So, how was 2013 for you?  The Riot Squad have had a brilliant year bringing you the best in contemporary music wherever we find it.  Allan, John, Klare and Louie have reviewed some exceptional live and recorded music throughout the year and we all thank you for reading our reviews and looking at our photos.  We couldn’t resist this opportunity to remind you of some of the artists we reviewed for the first time in 2013.

We saw live performances by the Emile Gerber Band (which became Stoneface Travellers), Henrik Freischlader, Josephine, Marcus Bonfanti (solo and with his band), The Kennedys, Federal Charm (twice), Black Casino & The Ghost, Coco and the Butterfields (several times), The Dirt Tracks, Carrie Rodriguez, Aynsley Lister, Civil Protection, Wheatus, Dean Owens and Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion.  Quite a selection, really.

We reviewed albums and singles by Henrik Freischlader, Marcus Bonfanti, Sally Shapiro, Tomorrow’s World, Black Casino & The Ghost, Jimmy Livingstone, Austra, Tess of the Circle, Aynsley Lister, The Nyco Project, The Dirt Tracks, Nadine Shah, Sullivn,  Radio (in my) Head, Tal National, Layla Zoe, Kinver, Au Revoir Simone, DENA, Hartebeest, Polly Scattergood, Glasser, Annie, Emika and John Grant and probably a few others as well.  Along the way we had some great fun and met some lovely people; you all know who you are, and we’re hoping to meet most of you again this year.

Looking forward to 2014, we’re hoping for more of the same.  The review copies are already coming in and it’s starting to look pretty good already.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of our predictions for 2014 from the Riot Squad and possibly from a few guest contributors as well.  And, while we’re on the subject of guest contributions, many thanks to Aynsley Lister, Steve Jenner, Marcus Bonfanti and Billie Ray Martin for their contributions to our High Fives feature last year.

I love this; it’s time for the High Fives again and it’s a very different challenge this year with my live selections.  I had to work really hard to bring this down to just five gigs, but I think this just about sums it up.  In no particular order, here they are.

The Kennedys @Kings Place

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was one of the many venues I visited for the first time this year and it was a perfect place to see Pete and Maura Kennedy live proving that you can create musical perfection with just two guitars and two voices.  As well as having a stack of their own songs to create a set from (with plenty of input from the audience) they very generously feature songs by other writers and give the audience plenty of background about the songs and writers as well.  I know you’ll find this difficult to believe, but they also did something that left me speechless; Pete played a ukulele version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” which was stunning.  And I got to hear a live version of “Big Star Song” which had been impossible to get out of my head after reviewing the album.  And they are two genuinely lovely people.

08) Federal CharmFederal Charm and Southside Johnny @The Apex, Bury St Edmunds

Predictable, me?  The truth is, I’ve seen Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes dozens of times and I’ve never seen a bad gig.  I’ve also never seen anything resembling the same set twice.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We got to the venue just as the support band, Federal Charm, were starting their set and the impact was instant; frontmen Nick Bowden and Paul Bowe trading riffs and solos under Nick’s incredibly powerful lead vocal.  They’ve got self-assurance by the bucketload and a bunch of great songs as well.  And that was just the support act.  Southside Johnny, surrounded by a bunch of Jukes that have been playing as a unit for a few years now, looked more relaxed than I’ve seen him in years and sounded better than ever.  They played a set that wasn’t too reliant on the old classics, but was still appreciated by the old fans.  As always, the audience (and most of the band) had no idea where the set was going next and we loved it.

Dean Owens @The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham

Dean OwensYou might have noticed that the Riot Squad are big fans of Dean Owens.  We’ve been telling you about his albums for a couple of years now but, living in London, it’s a bit of a challenge seeing a live show; luckily we like a challenge and the first one was getting the squad from various parts of London and the south-east to Twickenham on a Friday evening.  When we finally made it, the venue was perfect; intimate with a nice sound system and a very appreciative audience.  Ags Connolly (whose debut album on Drumfire Records was produced by Dean) opened the show with a strong bunch of songs before Dean delivered a great set built around the “Cash Back” album with loads of songs from earlier albums and audience requests thrown in.  It’s worth adding that Dean has a very dry sense of humour and the audience interaction between songs was great fun as well.  Top night and many thanks to Phil Penman and Drumfire for keeping the faith.

