There was a time earlier this year, when I was hobbling around with the help of a crutch, when I thought that I would have difficulty scraping together five gigs that I’d actually seen; how wrong was that? It’s been difficult to narrow this list down to five, so I think there might be a few honourable mentions as well. So, in absolutely no order at all are my favourite live shows of 2014.

Jim StapleyJim Stapley Band at 93 Feet East

Jim Stapley’s debut album almost made my top five albums, but there was absolutely no doubt about this live performance. Jim has a phenomenal soulful rock voice and he has pulled together a superb band to deliver the songs live. This was an album launch gig featuring virtually all of the album “Long Time Coming” (plus a cheeky cover of Rihanna’s “We Found Love”) and, despite atrocious weather and a half-full venue, Jim and the band gave it everything. The songs were strong, the band were cooking on gas, but what a voice.

 

Stone FoundationStone Foundation at The 100 Club

Towards the end of a very busy year for the band, this was an appearance at the annual Delicious Junction bash and another headline slot at The 100 Club with a set based solidly on the “To Find the Spirit”. All of the band members are great players but, despite the solos, this isn’t about individuals, it’s about the group; it’s the perfect combination of a locked-in rhythm section, keyboards and horns. It was also a chance to see how the new members Gareth John (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Rob Newton (congas) had bedded in. It’s fair to say that the horns sounded better than ever and the congas added a little bit of icing on the cake. It was a great set from the band and a stomping encore of “Jumping Jack Flash”. Enough said.

YokaLittle Devils at The 100 Club

Yeah, The 100 Club again and it’s blues Jim, but not as we know it; Little Devils are fronted by singer and multi-instrumentalist (sax and flute), Yoka. The rhythm section of Graeme Wheatley and Sara-Leigh Shaw (aka the Pintsized Powerhouse) built a solid base for Big Ray’s guitar and Yoka’s vocals and instrumental solos. The quality of the playing alone would put this gig up there with the best this year but this is also great fun; the band obviously enjoy themselves and the audience will always pick up on that. Great performances and big smiles all around the room; that’s a pretty good combination for a great night.

Federal CharmFederal Charm and Ian Hunter’s Rant Band

This was the final night of the Ian Hunter tour and the audience was in a party mood. It’s not the first time I’ve seen Federal Charm but they seem to get better every time. They got a huge cheer when they strolled on to the Shepherds Bush Empire stage and powered their way through thirty minutes of melodic blues rock featuring their powerful cover of “Reconsider” before making way for Ian Hunter. What a legend; played for two hours and kept the audience spellbound throughout, and the voice still sounds great. We even got an appearance from Mick Ralphs for the encore. Top night.

Gary BondsGary Bonds, Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes

Now this sounded like a great idea. 60s legend, and big influence on the Asbury Park scene teams up with Southside Johnny for a UK tour; I’ll even pay for tickets for that. Albany Down, despite a ten-second soundcheck, got the audience nicely warmed up for the main event which was a set from Gary Bonds (with some help from Southside) and a set from Southside (with a little help from Gary Bonds), both backed The Asbury Jukes. As ever, the superb musicians (Jeff Kazee, Tom Seguso, John Conte, Glenn Alexander, John Isley, Chris Anderson and Neal Pawley) fitted together perfectly and reacted instantly to any curveballs thrown by Southside. Seriously great players but they know how to have a bit of fun as well. They’re a great attraction as The Jukes, but Gary Bonds just tipped it over the edge.

It was incredibly difficult to narrow this down to only five gigs and there are a few more which deserve honourable mentions. I saw Vera Lynch three times (including their final gig at The Barfly in Camden and a gig in a Shoreditch shop window), The Kennedys and Edwina Hayes at Green Note and Dean Owens and Black Scarr on Eel Pie Island and all of those were great nights. Here’s to many more in 2015.

Kennedys+Edwina_222 Article imageThere’s a part of me that wants to always see The Kennedys (and a lot of other very talented artists) playing in small intimate venues like Green Note where the atmosphere is friendly, intimate and respectful and both performers and audience both have a good time. There’s a larger part which wonders why they aren’t playing to much bigger audiences and achieving wider recognition. I guess it’s about fashion rather than talent, but so many people are missing out on a wonderful music experience. It’s not about turning everything up to eleven and relying on lots of technology; you can get that at The Dublin Castle, and it’s closer to the Tube station. It’s about beautiful voices, gifted playing and a rapport between performers and audience.

This is the second time I’ve seen The Kennedys and this time they’re approaching the end of a tour celebrating the work of their good friend and collaborator, Nanci Griffith; Edwina Hayes is also there to add another guitar and another layer of harmony but before that, there’s the support band – The Kennedys, playing a set of their own material (all chosen by the audience) including “Breathe”, “Half a Million Miles”, “I’ll Come Over”, “9th Street Billy” and Pete’s awe-inspiring ukulele rendition of “Rhapsody in Blue”; I mean, Gershwin on a uke, what more could you want? As ever, Maura’s vocals are perfect with even a hint of Joni Mitchell that I’d never noticed before and Pete’s harmonies are spot on. It’s amazing the kind of stew you can cook up with two guitars and two voices, when you know the recipe.

For the Nanci Griffith set, Pete and Maura are joined by Edwina Hayes who helps to produce some stunning three-part harmonies which, at times, are hairs-standing-on-the-back-of-the-neck good. Edwina has also toured with Nanci, who covered “Pour Me a Drink”, the title track of Edwina’s second album.  The next hour passes in what seems like five minutes as the trio rattle through a set which includes “Pour Me a Drink” (of course), “Trouble in the Fields”,  “Across the Great Divide”, “I’m Not Driving these Wheels”, “From a Distance” and “There’s a Light Beyond the Woods (Mary Margaret)”. The three voices work perfectly together throughout the set and the audience is spellbound; no-one’s talking about their terrible journey of the Tube or checking their phone and I even feel a bit guilty about the noise of my camera shutter in a couple of the quieter moments. It’s a superb set from three gifted musicians who obviously love the songs they’re playing; I don’t think you can ask for anything more.

You can still see The Kennedys on Friday June 13 at The Quay Theatre in Sudbury, Saturday June 14 at The Grayshott Folk Club and Sunday June 15 at The Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham. You can also get Pete or Maura to sell you “Tone, Twang and Taste” (Pete’s solo instrumental CD) and “Dance a Little Closer”, a live recording from New York of the Nanci Griffith interpretations. Go out and see them; you’ll have a great time.