the roof, but the best was saved till last.

The encores feature a duet with Geraint Watkins on “Only a Rose” (a Watkins song), a stripped-down version of “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace, Love and Understanding” and a final, final solo encore performance of the Elvis Costello song “Alison” performed perfectly with only his own acoustic guitar as backing. Most of the audience were surprised (actually gobsmacked) at the inclusion of “Alison”, but it’s a great song and he did produce the original version after all.

This was a night for anyone interested in hearing great songs played well by great musicians with a minimum of fuss. Nick Lowe has been in the business for over 40 years and all of his experience is channelled into creating a great performance which showcases the songs and the musicianship (along with some very dry and laconic interludes) while making the whole enterprise look very easy. “The Old Magic” is definitely worth listening to if you haven’t had a chance to see the band, but you could do a lot worse than to dig out any of Nick Lowe’s back catalogue.  If you haven’t heard of Geraint Watkins, then it’s worth checking him out as well.

 

The first proper gig; it should be memorable, shouldn’t it? For some of us it’s the start of a lifetime of queuing in the rain twenty minutes after doors while the drummer gets his floor tom sound right, of missing the last train home and paying £60 for a cab and of explaining that you just spoke to the band’s manager twenty minutes ago and you are definitely on the guest list, besides the singer’s a mate of yours. All of those frustrations are forgotten when the sticks click and the band hits their groove (sorry anyone that doesn’t have a drummer, but you know what I mean).

Do you remember the first time?

I certainly do, and I made a reference to it on this very website nearly eight years as part of an appreciation of the wonderful Nick Lowe. Here’s the unedited album version.

It was the East Midlands in the mid-seventies: a time of industrial unrest and political instability. The UK had been in the Common Market for a year and in the US, Nixon was living on stolen time (he resigned almost six months later). On Monday 25th February 1974, none of that mattered; I was going to my first proper gig, to see a proper band that I’d seen on the Whistle Test and had already released five albums. And they were playing at The Civic Theatre in Mansfield of all places. I’m pretty certain the sixth forms from all of Mansfield’s grammar schools were in the audience, after visiting the pubs with the most lenient bar staff. Fair to say there was a sense of expectation.

With hindsight, I can see that there wasn’t a huge budget for the tour and that support bands were picked up locally. It makes financial sense, and a local support will bring along some of their fans to swell the audience and that’s a good thing, yeah? The support band this time was a local rock covers band called Care, whose singer lived on the same estate as I did and who were popular with the local biker gang. Any alarm bells ringing yet? They played their set, got a great response from their own fans and were actually pretty convincing. So, after a quick break to top up the alcohol levels it was on to the night’s headliners.

By this stage, following the 1970 Fillmore hype and the bad feeling it generated with the rock press, Brinsley Schwarz as a band were back on creative form but commercially pretty much finished. They had some great tunes were a superb live band on their night. What they weren’t, crucially on this night, was a heavy rock band; you would colour them moody blue rather than deep purple. The majority of the audience had paid to see Brinsley Schwarz and were perfectly happy to hear their well-crafted and crisply-performed soul-inflected pop/rock. Not the leather-jacketed fans of the support band; from the opening of the set they bayed menacingly about the lack of red meat and thud and blunder. The natives were restless and hammered; not the best combination.

The inevitable happened a couple of songs in when Mansfield’s finest mild boys took advantage of the lack of security to invade the stage in protest at the lack of power chords and screaming vocals. Everything happened surprising quickly and suddenly the stage was engulfed in greasy leather. It looked like a fairly even match between rockers and roadies until one deluded delinquent took a lunge at Nick Lowe, who was sporting his Gibson EB bass; and then he wasn’t. The rocker was wearing the headstock of the bass in his mouth and nose and spitting blood and teeth. Game over; Brinsleys 1, Mofos 0, shortly followed by the ignominy of the rockers’ retreat and vaguely threatening noises.

