When we review gigs, we talk a lot about the artists (quite rightly), but we don’t often mention the things that go on behind the scenes to make the magic happen. The people who take the financial risk promoting gigs, the sound engineers and, in some cases, volunteers who give up their time to create special nights for us. All of these things combine to make the magic happen; to make a great venue. And that’s what Allan’s looking at next, five great venues that have featured on the Riot Squad itinerary this year (and some in previous years).

The Union Chapel, Islington

For many artists, this is the Holy Grail of live performance. In an earlier High Five I wrote about Martin Harley’s desire to make this dream come true, which he did in a triumphant manner on March 10th 2018. But back to the venue. It’s a working chapel, which explains the superb acoustics (and the fact that you can’t take alcoholic drinks into the main chapel). It’s largely staffed by volunteers, which gives it an atmosphere that’s professional but warm and welcoming and carries its own little traditions. For example, unlike in Spanish hotels, it’s acceptable to reserve your seat (with a jacket rather than a towel) while you go to the bar, which works really well – if you know about it. A friend of mine saw a nasty little turf war break out when a party of latecomers shunted a bunch of coats along and took the reserved seats. You don’t want to upset the normally mild-mannered Union Chapel crowd.

The sightlines in the venue are good, the live programming is interesting and eclectic and the natural sound is always superb, which is why the unplugged encore is virtually de rigeur. And, with the photographer’s head on, I have to mention the gorgeous stained-glass window at the side of the stage. One piece of advice, which I gave to the friend who witnessed the seating incident; always take a cushion. Those pews are hard.

Green Note, Camden

Another award-winning London venue, although on a smaller scale than The Union Chapel, Green Note is nestled between the The Dublin Castle and The Edinburgh Castle in Camden and it’s a cosy intimate venue (the main room has a capacity of about 80, the basement about 20). Green Note is all about musical quality and, like The Union Chapel, it’s hugely eclectic. The sound engineers are always roundly praised by the performers and the atmosphere is always intimate. It’s like having a gig in your front room. There’s also a menu of tasty vegetarian snacks and a great selection of beers.

I’ve seen many gigs at Green Note and never one that I didn’t enjoy. It’s a completely welcoming environment that lends itself to an intimacy between audience and performer and, for reasons of closeness rather than acoustics, lends itself (again) to the unplugged encore. They’re always entertaining. Any downsides? The lighting isn’t ideal for photography but, if you’re any good you can work around that. I always have a warm glow walking back down Camden Parkway to Camden Town tube.

The Picturedrome, Holmfirth

It’s set in the Yorkshire Dales; it’s the village where “Last of the Summer Wine” was filmed and it’s picture postcard England. If your journey to the venue is longer than about an hour, you should stay in one of the many affordable hotels, guest houses and B ‘n’ Bs and soak up the atmosphere of the place before a gig. There are loads of good places to eat as well.

The venue has been open for live music for just over 20 years now (21st birthday celebrations coming up in 2019?). With a capacity of 690, it’s relatively easy to fill, with the right artists. The programming isn’t as eclectic as some of the London venues and it’s built mainly around heritage artists, but there’s absolutely no doubting the quality of what’s on offer. Well, it would have to be good to make me take a 400-mile round trip, wouldn’t it?

As an old cinema, it has a raked floor, which means that there’s less chance of being stuck behind the huge bloke and missing everything on stage (and there’s a balcony as well). The sound is always good and it has another huge pluspoint in the eyes of the Riot Squad’s Northern Man, Steve Jenner. It serves proper, hand-pulled, cask-conditioned beer; you got Mr J right there. And it’s a friendly and musically knowledgeable crowd. Just be careful in the winter, although there are worse places to be snowbound.

The Slaughtered Lamb

It’s situated in Clerkenwell, close to Farringdon and St Paul’s tube stations and it’s a bunch of contradictions. The live music venue is in the basement and is about the same size as the main room at Green Note. Like the Camden venue, the boundaries between audience and artists tends be fairly flexible. While the artists have green rooms available (generally), they tend to mingle with the audience throughout the evening, which creates a certain intimacy.

