Cream of the CropYou have to wonder how Henrik Freischlader spends his spare time, or if he actually has any. Over the last twelve months, he’s released two self-produced studio albums, a four-CD live set and he’s produced albums for singer-songwriter Layla Zoe (“The Lily”) and now this album from saxophonist and singer Tommy Schneller. He also plays guitar drums and bass on “The Lily” and “Cream of the Crop” while providing the music for Tommy Schneller’s lyrics. He’s done a few tours in support of his own albums as well.

Tommy Schneller’s “Cream of the Crop” is a few steps away from Henrik’s own blues/rock material, with a much greater emphasis on influences from the early rock and pre-rock years in the playing and the arrangements, particularly the use of the three-piece horn section. This album feels a little like a Tommy Schneller showcase, demonstrating his instrumental ability as well as a gruff blues voice, both of which work well across the wide range of styles on display. The album is built around some superb arrangements (particularly for the horns) which sound authentic in each of the styles tackled. Henrik Freischlader’s guitar, bass and drums are augmented by Gregory Barrett (organ), Gary Winters (trumpet), Dieter Kuhlmann (trombone) and a cameo appearance by Moritz Fuhrhop (organ) on the opening track.

The album opens and closes with the straightforward slow blues songs, “Hands in the Air” and “You Don’t Seem to Care” which feature the quality of blues playing we’ve come to expect from Henrik. “She’s So Good to Me” and “Super Hero” are both big seventies-style tunes with classic horn arrangements by Gary Winters which wouldn’t sound out of place on any of the early Southside Johnny albums. Sandwiched between these songs is the title track, a swing pastiche with bragging lyrics which don’t really belong in the twenty-first century.  Ain’t No Maybe” and “What Did I Do” push the funk buttons quite effectively but there are three remaining songs which all stand out for different reasons.  Isn’t it New” is a great pop song complete with a perfect sing-along chorus, while the minor key “Your Somebody Else” (and that’s not a punctuation error on my part or Tommy Schneller’s) features some wonderful guitar lines in the style of Albert Collins and a breathy sax solo from Tommy.  Higher and Higher” has a funky, almost seventies disco, feel and a completely mad instrumental section with the horns having great fun ripping through several stlyes  and a trucker’s gear change before leading back in to the verse.

There are some great moments on this album and I certainly want see the band live on the strength of this; the musicianship is flawless and it feels like the musicians are having fun.  There are a few great moments but I think the album would be better if Tommy Schneller was looking forward rather than back and if the band were doing what they want to do rather than showing what they can do.  If you like your songs served up with Hammond and horns, this is definitely worth a listen.

Out now on Cable Car Records (CCR 0311-43).

The Smokehouse SessionsAs you can see from the star rating at the top of the page, I have some problems with this album.  The problems aren’t with the quality of the performances because, predictably, those are all very good, particularly Saiichi Sugiyama and the singer Rietta Austin, who are both superb throughout.  The problems I have are about why the album was ever released, and if it’s actually an album in any real sense.  It’s only seven songs long and four of those songs have appeared (in different versions) on earlier studio albums, while the remaining three are third-generation (at least) covers of blues standards.

The story behind the album is that “The Smokehouse Sessions” started out as a demo video project which was recorded live in the studio.  I’m totally supportive of bands who rehearse a full album’s worth of material before recording live; it brings an immediacy that it’s difficult to replicate with multi-track techniques (although I might make an exception for Henrik Freischlader).  That wasn’t what happened here; someone listened to the final mixes of the project and decided that this was worthy of release as an album.

I’ve tried listening to this on a couple of reasonably decent audio systems and I still have to say that the rhythm section sounds really murky.  To make the problem even worse, this is most noticeable on “Somewhere down the Road”, the first track on the album; it’s really difficult to recover from that kind of start.  I appreciate that, in the current situation in the music industry, it’s crucial to make the most of every opportunity, but I really don’t believe this deserves to be a full album release.  As I said earlier, this is no criticism of the performances, particularly those of Saiichi Sugiyama and Rietta Austin.  If these seven tracks were released as part of a limited edition disc, it might be justifiable, but this just isn’t on.

If you want to really appreciate Saiichi Sugiyama, then listen to the studio albums, “Saiichi Sugiyama”, “So Am I” or “Saiichi”.  Even better, you could go along to a live show and see what he can really do.  This might be one for the committed or the late 60s/early 70s blues revivalists, but I don’t think it’s going to win any new fans.