The roadies went back to the day job, got the stage reset for the band and the gig went ahead as if nothing had happened. The band were on good form and did the business for the rest of the set and then everyone went home happy, apart from a few broken bikers. As first gigs go it was memorable; a bit of underage drinking, a support band with a lead singer that I knew, a full-scale stage invasion and a great set from a band that I really wanted to see. And it happened in Mansfield of all places; I didn’t think for a second that forty years later I would be watching Brinsley Schwarz (with Graham Parker) and Nick Lowe (with his band and Geraint Watkins) at gigs in London, but that’s the way it panned out. That first gig showed me a way out of a small provincial town and the events of that night still influence my life now.

As I mentioned at the beginning, I wrote briefly about that gig eight years ago and a couple of interesting things happened. Someone else who was at the gig contacted me via a website comment and we’ve met up for a couple of beers in London, then Ian Gomm, who was the guitar player in Brinsley Schwarz, contacted me to say that the band never actually knew why the stage invasion had happened and were a bit concerned about getting a kicking outside. Unlikely; the rockers had probably retreated to their base in the Midland Hotel to compare war stories and intimidate the under-age drinkers that hadn’t gone to the gig.

 

 

Neil Sheasby’s had quite a year this year. Not only has Stone Foundation gone from strength to strength (without even releasing a new album), but he’s become an author with the first volume of his memoirs, “Boys Dreaming Soul” hitting the bookshelves this year. When the call goes out for High Fives contributions, Neil’s always one of the first to reply, which is why he’s always at the top of the list when we publish. Here are Neil’s thoughts on some of the things that have crossed his personal horizon in 2019:

 

Touring

I never thought I’d be saying this but I appear to have re kindled a passion for touring over the past few months. Gigging and touring are two separate beasts, the gigs I can handle, in fact it’s fairly obvious to anyone who comes along to see Stone Foundation that it’s an enjoyable experience for us all, there’s certainly no going through the motions routine in evidence. Usually though that 90 minute release upon stage is sandwiched between endless hours of travelling & hanging around, but alas you barely get to see anything of the destination except for a hotel room, dressing room and a stage (I’ve been to Hamburg six times and I still couldn’t tell you anything about it except there’s a decent kebab house opposite The Mojo Club) 

Anyway, at some point over the past twelve months I have begun to appreciate and embrace my time spent on the road more. We began the year by doing a gruelling jaunt across Germany & Spain, the gigs were fantastic but the miles we had to put in, especially zig-zagging all over Espana were undeniably exhausting (I think the promoter had routed our tour by throwing darts at a map).

However, whilst this almost literally killed me off, the subsequent dates back here in the U.K. felt as though it was a bus trip up to Baddesley Ensor. A doddle in comparison. The summer tour of forests supporting Paul Weller was a bona fide high, not just hanging with him but the crowds! Wow! What a reception we received too. It felt like another corner turned, the bar once again raised and our music making a connection with folk who’d never seen us before. I loved every second of it and to add to my enjoyment even more I got the opportunity to take my son Lowell out on the road with us and for us both to share what unfolded was indeed a real solid bond. 

Our most recent tour reaped the benefits of this exposure and I’d go as far to say that the November gigs were some of our best yet, certainly the most enjoyable for us all. I’m now looking forward to a new decade, new challenges, new chapter and lots more new music. I’m buoyed and excited for the future. 

 

Page Turners

As you’ve probably gathered by now I’m an avid reader of music biographies, I don’t even have to really appreciate the subject’s career; I’ll pretty much read anything music-related (Phil Collins, for example) 

I think there’s been some great page-turners of late. I really enjoyed both the Brett Anderson books (whose music I could take or leave), Will Birch’s fine assessment of Nick Lowe and enjoyable biogs from Elton John, Debbie Harry & Andrew Ridgeley. 

Obviously it was also somewhat of a landmark achievement for me to finally get my own book “Boys Dreaming Soul” published and into print this year. I’m glad I decided to put it out there as the response and reaction to it has been humbling. I’m considering following it up but it’s just a case of assigning the time to do it as it’s a fairly hefty project to take on but enjoyable and cathartic nonetheless.

