OK, I know I’ve already done my favourite five gigs of the year, but sometimes you see or hear something very special at a gig and it puts all of those cold nights on public transport or long drives to and from gigs into perspective; something which stops you in your tracks and makes you smile or cry or just amazes you. I’ve seen a few of those this year and I thought it would be rude not to share them. Once again, in no particular order, here they are.
Billy Walton is always likely to do something a bit special and he didn’t disappoint at The Buzz Club in Barnet in May. During a guitar solo, he dropped seamlessly into the guitar riff from the Led Zeppelin classic “Kashmir” for a few bars before nailing the intro to one of my teenage favourites “25 or 6 to 4”, recorded by Chicago before they discovered ballads. In true New Jersey tradition, the band locked in instantly while Billy gave it his best “Yeah, I did just do that” grin. Great fun and just a bit strange to hear a guitar solo featuring a fragment of a song that I loved when I was just starting to get into music seriously. You go to a Billy Walton gig, you expect the unexpected.
Paul Rose is one of those blues artists who’s well-known within the blues community but virtually unknown out of it; he’s also a great guitar player. He put together the Paul Rose All-Stars to record an album of standards and to tour the UK this year featuring a couple of ex-members of Was (Not Was), guitarist Randy Jacobs and singer Sweet Pea Atkinson. As a fan of Was (Not Was), that alone would have sold it to me but there was more to come. Towards the end of the set, the band launched into a storming version if the brilliant W(nW) Dallas motorcade song “11 MPH” played with much more attitude and venom than the original and it worked perfectly. I always love it when a band stamps its own personality on a cover and this was a stunning example.
The Kennedys show at Kings Place in London had a couple great moments. I’ve already mentioned “Rhapsody in Blue” elsewhere but there was another moment which was much more personal. Since reviewing The Kennedys album “Closer than you Know”, I couldn’t shake off Maura’s tribute to the late Alex Chilton, “Big Star Song”. It pushes most of my buttons with the Byrds/Merseybeat sus4 chords and a great melody as well as being a moving tribute to a pop legend. So, how pleased do you think I felt when they played the song? Dog with two tails doesn’t even come close, but then it got even better. Apparently The Kennedys don’t play “Big Star Song” live very often, so my experience was rare and special. Thank you Maura and Pete.
I always love to see musicians having a good time and most soloists enjoy trading licks with another player; it’s a challenge and a crowd pleaser. After playing a support set at the Garage in Islington, Aynsley Lister was brought back by headliner Joe Louis Walker to jam for a couple of songs and turned what had been a fairly standard back catalogue set into a highly entertaining sparring match between two players from different generations with a huge amount of mutual respect. Both players were obviously having a great time and the momentum carried on through the remainder of Joe Louis Walker’s set. The audience loved it and the musicians loved it; double bubble.
And finally, Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band. As much as I love Bruce’s music, I had never seen him live before, mainly because I hate stadium and arena gigs, but I finally succumbed this year. Musically, the E Street Band have always been superb (just listen to the Hammersmith Odeon 1975 live album) but The Boss always keeps it fresh by throwing a few curve balls and there’s always a few bits of pure showbiz thrown in as well. At Hard Rock Calling in London this year, he pulled out two memorable and genuinely surprising moments when he brought his mum on stage to dance with him on “Dancing in the Dark” and then brought his sister, Pam, on to join him at the end of the set. These appearances were special because they were surprising and they emphasised the importance of family to Springsteen (including his extended Jersey shore family) and brought a couple of genuinely moving moments into the rock’n’roll circus.
You can keep your big screens, acrobatics, pyrotechnics and instrument smashing, it’s the prospect of moments like these that will make me jump on the train on a rainy Tuesday in January to go and watch a new band in 2014.
I love this; it’s time for the High Fives again and it’s a very different challenge this year with my live selections. I had to work really hard to bring this down to just five gigs, but I think this just about sums it up. In no particular order, here they are.
The Kennedys @Kings Place
This was one of the many venues I visited for the first time this year and it was a perfect place to see Pete and Maura Kennedy live proving that you can create musical perfection with just two guitars and two voices. As well as having a stack of their own songs to create a set from (with plenty of input from the audience) they very generously feature songs by other writers and give the audience plenty of background about the songs and writers as well. I know you’ll find this difficult to believe, but they also did something that left me speechless; Pete played a ukulele version of George Gershwin’s “Rhapsody in Blue” which was stunning. And I got to hear a live version of “Big Star Song” which had been impossible to get out of my head after reviewing the album. And they are two genuinely lovely people.
