If you happen to have dipped a toe in the pool that is the British blues scene recently, you may have noticed that there are some very snappy critters swimming there waiting for the unwary. As with any scene that’s out of the mainstream, it’s inevitable that cliques develop, a fact that isn’t helped by too many performers chasing too few fans. It’s a classic supply and demand situation. As well as reducing the cash available to performers, it creates a situation where greed and selfishness seem to be excusable and some of those critters in that pool are piranhas. You can hear accusations of nepotism, award-rigging and other bits of nastiness, but the worst thing you can do is to question someone’s authenticity, which is ironic given that the players who are currently really successful are imitating the players from the 60s and 70s who imitated the original blues artists from the 30s and 40s.
Ok, so here’s where that was all heading; I’ve been listening to an album by John Fairhurst. The album’s called “Saltwater” and it’s not full of tasteful imitations of Clapton playing “Further on Up the Road” or “Key to the Highway”; the inspiration here comes from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and many others. The smoothness has been filtered out and this goes back to the raw earthiness of early country blues and Chicago electric blues.
John Fairhurst is originally from Wigan; he now lives in Bristol and recorded this album in Bristol and London with the help of Toby Murray (drums), Joe Strouzer (harmonica and vocals), Emma Divine (vocals), Tim Loudon (bass), Luke Barter (bass), Jago Whitehead (drums & percussion), Phil Jewson (piano), Saul Wodak (guitar effects) and Alex Beitzke (bass). I have a little confession to make about the album; on the first listen, I was halfway through before I actually started to get it (during the guitar solo on “I’m Coming Home”, actually). I blame it on the previous review I did, which was a very cleanly-produced singer-songwriter and it took a while to move from that to the over-driven guitar, wailing harmonica and Tom-Waits-dukes-it-out-with-Mark-Lanegan vocals. So let’s go back to the start.
The two opening songs, “Breakdown” and “Who You Fooling” get things off to a raucous start with plenty of amped-up slide and harmonica to get things rolling before the album’s only cover, the Mississippi John Hurt song “Pay Day”, which is much gentler, using the old country blues devices of repeated lines and call and response with the help of the Dean Street Choir. There’s even a sneaky little Eric Clapton reference at the end. “More More More” and “Time Goes By” are rooted in the rural, country blues tradition, the first having a UK skiffle feel while “Time Goes By” could be Tom Waits with the badly-tuned pub piano accompaniment.
You couldn’t really describe “I’m Coming Home” as blues; it’s a mutant Jimi Hendrix/Neil Young hybrid with “Voodoo Chile”-style riff and fill playing in the verses and a Shakey-style solo from the “American Stars and Bars” era. It’s the first of the album’s epic pieces. “No Shelter” is another elemental piece built around a simple (but loud) guitar riff and a reasonably good choice for the album’s first single while “Black Cat” is pure Muddy Waters; it’s a straight-ahead twelve-bar with belting harmonica and that always sounds good to me. So, more of the same to finish the album off?
No way; the penultimate song, written by the whole band, is “Dance in the Pines”, a mad surf-punk piece which splices DNA from The Cramps, Dick Dale and The Ventures. It’s off the wall and it’s brilliant. The album’s closer and title track, “Saltwater” is the magnum opus and absolutely has to be the last track; it wouldn’t be as effective anywhere else on the album. The song, which is a restyling of the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” story substituting the ocean for Clarksdale, has the singer refusing to shake hands with The Devil. It’s an epic which starts with acoustic guitar and vocal (slipping into a Wigan accent) which builds through a rural bluegrass-tinged to a kitchen-sink finale featuring Emma Divine delivering a vocal which easily equals Clare Torry’s famous performance on “Great Gig in the Sky”. And it’s the last track on the album because you can’t follow that; job done.
If you’re sick of hearing second and third generation blues revivalists recycling smooth guitar licks and bland vocals (no, I’m not naming names) then this could be just the album for you; don’t file under easy listening.
Out now (JF005).