 

Music

I think it’s been an exceptional year for new music. If I remember correctly last year I told you how I was embracing Spotify playlists and all I was discovering via that medium, and that has just continued to turn up so much new incredible music and artists. 

The Colemine label is excelling in great new soul music and even established contemporary labels such as Daptone have spread their wings somewhat with releases by artists such as Doug Shorts. I thought the Michael Kiwanuka album was another winner too, a proper listening experience from start to finish. Durand Jones and The Black Pumas also showed a way of presenting soul by avoiding the cliches. 

In other areas I really enjoyed albums such as Nick Cave’s latest and the Lucy Rose LP that came out at the beginning of the year. 

 

Vision

I recently watched The Irishman. I’d read mixed reviews, mainly bemoaning its length but all those movies were three hours plus (Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas, Casino etc…) I’m not sure people have the patience or attention span they used to; I guess we have social media to blame for that? I found the film kind of emotional to witness, with what will surely be the last hurrah for the greatest actors of our  generation; De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and even Harvey Kietel all under the genius direction of Martin Scorsese.What a journey and what an incredible collection of talent, the likes of which we will never see again. I thought Pacino in particular was amazing. 

The Joker was also a masterclass in acting, I caught it at the cinema and it blew me away. A great intensity to Joaquin Pheonix’s performance. It’s fantastic to see an upsurge in thought provoking and challenging movie making. 

 

The Beautiful Game

I can’t say too much about this subject because I’ll end up cursing their season again but I have rekindled my love and passion for football over the last few years (I’m not sure it ever dwindled to be honest), it’s mainly due to Leeds United’s turn of form under the guidance of Bielsa, he’s a maverick and a visionary but most of all he’s a hell of a lot of fun, right down to the bucket he rode in on. 

I sincerely hope this is our time, the city is rocking and buzzing with optimism, investment and finance to make the giant leap into the premiership is all in place, it would be heartbreaking to fade away again post-Christmas and return to the merry go round of a managerial circus and also lose this incredible crop of young players. It’s the hope that kills you eh? 

I’m also catching a few Adders games when I’m not touring with the band and that non-league action still enthralls me. If you haven’t witnessed an away game in Burbage on a freezing cold Wednesday night in December, clutching a Bovril then you haven’t lived…

One of the bands that the Riot Squad has supported for a few years now is Stone Foundation. Live and on vinyl, they are the real deal; great songs, rock solid rhythm section (that’s the stone foundation) and some superb horn arrangements. Founder members and songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby are a formidable partnership and also a pair of diamond blokes. Among other things, Neil Sheasby likes to do a bit of writing as well, and what he writes is always worth reading, so imagine how chuffed we were at Riot Towers when this piece came through less than two hours after we asked him if he’s like to contribute to High Fives again this year. What a star. 

Michael Kiwanuka – “Love & Hate“

 michael-kiwanukaIt’s such a complete piece of work from beginning to end, it’s in no desperate rush to impress, it just unfolds and works its way into your subconscious. It’s also hard to pin down to one genre, it’s a soulful record but equally embraces subtle elements of Rock, I certainly hear a Pink Floyd thing going on in there too. 

To encompass all these elements, have a social narrative and then still be an accessible pop record is no mean feat to pull off. 

Best album I’ve heard in a few years. 

 Phill Brown – “Are We Still Rolling?”

phill-brownI’ve read some great books this year. I really enjoyed Tim Burgess “Tim book two” as it turned me onto a lot of music that I otherwise probably wouldn’t have arrived at. 

I was given the Phill Brown book by a friend who thought I’d like it. Phill was (& still is) a recording engineer whose working life in studios started in the mid 60’s with sessions at Olympic Studios including The Stones right through to those remarkable Talk Talk albums “Spirit of Eden” & “Laughing Stock”.

The inside stories on both the artists involved and indeed the creation of the records is fairly priceless. I found it fascinating to read up on the creative process of pieces I adore like the first couple of Robert Palmer solo albums or tales of Traffic and a rather reclusive Stevie Winwood. 

