This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along too often these days – an interview with one of my favourite singers and someone who happens to front one of the best bands I’ve ever seen; a bunch of superb individuals who make a formidable team. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were on a lightning tour of Europe that included a night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Too good to miss, really, so I took a little trip out to Wild West London. Here’s how it went…

 Allan

It’s great to see you again, what are you up to these days?

Southside

Well, we have a lot of work this year. I mentioned the word retirement and they immediately booked a thousand gigs. We’re trying to write another Jukes album but it’s been going slowly, so really it’s just been touring and trying to write the album and that’s about it. There’s not much else going on.

Allan

On this tour you had a free day in London yesterday. Did you manage to have a look around?

Southside

I walked all round Shepherd’s Bush and around the mall and I wanted to go to the British Museum but I didn’t get it together to do that, but this is a great walking area. I like this place; it’s a little funky in some areas but that’s good for me. I just love walking around London, all the different areas. It still feels like I’m somewhere other New Jersey. Even after all these years and all these times, I still feel glad to be here.

Allan

I’ve lived here fifteen years now and the city’s changed so much in that time.

Southside

It’s impossibly expensive to rent here. Occasionally I think, maybe I’ll go over there for a while, but you’ve got all the Russians and Saudi Arabians that are buying up all the properties. There are people who have lived here for a long time and they’re all right, but if you’re trying to buy a house, you’re out of luck.

Allan

You’ve done Wales and Scotland on this tour as well.

Southside

Yes, we played Cardiff and we played Glasgow. I always like playing Glasgow because the audiences are down-home, very New Jersey, if you know what I mean. They’re very enthusiastic and it matters to them. There’s no pretence about loving the music, it’s just really honest ‘get out and have a good time’ people.

Allan

I think South Wales is a lot like that as well.

Southside

We’ve played a few places in Wales, but not enough for me to really know it. I’ve played a lot of places in Scotland many, many times and I’ve got to know a number of people up there and they’re very authentic people. I really like that.

Allan

I think Jukes fans are like that generally.

Southside

That’s true. We play New York and people drop in to slum it with The Jukes and I don’t really care for that kind of thing. Our audience is like us; there’s no pretension about it.

Allan

And at Holmfirth, you actually had to add a second show this year.

Southside

Yep, Holmfirth is one of our favourite places to play. When we first played there, we got lost. We were driving through fields; the GPS on the bus was completely screwed up and we ended up going through a farmer’s field and thinking ‘Where the hell are we?’

Then we got there and it’s a small town, very picturesque and I thought ‘This is going to be terrible’ and it was great.

The people were just so over-the-top and the place sounded good and there was a snooker table in the dressing room. It was just one of our really fantastic nights and we had a great show, so we always look forward to coming back because they’re always good shows, so everybody’s excited about it.

Allan

And I think this year’s the twenty-first of the venue re-opening as a cinema and music venue, so they may be commemorating that.

Southside

Twenty-one years, huh? I wonder how many times have we’ve played there?

Allan

I saw you there in 2010, I think.

Southside

I think that’s when we started playing it, maybe a little earlier.

Allan

The last time I was in Holmfirth was in October last year to see Graham Parker with his new band The Goldtops, featuring some of the horn players from The Rumour and it felt like a throwback to that period in the late seventies when there was so much great music, and it was strange to see that Steve Gibbons, also from that era, had been added to tonight’s bill.

Southside

(Laughs) I didn’t know that. I just saw now that he was on the bill – that’s great.

Allan

And seeing Graham Parker made me think about the legendary tour that you did together in 1977.

Southside

That was great. What fun that was. Both bands were in the same bus; a lot of poker playing, a lot of talking, a lot of beer-drinking. And it was a competition every night; who’s gonna kick whose ass on that night. We really made some long-time friends on that tour. To us it was great because we saw all these towns you wouldn’t usually see. We played everywhere and all the nice theatres like this place. So for us, a bar band, it was an amazing tour. It really felt as though we were getting somewhere.