In the days following the sad and untimely death of Phil Everly, one of the musicians who was regularly interviewed was guitarist Albert Lee. I’m willing to bet that most people watching and listening had never heard of Albert Lee, despite his long relationship the Everly Brothers. The fact that he had decided early in his career to play a style of music, country, that has rarely, if ever, been fashionable in the UK meant that he had to move to the USA before achieving real recognition, joining the Crickets in 1974, then replacing the legendary James Burton in Emmylou Harris’s Hot Band in 1976. Anyway, for a few days in early January 2014, all of the old Everly Brothers songs were played across the media. I’m always happy to hear old classics reach a new audience, but the contrarian in me wanted to hear Albert Lee again, so I dug out my old vinyl copy of his second solo album, “Hiding”.
Somehow, in 1979, a single from this album managed to grab a bit of airplay, probably as a result of a particularly persistent plugger, or perhaps it was just a bit of a novelty. “Country Boy”, which opened the album, wasn’t ever going to win an Ivor Novello; it was a lyrical throwaway which showcased Albert Lee’s stunning guitar virtuosity. Throwaway or not, it grabbed my attention immediately and I scuttled off to BG Forbes to buy a copy of the album. Then back to the flat as quickly as possible to introduce vinyl to stylus while avidly reading all of the credits and sleeve notes (even an insert in this case) while listening to the album. I’ve bought many albums on the strength of one song, and I’ve been disappointed almost as many times; nothing else on “Hiding” sounded like “Country Boy” but that didn’t matter because they were all great songs.
Looking at the playing and writing credits, there were a few surprises, even with my limited knowledge of the country scene at that time. Names like Emmylou Harris and Don Everly stood out even then, but looking back with a historical perspective and greater knowledge, Buddy Emmons, Glen D Hardin, Ricky Scaggs, Rodney Crowell, Hank DeVito and Buddy Emmons were highly-respected country players at that time. More of a surprise was the inclusion of songs and performances by Chas Hodges and Dave Peacock who, after nearly twenty years as backing musicians, were now carving out a career performing cockney novelty songs. Actually I wasn’t surprised; I was gobsmacked, particularly after hearing the album’s second song, “Billy Tyler”, a Hodges/Peacock country original. I loved the song from the first time I heard it and I still love it now. I know Dean Owens will probably disagree with me here, but I think it’s the best song they ever wrote. And those are only the first two songs on the album.
“Are you Wasting my Time” is a tasteful cover of the Louvin Brothers classic with Albert Lee taking lead vocal and harmonies alongside Ricky Scaggs. “Now and Then It’s Gonna Rain”, with backing from Chas and Dave, is a country/rock song which hints at earlier Eagles material and side one closes with the beautiful Rodney Crowell ballad “On a Real Good Night”.
The side two opener is “Setting me Up”, a riff-based country/rock song written by the relatively unknown (in 1979) Mark Knopfler which is followed by another Rodney Crowell song “Ain’t Living Long like This”, a shuffle with a hint of the Buster Brown classic, “Fannie Mae”. The album’s title song is another ballad, written by Steven Rhymer (what a great name for a songwriter) and featuring backing vocals from Don Everly. The album closes out with the slow rocker, “Hotel Love”, and “Come up and See Me Any Time”, another Chas and Dave song featuring the dynamic duo themselves on piano and bass.
The album’s a classic because Albert Lee does all the things he does best; he plays guitar, sings lead and harmony vocals and chooses some tremendous songs and players to help him display these talents. There’s only one writing credit for him on “Hiding” but his interpretations of songs by other writers are arranged and played to perfection. You can hear suggestions of other artists including Iain Matthews (another wonderful interpreter of songs) and Eric Clapton but the overall sound is pure Albert Lee. I guess it’s not difficult to see why it wasn’t a hit in the UK in 1979 as post-punk took over from punk, but it has aged very well over the thirty-five years since its release. Even if you don’t normally follow links these articles, have a look at the live performance of “Country Boy” with Vince Gill. It’s not just about the great playing; the audience love it and you can see that the band loves it too. Give it a listen.