Again it put me on a path of discovery, a chapter was dedicated to the making of Murray Head’s 1972 concept album “Nigel Lived”

I’d never heard it, didn’t even know of it prior to opening this book. 

It’s like a buried treasure somewhere between “Odyssey & Oracle” and “Dear Mr Fantasy”. 

It sold zero and sank without trace. 

 Josef Leimberg – “Astral Progressions”

josef-leimbergThis was something that our merch guy Pete had been banging on about for a while but as there is no physical format as yet of the album, it took me a short while to get around to hearing it, but once I did I found myself running back to listen to it constantly. 

He’s a trumpeter & composer who has worked recently with Kendrick Lemar & Erykah Badu but has now branched out and created his own thing which, as the title suggests, is a jazz fusion thing. The vocal tracks are pretty amazing too, it is a sort of continuation and development of the style that Kamasi Washington impressed with last year. 

It’s a real rewarding listen, powerful 21st century music. 

“The Get Down” (Netflix TV Series)

The Get Down

The Get Down

I wasn’t that impressed by the pilot of this but once I locked into the TV series I really thought it worked. 

“The Get Down” documents that period of New York City in the late 1970’s just as disco’s smouldering embers are being laid to rest and the City is on the verge of bankruptcy. A new art emerges, as always with the best movements it starts from the streets. The birth of Hip Hop told through the lives, music and art of a young street gang in the south Bronx. 

I thought the main actor, Justice Smith, was wonderful, the show had its fair share of critics but I really, really enjoyed it and look forward to picking it up again when the second series returns in 2017. 

 William Bell, Union Chapel – July

 neil-basher-and-neilWe (Stone Foundation) didn’t really do that many gigs this year as our priority lay with writing, recording and ultimately completing a new album for 2017. 

Our appearance as support for William Bell back in July turned out to be an evening that will live long in the memory, not so much for the gig itself but for the fairly surreal circumstances that we found ourselves surrounded by. 

Not only did we get introduced to William and have the opportunity to talk at length but we also had the good fortune of rubbing shoulders with both Paul Weller and Nick Lowe who were both in attendance. 

I always find it heartening to find that these people are just music obsessives and have principles and motives that are no different to that of our own. I don’t think you ever lose that sense of wonderment, that fan thing. It is fundamentally why we started playing and creating music and it never diminishes even if you’re Paul Weller or Nick Lowe. 

Music is an incurable sensation. 

Long may it reign o’er us…

Hope You're Happy Now TitleWhen an artist writes that their latest album is influenced by Willie Nelson’s “Phases and Stages” and that they wanted to ‘make an old-school record that’s about quiet stories and steel guitars’, my attention’s well and truly caught. Throw in the fact that Grant Langston is based in Bakersfield, California (he’s a bit too raw to fit in with the Nashville scene and sound) and the expectations are running high even before I discover that the album was recorded live in the studio. So, does it live up to those expectations?

The album opens with “Drive”, which tells the story of two loners hooking up in a bar and features some lovely plaintive pedal steel. It’s almost the archetypal ‘two lonely people’ song, but the idea of giving the finger to the world adds just a little edge. “The Nonsense” and “Breaking Hearts” are both breakup songs, the first is uptempo and focusses on the social and financial manoeuvring involved in a divorce while the second explores the situation from the viewpoint of the wronged husband descending into alcoholism (another old country theme). “Fading Fast” wouldn’t sound out of place (vocally or instrumentally) on a singer-songwriter album in the early seventies, with a melancholy tale of denial as a relationship disintegrates, emphasised by a lovely, languid slide solo. So far, it’s almost straight-up country, but with a few hints at a harder lyrical edge.

“Born to Ride” is an electric piano-driven slice of boogie (Californian rather Southern), and the shimmering beauty of the pedal steel intro to “The Only One” leads us into relatively familiar unrequited love territory; it’s a nice slice of melancholy with some female backing vocals to add to the pathos. “The Trigger” is stripped down to the bare essentials of acoustic guitar and solo vocal as we’re taken inside the mind of an outsider who has committed an atrocity and given reasons why we might all share the blame. It’s a powerful message emphasised by the minimalist setting. “Don’t You Dare” is a series of admissions of guilt from the male partner in a relationship, with a little lyrical twist in the tail; whatever else he did, he always loved her. “All That I Can Do” is pure melancholy; it’s minimalist and desperate and the only way the mood can go from here is up.