The sound is always crystal clear and, generally speaking, it’s what artists call a listening room. If you have a good song to get across, this room will allow you to do it; there’s just one thing to be aware of; the bar upstairs, which is mainly aimed at local workers having a beer or two on the way home. Nothing wrong with that, but those gatherings tend to be loud and the music is ramped up to compete with the background (?) noise. The result is that, in the basement bar (quiet and intimate), it sounds like the Dave Clark Five (ask your nan) are rehearsing upstairs. And (again like Green Note), the lighting’s a bit challenging for photographers. Me? I like a challenge.

The Bedford, Balham

This one’s a bit of a London institution really. It’s been renowned as a music venue for years and recently closed down for a refurb. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never visited The Balham before this, but I went along to the opening night after the refurb to catch the buzz. It helped that one of my favourite bands, Houndstooth, was headlining. After the standard opening night glitches (the fire alarm being repeatedly triggered by the hazers), the night kicked off pretty much on time.

The performance space is what would have the pub’s back room in the past, but it’s a long way from being a dingy little corner of the venue. There’s an area in front of the stage which was completely open on the night, but can be configured cabaret style for more intimate gigs. And there’s a balcony; as a photographer, it opens up all sorts of new views, but it’s also a great place to see the entire stage without being miles away. So there’s absolutely no complaints about the physical space, what about the sound? Good news, it’s superb. The opening night was such a good experience, I’m going back again this week to have another look.

Finally a few honorary mentions: the intimate Nell’s Jazz & Blues in Chelsea (or West Kensington if you prefer), The Fowlowe Centre in Leek, Staffordshire which is attracting some fairly major touring artists now and the new, and ever-changing 26 Leake Street (near Waterloo Station) which is state of the art and has huge potential. They’re all great spaces to see live performances.

2018 has been a cracking year for gigs. I’ve been all over London and I’ve even managed to get to Staffordshire, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire and Brighton. I might have to do a count at the end of the year to work out how many different gigs and bands I’ve seen. I haven’t seen a bad gig, I’ve seen a lot of good ones and I’ve seen a few absolute belters. I’m guessing that those are the ones you want to hear about, yeah? As always, in no particular order.

 

Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @The Union Chapel

A year before this event, Martin told me after his gig at The Forge in Camden that he was booking The Union Chapel. He had no idea if he could fill the venue, or if he would break even on the event. At that time, I suspect I was more confident than Martin was. Anyway, fast forward a year to March 10th 2018 and a packed Union Chapel (almost sold out on pre-sales) saw finger-style guitarist Mike Dawes open for the dynamic duo. The intimacy of Martin and Daniel’s small venue performances scaled up perfectly for this particular venue. The combination of superb playing, perfect harmonies and the laconic interplay between songs was absolutely entrancing. Martin’s Weissenborn playing and Daniel’s virtuoso bass (I actually wanted to hear the bass solo) combined perfectly to create an almost Spectoresque wall of sound at times. And then the obligatory unplugged Union Chapel encore. Want a great Christmas gift? How about the live DVD?

Photo courtesy of John Hayhurst.

John Fogerty and Steve Miller @The O2

I really loathe the O2. It’s impersonal and it’s ridiculously expensive; it’s everything that winds me up about the enornodromes. And, as the start of the evening proved, if the mix isn’t spot-on it can sound awful in the auditorium, which it did for most of Steve Miller’s set. Which was a shame because the last half-dozen songs, when the mix was finally right, sounded superb.

But the reason for my tolerance of this corporate barn was John Fogerty. I’ve been a fan of his work since I was a teenager, progressing from Creedence Clearwater Revival to the solo material. He has a phenomenal back catalogue of classic songs, most of which were dusted off for this gig. When you can open your set with “Travelin’ Band”, you can’t go too far wrong. The band was absolutely stunning; all superb musicians, with keyboard maestro Bob Malone dashing around the stage between blasts of piano and Hammond. The greatest hits all got their airing (including the one we know better from Live Aid and Quo, “Rocking All Over the World”, which he only plays in Europe) but, in a little tribute to New Orleans, we got covers of “Don’t Mess With my Toot Toot” and the Gary Bonds song “New Orleans”. Just phenomenal. Read what Steve J thought about it here.

