So; first gig of the year and let’s see what’s changed and what hasn’t. Well, the problems with transport haven’t changed; because of engineering work and a late start by the headliners, Southbound, I only caught the first three songs of what was shaping up to be a storming set of funky Southern rock and boogie. Sorry guys, I’ll make up for it next time. The other thing that hasn’t changed is people talking over artists at gigs. Why do you pay to see bands, completely ignore them and spend all night having your own conversations? I could ask why the sound engineer doesn’t bump the volume up a bit as well.
So with two acoustic singer-songwriters as the first acts on stage, things didn’t look too good. Hannah Jackson coped pretty well, mainly because of her incredibly powerful voice with jazz and soul inflexions, playing a set which combined her own songs with some covers, including a great version of The Killers’ “All these Things that I‘ve Done” and the Johnny Cash classic, “Folsom Prison Blues”. I think we might hear more from Hannah. Second up, Saraswati, wasn’t quite so lucky. Her delicate songs, including her debut single “Bad Habits”, and her delicate, breathy voice (maybe a hint of Sade there) were all but drowned out by the braying crowd. At times like this, I’m grateful we have strict gun laws.
No such problems for The Likks, though. Their brand of noisy riff-based rock, funky melodic basslines (a hint of The Black Crowes) and Jordan Jay Kennedy’s big voice didn’t stop the talking, but it made it really difficult to carry on a conversation. Within each song there were tempo changes and rhythmic shifts which added variety but also a bit of disorientation. You certainly didn’t know what was coming next; raw but interesting. And so, on to the reason I was out in south-west London on a freezing winter night.
It’s been a bit of a turbulent year for Little Devils (“The Storm Inside”, indeed); following a cabinet reshuffle, they now have a new singer and guitar player, Magda Supel and Chris Walker respectively. I never need an excuse to go and watch Little Devils, but I particularly wanted to see how the new line-up was gelling. It’s all good news; despite having limited time to rework the songs for the Devils Nouveaux, the band sounded great. The rhythm section of Sara and Graeme powered the band along while Magda sung with soul and power (despite being really ill) and Chris looked and sounded like he was having the time of his life; he’s a quality guitar player. They powered through a half-hour set that included Devils favourites “Pay the Waiter”, “My Perfect You”, “Good Times” and Graeme’s growled version of “A Long Time Ago”. The newest diabolical incarnation sounds absolutely fine to me.
And, apart from a few songs from Southbound, that was the end of my first gig of the year. Four stars for the performers, one star for most of the audience.
It’s always good to shoot the breeze with Graeme Wheatley from Little Devils and it’s great that he wants to share some of the highlights from 2015 with us. It’s been a chequered year for Graeme and Little Devils with a superb album to get behind and some recently-announced personnel changes; the Riot Squad are looking forward to the 2016 line-up. Graeme makes an unnecessary apology towards the end of this piece; whoever we are and however we do it, we’re all trying to promote music we love and there’s a place for all of us. So, let’s get on with it and hear what Graeme has to say.
Well, the time is upon us – the end of the year draws close and it’s been a topsy-turvy world for Little Devils – so if I may take this offer of writing a “High Fives” article – I will draw a veil over the low fives – and stay positive and mention 5 good things that happened this year.
We had many great gigs this year – really enjoyed Doncaster Blues, Norwich Blues, Maryport, Colne and lots more festivals and lots of gigs – but if I had to pick out one gig, it would have to be Dock Rock in Hartlepool. This festival is organised annually to celebrate the life of a good friend of mine. Peter “Dock” Oliver. It’s organised by his wife and one of his close friends and it’s been my privilege to play there the last two years. It keeps Peter in my mind and gives me a chance to meet many mutual friends, play for them, chat and remember our friend. So, my heartfelt thanks to Gillian and Neil for giving me this chance.
We recorded “The Storm Inside”, pressed it, released it and toured to promote it all within the first 5 months of 2015. It was amazing to see it reach No 1 in the IBBA play lists for May and to stay there for June! We were knocked out at the reception. We put heart and soul into the music. Belief in what we were aiming at, commitment into getting it as good as we could make it. The art work was our concept, every word and very note was sung and played knowing we were doing the best we could, the mixing, the mastering, the tea making and the mixing of the G&Ts – we did it all – especially the G&T bit.
