Johnny ScrollerNow listen up, because I’m only gonna say this once; well, this year anyway. You have one, and only one, chance to witness the musical phenomenon that is Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes live in the UK this year. Sorry to anyone living outside the home counties, but this one’s in London, at The Forum on Thursday June 22. Now, go on, ask me why you would want to see (and hear) Mr John Lyon and his soulful/bluesy/funky/rockin’ rebels? It’s easy; they are dynamite live, with years of experience behind them, and a lot more in front of them. But why are they so good? Well, it all dates back to the Jersey shore in the early seventies. If you’ve read Springsteen’s excellent autobiography, you might have noticed the name Southside Johnny crop up once or twice.

They played in the same bars on the Jersey shore and they learned the same lessons. You had to be good and you had to work hard; five sets a night wasn’t uncommon. It’s a philosophy Bruce, Johnny and Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven or Miami Steve) share; get the best musicians you can and work them hard every night. If you don’t, then good musicians get bored and fractious. So the E Street Band and The Jukes play long sets where the written setlist point roughly in the direction of the actual set. Both singers like to throw the band curve balls to make sure the attention doesn’t start to drift; Bruce picks requests from placards in the crowd and Johnny calls the tune that he thinks continues the journey best. With a huge back catalogue of great songs written by Springsteen, Little Steven and Johnny himself (along with keyboard player Jeff Kazee) and the odd cover, the band never plays the same set twice. You might get lucky on the night and hear an a cappella version of “Walk Away Renee” (or at least part of it) that will stop you in your tracks, or you might hear a horn solo suddenly morph into full-blown New Orleans jazz. You might hear bass player John Conte sing “Tutti Frutti”; you just never know.

And that’s why Southside Johnny still has a fanatical following in the UK; you go to a Jukes show with only two expectations; you’ll be entertained by great musicians and you won’t know what’s coming next. And those expectations will be met, and surpassed, every time. It’s real songs, real instruments, no autotune, no sneaky recorded fill-ins or ‘vocal reinforcement’; it’s for real. You can find out just how good they are at The Forum on June 22. See you down at the front.

And, in a bit of breaking news, Southside’s new vinyl EP “Live from E Street” made the Billboard Blues Album Chart last week at #10.

Johnny Review ScrollerSo why would anyone in their right mind want to take a four hundred mile round trip in foul weather while jet-lagged to go to a gig? Well, if it was the only opportunity in two years to see Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in the UK, then it’s a small price to pay. And, let’s be completely upfront about this, I’m a fan and I have been for, well, let’s say a long time. I’ll give you a clue how long, I bought their first album, “I Don’t Want to Go Home”, in 1976. As you might expect with an eight/nine/ten piece band that’s been around for forty years, they’ve been through a few line-up changes; well, ok, Southside Johnny is the only member left from the original line-up, but you can call that evolution if you like. Following the release of the latest Jukes album, the superb “Soultime!”, the band has been on the road in the US, the UK and Europe promoting the album.

And that’s why I was at Holmfirth Picturedrome staring at least four very watery seasons in the face in one day; I wouldn’t make this much of an effort for just any old band. Let me tell you what you won’t get at a Southside Johnny gig; you won’t get a performance that’s timed and sequenced to the millisecond to tie in lighting plots, dancers, additional backing tracks and live autotune. What you will get is eight stunningly good individual musicians pulling together to give a hugely devoted audience a great show. The tour is in support of “Soultime!”, so when the set opened with a storming version of “I’m Not That Lonely”, it was no surprise. “All I Can Do” and the lead track “Spinning” also appeared early in the set, while the ballad “Words Fail Me” featured in the encore.

With a fanatical audience, each demanding to hear their personal favourite Southside song, and with forty years’ worth of Jukes albums to choose from (not to mention the odd cover), it’s always a bit of a high-wire act; and that’s why people go to see this band again and again, because they know that every show’s unique. It may not always be perfect, but it’s always different. On this night it took a couple of attempts to nail the intro to “It Ain’t the Meat (It’s the Motion)”; you have to expect a few heart-stopping moments when the acrobats are freestyling.

While the band plays that familiar blend of rock and soul, the show has an unmistakable jazz feel. The horns (John Isley, Chris Anderson and Neal Pawley, playing saxes, trumpet and trombone respectively) have serious jazz credentials (as The New York Horns) as does guitarist Glenn Alexander. When the solos came along (and there were plenty of them), the audience applauded the soloists enthusiastically, in true jazz club style. The horn solos were astonishingly good (particularly John Isley’s solo in “Passion Street” which moved away from the smooth melodic feel of Joey Stann’s recorded version to an impassioned stuttering, staccato version) but occasionally the horns took stage centre, ramping up the excitement with New Orleans style counterpoint ensemble playing.

