blue-highways-scrollerYou get to the end of an extensive tour, your band have been taking the roof off every night, but now they’re world-weary and road-raddled; they just want to go home and spend time with their families, so what do you do? Well, you book a studio for a couple of days to catch them while they’re still hot and blast through some of your favourite old blues songs. Well, that’s what Canadian bluesman Colin James did, and the result is “Blue Highways”, recorded live in the studio in two days at the end of his last tour. It captures the raw energy of live performance with studio quality without compromising either side of that delicate balance.

What about the material? Well, it’s thirteen of Colin’s favourite blues(ish) tunes covering a pretty good chunk of the blues canon, from the opener “Boogie Funk” (more boogie than funk, I think) with harmonica, Hammond, a simple electric riff and the classic guitar/Hammond solo interplay to the solo acoustic closer “Last Fair Deal”. It’s a pretty good demonstration of Colin’s feel for the whole blues spectrum. The Muddy Waters song “Gypsy Woman” evokes, well, Muddy Waters, as does the honky-tonk “Hoodoo Man Blues”, sounding like seventies McKinley Morganfield with his sidekicks James Cotton and Pinetop Perkins.

Lonesome” is a jazzy uptempo shuffle with some lovely guitar fills and “Big Road Blues” is great fun with a slide riff and two lead guitars, but it’s when the band moves away from the standard blues that things get really interesting with the acoustic blues of “Last Fair Deal” and the harmonica-driven “Riding in the Moonlight”; the electric material’s good, but the acoustic songs really stand out. Finally, it’s a brave singer that takes on a song that’s been performed superbly by Otis Redding and William Bell in the past, but Colin’s slow soul take on “Don’t Miss Your Water” is a creditable effort, with a vocal that has hints of the UK’s own Aynsley Lister. It’s not breaking any new ground, but it’s a good demonstration of a band at the top of their game.

“Blue Highways” is released on True North Records of Friday November 25.

Keegan McInroe ScrollerKeegan McInroe seems pretty relaxed about the whole process of touring, in fact he seems pretty relaxed all round. If you listen to his latest album, “Uncouth Pilgrims”, you’ll know that he’s travelled extensively and used his experiences to create some great songs. It’s obvious from the moment you open the door of The Lighthouse on Battersea Park Road that it’s not the ideal gig for a singer/songwriter. It’s Friday night, noisy and full of the ‘few beers after work’ crowd, but Keegan doesn’t seem too bothered; it’s a gig he’s done since his first tour here in 2004 even though the pub has changed hands and function since then. Having a quick chat before the gig, he’s remarkably unfazed by the audience, explaining that he’ll just play a few more covers than usual and some of the songs from the new album.

And that’s just what he did. His own material, mainly from the new album, was slotted fairly evenly into the two sets and included “Lumberjack Blues”, “Give Me the Rain”, “I Got Trouble”, “Flower Song for Barefoot Dancers”, “Nikolina” and “Lay Down”. The stripped-down versions worked beautifully live and the audience didn’t distract too much; there was even a fair smattering of applause around the room.

As for the covers, well, he didn’t put a foot wrong; he even played a couple of unexpected old favourites of mine. There were songs by the songwriting giants (Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and a tribute to Merle Haggard) and a few less predictable choices. Only three songs in, he made the brave choice of tackling Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” and, despite a fairly noisy crowd, he made it work. The more esoteric song choices added the spice that made the evening unique; Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Life by the Drop” and Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” (both stories of addiction) introduced an element of pathos, while Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” and Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” (which closed the second set) gave Keegan the chance to demonstrate his blues licks.

If this gig had been in an established ‘listening room’, the audience chatter would have been hugely distracting, but it was a free gig in a local pub and Keegan took a pragmatic view of the situation, playing to the people who were interested and tuning out those who weren’t. His own songs are well crafted and worked perfectly in the stripped-down format. He’s also a really nice guy.