Albert Lee & Peter Asher @Cornbury Festival

For various reasons, Cornbury was the only festival I did this year. It was a bit of a mixed bag on the main stage, but the bill on the second stage across the weekend was eclectic and classic. The one performance I didn’t want to miss was Albert Lee & Peter Asher in the Caffe Nero tent on Saturday evening. I wasn’t disappointed; the songs were delivered in an Everly Brothers style (well, Albert did play in their band) and were interspersed with anecdotes about songwriting greats in the 60s and 70s on both sides of the Atlantic. It was all very laid back but the quality of the playing and the harmonies was absolutely superb. I’m a big fan of the duo format and this was the ‘two voices, two instruments’ at its absolute best. The tent was packed throughout the set and the entire audience left with a warm glow.

Belle Roscoe & Lisa Canny @26 Leake Street

This was the first night of live music at a new venue and it introduced me to not one but two new artists.

Belle Roscoe are brother and sister Matty and Julia Gurry. They play gigs in the duo format, but also have a band for bigger gigs (like this one). The songs are strong, the harmonies are great and the arrangements, with Matty’s guitar and Julia’s floor tom and keyboard playing augmented by bass, drums and guitar are powerfully percussive. It’s a big sound and it completely won over a crowd who were mainly there for the occasion, and not necessarily the music. And that was just the start of the night; there was still Lisa Canny to come.

Lisa also adapts her live arrangements according to the size of the venue. She’s perfectly happy with just the harp and banjo, but this was also a full band set. Lisa’s originally from Cork and a traditional Irish music background; that background is part of what she’s about now, but there’s a lot more. She blends Celtic influences with pop and rap to create a totally infectious mix that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. I’m not exaggerating when I say that at times most of the audience was absolutely stunned by what they were seeing and hearing. And then the finale; Lisa playing a projected laser harp (honest, and I was stone-cold sober). A bit of a night.

Skatalites & The Majestic & Nell’s Jazz & Blues

Another night out with Steve J and Mrs J in a slightly smaller venue. Nell’s is renowned for its intimate atmosphere, with a cabaret layout and a very chilled vibe. I hadn’t heard The Majestic before and I loved the band; proper roots reggae. They’ve been around for years doing their thing around West London and they’re such a powerful reggae unit. It’s not about individuals, it’s about everyone playing their part to create a slinky, sinuous groove. I hear a band like this and I can’t understand why there are people who say they don’t get reggae.

 

I didn’t know what to expect from Skatalites, apart from the obvious “Guns of Navarone”. The membership may not be the originals, but most of these guys have been in the band for decades. They’re tight and punchy with the classic tenor sax, trumpet and trombone horn section. It’s a pleasure to hear guys who are this good just doing their thing; but that’s not all. Part way through the set they were joined by the phenomenal ‘Queen of Ska’, Doreen Schaffer. She’s looking a little fragile now, but the voice is still there and the audience loved it. I think I had something in my eye at one point.

It was a taste of carnival at the end of October.

Not so much a gig review as a triumphant celebration, I think. On March 16 2017 I was talking to Martin Harley after a gig he’d played with Daniel Kimbro at The Forge in Camden. He told me that he’d booked The Union Chapel for a gig in March 2018 and he was hoping he could make it work because he’d always wanted to play there. That’s the kind of romantic idealism that will always blindside me; I was sold on the idea instantly. Flash forward fifty-one weeks and I was listening to Martin, standing in front of the stage at The Union Chapel two hours before showtime telling me that the night was almost sold out on pre-sales. It was a bit of a “Field of Dreams” moment; flying in the face of the best professional advice, he filled The Union Chapel and decided to film the event as well.