The rhythm section of Tom Seguso (drums) and John Conte (bass) rarely catches the spotlight, but the band only works if they’re on the money, and they always are. Jeff Kazee, now Johnny’s main songwriting partner is also the perfect onstage partner, his high, soulful tenor voice blending perfectly with Johnny’s rich baritone as a duettist and harmoniser. As for Southside, he still takes responsibility for pulling all the strings, but now he can rely on all of The Jukes to take the pressure off at any time.

The only way you can pull off a gig like this is to have great musicians working with you; the downside of having great musicians in the band is that they get bored really easily. The challenge for Southside Johnny, through every single gig, is to balance those priorities and get the best out of the entire band. At The Picturedrome, the audience had a great time and the band looked they were having a ball as well. Job done.

Now if only we could do something about that group we see at every gig, ‘the men who can’t clap on two and four’ (or any beat at all to be honest) and ‘the men who can’t carry a tune in a JCB scoop’, we’d all be much happier.

You can find the setlist for the gig, courtesy of Miss October, here and photos from the gig here, courtesy of, well, me actually.

And just a quick word about Broken Witt Rebels from Birmingham whose muscular riffs, powerful vocals and stage presence warmed the audience up nicely for the headliners.

 

Every year we seem have another ‘death of the album’ story as the established music business struggles to keep up with (or buy in to) services trying to maximise profit for the industry at the expense of the artist. But this year something strange has happened; sales of vinyl and record decks have risen dramatically. OK, the baseline’s still low but as CD sales plummet, it’s a good sign that people are investing in the hardware to play an analogue album format. Meanwhile, thousands of artists and bands are ignoring the established music business, funding their own recordings and using whatever methods they can to get their music out there. All of my High Five albums this year have been self-funded by artists who are making music because they believe in what they do and hoping that they can find an audience. I had seven albums on the shortlist for this selection, so there are a couple of honourable mentions as well.

A Life Unlimited Title“A Life Unlimited” – Stone Foundation

It’s been another good year for Stone Foundation. They’ve signed up to a couple of overseas labels, toured Japan again and released “A Life Unlimited”, an album that moves their search for the new soul vision onward and upward with hints of jazz, house and Latin disco (and even guest vocal performances from Graham Parker and Doctor Robert). Songwriters Neil Jones and Neil Sheasby have produced another set of classic songs while the band line-up has evolved with the permanent addition of congas and baritone sax replacing trombone in the horn section to give a slightly harder sound. This album (like its predecessor “To Find the Spirit”) is all about a group of musicians working together to create a very British soul sound; no egos, no big solos, just a bunch of guys pumping out perfect grooves. You can read the original review here.

Soultime Title“Soultime!” – Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes

You have to admire someone who’s been singing for over forty years, come through some difficult times and still gets fired up about recording and performing songs. Since cutting his ties with the corporate music business, and setting up his own label around fifteen years ago, Southside Johnny has undergone a creative renaissance, becoming more involved in songwriting (with co-writer Jeff Kazee) and exploring new musical areas (including Americana with his second band The Poor Fools). “Soultime!” is the work of an artist who isn’t bound by a release schedule and a cycle of album and tour. This album is inspired by some of the soul and rhythm and blues greats of the sixties and seventies, and evokes the era joyously without ever becoming a pastiche. It’s an album that’s great fun to listen to and sounds like it was fun to make. It’s essential listening and you can read the original review here.

Pete_Kennedy_4PAN1TAPK_FINAL_outlined.indd“Heart of Gotham” – Pete Kennedy

This is an album that had a long gestation period. Pete has been working on it for about ten years and there are a couple of reasons why the album took so long to make. Pete and Maura Kennedy have a very busy schedule with their other projects but, more importantly, this album could only be released when everything was absolutely perfect. “Heart of Gotham” is a song cycle about Pete’s love for New York City, delving into the city’s history, geography and ambience against a backdrop of Pete’s outstanding musicianship (playing all the instruments on the album) and some beautifully-realised arrangements. Pete’s multi-layered guitars and gravelly vocal delivery create an atmosphere that’s unlike anything else I’ve heard this year. You can read the original review here and you should also read Pete’s contribution to this year’s High Fives, which links in to the album.

Hannah Aldridge Title“Razor Wire” – Hannah Aldridge

This was a debut album with instant impact. Hannah puts together all of the classic singer-songwriter elements perfectly; she has a powerful, clear voice and she sings intensely personal songs with conviction and emotion. Everything on the album is inspired by life events, apart from “Parchman”, the story of a woman on death row, who has no regrets about the crime which put her there. There are songs about jealousy, revenge, addiction and inappropriate relationships, but there’s also a counterbalance, particularly with the nostalgia of “Black and White”. The album visits some very dark places but there are enough positive moments to create balance between the dark and the light. Hannah’s always been inspired by Jackson Browne; I’m sure he’d be pleased to hear the fruits of his influence. You can read a live review from Hannah’s Green Note gig in July here.