It’s a couple of years since we last spoke to one of our favourite guitar players, Billy Walton, so I arranged an interview before his show at “Tropic at Ruislip”. As an added bonus, the legendary Roger Mayer (search him online, but as a bit of a clue, he designed effects pedals for Jimi Hendrix) turned up as well because he’s been working with Billy for a few years now. Here’s what happened.
Allan -- It’s been two years since we last did this, at Totteridge, and you were just about to release “Crank it Up”. What have you been up to since then?
Billy -A lot of stuff, we’ve been playing the Jersey shore, tons of gigs; we’ve been writing, writing with friends. There’s a lot of projects in the works right now. We did a whole live thing over the summertime; we had a mobile unit follow us around and we did a lot of recording with that and we caught the fun vibes on the Jersey shore. Right now I’ve been writing and I’ve got about eighteen or nineteen new tunes; maybe do another Billy Walton Band album we’re trying to work on then try and write with other people and have fun and put out some cool stuff. That’s our plans.
Allan -- Before “Crank it Up” was released you were telling me that you thought the songs were stronger on that album.
Billy -- Well, songwriting always evolves and it depends on what you’re feeling. With that one we were going for a Jersey shore laid-back, more soulful type of thing instead of just guitar pyrotechnics like the albums before that.
Allan -- There were a few elements of early Bruce in there as well, the New Jersey feel.
Billy -- Being from New Jersey that kinda comes out it’s always gonna come out.
Roger -- It’s part of the DNA, isn’t it?
Billy -- It’s where you’re from; it’s always going to come out. To dissect the Jersey shore music it’s kind of ahead of the beat, it’s driving all night, in a pumping club on the Boardwalk , and that’s what it’s about.
Allan -- And how are the songs for the new album coming along?
Billy -- There’s a good mix; I want to reintroduce more of the guitar pyrotechnics on the new album, we haven’t picked the songs yet so we just keep writing and we’ll figure out which ones are the best.
Roger -- You haven’t actually decided on whether the line-up for the record is gonna remain constant. There would be no reason for every track to have the same personnel on it; is it fair to say that would be a step different from a production standpoint?
Billy -- Yes, absolutely. On this tour we’re bringing two horns; Richie(Taz) is still playing with us back home but I brought these two horns with us just to switch it up a bit. It’s all about the vibe of the night and it’s the same thing with trying to create an album it’s about getting that vibe and whoever it takes to make that vibe happen.
Roger -- If I can say one thing here: I don’t think your records have ever tried to
capture you playing live. You’ve done the live record, but a studio record is completely different from a live record because it gives you much more scope with what’s possible.
Billy -- And I think that’s what we haven’t captured on our last albums; that live vibe. If you come out to a show, you know it’s controlled chaos.
Roger -- And I think that’s true of Bruce (Springsteen)’s albums too. Live he’s fantastic but I don’t think his albums live up to the live performance.
Allan -- And it’s a great experience, a Billy Walton Band live show because like Bruce and Southside Johnny, you never know what you’re going to get on the night, do you?
Roger -- That’s true, when I was with Hendrix, we deliberately never played the same thing twice any night so you never knew what to expect and that’s a jazz thing as well, which makes it exciting. It means you can see the band three nights in a row and get three and get three different and I think that’s cool, rather than some note-for-note rendition which gets stale very quickly.
Allan -- The last time I saw the band, which was at Barnet on the last tour, you played a solo where you threw the riff from “Kashmir” and the intro from the Chicago song “25 or 6 to 4” and that’s great because nobody’s expecting it.
Billy -- There’s no rules and that’s what I was feeling at that time so I thought let’s get into it.
Roger -- Well there are no rules, are there? That is the rule; there are no rules.
Billy -- That’s right, the band’s having fun and if you saw us last night, tonight’s gonna be totally different and it’s got to be that way because sometimes even the band doesn’t know what’s coming next and that’s great.
Roger -- Should they know?
Billy -- They shouldn’t (laughs).
Allan -- I saw Bruce at the Olympic Park and, you know this is coming, but he walked to the front of the audience, pulled out a request placard, turned towards the band, lifted it in the air and the band launched straight into the song; that’s the mark of a really great band.
