The more I hear of Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, the more I realise how perfect the combination is; it was a good day for fans of real music when these guys first met up. Not only are they supremely gifted individuals, but when they play together the total is much more than the sum of the parts. Martin Harley’s developed a well-deserved reputation as a Weissenborn player, but this album constantly reminds you that he has a cracking blues/soul voice that puts him in the top division of singers in that genre. I don’t think Otis Redding’s too fanciful as a comparison, or maybe Frankie Miller if you want something a bit closer to home. And that’s just Martin Harley; Daniel Kimbro’s a master of his craft as well, plucking, bowing, rasping, slapping and generally coaxing some very interesting noises out of his stand-up bass while backing up Martin’s voice with some sweet harmonies. I don’t often look forward to bass solos, but I make an exception in Daniel Kimbro’s case. Every time.
The songs then; they must be the weak point, no? Afraid not; this isn’t just about showcasing some excellent playing, Martin’s writing’s spot-on as well, pulling in influences from all over the world and melding them into authentic twentieth-century roots music that includes love songs like the Southern soul-tinged “My Lover’s Arms” with its lovely guitar fills running through the song and even some honky-tonk piano, and the poetic “Postcard from Hamburg” with lines like ‘The sky’s crying diamonds’.
The honky-tonk feel of the album’s opener, “One-Horse Town” and the uptempo country blues of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” ease you gently in to the album with some lyrical and instrumental invention before giving way to the homesick blues of “Postcard from Hamburg” and the ominous, louring despair of “Gold” and its escape into a soaring solo. I could tell you more about the wizardry of “Dancing on the Rocks” and the claustrophobic atmospherics of “Mean Old City (Part 2)”. I could go on about how good this album is, how it’s a perfect combination of two players (and singers) at the top of their game, and about the great understanding they have and how I don’t understand why people aren’t raving about Martin Harley, but I have a better idea. Instead of taking my word for it, go out and see them on their tour of the UK, Europe and Canada (details on the Martin’s website). That’s better than any recommendation from me, and then you’ll definitely buy the album.
“Static in the Wires” is released in the UK on Friday February 10th on Del Mundo Records.
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 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
I’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
As 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
Rewind 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
I 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.
It’s a bit like an eclipse; the perfect gig depends on the alignment of artist, venue and audience and it doesn’t happen too often, so it was a privilege to see Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro play to a full house at St Pancras Old Church. Martin and Daniel got together originally in the US and, after touring together, made the album “Live at Southern Ground” in a single afternoon. So the logical next step was to tour in support of the album and that’s how they came to be playing a beautiful and acoustically perfect venue just behind the Eurostar terminal.
Martin and Daniel display the relaxation on stage that comes from complete mastery of your craft. Instrumentally they’re both at the top of their game, but they both have great voices and they’re accomplished songwriters. They aren’t trying to prove anything, they just want to play (and maybe sell a few albums). Throughout the set they created a rapport and intimacy with the audience, telling self-deprecating stories about life on the road and Martin’s first corndog, eaten onstage during a festival gig.
And they played some music as well, covering his career from the eponymous 2003 debut up to “Southern Ground” and a few covers as well, including Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, the Leadbelly classic “Goodnight Irene” and that old Bible Belt favourite, Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”. Highlights; yep, there were a few of those. The second song in, “I Can’t be Satisfied” featured an enthralling Daniel Kimbro bass solo (I know, I’m praising a bass solo, but it probably won’t happen again for a long time) and “Blues at my Window” in D minor (the saddest of all keys) which built up to an incredible finish with what seemed like three Weissenborns playing together (a feat which was repeated at the end of “Chocolate Jesus”) at the end of the evening.
In the second set, “Goodnight Irene” was taken at a beautifully languorous pace with plenty of Weissenborn fills and the lovely “Winter Coat” took off when Daniel Kimbro’s harmonies kicked in Two superb sets followed by a bravura encore of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”. It really doesn’t get any better; two virtuosi playing together to create an unrepeatable experience for the select few crammed into a beautiful acoustic space.
Just a word about the audience; I’d expected the usual blues crowd of male aficionados in their sixties, but the majority of the crowd was in the twenty-to-forty age group with even a scattering of under-tens. They were buying a huge amount of albums in the interval, including the vinyl version of “Southern Ground”, so maybe there’s hope for real music yet.
I don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if this is going on all the time, but this is the second album we’ve reviewed in two weeks that was recorded live at Southern Ground in Nashville. Martin Harley, roots acoustic and slide maestro has teamed up with upright bass player Daniel Kimbro to revisit some of his own back catalogue and rework a few classics as well. Just to add a little pressure to the situation, they decided to record the whole album in a day. Now there are a couple of ways you can look at a project like this. You could see it as an easy way of knocking out an album without having to write any new material, but it’s obvious from the opening sitar-like slide and menacing bowed double bass of “Cardboard King” (from the “Mojo Fix” album) that this is the real thing; it’s two craftsmen giving a masterclass in acoustic blues arrangement and playing, and it sounds like they just happen to be having a lot of fun while at the same time. “Live at Southern Ground” also serves as a great example of the variety and dynamic range you can produce from two players and two voices, especially when they’re as good as this.
The non-originals on the album demonstrate Martin and Daniel’s interpretative abilities; “Goodnight Irene” is slowed down to an almost funereal pace with plenty of room for slide fills and raw emotional vocals while Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus” is taken at an almost frantic pace and features a solo which build and builds to the point where you wonder how many Weissenborns Martin’s actually playing. Blind Willy Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” sticks much more closely to the original (well, a lot closer than the Zeppelin version). Of the songs from Martin’s excellent “Drumrolls for Somersaults” album, the lovely “Winter Coat” is taken at a slower pace and works well in a stripped-down version with perfect harmonies from Daniel, while “Honey Bee” becomes a fast country blues as a contrast to the original rockabilly version, and “Love in the Afternoon” has a greater emphasis on the Django Rheinhardt stylings than the original.
And then, when you think it’s all over (spoiler alert), check your time display (or just look at your vinyl) because there’s a hidden track. It’s a new take on “Blues at my Window” from the 2008 “Grow Your Own” album with Martin displaying his slide virtuosity while Daniel’s bowed bass moves from the growling, menacing bottom end up into the cello range to supply counter melodies. If you want a reason for making the album, this is it; there’s a song framework in place, but it’s all about the two players finding space to make their own creative contributions, and they do it to perfection.
“Live at Southern Ground” has all the intimacy of a live performance in a small venue. It’s a bit like looking through a crack in the door to see what musicians do when they think no-one’s watching or listening. Luckily, this time they decided to share it with the rest of us.
“Live at Southern Ground” is out on September 25th on Del Mundo Records (CD, Vinyl and download).