First of all, let me say that this is only available in 375ml bottles rather than the standard 750ml, but it comes in two packages: plastic with a screwtop and glass with a genuine cork. But we’re more interested in quality than quantity aren’t we, so let’s have the tasting notes. Well, I’m getting leather jackets with studs and MOFO patches on the back, shoulder length hair, well-worn Levis and cowboy boots. The ambience of The Midland Hotel Bar in Mansfield in 1973 and Metal Mickey’s rock sessions downstairs in Nottingham Palais in the mid-eighties. It’s a robust flavour with the nuances of Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash (with just a lingering aftertaste of Black Sabbath) and none of the thud and blunder of some of the less subtle bands of the era. It’s Austin Gold’s second album (or mini album) and it’s only available on vinyl or as a download.

There’s no denying that Austin Gold are influenced by seventies rock and that can be a blessing or a curse. For every band with twin guitars in harmony, memorable melodies, concise delivery and keyboards enhancing the guitar attack there were equal numbers of lumbering four-to-the-floor units, pretentious lyrics purveyors, over-long solo show-offs and big light shows that masked the defects of the materials.

You know where this is going; Austin Gold personify all of the elements of seventies British rock that I ever bought into while avoiding all of the elements that totally turned me off. The songs are melodic, they all come in about four minutes, there are no ten-minute solos (in fact no guitar pyrotechnics at all) and the drumming doesn’t rely completely on bass and floor tom. Absolutely nothing’s overdone; the songs run their course, maybe with a solo or two and they end. The Hammond and keys contribute to the overall sound rather than standing front and centre and the guitar riffs are simple, loud and effective. And they know how to write an anthem or two.

It’s definitely Côtes du Rhone rather than Beaujolais Nouveau.

“Austin Gold” is out now on Jigsaw (SAW 8).

It happens every couple of years; we get a new Bob Bradshaw album, and they’re always worth waiting for. Bob’s a very credible singer with a voice that can bristle with taut emotion or smoothe off the edges to demonstrate a rich baritone for the ballads that has a hint of later-period Elvis Costello. The varied arrangements seem almost effortless and always work to emphasise the qualities of the songs, which are also a rich and varied selection of musical and lyrical styles. As you make your way through “Queen of the West”, the pieces of the puzzle begin to fall into place. It’s not a linear narrative, the album opens somewhere in the middle of the story before bouncing back and forth through various critical episodes in the life of Ruby Black, Queen of the West before the album ends with a trilogy of relationship songs which may or may not feature Ruby, closing with tragic story of a boatload of refugees burnt out within sight of the shore – close enough to hear the sounds of the children singing.

And what about those varied styles? Well, the album opens with the beautifully atmospheric and, appropriately widescreen, title song building the atmosphere with floor toms, shimmering guitar and strings as the narrative opens with a tentative reunion for Ruby. It’s a seductive start that sets the scene perfectly for the rest of an album that impresses with its quality and innovation. As an example, three songs in, “Ruby Black”, with its atonal, angular guitar riff pulls together Ruby’s prayer to the saints for her sick child with reminiscences of her musical career, ending with a choral reply from the saints. Which then leads into the almost vaudeville style of “1-800-SOSAINT” pitching the saints as options on a prayer helpline – it’s clever, original and masterfully delivered. Other favourites? Pretty much anything really, but the incredibly catchy “High Horse” and the laconic “Story Goes” have been heavily praised here at Riot Towers.

There’s a lot of chatter about the demise of the album these days and “Queen of the West” is a great example of a piece of work that’s well-written and structured in a way that keeps you engaged throughout. The character of Ruby is developed in a way that pulls you in to her story, crying at the heartache and smiling at the diamond-hard public persona. “Queen of the West” is designed to be listened to as a single piece – it’s a rewarding experience.

“Queen of the West” is out now on Fluke Records (FR10).

It’s fair to say that the music scene in the Irish Republic has always been distinct from that in the UK. It’s not uncommon for bands to be massive, having Number One hits in Ireland while being unknown in the UK and that’ s the way it is with Keywest. They’ve had two Number One albums in Ireland already and now they’re out to conquer the UK with their first album release here, “Ordinary Superhero”. It’s fair to say that in (fairly) recent years, bands taking this route have been aimed at the teen market and the pop charts; while Keywest have some radio-friendly tunes, there’s a lot more to this outfit than pop songs.

They got together busking in Ireland, honing their craft in front of a constantly changing audience on the streets; it’s a harsh learning environment, but the survivors have to be good and they have to know how to hold an audience. I’ve seen Keywest live a couple of times and I know for sure that they’ve achieved both of those goals. It was a live performance in Camden in 2018 that led Steve Tannett, head of Marshall Records to sign them to the label in the UK.