Black Casino Scroller“Until the Water Runs Clear” – Black Casino and the Ghost

Black Casino and the Ghost (can we just say BCATG from now on) are a four-piece based in London and Essex and “Until the Water Runs Clear” is their second album. They’ve been Riot Squad favourites since their first album was released over two years ago. It would be easy to focus on the stupendous voice of singer Elisa Zoot and the guitar virtuosity of Ariel Lerner, but bass player Gary Kilminster and drummer Paul Winter-Hart play their part as well, with Elisa’s keyboards adding even more possibilities. “Until the Water Runs Clear” has drawn in many influences from sixties pop to trip-hop, mutated them and thrown them in the blender to create something that alternately sounds familiar and completely original. There’s also a lyrical dark side that runs through the album, creating sinister undertones and a hint of paranoia; maybe you shouldn’t skin up before listening to this one. The end result is an album which keeps you guessing; you’re never quite sure where it’s going, but you don’t want to miss a second of it. You can read the review here and see a few photos of the band at The Finsbury here.

And there are a couple of honourable mentions for the Dean Owens album “Into the Sea”, which was recorded in Nashville and packed with memorable and very personal tunes, and Bob Malone’s “Mojo Deluxe” featuring some keyboard virtuosity and a bunch of great tunes across a wide range of musical styles.

 

Soultime TitleIf you’re looking for something that’s easy on the ear to use as aural wallpaper for your commute or as background music for a dinner party, then stop right here; this is proper music. Southside Johnny has been making music with various Asbury Jukes for over forty years and compromise isn’t something that he’s about to start now. The quality of the songs, the playing and the arrangements is what it’s all about; always has been, always will be. Southside had fraught relationships with his various labels in the days when bands signed to a label and hoped that the label would make them successful but it hasn’t worked that way for a while now so Southside has moved on to a completely different way of working; he has control over the creative and business processes. ‘When’s the album being released? When it’s ready’. And “Soultime!” is well and truly ready. It’s taken a while (the last album “Pills and Ammo” was released in 2010), but Southside’s a very busy man these days; not only is he trying to keep an eight-piece rock and soul band in line, but he’s also working with his Americana project The Poor Fools, comprising various Jukes and some of the extended Jersey shore family.

Through the various incarnations of The Jukes, Southside has always had a collaborator helping with songwriting and musical director duties; Steve van Zandt moved on to the E Street Band as Springsteen went up through the gears and Bobby Bandiera took on the ‘safe pair of hands’ role with Bon Jovi on his seemingly endless world tour. Which, after an overlap with Bobby, left Jeff Kazee, keyboard virtuoso with a great high tenor soul voice, as the partner in crime. And, as much as I love the work of Little Steven and Bobby Bandiera, the Jeff and Johnny combination is producing some stunning results as Southside takes more credit for his songwriting contributions and Jeff Kazee adds his voice to the mix as well; it’s a potent combination.

In 2001, Southside released “Messin’ with the Blues”, an album of songs illustrating his love of blues, but also demonstrating the variety of styles within blues music; fourteen years later, “Soultime!” applies the same template to a cross-section of soul styles. It’s not too difficult to identify the influences, but the quality of the writing and the performances ensure that this is an album to be judged on its own merits.

The opening track “Spinning” throws all the ingredients into the blender to create a manic Stax feel. Everything’s there, from the horn fills to the breakdown, building back up with John Conte’s bass, Jeff Kazee’s Hammond and Glenn Alexander’s guitar, to the call and response vocal and the big horn finish. There’s barely time to get your breath back before “All I Can Do” the mid-tempo Johnny/Jeff duet. The two voices combine perfectly and a sweet tenor sax solo from John Isley is the icing on the cake. “Don’t Waste my Time” could be early Jukes, musically and lyrically as Southside tells the ‘my girl done me wrong’ story supported by backing vocalists Elaine Caswell, Layonne Holmes and Catherine Russell before Neal Pawley steps up for a trombone solo.

Looking for a Good Time” is the album’s defining song. The inspiration for the album came from hearing “Superfly” in the booze aisle at the supermarket and watching how the shoppers reacted. “Looking…” captures the upful mood of Curtis Mayfield in 1970 perfectly; if anything ever made me wish I could dance, this is it. The namechecks in the lyrics say it all, really: ‘Isley Brothers and Curtis and Sly and Bobby Womack too’; it’s perfect. “Words Fail Me” is a mature love ballad with very tasteful backing (even drummer Tom Seguso is reined in), muted horns and a lovely flugelhorn solo from Chris Anderson; Johnny’s voice is sublime and it would melt a heart of stone. “Walking on a Thin Line” has a faintly menacing Latin feel evoking Isaac Hayes, The Temptations and The O’Jays but still totally Jukes.