Release date 27/01/14 on Cedar Mountain Music (CMM 25-5762).

Night Train to BudapestYou certainly can’t accuse Henrik Freischlader of taking time out in 2013.  After the release of the superb “House in the Woods” in September 2012, he took his band on tour over the winter to support the album.  When that tour finished he went to live in the studio for a few months to produce his four-CD live album, play virtually all the instruments on, and produce Layla Zoe’s album “The Lily”.  After that, he went on to record this album, “Night Train to Budapest” which was released in December 2013; he did some shows to promote this album as well.  Henrik is self-taught and plays guitar, bass, drums and organ; he also has a great blues/soul voice and writes powerful songs in a second language.

Following the “live band” approach he adopted for his previous studio album, “House in the Woods”, Henrik has reverted to his favoured studio approach with “Night Train to Budapest”, playing all the parts himself with the exception of keyboards which are played by his live collaborator Moritz Fuhrhop.  The album begins in the way you would expect, with “Point of View”’s blistering riff and powerhouse solo before shifting through a wide variety of blues-rock stylings and even a ballad, the acoustic-led “Caroline”, which would sound at home on a 70s American west coast album, although it really didn’t need the trucker’s gear change for the last chorus.

There are a few funky blues tunes, “Gimme All you Got” and “A Better Man” (which has more than a touch of Ike and Tina’s “Nutbush City Limits”), the mid-tempo riff-driven “Down the Road”, “Everything is Gone” and “Shame” and the reggae-tingedf “If This Ain’t Love” with its clean chords and over-driven lead guitar.

There are a couple of slow blues songs which demonstrate the control and finesse of Henrik’s vocals and playing.  “Thinking About You” is a relationship breakdown song with washes of controlled feedback as the song builds to a climax, while “My Woman” is very slow with a minimal arrangement held together by Moritz Fuhrhop’s Hammond chords, leaving plenty of space to emphasise Henrik’s powerful, clean guitar work.  The album closes with the slow, brooding (almost one-chord) menace of “Your Loving was so Good” after just over an hour and eleven very good songs.

It’s a very good album, but that’s what you would expect from a Henrik Freischlader studio effort.  His songwriting seems to be taking a more introspective direction over the last two studio albums, with an increased emphasis on loss and loneliness in the lyrics, but it is the blues after all.  If you like blues and blues/rock, then I’m pretty certain you’ll like this.  If you don’t like those styles, it’s still worth a listen because of the quality of the performances and the songwriting.

Out now on Cable Car Records (CCR 0311-42).

So, how was 2013 for you?  The Riot Squad have had a brilliant year bringing you the best in contemporary music wherever we find it.  Allan, John, Klare and Louie have reviewed some exceptional live and recorded music throughout the year and we all thank you for reading our reviews and looking at our photos.  We couldn’t resist this opportunity to remind you of some of the artists we reviewed for the first time in 2013.

We saw live performances by the Emile Gerber Band (which became Stoneface Travellers), Henrik Freischlader, Josephine, Marcus Bonfanti (solo and with his band), The Kennedys, Federal Charm (twice), Black Casino & The Ghost, Coco and the Butterfields (several times), The Dirt Tracks, Carrie Rodriguez, Aynsley Lister, Civil Protection, Wheatus, Dean Owens and Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion.  Quite a selection, really.

We reviewed albums and singles by Henrik Freischlader, Marcus Bonfanti, Sally Shapiro, Tomorrow’s World, Black Casino & The Ghost, Jimmy Livingstone, Austra, Tess of the Circle, Aynsley Lister, The Nyco Project, The Dirt Tracks, Nadine Shah, Sullivn,  Radio (in my) Head, Tal National, Layla Zoe, Kinver, Au Revoir Simone, DENA, Hartebeest, Polly Scattergood, Glasser, Annie, Emika and John Grant and probably a few others as well.  Along the way we had some great fun and met some lovely people; you all know who you are, and we’re hoping to meet most of you again this year.

