This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along too often these days – an interview with one of my favourite singers and someone who happens to front one of the best bands I’ve ever seen; a bunch of superb individuals who make a formidable team. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were on a lightning tour of Europe that included a night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Too good to miss, really, so I took a little trip out to Wild West London. Here’s how it went…

 Allan

It’s great to see you again, what are you up to these days?

Southside

Well, we have a lot of work this year. I mentioned the word retirement and they immediately booked a thousand gigs. We’re trying to write another Jukes album but it’s been going slowly, so really it’s just been touring and trying to write the album and that’s about it. There’s not much else going on.

Allan

On this tour you had a free day in London yesterday. Did you manage to have a look around?

Southside

I walked all round Shepherd’s Bush and around the mall and I wanted to go to the British Museum but I didn’t get it together to do that, but this is a great walking area. I like this place; it’s a little funky in some areas but that’s good for me. I just love walking around London, all the different areas. It still feels like I’m somewhere other New Jersey. Even after all these years and all these times, I still feel glad to be here.

Allan

I’ve lived here fifteen years now and the city’s changed so much in that time.

Southside

It’s impossibly expensive to rent here. Occasionally I think, maybe I’ll go over there for a while, but you’ve got all the Russians and Saudi Arabians that are buying up all the properties. There are people who have lived here for a long time and they’re all right, but if you’re trying to buy a house, you’re out of luck.

Allan

You’ve done Wales and Scotland on this tour as well.

Southside

Yes, we played Cardiff and we played Glasgow. I always like playing Glasgow because the audiences are down-home, very New Jersey, if you know what I mean. They’re very enthusiastic and it matters to them. There’s no pretence about loving the music, it’s just really honest ‘get out and have a good time’ people.

Allan

I think South Wales is a lot like that as well.

Southside

We’ve played a few places in Wales, but not enough for me to really know it. I’ve played a lot of places in Scotland many, many times and I’ve got to know a number of people up there and they’re very authentic people. I really like that.

Allan

I think Jukes fans are like that generally.

Southside

That’s true. We play New York and people drop in to slum it with The Jukes and I don’t really care for that kind of thing. Our audience is like us; there’s no pretension about it.

Allan

And at Holmfirth, you actually had to add a second show this year.

Southside

Yep, Holmfirth is one of our favourite places to play. When we first played there, we got lost. We were driving through fields; the GPS on the bus was completely screwed up and we ended up going through a farmer’s field and thinking ‘Where the hell are we?’

Then we got there and it’s a small town, very picturesque and I thought ‘This is going to be terrible’ and it was great.

The people were just so over-the-top and the place sounded good and there was a snooker table in the dressing room. It was just one of our really fantastic nights and we had a great show, so we always look forward to coming back because they’re always good shows, so everybody’s excited about it.

Allan

And I think this year’s the twenty-first of the venue re-opening as a cinema and music venue, so they may be commemorating that.

Southside

Twenty-one years, huh? I wonder how many times have we’ve played there?

Allan

I saw you there in 2010, I think.

Southside

I think that’s when we started playing it, maybe a little earlier.

Allan

The last time I was in Holmfirth was in October last year to see Graham Parker with his new band The Goldtops, featuring some of the horn players from The Rumour and it felt like a throwback to that period in the late seventies when there was so much great music, and it was strange to see that Steve Gibbons, also from that era, had been added to tonight’s bill.

Southside

(Laughs) I didn’t know that. I just saw now that he was on the bill – that’s great.

Allan

And seeing Graham Parker made me think about the legendary tour that you did together in 1977.

Southside

That was great. What fun that was. Both bands were in the same bus; a lot of poker playing, a lot of talking, a lot of beer-drinking. And it was a competition every night; who’s gonna kick whose ass on that night. We really made some long-time friends on that tour. To us it was great because we saw all these towns you wouldn’t usually see. We played everywhere and all the nice theatres like this place. So for us, a bar band, it was an amazing tour. It really felt as though we were getting somewhere.

Allan

And also, going back to that era, Squeeze are just about to do another tour of the States.

