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.

eleanor-scrollerWell, it was certainly an interesting night out in Camden. I’ve been looking forward to seeing Underhill Rose since I had to miss a show earlier this year and what could be better than watching them play at Green Note. Just one little problem; the queue outside and the absence of any kind of lighting didn’t look too good, but it takes more than a power cut to close Green Note. After a slight delay to position dozens of tea lights around the room, the venue opened and things went ahead pretty much as normal, Underhill Rose had decided to play a completely unplugged set rather than disappoint the sellout crowd. Not having power isn’t necessarily a problem for players brought up in acoustic tradition, and a candle-lit gig does have a certain romance to it. In a typical twist of fate, almost immediately after the stage had been cleared of mic stands and DI boxes at the interval, the power was restored but by that stage, neither the audience nor the band wanted to move away from the acoustic format.

Underhill Rose is Eleanor Underhill (banjo and harmonica), Molly Rose Reed (guitar) and Salley Williamson (upright bass) and they all sing, creating some of the most gorgeous harmonies you’re likely to hear. The songs are all beautifully crafted and the live performances make good use of all the vocal and instrumental textures available to them. After the drama of creating a scene that took us back almost a century, it was appropriate that Underhill Rose opened their first set with “Not Gonna Worry”. It’s difficult to pick favourites from a set packed with lovely songs and performances, but a song dedicated to friends, “They Got my Back”, the swing-tinged “Whispering Pines Motel” and “Montana” did it for me and a cover of “These Boots Were Made for Walking” was a huge crowd-pleaser.

Watching Underhill Rose at any time is a pleasure and a privilege; an intimate performance by candlelight is a once in a lifetime experience. I’ve never been so happy about a power cut (or should that be outage). A wonderful night.

They also played their current single “One Time a Year” which is out now. It’s a great single and a portion of the proceeds from each sale will go to Women for Women International.

You can see some photos from the night here.

Underhill Rose ScrollerThe Great Tomorrow” is Underhill Rose’s third album and it’s a lovely example of smooth and polished Americana with just an occasional hint of darkness to offer a little contrast. The three members, Molly Rose, Eleanor Underhill and Salley Williamson play guitar, banjo and bass respectively; they all sing and they divide the songwriting duties between them across the album (with the notable exception of one cover). Molly and Eleanor split the lead vocals almost equally but the true beauty of the gorgeous sound they make is in the blending of all three voices to create the beautiful harmonies that suffuse the album.

“The Great Tomorrow” won’t hit you like you a hammer blow; it’s a lot more subtle than that. Each soothing harmony, each plangent pedal steel fill, each yearning fiddle line is a shining thread in a rich, shimmering tapestry. You can appreciate the individual parts up close, but the true beauty only reveals itself when you see the whole picture. It may not be immediate, but it will stay with you for ever.

The settings for the songs on the album augment Molly, Eleanor and Salley’s guitar, banjo and bass with the traditional Appalachian fiddle and Dobro, and Nashville elements of pedal steel and Fender Rhodes to create a wonderful variety of arrangements from the classic banjo and fiddle combination of the haunting “Montana” to the unusual fiddle and Fender Rhodes combination on the lazy shuffle of “Whispering Pines Motel”. There’s a huge variety of lyrical moods on this collection, from the empty desolation of “My Friend” and the circle-of-life theme of “When I Die” to the backwoods outlaw tale of “Shine”. And there’s a joker in the pack as well; a cover of the Elliott Woolf song, “Straight Up”, made famous by Paula Abdul in the eighties. The first rule of covers club is ’make the song your own’ and that’s exactly what they’ve done, slowing down the tempo to a slow country rock feel and focussing the energy on a stomping pre-chorus; it’s exactly what a great cover should be.

A lovely album packed with deft and delicate touches and glorious harmonies throughout.

You can see Rose Underhill live in the UK in late April/early May at these venues:

April

Thursday 21st                    Half Moon, Putney (with Benjamin Folke Thomas)

Saturday 23rd                    Cranleigh Arts Centre, Cranleigh, Surrey

Wednesday 27th               The Biddulph Arms, Biddulph, Staffordshire

Friday 29th                        Green Note, London

Saturday 30th                   Union Chapel, London (with Colin Hay)

May

Sunday 1st                         The Stables, Milton Keynes

Wednesday 4th                 The John Hewitt, Belfast (Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival)

Thursday 5th                     The Ivy, Naas, Co. Kildare

Friday 6th                          The Venue Theatre, Ratoath, Co. Meath

Saturday 7th                      The Bronte Centre, Rathfriland, N. Ireland

“The Great Tomorrow” is out on March 25th.