Uncouth Pilgrims” is released on Friday May 27th

MojoDeluxeCover TitleYou would never guess that “Mojo Deluxe” is Bob Malone’s seventh album; granted it’s packed with the kind of accomplished playing, tipping over into virtuosity, that you would expect from seasoned players, but there’s a vitality and freshness here that wouldn’t be out of place on a debut album. There’s another magic ingredient as well; fun. There’s the odd studio comment left in on an intro or outro, but it’s more than that; this album sounds like people having a good time; the kind of fun you have when you’re doing what you do best, with a bunch of musicians who are tuned in to what you do.

Just like the “Mojo EP”, a sampler for the album released in the UK a year ago, “Mojo Deluxe” kicks open the doors with an electric piano riff and pounding bass on “A Certain Distance” that say ‘Go on, just try and ignore me’. Don’t even try; just surrender to the rhythm and enjoy the ride. You might be willing to forgive a jaw-droppingly good keyboard player with a classic gravelly blues voice if he just phoned in some lyrics to fit the great tunes but, guess what, Bob Malone has that covered as well. “A Certain Distance”, “I’m Not Fine” and “Rage and Cigarettes” all tap into the malaise that afflicts gifted musicians confined with others like themselves on tour; you’re locked into a dysfunctional world where you come to hate your travelling companions, but you hate outsiders even more. It’s not as snarky as Donald Fagen, but then what is?

But, there’s more to life than snark. “Paris” is a gentle love song, overturning the clichés with the message that Paris is all very well, but doesn’t mean anything if your lover’s somewhere else; there’s even the irony of an accordion solo. “Toxic Love” is a love song in its own brooding, menacing way with slide dobro and sinister hissing vocal; it’s an affair you wouldn’t expect to turn out too well. There’s a couple of blues covers as well, the Ray Charles classic “Hard Times”, which gets a very clean modern workout with a punchy guitar solo, and a lo-fi, piano-led version of Muddy Waters’ “She Moves Me”. The instrumental, “Chinese Algebra” is a demonstration of Bob’s piano technique which works equally well with the band arrangement or the solo version that you can find all over YouTube; it’s another one of those bits of fun that spice up the album.

“Looking for the Blues” and “Don’t Threaten Me (With a Good Time)” are both uptempo blues numbers with all the trimmings including horns and backing vocals (even a funky clavinet on “Don’t Threaten Me…”); great fun again. “Watching Over Me” and “Can’t Get There from Here” both have a world-weary gospel feel and bring the album to a satisfactory if slightly melancholy close. And that’s it for “Mojo Deluxe”; it’s an enticing stew of Muddy Waters, Ray Charles, Dr John and mainly Bob Malone. Once you’ve tried it, you’ll be coming back for more.

Bob will be touring the UK with his superb band later this year. Go and see him at any of these venues and see what all the fuss is all about:

Friday October 9                     The Railway Hotel, Southend-on-Sea

Saturday October 10              Boogaloo Blues Weekend, Yarmouth, Isle of Wight

Sunday October 11                The Navy Club, Maryport

Wednesday October 14          Dusty’s Blues Club, High Wycombe

Thursday October 15              The Green Hotel, Kinross

Friday October 16                   The Blue Lamp, Aberdeen

Sunday October 18                Hope Tavern, West Lindsey

Tuesday October 20               Blues Café, Harrogate

Wednesday October 21          Railway Venue, Bromley Cross, Bolton

Thursday October 22              The Jam House, Birmingham

Friday October 23                   Keighley Blues Club

Saturday October 24              Catholic Club, Peterlee

Monday October 26                The Bullingdon (Haven Club), Oxford

Tuesday October 27               The 100 Club, London

Wednesday October 28          The Jazz Café, Cardiff

“Mojo Deluxe” is released on August 21.

