OK, I cheated with my favourite five photos by doubling it up to ten, but I think it was worth it. Following on from my all-female shortlist, here’s the (mostly) male version with photos from a wide variety of musical styles and some very interesting venues. If you’re interested in the running order for these, it’s really simple; it’s chronological.
John Fairhurst at Rich Mix, Shoreditch – I heard about John Fairhurst in 2014 when I reviewed his “Saltwater” album but had to wait until February 2015 to see him live. Rich Mix is a cultural oasis set between strip joints and banker pubs in Shoreditch. The venue features a wide range of musical styles and it has a really good lighting rig. John Fairhurst dressed for the part with a bright red suit and made the colour/black and white debate completely irrelevant. I could have picked any one of half a dozen shots from that gig for this set, but this one captures his onstage perpetual motion machine. Thanks to John and Fabio Suttle for setting this one up for me.
William Paris (Billy Walton Band) at Hockley Community Centre, Essex – Another first-time venue in the middle of the Essex countryside where a few quid has been spent on decent stage lighting. The Billy Walton Band always give good face, but this gig presented some interesting opportunities. As Billy led the horns on a Pied Piper dance around the room, the rhythm section were left on stage with no guitars, saxes or trombones in the way and I had a great opportunity to get a decent photo of the uber-cool bass player William Paris while the audience was looking the other way.
The Vans at The O2 Academy Islington – Another gig that I went along to with my mate Jonesy because it was on his manor (sorry slipped into mockney again). This was one of those showcases that could have been brilliant or awful; it was 80% brilliant with a varied selection of bands and reasonable lighting. The Vans are Australian and play catchy melodic rock that you just have to like. It took me a couple of songs to work out that there were some Fab Four parallels and I was lucky enough to grab this shot of Kat and Ryan that absolutely had to be black and white to catch that sixties feel.
Laurent Mouflier at The Borderline – For the launch of his “Grio” album at The Borderline, Aidan Connell put together an interesting line-up which included Wang Dang Doodle opening the show. Laurent Mouflier, the band’s singer and harmonica player is always an interesting photographic subject, and my portfolio’s not exactly overflowing with shots of harmonica players. Lighting at The Borderline can be a bit hit and miss but, on this occasion, it was absolutely perfect as Laurent tilted his head back (eliminating any possibility of shadows from the brim of his hat) and blew up a storm. Possibly my favourite photo of the year.
Ian Siegal at O2 Blues Fest – With a choice of pop-up venues scattered around the O2, lighting was always going to be a bit unpredictable, but Brooklyn Bowl has a permanent stage with a pretty good rig, so there would at least be opportunities for some decent shots. This was the second time I’d seen Ian Siegal and the first time with a band. After trying a few different angles, I moved in close and framed really tight, ignoring the guitar and concentrating on the face. It worked perfectly; this was one of those rare occasions when you know as soon the shutter release clicks that you’ve got the shot.
And that’s definitely the end of the photos for this year. Bring on 2016.
So what’s been happening to the Billy Walton Band since the release of “Crank it Up” in 2012? Well, apart from the non-stop touring in the USA, Europe and the UK, the band has had a few line-up changes. Tenor sax player Rich Taskowitz has moved on and Billy has brought in Ian Gray (trombone) and Sean Marks (tenor and baritone sax) to fill out the band’s sound, moving away from a jazz set-up with two soloists to more conventional rock and soul lineup with frontman and backing horn section. It’s a slight change of emphasis, but it creates a more cohesive full-band sound underpinned by the rock-solid rhythm section of John D’Angelo (drums) and William Paris (bass).
For their fourth studio album, “Wish for What You Want” (released in the USA on Vizztone on January 27), the band has enlisted the services of respected producer Tony Braunagel and keyboard player Mike Finnigan, plus a few special guests from New Jersey and the tweaks seem to have paid off. As you might expect from the Billy Walton Band, the album works across many styles and genres, featuring strong songs and the usual high quality arrangements and playing; oh, and a bit of fun as well.
The album opens in a blast of horns and guitar with the uplifting rock and soul of “Wish for What You Want” and the first of many proper endings – none of your lazy fade-outs here and a standout track. “True Lovin’ Man” has a mid-tempo 70s feel, particularly in the horn arrangements before the blues stomper “Mountain” bursts in with a huge guitar riff. “Come on Up” is an organ-driven straight-ahead rocker, building up a head of steam before changing down a few gears for the country blues of “Blues Comes A Knockin’” featuring Southside Johnny on harmonica. “Forgive and Forget” takes the tempo straight back up again with the full band with organ and horns laying the foundation for Billy’s wah-wah guitar fills and solo. If the album gets a vinyl release, this is the perfect way to end Side One.