Predictable, me? The truth is, I’ve seen Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes dozens of times and I’ve never seen a bad gig. I’ve also never seen anything resembling the same set twice. But I’m getting ahead of myself. We got to the venue just as the support band, Federal Charm, were starting their set and the impact was instant; frontmen Nick Bowden and Paul Bowe trading riffs and solos under Nick’s incredibly powerful lead vocal. They’ve got self-assurance by the bucketload and a bunch of great songs as well. And that was just the support act. Southside Johnny, surrounded by a bunch of Jukes that have been playing as a unit for a few years now, looked more relaxed than I’ve seen him in years and sounded better than ever. They played a set that wasn’t too reliant on the old classics, but was still appreciated by the old fans. As always, the audience (and most of the band) had no idea where the set was going next and we loved it.
Dean Owens @The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham
You might have noticed that the Riot Squad are big fans of Dean Owens. We’ve been telling you about his albums for a couple of years now but, living in London, it’s a bit of a challenge seeing a live show; luckily we like a challenge and the first one was getting the squad from various parts of London and the south-east to Twickenham on a Friday evening. When we finally made it, the venue was perfect; intimate with a nice sound system and a very appreciative audience. Ags Connolly (whose debut album on Drumfire Records was produced by Dean) opened the show with a strong bunch of songs before Dean delivered a great set built around the “Cash Back” album with loads of songs from earlier albums and audience requests thrown in. It’s worth adding that Dean has a very dry sense of humour and the audience interaction between songs was great fun as well. Top night and many thanks to Phil Penman and Drumfire for keeping the faith.
Marcus Bonfanti is the British blues equivalent of the Duracell bunny; he never stops working. During 2013, he released an album and did a solo acoustic tour and a full band tour to promote the album. I was lucky enough to see an acoustic show (in the unlikely environment of a casino in the West End) and a full band show in The Borderline. Both gigs were excellent and Marcus is a superb blues player and singer with a great line in self-deprecatory chat and humour between songs. The highlight of each set was the wonderful “The Bittersweet”, one of the best new songs from any genre I’ve heard this year. All of the songs are so strong that they worked perfectly in a solo setting and with the full band; spot on musically and great fun as well.
Carrie Rodriguez @The Old Queen’s Head, Islington
Yet another venue that I haven’t visited before; this is a room above a pub with a capacity of about eighty. Yet again, the sound system was spot-on and the audience were very appreciative as Carrie, accompanied by Luke Jacobs (and playing between them fiddle, tenor guitar, acoustic and electric guitars and lap steel) rattled through two sets of songs taken mainly from her current album, “Give Me All You Got”, with some old favourites thrown in as well. The songs were very high quality, the playing and vocals were superb, and Carrie and Luke’s easy relationship with the audience made this a superb night.
It wasn’t easy picking just five great live shows from the many I’ve seen this year and I should really give a mention to some of the others who didn’t quite make the list. I saw great sets this year from Coco and the Butterfields, Henrik Freischlader, Billy Walton (four times), Paul Rose, Aynsley Lister, Elvis Costello, Civil Protection and Bruce Springsteen, but the five I’ve chosen here are the ones which surprised and delighted me.
Shall we get the rant out of the way first? There were two things that really ground my gears about this Paul Rose gig at the Jazz Cafe. First, is it impossible to get 300 people to come out on a Wednesday night in London to see and hear a jaw-droppingly good guitar player (not to mention the other members of a stunning live band)? Second thing; I hate it when people make a lot of noise when performers are trying to work and it’s even worse when those people are with a band who have just finished their set.
Jack Moore and his brother Gus were the victims of this particular type of moron at the Jazz Café, trying to compete with the rudest crowd I’ve ever seen outside of a corporate hospitality area. Their very short, blues-tinged acoustic set showed some really promising signs; they both sing well and Jack is a very good player. I’ll certainly make a point of going to see Jack Moore in a better environment as soon as I can; the songs I heard were strong and the playing was excellent.
The Paul Rose All-Stars are aptly named; the rock-solid rhythm section of Kenny Hutchison and Jim Drummond is augmented by guitarist and singer Randy Jacobs and two wonderful guest singers, Sweet Pea Atkinson and Terry Evans. This tour is in support of the new album “Double Life” and the set is divided pretty equally between the new material and Paul’s established crowd-pleasers. The two singers get to do their stuff with “Dark End of the Street”, “Let’s Straighten it Out”, “Ball and Chain”, “Uphill Climb”, “Just a Little Bit” and (eventually) “Cold Sweat”. As I expected, the songs sound even better live, particularly “Dark End..”. I love the James Carr version of this song, but I think the live Terry Evans version actually surpassed that.