What comes next is a very rare thing indeed; an instrumental on a Jukes album. “Klank” is the love child of “Soul Finger” and “Third Stone from the Sun” with harmonica and tenor sax solos; they’re allowed to have fun as well, you know. Carrying on with the levity, “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” is a bit of light-hearted fun with a cast of Damon Runyon characters and a nod to “Check Mr Popeye” from way back when, which takes the intensity down a little bit before the final three songs.

I’m Not That Lonely” totally nails the Motown sound (Four Tops, anyone?) while “The Heart Always Knows” harks back to a much earlier time (Sam Cooke, or maybe The Cascades). It’s a slow, gentle ballad with some nice pizzicato strings courtesy of Jeff Kazee and acoustic guitar from Glenn Alexander and it takes off the heat for a few minutes before the final offering. “Reality” takes its influence from the psychedelic soul of the late sixties/early seventies with some interesting synth sounds and John Isley’s flute (and is that bass sax on there as well?), strings and muted horns; it gets kinda busy in there at times.

Southside Johnny set out to evoke a certain era of soul with this album; he wanted to make us feel good, the way we did when we first heard all of the great artists who influenced this album, and it’s an unqualified success. The arrangements perfectly capture the feel without sounding like The Faux Tops; he and The Jukes have created a perfect homage to music that was the soundtrack to the sixties and seventies. Over forty years down the line, he still has that raw, emotive voice that cuts through Hammond and horns and straight to the heart. Working with Jeff Kazee and the latest incarnation of The Jukes, he’s turned out a modern soul classic.

“Soultime!” is released on September 1 on Leroy Records.

There was a time earlier this year, when I was hobbling around with the help of a crutch, when I thought that I would have difficulty scraping together five gigs that I’d actually seen; how wrong was that? It’s been difficult to narrow this list down to five, so I think there might be a few honourable mentions as well. So, in absolutely no order at all are my favourite live shows of 2014.

Jim StapleyJim Stapley Band at 93 Feet East

Jim Stapley’s debut album almost made my top five albums, but there was absolutely no doubt about this live performance. Jim has a phenomenal soulful rock voice and he has pulled together a superb band to deliver the songs live. This was an album launch gig featuring virtually all of the album “Long Time Coming” (plus a cheeky cover of Rihanna’s “We Found Love”) and, despite atrocious weather and a half-full venue, Jim and the band gave it everything. The songs were strong, the band were cooking on gas, but what a voice.

 

Stone FoundationStone Foundation at The 100 Club

Towards the end of a very busy year for the band, this was an appearance at the annual Delicious Junction bash and another headline slot at The 100 Club with a set based solidly on the “To Find the Spirit”. All of the band members are great players but, despite the solos, this isn’t about individuals, it’s about the group; it’s the perfect combination of a locked-in rhythm section, keyboards and horns. It was also a chance to see how the new members Gareth John (trumpet and flugelhorn) and Rob Newton (congas) had bedded in. It’s fair to say that the horns sounded better than ever and the congas added a little bit of icing on the cake. It was a great set from the band and a stomping encore of “Jumping Jack Flash”. Enough said.

YokaLittle Devils at The 100 Club

Yeah, The 100 Club again and it’s blues Jim, but not as we know it; Little Devils are fronted by singer and multi-instrumentalist (sax and flute), Yoka. The rhythm section of Graeme Wheatley and Sara-Leigh Shaw (aka the Pintsized Powerhouse) built a solid base for Big Ray’s guitar and Yoka’s vocals and instrumental solos. The quality of the playing alone would put this gig up there with the best this year but this is also great fun; the band obviously enjoy themselves and the audience will always pick up on that. Great performances and big smiles all around the room; that’s a pretty good combination for a great night.

Federal CharmFederal Charm and Ian Hunter’s Rant Band

This was the final night of the Ian Hunter tour and the audience was in a party mood. It’s not the first time I’ve seen Federal Charm but they seem to get better every time. They got a huge cheer when they strolled on to the Shepherds Bush Empire stage and powered their way through thirty minutes of melodic blues rock featuring their powerful cover of “Reconsider” before making way for Ian Hunter. What a legend; played for two hours and kept the audience spellbound throughout, and the voice still sounds great. We even got an appearance from Mick Ralphs for the encore. Top night.