I dunno where she came from! Back in January Louise Davies didn’t exist. Simple as that. There wasn’t a person called Louise Davies in our world. Then I met Bill Mead of The Sharpees. Bill can talk for England, and in one of his monologues about what I needed to do to move the band forward he mentioned this person he knew who could maybe help a bit if she liked the music (and if I somehow passed her “human qualities” assessment). A tentative “friend request” was extended. Then the storm broke – and it was a hurricane. How such a small person can generate so much activity I dunno. Whirling dervish springs to mind. Within maybe two months Louise was championing the band, playing our back catalogue on her radio show on Radio Seagull, promoting us at our gigs, speaking to agents around the world, telling everyone we were actually better than sliced bread – not just the best thing since – and in every other way – looking after us. We were honoured she accepted when we asked her if she would manage us. Since then, I have been given my instructions on a daily basis, I am kept in check, advised, encouraged, praised and slapped in equal measure! Louise is another pintsized powerhouse – I seem to be drawn to them! This, for Little Devils, has more than anything else, been the year of Louise!!! We are eternally grateful for the support, belief, advice, efforts and tireless bloody-minded hard work she has put in – long may you run.
Now this is a bit cheeky, praising a music magazine in a music blog! But, come on. We are all grown-ups and it’s a wide world. I just wanted to say a big thank you to Alan Pearce for having a lot of faith in Little Devils. He signed us to Kross Border Rekords, promoted the band, booked us at Colne and Skeggie and on a regular basis, calls me up and chews the fat. The guy is dealing with health issues, but through all of that stuff, he keeps his enthusiasm for music burning bright. He’s juggling a stack of different things that would tire a fully fit person – but he’s battling on with determination, energy and commitment. And I just want to take my hat off and say well done Alan. We are Spartacus. (And of course, there’s a load of space for Blues In Britain, The Blues Magazine, Music Riot, Blues in the South, BluesDoodles and all the other believers and dedicated enthusiasts of music – we are all in the same boat – let’s get rockin’).
I am not going to say anything about the hard times we’ve had. This is high fives – and so – even tho’ this is kinda a review of 2015, I am going to have a sneak peak towards 2016. Last night, the new line up had our first rehearsal. Now, I dunno how people are gonna react. We are going to walk out on stage next week and introduce Mags Supel on vocals and Chris Walker on guitars with the usual suspects, the Pintsized Powerhouse, Sara Leigh Shaw on drums and what’s his name on bass. Mags has a thousand and one lyrics to learn, melodies, arrangements, dance steps, choreography and conjuring tricks (no – obviously not – but it must feel like that!) and Chris has 11 notes to learn – all of which, he assures me, he’s played before. At least once. It is a daunting task. Frightening. But listening to Chris play last night, I smiled. Listening to Mags getting her head around the vocal and then adding her own touches, I nodded. Yes, it’s going to be good. It’s going to be great. So, out of the ashes, in December 2015 into the brave new year, Little Devils rise. Having new people come in, full of enthusiasm and commitment is, in itself, energising. Two days ago, for the first time in maybe 4 months, I had to jump out of bed, grab a guitar and quickly get down a new song that had just been delivered to my head via wherever. This is how it starts….
OK, we should have got this out a little bit earlier but after a launch party for the album, which had a higher bodycount than the Leeds-Chelsea 1970 Cup Final replay (although the gig was more entertaining), and a deluge of albums being released at the same time, things got a bit congested. Anyway, we got there in the end and it was well worth the wait. “The Storm Inside”, the fourth Little Devils album, is the work of a band at the top of their game both as writers and performers. The band has built up quite a following on the live blues circuit in the UK and Europe with their unique sound and the energy and quality are captured well on “The Storm Inside”.
The foundation of the band’s sound is the rhythm section of Graeme Wheatley (bass) and Sara Leigh Shaw, aka the Pintsized Powerhouse, (drums); whatever the style or tempo, they do the business while still leaving the space for Big Ray (guitar) and Yoka (vocals) to do their bit. It’s a bit of an understatement to call Yoka a singer; she has a huge dynamic range, dealing equally well with the belters and the ballads but she has a few more weapons in the armoury. The first is that she plays saxophone, which isn’t unknown in blues bands and adds another lead instrument to the mix. The second is that she plays flute, which is very unusual in a rock context (unless you count Jethro Tull and Focus). Apart from having a bit of prog baggage, the flute works really well, its clear tones cutting through over-driven guitar tones very effectively to add an unusual texture to the band’s sound.