Looking forward to 2014, we’re hoping for more of the same.  The review copies are already coming in and it’s starting to look pretty good already.  Over the next few weeks, we’ll be sharing some of our predictions for 2014 from the Riot Squad and possibly from a few guest contributors as well.  And, while we’re on the subject of guest contributions, many thanks to Aynsley Lister, Steve Jenner, Marcus Bonfanti and Billie Ray Martin for their contributions to our High Fives feature last year.

It’s been an exciting year, particularly for live music, so my high 5 features 4 live acts, 2 of which I’ve previously reviewed for Music Riot, apologies for any repetition.  Here goes (in no particular order):

Angélique Kidjo HFAngelique Kidjo Live at the Brighton Festival

 Angelique Kidjo has taken over the mantle of Queen of African music, from the late, great Miriam Makeba and with today’s media has probably spread her reach further, having collaborated with dozens of Western bands and musicians.  The festival concert at The Dome was the first time I have seen her in an indoor venue and the containment worked very well for the atmosphere.  Kidjo criss-crossed between traditional forms and pop styles to great effect singing in four of her fluent languages, with an easy wit and story-telling in English.  As well as her extensive back-catalogue, she covered Hendrix’s “Voodoo Child” and Santana among others, but it was Makeba’s “Pata Pata” that got the crowd to their feet and she had them dancing for the rest of the show; everyone left with a smile on their face.

Lucinda Williams HFLucinda Williams Live at the Brighton Festival

 Lucinda Williams at the Brighton Dome was a very different proposition, intimate and largely downbeat.  She took to the stage with her ballad book from over the years and largely stuck to it.  With a backing band of just two, her guitar playing was a feature as well as her husky voice.  Although, she somehow managed to avoid playing my favourite tracks I was introduced to others from her catalogue and it was a great show for the festival goers, many of whom were not long-term fans.  Those expecting the most recent album ‘Blessed’ were disappointed however as she skipped it completely, this was a festival set, but one that left you with the sense of what a fantastic veteran singer-song writer Lucinda is.

CATBCoco & The Butterfields Live at The Blind Tiger Club

 Coco & The Butterfields are a newish delightfully up-beat, festival-ready band of real musicians from Canterbury.  They feature a unique blend of instruments including banjo and violin; percussion and drums are played entirely by vocal beat-box.  They played a lively and eclectic set, featuring tweaked covers from Dolly Parton and Supertramp to Flo Rida & T-Pain.  But it was their set of original material, such as ‘Astronaut’ and ‘Warriors’ that got the locals dancing.  The energy was huge for a small band in a small venue with, sadly, a small audience.  Let’s hope C&TB reach further in 2014…

The LilyLayla Zoe – The Lily

 The Lily was the first material I had heard from Canadian Blues trooper Layla Zoe and what an introduction to her 7-album catalogue.  This album is a collaboration with Henrik Freischlader, a German multi-instrumentalist and guitar trail-blazer, whose searing blues is the perfect accompaniment to Layla’s original voice.  Although it is very positive and reflective blues, an interesting development for the genre, this album is very deeply felt.  Tracks include those about ex-lovers and her Father as well as a couple of cover versions.  Layla is planning to gig here in the UK in 2014 and I’m planning to see her beautiful blues live then.

Boy George HFBoy George Live at the Concorde 2

 Boy George has certainly lived the life, from drug-use to DJ to internment and it shows in his husky voice, which surprised me by sounding stronger live than it sounds on “This Is What I Do”, the new album he was promoting in this compact but versatile venue.  He and his band, including brass, played the entirety of that album of country-tinged, low-slung reggae as well as most of the Culture Club hits that made him famous in the 80’s.  A very tender version of ‘Victims’ was almost sabotaged by the noisy crowd and I’ve seen George in a better mood, but overall this was a concert offering variety and depth.  It was great to see George out from behind the decks and back in the limelight.

I love this; it’s time for the High Fives again and it’s a very different challenge this year with my live selections.  I had to work really hard to bring this down to just five gigs, but I think this just about sums it up.  In no particular order, here they are.

The Kennedys @Kings Place

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis was one of the many venues I visited for the first time this year and it was a perfect place to see Pete and Maura Kennedy live proving that you can create musical perfection with just two guitars and two voices.  As well as having a stack of their own songs to create a set from (with plenty of input from the audience) they very generously feature songs by other writers and give the audience plenty of background about the songs and writers as well.  I know you’ll find this difficult to believe, but they also did something that left me speechless; Pete played a ukulele version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” which was stunning.  And I got to hear a live version of “Big Star Song” which had been impossible to get out of my head after reviewing the album.  And they are two genuinely lovely people.