Marcus Bonfanti

10) Marcus BonfantiMarcus Bonfanti is the British blues equivalent of the Duracell bunny; he never stops working.  During 2013, he released an album and did a solo acoustic tour and a full band tour to promote the album.  I was lucky enough to see an acoustic show (in the unlikely environment of a casino in the West End) and a full band show in The Borderline.  Both gigs were excellent and Marcus is a superb blues player and singer with a great line in self-deprecatory chat and humour between songs.  The highlight of each set was the wonderful “The Bittersweet”, one of the best new songs from any genre I’ve heard this year. All of the songs are so strong that they worked perfectly in a solo setting and with the full band; spot on musically and great fun as well.


Carrie Rodriguez @The Old Queen’s Head, Islington

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet another venue that I haven’t visited before; this is a room above a pub with a capacity of about eighty.  Yet again, the sound system was spot-on and the audience were very appreciative as Carrie, accompanied by Luke Jacobs (and playing between them fiddle, tenor guitar, acoustic and electric guitars and lap steel) rattled through two sets of songs taken mainly from her current album, “Give Me All You Got”, with some old favourites thrown in as well.  The songs were very high quality, the playing and vocals were superb, and Carrie and Luke’s easy relationship with the audience made this a superb night.

It wasn’t easy picking just five great live shows from the many I’ve seen this year and I should really give a mention to some of the others who didn’t quite make the list.  I saw great sets this year from Coco and the Butterfields, Henrik Freischlader, Billy Walton (four times), Paul Rose, Aynsley Lister, Elvis Costello, Civil Protection and Bruce Springsteen, but the five I’ve chosen here are the ones which surprised and delighted me.


Carrie Rodrguez (Photo by Allan McKay)

Carrie Rodrguez (Photo by Allan McKay)

I’ve got to say this; my end of year piece this year will be jam-packed with superlatives.  I’ll have to give the thesaurus a hammering to avoid repetition because I’ve seen so many great gigs and heard so many great new albums this year.  Carrie Rodriguez is easily in the top five live artists I’ve seen this year and her show at The Old Queens Head in Islington was the kind of warm, confident and intimate performance that only a true star can give.

The venue is perfect for this show; an upstairs room at a pub with a good sound system and just enough room for the appreciative and knowledgeable audience.  From the start of the set, Carrie (singing, playing fiddle and the unusual tenor guitar) and her touring compadre Luke Jacobs (playing acoustic, electric and lap steel guitar and supplying beautiful vocal harmonies) gradually extend their intimate working relationship to include everyone in the audience.  I was surprised by the number of stomp boxes on the stage but the two players used them with the same deft touch that they applied to their playing and vocals.

How do you describe Carrie’s genre?  Country, folk, Americana, bluegrass, all of the above?  I think it has to be the latter; it’s also obvious that Carrie is a very gifted writer and the show tonight is full of examples of that.  She’s touring to promote her new album “Give Me All You Got” and the two sets lean fairly heavily on the new material interspersed with some old classics.  The opener “Devil in Mind” showcases Carrie’s powerful voice alongside her wonderful fiddle playing.  I’ve seen many country and folk fiddle players stamp one foot in time to the music, but never in two-inch platforms with a six-inch spike heel.  The two sets are well-paced and the new songs are placed alongside old favourites although it doesn’t seem to matter because the audience seem to know all the songs anyway, old and new.  There’s even a Luke Jacobs song on the Faust theme, “Oh Margherite” which follows the beautiful and poignant “Seven Angels on a Bicycle”.

It’s difficult to pigeonhole a performer like Carrie Rodriguez (and I’m not saying that’s a bad thing), because she does so many things so well, moving effortlessly from the pure country of “I Don’t want to Play House Anymore” to the riff-driven mystery and menace of “’50’s French Movie” and from the upbeat, uptempo “Lake Harriet” to the delicate beauty of “Get Back in Love” with its lovely subtle touches of lap steel.  It’s easy to see why Carrie has a reputation as great fiddle player; she incorporates elements of classical, country, folk and even rock into her playing and has the knack of making the incredibly difficult look really simple.  She also creates a very intimate atmosphere for the show, inviting the audience to be a part of the experience and breaking down the traditional barriers.  There’s also genuine emotion when she talks about her good friend who was the subject of “Seven Angels…” and about her mother before playing “La Puñalada Trapera”.  And all of this makes for a very warm and intimate live experience.

It may be a while before she’s back in the UK again, but you could always listen to the new album (or her previous albums); you won’t be disappointed.