There’s a bit of a concept feel to the album as well, as it’s topped and tailed by storm-themed songs. The moody and atmospheric “Storm Warning” opens with slide resonator guitar and harmonica while the album’s closer “Heavy Weather” is a slow blues featuring Yoka’s flute. In between, you get another twelve tracks ranging in style from the traditional slow blues with a big guitar solo of “My Perfect You” (the first single from the album) to the Motown rhythms of “Stand”, featuring horns from Penny and the Pounds and the country blues of “Cold”.
It’s easy to see (and hear) why Little Devils are carving out such a niche for themselves with their live and studio work; they do all of the things that you would expect a good blues band to and then they sprinkle it with their own magic ingredients to create something a little bit special. Whether it’s a sax or flute solo, or even Graeme Wheatley’s growling vocal delivery, there’s always something a little bit different going on to set this band apart.
“The Storm Inside” is out now on Krossborder Rekords (KBR 2015/3).
Another one of the albums we’ve been waiting for this year is the new one from Little Devils. That’s coming out in a few weeks but, until then, we’ve got a little taster for you. “My Perfect You”, the first single from the album, is blues in the classic tradition, featuring a stunningly powerful vocal from Yoka and some paint-stripping guitar work from Big Ray.
We’ll tell you all about the album as soon as we get our hands on a copy.
Ok, some life lessons for music lovers from tonight. First, if you get a chance to go and see a band (even on a school night), do it, because life’s too short. Second, when a mate recommends a band, go and see them. Third, the escalator at Angel station is the longest on London Underground and I’m not getting any younger; running up any escalator is for the young and fit, as I discovered. So, pulling all of this together, my mate Paul in Middlesbrough (closely followed by Graeme Wheatley from The Little Devils) told me I should have a look at The Jar Family, who were playing at The Islington.
The Jar Family is another example of a group of people who have realised that the music business as we knew it doesn’t exist now. A bunch of players and songwriters from the Hartlepool area decided that the best way to get their songs heard was to work together as one unit drawing on the creative input of all the members. After a lot of hard work and personal sacrifice, they’ve come up with something really special which Teesside has known about for a while and the rest of the country is just beginning to catch up with.
The band members are: Max Bianco (vocals, guitar, harmonica, percussion), Dali (vocals, guitar, slide guitar, percussion), Richie Docherty (vocals, guitar, percussion), Chris Hooks (vocals, lead guitar), Keith Wilkinson (bass, vocals) and Kez Edwards (drums). If that sounds like a lot going on, it’s even busier when you put them on a stage, with the look of a Victorian street gang infiltrated by Tim Burgess. There’s a lot of movement between songs as the three singers take turns centre stage and guitars are swapped around, but it’s smooth and professional in a way that reflects the amount of work they’ve put in over the last few years.
The set opens with the latest single “In the Clouds” and rattles through a mainly uptempo set including “World’s Too Fast”, “Machine”, “In For a Penny”, “Footsteps”, “Paint Me a Picture”, “She Was Crying”, “Moya Moya” and “Tell me Baby” before a two-song encore of “Debt” and the appropriate closing stomper “Have to Go”. There are plenty of committed fans in the audience who have made the journey down from the North-East but by the end of the set, the rest have been won over as well by a combination of a varied bunch of songs delivered in ever-changing instrumental settings by a very tight and solid group of musicians, but that still doesn’t tell the full story of The Jar Family’s appeal and why they’ve built up such a fanatical following so far.
There are a couple of things that single this band out from the crowd. The band members interact with their audience on and off stage in a way that creates a shared experience; this isn’t about us and them, it’s about everyone together. The other thing is the songs; they’re accessible (whether they’re raucous or quietly melodic) and the lyrics deal with themes that most of us can relate to our daily lives. When you put a group of people like us on stage singing songs that could be about us, it’s a difficult combination to resist, particularly when the vocal and instrumental performances are so good. I understand what all the fuss is about now.
It’s a bit like the footie really; the real fans are the ones who come out on a cold Tuesday night in January to show their support. Things start slowly but by the time Little Devils hit the stage, the 100 Club’s full and everyone’s forgotten that it’s brass monkeys out on Oxford Street. It’s one of those nights that proves that there’s still a healthy audience for blues bands (and it isn’t just the Wrinkly Rockers) but it also shows the range of artists taking shelter under the blues umbrella.