SaltwaterIf you happen to have dipped a toe in the pool that is the British blues scene recently, you may have noticed that there are some very snappy critters swimming there waiting for the unwary. As with any scene that’s out of the mainstream, it’s inevitable that cliques develop, a fact that isn’t helped by too many performers chasing too few fans. It’s a classic supply and demand situation. As well as reducing the cash available to performers, it creates a situation where greed and selfishness seem to be excusable and some of those critters in that pool are piranhas. You can hear accusations of nepotism, award-rigging and other bits of nastiness, but the worst thing you can do is to question someone’s authenticity, which is ironic given that the players who are currently really successful are imitating the players from the 60s and 70s who imitated the original blues artists from the 30s and 40s.

Ok, so here’s where that was all heading; I’ve been listening to an album by John Fairhurst. The album’s called “Saltwater” and it’s not full of tasteful imitations of Clapton playing “Further on Up the Road” or “Key to the Highway”; the inspiration here comes from Howlin’ Wolf, Muddy Waters, Little Walter and many others. The smoothness has been filtered out and this goes back to the raw earthiness of early country blues and Chicago electric blues.

John Fairhurst is originally from Wigan; he now lives in Bristol and recorded this album in Bristol and London with the help of Toby Murray (drums), Joe Strouzer (harmonica and vocals), Emma Divine (vocals), Tim Loudon (bass), Luke Barter (bass), Jago Whitehead (drums & percussion), Phil Jewson (piano), Saul Wodak (guitar effects) and Alex Beitzke (bass). I have a little confession to make about the album; on the first listen, I was halfway through before I actually started to get it (during the guitar solo on “I’m Coming Home”, actually). I blame it on the previous review I did, which was a very cleanly-produced singer-songwriter and it took a while to move from that to the over-driven guitar, wailing harmonica and Tom-Waits-dukes-it-out-with-Mark-Lanegan vocals. So let’s go back to the start.

The two opening songs, “Breakdown” and “Who You Fooling” get things off to a raucous start with plenty of amped-up slide and harmonica to get things rolling before the album’s only cover, the Mississippi John Hurt song “Pay Day”, which is much gentler, using the old country blues devices of repeated lines and call and response with the help of the Dean Street Choir. There’s even a sneaky little Eric Clapton reference at the end. “More More More” and “Time Goes By” are rooted in the rural, country blues tradition, the first having a UK skiffle feel while “Time Goes By” could be Tom Waits with the badly-tuned pub piano accompaniment.

You couldn’t really describe “I’m Coming Home” as blues; it’s a mutant Jimi Hendrix/Neil Young hybrid with “Voodoo Chile”-style riff and fill playing in the verses and a Shakey-style solo from the “American Stars and Bars” era. It’s the first of the album’s epic pieces. “No Shelter” is another elemental piece built around a simple (but loud) guitar riff and a reasonably good choice for the album’s first single while “Black Cat” is pure Muddy Waters; it’s a straight-ahead twelve-bar with belting harmonica and that always sounds good to me. So, more of the same to finish the album off?

No way; the penultimate song, written by the whole band, is “Dance in the Pines”, a mad surf-punk piece which splices DNA from The Cramps, Dick Dale and The Ventures. It’s off the wall and it’s brilliant. The album’s closer and title track, “Saltwater” is the magnum opus and absolutely has to be the last track; it wouldn’t be as effective anywhere else on the album. The song, which is a restyling of the Robert Johnson “Crossroads” story substituting the ocean for Clarksdale, has the singer refusing to shake hands with The Devil. It’s an epic which starts with acoustic guitar and vocal (slipping into a Wigan accent) which builds through a rural bluegrass-tinged to a kitchen-sink finale featuring Emma Divine delivering a vocal which easily equals Clare Torry’s famous performance on “Great Gig in the Sky”. And it’s the last track on the album because you can’t follow that; job done.

If you’re sick of hearing second and third generation blues revivalists recycling smooth guitar licks and bland vocals (no, I’m not naming names) then this could be just the album for you; don’t file under easy listening.

Out now (JF005).