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
This 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.
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
You 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 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
Yet 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.
I’ve seen a lot of gigs in London pubs this year; in basements, back rooms and upstairs rooms. I’ve seen indie bands, electronic bands and Americana artists, but I haven’t been to a gig that was as much fun as Dean Owens supported by Drumfire Records latest signing, Ags Connolly, at The Cabbage Patch in Twickenham. If you pay any attention at all to MusicRiot (or even Ricky Ross or Bob Harris), you’ll know that we’re all big Dean Owens fans; he’s always a great live performer and The Cabbage Patch is a lovely venue for an intimate acoustic performance.
Ags Connolly’s opening set featured songs from his upcoming country and Americana-tinged debut album (produced by Dean Owens) on Drumfire Records and was well received by the enthusiastic and knowledgeable audience, setting things up very nicely for the headline act. I’ve seen arena gigs and festivals this year, but I haven’t experienced an atmosphere as warm as this one.
Dean’s current mini tour is still under the “Cash Back” banner and is partly in support of his current single from “Cash Back”, “I Still Miss Someone” but, from the beginning of the set, it’s obvious that this is about giving the audience what they want, rather than sticking to a rigid set list. What we actually get is a mix of songs from Dean’s three latest albums, “Cash Back”, “New York Hummingbird” and “Whisky Hearts” (and that’s a pretty impressive set of songs to choose from) and a few surprises. Dean’s a very relaxed and accomplished performer, full of self-deprecatory chat and dry Scottish humour between songs. From the start of the set Dean lets the audience know that requests are very welcome and the audience can play their part in the performance.
At various times during the set we hear “Whisky Hearts”, “Man from Leith” and “Raining in Glasgow” from “Whisky Hearts”, “Lost Time”, “Little Baby Fireworks” and “Desert Star” from “New York Hummingbird” and “I Still Miss Someone”, “Delia’s Gone”, “Cocaine Carolina” and the self-penned “The Night Johnny Cash played San Quentin” from “Cash Back”. They’re all stripped-down versions relying on guitar, vocal, harmonica, whistling and a few other vocal tricks, but it’s a mark of the quality of the songwriting that they all work perfectly with the minimalist approach.
There’s also an interesting selection of other people’s songs including “Teenage Kicks” (which Dean played live and acoustic during an interview on an Australian radio station just as the news of John Peel’s untimely death broke), Springsteen’s “I’m on Fire” and the totally unexpected “Heart of Glass” (yes, that “Heart of Glass”). The evening had everything you could ask for from a gig, great songs, great performances (from Ags and Dean) and an audience that actually wanted to see and hear the performers. There’s a lot that’s wrong with the live scene in London at the moment (pay-to-play and play for exposure, for example) but when you see a gig like this, you think there just might be some hope. When everyone plays their part (the performers, the promoters, the venue and the audience) as they did at The Cabbage Patch it can be a truly uplifting experience. Thanks everyone.
Well, the good news is that now the festival season’s almost over, we’re starting to see a few good tours appearing. Riot Squad favourite Dean Owens has put together a mini-tour in support of his latest single, “I Still Miss Someone” from his superb album of Johnny Cash covers (and one Dean Owens original), “Cash Back”. If you go along to The Cabbage Patch gig in Twickenham, you may even bump into the Riot Squad. We’ll also have a review of “I Still Miss Someone” coming up in the next few weeks.
Saturday October 5
Hazy Recollections (part of Glasgow Americana) CCA Glasgow
Friday October 25
Cafe Panola (Pentland Garden Centre), Loanhead nr Edinburgh
Saturday October 26
Friday November 1
Saturday November 2
Friday November 8
Caffe Borsa, Dundee
Saturday November 9 – Soundhouse No 42, Edinburgh
Last year I reviewed an album by Edinburgh-based singer-songwriter Dean Owens called “Cash Back” which was a tribute to the late Johnny Cash. The album was a set of covers of songs made famous by Johnny Cash apart from one, “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin”, which is a Dean Owens original and was recently released as a single on Drumfire Records.
Although the song’s part of a great set of songs written by Johnny Cash and other songwriters, it doesn’t sound out of place at all. It’s based around one of the classic country themes of the prisoner serving his sentence (on death row this time) but with the added twist that he’s in San Quentin at the time of the legendary Johnny Cash performance. The song moves between verses telling the prisoner’s story and a chorus using details from the actual San Quentin performance, which adds historical authenticity to the story. The instrumentation and production give the song an authentic early-period Johnny Cash feel with Dean’s acoustic rhythm guitar and Will Kimbrough’s electric guitar and slightly distorted slide guitar; it could have been made at Sun Studios in the ‘50s.