I suppose you want to know what actually happened on the night. Well, it was opened by Mike Dawes, an incredible finger-style guitar player who combined virtuoso-level technique and passionate playing with outrageous stagecraft and a wicked sense of humour. You should really make the effort to see him play; you’ll fall in love instantly. Just for trivia fans, his first ever gig was supporting Martin Harley eleven years ago.

As for Martin and Daniel, this gig was the perfect demonstration of what they do. They’re gifted songwriters, they have superb voices (Daniel’s sweet tones complementing Martin’s more bluesy and soulful rasp) and they each play a couple of instruments incredibly well, Martin playing acoustic guitar and Weissenborn while Daniel plays upright bass and acoustic guitar. The atmosphere on stage was so relaxed that a thousand-capacity venue had the intimacy of a house gig where the performers were sipping and chilling and just enjoying the vibe. The highlights are completely subjective, but Martin’s Weissenborn tour-de-force on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and Daniel’s environmental ballad “Loyston” are difficult to beat, apart from two very special moments.

The first was the opening song of the encore, an unplugged, stage-front-and-centre version of Martin’s gorgeous ballad “Winter Coat”. It was breath-taking. The second was the well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the encore; it was a celebration of a wonderful performance and an artist who had the faith to follow his dream. Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, I tip my hat to both of you. Book it and they will come.

Let’s start 2018 in the traditional way by dusting off the Riot Squad crystal ball and having a peek into the next few months to see what we have to look forward to. As always, in no particular order.

After an absence of a couple of years to deal with serious health issues, Phil Burdett’s back in business again and firing out creative sparks in all directions. The action starts on Saturday January 27th at The Dickens in Southend with the launch gig for Phil’s latest album, “Psychopastoral”. He’ll be backed by the sublime Phil Burdett Group and the support band will be Winter. But that’s just the start; Phil has big plans for the rest of the year, including recording a double album of the songs written while he was in hospital, working on an art/film project and completing a book of poetry and a novel. We’ve got an interview with him coming up in the near future, so just watch this space. (Breaking news on this, Phil’s currently looking for a new venue for the gig on the 27th after The Dickens closed down over Christmas).

 

While we’re on the subject of grand ambitions, let me tell you about Martin Harley. He’s doing a three week tour of the UK with upright bass player extraordinaire Daniel Kimbro. They work together perfectly as a duo, both live and in the studio. The songwriting’s first class, the playing’s perfect and the harmonies are superb; even the chat between songs is interesting and often hilarious. Anyway, one of Martin’s ambitions is to play the Union Chapel in Islington, so he’s booked it for the last night of the tour on Saturday March 10th and he’s promoting the gig himself. It’s the perfect venue for Martin’s music and the Riot Squad will be out in force to support such a brave venture.

 

Another musical partnership we’ve been following for some time is Dean Owens and Will Kimbrough. Will’s guitar playing is in high demand; I lost count of the albums I reviewed in 2017 that featured Will’s playing, but he’s built a special relationship with Dean that’s led to a full-scale collaboration on their latest album “Southern Wind”. We’ve had some sneak previews here and we’ll be reviewing it in the next couple of weeks ahead of the official release date of Friday February 16 on At The Helm Records. You’ll love it.

 

2017 saw the release of the ‘lost’ PP Arnold album and the announcement she’s going to be making an album this year at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studio. It’s fantastic that “The Turning Tide” has finally been found, but even better that Pat is actually making original music again. And there’s plenty of speculation round the water cooler here at Riot towers about possible guest appearances and collaborations on the new album.

 

Finally, and this is specifically a London thing for the moment, late January will see the launch of Talentbanq, the latest venture for Ray Jones. Ray, former Development Director at Time Out has a passion for music that would shame most journalists and he’s always been willing to put a lot of time and effort into promoting new talent. Now that he’s no longer at Time Out he’s focussing his energies on promoting up-and-coming artists with Talentbanq. We’re still waiting for more details, but we do know that it’s going to be an interesting ride.