And it does because the last three songs are all fairly light-hearted affairs. “I Work Too Hard” is an uptempo generation gap song with a nice lyrical twist at the beginning which sends us momentarily in the wrong direction before exploring the relationship between a hard-working father and his slacker son. “Me and the Misses” deals with a relationship which works despite, or perhaps because of, mutual incompatibility. The closing song, “Me and Margaret”, could be the logical progression from the album’s opening song as the two characters meet in a bar before going on to become serious drinking partners; it’s a honky-tonk which is horrific and hilarious at the same time.

Grant Langston’s laconic delivery and the laid-back arrangements on “Hope You’re Happy Now” focus the attention on the strength of the songs and they’re very strong indeed. His songs are in the country idiom but it’s twenty-first century country and it has the simplicity and realism that characterises the songs of writers who have been able to bridge the pop-country divide, such as Nick Lowe; it deals with the poetry, triumphs and tragedies of everyday life, working on a level we can all relate to. This is a little classic.

Hope You’re Happy Now” is out now on California Roots Union.

Grant has made the decision not to stream this album and has given his reasons in an open letter on his website. You really should read it.

Elvis Costello

Elvis Costello

The last gig in May was in a cellar bar in Edinburgh which held about a hundred people and the first one in June is The Royal Albert Hall which holds about five thousand.  I’m going to be honest with you, I normally try to avoid the Albert Hall; the acoustics may be great for The Proms and orchestral music generally, but anything percussive and bottom-heavy usually sounds like a sock full of custard hitting a wall.  There; I’ve said it.  There may be an acoustic sweet spot, but I’ve no idea where it is and I feel sorry for any sound engineer who gets that particular gig.

Elvis Costello is one those artists who has been around so long, and written so many great songs that, like Neil Young, Bob Dylan, Bruce Springsteen and Van Morrison, he’s entitled to a bit of leeway with his live and recorded output.  Just like all of those legends (maybe with the exception of The Boss), he sometimes pushes our tolerance close to the limit and tonight was no exception, but I’ll come back to that.  This tour features the “Spectacular Return of the Spectacular Spinning Songbook”, where members of the audience are invited on stage to spin the giant wheel to pick a song from the extensive back catalogue or a theme that allows Elvis or a band member (Steve Nieve, Pete Thomas and Davey Faragher) to choose where the set goes next.

The first six songs were relentless, with the band playing flat out, too fast and leaving no gaps between songs.  It sounded a lot like the 1978 El Mocambo official bootleg, and I think we all know that it wasn’t just youthful exuberance and adrenaline to blame on that occasion.  It meant that songs like “High Fidelity” and “I Can’t Stand Up for Falling Down” were lost in a headlong rush to the first spin of the wheel.  Thankfully, the interactive element of the set forced some much-needed changes of pace.  From the first spin of the wheel, things became less frantic as Elvis put on his Napoleon Dynamite, Master of Ceremonies persona and introduced members of the audience aided and abetted by the mysterious Josephine and the go-go dancer Dixie de la Fontaine.

I’m not even going to attempt to give you a complete setlist for a three hour performance, but there were a lot of highlights (and a couple of lowlights), so here we go.  We got “Girls Talk” (better known to most as a cover by Dave Edmunds) fairly early courtesy of the wheel, which also gave the band the chance to play a more soulful live version of “Every Day I Write the Book”.  It was nice to see Elvis totally ignore the wheel’s selection to throw in “(The Angels Wanna Wear my) Red Shoes” because one of the audience spinners wanted to hear it.  The “Cash” segment of the wheel also gave us the obvious Johnny Cash cover, but also a Rosanne Cash song, which is always going to be fine by me.  There was also a cameo appearance by the wonderful Bonnie Raitt who, unfortunately, didn’t sing or play but did come along to say hello and be serenaded by Elvis.