“Ordinary Superhero” is a pretty good representation of where the band is at the moment. They’ve taken all the lessons learned from playing to audiences whose attention they had to grab instantly and created ten songs that fuse influences from pop, folk, rock, Celtic traditional and world music rhythms. The arrangements are built around big choruses and an effective use of dynamics with some Edge-style guitar parts (U2 had to get in there somehow) and emotive Andy Glover vocals, creating a wide soundscape with constant variations.

If you’re looking for standout songs, the floor tom-driven opener “Somebody to Love” with Big Country (or maybe Bryan Adams) guitar hooks is right up there. The title song praises mothers bringing up families in dire social conditions; it’s about an Irish mother, but the message is universal. “This is Heartbreak” features a standout vocal performance, pulling out every nuance of the immediate impact of a broken relationship perfectly.

Just one more thing. The album’s packed with great songs and performances, but it’s not the best way to get the Keywest experience. To get the best from Keywest, you need to see them live. They’re touring the UK in October to promote the album and the live experience is just something else.

“Ordinary Superhero” is released in the UK on Friday September 27th on Marshall Records (CD – R910.022, Vinyl – R920.009).

A new Rod Picott album is always something to look forward to. He’s an exceptional songwriter and his voice is a very effective vehicle for delivering those songs. It’s a voice that’s frayed around the edges and at times crackles with emotion. On “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil”, Rod has stripped his delivery back to just guitar, harmonica and voice; oh, and the songs. Just to give this some context, the album was recorded after a health scare Rod had over the last winter (although not all of the songs are contemporary) and has a stark, sometimes brooding, feel mingled, unsurprisingly, with intimations of mortality, including the opening song “Ghost”, a brutally honest assessment of Rod’s current situation, and that of many others in similar positions. Confessional, hard-hitting singer-songwriter isn’t a particularly lucrative career path these days.

Rod recorded the entire album alone, without an engineer, before handing the tapes over to Neilson Hubbard (you might remember him if you’re a MusicRiot regular) for final production. If you want a benchmark, the finished article has the same feel as The Boss’s “Nebraska” and has similar lyrical themes of family, poverty and alienation. The result of this method is that the songs are stripped to their very essence with no distractions, emphasising the stories they have to tell and, as always with Rod Picott, they’re striking and memorable stories.

As a writer, Rod likes a metaphor; the murder ballad “Too Much Rain” uses a barren landscape to represent the failure of a marriage to blossom, while “Bailing” uses the idea of bailing literally and metaphorically, referring back to a flooded childhood cellar as a metaphor for the futility of activity that only serves to keep us in the same place. Rod also likes to bring a bit of autobiography into the mix; “Mark” is the story of an unexplained teenage suicide, while “Spartan Hotel” is that bar in any town where anything goes if you can pay the price. And don’t forget the social comment; “A Beautiful Light” aims straight the heart of those songwriters who try to glamourise the drudgery of blue-collar life as a means of social control.

This is the third Rod Picott album we’ve reviewed here and they’re consistently powerful pieces of work blending punchy stories of small-time America with haunting melodies in a voice that is both emotive and vulnerable. It’s probably the most personal of his recent albums and well worth a listen.

“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” is out now Welding Rod Records and Rod will be touring the UK in October.

Imagine a story that starts with a fanatical Jam fan in the town of Atherstone who draws pictures of the band’s album covers in his exercise books during lessons at school and fantasises about being in his own band. Imagine that kid forty years later turning to his right at Islington Assembly Hall and seeing Paul Weller making a guest appearance with the band, Stone Foundation, that the kid has played with and believed in for a huge chunk of his life. Now that would make a great story, wouldn’t it? Bloody right it would, especially when the kid is Neil Sheasby, known to fans of Stone Foundation for his gritty on-the-road diaries spilling all the gory details (and the pleasant surprises and triumphs) of life in a band in the 21st century.

Brother Sheas (as Paul Weller refers to him) is a natural storyteller, who’s never short of an opinion and has the knack of pacing the narrative perfectly, in a style that captures perfectly his spoken delivery and with an ability to deliver the killer punchline when it’s needed. I’m not going to spoil the book for you by retelling the stories – I mean, the whole point of this is to make you want to buy it and read it. The only spoiler I’m going with is that the story stops short of the formation of Stone Foundation (which I’m guessing will come with the second volume).