Stark suffer a little bit from the ‘I’m only here to see the headliners’ syndrome (and too many people having loud conversations, but don’t get me started on that) but they power-trio their way through a solid set to a decent response (and it still seems odd to see a guitarist play a resonator for electric blues, but it seemed to work).
It’s about a year since I last saw Little Devils (one of my Top 5 gigs of the year) and, in that time, they’ve certainly moved on. Most of last year’s set came from the then-current EP “About Time”, but there was a lot of new material this time which should be appearing on the album they’re just about to record. They cover a wide range of styles in forty-five minutes, ranging from funked-up blues driven along by Sara’s drums and Graeme’s sinuous basslines, through slow blues ballads showing the power of Yoka’s voice and Big Ray’s fret-bashing, almost all the way to prog-rock with some of the flute solos (well, they are on the same bill as Focus in a month). The Devils have a very strong stage presence, good songs and the kind of feelgood factor that generates a loyal fanbase; tonight, the cold January night seems a long way away as they turn the audience from quiet foot-tappers into a seething mass that’s ready for anything.
Which brings us to Aynsley Lister. I’ve never seen Aynsley do a headline set and I’ve been looking forward to this for a while. He’s a little bit more subdued than usual following a recent back injury, but that doesn’t mean he’s holding back musically, although we certainly don’t get any star jumps. The longer headline set gives the band the opportunity to have a bit of fun and jam a little with guitar and keys trading licks occasionally, but the songs are still strong, with “Inside Out”, “Broke”, “Sugar”, “Impossible” and “Hyde 2612” from the latest album “Home” all making the set, each one showing a different facet of Aynsley’s playing, writing or singing. It’s all too easy to focus on Aynsley’s playing, but his voice really does set him apart; it’s a soulful rock voice with a bit of a plaintive edge which works perfectly for the songs from “Home”. The finale’s “Purple Rain” of course, which combines a bit of guitar flash with audience participation and that’s a pretty solid way to end the night.
It’s pretty good demonstration of the diversity and general good health of the British blues scene that three bands so different can share a bill and all be appreciated by the audience. We all expect musicians this scene to be able to play, but both Little Devils and Aynsley Lister have very strong original material and the best songs tonight from both bands are probably the ones that are furthest away from traditional blues roots (Aynsley’s “Inside Out”, for example). I think that’s a good thing (it certainly made “Home” one of my favourite albums of 2013) but I know that not everyone agrees.
Anyway, the bottom line is that this was a great night out with two bands playing such different styles that there was no sense of competition, just a huge effort to give the audience a good time. And you can’t argue with that on a Tuesday night in January.
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 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.
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.
Little 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.
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.
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.
The next contribution is from Little Devils. They do a lot of touring around the UK and Europe and bass player Graeme Wheatley has shared some of the more surreal things that can happen when a bunch of musicians are on their travels.
February: Dover Priory
A venue that appears to be part of a David Lynch movie. The gig was as wild as ever – the audience barely human by the end of the night. The lovely but completely incomprehensible landlord, Eric, said something like “Your room is a bit cramped and the door doesn’t lock properly” I expected nothing less. In true David Lynch fashion, I probably expected worse – and so – it was no surprise when I went up to bed several drinks later – that I found I was in a storage cupboard. The drinks had had their effect and so, finding a mattress that was at least on something of an angle less than vertical – I hit the sack. 15 minutes later, the homicidal maniac from the movies burst thru the door and said something like “What the fuck are you doing in here? Your room is next door – this is the cupboard!” Fortunately, Eric is the soul of discretion and has only told every single musician who has played the Dover Priory since this happened.
We were met by the host and introduced to a lovely person called Vee who explained that she was there to look after us for the whole of the evening and that, in true Belgian style, all food and drink was free for the entire evening. Being the true professionals that we are, nary a drop of alcohol passed our tightened lips pre-performance. However, post-performance is another thing – and the Devils went for it! Big time at the festival and then at the after festival party – way into the wee hours. At around 4.00am we were sitting outside of the party taking the air and trying not to fall over from a seated position, when the host re-appeared with the wonderful idea that the Little Devils could close the party with a wee jam session!!! All we can say is thank God the audience were in a similar state and no one had a camera!