Gary BondsGary Bonds, Southside Johnny and The Asbury Jukes

Now this sounded like a great idea. 60s legend, and big influence on the Asbury Park scene teams up with Southside Johnny for a UK tour; I’ll even pay for tickets for that. Albany Down, despite a ten-second soundcheck, got the audience nicely warmed up for the main event which was a set from Gary Bonds (with some help from Southside) and a set from Southside (with a little help from Gary Bonds), both backed The Asbury Jukes. As ever, the superb musicians (Jeff Kazee, Tom Seguso, John Conte, Glenn Alexander, John Isley, Chris Anderson and Neal Pawley) fitted together perfectly and reacted instantly to any curveballs thrown by Southside. Seriously great players but they know how to have a bit of fun as well. They’re a great attraction as The Jukes, but Gary Bonds just tipped it over the edge.

It was incredibly difficult to narrow this down to only five gigs and there are a few more which deserve honourable mentions. I saw Vera Lynch three times (including their final gig at The Barfly in Camden and a gig in a Shoreditch shop window), The Kennedys and Edwina Hayes at Green Note and Dean Owens and Black Scarr on Eel Pie Island and all of those were great nights. Here’s to many more in 2015.

So, purely in alphabetical order (by album title) because there’s no way I’m trying to rank these in order of preference. They’re all very different and I can recommend any one of them to any real music fan; these are my five favourite albums of 2014.

Dunfearing and the West Country High“Dunfearing and the West Country High” – Phil Burdett

Phil Burdett’s latest album (on Drumfire Records) was a complete surprise for me. I’d heard Phil play a solo acoustic set a couple of years ago on a night out with the Riot Squad, but this was a completely different beast. “Dunfearing…” is the first part of the “Secular Mystic” trilogy, which should be completed with the release of parts two and three in 2015. It’s an album that sounds gorgeous; you could just sit and let its mix of folk, rock, country and a bit of jazz wash over you, but a little bit of extra effort and careful listening brings out all of the detail that Phil and the musicians have packed in to it; and there’s a lovely tribute to the late Jackie Leven. After reviewing the album, we also managed to grab an interview with Phil during the summer, which is a fascinating insight into a great songwriter.

How About Now“How About Now” – Ags Connolly

By sheer coincidence, also on Drumfire records, was the debut album from Ags Connolly, “How About Now”, which is now also available in a lovely limited edition vinyl pressing. Ags is based in Oxford but his roots are deep in the American South and his genre is a country offshoot known as Ameripolitan. He takes the outlaw attitude of artists like James Hand, Willie Nelson, Johnny Paycheck et al and gives it a personal twist with some very poignant songs. The album was produced in Edinburgh by his Drumfire labelmate, Dean Owens, and works well with full country band arrangements as well as the powerful solo acoustic guitar backing of the closing song “How About Now” (which was a genuine one-take recording).

NYH“New York Horns” – New York Horns

I know; you’re surprised that I’ve picked a jazz album. Truth is that I love to hear a good horn section, and most horn players away from the day job like to stretch themselves with a bit of jazz. The horns in question are John Isley (saxophone), Chris Anderson (trumpet) and Neal Pawley (trombone), better known as the horn section of The Asbury Jukes, aided and abetted by Jeff Kazee (keys) and Glenn Alexander (guitar). There isn’t a bad, or even a mediocre track on the album and with moods ranging from the blues of “Strollin’ with Sean” through the evocative, mellow “Morningside at Midnight” to the 24-carat soul of “Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, there’s something for everyone.

Stone Foundation“To Find the Spirit” – Stone Foundation

And continuing on the soul theme, how about some genuine home-grown English West Midlands soul? Stone Foundation has been steadily building up a devoted following for about ten years now, but “To Find the Spirit” may turn out to be the game-changer for them. The band takes influences from all over the soul spectrum to create a sound very much of this century but which appeals to very disparate groups of fans. The album grabbed me from the first few bars with the Hammond and horns intro of “To Find the Spirit” and impressed from start to finish. After 10 months (and seeing the band live three times), the standout song is definitely “Don’t Let the Rain”, driven along by Neil Sheasby’s slinky bass groove but, again, there’s no filler here.

Tone, Twang and Taste“Tone, Twang and Taste”Pete Kennedy

Now the reason this one’s here is that Pete Kennedy (one half of one of my favourite groups, The Kennedys) decided to pay tribute to the pioneers of the electric guitar prior to the rock ‘n’ roll era; the guys who had grab the interest by using technique and melodic invention rather than volume and a thudding 4/4 beat. Pete is a superb technical musician and “Tone, Twang and Taste” is so obviously a labour of love; every song is played with immaculate attention to detail and they all sound like they were great fun to do, particularly Pete’s ukulele version of “Rhapsody in Blue”. The commercial possibilities for this album were always very limited, and that’s one of the reasons I admire Pete so much for producing something that made me smile from start to finish.

You can read the original reviews of these albums on the site complete with all of the links to the songs on Spotify or Youtube; just type the title into the search box and you’re away. Go on, have a listen; they’re all great albums.