This is a beautifully constructed song with a sparse but effective arrangement which highlights the quality of the song and the powerful, emotive vocal performance. It’s as good as any of the classic songs on the album and it’s the best single I’ve heard so far this year. Even if you’re not a fan of country, you really should give this a listen; you could even buy it.
Here’s the first of our High Fives from friends of MusicRiot. Dean Owens has released 2 albums this year (“New York Hummingbird” and “Cash Back”) and both earned four-star reviews here. Dean’s Top 5 albums for the year are:
Calexico are from Tuscon, Arizona and released their seventh album “Algiers” in September 2012. The band moved away from their Tex-Mex roots to incorporate some New Orleans influences for this album which has been described as their most accessible and exciting record so far.
“Bloom”, the fourth album from Baltimore-based Alex Scally and Victoria Legrand (who formed Beach House in 2004) was released in May 2012 on Sub Pop. 2 songs from the album, “Myth” and “Lazuli” were also released as singles.
Released in May 2012, “Fear Fun” is the first album Joshua Tillman (former drummer with several indie bands, including Fleet Foxes) has released under the name of Father John Misty. Interesting fact for you; most of the development of the songs was done in Laurel Canyon, which was the home of the early 70s California singer-songwriter scene which launched the careers of Neil Young, The Eagles, Jackson Browne and many others.
“Life is People” was released almost 50 years after Bill Fay’s first 2 albums in the early 70s. At that time he attracted comparisons with Ray Davies, John Lennon and Gary Brooker but lost his contract after 2 albums. He has been name-checked as an influence by many performers, including Nick Cave and this album has been acclaimed as his masterpiece by many critics.
“Scrimshaw” is Nels Andrews’ third album. He’s attracted loads of praise and songwriting awards and is based in Brooklyn. His first album reached No. 1 on the US Americana chart in 2005 and he’s now starting to attract attention in Europe as well.
Dean also gave honourable mentions to John Hiatt, Richard Hawley and Jack White. He’ll be touring in Spring 2013 and you can get the dates here on MusicRiot. Thanks very much Dean for sharing your choices with us.
We’ve heard and read a lot this year about the death of the album as a format. Well, we’re having none of that at Riot Towers; as far as we’re concerned the album is still alive and kicking (and none of your download nonsense either). The site contributors have all put together their favourite fives of the year and we’re sharing our choices with you as a little festive thank you. As the most senior (oldest) contributor, I get to open the batting for the Riot Squad 2012 favourites. I can’t even attempt to rank these so here we go, in alphabetical order by title. You can find reviews of all of these albums on the site.
This is one of two debut albums in my Top Five for 2012. Natalie’s a superb singer and a great piano player but the songs are something else. Some are observational such as the superb “Old Rock” while others appear to be very personal (“Uncomfortable Silence”); what they have in common is that they are all superbly-crafted songs which work equally well when orchestrated on the album or played live with a smaller drums/bass/guitar/piano set-up. You should really make the effort to see Natalie Duncan live in 2013.
Paul Carrack has been one of my favourite singers for longer than I care to admit so I approached this with a bit of caution; there’s always a chance that an album like this can disappoint. I didn’t need to worry because this blend of originals, songwriting collaborations and covers is absolutely superb. His voice is as stunning as it was 40 years ago and he’s great keyboard player and good guitar player; it’s sickening really. It’s worth buying for the voice alone, but there’s so much more to admire here, particularly the Nick Lowe song “From Now On” and Springsteen’s “If I Fall Behind”.
Another debut album, this time from a band that defies classification. I still don’t know whether this is indie, goth, rock, emo or any combination of the above. What I do know is that it’s melodic, inventive, dynamic and original and the band is great live as well. My first contact with Lilygun was a review of the single “Moonlight” and I’ve seen quite a lot of the band since. This is an album where you don’t shuffle the tracks; it’s programmed to tell a story from the first to the final track and that’s how you need to listen to it. Also featured on the album is the live favourite “Scum”.
This seemed to come out of nowhere in the autumn of this year. All of the band members have been doing their own thing for years and the only motivation for this project was love of the music. Ricky Ross provided the strongest set of songs he’s written in years and they were recorded live in the studio; the result was an album which was fresh, immediate and memorable. I know you can’t rewrite history, but I wish this had been the second Deacon Blue album rather than the slightly bombastic “When the World Knows your Name” (and I’m not saying that’s a bad album). The songs here are much more personal; “Is There No Way Back to You?” and “Laura From Memory” are written in the first person and the ironically- titled “The Hipsters” (the best summer song of 2012) is neatly counterbalanced with the more accurate description of “The Outsiders”. However you look at it, it’s a great album.