Allan

And also, going back to that era, Squeeze are just about to do another tour of the States.

Southside

That’s great, love them too. That was a great time for music. When you think about it, I liked all the punk stuff too. The Sex Pistols came to one gig with Ronnie Spector and the guys from The Damned were at The Nashville Club. Rat Scabies and I almost got in to a fight. It was one of those wonderful times.

Allan

I can remember in a history of punk I was reading (“’77 Sulphate Strip” by Barry Cain), I saw a photo of you and Graham at The Nashvillle.

Southside

Yeah, we were part of that era, but we weren’t ever punk. They welcomed us and we met the Stranglers, Eddie and the Hot Rods and all those other guys. We knew Thin Lizzy, those guys came to our gigs; we used to go out drinking and there were nights you couldn’t remember coming home to the hotel.

Allan

Is there any new music that you’re listening these days?

Southside

I’m still listening to a lot older stuff too, but there’s such a lot out there.

Allan

The reason I ask that is that I hear a lot of new Americana, people like Ed Dupas and Gerry Spehar. Some of it isn’t well-known and might never be, but what I really notice is the political stuff that’s coming to the fore now as the election of Trump seems to have politicised everyone.

Southside

Yeah, you can’t get away from it and you’re almost forced to take sides because the egregiousness just overwhelms you; the stupidity and the greed and the complete lack of compassion for anyone except for rich people. And even then, the people that are in the White House now don’t have feelings for anyone but themselves, from top to bottom, and it’s frightening, you know.

It’s going to swing back the other way now, once Trump has gone, whenever and however that’s gonna happen. I saw Jason Isbell at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and he was just fantastic, but he’s become more political too. The album that I really like, “Something More than Free” is very personal and human and real-life oriented, but I know that his latest stuff is becoming more and more political because you’re forced into it. You’ve got to speak up about it.

Allan

Getting back to the music, this incarnation of The Jukes is probably the most stable ever.

Southside

Yes, it’s been solid for a long time; I don’t count the years. It’s also the best band I think I’ve ever had because they’re all just all just great soloists but the ensemble work, there’s no selfishness if you know what I mean. I don’t know, I‘m just really enjoying this band; I can throw any kind of curve ball at them and they hit it, so I can do whatever I want on stage, we do some strange stuff, and they seem to follow very well and it’s not just ‘ok, now what you gonna do dummy?’.

Allan

Well that’s the question that I deliberately wasn’t asking…

Southside

Well, I think they are. With Tommy (Seguso) on drums now and John’s the best bass player I think we’ve ever had. Jeff’s an incredible keyboard player. All of the guys, the horn section, they carry a lot of weight and they handle it very well. It’s got so that I can relax and not worry about what’s going on behind me. I always like that feeling of being free on stage to do and say whatever I want and with this band, I’m very comfortable with that.

Allan

I always thought the danger was, with a band that good, there’s a chance that it can be like eight quarterbacks on stage.

Southside

(Laughs) No, they’re very good that way, there’s a certain ethos in being a Juke in that you’re working hard to please the audience, but you’re also trying to find new ways to play things and different ways to express yourself and, with this quality of musicianship, you can do that and you can let people go wherever they want to go and they let me go wherever I want to go. When it becomes rote, when it becomes just going through the songs, I’m out. That’s like working in a cubicle for an insurance company, I just don’t want that.

Allan

And the Jukes fans love that attitude as well, don’t they?

Southside

They like it when we take chances, and if we fall on our face, they laugh. And we do too.

Allan

How does the music business, or what’s left of it feel to you these days? Do you find it easier to work the way you’re working now?

Southside

Oh yeah, I’m not part of the music business. I own my own label. It’s all organic for me; I don’t have to worry about pleasing anybody other than the audience and so if I want to put out an album, I’ll put out an album, like we did the Billie Holiday thing or The Poor Fools. I can do whatever I want, I don’t have to please anybody but myself as far as the organisation’s concerned. So I don’t even think about record companies. To me they’re manufacturing artists. Some of them are good, some of them are terrible and phoney and awful but it’s all down to one or two acts; you don’t have record companies with fifty acts that they’re trying to make a career with; it’s either blockbusters or ignore it.