A spin of the wheel also gave Steve Nieve the chance to deliver his stunning piano backing on one of my favourite Elvis songs, “Shot With his Own Gun”, which opens with the line “How does it feel now you’ve been undressed by a man with a mind like the gutter press”.  As always, this song was made more powerful by the stripped-down backing which also gave a contrast to the first verse of “Oliver’s Army” before the full band kicked in for the rest of the song.

“Jimmie Standing in the Rain” was a perfect fit with the vaudevillian atmosphere of the performance, which you almost expected to lead in to “God’s Comic”, but it was another song from “Spike” which grabbed the attention.  “Tramp the Dirt Down” was an angry song, and rightly so, when it was released in 1989, less than two years before Margaret Thatcher was deposed by her party, but I’m puzzled by the need to play it now apart from the obvious unthinking kneejerk reaction it received; bit of a cheap shot, really.  If you want to score political points, the haunting live version of “Shipbuilding” stands the test of time much better and should be the one that demonstrates a commitment to something more than just pop songs.

The encores were a return to the hundred mph enthusiasm of the opening section, but with the audience fully behind the band at last as they delivered runaway versions of “Watching the Detectives”, “Pump it Up” and, ironically for this location, “(I Don’t Want to go to) Chelsea”.  Just before I get to the main highlight, I’ve got a few observations.  The dynamics of the show, particularly at the beginning, could have been better; the endings of the songs could have been less overblown; and, Elvis could have turned the wick down on the guitar solos.  At times he strayed into Neil Young territory and that’s a dangerous place to be unless you’re Neil Young (even then it’s hit and miss).

Maybe I’m just being too picky.  The Elvis back catalogue contains some stunning songs and even a three hour set means missing out on some favourites; I would have loved to hear “Alison”, “Green Shirts” and “Good Year for the Roses”, but I got to hear “Shot with his Own Gun”, which I really didn’t expect.  The last song of the night was Nick Lowe’s “(What’s So Funny ‘Bout) Peace Love and Understanding”, which made my night anyway, but there was still a surprise to come.  Steve Nieve dashed off stage and followed a crew member upstairs as the rest of the band played on.  Seconds later, the band was augmented by the thunderous sounds of the Royal Albert Hall pipe organ as one of pop and rock’s greatest keyboard players had the chance to finish off the set in a unique way; I certainly won’t forget it.

I had a few reservations but, as a spectacle, (no pun intended) this was wonderful; loads of great songs, great performances and audience involvement.  I’d go back and do it again.

We’ve heard and read a lot this year about the death of the album as a format.  Well, we’re having none of that at Riot Towers; as far as we’re concerned the album is still alive and kicking (and none of your download nonsense either).  The site contributors have all put together their favourite fives of the year and we’re sharing our choices with you as a little festive thank you.  As the most senior (oldest) contributor, I get to open the batting for the Riot Squad 2012 favourites.  I can’t even attempt to rank these so here we go, in alphabetical order by title.  You can find reviews of all of these albums on the site.

“Devil in Me” – Natalie DuncanProduct Details

This is one of two debut albums in my Top Five for 2012.  Natalie’s a superb singer and a great piano player but the songs are something else.  Some are observational such as the superb “Old Rock” while others appear to be very personal (“Uncomfortable Silence”); what they have in common is that they are all superbly-crafted songs which work equally well when orchestrated on the album or played live with a smaller drums/bass/guitar/piano set-up.  You should really make the effort to see Natalie Duncan live in 2013.

“Good Feeling” – Paul CarrackProduct Details

Paul Carrack has been one of my favourite singers for longer than I care to admit so I approached this with a bit of caution; there’s always a chance that an album like this can disappoint.  I didn’t need to worry because this blend of originals, songwriting collaborations and covers is absolutely superb.  His voice is as stunning as it was 40 years ago and he’s great keyboard player and good guitar player; it’s sickening really.  It’s worth buying for the voice alone, but there’s so much more to admire here, particularly the Nick Lowe song “From Now On” and Springsteen’s “If I Fall Behind”.