08) Federal CharmFederal Charm and Southside Johnny @The Apex, Bury St Edmunds

Predictable, me?  The truth is, I’ve seen Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes dozens of times and I’ve never seen a bad gig.  I’ve also never seen anything resembling the same set twice.  But I’m getting ahead of myself.  We got to the venue just as the support band, Federal Charm, were starting their set and the impact was instant; frontmen Nick Bowden and Paul Bowe trading riffs and solos under Nick’s incredibly powerful lead vocal.  They’ve got self-assurance by the bucketload and a bunch of great songs as well.  And that was just the support act.  Southside Johnny, surrounded by a bunch of Jukes that have been playing as a unit for a few years now, looked more relaxed than I’ve seen him in years and sounded better than ever.  They played a set that wasn’t too reliant on the old classics, but was still appreciated by the old fans.  As always, the audience (and most of the band) had no idea where the set was going next and we loved it.

Dean Owens @The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham

Dean OwensYou might have noticed that the Riot Squad are big fans of Dean Owens.  We’ve been telling you about his albums for a couple of years now but, living in London, it’s a bit of a challenge seeing a live show; luckily we like a challenge and the first one was getting the squad from various parts of London and the south-east to Twickenham on a Friday evening.  When we finally made it, the venue was perfect; intimate with a nice sound system and a very appreciative audience.  Ags Connolly (whose debut album on Drumfire Records was produced by Dean) opened the show with a strong bunch of songs before Dean delivered a great set built around the “Cash Back” album with loads of songs from earlier albums and audience requests thrown in.  It’s worth adding that Dean has a very dry sense of humour and the audience interaction between songs was great fun as well.  Top night and many thanks to Phil Penman and Drumfire for keeping the faith.

Marcus Bonfanti

10) Marcus BonfantiMarcus Bonfanti is the British blues equivalent of the Duracell bunny; he never stops working.  During 2013, he released an album and did a solo acoustic tour and a full band tour to promote the album.  I was lucky enough to see an acoustic show (in the unlikely environment of a casino in the West End) and a full band show in The Borderline.  Both gigs were excellent and Marcus is a superb blues player and singer with a great line in self-deprecatory chat and humour between songs.  The highlight of each set was the wonderful “The Bittersweet”, one of the best new songs from any genre I’ve heard this year. All of the songs are so strong that they worked perfectly in a solo setting and with the full band; spot on musically and great fun as well.

 

Carrie Rodriguez @The Old Queen’s Head, Islington

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet another venue that I haven’t visited before; this is a room above a pub with a capacity of about eighty.  Yet again, the sound system was spot-on and the audience were very appreciative as Carrie, accompanied by Luke Jacobs (and playing between them fiddle, tenor guitar, acoustic and electric guitars and lap steel) rattled through two sets of songs taken mainly from her current album, “Give Me All You Got”, with some old favourites thrown in as well.  The songs were very high quality, the playing and vocals were superb, and Carrie and Luke’s easy relationship with the audience made this a superb night.

It wasn’t easy picking just five great live shows from the many I’ve seen this year and I should really give a mention to some of the others who didn’t quite make the list.  I saw great sets this year from Coco and the Butterfields, Henrik Freischlader, Billy Walton (four times), Paul Rose, Aynsley Lister, Elvis Costello, Civil Protection and Bruce Springsteen, but the five I’ve chosen here are the ones which surprised and delighted me.

 

The LilyFor the uninitiated, Layla Zoe is an accomplished Canadian singer-songwriter who has conquered much of Europe with her unique take on the blues.  But there is none of the ‘poor me’ blues here, the writing is both spiritual and positive –even when dealing with ‘bad love’; “But I’ve learned all I could from the drugs and from the booze/ Now I’m learning to love myself with a new way to sing my blues” (“I Choose You”).  Zoe opens with an a cappella version of “Glory, Glory Hallelujah” and this sets the tone, if not the content, to “The Lily”.  She was raised on her father’s diverse record collection and first took to the stage at only fourteen.  Since then Layla has been widely praised for her emotional performances that have been likened to Janis Joplin, although her voice is not so raw.

