Now I’ve seen the Billy Walton Band in a variety of venues including village halls, rugby clubs and even the occasional music venue, but this was a first; BWB playing in a golf club in north London. First impressions were that, well, it was a golf club lounge with a temporary stage at one end and a bit of dance floor in front of it. None of that was going to put me off, because the venue’s almost irrelevant; these guys create their own live music bubble in any room they play.
I think the band needs a name change as well; maybe the Ever-Expanding Billy Walton Band would work. The first time I saw the band (almost six years ago) they were a power trio – Billy, William Paris and drummer John Hummel. Since then, the brilliant John D’Angelo has taken over as the pulse behind the band and, after a brief spell with Richie Taz playing tenor sax, a horn section evolved adding tenor sax and trombone to the mix. The current BWB horn players are Tom Petracarro (sax) and Matt (Fish) Fisher (trombone); they add a huge soulful punch to the mix and they’re a whole bunch of fun as well. As of last year, Stateside keyboard collaborator Sam Sherman completed the six-piece line-up that is the current touring Billy Walton Band.
So, back to Barnet. From the moment the band hit the stage, the audience was with them, waiting for the magic to begin. The impact of the augmented line-up is obvious from the start; as a three-piece, every fill and solo was Billy’s responsibility but now it’s spread out over another three players. There was a perfect demonstration of the power this adds to the band during their cover of the Creedence song “Green River” (and where did that come from?), where the horns reinforced the guitar riff to create a punch that John Fogerty would be proud of.
There’s another way that the band have moved on since 2010; the songs from the last two albums are much more commercial and the part of the audience that isn’t worshipping the phenomenal guitar playing can appreciate the quality of the newer songs, particularly “Till Tomorrow”, with its insanely catchy hook. You expect great guitar solos, but the horns and keys are featured as well, creating a bit of breathing space and a perfect setting for Billy’s phenomenal playing. The song “Hot Blues” normally features Billy’s guitar mash-up of various recognisable riffs (and maybe a quick burst of vocals) from various classic rock tunes, but it was extended even further in Barnet because of the Grim Reaper’s hyperactive January. The solo featured quick tributes to Bowie (“Ziggy Stardust”), Glenn Frey (“Life in the Fast Lane”) and Buffin (“All the Young Dudes”) as well as “Kashmir” and the usual suspects.
I’m crossing my fingers here, but Billy seems to have hit on the line-up and the format to display his talents and appeal to a wider audience. There’s a perfect balance between strong songs, guitar virtuosity and the good time bar band playing soul, blues and rock that should push them up to the next level; I really hope it does.
It’s unbelievable, really. We’re already halfway through 2015; how did that happen? Well, however it happened, there’s been an awful lot of it. At the start of the year, we made a few predictions about bands and artists to keep an eye on in 2015 and this seems like a pretty good time to have a look at how they’re getting on and maybe add a few more to the mix. So why don’t we start at the beginning because, apparently, that’s a very good place to start.
The first of our hot picks to shake some action in 2015 was the Billy Walton Band with “Wish for what You Want”, their first release on American independent label Vizztone in February 2015 after a series of self-released albums. We’ve been watching Billy Walton live since 2010 and he’s been steadily edging up the rankings. The band’s increased in size as well, from a power trio to a six-piece on the latest UK tour and the addition of sax, trombone and keyboards has emphasised their awesome live power while allowing them to move in new directions. Like his fellow New Jersey artists Springsteen and Southside Johnny (Billy has toured as an Asbury Juke in the UK a couple of times), Billy’s fond of taking the show in unexpected directions and these guys are easily good enough to follow him. They should be back in the UK later in the year, so watch out for them in your area.
Dean Owens is another artist the Riot Squad has been following for some time; well since the release of his 2012 album “New York Hummingbird” anyway. Dean has deservedly been acclaimed by those in the know (including Irvine Welsh) for some time now as a singer/songwriter but hasn’t ever managed to get the wider attention he really deserves; it looks like his 2015 album “Into the Sea” on Drumfire Records may have changed that. It’s generated a huge amount of media attention including a Bob Harris interview and live session for Radio 2 and an appearance on the cult BBC Radio Scotland football show “Off the Ball” presented by Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan. The album’s probably his best yet with some highly personal lyrics and memorable melodies backed up by a great group of Nashville musicians.