Allan

I’ve noticed that at Jukes gigs and with other bands doing similar things, younger fans are appearing.

Southside

Yeah, the fans are bringing their kids and their grand-kids, but that’s all right. We’re fun on stage, I think everybody gets that even when it’s not the kind of music a younger person is used to, but with rhythm ‘n’ blues and soul being so popular again these last five or six years, it’s interesting to see them coming and they understand what we’re doing, and there were a few years where I don’t think young people would have got what we were doing.

Allan

And you can see it coming through in bands like Hardwicke Circus, who supported you two years ago. They’re kind of modelled on that Jukes ethos, aren’t they?

Southside

Well, there’s a lot of bands like that out there. There’s a lot of soul singers out there and it’s great to see. The only thing I don’t like is manufactured music and I never have really enjoyed that. But if that’s what people like, that’s fine; I don’t judge people that way.

Allan

Well, thanks for your time and I’m looking forward to the show tonight.

Shaky Path to ArcadiaEvery time I hear some delusional, no-talent wannabe on a TV talent show (not often, I admit) it should make me despair for music in the twenty-first century. The reason it doesn’t is that I know about people like Phil Burdett, a genuine visionary who’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the epicentre of what masquerades as the music business today. When I interviewed Phil about eighteen months ago in downtown Leigh-on-Sea, he told me that he was working an album to follow “Dunfearing and the West Country High” as the second part of the “Secular Mystic Trilogy”. Not only that but he was also working on another trilogy that would begin with “Humble Ardour Refrains”. So, on a budget of threepence-halfpenny and some lollipop sticks, he’s recorded two albums for Drumfire Records with some fabulous musicians from the Southend and Canvey area (more about the musicians later) and he’s releasing both of them at the same time.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” carries on where its predecessor left off, looking west towards the USA from Cornwall, but it’s a metaphorical and musical destination and it’s not the only direction the album goes in, geographically or temporally, before returning to Cornwall to complete the cycle. Without slipping in to ‘sixth-form-literary-criticism’ mode, I’m going to say that there’s a lot going on lyrically and the deeper you dig, the more precious stones you’ll unearth. The lyrics are strewn with references to American music and culture; there’s no mistaking the reference point for “Christmas in Casablanca”, but elsewhere there are references to Joe Hill, Billie Holiday, Dylan, Little Richard and many, many more. There are Dadaist references, travel references (trains, boats and buses and almost a plane) and if you look really closely, a lot of references to Basildon. There’s a lot of autobiography in there, but you need to know where and how to look.

Even without the lyrical content, you could listen to the album and be enthralled by Phil’s rich, powerful vocals and the performances of the band over a wide range of styles. From the mainly acoustic opening song, “Returning to Earth” to the counterpoint vocals in the coda of the album’s closer “I Dreamed I Saw Carl Wilson Last Night”, the band sounds superb. It’s ensemble playing at its finest; particularly on “Hellbound & Innocent” where a melodic bass line from Russ Strothard, an insanely catchy clipped John Bennett guitar hook and Jack Corder’s drums recreate the clickety-clack of the train on the track to perfection. Dee Hunter’s piano is the perfect foil for Phil’s voice on the haunting “Christmas in Casablanca” while Steve Stott’s fiddle on “Come Out Without a Hat (It’s Bound to Rain)” and “New Greyhound Rag” give an authentic country/bluegrass feel to the songs. And let’s not forget Colleen McCarthy’s lovely backing vocals and producer Mark Elliott’s esoteric samples.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” is an example of how good an album can be when it’s put together by people who love what they do and they do it very, very well. Put the players together with another superb set of songs from the polymath poet of Westcliff-on-Sea and you’ve got a very fine album indeed. Any proper record collection should have some Phil Burdett in it and this is as good a place as any to start. “Humble Ardour Refrains” coming soon.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” and “Humble Ardour Refrains” are both available to pre-order now from Drumfire Records.