“Change” is exactly that, a brooding, atmospheric piece which channels Sergio Leone through Ray Manzarek before breaking into the straightforward blues chugger, “Worried Blues”. The next three tracks are probably the most commercial songs on the album; “Till Tomorrow” is a reworking of a “Crank It Up” song which adds a piano intro and plays down the horn fills. It’s a great song with a perfect guitar hook and in earlier times it would have been a perfect choice for a single. “Walk that Little Girl Home” is a Willy de Ville cover which mixes early Springsteen with The Drifters to evoke the Jersey shore perfectly and create another of the album’s highlights. “It Don’t Matter” has an E Street Band–inspired intro leading in to a “Take Your Job and Shove It” lyric which might or might not be autobiographical; it also features a great sax solo from Joey Stann; another former Asbury Juke. The album’s final track, “Hudson County Star” is loose blues/rock workout poking fun at corruption in the New Jersey political scene (a wide target, to be fair) which gives William Paris his customary shot at a lead vocal.
“Wish for What You Want” is another step forward for the Billy Walton Band. The band has evolved from the original power trio line-up focussing mainly on Billy’s guitar work to a rock and soul five-piece capable of covering a wide variety of styles. If you like your songs served up with big guitars and horns, then this one’s for you. If you decide that you like the album, then I’ve got a piece of advice for you; go out and watch the band live. You won’t regret it.
Released January 27 2015 on Vizztone.
There are two albums which were reviewed on MusicRiot on the Top 40 Independent Album chart last week, Neneh Cherry’s “Blank Project” and Stone Foundation’s “To Find the Spirit”. These albums have a few things in common; they’re both fourth studio albums, they both have guest artists, both were rated as 4* by MusicRiot writers and both feature guest performers and the similarity pretty much ends there. Except that, as Neil Sheasby, bass player and songwriter with Stone Foundation pointed out a few days ago, both albums were in the 30-to-40 section of the Independent Album chart, “To Find the Spirit” at 33, “Blank Project” at 38.
It isn’t a straightforward comparison; Neneh Cherry’s album peaked in the top ten a fortnight earlier while “To Find the Spirit” has just entered the chart in its first week. The interesting story here is the journey that each of these albums made to reach those chart positions. This isn’t a criticism of Neneh Cherry; it’s an achievement to get any kind of significant album sales at a time when the value of music has been so degraded by piracy and the industry has no time or money for artist development. Most of the bands I’ve spoken to recently have only the most tangential contact with the traditional music industry, usually at the distribution end of the chain.
Neneh Cherry was operating on a fairly tight budget with “Blank Project”; it was recorded and mixed in five days (featuring guest appearances from Robyn and RocketNumberNine) by Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden, generating a certain level of interest in the project outside Neneh Cherry’s own fanbase, which is still reasonably healthy after a long time out of the spotlight. In the weeks leading up to the release there was a significant amount of interest from the trade press and even the inkies in the UK; the physical release was in vinyl and bonus CD form with the CD containing the almost obligatory remixes. So, signs of a marketing budget there. Maybe not a huge budget, but enough to get the album into the mainstream media.
Stone Foundation have been doing their thing for about ten years, building up a local, then national, then international following; putting in the hard graft, basically. The band has played as Stone Foundation and has also backed touring soul singers such as Nolan Porter and Joe Harris, building a reputation and a hugely loyal fanbase. There’s no complicated organisation in place here; no manager or entourage; just seven very gifted and committed musicians (plus long-time production collaborator, Andy Codling) with a total belief in what they do.
“To Find the Spirit” has a few guest appearances too. Nolan Porter, Carleen Anderson, Pete Williams from Dexys and even Paolo Hewitt are all there. The album even has a remix; the Dennis Bovell dub of “Don’t Let the Rain”, which is available on all formats. The promotion campaign was minimal, focussing on social media and a support slot on The Selecter’s anniversary tour, but still the album managed to break into the official Independent Album Top 40.