Next up was The Kennedys; Maura and Pete Kennedy are also from the East coast of the USA; New York City is their adopted home. They decided to celebrate their twentieth anniversary by releasing not one, not two, but three albums this year and to tour in support of the albums. Two of the albums have already been released, The Kennedys album “West” and Maura’s solo album (with lyrics from poet B.D. Love), “Villanelle” and they’re both exceptionally beautiful pieces of work. Still to come (in September) is Pete’s long-awaited solo piece “Heart of Gotham” a suite of songs inspired by New York City and its inhabitants. Pete’s poetic sensibilities, huge knowledge of the history of American music and quiet mastery of his instrument (or more accurately, instruments) make this another one to look out for.
Well that’s the story so far, but there’s more to come later in the year. Stone Foundation were obviously on the way up in 2014 when we reviewed their album “To Find the Spirit”, but 2015 has seen them providing the title track for the wonderful short film “Beverley”, trekking across Europe, signing record deals in Japan and the USA and recording the superb “A Life Unlimited” album which is released in the UK on August 7 this year. There’s a UK tour to promote the album, followed by a Japanese tour and some festival appearances over the summer. Pre-sales on the album have been very impressive and this looks like the year that Stone Foundation finally become an overnight success. Keeping the faith seems to finally be paying dividends.
Part Two coming soon…
Last Friday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the legendary Southside Johnny before the final show of his UK tour, featuring Gary “US” Bonds, at Shepherds Bush Empire. He was entertaining and engaging (as always):
AM – We did an interview here three and a half years ago and at that time you spoke to me about this acoustic thing that you might or might not be doing, which was really big news at the time and that’s happened now, so how’s that going?
SJ – It’s really good, it’s a fun thing. It’s really stripped down; we travel in a van together, we have breakfast in the morning as a band (there’s only six of us, with the road manager) and we set up our own equipment and tear it down and it really feels like the old days when you used to have to do that. It was a complete commitment to the whole day of travel, set up, play, tear down and travel again and even though I’m kinda long in the tooth I really enjoy it because it seems so organic and basic; there’s no star turns at all. I love playing acoustic music and it gives us a chance to play George Jones and Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and some Bruce in a different format.
AM – You mentioned a few country artists there; you’ve always been a country fan haven’t you?
SJ – Yes I liked country when I was very young. What I didn’t know is that my mother, way back in the thirties when the ukulele was the big thing, she bought a ukulele from Sears Roebuck and she would sit on the porch with her father (her mother had died young) and some neighbours, and they would sing country songs, so I guess it’s in my blood, it’s the Irish part of me.
AM – I’ve heard you play “He’ll Have to Go” (country classic made popular by Jim Reeves) at The Astoria, I think.
SJ – Well, Soozie Tyrell, who plays violin with Bruce, she has a country band in New York City, and I would go up and do lots of songs with her because they’re real singer’s songs, they’re story songs with great melodies so it’s fun to make that kind of music.
AM – The old Jukes revolving door seems to have slowed down a little…
SJ – Not too much. We’ve got a new saxophone player, John Isley; I think (drummer)Tom Seguso’s been over here.
AM – At the time of the last interview, Joey (Stann, tenor sax) and Ed (Manion, baritone sax) were still with you but they’re obviously off doing other things now. There seems to be lots of side projects going on as well now that the New York Horns have made a record.
SJ – These days it’s a lot easier to make a record for a little money and it’s also easier to manufacture; for a buck apiece you can make as many CDs as you want and there’s a profit margin once you’ve paid for the studio time and the musicians and all the rest of it. I’m lucky that Jon Bon Jovi lets me use his studio but, even if he didn’t, studio time’s not as expensive as it used to be, home recording’s easier and the internet makes it easy to get distribution to all your fans round the world. It’s a good time to be a musician because you can do all the little things you want to do without incurring great expense.
