After his outstanding debut “American Life” in 2015, this must be that difficult second album for Ed Dupas. However difficult its conception (and it sounds like there were a few painful moments), the end result is a fulfilling follow-up to his debut. It’s a progression of course; at times Ed puts his acoustic to one side to add a second over-driven electric to the guitar attack, creating a big widescreen sound that brings to mind early Bruce Hornsby and maybe even “Darkness”-era Springsteen.

And that’s the way the album opens; “Too Big to Fail” is a rocker packed with big, loud guitars delivering Ed’s perfectly crafted song. His lyrics are clever and subtle, combining the “too big to fail” business/sports franchise mantra with subtle allusions to the state of contemporary America; it doesn’t matter how bad things are, ‘love’s too big to fail’. I really hope so. The album’s second song, “Two Wrongs”, continues the two guitar attack with lyrics seamlessly interweaving the increasing isolation of rural America with a short-term, unwise, dalliance; real life might look simple on the surface, but it’s usually messy underneath.

The remainder of the album mixes country and rock stylings to great effect, combining the two perfectly in the title track, which takes up the themes of “The Wild Side of Life” and “Bright Lights, Big City” while giving the story a happy ending (well, maybe). The album’s closer “Hold Me Tight” has echoes of Bob Seger’s acoustic side (well, Ed is based in Ann Arbor) and neatly finishes the journey from the opening rockers to the closing mixture of regret and nostalgia.

I’m rapidly becoming a big fan of Ed Dupas; the delivery is impossible to fault and his songs are superbly crafted with the emphasis on subtle allusion rather than declamation. It’s difficult not to admire a songwriter that trusts his audience to think and interpret for itself and put in a little effort to appreciate the songs.

While I’ve got your attention, I’d just like to point you in the direction of a song from Ed’s 2015 debut album. “Flag” is a beautiful example of the songwriter’s craft and would move the hardest heart. Give it a listen and tell me I’m wrong. Now how about some UK appearances, Ed?

“Tennessee Night” is released in the UK on Friday July 28 on Road Trip Songs.

Johnny ScrollerNow listen up, because I’m only gonna say this once; well, this year anyway. You have one, and only one, chance to witness the musical phenomenon that is Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes live in the UK this year. Sorry to anyone living outside the home counties, but this one’s in London, at The Forum on Thursday June 22. Now, go on, ask me why you would want to see (and hear) Mr John Lyon and his soulful/bluesy/funky/rockin’ rebels? It’s easy; they are dynamite live, with years of experience behind them, and a lot more in front of them. But why are they so good? Well, it all dates back to the Jersey shore in the early seventies. If you’ve read Springsteen’s excellent autobiography, you might have noticed the name Southside Johnny crop up once or twice.

They played in the same bars on the Jersey shore and they learned the same lessons. You had to be good and you had to work hard; five sets a night wasn’t uncommon. It’s a philosophy Bruce, Johnny and Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven or Miami Steve) share; get the best musicians you can and work them hard every night. If you don’t, then good musicians get bored and fractious. So the E Street Band and The Jukes play long sets where the written setlist point roughly in the direction of the actual set. Both singers like to throw the band curve balls to make sure the attention doesn’t start to drift; Bruce picks requests from placards in the crowd and Johnny calls the tune that he thinks continues the journey best. With a huge back catalogue of great songs written by Springsteen, Little Steven and Johnny himself (along with keyboard player Jeff Kazee) and the odd cover, the band never plays the same set twice. You might get lucky on the night and hear an a cappella version of “Walk Away Renee” (or at least part of it) that will stop you in your tracks, or you might hear a horn solo suddenly morph into full-blown New Orleans jazz. You might hear bass player John Conte sing “Tutti Frutti”; you just never know.

And that’s why Southside Johnny still has a fanatical following in the UK; you go to a Jukes show with only two expectations; you’ll be entertained by great musicians and you won’t know what’s coming next. And those expectations will be met, and surpassed, every time. It’s real songs, real instruments, no autotune, no sneaky recorded fill-ins or ‘vocal reinforcement’; it’s for real. You can find out just how good they are at The Forum on June 22. See you down at the front.