“Lilygun” – LilygunProduct Details

Another debut album, this time from a band that defies classification.  I still don’t know whether this is indie, goth, rock, emo or any combination of the above.  What I do know is that it’s melodic, inventive, dynamic and original and the band is great live as well.  My first contact with Lilygun was a review of the single “Moonlight” and I’ve seen quite a lot of the band since.  This is an album where you don’t shuffle the tracks; it’s programmed to tell a story from the first to the final track and that’s how you need to listen to it.  Also featured on the album is the live favourite “Scum”.

“The Hipsters” – Deacon BlueProduct Details

This seemed to come out of nowhere in the autumn of this year.  All of the band members have been doing their own thing for years and the only motivation for this project was love of the music.  Ricky Ross provided the strongest set of songs he’s written in years and they were recorded live in the studio; the result was an album which was fresh, immediate and memorable.  I know you can’t rewrite history, but I wish this had been the second Deacon Blue album rather than the slightly bombastic “When the World Knows your Name” (and I’m not saying that’s a bad album).  The songs here are much more personal; “Is There No Way Back to You?” and “Laura From Memory” are written in the first person and the ironically- titled “The Hipsters” (the best summer song of 2012) is neatly counterbalanced with the more accurate description of “The Outsiders”.  However you look at it, it’s a great album.

“Words and Music” – Saint EtienneProduct Details

This was the soundtrack to my summer this year.  I’ve always loved Saint Etienne but I hadn’t really expected to hear any significant new material from them; This was quite a surprise.  It’s the perfect package; great songs which are nostalgic but never mawkish with enough references to satisfy any pop trainspotter and the best artwork of the year.  From the scene-setting opener “Over the Border”, the album explores the soul of the music obsessive through the great settings of Wiggs and Stanley and Sarah Cracknell’s perfect voice.  As with every other album on this list, there isn’t any filler here but, if I have to pick a few standout tracks then “Tonight”, “Answer Song” and “Popular” should do nicely.

Ok I said Top 5, but I also need to give a mention to Dean Owens who released 2 great albums this year (“New York Hummingbird” and Cash Back”) which were both reviewed as 4-star albums.  Nobody else managed that particular feat.  So, does anyone still want to tell me that the album’s a dead format?

Product DetailsCash Back” is the second album to be released by Dean Owens in 2012, following “New York Hummingbird” earlier in the year and it’s built around a really interesting idea; a tribute to Johnny Cash on what would have been his 80th birthday comprising songs written by, or covered by,  Johnny (with one very notable exception).  It’s also a tribute to Dean’s good friend and mentor, the late Bob Delacy. 

The concept’s great, but the finished article is even better; Dean has tackled songs written by some songwriting legends including Jagger and Richards, Bob Dylan (“Girl from the North Country”), Kris Kristofferson (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), Johnny Cash himself and our old Riot Towers favourite Nick Lowe (“Without Love”) and the result is a well-rounded, beautifully played and engaging set of songs.

The playing throughout the album is beautiful, particularly Will Kimbrough’s guitar (and various other instruments) and supports Dean’s plaintive tenor voice perfectly.  It’s difficult to pick out highlights from this set because there isn’t any padding, but I’ll give it a try.  The album opens with the lively 1968 Jagger/Richards song “No Expectations” featuring some great playing throughout from Will Kimbrough and has a similar feel to Albert Lee’s “Country Boy” (but a bit slower) before moving in to the more laid-back “A Little at a Time”(which also appears later in a stripped-down bonus version).

The album as a whole is a demonstration of the variety in Johnny Cash’s work, but never more so than in following the heartbreaking, poignant “Give My Love to Rose” with the jaunty nastiness and casual violence of “Delia’s Gone”.  Well, this is the man who sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”.  The traditional ballad, “Wayfaring Stranger” moves the tempo up a few notches from the Cash version and you realise that Paul Weller probably started “Wild Wood” from the same source.