It would be easy to moan about how much better it was in the good old days when artists got huge advances and only toured in support of an album, but that model just doesn’t apply any more. Most artists now only make money by touring, and a lot of that income is from merchandising. Take a step away from singles charts and there are thousands of talented and hard-working musicians taking control of the recording, marketing and distribution processes (physical and electronic) to get their own material out into the marketplace with very little help from the mainstream media. The MusicRiot writers try to cover as many artists as we can who are working in this way (as do thousands of other websites) but it’s only effective if our readers actually do something about it. It’s so easy to try before you buy these days that any music lover should be able find new artists doing something interesting and appealing if they make the effort. It’s all going on out there but, despite 6 Music’s slightly patronising campaign, it won’t come to you automatically; you have to make the effort to go out and find it.
So I say thank you to Stone Foundation and the other artists and labels we’ve featured recently; The Brothers Groove, Roscoe Levee, Bandhouse Records, Drumfire Records, Ags Connolly, Phil Burdett, Dean Owens, Jo Hook and Geoffrey Richardson, Noel Cowley, Pete Kennedy, Aynsley Lister, Vera Lynch and the Billy Walton Band. All of these artists are making their own wonderful live and recorded music while doing whatever else it takes to allow them to keep on making music.
Now go out and support them.
It’s a couple of years since we last spoke to one of our favourite guitar players, Billy Walton, so I arranged an interview before his show at “Tropic at Ruislip”. As an added bonus, the legendary Roger Mayer (search him online, but as a bit of a clue, he designed effects pedals for Jimi Hendrix) turned up as well because he’s been working with Billy for a few years now. Here’s what happened.
Allan -- It’s been two years since we last did this, at Totteridge, and you were just about to release “Crank it Up”. What have you been up to since then?
Billy -A lot of stuff, we’ve been playing the Jersey shore, tons of gigs; we’ve been writing, writing with friends. There’s a lot of projects in the works right now. We did a whole live thing over the summertime; we had a mobile unit follow us around and we did a lot of recording with that and we caught the fun vibes on the Jersey shore. Right now I’ve been writing and I’ve got about eighteen or nineteen new tunes; maybe do another Billy Walton Band album we’re trying to work on then try and write with other people and have fun and put out some cool stuff. That’s our plans.
Allan -- Before “Crank it Up” was released you were telling me that you thought the songs were stronger on that album.
Billy -- Well, songwriting always evolves and it depends on what you’re feeling. With that one we were going for a Jersey shore laid-back, more soulful type of thing instead of just guitar pyrotechnics like the albums before that.
Allan -- There were a few elements of early Bruce in there as well, the New Jersey feel.
Billy -- Being from New Jersey that kinda comes out it’s always gonna come out.
Roger -- It’s part of the DNA, isn’t it?
Billy -- It’s where you’re from; it’s always going to come out. To dissect the Jersey shore music it’s kind of ahead of the beat, it’s driving all night, in a pumping club on the Boardwalk , and that’s what it’s about.
Allan -- And how are the songs for the new album coming along?
Billy -- There’s a good mix; I want to reintroduce more of the guitar pyrotechnics on the new album, we haven’t picked the songs yet so we just keep writing and we’ll figure out which ones are the best.
Roger -- You haven’t actually decided on whether the line-up for the record is gonna remain constant. There would be no reason for every track to have the same personnel on it; is it fair to say that would be a step different from a production standpoint?
Billy -- Yes, absolutely. On this tour we’re bringing two horns; Richie(Taz) is still playing with us back home but I brought these two horns with us just to switch it up a bit. It’s all about the vibe of the night and it’s the same thing with trying to create an album it’s about getting that vibe and whoever it takes to make that vibe happen.
Roger -- If I can say one thing here: I don’t think your records have ever tried to
capture you playing live. You’ve done the live record, but a studio record is completely different from a live record because it gives you much more scope with what’s possible.
Billy -- And I think that’s what we haven’t captured on our last albums; that live vibe. If you come out to a show, you know it’s controlled chaos.
Roger -- And I think that’s true of Bruce (Springsteen)’s albums too. Live he’s fantastic but I don’t think his albums live up to the live performance.
Allan -- And it’s a great experience, a Billy Walton Band live show because like Bruce and Southside Johnny, you never know what you’re going to get on the night, do you?
Roger -- That’s true, when I was with Hendrix, we deliberately never played the same thing twice any night so you never knew what to expect and that’s a jazz thing as well, which makes it exciting. It means you can see the band three nights in a row and get three and get three different and I think that’s cool, rather than some note-for-note rendition which gets stale very quickly.