And, in a bit of breaking news, Southside’s new vinyl EP “Live from E Street” made the Billboard Blues Album Chart last week at #10.

Winter Mountain Review scrollerWinter Mountain’s album “I Swear I Flew”, which was released in mid-November last year was one of those that worked perfectly as a coherent, self-contained project; you should really listen to it. It was also one of those that made you want to hear the songs played live. I got the chance to do that at 229 Venue 2 and I was absolutely right; it was exceptional, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. The album is mainly (but not completely) quiet and introspective but the live show was a very different beast.

Support on the night was Cornish singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer, who warmed up a gradually-increasing crowd with a mix of the traditional (“Cadgwith Anthem”) and twenty-first century protest songs like “Build a Wall” – you can probably guess what that one’s about. With a decent voice, some interesting chat between songs and a playing style that uses a thumb instead of a pick (anyone remember Richie Havens?), Josiah got the audience onside and ready for the headliners.

Winter Mountain’s set opened with the wistful, impassioned romanticism of “Girl in the Coffee Shop”, a chance to set the tone for the evening, demonstrating Joe’s soulful voice and allowing the band to ease their way in before the Springsteenesque roar of “Sunlight, Good Roads”. Joe Francis has created a unique mixture with Winter Mountain, blending influences from the worlds of folk (mainly Gaelic), roots, country rock, southern boogie, straight ahead rock and many others. Springsteen aside, you can hear echoes of Hothouse Flowers, The Waterboys, Rob Thomas and Gin Blossoms (remember them?). The set had its quieter, more reflective, moments, particularly the (almost) solo interlude featuring “The Morning Bell”, the poignant “January Stars”, “Lucky Ones” and “Stronger When You Hold Me” but the set really caught fire when the band were playing full-tilt songs like “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” in balls-out Lynyrd Skynyrd mode as Joe started throwing lyrics from Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” into the mix. So hats off to Alik Peters-Deacon (guitar), Jake Galvin (bass) and Garry Kroll (drums) for a great, dynamic set and also to 229’s sound man, who did a lovely job in a venue that was barely half full.

Anything else you should know? The songs were split almost evenly between the first and second albums and the set ended with a Beatles cover, the early “Oh! Darling”. The audience was completely silent during the quiet songs and went bananas during the raucous ones. The band covered all the bases of the glorious musical mash-up perfectly, while Joe’s powerhouse voice left you in no doubt that he has a massive rock voice as well. It wasn’t quiet the night I‘d expected, but it was a belter; that’s the way to spend a Thursday night in London.

Coming to a festival near you soon, I imagine.

You can see some photos from the gig here.

Well, we’ve almost reached two weeks of High Fives and the juggernaut’s still rolling, although it was only a cinquecento when it started on this road trip. Joe Francis (Winter Mountain) has opted for the highways and the byways with his exploration of his favourite tour van music.

It’s more than just a car journey from A to B. Your vehicle is imbibed with a multiplicity of purposes, like the Tardis with a personality disorder. It becomes a diesel-powered bedroom on wheels, a dressing room, a hotel, a guesthouse, a calm port, a storage facility, a temple and a garbage bin. Its significance greater to a touring musician than any average road user may ever understand.

And so too are the songs you listen to on the road.

Free from distractions of everyday life, you’ve no option but to really listen. And because of this your choices matter. Selecting songs for a tour is not a casual thing. The tracks you listen to will help shape your experience and will take you back to there each time you hear them in the future. Here’s 5 songs that mean a lot to me…

peter-gabriel“Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel 

You begin your tour full of optimism and hope, feeling vitalised by the promise of the dawning of a new musical era. Fewer songs capture the spirit and the sparkling, spiritual blue sky soul that surrounds this moment than PGs extraordinary 1977 classic ‘Solsbury Hill’. An exquisite riff that sounds like morning.

Best listened to when – The vans loaded? Gear, guys and girls all present and correct? Then start the engine and hit ‘play’.

