OK, I know I’ve already done my favourite five gigs of the year, but sometimes you see or hear something very special at a gig and it puts all of those cold nights on public transport or long drives to and from gigs into perspective; something which stops you in your tracks and makes you smile or cry or just amazes you.  I’ve seen a few of those this year and I thought it would be rude not to share them.  Once again, in no particular order, here they are.

Billy walton Magic MomentsBilly Walton is always likely to do something a bit special and he didn’t disappoint at The Buzz Club in Barnet in May.  During a guitar solo, he dropped seamlessly into the guitar riff from the Led Zeppelin classic “Kashmir” for a few bars before nailing the intro to one of my teenage favourites  “25 or 6 to 4”, recorded by Chicago before they discovered ballads.  In true New Jersey tradition, the band locked in instantly while Billy gave it his best “Yeah, I did just do that” grin.  Great fun and just a bit strange to hear a guitar solo featuring a fragment of a song that I loved when I was just starting to get into music seriously.  You go to a Billy Walton gig, you expect the unexpected.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAPaul Rose is one of those blues artists who’s well-known within the blues community but virtually unknown out of it; he’s also a great guitar player.  He put together the Paul Rose All-Stars to record an album of standards and to tour the UK this year featuring a couple of ex-members of Was (Not Was), guitarist Randy Jacobs and singer Sweet Pea Atkinson.  As a fan of Was (Not Was), that alone would have sold it to me but there was more to come.  Towards the end of the set, the band launched into a storming version if the brilliant W(nW) Dallas motorcade song “11 MPH” played with much more attitude and venom than the original and it worked perfectly.  I always love it when a band stamps its own personality on a cover and this was a stunning example.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThe Kennedys show at Kings Place in London had a couple great moments.  I’ve already mentioned “Rhapsody in Blue” elsewhere but there was another moment which was much more personal.  Since reviewing The Kennedys album “Closer than you Know”, I couldn’t shake off Maura’s tribute to the late Alex Chilton, “Big Star Song”.  It pushes most of my buttons with the Byrds/Merseybeat sus4 chords and a great melody as well as being a moving tribute to a pop legend.  So, how pleased do you think I felt when they played the song?  Dog with two tails doesn’t even come close, but then it got even better.  Apparently The Kennedys don’t play “Big Star Song” live very often, so my experience was rare and special.  Thank you Maura and Pete.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAI always love to see musicians having a good time and most soloists enjoy trading licks with another player; it’s a challenge and a crowd pleaser.  After playing a support set at the Garage in Islington, Aynsley Lister was brought back by headliner Joe Louis Walker to jam for a couple of songs and turned what had been a fairly standard back catalogue set into a highly entertaining sparring match between two players from different generations with a huge amount of mutual respect.  Both players were obviously having a great time and the momentum carried on through the remainder of Joe Louis Walker’s set.  The audience loved it and the musicians loved it; double bubble.

And finally, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band.  As much as I love Bruce’s music, I had never seen him live before, mainly because I hate stadium and arena gigs, but I finally succumbed this year.  Musically, the E Street Band have always been superb (just listen to the Hammersmith Odeon 1975 live album) but The Boss always keeps it fresh by throwing a few curve balls and there’s always a few bits of pure showbiz thrown in as well.  At Hard Rock Calling in London this year, he pulled out two memorable and genuinely surprising moments when he brought his mum on stage to dance with him on “Dancing in the Dark” and then brought his sister, Pam, on to join him at the end of the set.  These appearances were special because they were surprising and they emphasised the importance of family to Springsteen (including his extended Jersey shore family) and brought a couple of genuinely moving moments into the rock’n’roll circus.

You can keep your big screens, acrobatics, pyrotechnics and instrument smashing, it’s the prospect of moments like these that will make me jump on the train on a rainy Tuesday in January to go and watch a new band in 2014.

 

I love this; it’s time for the High Fives again and it’s a very different challenge this year with my live selections.  I had to work really hard to bring this down to just five gigs, but I think this just about sums it up.  In no particular order, here they are.

The Kennedys @Kings Place

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was one of the many venues I visited for the first time this year and it was a perfect place to see Pete and Maura Kennedy live proving that you can create musical perfection with just two guitars and two voices.  As well as having a stack of their own songs to create a set from (with plenty of input from the audience) they very generously feature songs by other writers and give the audience plenty of background about the songs and writers as well.  I know you’ll find this difficult to believe, but they also did something that left me speechless; Pete played a ukulele version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” which was stunning.  And I got to hear a live version of “Big Star Song” which had been impossible to get out of my head after reviewing the album.  And they are two genuinely lovely people.

08) Federal CharmFederal Charm and Southside Johnny @The Apex, Bury St Edmunds

Predictable, me?  The truth is, I’ve seen Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes dozens of times and I’ve never seen a bad gig.  I’ve also never seen anything resembling the same set twice.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We got to the venue just as the support band, Federal Charm, were starting their set and the impact was instant; frontmen Nick Bowden and Paul Bowe trading riffs and solos under Nick’s incredibly powerful lead vocal.  They’ve got self-assurance by the bucketload and a bunch of great songs as well.  And that was just the support act.  Southside Johnny, surrounded by a bunch of Jukes that have been playing as a unit for a few years now, looked more relaxed than I’ve seen him in years and sounded better than ever.  They played a set that wasn’t too reliant on the old classics, but was still appreciated by the old fans.  As always, the audience (and most of the band) had no idea where the set was going next and we loved it.