NYHIt’s relatively easy to record an album these days; you can do it at home or maybe in a studio and it won’t cost you the earth. You can organise your own distribution online or at live shows; you won’t get rich but you will get some return for your creativity. Not everything released by this route is good; there are way too many vanity projects, but occasionally something really worthwhile emerges. Sometimes a group of talented and like-minded musicians get together and just play the tunes they really want to play. If it makes a few dollars, that’s fine, but that’s not really the point because the musicians are playing the music they want to play and having a bit of fun with their own original material and a few covers.  Very, very occasionally the result is an album packed with, superb performances and arrangements that you want to listen to again and again. “New York Horns” is one of those.

So, who are the New York Horns? Well the horn players are Chris Anderson (trumpet and flugelhorn), John Isley (tenor and baritone sax and bass clarinet) and Neal Pawley (trombone and vocals) and they’re better known as the horn section of Southside Johnny the Asbury Jukes. Here they’re aided and abetted by fellow-Jukes Jeff Kazee (piano, Hammond B3, keys and vocals) and Glenn Alexander(guitars, dobro, mandolin and vocals) and a rhythm section of Shawn Pelton (drums and percussion) and Tony Tino (electric bass).

The album opens with a very different instrumental take on KT Tunstall’s breakthrough song “Black Horse & the Cherry Tree”. Where the original builds gradually by using a loop pedal for instrumental and vocal parts, the NYH version comes in, after a quick guitar intro, at full strength with Latin American percussion (courtesy of Marc Quinones) and perhaps a hint of early Santana. Chris Anderson’s tone poem “Morningside at Midnight” is next, taken at a walking tempo, and evoking the spirit of Morningside Heights with electric piano, wah-wah guitar and unison sax and trumpet. The Hank Williams classic “Hey Good Lookin’” is the first vocal piece, driven along by a guitar riff and horn fills before the sax, guitar and Hammond solos kick in. “Song for Levon”, a Chris Anderson and John isley co-write is a tribute to Levon Helm. It’s stately and mournful in classic New Orleans tradition and features Southside Johnny as guest harmonica player.

The uptempo jazz-funk of John Isley’s “Little Miss Thing” wouldn’t sound out of place on either of Donald Fagen’s first two solo albums and features the first trombone solo on the album from Neal Pawley; it’s great fun. “Can’t Stand to See You Cry”, written and sung by Jeff Kazee, is a powerful soul song with a superb plaintive vocal and an arrangement that Allen Toussaint would be proud of while “Strollin’ With Sean” is a fairly straightforward blues driven along by a horn riff and it’s another chance for the guys to solo for all they’re worth and have a great time. The final cover on the album is John Hiatt’s “Little Head” which retains the feel of the original while adding punch with horn fills.

John Isley’s “78 Below” opens with an uptempo Nile Rodgers –style lead/rhythm riff which, with the punchy bass, drives the piece along underneath a staccato muted trumpet melody before the mood mellows again with Chris Anderson’s “More Than Tears”.  Opening with a restrained combination of piano, acoustic guitar and mandolin, this moody and melancholic piece is perfect for the flugelhorn which Chris uses to carry the main melody. John Isley’s “Under the Hood” is an atmospheric piece using Hammond and the horn ensemble to create the mood and features a muted trumpet solo from Chris Anderson. The album’s closing song, “Nothing Left to Say”, opens slowly in New Orleans jazz funeral style, with a guest vocal by Christine Ohlman before erupting just before the halfway mark into uptempo New Orleans jazz with trumpet and sax counterpoint. There’s also a lyrical message here which underpins the whole album; however bad things get, there’s always music to pull you back, whether you play it or listen to it. It’s a perfect way to close the album.

The beauty of this album is that it was made because the musicians involved really wanted to make it. They had a lot of ideas and they wanted to get those ideas out there to people who might want to hear them. It’s not about focus groups or marketing teams; it’s about strong, sometimes very personal, material arranged well and played superbly. If you need to label it, I suppose it’s jazz, but it also pushes out in other directions as well, towards funk and old school soul; there’s certainly plenty of variety on display. Check out some of the song links here and think seriously about buying yourself a copy, if only to let a bunch of great musicians know that some people out there are actually getting the message.

Available now from Amazon and iTunes.

Last Friday I had the opportunity to spend some time with the legendary Southside Johnny before the final show of his UK tour, featuring Gary “US” Bonds, at Shepherds Bush Empire. He was entertaining and engaging (as always):

AM – We did an interview here three and a half years ago and at that time you spoke to me about this acoustic thing that you might or might not be doing, which was really big news at the time and that’s happened now, so how’s that going?

