Layla ZoeLayla Zoe blurs the distinction between rock and blues; although this live workout has shades of quieter emotion too (“The Lily” for example, which brings out the sweetness in Zoe’s voice). The set relies heavily on her most recent work, 2014’s “The Lily” and unfortunately, the Belgian crowd seem unfamiliar with those tracks. However she kicks off with ‘”I’ve Been Down” where she sings ‘… gotta get my act together…’ in what could be a tribute to either Janis Joplin or The Doors (“Been Down So Long”), she then seamlessly slips into forward gear with a 180 degree turn to “Pull Yourself Together”, a vehement musical rant that shows Zoe’s voice to full effect. Another angry highlight is “They Lie”, ‘They’ being the political establishment; if not exactly nailing her colours to a particular mast, Layla and band remind us that there are plenty of reasons to wake up and protest and you can almost hear her long hair whipping the microphone.

The difference between this album and the last is not just its alive quality, but that “The Lily” co-writer and axeman extraordinaire, Henrik Freischlader is absent, instead replaced by Jan Laacks. It would have taken a skilful and confident guitarist to audition for such an intricate set of tunes, but I have to say, if I had doubts previously, Laacks more than manages lead guitar duties, even if he tends toward more straight-ahead rock sensibilities on the whole.

It’s a big listen, clocking in both discs at about the same length as a feature film, and maybe a brave release given its coverage of her most recent album, only a few of older tracks and ending with three covers (Lennon/McCartney’s “Let It Be”, “Yer Blues” and James Brown’s “It’s a Man’s World” with a more relaxed jazz vocal in places; it’s twenty minutes long). But thankfully it’s not a “Greatest Hits: Live” which can so often result in overworked arrangements to stop the band nodding off. “Live” is a great listen but you might want to take it in in halves. As often happens, with live sets, three of the tracks come in at over ten minutes, for which you maybe had to be there. However, this outing on disc certainly makes me hope that she does a dedicated UK tour sometime soon.

It feels like this release is more of a confirmed fan’s date; newcomers should certainly dip into this album, but I’d probably recommend an earlier studio session or to just buy a ticket and get lost in the bluesy world of Layla Zoe.

“Live at Spirit of 66” is out now on Cable Car Records (CCR 0311-46).

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.