Allan -- The last time I saw the band, which was at Barnet on the last tour, you played a solo where you threw the riff from “Kashmir” and the intro from the Chicago song “25 or 6 to 4” and that’s great because nobody’s expecting it.
Billy -- There’s no rules and that’s what I was feeling at that time so I thought let’s get into it.
Roger -- Well there are no rules, are there? That is the rule; there are no rules.
Billy -- That’s right, the band’s having fun and if you saw us last night, tonight’s gonna be totally different and it’s got to be that way because sometimes even the band doesn’t know what’s coming next and that’s great.
Roger -- Should they know?
Billy -- They shouldn’t (laughs).
Allan -- I saw Bruce at the Olympic Park and, you know this is coming, but he walked to the front of the audience, pulled out a request placard, turned towards the band, lifted it in the air and the band launched straight into the song; that’s the mark of a really great band.
Billy -- Like us, the E Street Band are all music lovers. Everybody you see playing that way, you know they have a load of Motown records, they have all the Stax records and they still put them on and that takes them back. One night I went to hang out with the E Street guys in Philly and they played “Higher and Higher” and the place just erupted (Billy sings and finger-pops the chorus for emphasis) and afterwards everyone was just so excited that they did that song.
Roger -- Because a great song played by great musicians gets a great reaction. It’s exciting and memorable.
Allan -- So you’re in the process of raising funds to make the album now; how’s that going?
Billy -- Well, there are many different things we’re trying to do and one is that we’re talking to this guy, Tony Braunagel who’s just produced Curtis Salgado, he’s done Taj Mahal albums and he’s interested in doing an album with us, but that’s not definite; it’s not in stone, we’re just raising funds for the next project. There’s always gonna be a project, because we’re always writing and we’re always playing, but right now that’s the one.
Allan -- And that funding’s happening through indiegogo , isn’t it?
Billy -- That’s right, indiegogo. The way the music industry has gone it’s a great way (to fund an album). It used to be that the label that gave you the money, the producer pays everything, you pay him back, but now fan funding allows the artists to do it themselves and own it.
Allan -- And it allows you give something back to the fans that have funded it as well.
Billy -- Absolutely, they feel a part of it; they get packages where they get so many CDs and other deals.
Roger -- And that’s still only the beginning because it only takes you so far, you still have to try to get airplay. It’s still only the opening pawn move in a chess game.
Billy -- You need a fish to catch the bigger fish.
Allan -- Are there any guitar players that you listen to or you’ve worked with over the last few years that you would recommend to a UK audience?
Billy -- That’s a good question; there’s a lot of great players out there but to name one; Freddie King! There’s a lot of evolutions of Albert King and Freddie King out there.
Roger -- But the thing is can they write good songs? Not that they’ve got some licks that they’ve served up in a generic way. Can they write good songs? That’s what makes them stand out.
Allan -- When I saw you play with the Henrik Freischlader Band in January, it struck me that he can write a good song and he has a very soulful voice as well.
Billy -- The thing is, with players that I like, they have something that you can say “I can tell where they’re from”, they’re unique. They’re not just generic Clapton copies; that’s what I don’t like. What I do like is, there’s a couple of bands in New Jersey that came up after Katrina from New Orleans and these cats can play and you could tell they were from New Orleans; you could hear it, you could feel it and that’s what I like. And it doesn’t have to be a guitar player, it can be any musician.
Allan -- I was surprised a few years ago when I read a Bobby Bandiera interview and he was asked about new music he listened to and he said he didn’t listen to a lot but he did say that he liked Radiohead, which was a bit of a shock.
Billy -- Well, Bobby might have been messing with the interviewer there (laughs).
Allan -- We first met when you were playing with The Jukes; are you focussing on the Billy Walton Band now, or is there a chance that we might see you back with Southside in the future?
Billy -- Absolutely. I’m friends with those guys, Southside is great; I enjoy the whole Jersey heritage and I still do gigs with them once in a while but I’m really trying to focus on my stuff. When you think about it there has to be more generations of music from Jersey. Everybody speaks about Bruce and Bon Jovi but what about Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack in Atlantic City; there’s evolution there.
Allan -- We spoke briefly during the first interview we did about some of the Jersey Shore bands and musicians; what is it that makes that scene so special?
Billy -- There’s a lot to it. In summertime the Jersey shore is a vacation spot; everybody from Philadelphia, Washington and New York City hits the shore and along the shore there’s a party every night in the summertime and there’s clubs all along the Boardwalk and everybody meets their girlfriends and they dance, it’s that whole scene.