Sisters titleThere’s a lot to like about this first studio piece from Mama Moonshine, certainly enough to hint at interesting possibilities for the future. But, first things first, the band members are: Ruth Armitt (vocals), Phil Taylor (guitars), AB Benson (bass) and Mark Buckwell (drums) and they’ve been playing around London for a while now, building up a live following and “Sisters” is the first single.

We’re eased in to the song with a languid bass riff and some clipped, toppy funk guitar before Ruth Armitt makes an appearance with a very distinctive voice which is part Billie Holiday and part Carleen Anderson; it certainly got my attention immediately. The theme of the song is growing up, moving on and finding new friends and the lyrics work well with the melody and the band’s sound, but there’s something that doesn’t quite work.

It feels like the band have tried to cram several styles all of their dynamics into one three-minute song and the effect is a bit like cramming a three hundred page novel into two paragraphs. In the second half of the song there’s a series of two-bar passages where the instruments drop in and out which, for me, doesn’t really work at all. It feels a bit like an attempt to cram in a little bit of everything into three minutes when the song might have been better served by simplifying the arrangement or stretching things out a little to extend the song and escape the claustrophobic feel that the series of sudden changes in dynamics and arrangement create.

I’m certainly not saying it’s a bad song, but I think it needs a little more room to breathe than it’s allowed here.

Available now on Soundcloud.

Product DetailsThis album has been out for a while and it’s taken us a few months to get round to reviewing it; I can only apologise.  I hadn’t heard of Natalie Duncan before her appearance on “Later” although, to be fair, I don’t think Matt Bellamy had either and he caught on fairly quickly.  So, let’s make amends for missing out originally.

I’m sure I’ve said this before, but I love albums that cut to the chase and start with a track that features the power of the songs, the arrangements, the playing and the vocals.  The opener “Devil in Me” does all of that and more; a stunning a cappella intro showcases Natalie Duncan’s fabulous voice leading in to a song in 3/4 time which features classical guitar and traditional brass band instruments; how often do you hear a euphonium on a soul song?

This is an album that keeps you guessing; you never know what’s around the next corner musically or lyrically and even the production styles vary hugely across the album from the fairly straight soul of the title track through the country-folk styling of “Songbird” and the dub reggae feel of “Pick Me Up Bar” to the aggressive dissonance of “She Done Died”.  Lyrically, the first four songs on the album are in fairly standard territory for a downbeat soul chanteuse, but after “Sky is Falling”, the mood darkens with the intimations of mortality and irrelevance in “Old Rock” before moving into failed panaceas (“Pick Me Up Bar”), rootlessness (“Find Me a Home”) and failing relationships (“Flower”). And that’s before you get to the cocktail of sex, drugs, alcohol, love and betrayal of the powerful, emotionally-charged “She Done Died”.

Throughout the album, it’s impossible to fault the quality of the singing, the playing, the arrangements and the production.  The only small fault with the album is that, for me, some of the lyrics would benefit from a bit of extra polishing.  I know I can’t just say that without giving you an example, so how about “little man sat in the corner” from “Old Rock”.  There’s no reason for not using “sitting” rather than “sat” in that line; it fits in just as well with the melody and, for all of us grouchy old pedants, it’s  grammatically correct.  Apart from the slight doubts about the odd lyric, this is an incredibly polished, accomplished and moving album and the best debut album I’ve heard this year; Natalie Duncan is a name that you’ll be hearing for a long time to come.

It’s not just about the quality and variety either; there are 14 tracks on the album and they’re all worth listening to.  Approach this album with an open mind and you’ll find a unique talent drawing in influences from jazz, soul, blues, reggae and many other musical styles to create something that is totally Natalie Duncan.  It’s more Jill Scott than Alicia Keys, more Angie Stone than Joss Stone and much more Billie Holiday than Ella Fitzgerald; you won’t ever regret listening to this one.