SJ – It’s really good, it’s a fun thing. It’s really stripped down; we travel in a van together, we have breakfast in the morning as a band (there’s only six of us, with the road manager) and we set up our own equipment and tear it down and it really feels like the old days when you used to have to do that. It was a complete commitment to the whole day of travel, set up, play, tear down and travel again and even though I’m kinda long in the tooth I really enjoy it because it seems so organic and basic; there’s no star turns at all. I love playing acoustic music and it gives us a chance to play George Jones and Emmylou Harris and Bob Dylan and Tom Waits and some Bruce in a different format.

AM – You mentioned a few country artists there; you’ve always been a country fan haven’t you?

SJ – Yes I liked country when I was very young. What I didn’t know is that my mother, way back in the thirties when the ukulele was the big thing, she bought a ukulele from Sears Roebuck and she would sit on the porch with her father (her mother had died young) and some neighbours, and they would sing country songs, so I guess it’s in my blood, it’s the Irish part of me.

AM – I’ve heard you play “He’ll Have to Go” (country classic made popular by Jim Reeves) at The Astoria, I think.

SJ – Well, Soozie Tyrell, who plays violin with Bruce, she has a country band in New York City, and I would go up and do lots of songs with her because they’re real singer’s songs, they’re story songs with great melodies so it’s fun to make that kind of music.

AM – The old Jukes revolving door seems to have slowed down a little…

SJ – Not too much. We’ve got a new saxophone player, John Isley; I think (drummer)Tom Seguso’s been over here.

AM – At the time of the last interview, Joey (Stann, tenor sax) and Ed (Manion, baritone sax) were still with you but they’re obviously off doing other things now. There seems to be lots of side projects going on as well now that the New York Horns have made a record.

SJ – These days it’s a lot easier to make a record for a little money and it’s also easier to manufacture; for a buck apiece you can make as many CDs as you want and there’s a profit margin once you’ve paid for the studio time and the musicians and all the rest of it. I’m lucky that Jon Bon Jovi lets me use his studio but, even if he didn’t, studio time’s not as expensive as it used to be, home recording’s easier and the internet makes it easy to get distribution to all your fans round the world. It’s a good time to be a musician because you can do all the little things you want to do without incurring great expense.

AM – Did the side projects always happen to a certain extent; do we just hear about them more because of social media?

SJ – We’ve always done those things; Bobby (Bandiera, guitar, now playing with Bon Jovi) and I went out for months, here and there, doing a lot of charity gigs and they put us on a plane, in business class, just him and me and a guitar and harmonicas. We went all over and played charity things and it was just a chance to play in hotels and every little place you could find and it was a lot of fun because it was no stress.

AM – I saw you at Sheffield City Hall in 1995, I think, just the two of you doing the stripped back thing and it was a great night.

SJ – Well, if you have confidence in what you’re doing and you have material you think you can accomplish with just a guitar and a harmonica it’s a chance to explore all that too. Years ago Bobby, Rusty Cloud, David Hayes and I played in Paris at the Chesterfield Club. We did a two-week stint there with very little publicity and we rode the Métro and that was a lot of fun too. We all stayed in the same hotel, this funky little place and it was two weeks in Paris. I’m lucky I’ve had the chance to do those things and just explore what making music means other than pedal-to-the-metal trying to earn a living. I can do just about anything I want now. I’m never going to be rich, I’ve known that from the very beginning so there’s not a great stress to be a big star and make a lot of money; I make a living and that’s all I want. I just want to be allowed to do whatever kind of music I want to make.

AM – I was going through some of my very old Jukes records today and it struck me that after Billy Rush left, you got much more involved in the songwriting process; there’s not a lot of your songs on the early albums.

SJ – I was a writer back then but I would write certain things with certain people but the bulk of the song would be theirs and I’d say “forget it, I don’t want to have anything to do with it”. I wrote with Billy but I don’t have the kind of ego that I need to see my name on the album, but now with Jeff and Bobby the songwriting is really a collaboration so I get to write a lot of lyrics that I find interesting like “Into the Harbour” and “Winter in Yellowknife” and stuff like that which is not the norm for romantic love songs.

AM – On “Pills and Ammo”, it struck me that your name’s on every track as a writer. Do you have a certain way of working; do you do the lyrics and Jeff does the music?

SJ – It’s pretty much that way except that if I come up with a musical idea we’ll explore it and he helps me with lyrics; it’s a real collaboration in other words. I’ll come with an idea, a whole lyric and I’ll say “I think it sounds like this” and he’ll find a way to make it sound like what I want, but then he’ll say “what about this…” and we really try to bounce ideas off each other.

AM – I know Jeff’s a big fan of Squeeze and Difford and Tilbrook wrote in that way as well.

SJ – I’m a big Squeeze fan too.

AM – About your audiences; you’ve retained a very loyal audience in the UK. In the US, are the audiences different?