Roger -- It would be like thirty miles of Blackpool but slightly classier. And it’s better than New York because the clubs are bigger.
Billy -- What’s great about New Jersey too is the brotherhood of the bands. There are clubs next door to each other and when you go on break, you walk out and go and jam with your friend’s band next door and they come and jam with you.
Roger -- A bit like New Orleans in a way.
Billy -- With those guys we all know what each other’s doing and the players are interchangeable. We all get together and have fun and listen to music and talk music and that’s what’s different about it.
Allan – It’s great that Bobby (Bandiera)’s been on tour with Bon Jovi for what seems like forever now, but as soon as there’s a break in the tour he goes back to the Jersey shore and he’s playing McLoone’s Boathouse and places like that.
Roger -- Because it’s fun. If you’re a musician why wouldn’t you want to do something different if you’ve been on a tour round the world and it’s boring as hell.
Billy -- You’re right. You’re away from it all and you’re in a bubble. We played Churchill Downs in Kentucky in front of thousands of people with Bon Jovi and that night I got on a plane and flew home to New Jersey and played in front 150 people at a club, a jukejoint and I loved them both because I had fun.
Roger -- We used to do that with Jimi (Hendrix, of course); straight off the stage and straight down the pub and jam, every night.
Billy -- You wanna play, and you wanna have fun, youknow?
Allan -- Have you noticed any changes in the UK audiences over the last 2 years?
Billy -- Yes, there’s a mix; it’s not just the older demographic. We get the traditional blues fans coming out to hear a guitar player. Then you have the Jersey people who buy into that thing of having a good time and having a party and you get the younger crowd so it’s a great mix.
Allan -- I noticed particularly at the gig in Barnet, on the last tour, there were teenagers wearing Billy Walton Band T-shirts and I thought that was great because I’ve seen a lot of blues players recently at shows where I’m the youngest person in the room, and that really worries me.
Roger -- That’s really sad, man. You should look out for a band called the 45s; they sound like the Rolling Stones did in 1965 and Jimmy Page and the guy from Dr Feelgood gave them a bit of a leg-up, but this is guys that are seventeen and nineteen who wanna portray that energy. So the energy is there with younger people; I’ve been working with some younger people who still like the kind of music we’re talking about so it’s obvious that the music goes right across the borders.
Allan -- And do you think we’re starting to see a move back towards guitar-based blues/rock again?
Roger -- In a way yes, but I think people just generally want to see someone perform. You might not like “Strictly Come Dancing”, but at least it’s a live performance; whatever you say, the band’s playing live. So that from that standpoint, nine million people every Saturday are watching celebrities dancing to a live band. It can’t be all bad.
Allan -- I’ve noticed that over the last year I’ve seen some great young and enthusiastic British blues/rock bands and I wonder how much of that is down to what guys like you are doing?
Billy -- Well, you can find inspiration in many different ways. It could be guy playing saxophone that makes you want to pick up an instrument and try that but just getting out there and playing, that’s the main thing. I was fortunate to grow up in a scene in Jersey where I’d go out to a blues club and there’d be older guys and I’d sit in and I’d get my ass kicked every night and the there was a point when I’d go back down there and I’d kick their asses. They introduced me all these songs that I didn’t know and it was ‘“Born Under a Bad Sign”, what is that, what the hell, I’ll play it’. And it just opens you up and I was fortunate to have that, to be able to play with these people and let loose and go with it.
Allan -- And I hear you had a good time playing with Walter Trout this week.
Billy -- Yeah, Walter Trout, he’s a Jersey boy; he’s originally from Ocean City. We had fun; I tried to take my amp off the stage after we opened up and that wasn’t allowed so it was great, we jammed an Elmore James tune and had some fun with it.
Allan -- And that’s what the Jersey scene’s all about I guess, isn’t it?
Billy -- Absolutely; one hundred per cent. On tour, we have bands open up for us and most times we end the night with the band up on stage playing with us. It’s the party, that’s what it’s about to me; what’s gonna happen that night and what picture’s gonna be painted that night. And then tomorrow’s another one.
Allan -- Well, great to meet up again, it’s always good to hear what you have to say and I’m looking forward to the show tonight now.
Billy -- Thank you.
The Billy Walton Band are currently on the second leg of the UK tour, which finishes on November 26th at the 100 Club and you really should get out to see them. Failing that, help
the guys to fund the new album and grab yourself some nice goodies as well.