We asked Allan to share his favourite five photographs of the year and got the response we expected. ‘How can you pick favourites? It’s like asking a parent who their favourite child is’, and lots more in that vein. We eventually got him to agree to split them into five favourite monochrome and five favourite colour photos. Too good to be true really; it was, because he selected ten nice monochromes for us and said he couldn’t break it down any further. But surely ten’s just two sets of five; could we split them up? Amazing; five are male performers, five are female so here we go with the male performers, in no particular order:

 

Steve Stott

First thing I’m saying about this is that I know Steve quite well. He’s part of a scene in Southend-on-Sea and is a very gifted fiddle and mandolin player; he’s also a really nice guy. I got to know Steve because he collaborates extensively with Phil Burdett (and you really should check him out). This shot was taken upstairs at The Railway Hotel in Southend at the launch of volumes of poetry by Phil Burdett and Ralph Dartford. Phil decided to intersperse readings of his poems with some of his songs, accompanied by Steve, meaning that Steve had some onstage downtime. And the point that I’m approaching tangentially here is that the interesting stuff doesn’t have to be front and centre; Phil is a riveting performer and I loved the expression as Steve watched him recite:

 

Sam Tanner

There’s a bit of a theme emerging here; Sam’s a lovely guy as well. He’s also a great keyboard player and has one of the most soulful voices I’ve ever heard. The first time I saw Sam, he was part of Mollie Marriott’s band as co-writer, keyboard player and backing vocalist. He’s also one of the members of the funk supergroup Brother Strut (check them out live and on record) and in 2019 he released his solo album. This shot was taken at the sold-out launch gig for the album at The Half Moon in Putney with an absolute all-star band and an audience packed with great musicians as well; Sam didn’t disappoint and I think this picture captured something of the essence of one of the UK’s finest soul singers:

Red Berryn (Dominic Cooper)

My first encounter with Dom was at Leek Blues & Americana Festival in October 2018. I grabbed an interesting shot during his set and we got acquainted online. What Dom does is a tribute to the godfather of rock ‘n’ roll, Chuck Berry. This isn’t just any old Chuck Berry tribute; Dom’s totally committed, knows the Berry family and was actually invited to Chuck’s funeral. This isn’t just any of Chuck’s children out there playing his licks. This shot was taken in October 2019 at the same festival when Dom’s band supported the wonderful Little Victor at The Foxlowe Theatre. As Dom went into his splits routine, I got in close just as he shot a laser-like stare directly at the camera:

Mikey Christer

Social media has its faults, but sometimes it works wonderfully well. I photographed Mikey for the first time in 2017 when he played in Penny Riviera’s band (check her out as well) at her EP launch at The Hard Rock Café. On the back of one shot from that gig, Mikey got in touch and we’ve discovered since that we have loads of favourite bands and guitar players in common. When I heard that Penny was doing a gig at Slim Jim’s in Islington this year with Mikey in the band, it was a no-brainer. It’s interesting lighting there, but it works well with monochrome. It was great to meet up with Mikey and chew the fat and this was my favourite shot from the night:

Connor Cockbain

I like to visit Brighton during The Great Escape for a day or so. The weather’s usually good and it’s nice to get away from The Smoke for a day. This year, the day was spent mostly in Caffe Nero watching some fabulous artists, but it’s always nice to pop over the road to The Mesmerist to catch some bands there. One of the bands I saw very briefly this year was The Post Romantics from Liverpool. I have some rules about gig photography and Rule One is that you don’t get the microphone directly in front of the singer’s mouth. Rule Two is that you can break the rules when you can justify it; the intensity of Connor’s stare in this shot is the justification. With minimal stage lighting and daylight through the windows, this was always a monochrome shot, which was a good thing because I had a chat with the band afterwards and they told me that Connor would convert it to black and white anyway:

Happy Thanks Giving Messages

It occasionally happens that the beginning of this annual High Fives feature coincides with Thanksgiving and this year is one of those occasions. So why not start this celebration of 2019 highlights with an appreciation of some of the things (and people) that enrich our musical lives and enhance the gigs that we go to. In no particular order, here are some of the things that Allan is giving thanks for in 2019:

 

The old London venues – By that, I mean not necessarily old in real time, but the venues I’ve been visiting for a few years now; the ones where I know the bar staff (and quite often the security team). The ones that I enjoy visiting because I know the artists are treated with respect and the audience listens rather than talking about their bad experience on the Tube (Green Note, take a bow). And the bigger venues where it’s loud and the stage lighting’s dynamic; the venues that have been around for years. We’ve lost a few recently, but we’ve still got the Empire in The Bush, Dingwall’s, The Forum and The Roundhouse for the old-school big gig experience.