 

bruce “Thunder Road” – Bruce Springsteen 

Too obvious? Yeah, totally. But for good reason. As a kid from a small village where nothing much seemed to be happening Springsteen’s 1975 track showed me there was real magic to be found in the mundane. It’s romantic and rocking and a poetically pure promise to aim for glory no matter the consequences. And ain’t that just like a musical life? ‘Have a little faith, there’s magic in the night…’

Best listened to when – The first few shows are under your belt and you’re loving it. The journey is well underway, the roads are clear…NOW!

 

ac-dc “Highway to Hell” – AC/DC 

Heavy, primitive, menacing, soulful and sexy. Sometimes basic is best. AC/DC’s behemoth will help you through the longest of journeys, through the worst of driving rain, damaged tyres and badly worn tarmac, when the van is straining under the weight of you and your gear. It’s devilish and dirty and after 3 weeks on the road you will be too.

Best listened to when – You’re two thirds of they way through the tour. The fatigue’s setting in and you need an injection of pure Taurine rock and roll to keep your stamina up and an anthemic sing along chorus to unify the weary musos.

 

joniAny track from “Blue” – Joni Mitchell

Transport yourself to a place of warmer climes, pretty people and free love. Check out any song from Joni’s beautiful folksy masterpiece and you’ll be smiling like a Californian under the summer stars within seconds.

Best listened to when – Traffic is at a standstill, the tour is nearly over, tensions a little high…

 

 

war-on-drugs“Lost in the Dream” – The War On Drugs 

Maybe the pace is going to get to you or the band need to get some shuteye to deal with the comedown before the next show and a little ethereal peace is in order? Stick on ‘Lost in the Dream’ by the War On Drugs and you’ll be floating through the early hours like a character from a stylish formulaic Netflix series about what it means to be young and on a comedown.

Best listened to when – It’s 3am on a post gig drive, through the French Alps, a silver cloak of moonlight laid over the mountains and lakes. The amber glow of a small village down in the valley below and way up ahead, a fire burns on a distant peak… 

I admit it; I’ve been really lucky this year. I’ve been to loads of gigs featuring bands and artists across a range of musical styles and I haven’t seen a bad one; fifty-two weeks of great gigs and now I have to pick out my five favourites. It was never going to be easy and the gigs that made this list were truly special for many different reasons. So, in no particular order, here we go.

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – Indig02 October 2016

little-stevenLittle Steven, Steven van Zandt, Miami Steve, Silvio from The Sopranos. This is someone who’s had a huge impact on popular culture as an Asbury Juke, an E-Streeter, an actor and the man who wrote the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City”. If you grew up loving The Boss and Southside Johnny (and I did) you knew and loved this man. When I heard about this gig, part of the BluesFest at the O2, my only concern was to get a photo pass. Despite pulling every string I could, there was no joy, but I wasn’t giving up, so I borrowed my wife’s camera (a Nikon Coolpix P530 for the record) to try to grab one good shot of the main man. The thirteen-piece band (with horn charts written by fellow E-Streeter and Juke Ed Manion) was stunningly good as Steven ran through a set of his own songs, blues covers and old soul classics. There wasn’t a second’s respite and there was even a guest appearance from Richie Sambora. And I got the photo. What a night.

Underhill Rose @ Green Note

02-eleanorI’d been looking forward to this one for months, ever since I missed them at the same venue in April because of other commitments. After a lovely meal with Plus One, we made our way to the venue a fashionable fifteen minutes after doors open, only to find that the doors were still firmly closed and there were no lights. Power failure? Not a problem; the Green Note team lit up the venue with dozens of candles and Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson decided to play a genuinely unplugged set. The setting was perfect for the band’s beautiful melodies and glorious tight harmonies and created a level of intimacy that even Green Note doesn’t achieve very often. During the interval the power was restored, but Eleanor, Molly and Salley decided to carry on with a second completely acoustic set. A magical night.