 

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

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

Martin Harley

 

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

Hannah Aldridge

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

Michael McDermott

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

Brigitte DeMeyer

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

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

DM001_Digi_LR_templateThe more I hear of Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, the more I realise how perfect the combination is; it was a good day for fans of real music when these guys first met up. Not only are they supremely gifted individuals, but when they play together the total is much more than the sum of the parts. Martin Harley’s developed a well-deserved reputation as a Weissenborn player, but this album constantly reminds you that he has a cracking blues/soul voice that puts him in the top division of singers in that genre. I don’t think Otis Redding’s too fanciful as a comparison, or maybe Frankie Miller if you want something a bit closer to home. And that’s just Martin Harley; Daniel Kimbro’s a master of his craft as well, plucking, bowing, rasping, slapping and generally coaxing some very interesting noises out of his stand-up bass while backing up Martin’s voice with some sweet harmonies. I don’t often look forward to bass solos, but I make an exception in Daniel Kimbro’s case. Every time.

The songs then; they must be the weak point, no? Afraid not; this isn’t just about showcasing some excellent playing, Martin’s writing’s spot-on as well, pulling in influences from all over the world and melding them into authentic twentieth-century roots music that includes love songs like the Southern soul-tinged “My Lover’s Arms” with its lovely guitar fills running through the song and even some honky-tonk piano, and the poetic “Postcard from Hamburg” with lines like ‘The sky’s crying diamonds’.

The honky-tonk feel of the album’s opener, “One-Horse Town” and the uptempo country blues of “Feet Don’t Fail Me” ease you gently in to the album with some lyrical and instrumental invention before giving way to the homesick blues of “Postcard from Hamburg” and the ominous, louring despair of “Gold” and its escape into a soaring solo. I could tell you more about the wizardry of “Dancing on the Rocks” and the claustrophobic atmospherics of “Mean Old City (Part 2)”. I could go on about how good this album is, how it’s a perfect combination of two players (and singers) at the top of their game, and about the great understanding they have and how I don’t understand why people aren’t raving about Martin Harley, but I have a better idea. Instead of taking my word for it, go out and see them on their tour of the UK, Europe and Canada (details on the Martin’s website). That’s better than any recommendation from me, and then you’ll definitely buy the album.

“Static in the Wires” is released in the UK on Friday February 10th on Del Mundo Records.

I admit it; I’ve been really lucky this year. I’ve been to loads of gigs featuring bands and artists across a range of musical styles and I haven’t seen a bad one; fifty-two weeks of great gigs and now I have to pick out my five favourites. It was never going to be easy and the gigs that made this list were truly special for many different reasons. So, in no particular order, here we go.

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – Indig02 October 2016

little-stevenLittle Steven, Steven van Zandt, Miami Steve, Silvio from The Sopranos. This is someone who’s had a huge impact on popular culture as an Asbury Juke, an E-Streeter, an actor and the man who wrote the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City”. If you grew up loving The Boss and Southside Johnny (and I did) you knew and loved this man. When I heard about this gig, part of the BluesFest at the O2, my only concern was to get a photo pass. Despite pulling every string I could, there was no joy, but I wasn’t giving up, so I borrowed my wife’s camera (a Nikon Coolpix P530 for the record) to try to grab one good shot of the main man. The thirteen-piece band (with horn charts written by fellow E-Streeter and Juke Ed Manion) was stunningly good as Steven ran through a set of his own songs, blues covers and old soul classics. There wasn’t a second’s respite and there was even a guest appearance from Richie Sambora. And I got the photo. What a night.

Underhill Rose @ Green Note

02-eleanorI’d been looking forward to this one for months, ever since I missed them at the same venue in April because of other commitments. After a lovely meal with Plus One, we made our way to the venue a fashionable fifteen minutes after doors open, only to find that the doors were still firmly closed and there were no lights. Power failure? Not a problem; the Green Note team lit up the venue with dozens of candles and Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson decided to play a genuinely unplugged set. The setting was perfect for the band’s beautiful melodies and glorious tight harmonies and created a level of intimacy that even Green Note doesn’t achieve very often. During the interval the power was restored, but Eleanor, Molly and Salley decided to carry on with a second completely acoustic set. A magical night.

