We’ve been keeping Allan really busy this year forcing him to go and listen to loads of live music and take pictures of musicians. We really don’t know why he puts up with it. To show how grateful he is, he’s put together a highlights package of his favourite gigs this yeqr, in no particular order. We think it’s a sneaky way of shoehorning more of his photos in.

Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro at Camden Forge – I’ve seen Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro before. They’re stunningly good individually, but more so as a team; the two voices, Daniel’s upright bass and Martin’s acoustic guitar and Weissenborn are a perfect combination. Even the verbal sparring between songs adds to the entertainment. As an added bonus, The Forge has a gallery overlooking the stage that they allow polite photographers to use, which gives a unique view of instruments played on the lap. The two sets flew by as the moved seamlessly from originals like “Winter Coat” to energetic covers like “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”. I knew it was special when I looked at my gig-buddy Paul and saw him staring in awe during one of Martin’s solos – he’s not easily impressed and that’s high praise indeed. Great songs and great performances.

Martin Harley

 

Hannah Aldridge and Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band @What’s Cookin’ – It’s an interesting venue in a room above a working men’s club in Leytonstone, but it’s only a bus ride away from home, so it’s a no-brainer. Now, I take every opportunity to see Hannah Aldridge. She’s a gifted songwriter with a powerful Southern rock voice and she’s someone I love to photograph because she has a different visual image every time. The night looked even better when I discovered that the headliners hadn’t turned up and the short-notice replacement was Dana Immanuel. Hannah did a great job, picking songs from her latest album “Gold Rush” and a few old favourites to win over the crowd and even managed to fit in a bit of audience participation during “Burning Down Birmingham” and then it was time for Dana Immanuel. The instrumentation of the all-female line-up gives a hint of the eclecticism to come – cajon, electric guitar, banjo, fiddle and upright bass. It’s part country, part klezmer, part pop, part rock – you name it. Dana’s own songs have a very original voice and she doesn’t mind throwing in a cover or two including a mad closing version of “Viva Las Vegas” and “Chocolate Jesus” (again). The band was so good, I booked them to play at my birthday party.

Hannah Aldridge

Michael McDermott & Heather Horton @Water Rats – You can find Michael McDermott’s history online; it’s worth reading because it gives some clues about the origins of his most recent songs. The two albums he released in 2016 are superb, one focussing on prison, addiction and the road to recovery, the other dealing more with life in the present as a sober father and husband. I’d seen Michael before playing a solo show, but this was great opportunity to see him with his wife Heather, who also did a support set. The addition of Heather’s vocals and fiddle to Michael’s vocals, piano and guitar added another dimension to the songs adding poignancy to “Shadow in the Window” energy to “Stolen Car” and joy and exuberance to “Willie Rain”. Michael’s a great songwriter in the mould of Dylan and Springsteen (with a bit of the Boss’s penchant for the wide screen) and working with Heather he creates a very intense performance. I’m guessing he’ll be back in the UK in 2018; you really should make the effort to see him.

Michael McDermott

Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough with Dean Owens @Green Note – A big night out for the Riot Squad, this one. Brigitte and Will are long-time songwriting partners and Dean and Will have collaborated on an album to be released in 2018. For fans of trivia and connections, Will also played on Michael McDermott’s Westies album “Six on the Out”. Dean played his usual excellent set with a little help from the headliners before Will and Brigitte did their thing. Will’s known as an extraordinary guitar player with a huge list of session credits, but he also has a great line in high harmonies – I’ve been lucky with the talented partnerships I’ve seen this year. The set featured mainly songs from the latest album and was a masterclass in understated delivery of great songs, particularly when they were joined by Dean for some beautiful three-part harmonies. Absolutely gorgeous.

Brigitte DeMeyer

Henrik Freischlader @The Borderline – This was the second time in a year I had seen Henrik, and it was very different. Earlier in the year it was as part of a trio playing some intense blues rock as a tribute to Gary Moore, this time it was as part of an eight-piece band out to have a good time, play a few originals, a lot of covers and generally take the focus away from Henrik by giving the whole band a little bit of the limelight. Every band member was either given an extended solo or featured vocal and a chance to show what they could really do, and they each grabbed it with both hands. It was one of those gigs where everyone, band and audience, could do nothing but grin all the way home. A pretty good result considering the band couldn’t get their gear truck into the load in, had to hire equipment locally and didn’t get a soundcheck. That’s how the pros deals with setbacks.

Editor’s note – Martin Harley has booked The Union Chapel to promote his own gig on Saturday March 10th. He’s taking a huge risk to play a venue he’s always wanted to play and we think he deserves some support. The Riot Squad will be there, we’re hoping you will too.