Dean Owens @The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham

Dean OwensYou might have noticed that the Riot Squad are big fans of Dean Owens.  We’ve been telling you about his albums for a couple of years now but, living in London, it’s a bit of a challenge seeing a live show; luckily we like a challenge and the first one was getting the squad from various parts of London and the south-east to Twickenham on a Friday evening.  When we finally made it, the venue was perfect; intimate with a nice sound system and a very appreciative audience.  Ags Connolly (whose debut album on Drumfire Records was produced by Dean) opened the show with a strong bunch of songs before Dean delivered a great set built around the “Cash Back” album with loads of songs from earlier albums and audience requests thrown in.  It’s worth adding that Dean has a very dry sense of humour and the audience interaction between songs was great fun as well.  Top night and many thanks to Phil Penman and Drumfire for keeping the faith.

Marcus Bonfanti

10) Marcus BonfantiMarcus Bonfanti is the British blues equivalent of the Duracell bunny; he never stops working.  During 2013, he released an album and did a solo acoustic tour and a full band tour to promote the album.  I was lucky enough to see an acoustic show (in the unlikely environment of a casino in the West End) and a full band show in The Borderline.  Both gigs were excellent and Marcus is a superb blues player and singer with a great line in self-deprecatory chat and humour between songs.  The highlight of each set was the wonderful “The Bittersweet”, one of the best new songs from any genre I’ve heard this year. All of the songs are so strong that they worked perfectly in a solo setting and with the full band; spot on musically and great fun as well.

 

Carrie Rodriguez @The Old Queen’s Head, Islington

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet another venue that I haven’t visited before; this is a room above a pub with a capacity of about eighty.  Yet again, the sound system was spot-on and the audience were very appreciative as Carrie, accompanied by Luke Jacobs (and playing between them fiddle, tenor guitar, acoustic and electric guitars and lap steel) rattled through two sets of songs taken mainly from her current album, “Give Me All You Got”, with some old favourites thrown in as well.  The songs were very high quality, the playing and vocals were superb, and Carrie and Luke’s easy relationship with the audience made this a superb night.

It wasn’t easy picking just five great live shows from the many I’ve seen this year and I should really give a mention to some of the others who didn’t quite make the list.  I saw great sets this year from Coco and the Butterfields, Henrik Freischlader, Billy Walton (four times), Paul Rose, Aynsley Lister, Elvis Costello, Civil Protection and Bruce Springsteen, but the five I’ve chosen here are the ones which surprised and delighted me.

 

 

“Closer Than You Know” -- The Kennedys

This album’s been around for a few months but it slipped under the MusicRiot radar until we heard about The Kennedys touring to support it in the UK, so I guess that justifies telling you all about it a little late.  This is the twelfth album the husband and wife team, Pete and Maura Kennedy, have released as The Kennedys, although they have both also been involved with various side projects.  The Kennedys are one of those “well-kept secret” bands that have devoted fans but, for some reason, have never quite become massively successful.

“Closer than You Know” is an interesting piece of work.  Just for once I agree with a statement from a press release; this is “pop for grown-ups” and, more importantly, it’s music for people who really care about music.  There isn’t any filler on this album; all of the songs are good and, in my opinion, at least a couple are great.  It’s difficult to define their style, but if you take folk-rock as your starting point, add a bit of Celtic seasoning and throw in 60s UK pop and The Byrds, you won’t be far off the mark.

The opening song “Winter” sets the scene for the album with Pete’s finger-picked guitar backing  Maura’s breathy, multi-tracked, vocals before moving into the country-tinged “Rhyme and Reason”, followed by the story of a second generation illegal immigrant “Marina Dream”, which has a Celtic folk feel  and a rhythm that evokes perfectly the flight and pursuit experienced by the girl at the centre of the song.

The middle section of the album moves across a variety of styles instrumentally and vocally featuring laconic Richard Hawley style-guitar, discordant synthesised strings and classical nylon-strung guitar arrangements.  I’m not dismissing these songs by any means, because they’re all good but, for me, after a couple of listens, the album builds up to one focal point.

From the opening sus4 chords of “Big Star Song” I was hooked.  The song is a celebration of Alex Chilton’s work and a lament for his passing;  it’s a perfect marriage of words and music which evokes an earlier era while sounding completely contemporary.  Like many great songs, this has several layers and, lyrically, it’s also about losing something or someone other than Alex Chilton.  I don’t know what that something else is and I suspect it’s so personal that I don’t really want to know.  Whichever way you look at it, this is a great song.

“Big Star Song” is followed by a U2 cover, “Wild Honey” , “Happy Again” (which has more than a hint of Rosanne Cash vocally) and “Winter Lies”, which completes the cycle.  I would have reviewed this as a good album without “Big Star Song”, but with that song, it’s a very good album indeed.  You can hear loads of influences at work here (you can probably add Stevie Nicks and maybe Emmylou Harris to the ones I’ve already listed), but this is fresh and original. 

My only general criticism is that the album feels slightly over-produced at times.  This may be a reaction to working as a duo because it must be natural at times to over-compensate by throwing too much at the production and adding another extra guitar part or vocal harmony. It’s a minor criticism and I’m really looking forward to hearing the live interpretations of the songs later this week.

“Closer than You Know” is out now (Catalogue No. TK1208), distributed by Proper Music Distribution.