AM – Did the side projects always happen to a certain extent; do we just hear about them more because of social media?
SJ – We’ve always done those things; Bobby (Bandiera, guitar, now playing with Bon Jovi) and I went out for months, here and there, doing a lot of charity gigs and they put us on a plane, in business class, just him and me and a guitar and harmonicas. We went all over and played charity things and it was just a chance to play in hotels and every little place you could find and it was a lot of fun because it was no stress.
AM – I saw you at Sheffield City Hall in 1995, I think, just the two of you doing the stripped back thing and it was a great night.
SJ – Well, if you have confidence in what you’re doing and you have material you think you can accomplish with just a guitar and a harmonica it’s a chance to explore all that too. Years ago Bobby, Rusty Cloud, David Hayes and I played in Paris at the Chesterfield Club. We did a two-week stint there with very little publicity and we rode the Métro and that was a lot of fun too. We all stayed in the same hotel, this funky little place and it was two weeks in Paris. I’m lucky I’ve had the chance to do those things and just explore what making music means other than pedal-to-the-metal trying to earn a living. I can do just about anything I want now. I’m never going to be rich, I’ve known that from the very beginning so there’s not a great stress to be a big star and make a lot of money; I make a living and that’s all I want. I just want to be allowed to do whatever kind of music I want to make.
AM – I was going through some of my very old Jukes records today and it struck me that after Billy Rush left, you got much more involved in the songwriting process; there’s not a lot of your songs on the early albums.
SJ – I was a writer back then but I would write certain things with certain people but the bulk of the song would be theirs and I’d say “forget it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it”. I wrote with Billy but I don’t have the kind of ego that I need to see my name on the album, but now with Jeff and Bobby the songwriting is really a collaboration so I get to write a lot of lyrics that I find interesting like “Into the Harbour” and “Winter in Yellowknife” and stuff like that which is not the norm for romantic love songs.
AM – On “Pills and Ammo”, it struck me that your name’s on every track as a writer. Do you have a certain way of working; do you do the lyrics and Jeff does the music?
SJ – It’s pretty much that way except that if I come up with a musical idea we’ll explore it and he helps me with lyrics; it’s a real collaboration in other words. I’ll come with an idea, a whole lyric and I’ll say “I think it sounds like this” and he’ll find a way to make it sound like what I want, but then he’ll say “what about this…” and we really try to bounce ideas off each other.
AM – I know Jeff’s a big fan of Squeeze and Difford and Tilbrook wrote in that way as well.
SJ – I’m a big Squeeze fan too.
AM – About your audiences; you’ve retained a very loyal audience in the UK. In the US, are the audiences different?
SJ – Well, they speak English. There’s people who come and see us a million times and there’s people who come and see us for the first time and usually we can win people over. It’s the energy and a lot of the music is made to lift you up so it’s not some shoegazer and it’s not some egomaniac, it’s really just music. I think one of the things that keeps people coming back is that it’s never the same night after night and I don’t know where it’s going to go and tonight’s going to be like that too because we’ve got Gary Bonds and we know what we’re going to do but when we get on stage, that may change.
AM – I’ve been watching Billy Walton live for a while and I’ve noticed that his crowd seems to be getting younger. I’ve seen teenagers at his shows but I’ve also seen people in their twenties who know all of the songs. I just wondered if that was happening with The Jukes.
SJ – We do get a lot of younger people; we had a bunch last night in Holmfirth, but we have our loyal fans and they’re the ones that usually get the first tickets and they’re older, but they bring their kids and some of them bring their grand-kids but anybody who’s willing to give us a shot we’re willing to play for as long as they come and have a good time and just enjoy themselves.
AM – November used to be the traditional time for a Jukes tour but the last couple of years you’ve been over during the summer. I’m guessing that’s because of festivals.