Pete Wylie/The Mighty Wah @Water Rats 09/11/16

pete-wylieAs memorable as the previous gig but for very different reasons. I was a big fan of Pete Wylie in the eighties, but somehow managed to avoid seeing him live. This was the chance to find out what I’d been missing. Water Rats is a room at the back of a pub in Kings Cross; cosy but with a great atmosphere. The last time I was there, there were three people watching a band; me, the band’s manager and the sound engineer. This was different; ten minutes after the doors opened, it was rammed; not only that, but rammed with fans, people who wanted to see Pete Wylie. In that atmosphere, failure wasn’t an option. Pete has put together another powerful incarnation of The Mighty Wah! and their playing throughout was spot on; subtle when necessary and thunderous for the anthems; and there were plenty of those. It was a night of passion, humour and power with a performer who knows his worth and an audience who know their music. It wasn’t just a nostalgia trip either. He featured a stunning new anthem, “I Still Believe”, from his upcoming album titled, with typical Wylie moxie, “Pete Sounds”. The will to survive’s come back.

Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @St Pancras Old Church

Martin Harley scrollerRewind to the beginning of the year as musicians start to emerge after their short hibernation and the lovely St Pancras Old Church (lovely if you aren’t a photographer). It was gloves, woolly hat and brass monkeys looking for welders weather, but inside the church a full house was waiting for Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro. This was one of those intimate gigs where two incredibly accomplished musicians play material they love to play with a passion that the audience taps into, leaving everyone with a warm glow. Playing mainly Weissenborn (Martin) and upright bass (Daniel) the two wove complex textures that sometimes had you wondering where all of the other musicians were hidden. The two voices worked perfectly together and the interplay between songs was sometimes hilarious with Martin’s ‘Englishman Abroad’ persona as the subject of Daniel’s dry observations. Good news is they’ll be back next year. This was the only gig this year where I actually wanted to hear a bass solo (and I wasn’t disappointed).

Michael McDermott @Twickfolk, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham 04/12/16

08-michaelI waited until seeing this gig before selecting my five favourites of the year. After hearing Michael’s two superb albums released this year (the “Willow Springs” solo and “Six on the Out” by his band The Westies), I wasn’t going to miss this performance. It was a solo show, using guitar and keyboard (and the inevitable harmonica) to create different textures and settings for the songs. Stripping away the full-band arrangements allowed the audience to focus on the quality of the writing and the raw emotional roar of Michael’s voice. The first half of the show, featuring songs taken mainly from the 2016 albums was an intense experience, emotional, sometimes harrowing and primal, songs punctuated by monologues which were surreal, often hilarious and sometimes tinged with sorrow. The second half was less of a roller-coaster but still packed with great songs. Michael McDermott provokes the same sensation I had when I listened to early Springsteen for the first time; there’s poetry, passion and a grim and gritty reality in his work that grabs you by the lapels and stares you straight in the eyes; you know that he’s lived the life. This is for real.

I swear I flew CD - OUTLINED.inddWe’ve reached the point in the year where traditionally no-one releases serious music; it’s all about seasonal tunes and greatest hits for the dad market, so it’s really refreshing to hear another contender for High Fives 2016 (coming soon with even more guest contributions) released in November. Winter Mountain is the nom de guerre of Joe Francis and “I Swear I Flew” is his second album. Let’s get this out of the way right now, it’s a stunningly powerful and beautiful piece of work packed with ethereal and evocative songs, blowsy and blustering songs, and intricately woven arrangements mostly played by Joe, but helped out by Seth Lakeman and a few others. I think it might even be new genre; Kernowcana, anyone?

“I Swear I Flew” is a potent cocktail, mixing up influences from the great late twentieth century American songwriters with twists of Celtic and English folk styles. It’s all blended perfectly to create a confection that feels smooth on the surface but has plenty of bite underneath. Even the quiet, contemplative songs have a widescreen feel to them; the breathy vocal on “Dragonfly” is underpinned by delicately picked acoustic guitar, bass and cello, but the sound is full and resonant. By way of complete contrast, the next song, “Before the Flood” features a full band (and then some) with thudding bass and drums and then keys, harmonica, fiddle, tenor guitar, banjo and pedal steel. And it’s all topped with a great vocal performance that has a few hints of Don Henley at his very best; it’s a big, beautiful beast of a song.