Just prior to setting off for the festival, Ian, the organiser, called to ask if we could squeeze in an extra show. Money talks – so we readily agreed – the extra payment meant we could eat! What we didn’t quite realise was there were now 3 gigs on one day followed by a fourth on the day after. Each gig on the Saturday was incredible – the audiences really carried us along on a wave of frothy bluesy enthusiasm and energy – each gig we raised the roof and played til the money ran out! A knackered bunch of Devils crawled into tents at about 2.00am after playing for around 9 hours. Next morning we jumped up and prepared to launch ourselves once more into the fray – but – there was a problem. Somewhere along the way, Yoka had left her voice behind! 9 hours of bluesy belters and raunchy rocking had taken its toll – there was nothing there. We ladled honey and paracetamol in generous doses into her and poured port and brandy onto the broken larynx – and the show went on. We managed to make the last gig and a great time was had by all – even if some of the songs were more instrumental than usual!
We played an acoustic set in the afternoon which somehow managed to set off the fire alarm – but this didn’t dampen spirits, and the evening set went down a storm. We finished the final number and the drummer had no choice but to make a swift dash for the loo; so as not to keep the audience waiting, we started part one of the encore without drums for the first verse or so. Or so we thought. First verse came and went. Ditto chorus. Then the second verse and chorus and still no drummer. Eventually, young Alan appeared and tore through the crowd to manage to get back for the middle 8 – he had been imprisoned in the loo by a couple of members of the audience who, with the assistance of a lot of alcohol, had decided this was a great prank. They reconsidered after getting the evil eye from Big Ray!
November:The Hope Tavern
We arrived in Market Rasen as the gentle folk of the town were quietly enjoying their Sunday lunches. Barely a murmur broke the pleasant afternoon atmosphere and we too picked up on the sentiment and quietly got our lunches and sat down to enjoy the pre-gig feast. “Anyone say Grace?” I innocently asked. “Thank Fuck for Food!” said the angelic Pintsized Powerhouse in a loud and clear voice….. There was a prairie tumbleweed moment amongst the good people of Market Rasen – fortunately followed by laughter!
Of the original 2010 line-up of Little Devils, singer Yoka (who also plays some very nice sax and flute) and bass player Graeme Wheatley are still with the band, joined by later recruits Big Ray (guitar) and Sara Leigh Shaw (drums and backing vocals) to complete the 2014 version. “About Time” is a seven-track EP showcasing the band’s current material and, partly, creating a comparison with their earlier work. All of the playing is high quality throughout, but it’s Yoka’s superb voice which really sells the songs, from the uptempo belter, “The Waiter”, which appears here in two versions, the older version with harmonica and the newer version with sax, to the slow, powerful ballad, “Another Pack of Lies”.
Two tracks in, listening to “Good Times” (which evokes Springsteen’s “Spirit in the Night”), you could be forgiven for thinking that this EP would be full of fast blues/rock party songs with powerful vocals but the third track, “Hang my Head” disproves that theory both musically and lyrically. It’s a slow/mid-tempo relationship song with clean guitar arpeggios, a nice sax solo, and a lead vocal which proves that Yoka is much more than a blues shouter. “No Love Lost” is mid-tempo and funky with a flute solo to add a slightly different texture.
“Walking Disaster” brought back memories of Marianne Faithfull’s “Why’d Ya Do It?” from her classic album “Broken English”. It covers the same lyrical territory, but Yoka’s vocal on this track also captures the same cracked intensity as Faithfull’s vocal. “Another Pack of Lies” is a standout track, a slow song which builds from a quiet intro to a big finish with perfect vocal harmonies. The song’s theme is social injustice and exploitation viewed from various perspectives and it works perfectly as a contrast to songs like “Good Times”. The EP finishes with the earlier version of “The Waiter” and I’m not sure if it’s a valuable addition or not; decide for yourself.
I’m pretty sure that the “About Time” EP (with its very clever retro seven-inch packaging) is intended as a showcase for Little Devils; if that’s the aim, then it’s a success. The songs here cover a broad spectrum from slow-tempo social comment to uptempo fun and the addition of Yoka’s saxophone and flute creates new textures and possibilities for the band. This is a thoroughly accomplished piece of work from a studio band but, on the strength of this, I can’t wait to see them live.
Released February 20, 2014.