SJ – Yes. This year especially, because we had the Cornbury Festival to start it and we’re ending with Bospop in Holland so we had two festivals and we put a bunch of gigs in between and those get to be the anchor gigs. Unfortunately there’s new taxes in England, Foreigner Entertainer Tax (FET) and Hood, who settles everything got hit with it the other night and they wanted £1,400 for FET. Nobody knew exactly what it was but it’s legitimate and all that does is it makes it harder for bands like me to come over here; you can only lose so much money. On the one hand I guess they need the tax money but if they really need that, they should get all those people who hide their money offshore and let us poor bands try to play a little music.
AM – And a lot of musicians are hiding money offshore.
SJ – Well I’m not hiding any money; my money comes and goes and I get to see it as it goes past and that’s about it.
AM – Going back to the festivals, what’s the biggest gig you’ve ever played?
SJ – Probably Knebworth with Led Zeppelin. We did two shows; we did the first one, flew home and did a show in Washington DC, flew back and did the second show at Knebworth and flew home again, if I remember rightly, so it was a lot of flights. And we played about forty minutes but it was fun, it was a unique experience and we met some good people over here.
AM – As far as I can remember, and I was a long way away from the stage, it seemed like you got a pretty good response that day.
SJ – It seemed like that; of course we didn’t the full power that the headline act got (we don’t do that, if somebody opens up for us they get full power, but I’m not ever worried about a band opening up for us, I hope they do well). But I thought Led Zeppelin was terrible; there was no bass in the mix in the audience.
AM – That’s all the serious stuff but I’ve got couple of other questions for you. You’ve now got a huge body of work to choose from when you play; is there anything you feel can’t be left out?
SJ – Well, there’s nothing that can’t be left out, but I’m not there to just indulge myself, I’m there to give people what they want too and you split the difference. I know they want to hear “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The Fever” and “Trapped Again” or “Talk to Me” or “This Time It’s for Real” or “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” or whatever and you try to include those but when you twenty-two, twenty-three songs, there’s plenty of room for you to do what you want too. There are times when I say “I’m sick of this song, I’m not doing it” and it lasts for few months then it’s back in.
AM – Here’s one from my sister, who’s a big fan. Is there a song that makes you cry?
SJ – There’s a lot I guess. I’ve got some that I’ve written but Alison Krauss does a song called “I Can Let Go Now” which I think was written by Michael McDonald and it just kills me because I relate it to my mother. I don’t think that’s what it’s really about but for me it is and I just can’t listen to that song. There’s a lot; there are things that really touch me. I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t get emotionally involved. When I was young and heard certain songs, I either got happy or excited or even felt sexy or touched, and to be part of that tradition is an amazing thing, but I’ve never really lost the idea that if someone sings a great song and really means it then I can get lost in the emotion.
AM – I find it really difficult to listen to “Many Rivers to Cross” after the version Jeff did here in 2010.
SJ – He really puts his heart and soul into it.
AM – Finally, hoping for another scoop, have you get anything in the pipeline?
SJ – Well, Jeff and I have written most of the songs for the next Jukes album; when we get it finished, I don’t know. We’re hoping to get in the studio, perhaps this winter and get it out some time next year. I’d love to get it out by Christmas but that’s just not gonna happen, and I’ve written some songs for a new Poor Fools acoustic thing and I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind too. I could retire if I wanted to, but then what would I do? I’d sit around the house, get fat and drink myself to death, and I can do that on the road.
AM – Johnny, many thanks for making the time for the interview.
SJ – My pleasure, any time.
Another little snippet of a new song for you. It’s called “Blues Come Calling” and it’s going to be interesting to see how this one develops.
Video courtesy of Eric Taylor.
If one of your favourite bands is about to record their fourth studio album, wouldn’t you like to have a peek inside the studio to see what’s going on? I certainly would. Well, the Billy Walton Band is about to go to work on their fourth studio album, which is being produced by legendary drummer Tony Braunagel with keyboard player Mike Finnigan helping to fill out the band’s sound, and the guys will be releasing video footage documenting the progress of the album (and probably lots of studio mayhem). If you’re a fan of the band, you can get links to these videos, as soon as they appear, here on MusicRiot. Make sure you don’t miss out; like our Facebook page and you’ll be notified as soon as the clips go live and we’ll tell you about all of the other great new music we’re reviewing as well. Does that sound good to you?