Billy -- Like us, the E Street Band are all music lovers. Everybody you see playing that way, you know they have a load of Motown records, they have all the Stax records and they still put them on and that takes them back. One night I went to hang out with the E Street guys in Philly and they played “Higher and Higher” and the place just erupted (Billy sings and finger-pops the chorus for emphasis) and afterwards everyone was just so excited that they did that song.
Roger -- Because a great song played by great musicians gets a great reaction. It’s exciting and memorable.
Allan -- So you’re in the process of raising funds to make the album now; how’s that going?
Billy -- Well, there are many different things we’re trying to do and one is that we’re talking to this guy, Tony Braunagel who’s just produced Curtis Salgado, he’s done Taj Mahal albums and he’s interested in doing an album with us, but that’s not definite; it’s not in stone, we’re just raising funds for the next project. There’s always gonna be a project, because we’re always writing and we’re always playing, but right now that’s the one.
Allan -- And that funding’s happening through indiegogo , isn’t it?
Billy -- That’s right, indiegogo. The way the music industry has gone it’s a great way (to fund an album). It used to be that the label that gave you the money, the producer pays everything, you pay him back, but now fan funding allows the artists to do it themselves and own it.
Allan -- And it allows you give something back to the fans that have funded it as well.
Billy -- Absolutely, they feel a part of it; they get packages where they get so many CDs and other deals.
Roger -- And that’s still only the beginning because it only takes you so far, you still have to try to get airplay. It’s still only the opening pawn move in a chess game.
Billy -- You need a fish to catch the bigger fish.
Allan -- Are there any guitar players that you listen to or you’ve worked with over the last few years that you would recommend to a UK audience?
Billy -- That’s a good question; there’s a lot of great players out there but to name one; Freddie King! There’s a lot of evolutions of Albert King and Freddie King out there.
Roger -- But the thing is can they write good songs? Not that they’ve got some licks that they’ve served up in a generic way. Can they write good songs? That’s what makes them stand out.
Allan -- When I saw you play with the Henrik Freischlader Band in January, it struck me that he can write a good song and he has a very soulful voice as well.
Billy -- The thing is, with players that I like, they have something that you can say “I can tell where they’re from”, they’re unique. They’re not just generic Clapton copies; that’s what I don’t like. What I do like is, there’s a couple of bands in New Jersey that came up after Katrina from New Orleans and these cats can play and you could tell they were from New Orleans; you could hear it, you could feel it and that’s what I like. And it doesn’t have to be a guitar player, it can be any musician.
Allan -- I was surprised a few years ago when I read a Bobby Bandiera interview and he was asked about new music he listened to and he said he didn’t listen to a lot but he did say that he liked Radiohead, which was a bit of a shock.
Billy -- Well, Bobby might have been messing with the interviewer there (laughs).
Allan -- We first met when you were playing with The Jukes; are you focussing on the Billy Walton Band now, or is there a chance that we might see you back with Southside in the future?
Billy -- Absolutely. I’m friends with those guys, Southside is great; I enjoy the whole Jersey heritage and I still do gigs with them once in a while but I’m really trying to focus on my stuff. When you think about it there has to be more generations of music from Jersey. Everybody speaks about Bruce and Bon Jovi but what about Frank Sinatra, the Rat Pack in Atlantic City; there’s evolution there.
Allan -- We spoke briefly during the first interview we did about some of the Jersey Shore bands and musicians; what is it that makes that scene so special?
Billy -- There’s a lot to it. In summertime the Jersey shore is a vacation spot; everybody from Philadelphia, Washington and New York City hits the shore and along the shore there’s a party every night in the summertime and there’s clubs all along the Boardwalk and everybody meets their girlfriends and they dance, it’s that whole scene.
Roger -- It would be like thirty miles of Blackpool but slightly classier. And it’s better than New York because the clubs are bigger.
Billy -- What’s great about New Jersey too is the brotherhood of the bands. There are clubs next door to each other and when you go on break, you walk out and go and jam with your friend’s band next door and they come and jam with you.
Roger -- A bit like New Orleans in a way.