SJ – Well, they speak English. There’s people who come and see us a million times and there’s people who come and see us for the first time and usually we can win people over. It’s the energy and a lot of the music is made to lift you up so it’s not some shoegazer and it’s not some egomaniac, it’s really just music. I think one of the things that keeps people coming back is that it’s never the same night after night and I don’t know where it’s going to go and tonight’s going to be like that too because we’ve got Gary Bonds and we know what we’re going to do but when we get on stage, that may change.

AM – I’ve been watching Billy Walton live for a while and I’ve noticed that his crowd seems to be getting younger. I’ve seen teenagers at his shows but I’ve also seen people in their twenties who know all of the songs. I just wondered if that was happening with The Jukes.

SJ – We do get a lot of younger people; we had a bunch last night in Holmfirth, but we have our loyal fans and they’re the ones that usually get the first tickets and they’re older, but they bring their kids and some of them bring their grand-kids but anybody who’s willing to give us a shot we’re willing to play for as long as they come and have a good time and just enjoy themselves.

AM – November used to be the traditional time for a Jukes tour but the last couple of years you’ve been over during the summer. I’m guessing that’s because of festivals.

SJ – Yes. This year especially, because we had the Cornbury Festival to start it and we’re ending with Bospop in Holland so we had two festivals and we put a bunch of gigs in between and those get to be the anchor gigs. Unfortunately there’s new taxes in England, Foreigner Entertainer Tax (FET) and Hood, who settles everything got hit with it the other night and they wanted £1,400 for FET. Nobody knew exactly what it was but it’s legitimate and all that does is it makes it harder for bands like me to come over here; you can only lose so much money. On the one hand I guess they need the tax money but if they really need that, they should get all those people who hide their money offshore and let us poor bands try to play a little music.

AM – And a lot of musicians are hiding money offshore.

SJ – Well I’m not hiding any money; my money comes and goes and I get to see it as it goes past and that’s about it.

AM – Going back to the festivals, what’s the biggest gig you’ve ever played?

SJ – Probably Knebworth with Led Zeppelin. We did two shows; we did the first one, flew home and did a show in Washington DC, flew back and did the second show at Knebworth and flew home again, if I remember rightly, so it was a lot of flights. And we played about forty minutes but it was fun, it was a unique experience and we met some good people over here.

AM – As far as I can remember, and I was a long way away from the stage, it seemed like you got a pretty good response that day.

SJ – It seemed like that; of course we didn’t the full power that the headline act got (we don’t do that, if somebody opens up for us they get full power, but I’m not ever worried about a band opening up for us, I hope they do well). But I thought Led Zeppelin was terrible; there was no bass in the mix in the audience.

AM – That’s all the serious stuff but I’ve got couple of other questions for you. You’ve now got a huge body of work to choose from when you play; is there anything you feel can’t be left out?

SJ – Well, there’s nothing that can’t be left out, but I’m not there to just indulge myself, I’m there to give people what they want too and you split the difference. I know they want to hear “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and “The Fever” and “Trapped Again” or “Talk to Me” or “This Time It’s for Real” or “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” or whatever and you try to include those but when you twenty-two, twenty-three songs, there’s plenty of room for you to do what you want too. There are times when I say “I’m sick of this song, I’m not doing it” and it lasts for few months then it’s back in.

AM – Here’s one from my sister, who’s a big fan. Is there a song that makes you cry?

SJ – There’s a lot I guess. I’ve got some that I’ve written but Alison Krauss does a song called “I Can Let Go Now” which I think was written by Michael McDonald and it just kills me because I relate it to my mother. I don’t think that’s what it’s really about but for me it is and I just can’t listen to that song. There’s a lot; there are things that really touch me. I wouldn’t be doing if I didn’t get emotionally involved. When I was young and heard certain songs, I either got happy or excited or even felt sexy or touched, and to be part of that tradition is an amazing thing, but I’ve never really lost the idea that if someone sings a great song and really means it then I can get lost in the emotion.

AM – I find it really difficult to listen to “Many Rivers to Cross” after the version Jeff did here in 2010.

SJ – He really puts his heart and soul into it.

AM – Finally, hoping for another scoop, have you get anything in the pipeline?

SJ – Well, Jeff and I have written most of the songs for the next Jukes album; when we get it finished, I don’t know. We’re hoping to get in the studio, perhaps this winter and get it out some time next year. I’d love to get it out by Christmas but that’s just not gonna happen, and I’ve written some songs for a new Poor Fools acoustic thing and I’ve got a couple of other projects in mind too. I could retire if I wanted to, but then what would I do? I’d sit around the house, get fat and drink myself to death, and I can do that on the road.

AM – Johnny, many thanks for making the time for the interview.

SJ – My pleasure, any time.