 

The new London venues – First of all, the venues that are new to me. In nearly ten years of covering live music in London venues, I’d never visited The Electric Ballroom until a few weeks ago and it’s an absolute treasure of a venue. Great sound, great lights and, even with a full house, you can still get around the venue; and let’s not forget the wonderful staff.

We’ve all heard about venues closing, particularly in Soho but it’s not such big news when new venues open their doors. The Camden Chapel, an intimate 40-capacity space in the London Irish Centre opened this year and we also saw the first event at the Cocoa Vaults in Covent Garden. And Madame Jojo’s is due to re-open in 2020. That has to be something to celebrate.

The Volunteers– I know, sometimes it feels like everyone doing anything on the live music scene at the moment is volunteering. There isn’t a huge amount of money about and there are a lot of people in line for a small piece of it; but we also have venues and events that are run almost entirely by teams of volunteers. In London, The Roundhouse, The Union Chapel and Islington Assembly Hall (and probably many more) rely on teams of volunteers across a range of technical disciplines to run highly professional operations. Outside London, there are numerous local festivals run by enthusiastic and talented volunteers; one example, Leek Blues and Americana Festival in Staffordshire, runs over six days in October and is dependent on a small army of volunteers. It’s a huge success and brings significant numbers of visitors to the town; it’s also great fun.

The Sound Engineers – A good one is like an additional band member. In most small venues they are responsible for creating a great sound for the audience and mixing the onstage sound for the band. A good one will bring out all of the subtle nuances of your songs, while a bad one will leave you tearing your hair out. It’s fairly traditional in smaller venues these days (the ones where people actually listen to music) for the sound engineer to be introduced to the audience as part of the round-up of band members towards the end of the set. And that’s the only kind of feedback that they want to hear.

 

The Audiences – I’m very lucky; most of the gigs I’ve been to this year have been attended by audiences that really wanted to be there. No corporate hospitality, no huge support-band guestlist, just people who want to see and hear great live music. From the awed silence of The Camden Chapel and Green Note to a night at The Forum packed with eighties Polish punks (it’s a long story), I’ve mingled with thousands of people made the effort to come out to hear music in the way it should be heard. Just keep on doing it.

It’s a streaming wet and murky day in the Moorlands – and it pretty much doesn’t matter which set of Moorlands you’re in, it is giving way to a horrible ‘don’t bother’ kind of night.

Graham Parker doesn’t need telling this. He’s just played the first date on a solo UK tour celebrating the release of an acoustic version of his best-selling UK hit album, ‘Squeezing out Sparks’, in Exeter and has spent six hours swapping one set of Moorlands scenery for the Staffordshire Moorlands. For tonight he’s set to play The Foxlowe Centre in Leek. And despite a nasty ‘tour cold’ and having to survive recording a near-on half-hour podcast and radio interview with Mr. McKay and I following the sound check, this sprightly, twinkly 60-plusser is in fine voice when he hits the stage.

He follows a short and perfectly fine set by Stephen Wilson Jnr and once he takes the stage, always a slight and quite unassuming figure, you’re once again reminded of the ‘nakedness’ of the solo acoustic performer. No ‘The Rumour’-style brass section to ‘lean on’ here. The songs either do the job, and the performer can ‘sell’ them, or they can’t.

It kind of helps, though if you’ve got a body of work spanning decades which includes 3 UK top 40 single hits, and 4 top 40 UK hit albums. “Squeezing out Sparks” got to number 22 on the UK album chart and went Gold in a number of territories and is the most ‘stripped down’ of the albums which troubled the UK chart, so that kind of helps as well, as does the knowledge and experience which comes from touring, incessantly, for more years than seems possible and guesting recently on tour with the likes of vinyl single chart-toppers Stone Foundation.

He kicks off with “Fool’s Gold” from 1976 and the album “Heat Treatment”. It was a great song then and is a great song now and Parker’s nasal rasp is the ideal vehicle. His voice does indeed sound needle sharp and his acerbic and self-deprecating wit between songs is an object lesson in how to entertain when you ain’t singing. He follows this with “Chloroform” from 2005 and the album “Songs of no Consequence” and we’re off and running. He already has the near-sell-out crowd eating out of his hand.