The story “Boys Dreaming Soul” tells is of passion for music, passion for the right clothes, riotous times and bad behaviour, life in a small working-class town (and I can relate to most of those) and a lifelong friendship that comes to define both of the people involved. Neil’s deadpan delivery is perfect for the music business anecdotes, but he’s equally effective with the serious business, and there’s a fair amount of that as well.

This book will make you laugh; it might make you cry. If you’re interested in music at all, and why are reading this if you aren’t, you’ll be fascinated by Neil’s stories of his various bands and nights out at music industry schmoozefests and the memories he evokes with playlists for each chapter of the book (Neil loves a playlist). He’s a very engaging author and he’s created a compelling memoir in “Boys Dreaming Soul”. It’s a story of complete commitment to an ideal whether times are good or bad, happy or sad. And it made me realise we were at the same gig in Nottingham thirty years ago.

It’s available at the main online stores but why not try here first. It’s out now.

It’s easy to be cynical about the whole remaster/rerelease game – it’s been abused by the music business for so long as a way of making the same material pay its way several times over. And then a 20-year anniversary of something like “Johnstown” comes along with a couple of really good reasons to make the effort. The technical one is that the vinyl release would demand a remaster and the commercial reason is that there are music-lovers that would have completely missed this in 1999 who are blown away by it in 2019; I’m right at the front of that queue.

In common with her autobiographical 2017 album “A Girl in Teen City”, “Johnstown” has a strong sense of place – the scene is set for the twelve stories against a backdrop of a town that has lived for decades with the ominous threat of floods. And just to ramp up the feeling of impending doom, the album opens with a minor-key murder ballad underpinned by distorted and menacing guitar. So that’s just the title song and I’m buying it already.

There genuinely isn’t a mediocre song on the album; they’re all right out of the top drawer and they’re a varied bunch in terms of themes and arrangements; “You’ll Always Be” is a relatively straightforward love song until an edge of shadow is added with a superbly atonal piano solo, while the hauntingly beautiful triple-time ballad “Alabaster” is wrapped in a minimalist arrangement that emphasises the individuality of Susie Ungerleider’s voice and the octave leaps that give the voice its unique quality. And so it goes, right up to the album’s final song, in triple-time again, the gorgeous “Tangled & Wild”, embellished by some keening pedal steel and bringing the album to a gentle close; but not quite.

That’s where the original album ended, but there are a few little surprises in the shape five stripped-back demo-style versions of songs from the album. I’m also cynical about the addition of ‘bonus’ tracks that are added to tempt the completist collector, but the additions here work well and they have all been previously commercially available as an EP. “Johnstown” proves that the song works without the album arrangement and “Alabaster” (which finally closes the album) is perfect as a solo piece. This is an album that I genuinely wish I’d heard twenty years ago and I’m sure I’ll be listening to in another twenty years.

“Johnstown” is released in the UK on Friday August 30th on Continental Song City (CSCCD 1164) and Oh Susanna will be touring the UK in early September.

It’s fair to say that this isn’t really my manor. Yeah, I love The Railway Hotel in Southend for many reasons, the first being the wonderful bunch of people who choose to drink there. It’s an old-fashioned boozer that has successfully resisted any vogueish makeovers and remains a pub for people that like pubs (oh, and music, definitely music). It’s the kind of place where musicians, artists and poets (and the occasional photographer) meet up to drink, politely and non-judgementally discuss each other’s work and the work of others and drink and then drink some more. I may have fabricated a piece of that last sentence; you decide which bit.

The reason for this trek out to Southend-on-Sea was the launch of books by Ralph Dartford and Phil Burdett and live performances by each of the authors. The last time I saw a live poetry event was nearly four years ago when Dr John Cooper Clarke supported Squeeze in Greenwich, which sets the bar fairly high. No worries on that score; Phil Burdett and Ralph Dartford had the goods and were ready to deliver.

Ralph Dartford

It’s no secret that both of these artists have had their demons and maybe still do; that’s where the authenticity shone out in both sets. Ralph Dartford opened reading selections from his current volume “Recovery Songs” packed with pathos, humour and stark social realism (“Addict” set the tone for Ralph’s performance) joined up by a seamless narrative which demonstrated some superb comic timing. The audience was Phil’s home crowd, but they were attentive and hugely appreciative during Ralph’s set. I recommend the book and you can get it here .

Phil Burdett

And the it was time for Phil Burdett, on a long and unpredictable journey from some very dark places indeed, to premiere his book of prose and poetry “Rhyming Vodka with Kafka”. Never one for convention, Phil delivered a mixture of readings from the book punctuated by songs old and new with support from fellow Southend legend Steve Stott on mandolin and fiddle (I’m not going to ask what happened to the banjo). For a first attempt at this format Phil nailed it, with the audience enthralled by the material and the delivery, pin-drop silent during the readings and wildly appreciative at the conclusions, particularly “The Bad Pub Guide” and “Dogs Accustomed to Loud Music”. Maybe a prophet can have honour in his own country.