No filler at all here, and definitely a couple more to single out for attention. “The Morning Bell”, which gives the album its title, is (almost) a solo acoustic lovelorn ballad packed with the natural imagery that permeates the album, contrasting starkly with the full band songs. “Fireworks Night” (Promises we Make) is an absolutely gorgeous five minutes that pulls off the spectacular trick of starting like Springsteen and morphing into what I can only describe as a stripped-down acoustic version of The Blue Nile. I defy you to remain unmoved.

This album is inspired by the greats of rock, roots and folk, twisted together until they form something shiny, beautiful and new. It’s a lovely piece of work.

“I Swear I Flew” is released on Friday November 18 on Astral Fox Records.

blinding-lights-scrollerIf you like a bit of raw energy and drive in your music, then this one should hit the spot. The Blinding Lights are brothers Callum, Theo and Jack Lury (piano/vocals, drums and guitar respectively) and bass player Will Lord. Their influences are hugely varied, although early Springsteen and various E Streeters crop up regularly. Strangely enough, the overall sound of “I Can’t Get Enough” reminds me much more of Bruce’s old Asbury Park compadre Southside Johnny, particularly in the way the horns are used from the first chorus onwards. There’s a hint of Dexy’s Midnight Runners in there as well.

The song’s driven along through the verse by a pumping one-note bass and a piano motif that’s echoed later by the brass as the song powers on like a juggernaut, running red lights and terrifying pedestrians to get to the girl (OK, it’s a bus really, I just got carried away with the image). The structure’s a lot like an old R’n’B thing where there’s a countdown (say, Edwin Starr’s “25 Miles”) and a breakdown before rebuilding and powering through to the end. Callum’s great rock’n’soul voice (maybe a bit of Steve Winwood in there) rides the rhythm with ease as his story of a lustful encounter builds to a climax.

It’s a thrill-ride from start to finish.

“I Can’t Get Enough” is released on November 4th, meanwhile you can have a look at the video here:

Dana Immanuel & the Stolen Band - 'Come With Me' - cover (300dpi)It only seems like ten minutes since the last Dana Immanuel album, “Dotted Lines”, was released and now we’ve got another one. “Come with Me” is Dana’s third album, although it’s being described as the debut of Dana & The Stolen Band, so the fairly equal split between songs from each of Dana’s two solo albums and new songs seems about right. Apparently it was recorded live-ish to catch the chemistry of the band’s interesting instrumental line-up featuring Dana (banjo, vocals and guitar), Feadora Morris (guitars and banjo), Blanche Ellis (vocals, washboard and thimbles), Maya McCourt (cello, vocals and upright bass)  and Hjordis Moon Badford (cajon and foot tambourines).

What Dana and the band have achieved on “Come with Me” is to subvert the macho culture of Outlaw Country by showing that the sisters can do it for themselves, competing with the boys in the bad behaviour stakes whether it’s the cocaine of the claustrophobic title track, playing the casino tables (“Devil’s Money” and “Viva Las Vegas”) or misguided sexual encounters (“Clockwork”). There’s no holding back lyrically and even the musical arrangements subvert the genre by using cello to round out the bottom end of the sound and contrasting the tones of cello, banjo and distorted guitar. The line-up of the band falls somewhere between a bluegrass string band and a rock outfit, creating possibilities for unusual textures not normally heard in either genre.

If you like your tunes to swing a little, there’s a bit of that in the jazzy stylings of “Achilles Heel” and “John Wayne” and the vocal harmonies add yet another dimension on “Nashville”, and particularly the a cappella counterpoint in the coda of “Going to the Bottle”. The album’s closing song, a new take on “Viva Las Vegas”, usually tackled as a cover version with macho posturing and bluster, is driven along by a cello riff and the usual Stolen Band harmonies, distancing it from the Elvis or Springsteen versions.

At times this album’s tough and uncompromising, but there’s always a sense that the entire band’s having a blast just doing this stuff, and not sticking to any arbitrary rules. Combine that with great musicianship and the result’s always going to be interesting.  And I’m grateful that the press release warned me about the ‘explicit!’ lyrics to “Motherfucking Whore”; I’d never have guessed from the title.

“Come with Me” is released on Friday August 5th and the band’s touring throughout the summer.