He candidly admits “Waiting for the UFOs” is probably the weakest song on “…..Sparks” but plays it anyway (Why, Graham? This has, in fairness, dated a bit) before a triple of “Every Saturday Nite” from recent album “Cloud Symbols”, “Stick to the Plan” and “Black Honey” all of which are played with humour, verve and panache by someone who knows how the tread the boards. He’s nobody’s idea of a world-beating guitar picker, but he’s perfected the art of using alternately a large acoustic and a Telecaster (not to mention a kazoo!!) to accompany himself to a perfectly appropriate effect, especially the acoustic, which he plays with a choppy, rhythmic style which ‘drives’ songs along. Another recent song in “Bathtub Gin” leads into the album opener on “….Sparks”, “Discovering Japan”. Often used a set opener when playing ‘full band’ gigs, this once again proves what an unusually-structured but striking piece this is in a live setting. Well into the ‘back nine’ now, he helter-skelters through to a paint stripping version of album title track “Howlin’ Wind”, which heralded the start of Parker’s recording career back in ’76, “Back to School Days” and a positively desperate-sounding ‘Stick To Me’. This was always a great song which all but disappeared under the ‘kitchen sink’ production which was thrown at it when the album was recorded and indeed it didn’t ‘do’ anything like as well as it should have done due to alleged cack-handed record company shenanigans (“Mercury Poisoning”, anyone?) and then a celebratory bundle of “White Honey” a top 40 UK hit on ‘The Pink Parker’ EP, “Is The Sun Out” and a blisteringly angry version of the new red vinyl single, “Nixon’s Rules”, which is ripping up a few trees as a searing critique of Britain’s failed and increasingly discredited drug policy.

He leaves the stage to rapturous applause to head off in to the next night on his UK tour, nursing a heavy cold but in the secure knowledge that man flu is temporary, class is permanent. He remains one of the few artists to emerge from the era of the ‘new wave’ with an ever-increasing appreciation of his qualities as a song writer and a performer; a reputation which, at the time, was probably ‘disguised’ and certainly under-appreciated by the demands of a very strange time. Bizarrely enough, as an artist, his time is probably Right Now. And it appears to me, watching him onstage in Leek tonight, that he’s clocked this. Go GP.

Here’s something new for you. Allan and Steve had the pleasure of interviewing the initimable Graham Parker this weekend for various radio stations in the north of England.We also had the option of using the unedited version for MusicRiot. Instead of spending hours transcribing the audio recording, we decided to cut out the intermediary and let you have twenty-five and a half minutes of Graham Parker talking about the 40th anniversary of “Squeezing Out Sparks” and a whole load of other things, including his new single “Nixon’s Rules”, which we’ve also included below. You people just don’t know how lucky you are. Anyway, have a listen to some very interesting insights into the music business and other things. Just a word of warning; there’s a very, very mild swear word at around 9:15.

 

 

You can also see the video for the new single here:

Well, 2019 is certainly going out with a bang. In a period that’s normally characterised by back catalogue compilations and TV stars covering standards, the roots and Americana scene is still alive and kicking, particularly on Steve Dawson’s Black Hen label. “If Wishes Were Horses” is Alberta-based Matt Patershuk’s fourth album and it’s a very fine piece of work indeed. At first glance it appears to weigh in as a bit of a heavyweight with fifteen tracks, but it features four short instrumental fragments with the same leitmotif (more about that later), giving the album a fairly standard twelve-song running time.

Matt’s songs tend to simplicity on the surface, while tapping into universal truths about life, love, work and loss, but he likes to look at things through a different lens, lyrically and musically, creating a patchwork quality to the album, which is knitted together by the four short instrumental fragments (titled “Horses” and representing wishes). Each of these fragments weaves a different arrangement around a common melody; all are atmospheric with a cinematic quality using a variety of instruments and textures to create the links pulling the album together. “Horse 1 (For Bravery and Good Fortune)” is an interesting mix of Dick Dale and Ennio Morricone topped off with some very Sixties-sounding organ lines; the other wishes are equally enigmatic.

The album is packed with intriguing and memorable songs across a range of styles from old country to sweaty blues and it’s difficult to pick favourites, but let’s give it a try. The two songs telling stories of Ernest Tubb and Albert King (“Ernest Tubb had Fuzzy Slippers” and “Velvet Bulldozer”) are beautifully-drawn evocations of different stages in the musician’s journey. “Alberta Waltz” highlights the contrast between what people do to live and how they escape from it – ‘Dancing is for dreamers and lovers and fools’, while “Circus” describes a world where the everyday routine is grotesque and fantastical, but people still fall in love and get married. And let’s not forget “Let’s Give This Bottle A Black Eye”, which could only ever be a country song in the Merle Haggard vein.

“If Wishes Were Horses” is a satisfying complete album, featuring a great bunch of songs, superb arrangements and a voice that works perfectly across a range from slow country ballads to greasy Southern Blues. Matt Patershuk deserves to be much more widely known.