Pete Wylie/The Mighty Wah @Water Rats 09/11/16

pete-wylieAs memorable as the previous gig but for very different reasons. I was a big fan of Pete Wylie in the eighties, but somehow managed to avoid seeing him live. This was the chance to find out what I’d been missing. Water Rats is a room at the back of a pub in Kings Cross; cosy but with a great atmosphere. The last time I was there, there were three people watching a band; me, the band’s manager and the sound engineer. This was different; ten minutes after the doors opened, it was rammed; not only that, but rammed with fans, people who wanted to see Pete Wylie. In that atmosphere, failure wasn’t an option. Pete has put together another powerful incarnation of The Mighty Wah! and their playing throughout was spot on; subtle when necessary and thunderous for the anthems; and there were plenty of those. It was a night of passion, humour and power with a performer who knows his worth and an audience who know their music. It wasn’t just a nostalgia trip either. He featured a stunning new anthem, “I Still Believe”, from his upcoming album titled, with typical Wylie moxie, “Pete Sounds”. The will to survive’s come back.

Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @St Pancras Old Church

Martin Harley scrollerRewind to the beginning of the year as musicians start to emerge after their short hibernation and the lovely St Pancras Old Church (lovely if you aren’t a photographer). It was gloves, woolly hat and brass monkeys looking for welders weather, but inside the church a full house was waiting for Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro. This was one of those intimate gigs where two incredibly accomplished musicians play material they love to play with a passion that the audience taps into, leaving everyone with a warm glow. Playing mainly Weissenborn (Martin) and upright bass (Daniel) the two wove complex textures that sometimes had you wondering where all of the other musicians were hidden. The two voices worked perfectly together and the interplay between songs was sometimes hilarious with Martin’s ‘Englishman Abroad’ persona as the subject of Daniel’s dry observations. Good news is they’ll be back next year. This was the only gig this year where I actually wanted to hear a bass solo (and I wasn’t disappointed).

Michael McDermott @Twickfolk, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham 04/12/16

08-michaelI waited until seeing this gig before selecting my five favourites of the year. After hearing Michael’s two superb albums released this year (the “Willow Springs” solo and “Six on the Out” by his band The Westies), I wasn’t going to miss this performance. It was a solo show, using guitar and keyboard (and the inevitable harmonica) to create different textures and settings for the songs. Stripping away the full-band arrangements allowed the audience to focus on the quality of the writing and the raw emotional roar of Michael’s voice. The first half of the show, featuring songs taken mainly from the 2016 albums was an intense experience, emotional, sometimes harrowing and primal, songs punctuated by monologues which were surreal, often hilarious and sometimes tinged with sorrow. The second half was less of a roller-coaster but still packed with great songs. Michael McDermott provokes the same sensation I had when I listened to early Springsteen for the first time; there’s poetry, passion and a grim and gritty reality in his work that grabs you by the lapels and stares you straight in the eyes; you know that he’s lived the life. This is for real.

Martin Harley scrollerIt’s a bit like an eclipse; the perfect gig depends on the alignment of artist, venue and audience and it doesn’t happen too often, so it was a privilege to see Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro play to a full house at St Pancras Old Church. Martin and Daniel got together originally in the US and, after touring together, made the album “Live at Southern Ground” in a single afternoon. So the logical next step was to tour in support of the album and that’s how they came to be playing a beautiful and acoustically perfect venue just behind the Eurostar terminal.

Martin and Daniel display the relaxation on stage that comes from complete mastery of your craft. Instrumentally they’re both at the top of their game, but they both have great voices and they’re accomplished songwriters. They aren’t trying to prove anything, they just want to play (and maybe sell a few albums). Throughout the set they created a rapport and intimacy with the audience, telling self-deprecating stories about life on the road and Martin’s first corndog, eaten onstage during a festival gig.