Willow Springs ScrollerIt’s only a few weeks since I was raving about the latest album from Michael McDermott’s band The Westies and he’s now releasing an album under his own name using most of the same musicians that played on The Westies album. Let me just cut straight to the chase here and say that “Willow Springs” is every bit as good as “Six on the Out”. It’s packed with powerful songs and creative but unfussy playing from Heather Horton, Will Kimbrough and John Deaderick; it’s every bit as powerful as “Six on the Out”, but “Willow Springs” is a very different musical approach to similar themes.

The album has a more intimate feel than the companion piece by The Westies; the album credits don’t list a drummer and although “Let A Little Light In” has all the punch of a mid-eighties Springsteen anthem, it’s not typical of the album. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, but also some subversive touches like adding synth pads to fill out the sound. There’s a desire not to be stereotyped and packaged, which is explicit in “Folksinger” particularly.

“Willow Springs” is, more than anything else, a deeply personal album, springing from a turbulent period around the death of Michael McDermott’s father. There are references to his heritage on “Six on the Out”, but here it’s right out in the open. “Shadow in the Window” is a painful look at the death of a parent and the soul-searching that follows in its wake. The song ends with the keening repetition of ‘I Love you’ gradually fading and slowing before “Willie Rain” opens with the spoken ‘I love you Daddy’ leading in to a relentlessly upbeat stringband arrangement of a song about his daughter. Placing the two songs together demonstrates the circle of life and the ultimately uplifting feel of the album. There are sombre tales, plumbing the depths of addiction (“Butterfly”) and small-time larceny (“Getaway Car”), but the final two songs of the album both look to the future with optimism.

It’s almost inevitable that Michael McDermott will be compared with Dylan, Springsteen and others; maybe that’s flattering but it’s not the whole picture. When he writes, sometimes in a very matter-of-fact way about gangsters, prison and drugs, you know it’s coming from first-hand experience. “Willow Springs” is the sound of that experience being processed and used up before moving on to the next stage; it never sounds less than authentic. Maybe the time has come for the next American songwriter.

“Willow Springs” is released on Friday July 22nd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records. Michael McDermott will be touring the UK later this year.

And if you won’t take my word for it, have a look at the video for the title track:

The Westies - 'Six On The Out' - cover (300dpi)It might be a bit premature to say this in May, but “Six on the Out” is already a strong candidate for my album of the year. Michael McDermott’s dark urban poetry of the dispossessed, the dying and the damned is big and ambitious piece of work. The characters that inhabit the songs live in a twilight zone where ‘The flawed and the favoured, the outlaws, the saviours, all work both sides of the line’ and there’s always a risk of paying with your liberty or your life. There are elements of autobiography, but they’re used as jumping-off points to create alternative pasts and futures where single decisions change the course of many lives. It’s harrowing and the pathos is almost unbearable at times; it’s the work of someone who’s been there and lived to tell the tale.

If you want to know where he’s been, have a look at the bio page on his website and you’ll start to get some idea. The core of The Westies is Michael McDermott and his wife Heather Horton, who plays fiddle and takes the lead vocal on the beautiful, sixties-sounding, “Like You Used To” which is immediately answered by McDermott’s exhilarating, Dylan-channelling “Everything is All I Want for You”. Along with the folky ballad “Henry McCarty”, McDermott’s take on the Billy the Kid story, the three songs in the middle of the album are an interlude offering a contrast with the despair of opening and closing songs.

The album opens with “If I Had a Gun”; subtly menacing acoustic and slide guitars create a brooding atmosphere for the first of several takes on the prisoner returning to society (“Parolee”, “Once Upon a Time”, “This I Know” and “Sirens” all explore different aspects of the same theme). It sets the tone for the album; you can deal with it, but you have to make the right choices. It’s only on the album’s bleak closer “Sirens” that McDermott allows the despair to triumph, but it’s only one of the possible outcomes of life in the margins; you can choose but the consequences are with you forever.

The musical stylings range from the full-band sound of “Pauper’s Sky” and “Santa Fe”, with drums and pounding bass evoking eighties American rock, to the lilting Celtic folk of the waltz-time “The Gang’s All Here” and the dovetail perfectly with the lyrical themes. Michael McDermott’s influences illuminate the album but he’s taken those and his own experiences to create a powerful piece of work that tells of desperate times and people without either condemning or praising. It’s not comfortable, and you’ll feel wrung out by the time “Sirens” ends but you’ll want to hear it again.

“Six on the Out” is released on June 3rd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records.

Michael McDermott will touring in the UK later in the year.