Southside

That’s great, love them too. That was a great time for music. When you think about it, I liked all the punk stuff too. The Sex Pistols came to one gig with Ronnie Spector and the guys from The Damned were at The Nashville Club. Rat Scabies and I almost got in to a fight. It was one of those wonderful times.

Allan

I can remember in a history of punk I was reading (“’77 Sulphate Strip” by Barry Cain), I saw a photo of you and Graham at The Nashvillle.

Southside

Yeah, we were part of that era, but we weren’t ever punk. They welcomed us and we met the Stranglers, Eddie and the Hot Rods and all those other guys. We knew Thin Lizzy, those guys came to our gigs; we used to go out drinking and there were nights you couldn’t remember coming home to the hotel.

Allan

Is there any new music that you’re listening these days?

Southside

I’m still listening to a lot older stuff too, but there’s such a lot out there.

Allan

The reason I ask that is that I hear a lot of new Americana, people like Ed Dupas and Gerry Spehar. Some of it isn’t well-known and might never be, but what I really notice is the political stuff that’s coming to the fore now as the election of Trump seems to have politicised everyone.

Southside

Yeah, you can’t get away from it and you’re almost forced to take sides because the egregiousness just overwhelms you; the stupidity and the greed and the complete lack of compassion for anyone except for rich people. And even then, the people that are in the White House now don’t have feelings for anyone but themselves, from top to bottom, and it’s frightening, you know.

It’s going to swing back the other way now, once Trump has gone, whenever and however that’s gonna happen. I saw Jason Isbell at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and he was just fantastic, but he’s become more political too. The album that I really like, “Something More than Free” is very personal and human and real-life oriented, but I know that his latest stuff is becoming more and more political because you’re forced into it. You’ve got to speak up about it.

Allan

Getting back to the music, this incarnation of The Jukes is probably the most stable ever.

Southside

Yes, it’s been solid for a long time; I don’t count the years. It’s also the best band I think I’ve ever had because they’re all just all just great soloists but the ensemble work, there’s no selfishness if you know what I mean. I don’t know, I‘m just really enjoying this band; I can throw any kind of curve ball at them and they hit it, so I can do whatever I want on stage, we do some strange stuff, and they seem to follow very well and it’s not just ‘ok, now what you gonna do dummy?’.

Allan

Well that’s the question that I deliberately wasn’t asking…

Southside

Well, I think they are. With Tommy (Seguso) on drums now and John’s the best bass player I think we’ve ever had. Jeff’s an incredible keyboard player. All of the guys, the horn section, they carry a lot of weight and they handle it very well. It’s got so that I can relax and not worry about what’s going on behind me. I always like that feeling of being free on stage to do and say whatever I want and with this band, I’m very comfortable with that.

Allan

I always thought the danger was, with a band that good, there’s a chance that it can be like eight quarterbacks on stage.

Southside

(Laughs) No, they’re very good that way, there’s a certain ethos in being a Juke in that you’re working hard to please the audience, but you’re also trying to find new ways to play things and different ways to express yourself and, with this quality of musicianship, you can do that and you can let people go wherever they want to go and they let me go wherever I want to go. When it becomes rote, when it becomes just going through the songs, I’m out. That’s like working in a cubicle for an insurance company, I just don’t want that.

Allan

And the Jukes fans love that attitude as well, don’t they?

Southside

They like it when we take chances, and if we fall on our face, they laugh. And we do too.

Allan

How does the music business, or what’s left of it feel to you these days? Do you find it easier to work the way you’re working now?

Southside

Oh yeah, I’m not part of the music business. I own my own label. It’s all organic for me; I don’t have to worry about pleasing anybody other than the audience and so if I want to put out an album, I’ll put out an album, like we did the Billie Holiday thing or The Poor Fools. I can do whatever I want, I don’t have to please anybody but myself as far as the organisation’s concerned. So I don’t even think about record companies. To me they’re manufacturing artists. Some of them are good, some of them are terrible and phoney and awful but it’s all down to one or two acts; you don’t have record companies with fifty acts that they’re trying to make a career with; it’s either blockbusters or ignore it.

Allan

I’ve noticed that at Jukes gigs and with other bands doing similar things, younger fans are appearing.

Southside

Yeah, the fans are bringing their kids and their grand-kids, but that’s all right. We’re fun on stage, I think everybody gets that even when it’s not the kind of music a younger person is used to, but with rhythm ‘n’ blues and soul being so popular again these last five or six years, it’s interesting to see them coming and they understand what we’re doing, and there were a few years where I don’t think young people would have got what we were doing.

Allan

And you can see it coming through in bands like Hardwicke Circus, who supported you two years ago. They’re kind of modelled on that Jukes ethos, aren’t they?

Southside

Well, there’s a lot of bands like that out there. There’s a lot of soul singers out there and it’s great to see. The only thing I don’t like is manufactured music and I never have really enjoyed that. But if that’s what people like, that’s fine; I don’t judge people that way.

Allan

Well, thanks for your time and I’m looking forward to the show tonight.

As ever; songs, not singles. These songs are all from albums that we’ve reviewed this year (that’s Stone Foundation ruled out again – sorry guys). There’s something else, apart from greatness, that links all these choices; they’re not the only songs from the albums they feature on that could have made this list. The albums are all wonderful pieces of work taken as a whole, but they all feature at least two standout tracks that would have been seen as singles in a different musical era. There were difficult choices but ultimately it had to be whittled down to five songs. In no particular order, here are Allan’s favourite five songs of the year; the songs that made his heart soar or made him cry, but definitely made him hit the repeat button.

 

“The Last Song” – Dean Owens

Just to be contrary, it’s actually the first song on the album, ”Southern Wind”, which was a collaboration with Will Kimbrough. One of the things Dean and Will bonded over was their love of Ronnie Lane, whose influence is all over this one. Having heard it live a few times, where it tends to appear towards the end of the set, confirms the power of the song and allows Dean to riff on repeated choruses by throwing in lines from, for example, “Ooh La La”. It’s fun and it’s memorable; if you don’t love this, you’ve got icicles for ventricles.

 

“Love in Wartime” – Birds of Chicago

Absolutely gorgeous. This clocks in at about the six minute mark but you just want it to keep going. It’s one of those that seduces you in with a gentle intro then builds and builds to the first chorus. And by that time, you’re hooked; you’re there for the duration. Maybe there’s a nostalgia thing there; the feel, the chord progressions are a lot like classic mid-seventies era Bob Seger. The melody’s hummable, the harmonies are superb and it’s hugely uplifting. I dare you not to be moved by this.

 

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

This is a song where you just have to accept the Bruce Springsteen comparison because this is a stadium rocker in the mould of “Born to Run”. It’s a monstrous ‘wall of sound’ production driving along by pounding, relentless floor toms and a huge full band arrangement. In the context of the album, it’s the song that represents the start of the upward turn in Michael’s rehabilitation and the uplifting lyrical message is carried along on the tide of a widescreen musical setting. Taken out of the context of the album, it’s a song that FM radio in the States would have been all over in the 80s – not just a powerhouse arrangement, a potent message as well.

 

“Son of an Immigrant” – Gerry Spehar

A perfect example of the song that leads you in a certain direction before pulling the rug from under you and twisting the point of the narrative. It’s not just an example of a clever narrative trick; like the rest of the album, this is a powerful commentary on the current state of the USA, and its current leader. The song has a very clear message; if you go back far enough almost everyone’s an immigrant in the land of the free. Like “Out from Under”, it sits perfectly within the context of the album without needing that context to shine as a great song.

 

“The Shape of You” – Rod Picott

Sometimes a song just needs to find the point in your life where it fits. This one happened for me on the Tube on the way back from a gig at Green Note. I’d already heard it a few times but this time it suddenly hit home. It’s about the realisation that someone has become a part of you. In this case because that person has gone, but I guess the image works if they’re still around. The song opens with the image in the title, then develops that image. It’s a really simple idea but beautifully effective. The arrangement’s sparse, with mainly acoustic guitar and vocal with some very subtle Will Kimbrough guitar atmospherics just lurking in the background. Delicate and gorgeous.

There are many other songs that could have been on this list; there’s so much incredible music out there, but these were the ones that were buzzing around my consciousness when I put this together. Have a listen, and I hope you enjoy.

I know, I know; we’ve said this before. The Riot Squad loves the way that artists taking part in this piece stamp their individuality on their contributions – you never know what you’re going to get. We’ve had a huge variety already this year including Dean Owens’ American tour highlights and Track Dogs’ UK tour discoveries and we’re just over halfway through December. In this particular piece, Gerry Spehar, whose “Anger Management” album blew Allan away this year, has taken the opportunity to say thank you to some of the people that have made a difference for him in 2018. Gerry’s kept this very simple, so we’re going to respect that by not including any distracting visual images. And thank you Gerry.

 

Thank You High Fives  2018

 

Robert Mueller and the American justice system for giving me hope.

My kids, grandkids and other family for giving me roots.

Ellen for mending my broken wings.

Paul, Tommy and the other fine musicians for polishing my soul.

Geraint, Allan, Bill, Kim, Mike and other promoters, reviewers and stations for making it smile.

 

2018 was a bit of a year, really. There was a strong showing in the first few months of the year and it felt like the early albums would be difficult to beat. Maybe it was a self-fulfilling prophecy or the fact that, for one reason or another, I wasn’t able to review too many albums in the latter part of the year but the early albums were very difficult to beat. I’m only featuring albums that I reviewed here, so great pieces of work like the magnificent Stone Foundation album “Everybody, Anyone” doesn’t get a mention. Oops, it just did. Anyway, as always in no particular order, here are my five favourite albums of the year.

“Southern Wind” – Dean Owens & Will Kimbrough

I’ve been a fan of Dean Owens since my introduction to “New York Hummingbird” six years ago. Dean’s a consistently great performer whose songs cleverly combine universal themes like love and loss with a particularly Scottish outlook. Over the last few years he’s been increasingly involved in collaborations (with Amy Geddes as Redwood Mountain and the upcoming Buffalo Blood album with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt) and “Southern Wind” was a joint project with the superb and in-demand guitarist Will Kimbrough. The album is a classic; there’s no filler and lots of killer and you can clearly hear the influence of the wonderful Ronnie Lane, particularly in “Last Song”. I wasn’t going to single any particular song out, so how come that just happened. It’s a meeting in the mid-Atlantic between Leith and Nashville and it’s a Thing of Beauty.

Here’s the original review.

“Psychopastoral” – Phil Burdett

Coincidentally, I first met Phil Burdett on the same night I met Dean for the first time (this stuff isn’t just thrown together, you know) and they’ve both had very different journeys since then. If I had to pick one word for Phil’s attitude to his music, it’s uncompromising, and I mean that in a very, very good way. His back catalogue is all worth checking out, but his latest project “Psychopastoral” is something else. It’s a song cycle which tells the story of the journey home spread out over 24 hours. Sounds simple? This Phil Burdett. The songs are linked by spoken-word interludes and (courtesy of Lyndon ‘Songdog’ Morgan) and musical fragments created mainly by Senor ‘Al’ Franklinos. I know, it sounds like it could be a bit pretentious, as I said, this is Phil Burdett; it works perfectly. And Phil’s gone one step further than Pink Floyd by making the whole project one massive track nearly an hour long to force listeners to hear the project the way it was intended to be heard. Didn’t think I’d ever write a sentence with Phil Burdett and Pink Floyd in it.

Here’s the original review.

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

We can link this back to Dean Owens as well, because Will Kimbrough plays on this, as he does on a lot of Michael’s recent material. Told you he was in demand. The title song is big in an E Street Band style and, let’s face it, Michael will always get those Springsteen/Dylan comparisons and for all the right reasons. He’s a superb songwriter who understands the American songbook and its highways and byways and isn’t afraid to take a trip down any one of them. The album shifts seamlessly from the pathos of “This World Will Break Your Heart” to the joyful Motown exuberance of “Rubber Band Ring”. I said back in May that I hadn’t heard a better album this year and I stand by that now.

Here’s the original review.

“Anger Management” – Gerry Spehar

I loved Gerry Spehar’s previous album “I hold Gravity”. He’s a natural songwriter with a gift for a telling image. So just combine that gift with an exploration of the state of modern America following the election of Kurious Oranj. It’s political in less direct ways as well; “Bitch Heaven” digs into the story of Woody Guthrie’s campaign against Trump Senior and the Beach Haven property, while “Son of an Immigrant” double-underlines the blindingly obvious truth that the vast majority of Americans are immigrants if you go back far enough, including the current occupant of the White House. It’s an angry album, but Gerry is managing the anger by diverting it into creative channels. This is an important album and we should all listen to it.

Here’s the original review.

“Out Past the Wires” – Rod Picott

OK, quantity isn’t everything, but Rod Picott defied the current trend for shorter albums and EPs by releasing a double album (twenty-two songs in total). If you have the material and it’s good enough, get it out there. It’s good enough, it’s more than good enough. Will Kimbrough plays on it and also Neilson Hubbard (notice a theme here) but it’s not just about the playing arrangements, it’s also about the stories and that’s what Rod Picott is really good at. In fact, the stories are so important that Rod’s also publishing a book following the lives of some of the characters appearing in the songs and that should really be worth reading.

Here’s the original review.

 

OK, I’ll give you this one for free because you’ll never work it out from listening to the album. I don’t think Gerry Spehar likes Donald Trump very much. I’ve heard a few American albums this year that have railed against the state of affairs in America generally and POTUS in particular, but none that have so consistently sustained the attack across a whole album of thirteen songs or, more accurately, twelve songs and a prelude. Gerry’s solo album last year, “I Hold Gravity”, hinted at the power and breadth of “Anger Management” but the actuality is so much more brutal and brilliant.

The album is crammed with compassion, anger, pacifism and scathing attacks on the hypocrisy espoused by America’s current elected elite; 2018 is the year that the protest album finally resurfaced and the timing is perfect.

The album opens with the skewed logic of “Thank You Donald”, set in the immediate aftermath of Trump’s election victory, where a suicidal impulse is overturned by a desire to save family and friends from the impending Trumpquake. It’s set against a traditional string band arrangement featuring banjo and fiddle that creates a comfortable American feel the remainder of the album systematically demolishes.

The arrangements on the album cover a wide variety of musical styles from a wide variety of countries, underlining the impact that outside influences, and immigration, have had on American popular music and society. The impact is underlined in the album’s second song “Son of an Immigrant”, where the occupation of the central character (a policeman) isn’t revealed until more than halfway through the song. The central message of the song is that almost all Americans are immigrants; it just depends how far back you go.

The album seethes with anger at the ills of modern America, the bitter lyrics underpinned by some incredible musical settings. “Carnival” is a perfect example, equating Trump with Lyndon Baines Johnson against a musical setting that evokes cabaret arrangements from 1930s Germany with sour horn fills and wah-wah guitar. It’s a perfect combination, all of the elements emphasising the madness of the present-day USA; laughing at the freakshow as a distraction from the state of the nation. It’s all perfectly summed up by the advice; ‘Just keep on sayin’ the same damn thing and don’t fuck it up.’

Bitch Heaven” is beautifully constructed, contrasting Trump with Woody Guthrie via Trump senior and his property development Beach Haven. Not only does Gerry stand the president nose-to-nose with an almost unimpeachable American musical icon, he also manages to morph the song into the Woody classic “This Land is Your Land”; it’s powerful stuff. And don’t forget the powerful, sarcastic closer “What Would Jesus Do?”, pointing the finger at the double standards and hypocrisy currently infesting Trumpton. In another penetrating insight, the title song nails the distraction technique of medicalising a perfectly natural reaction to events in today’s America.

I’d like you to do two things for me. Listen to this album on this link, and then buy a copy here. We all need to encourage people like Gerry Spehar to create masterpieces like this.

“Anger Management” is released in the UK on Friday 25 May.