She has even gained praise from Jeff Healey after working his club in Toronto: “All the compliments, comments and credos going around the city about her are not unfounded.  She is wonderful.”  Clearly though, she has become more than merely a local phenomenon.  This, her seventh album sees her team up very successfully with German guitar hero and multi-instrumentalist Henrik Freischlader, who also plays drums and bass and takes production credit.  The songs are co-written with Layla providing the lyrics and Freischlader, the music, with the exception of the traditional gospel of the opener and Neil Young’s ‘Hey, Hey, My, My’ –a song she fills with the rock ‘n’ roll verve it requires .

There is range and variety with this album; she can soar, she can swoop, essential qualities of a blues singer, but there is real soul here too whether she is chasing down the beautifully sculpted guitar or balladeering.   Every song here has something to offer whether it’s the writing, instrumental, vocal or delivery and more often than not all of these which amounts to quite a high hit rate.  My personal favourite, “Gemini Heart” is a slow burning blues about her own Gemini heart and that of a sometime lover; Layla is a strong believer in astrology and although the track is about a rather one-sided love she affirms “Cause I’m just a strong, sensitive, strong, kind of woman/ Just a Gemini heart.”  Another slower-tempo track, ‘Father’ gives free reign to Henrik’s lead guitar, mirroring the bitter-sweet pain of the love of her father.  Her writing is strong and she has even written a self-published book of poems “Diary of a Firegirl”, proof, were it needed, that her lyrics can also stand alone.  Most of the tracks weigh in at well over five minutes but that’s just how long the songs are, not because of ambling, self-indulgent production, and it helps you to feel that you are getting good value.  “The Lily” is certainly not an ear-busting listen.

Although she is yet to play live in the UK, Layla Zoe said she hopes to come next year as a guest of Freischlader, where I’m sure both will receive a warm welcome but you can catch her on tour in Europe throughout September and October this year at various venues and festivals.  Layla says this is the album she is the most proud of and I’m certain it will garner both critical and popular acclaim, it’s certainly on my list for album of the year.

Out August 30 on Cable Car Records.

Product DetailsI may have said this before, but I love an album that opens with a statement of intent and “House in the Woods” does just that.  The title track opens with a huge guitar riff backed by a smoky Hammond and you know exactly what you’re going to get, particularly when the lead vocal drops in on top of the guitar/organ interplay.  The arrangements on this album lean quite heavily on the late 60s/early 70s power trio tradition of Jimi Hendrix, Cream and even Rory Gallagher with guitar riffs and fills punctuating the vocals; the addition of the Hammond of Moritz Fuhrhop to this powerful mix offers extra textures and another layer to the sound.

There’s one thing which makes this album stand above the rank and file of blues/rock albums and that’s Henrik Freischlader’s voice; it’s raw, powerful and, at times, incredibly emotional.  Normally you expect singer/guitarists to excel in one discipline, but Henrik Freischlader is a great guitar player and a great singer and he’s equally convincing in all of the styles on offer here.  “House in the Woods” and “Sisters” are blues riff-driven, while “Nowhere to Go” and “1999” are much more funk -influenced, but the first real revelation comes with “Breaking My Heart Again” where Henrik’s voice, rather than his guitar work, dominates for the first time.  The first time I heard this song, I was convinced that it was a Paul Carrack lead vocal, and that’s not a comparison I make lightly.  There are thousands of guitarists who can belt out high tempo blues tunes but, for me, the real singers are the ones who can perform well on the slower, more laid-back tunes as well.  Henrik Freischlader is one of the real singers.

The second half of the album carries on in the same vein, with the funky “Take the Blame” and riff-driven “Hear Your Talking” leading into the ballad “Two Young Lovers” before the brooding menace of “With the Flow” and the closing slow blues of “Won’t You Help Me”.  The album is a well-rounded collection of songs from ballads to fairly hard blues riff-rock; the band sound convincing throughout, but the vocals really shine on the two ballads “Breaking My Heart Again” and “Won’t You Help Me”.

If you’re into the great blues-rock players like Gary Moore, Johnny Winter and Joe Bonamassa, then you’ll love this album; the playing is always superb and there’s a song for everyone here, whether you want a heartfelt ballad, a riffmonster or something with a backbeat, they’re all here.  Listen to this in the car at maximum volume.

“House in the Woods” is out on February 4 2013 on Cable Car Records.