Steve Stott

Bottom line – I loved both performances; the audience loved both performances. I bought both books; a lot of the audience bought both books. It’s a long time since I’ve seen an entire audience so totally immersed in a performance. Thank you Ralph Dartford and Phil Burdett for making me realise that I need more poetry in my life.

 

I guess this is one that was inevitable; a live album that was recorded almost by accident, just because they could, and what an interesting piece of work it is. Unusually, this didn’t grab the attention at the first listen and it wasn’t a grower. On about the fourth listen, the power of the lyrics suddenly hit home and everything started to fit together. Sam Baker’s songs are self-contained stories, told with perfect economy; there isn’t a superfluous word as he tells us about the kind of people we’re all surrounded by, whether we know it or not; the single mothers, the alcoholics, the drug addicts, the widows and the guilt-ridden all doing their best to make it through another day. It’s the life of a small Texas town told in twelve small but perfectly-formed chapters.

The delivery as a live performance matches up perfectly with the stark subject matter. Sam Baker relates the tales in a sung-spoken style that has hints of Tom Waits and an interesting minimalist picked electric guitar style (more about that later), plus a wooden block to tap out the tempo with a foot. It works perfectly because the stark arrangement focusses all the attention on the power of Sam’s writing and the stories of despair and injustice but, ultimately, hope.

Back to that thing about the guitar style. After surviving a terrorist bombing of a train in Peru, which nearly ended his life, Sam’s long and painful recovery eventually led to using his music as a therapy, which included learning to play an upside-down guitar to adjust to the loss of a large part of his left hand. The playing style he’s developed strips all of the arrangements back to basics, shining a spotlight on the beating, bleeding heart of each of the songs.

Highlights? “Mennonite” is a poignant story of an unlikely relationship and forms the centrepiece of the album, “Boxes” is a heart-rending tale of a Vietnam widow and “Odessa” deals with the tragic fallout from a spoilt, entitled upbringing. Seriously though, it’s all good and you get the chance to hear it live in the UK early next year.

“Horses and Stars” is released in the UK on Friday August 23rd.

Buford Pope’s American influences shine through on “The Waiting Game”. His introduction to American music was Bob Dylan but the most obvious comparison vocally is the high register vocals of Neil Young. There’s a reference in the album’s second song, “Hey Hey Aha”, to the difficulties of songwriting (and a subtle nod to Shakey again) and writer’s block, but the songs all worked out fine in the end and the calling card for “The Waiting Game” is the way they have been arranged. And that’s apparent from the very start. 

America” (a lyrical co-write with Mark Drake) is the collaboration that Neil Young and The Blue Nile haven’t quite got round to yet. It’s an atmospheric love song to America with a big bassline and a new frontier theme with songsters replacing pioneers. The high tenor range of the voice, the melancholy subject matter and the country-rock feel of “Hard Life” make vocal comparisons with Don Henley difficult to avoid, but it’s difficult to see how that’s a bad thing. I mentioned arrangements earlier and the most innovative has to be “A Hundred”. 

The minimalist production is built around a bass drum on one and three and a layered handclap on two and four which repeats remorselessly throughout the song as the blues builds up with the addition of bass and banjo. It hints at the foot stamps of Brian May’s percussion innovation for “We Will Rock You” (a reference you might not expect to hear on an Americana album). Incidentally, a country, honky-tonk reworking of the song, listed as “Ninety-Nine” closes out the album. 

It’s the kind of album that you get when an someone without the baggage of a ‘scene’ or ‘movement’ to contend with (living in a remote part of Sweden) can concoct by taking original American influences and subject matter and melding them with elements from outside this genre to produce something that’s unique. It’s an intriguing listen. 

“The Waiting Game” is out now.

Well, that was all a bit intense; four nights of gigs spread across North and West London (and those are just the ones I opted for – there were plenty of other great gigs across the capital, but you can only be in one place at a time). With so much on offer, the choices weren’t easy, but I witnessed four cracking gigs, all headlined by bona fide legends and with some astonishing up-and-coming support acts. And it’s the only festival I’ve done where I could get a decent shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. 

 

Mavis Staples & Stone Foundation @Roundhouse 04/07/19 

This was all about the songs (and Mavis Staples’ incredible voice). No long solos; just deliver the song and the message and move on to the next one. Stone Foundation delivered a powerful support set for Mavis, for the second time in three days and demonstrated why the are the new soul vision. All the elements fit, the songs are strong and the horns and Hammond are the perfect icing on the cake. The finale of “Tear Your Playhouse Down” leaves the crowd elated and ready for the main event. 