OK, I know I’ve already done my favourite five gigs of the year, but sometimes you see or hear something very special at a gig and it puts all of those cold nights on public transport or long drives to and from gigs into perspective; something which stops you in your tracks and makes you smile or cry or just amazes you. I’ve seen a few of those this year and I thought it would be rude not to share them. Once again, in no particular order, here they are.
Billy Walton is always likely to do something a bit special and he didn’t disappoint at The Buzz Club in Barnet in May. During a guitar solo, he dropped seamlessly into the guitar riff from the Led Zeppelin classic “Kashmir” for a few bars before nailing the intro to one of my teenage favourites “25 or 6 to 4”, recorded by Chicago before they discovered ballads. In true New Jersey tradition, the band locked in instantly while Billy gave it his best “Yeah, I did just do that” grin. Great fun and just a bit strange to hear a guitar solo featuring a fragment of a song that I loved when I was just starting to get into music seriously. You go to a Billy Walton gig, you expect the unexpected.
Paul Rose is one of those blues artists who’s well-known within the blues community but virtually unknown out of it; he’s also a great guitar player. He put together the Paul Rose All-Stars to record an album of standards and to tour the UK this year featuring a couple of ex-members of Was (Not Was), guitarist Randy Jacobs and singer Sweet Pea Atkinson. As a fan of Was (Not Was), that alone would have sold it to me but there was more to come. Towards the end of the set, the band launched into a storming version if the brilliant W(nW) Dallas motorcade song “11 MPH” played with much more attitude and venom than the original and it worked perfectly. I always love it when a band stamps its own personality on a cover and this was a stunning example.
The Kennedys show at Kings Place in London had a couple great moments. I’ve already mentioned “Rhapsody in Blue” elsewhere but there was another moment which was much more personal. Since reviewing The Kennedys album “Closer than you Know”, I couldn’t shake off Maura’s tribute to the late Alex Chilton, “Big Star Song”. It pushes most of my buttons with the Byrds/Merseybeat sus4 chords and a great melody as well as being a moving tribute to a pop legend. So, how pleased do you think I felt when they played the song? Dog with two tails doesn’t even come close, but then it got even better. Apparently The Kennedys don’t play “Big Star Song” live very often, so my experience was rare and special. Thank you Maura and Pete.
I always love to see musicians having a good time and most soloists enjoy trading licks with another player; it’s a challenge and a crowd pleaser. After playing a support set at the Garage in Islington, Aynsley Lister was brought back by headliner Joe Louis Walker to jam for a couple of songs and turned what had been a fairly standard back catalogue set into a highly entertaining sparring match between two players from different generations with a huge amount of mutual respect. Both players were obviously having a great time and the momentum carried on through the remainder of Joe Louis Walker’s set. The audience loved it and the musicians loved it; double bubble.
And finally, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. As much as I love Bruce’s music, I had never seen him live before, mainly because I hate stadium and arena gigs, but I finally succumbed this year. Musically, the E Street Band have always been superb (just listen to the Hammersmith Odeon 1975 live album) but The Boss always keeps it fresh by throwing a few curve balls and there’s always a few bits of pure showbiz thrown in as well. At Hard Rock Calling in London this year, he pulled out two memorable and genuinely surprising moments when he brought his mum on stage to dance with him on “Dancing in the Dark” and then brought his sister, Pam, on to join him at the end of the set. These appearances were special because they were surprising and they emphasised the importance of family to Springsteen (including his extended Jersey shore family) and brought a couple of genuinely moving moments into the rock’n’roll circus.
You can keep your big screens, acrobatics, pyrotechnics and instrument smashing, it’s the prospect of moments like these that will make me jump on the train on a rainy Tuesday in January to go and watch a new band in 2014.