The album is released in the UK on Friday November 29th on Black Hen Music (BHMCD0090). In the meantime have a quick look at these videos:

Big Dave McLean is that rare thing – a prophet that is actually recognised in his country. In the same week that Southside Johnny was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, it’s been announced that Dave will receive an appointment to the Order of Canada. The comparison with Southside Johnny isn’t just plucked out of the air; they’re both people who are passionate about their music, they both love their blues and they both came to recording significant numbers of their own songs late in their careers. Dave has nine of his own compositions on “Pocket Full of Nothin’” alongside three covers and all of the originals have all earned their place. So you take all of that and add Black Hen’s Steve Dawson as player and producer and you already have something a bit special, but there’s a little bit more.

Not only was the band fully tooled-up for country and urban blues, but the addition of a horn section and Hammond added more of a Stax feel as well (I’m trying not to labour this, but hints of Southside Johnny again) and they were ready for the big one. You’ve got the songs, you’ve got the chemistry, why not just do the show right here kids? And they did; most of “Pocket Full of Nothin’” was recorded live on the studio floor over a few days, and because of that, it sounds fresh, almost raw, and dynamic. The arrangements sometimes feel a bit unusual (you don’t often hear resonators and horns together) but Dave’s raw country blues shouter voice pulls all of the elements together perfectly for this bunch of songs that takes the blues idiom as its jumping-off point on “Songs of the Blues” with a fairly smooth twelve-bar arrangement filled out with the horn section, contrasting with Dave’s rough-hewn voice. The styles pan out across the blues spectrum from the swampy Southern groove of “Don’t Be Layin’ That Stuff on Me” to the good time jump blues of “All-Day Party” and the raw country blues of “Pocket Full of Nothin’”.

Which is what you would expect from a lifelong blues player, except there’s a bit more. The album’s two closing songs, “Manitoba Mud”, in praise of the literal and metaphorical mud that pulls people to the city and keeps them there and the simple gospel-tinged optimism of “There Will Always Be a Change” bringing the album to a hopeful end.

This album moves Big Dave McLean from the role of respected bluesman to genuine songwriting talent.

“Pocket Full of Nothin’” is out now in the UK on Black Hen Music (BHCD0091).

It’s fair to say I’m not a prolific reviewer; it’s all about the process. The first listen to an album decides whether it moves me enough to review it, then it gets another five or six listens before I make some notes, track by track. Then I look at the press release and lyric sheets, sleeve notes and anything else that came with the songs. It’s just the way I do it and it throws up some interesting little insights. And there are some artists that you look forward to reviewing because they always make you think very carefully about their work; Ed Dupas is one of those artists. He writes a lot of songs about relationships, happy or sad, but you know that each album will have one song that digs deep and pulls out a reaction to the world that surrounds us. We’ll get to that in a while.

Most of the songs on “The Lonesome Side of Town” fall into genres that can be labelled as country, rock or some combination of the two. Country’s the dominant force on this album with arrangements featuring pedal steel, lap steel, banjo and resonator, but the addition of a Hammond B3 adds another dimension, taking the sound into The Band territory. And let’s not forget the Merseybeat feel of “Love Me Right”, with its chiming guitars and sus4 chords.

Of the eleven songs, ten are deeply personal, dealing with aspects of a relationship breakdown and one, “State of the Nation”, placed in the dead centre of the album, is the zeitgeist song. Ed Dupas doesn’t do a lot of these, but when he does, they hit, and they hit hard. “State of the Nation” is an out-and-out rocker about the divide between the people who work and the people who benefit from that work. It’s no frills rock ’n’ roll fired out in less than three minutes and it brings to mind Bob Seger’s 1978 song “Feels Like a Number” – well, Ed does live in Ann Arbor, Michigan. As an example of the level of detail in the production, rather than crashing the over-driven guitar in at the beginning of the second verse, it’s faded in just before the beginning of the verse so that it reaches the right level just as the verse begins; just a little touch, but it works perfectly.

But that’s not to belittle the rest of the album. The title song sets the mood for the album as it tells the familiar story of a relationship with a performer, while “It All Sounds like Leaving” could only ever be a country song, particularly with the line ‘Let’s get on with the grieving, cos it all sounds like leaving’. Ed admits to agonising over the track order and losing one song that didn’t fit, and that confirms the message that it more than just a bunch of songs – it’s an album and there are subtle links between the songs. There are three references to ‘within’ or ‘between the lines’ and “On my Way” refers back to “It All Sounds like Leaving”. The more you dig, the more you find.

“The Lonesome Side of Town” is a beautifully-crafted set of songs coming out of a difficult situation. There are songs of heartache, a song of anger and some songs of redemption and moving forward. They are all songs of passion.

“The Lonesome Side of Town” is released in the UK on Friday October 25th on Road Trip Songs.

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).