Mavis Staples is almost the same age as my mum (Happy Birthday for Wednesday, Mavis). The passion for the music is undimmed and the voice is still a force of nature. The audience would happily listen to the classics (who wouldn’t want to hear “Slippery People”, “For What It’s Worth” and “Respect Yourself”), but Mavis also has a new album out at the moment and the title song “We Get By” fits seamlessly in as the set draws to a close. By the end you’re left in no doubt; you have been in the presence of a legend. You have been Mavised.

Mavis Staples

 

Maceo Parker, Down to the Bone and Jen Kearney @Roundhouse 05/07/19 

If Thursday was all about the songs and the singers, Friday at Roundhouse was about two things; virtuoso playing and, most importantly, the FUNK. All three sets combined jazz and funk in various proportions with a few other elements thrown in. Jen Kearney opened with a short but powerful set with Latin overtones and hints of Steely Dan at times. Superb instrumental performances from the whole band and powerful vocals from Jen herself. Definitely one to watch. And then Down to the Bone ramped up the atmosphere before the headliner with a set of jazz-funk instrumentals with hints of New York and Cuba and nods towards the Average White Band, Nuyorican Soul and maybe very early Chicago. Great fun and fabulous musicianship. 

Then came Maceo. Coming onstage to “1999”, it was obvious that this wasn’t just about musicianship; this was a show. The playing was superb, but Maceo likes to perform as a bandleader, and why not? There was plenty of humour, with a little piano/alto jazz duet on “Satin Doll” to establish whether it was a jazz or funk audience (resoundingly funk, if you needed to know) and a trombone/keys duet on “My One and Only Love”, but it was the funk that was well and truly slam-dunked with a glorious cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” featuring a cameo Maceo vocal towards the end. And that was the sound of another legend winning over the Innervisions crowd. 

Maceo Parker

 

Janet Kay & Carroll Thompson with Hannah Francis @Under the Bridge 06/07/19 

Hannah Francis has a fabulous voice, no doubt about it, but, as a showcase for new talent, you have to wonder why she only had two songs with backing tracks and no live musicians. Whose decision, I don’t know, but I don’t think it did anyone any favours. And that’s the negativity out of the way.  Lovers Rock is by definition a nostalgia thing and the people who get nostalgic about it are really enthusiastic and knowledgeable. And friendly. It was the most relaxed and amiable of all the audiences over the weekend; everyone was there to have a good time. 

Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson are known as the two queens of Lovers Rock; they’ve been doing this for years and they’re incredibly good at what they do. They duet and then they alternate short three/four song sets of their classic songs. The difference this time is that they both have covers albums out at the moment so we’re treated to Carroll covering “Make it With You”, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and “Take Another Little Piece of my Heart”, while Janet covers “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “Wishing On a Star”. The audience is young and old, male and female and multi-ethnic and everyone’s just vibing on the tunes. It’s a perfect demonstration in West London of how we can all live together. 

Carroll Thompson

 

Gilberto Gil & Caravela @Shepherd’s Bush Empire 07/07/19 

The final night of Innervisions has me visiting what used to be the BBC Television Theatre in The Bush. Apart from a strange domestic at the bar, this is the most laid-back of all the gigs. It must be a Latin American thing. The music has never been my field of expertise, but it’s always had the feelgood factor and interesting rhythms and, like all of the headliners, Gilberto Gil is a legend in the spheres of music and politics. 

The night opened with Caravela, fronted by singer Ines Loubet and with a lineup of guitar, keys, bass, drums and percussion. They wowed the Empire crowd (it may have been a bit partisan) with their superb musicianship and Latin polyrhythms topped off by Ines’ powerhouse vocals. Even a non-dancer like me found the rhythms irresistible. And then it was Gilberto Gil time. 

The semi-circular backline looked like a set-up for a cast of thousands (or eight or nine multi-instrumentalists and backing vocalists) with Gilberto seated front and centre with an acoustic guitar for the opening three songs, which were all new and ebbed and flowed through stylistic and personnel changes as Gilberto worked solo, played duets and did full band arrangements, before changing up to electric and getting to his feet. However deficient your dancing feet may be, you can’t resist the seductive rhythms that will have you tapping your feet and your fingers and singing along to the wonderful melodies. Another legend whose reputation is well-earned. 

Gilberto Gil

 

And that was it for Innervisions 2019. Can’t wait for 2020.