And they played some music as well, covering his career from the eponymous 2003 debut up to “Southern Ground” and a few covers as well, including Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, the Leadbelly classic “Goodnight Irene” and that old Bible Belt favourite, Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”. Highlights; yep, there were a few of those. The second song in, “I Can’t be Satisfied” featured an enthralling Daniel Kimbro bass solo (I know, I’m praising a bass solo, but it probably won’t happen again for a long time) and “Blues at my Window” in D minor (the saddest of all keys) which built up to an incredible finish with what seemed like three Weissenborns playing together (a feat which was repeated at the end of “Chocolate Jesus”) at the end of the evening.

In the second set, “Goodnight Irene” was taken at a beautifully languorous pace with plenty of Weissenborn fills and the lovely “Winter Coat” took off when Daniel Kimbro’s harmonies kicked in Two superb sets followed by a bravura encore of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”. It really doesn’t get any better; two virtuosi playing together to create an unrepeatable experience for the select few crammed into a beautiful acoustic space.

Just a word about the audience; I’d expected the usual blues crowd of male aficionados in their sixties, but the majority of the crowd was in the twenty-to-forty age group with even a scattering of under-tens. They were buying a huge amount of albums in the interval, including the vinyl version of “Southern Ground”, so maybe there’s hope for real music yet.

 

Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro - 'Live at Southern Ground' - TitleI don’t know if it’s a coincidence or if this is going on all the time, but this is the second album we’ve reviewed in two weeks that was recorded live at Southern Ground in Nashville. Martin Harley, roots acoustic and slide maestro has teamed up with upright bass player Daniel Kimbro to revisit some of his own back catalogue and rework a few classics as well. Just to add a little pressure to the situation, they decided to record the whole album in a day. Now there are a couple of ways you can look at a project like this. You could see it as an easy way of knocking out an album without having to write any new material, but it’s obvious from the opening sitar-like slide and menacing bowed double bass of “Cardboard King” (from the “Mojo Fix” album) that this is the real thing; it’s two craftsmen giving a masterclass in acoustic blues arrangement and playing, and it sounds like they just happen to be having a lot of fun while at the same time. “Live at Southern Ground” also serves as a great example of the variety and dynamic range you can produce from two players and two voices, especially when they’re as good as this.

The non-originals on the album demonstrate Martin and Daniel’s interpretative abilities; “Goodnight Irene” is slowed down to an almost funereal pace with plenty of room for slide fills and raw emotional vocals while Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus” is taken at an almost frantic pace and features a solo which build and builds to the point where you wonder how many Weissenborns Martin’s actually playing. Blind Willy Johnson’s “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” sticks much more closely to the original (well, a lot closer than the Zeppelin version). Of the songs from Martin’s excellent “Drumrolls for Somersaults” album, the lovely “Winter Coat” is taken at a slower pace and works well in a stripped-down version with perfect harmonies from Daniel, while “Honey Bee” becomes a fast country blues as a contrast to the original rockabilly version, and “Love in the Afternoon” has a greater emphasis on the Django Rheinhardt stylings than the original.

And then, when you think it’s all over (spoiler alert), check your time display (or just look at your vinyl) because there’s a hidden track. It’s a new take on “Blues at my Window” from the 2008 “Grow Your Own” album with Martin displaying his slide virtuosity while Daniel’s bowed bass moves from the growling, menacing bottom end up into the cello range to supply counter melodies. If you want a reason for making the album, this is it; there’s a song framework in place, but it’s all about the two players finding space to make their own creative contributions, and they do it to perfection.

“Live at Southern Ground” has all the intimacy of a live performance in a small venue. It’s a bit like looking through a crack in the door to see what musicians do when they think no-one’s watching or listening. Luckily, this time they decided to share it with the rest of us.

“Live at Southern Ground” is out on September 25th on Del Mundo Records (CD, Vinyl and download).