Willow Springs ScrollerIt’s only a few weeks since I was raving about the latest album from Michael McDermott’s band The Westies and he’s now releasing an album under his own name using most of the same musicians that played on The Westies album. Let me just cut straight to the chase here and say that “Willow Springs” is every bit as good as “Six on the Out”. It’s packed with powerful songs and creative but unfussy playing from Heather Horton, Will Kimbrough and John Deaderick; it’s every bit as powerful as “Six on the Out”, but “Willow Springs” is a very different musical approach to similar themes.

The album has a more intimate feel than the companion piece by The Westies; the album credits don’t list a drummer and although “Let A Little Light In” has all the punch of a mid-eighties Springsteen anthem, it’s not typical of the album. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, but also some subversive touches like adding synth pads to fill out the sound. There’s a desire not to be stereotyped and packaged, which is explicit in “Folksinger” particularly.

“Willow Springs” is, more than anything else, a deeply personal album, springing from a turbulent period around the death of Michael McDermott’s father. There are references to his heritage on “Six on the Out”, but here it’s right out in the open. “Shadow in the Window” is a painful look at the death of a parent and the soul-searching that follows in its wake. The song ends with the keening repetition of ‘I Love you’ gradually fading and slowing before “Willie Rain” opens with the spoken ‘I love you Daddy’ leading in to a relentlessly upbeat stringband arrangement of a song about his daughter. Placing the two songs together demonstrates the circle of life and the ultimately uplifting feel of the album. There are sombre tales, plumbing the depths of addiction (“Butterfly”) and small-time larceny (“Getaway Car”), but the final two songs of the album both look to the future with optimism.

It’s almost inevitable that Michael McDermott will be compared with Dylan, Springsteen and others; maybe that’s flattering but it’s not the whole picture. When he writes, sometimes in a very matter-of-fact way about gangsters, prison and drugs, you know it’s coming from first-hand experience. “Willow Springs” is the sound of that experience being processed and used up before moving on to the next stage; it never sounds less than authentic. Maybe the time has come for the next American songwriter.

“Willow Springs” is released on Friday July 22nd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records. Michael McDermott will be touring the UK later this year.

And if you won’t take my word for it, have a look at the video for the title track:

Rod Melancon ScrollerSpringsteen did it with Asbury Park NJ and, much more recently, Michael McDermott’s band The Westies did it with Chicago. They created a strong sense of place with characters and incidents directly observed or based on reality. On his EP “LA 14”, Rod Melancon has gone down the same route with his own little corner of Louisiana. Of the five songs on “LA 14” (produced by former Dwight Yoakam guitarist, Brian Whelan), four are stories of life in a small town deep in the American South.

The opening song, “Perry”, is a mid-tempo rocker with a pumping synth bass, telling the tale of the town’s bad boy, before the tempo slows and the time signature changes to ¾ for “Dwayne and Me”, a look back at a childhood friendship ended by Vietnam. “Lights of Carencro” is a menacing and grungy, the production matching the story of sudden death and delayed revenge before the final song “By Her Side” slows the pace to tell the love story of a lonely old man, the melancholy feel enhanced by some delicate pedal steel from Marty Rifkin. The central song, “A Man like Me Shouldn’t Own a Gun” contrasts with the rest of the EP, as an uptempo thigh-slapping piece to make sure the atmosphere doesn’t get too maudlin.

The feeling in the songs doesn’t just come from the lyrics; they’re often pretty matter-of-fact. Rod’s voice, older than its years, seemingly always on the verge of cracking, and some superb playing from Marty Rifkin on “By Her Side” and Brian Whelan’s steadily-rising solo on “Dwayne and Me”, are powerful and emotive; you can’t listen to these songs and not be moved. Rod Melancon understands that the little details add to the pathos; “Lights of Carencro” is more powerful because we know that the dead brother’s favourite song was Bad Company’s “Feel Like Making Love” and it’s always there as a reminder.

There’s a darkness on the edge of this town and Rod Melancon’s songs expose it, but they also capture the human touch that’s always just below the surface. LA 14 -- running all the way from pure pathos to supernatural menace.

“LA 14” is released in the UK on Friday June 17th on Blue Élan Records (BR1015).

Here’s the video for “Perry”: