Exactly a year ago we published an interview with Gilson Lavis about his second career as an artist, running parallel with his day job as drummer with the Jools Holland Rhythm & Blues Orchestra (and let’s not forget Squeeze, where he got his first taste of fame). The interview concentrated on the upcoming exhibition of his artwork at the Salomon Arts Gallery in New York; a year later it’s time for London to play host to his evocative images. If you missed the interview, here’s a quick recap (with a few examples of Gilson’s work).

As Gilson’s musical career developed, he made use of his leisure time on tour in a constructive way; instead of the usual rock ‘n’ roll recreations, he went back to drawing and painting using the material closest to him; musicians. The day job (particularly with Jools Holland’s Rhythm & Blues Orchestra) gave him the opportunity to see of the world’s greatest musicians at close quarters and he’s made the most of it, creating some fabulous works of art that he’s now exhibiting and selling. In addition to the personally-observed pieces, there are also pieces created from photographs of performers as diverse as Ray Charles, Tony Hancock and Jimi Hendrix.

So, back to 2018 and Gilson has a London exhibition, Gilson Lavis: From Drums to Canvas”, at the Karma Sanctum Soho Hotel from July 5th to August 12th. It’s a must-see event, but don’t take my word for it, here’s Gilson’s take on the exhibition: “I am thrilled to have the opportunity to show some of my artwork at the Karma Sanctum Hotel in Soho. The ethos of the venue and the subject matter I focus on in my paintings combine superbly well. A great venue and a great privilege. I can’t wait !”

My advice is to get down to the Karma Sanctum to see this exhibition; apart from the unbelievable quality of Gilson’s work, you never know who you might bump in to admiring their likeness. And if you bump in to Gilson, say hello to him; he’s a lovely guy and he has a huge store of music business anecdotes.

 

As gigs go, music journalism and photography is about as good as it gets for this ‘wee boy fae East Wemyss’. When you do something for over a decade you’re going to have a few frustrating experiences; what you hope for is that the genuine bangers even up the balance, maybe even tip it into the positive. It’s no exaggeration to say that 2017 has been astonishing year with some moments that would have my eighteen-year-old self wondering how on earth all that happened. But even with the volume anchored at ten, there were some moments when it sneaked up to eleven (‘it’s one higher’). In no particular order, these are some of those moments.

Stone Foundation @Islington Assembly Hall – I’ve been a fan of Stone Foundation since the moment I stuck a promo of their album “To Find the Spirit” in the CD player about four years ago. It hit me with that sucker punch of Hammond and horns from the first bell and followed it up with a hit of pure twenty-first century British soul. I’ve watched as the band’s abilities and sheer bloody hard work have steadily moved them up the rankings. I guess it helps that they’re such a great bunch of people as well.

Their latest album “Street Rituals” was recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studios with Mr Weller guesting on a couple of songs and now they can headline at the bigger London venues. So when they announced a tour gig at Islington Assembly Hall, it looked like a reasonably good punt for a Paul Weller guest appearance, the odds shortening when, collecting my photo pass, I discovered that access to the pit was for the entire set. It wasn’t just limited to one Magic Moment either. Not only did PW join the band to take the lead vocal on the gorgeous “Your Balloon is Rising”, he also appeared later for a cracking version of “What’s Goin’ On” (with a hint of “Something in the Air”). Not only two great performances that might never be repeated, but one of my favourite photos of the year (above). More SF to come…

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes @The Forum, Kentish Town – I first heard Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in 1977 and I was hooked instantly. I’ve never fallen out of love with that voice and the sound of that band (Hammond and horns again, with big rock guitars as well), but I could never have imagined the first time I heard “The Fever” it would mean the start of a long-term relationship rather than a one-night stand. Fast-forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century and things get a bit intense – I was asked to do some green room shots of Gilson Lavis presenting Southside with a pen and ink portrait of himself he’d done a few months before. And then I was asked to interview Gilson about his upcoming New York art exhibition and to take some photos of the gig.

I was in the green room with one of my all-time heroes and his incredible band, shooting the breeze and listening as the band arranged a guest performance with Gilson before being thanked by one of the band for a review I’d written of his side project. HTF did that happen? And then they went on to play a storming set with Gilson guesting on “Key to the Highway”. I still can’t believe it.

Stone Foundation @The Empire – This one’s easy; you can get all the background above. No surprises this time, I knew from the off that Graham Parker was the support for this gig. I’ve always been a huge fan and I was at the gig with my old friend and sometime MusicRiot contributor Steve Jenner and his lovely wife Sue. While I was backstage sorting out my accreditation, I bumped in to Neil Sheasby, bass player and co-songwriter with Stone Foundation, who was also having a ‘pinch myself’ moment because Graham Parker had brought along Dave Robinson, former Stiff Records supremo, who was regaling the band with his seventies music business stories.. One of the things I was sorting out backstage was photo pit access. I mentioned earlier that SF had allowed access for the whole gig in Islington; This time they went one better; they highlighted the songs that would feature guest appearances later in the set and ensured that that the photographers had pit access. That’s proper attention to detail.

The real magic moment came towards the end of the evening with a guest vocal by Graham Parker on his old Ann Peebles cover “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”. Magical because of a stunning performance by everyone on stage, but also because GP hasn’t played with a horn section in years and he’s said GP and The Rumour will never play live again. And a big shout to Jalen N’Gonda, the first support act (who was superb in a Marvin Gaye-style) and popped up during “What’s Goin’ On”. These guys know what they’re doing.

Hannah Aldridge & Jetbone @Windlestock – The night after the gig above as it happens with the same audience plus Mrs M, who can go out because it’s not a school night. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Aldridge. She writes powerful and moving songs, she has an incredible voice and she has those cheekbones. I never get tired of photographing Hannah; it’s a different visual image every time, but that bone structure is always there. Anyway, this time she’d brought along Jetbone from Sweden to play a support of their blues-inflected Southern boogie and as her backing band.

I love a chance to photograph artists in different environments and this was a great opportunity. Towards the end of the set Hannah put her guitar to one side (got my interest already), picked up a tambourine (camera in hand) and went into full Janis Joplin mode (jeez, never thought I’d see that). It was a night packed with stunningly good performances (including the opening set by Rebecca Reidtmann), but the tambourine thing made my night.

Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band (private gig) – I had a significant birthday a few days ago and invited a couple of bands, Deep Blue Sea and Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band to play at the event. They were both superb. I’ve seen Dana a couple of times and the band is great, the original songs are superb and she knows how to deliver a powerful cover. Now these gigs are difficult, because audience chatter (seriously frowned upon I serious music venues, and rightly so) is almost inevitable as people catch and are perhaps introduced for the first time. Dana and the band took it in their stride and won over a crowd that ranged in ages from three (my great-nephew, who was completely smitten) to eighty-one (my mum and mother-in-law).
They took a short break after a storming first set and returned for a second set with an audience that was particularly noisy. With no introduction they launched into an almost a cappella (a little percussion) two-part harmony version of the Janis Joplin classic “Mercedes Benz” which completely silenced the audience and immediately dragged attention back to the stage. Unconventional certainly, but they had the audience eating out of their hands after that. I’ve seen a lot of classic pieces of stagecraft, but that was probably the finest.

If you’ve got any moments like those that you want to share with us, message us on the Facebook page or email musicriotboy@gmail.com. And thanks for following us.

Gilson scrollerBy an interesting series of coincidences, I found myself backstage at a Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes gig at The Forum in Kentish Town pointing the trusty MusicRiot microphone in the direction of Gilson Lavis. If you have any interest at all in popular music, you must have heard of Gilson in one of his two musical careers; he’s a great and highly respected drummer but I wasn’t there to talk about his music; we don’t do the obvious stuff like that at MusicRiot. I was there to talk to Gilson about art. There’s a reference at the end to Johnny stealing my thunder; he voicebombed the interview about a third of the way in to talk to Gilson about how much he loved Squeeze. 

Allan Hi Gilson. Some of us know you as the drummer in Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, The older ones know you as the drummer in Squeeze, but now you’ve got a new career as an artist, so how did that start?

Gilson Well, it started out of boredom really. I lead a pretty clean life these days; I don’t drink or any of the other stuff, thankfully and hanging about on the road or hanging about in hotel rooms, I’ve been doing it for about fifty years now, and it started to get a bit wearing, so I started to doodle and the doodles turned in to sketches and the sketches turned into paintings and now the paintings have turned into exhibitions. So it just sort of grew really and I’m in a very privileged position because with my position in the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra we get to play with some of the world’s best entertainers and performers and I see them close at hand and I try and paint them, and I think I can capture some of the real essence of the person.

Allan You had an art school background didn’t you? Did you continue to draw after you left art school and joined Squeeze?

Gilson No, I went straight into music, the driving force being sex; I wanted to pick up girls. It never really worked, but I got into the music business and I’m still doing that so the art was just put away really. I didn’t pick up a sketch pad or an easel or a paintbrush until about ten years ago, when I started again.

Allan Do you think you choose your subjects or do you think they choose you?

Gilson It’s a mixture of both really. As I said, I tend to sketch and paint people that I work with and sometimes I’ll get inspired by an image I see of somebody and I’ll paint from that, but really it’s working with these people that’s the driving force.

Allan You’re working mainly in acrylic on canvas aren’t you? Do you work in any other media?

Gilson Yeah, I do. I do ink sketches. That’s really what I do on the road, sketch in ink, but when I’m at home, I’ve got a large studio and my own gallery, so I paint at home and sketch on the road.

Allan In the creative process, do you have certain steps that you follow? I’m thinking of the preparation; I saw the Louis Armstrong sketch that you did and obviously you couldn’t do that from life so presumably you researched that online.

Gilson I do actually. A lot of the people I’ve painted or sketched, they’re too busy to sit for me; they’re not going to come round to my house and sit, so I do have to sketch from images. I try to take photographs when I’m working with them and sketch or paint from those, but it’s not always possible, because some of these people like Louis are no longer with us, I have to research them and I look for images that are inspiring and I tend to blend three or four images to get the look that I’m searching for, so it sort of grows.

Allan I’ve met quite a lot of musicians who have other artistic pursuits, painting, photography and so on. Do you think it’s a bit of a release valve?

Gilson I’m sure it is, it absolutely is. Though it’s a real privilege to work with the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra; it’s high profile and we play big venues, but it is quite a restrictive environment. I’m there to make Jools sound good, I’m there to make the big band work, I’m not really cutting loose on what I want to do and the painting really allows me to be creative. 

Allan So the band becomes the day job and your creative outlet is the painting.

Gilson But it’s a very enjoyable day job, I’m in a very privileged position.

Allan I’m fascinated by the paintings and the way they reflect the personalities of the people you’ve portrayed and it struck me that they’re not hyper-realistic, but they’re a long way from caricature, aren’t they? The one that particularly struck me, and I wonder how people will react to it, was Keith Moon, because he has a really serene look in that portrait.

Gilson Well, thank you. There are many, many images of Keith being crazy, that’s what he’s famous for, but I really wanted that sort of innocence of the young lad before he went on that crazy journey. I think that’s what I was aiming for, that innocent, lost look, not even knowing what’s going on. What went on of course was craziness and death in the long run.

 Allan That was what immediately grabbed me about that particular image, the innocence. I understand that you’ve got a book of some of your images out as well.

Gilson Do you mean the one with the drummer portraits?

Allan That’s the one.

Gilson It was released two months ago actually. It’s eighteen portraits of drummers that have influenced me with a short snippet of a quote by each of them. I was asked many times, who influenced me as a drummer and eventually I thought “I know, I’ve got a good idea, what I’ll do is I’ll paint my influences and put them in a book” and it seems to have worked really well, it’s popular and it’s selling quite well, I’m pleased to say. It’s called “Drummers” by Gilson Lavis.

Allan I understand there’s an exhibition coming up in New York as well.

Gilson There is, yeah, at the Salomon Arts Gallery in Tribeca and it opens on the fourteenth of September. I’m really excited about it; I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few exhibitions in Great Britain but this’ll be the first in New York and I’m really excited by it and a bit nervous, to be honest, because we’re all deeply insecure, us painters, we’re all waiting to be laughed at.

Allan I think photographers are exactly the same. Your career must have had so many highlights, is there anything that really stands out in your memory as a real high point?

Gilson Yes, there is. It was when I was fortunate enough to get the phone call to play drums with Smokey Robinson on Later and on rhythm was Eric Clapton, Jools Holland on piano and Dave Swift on bass and me on drums. In fact there’s a little story about that, we were there, Eric, myself and Jools were there ready to rehearse with Smokey and he was flying in from America and it got to his allotted rehearsal time and we got the message he was a bit tired so he’ll be here in a couple of hours. We all downed tools and waited and then he didn’t show up, he was still a bit tired, and the show started to be recorded and we still hadn’t seen him and I’m sitting behind the drum kit and Eric’s looking a bit sort of worried. We knew the song, everybody know Smokey’s songs. The band before us was playing and thirty seconds before they finished, Smokey Robinson walked out on to the set and I’ve never seen anybody look more like a star than he did; he glistened. His skin was beautiful, his hair was just perfect, he had an incredibly dapper suit; he walked out and I counted the song in and we played it and he was just magnificent and then he turned round and nodded at Eric, he ignored me completely but I don’t mind and off he went and that was it, that was my experience of Smokey Robinson. But it was fantastic, it was a real buzz to play with one of my heroes, and there have been many.

Allan Johnny actually stole my thunder earlier because I was going to say at the end, did you know that Johnny’s a big fan of Squeeze and Jeff Kazee’s also a huge Squeeze fan.

Gilson I didn’t know. I had no idea.

And with that, we had to clear out of the Jukes’ dressing room as the band prepared for the show, but not before Gilson presented Johnny with an ink portrait of Mr Lyon himself. A couple of hours later, Gilson joined The Jukes on stage, taking the drum stool for “Key to the Highway”. And here’s the Keith Moon portrait:

Keith Moon Gilson portrait

Horns ScrollerWant to know why Southside Johnny still has a fanatical fanbase after over forty years? It’s really simple: he has a stellar group of musicians working with him, they have a lot of fun, and the audience never knows what’s coming next. There are a few songs that are non-negotiable, but for the remainder of the set it’s like “Thunderbirds”; anything can happen. Where else would you hear someone drop a verse of the Ramones classic “I Wanna be Sedated” in the middle of an instrumental break. And, talking of surprises, who expected Gilson Lavis (Squeeze and the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra) to make a guest appearance for the blues classic “Key to the Highway”? And did you know that Johnny and Jeff Kazee are huge fans of Squeeze?

It isn’t just about Southside Johnny; it’s about a group of eight people who are very good at what they do – take a bow Jeff Kazee (keys), John Conte (bass), Tom Seguso (drums), Glenn Alexander (guitar), John Isley (tenor sax), Chris Anderson (trumpet) and Neal Pawley (trombone) – and to enjoy every minute of it. They can all sing, so the harmonies are spectacular, and they’re a band, not eight individuals (don’t take my word for it, read Jay Lustig’s just-published interview with the man himself).

Now if you come to a Jukes show expecting a carefully-choreographed run-through of the same songs they played last night, and the night before and so on, you came to the wrong show. The audience at a Jukes show expects to be surprised, they expect randoms (though I bet not too many expected “I Wanna be Sedated”) and they want the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Hell, most of the band don’t even know that. And what they got, from the piano intro and horn riff of “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” was about 135 minutes of old songs, new songs, Lyon/Kazee songs, Little Steven songs, covers, blistering solos from the horns, guitar and keys and just enough quiet moments to offer a contrast to the power of the rest of the set.

And standouts for the night? Well, they hit the ground running with punchy versions of two early classics, “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” and “This Time It’s for Real” and then time-warped forward forty years to “Spinning” from “Soultime” and for over two hours it was a roller-coaster; all killer, no vanilla. You wanted blues; you got it. You wanted soul; you got it. You wanted rock; you got it. You got a singer who’s been in the business over forty years and still wants to go out every night and give every audience a unique experience aided and abetted by the best band in the business. It really doesn’t get any better than that, and every UK gig now is a bonus; make the most of it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes – living legends.

You can see the photos from the gig here.