This was the soundtrack to my summer this year. I’ve always loved Saint Etienne but I hadn’t really expected to hear any significant new material from them; This was quite a surprise. It’s the perfect package; great songs which are nostalgic but never mawkish with enough references to satisfy any pop trainspotter and the best artwork of the year. From the scene-setting opener “Over the Border”, the album explores the soul of the music obsessive through the great settings of Wiggs and Stanley and Sarah Cracknell’s perfect voice. As with every other album on this list, there isn’t any filler here but, if I have to pick a few standout tracks then “Tonight”, “Answer Song” and “Popular” should do nicely.
Ok I said Top 5, but I also need to give a mention to Dean Owens who released 2 great albums this year (“New York Hummingbird” and Cash Back”) which were both reviewed as 4-star albums. Nobody else managed that particular feat. So, does anyone still want to tell me that the album’s a dead format?
“Cash Back” is the second album to be released by Dean Owens in 2012, following “New York Hummingbird” earlier in the year and it’s built around a really interesting idea; a tribute to Johnny Cash on what would have been his 80th birthday comprising songs written by, or covered by, Johnny (with one very notable exception). It’s also a tribute to Dean’s good friend and mentor, the late Bob Delacy.
The concept’s great, but the finished article is even better; Dean has tackled songs written by some songwriting legends including Jagger and Richards, Bob Dylan (“Girl from the North Country”), Kris Kristofferson (“Sunday Morning Coming Down”), Johnny Cash himself and our old Riot Towers favourite Nick Lowe (“Without Love”) and the result is a well-rounded, beautifully played and engaging set of songs.
The playing throughout the album is beautiful, particularly Will Kimbrough’s guitar (and various other instruments) and supports Dean’s plaintive tenor voice perfectly. It’s difficult to pick out highlights from this set because there isn’t any padding, but I’ll give it a try. The album opens with the lively 1968 Jagger/Richards song “No Expectations” featuring some great playing throughout from Will Kimbrough and has a similar feel to Albert Lee’s “Country Boy” (but a bit slower) before moving in to the more laid-back “A Little at a Time”(which also appears later in a stripped-down bonus version).
The album as a whole is a demonstration of the variety in Johnny Cash’s work, but never more so than in following the heartbreaking, poignant “Give My Love to Rose” with the jaunty nastiness and casual violence of “Delia’s Gone”. Well, this is the man who sang “I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die”. The traditional ballad, “Wayfaring Stranger” moves the tempo up a few notches from the Cash version and you realise that Paul Weller probably started “Wild Wood” from the same source.
Towards the end of the album, there’s a sequence of songs by truly great songwriters such as Nick Lowe, Bob Dylan, Kris Kristofferson and David Allan Coe (who wrote the Johnny Paycheck classic ”Take This Job and Shove It”) which almost bring the album to a close. The first bonus track is a version of “I Walk the Line” which contrasts the original’s baritone growl with Dean’s more vulnerable tenor as the song bounces along for the first three verses. To add drama to the fourth verse, you might expect a trucker’s gear change or a tempo shift but instead Dean shifts the vocal up an octave towards the top of his range for an even more dramatic effect.
Which leaves one song to tell you about. As a songwriter, Dean was always going to want one of his own songs on the album and it’s fair to say that it’s a belter. “The Night Johnny Cash Played San Quentin” is as good as anything else on the album, framing the legendary prison appearance within the story of a death row inmate who was at the show and keeps it as a memory he treasures above everything else on his way to the chair; Johnny would have been proud of this one.
If there’s a country music fan in your life (or someone who likes great music, whatever genre), this album will make a great surprise present for them. Even better, get out and see Dean performing live on his next tour in the spring of 2013; you won’t regret it.
“Cash Back” is out now on Drumfire Records (DRMFR013).
We’ve got another Riot Squad favourite touring the UK in November to launch his new album, “Cash Back”. Dean Owens is on the road for the first couple of weeks in November and I really recommend that you go out and see him; you won’t regret it. If you’re at the Wilmington Arms show, you might even bump in to the Riot Squad on the town.
Friday November 2, 2012
Backstage At The Green Hotel, Kinross
Saturday November 3, 2012 (2 shows )
Afternoon at The Tea Posy @ The Greenhouse Project, Dingwall
Evening show at The Arch, Ullapool
Sunday November 4, 2012
The City Walls, Stirling
Monday November 5, 2012
Glasgow, Cottiers Theatre (album launch show)
Wednesday November 7, 2012
The Ram Jam Club @ The Grey Horse, Kingston Upon Thames
Thursday November 8, 2012
Wilmington Arms, Clerkenwell, London (album launch show)
Friday November 9, 2012
Tynemouth (near Newcastle) House Concert.
Contact Dean for info if you’d like to attend.
Saturday November 10, 2012
Studio 42 (Douglas Robertson Photography), Edinburgh
Sunday November 11, 2012
The Steeple Arts Centre, Newburgh (Fife)