Towards the end of the album, there’s a sequence of songs by truly great songwriters such as Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and David Allan Coe (who wrote the Johnny Paycheck classic ”Take This Job and Shove It”) which almost bring the album to a close.  The first bonus track is a version of “I Walk the Line” which contrasts the original’s baritone growl with Dean’s more vulnerable tenor as the song bounces along for the first three verses.  To add drama to the fourth verse, you might expect a trucker’s gear change or a tempo shift but instead Dean shifts the vocal up an octave towards the top of his range for an even more dramatic effect.

Which leaves one song to tell you about.  As a songwriter, Dean was always going to want one of his own songs on the album and it’s fair to say that it’s a belter.  “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin” is as good as anything else on the album, framing the legendary prison appearance within the story of a death row inmate who was at the show and keeps it as a memory he treasures above everything else on his way to the chair; Johnny would have been proud of this one.

If there’s a country music fan in your life (or someone who likes great music, whatever genre), this album will make a great surprise present for them.  Even better, get out and see Dean performing live on his next tour in the spring of 2013; you won’t regret it.

“Cash Back” is out now on Drumfire Records (DRMFR013).

Product DetailsIf there’s one thing that I really admire in musicians it’s the ability to survive; to come through the periods when you’re terminally unhip and still want to play, write and sing.  It needs incredible self-belief and, sometimes, sheer bloody-mindedness (before we even talk about talent) to keep going in an increasingly tough business.  If you’ve been writing, performing and recording for over 40 years and you’ve had a hand in songs as diverse as Ace’s “How Long”, Squeeze’s “Tempted” and Mike & The Mechanics’ “The Living Years” and The Eagles have covered one of your songs, then you deserve at least a fair hearing.  So, Paul Carrack’s back again in 2012 and he’s sounding better than ever.

There are no bad, or even indifferent, tracks on “Good Feeling”; they’re all good and there’s stacks of variety in the in the styles and arrangements of the songs, but one thing makes this collection essential listening.  Paul Carrack still has an astonishingly soulful voice; my good mate Steve J reckons he could sing the telephone directory and you would pay to listen and I don’t think he’s far off the mark.  On top of that, he’s a great Hammond player and there aren’t many better instruments to accompany a great soul voice.  The songs on this collection are a combination of Paul Carrack originals, collaborations with other writers and covers of songs by writers as diverse as Nick Lowe, Bruce Springsteen and Gerry Goffin and Carole King.  It’s a great tribute to Carrack’s songwriting that his own songs are as strong as the covers although the best song on the album (my opinion here) isn’t one of his own, although it’s a great pick from a relatively unknown band.

The album opens with the Sam Cooke-tinged “Good Feelin’ About It” which, unsurprisingly, is a feelgood song and it’s followed by the Chris Difford collaboration “Marmalade Moon” bursting in with a horn section which wouldn’t sound out of place on a Southside Johnny album.  The album flits effortlessly between musical styles, from the laid-back funk of “Nothing Without You” to the early Motown feel (including Stevie Wonder style harmonica) of “Time to Move On” to the pure 60s pop of the Goffin/King cover “When My Little Girl is Smiling”, which is very reminiscent of his 80s cover of the Jackie de Shannon classic “When You Walk in the Room”.  The Nick Lowe and Bruce Springsteen covers (“From Now On” and “If I Should Fall Behind” respectively) both evoke the original performers while bearing the stamp of Paul Carrack’s incredible voice.

In my (almost) humble opinion, there are 2 songs which define the album and push it out of the Paul Carrack comfort zone.  “Make It Right” is a cover of a lovely Tinlin brothers song with lots of minor chords and a slightly discordant riff, while “Long Ago” (a collaboration with Swedish songwriter Chris Antblad) could be a Brian Kennedy boy band single, but with grown-up lyrics.  Any album of songs by Paul Carrack is going to be worth listening to, but these 2 songs take “Good Feeling” in a slightly different direction, introducing a hint of atonality on the one hand and a pop sensibility on the other.

If you’ve never heard of Paul Carrack, this is a cracking introduction and if you’re already converted, “Good Feeling” might just give you a few surprises.  Great album.

Release date 24/09/12.