Billy -- With those guys we all know what each other’s doing and the players are interchangeable. We all get together and have fun and listen to music and talk music and that’s what’s different about it.
Allan – It’s great that Bobby (Bandiera)’s been on tour with Bon Jovi for what seems like forever now, but as soon as there’s a break in the tour he goes back to the Jersey shore and he’s playing McLoone’s Boathouse and places like that.
Roger -- Because it’s fun. If you’re a musician why wouldn’t you want to do something different if you’ve been on a tour round the world and it’s boring as hell.
Billy -- You’re right. You’re away from it all and you’re in a bubble. We played Churchill Downs in Kentucky in front of thousands of people with Bon Jovi and that night I got on a plane and flew home to New Jersey and played in front 150 people at a club, a jukejoint and I loved them both because I had fun.
Roger -- We used to do that with Jimi (Hendrix, of course); straight off the stage and straight down the pub and jam, every night.
Billy -- You wanna play, and you wanna have fun, youknow?
Allan -- Have you noticed any changes in the UK audiences over the last 2 years?
Billy -- Yes, there’s a mix; it’s not just the older demographic. We get the traditional blues fans coming out to hear a guitar player. Then you have the Jersey people who buy into that thing of having a good time and having a party and you get the younger crowd so it’s a great mix.
Allan -- I noticed particularly at the gig in Barnet, on the last tour, there were teenagers wearing Billy Walton Band T-shirts and I thought that was great because I’ve seen a lot of blues players recently at shows where I’m the youngest person in the room, and that really worries me.
Roger -- That’s really sad, man. You should look out for a band called the 45s; they sound like the Rolling Stones did in 1965 and Jimmy Page and the guy from Dr Feelgood gave them a bit of a leg-up, but this is guys that are seventeen and nineteen who wanna portray that energy. So the energy is there with younger people; I’ve been working with some younger people who still like the kind of music we’re talking about so it’s obvious that the music goes right across the borders.
Allan -- And do you think we’re starting to see a move back towards guitar-based blues/rock again?
Roger -- In a way yes, but I think people just generally want to see someone perform. You might not like “Strictly Come Dancing”, but at least it’s a live performance; whatever you say, the band’s playing live. So that from that standpoint, nine million people every Saturday are watching celebrities dancing to a live band. It can’t be all bad.
Allan -- I’ve noticed that over the last year I’ve seen some great young and enthusiastic British blues/rock bands and I wonder how much of that is down to what guys like you are doing?
Billy -- Well, you can find inspiration in many different ways. It could be guy playing saxophone that makes you want to pick up an instrument and try that but just getting out there and playing, that’s the main thing. I was fortunate to grow up in a scene in Jersey where I’d go out to a blues club and there’d be older guys and I’d sit in and I’d get my ass kicked every night and the there was a point when I’d go back down there and I’d kick their asses. They introduced me all these songs that I didn’t know and it was ‘“Born Under a Bad Sign”, what is that, what the hell, I’ll play it’. And it just opens you up and I was fortunate to have that, to be able to play with these people and let loose and go with it.
Allan -- And I hear you had a good time playing with Walter Trout this week.
Billy -- Yeah, Walter Trout, he’s a Jersey boy; he’s originally from Ocean City. We had fun; I tried to take my amp off the stage after we opened up and that wasn’t allowed so it was great, we jammed an Elmore James tune and had some fun with it.
Allan -- And that’s what the Jersey scene’s all about I guess, isn’t it?
Billy -- Absolutely; one hundred per cent. On tour, we have bands open up for us and most times we end the night with the band up on stage playing with us. It’s the party, that’s what it’s about to me; what’s gonna happen that night and what picture’s gonna be painted that night. And then tomorrow’s another one.
Allan -- Well, great to meet up again, it’s always good to hear what you have to say and I’m looking forward to the show tonight now.
Billy -- Thank you.
The Billy Walton Band are currently on the second leg of the UK tour, which finishes on November 26th at the 100 Club and you really should get out to see them. Failing that, help
the guys to fund the new album and grab yourself some nice goodies as well.