The band mixes up the new material with a selection of older originals and covers and there are a few highlights here as well, including a funky version of the Robert Johnson classic “Crossroads”, the wonderful instrumental “Home” and a storming version of the Was (Not Was) song “11 MPH”’ not to mention a storming version of the “Get Carter” theme. If that’s not enough, there’s an encore of “All Along the Watchtower” as well.
If you read my review of “Double Life”, you’ll know that I described Paul Rose a virtuoso and this performance confirmed that. Most guitarists playing live these days use a battery of stomp boxes to beef up their sound but Paul Rose has a guitar and an amp; everything else is technique and he has a phenomenal mastery of his instrument. I’ve seen many great rock guitarists, but I’ve never seen anyone with so much technical ability.
This tour is very much about the band as well as Paul Rose, and the 2 singers Sweet Pea Atkinson and Terry Evans are outstanding soul/blues singers as well as being incredibly charismatic frontmen. Randy Jacobs spends most of the show taking a back seat to Paul Rose but, when he takes centre stage, he shows why he’s such a respected player (and singer). I would pay to watch any of these guys fronting up a band but playing together in this set-up is something else; all of their abilities are channelled into the songs and the end result is a stunning show. I smiled all the way home.
If you only ever listen to chart radio (and maybe watch “Later” every week) then the chances are that you won’t have heard of Paul Rose. I can’t imagine that you would hear him on 6 Music either. You might just get lucky with Paul Jones on Radio 2 on the right night. Paul Rose, like many other incredibly gifted players here and in the US, is a blues/rock guitarist and, from a commercial point of view, that’s a really difficult place to be at the moment. There’s a small but knowledgeable and enthusiastic live circuit in the UK and mainland Europe, but almost no chance of mainstream radio exposure or shelf space in the few remaining record shops. You have to admire the commitment of the musicians who carry on playing that circuit and releasing albums; they aren’t doing it for the Ferrari.
Paul Rose has released 11 albums before “Double Life” and has built up a reputation as a powerful live performer whose style is basically blues/rock with elements of jazz and soul and maybe a hint of country; this album shows hints of all of those styles. What’s certain to me is that he’s a guitar virtuoso and that always brings its own little set of problems, which I’ll get to a bit later. The album is a set of blues/jazz standards performed almost live in the studio over 15 days by a group of incredibly talented and experienced musicians including Randy Jacobs (rhythm guitar), Richie Morales (drums), Kenny Hutchison (bass) and Tio Banks (keyboards). The singers featured are Terry Evans, Raffia Ford, Bernard Fowler and Sweet Pea Atkinson. Now I’m not doing all the work for you here, but Bernard Fowler has been the Stones backing vocalist for as long as I can remember and Sweet Pea Atkinson was the singer with my favourite incarnation of Was (Not Was).
So, how does it sound? It sounds great actually; the band work together well through the variety of styles on the album from the riff-based rockers “Cold Sweat” and “Honey Hush” which open the album through the mid-tempo, soulful “Let’s Straighten it Out” and “Drowning in a Sea of Love” (with a bit of a Robert Cray feel), the soul ballad “If Loving You is Wrong I Don’t Want to be Right” to the slow blues of “Stormy Monday” which closes the album. There are plenty of reference points and influences; “If Loving You is Wrong…” has a Stones feel with the intertwined guitar intro, while “Just a Little Bit” reminds me of the Albert Collins song “Conversation with Collins”.
Most of the songs here have been covered so many times that you shouldn’t expect to hear any truly novel interpretations, but that isn’t the aim of the album. It’s about a group of musicians playing songs they know and love, having fun and producing a record that’s great to listen to while showcasing the musicians at their best. And that leads us on to my only little criticism.
When you can play as well as Paul Rose (and I did use the word virtuoso earlier), it’s easy to miss the line between great playing in the service of the song and technique for the sake of technique. On “Stormy Monday”, the slow blues style lends itself to guitar fills at the end of each of vocal line, which works really well for most of the song but, for me, becomes a bit intrusive at times, particularly when Paul uses violinning. As always, this is completely subjective and I’m prepared to be shot down in flames if loads of you contact us and say I’m talking out of my elbow.
With that very minor exception, I think this is a very, very good album. The quality of the playing is exceptional throughout, the arrangements are superb and each of the singers is perfect for the songs they do. If you like blues, then you should have this album in your collection and even if you don’t, you should give it a listen. If you want to know what they band’s live show is like, keep an eye on MusicRiot next week when I’ll be reviewing their London Jazz Café gig.
“Double Life” is released on Mita Records on Monday May 29.