Shaky Path to ArcadiaEvery time I hear some delusional, no-talent wannabe on a TV talent show (not often, I admit) it should make me despair for music in the twenty-first century. The reason it doesn’t is that I know about people like Phil Burdett, a genuine visionary who’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the epicentre of what masquerades as the music business today. When I interviewed Phil about eighteen months ago in downtown Leigh-on-Sea, he told me that he was working an album to follow “Dunfearing and the West Country High” as the second part of the “Secular Mystic Trilogy”. Not only that but he was also working on another trilogy that would begin with “Humble Ardour Refrains”. So, on a budget of threepence-halfpenny and some lollipop sticks, he’s recorded two albums for Drumfire Records with some fabulous musicians from the Southend and Canvey area (more about the musicians later) and he’s releasing both of them at the same time.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” carries on where its predecessor left off, looking west towards the USA from Cornwall, but it’s a metaphorical and musical destination and it’s not the only direction the album goes in, geographically or temporally, before returning to Cornwall to complete the cycle. Without slipping in to ‘sixth-form-literary-criticism’ mode, I’m going to say that there’s a lot going on lyrically and the deeper you dig, the more precious stones you’ll unearth. The lyrics are strewn with references to American music and culture; there’s no mistaking the reference point for “Christmas in Casablanca”, but elsewhere there are references to Joe Hill, Billie Holiday, Dylan, Little Richard and many, many more. There are Dadaist references, travel references (trains, boats and buses and almost a plane) and if you look really closely, a lot of references to Basildon. There’s a lot of autobiography in there, but you need to know where and how to look.

Even without the lyrical content, you could listen to the album and be enthralled by Phil’s rich, powerful vocals and the performances of the band over a wide range of styles. From the mainly acoustic opening song, “Returning to Earth” to the counterpoint vocals in the coda of the album’s closer “I Dreamed I Saw Carl Wilson Last Night”, the band sounds superb. It’s ensemble playing at its finest; particularly on “Hellbound & Innocent” where a melodic bass line from Russ Strothard, an insanely catchy clipped John Bennett guitar hook and Jack Corder’s drums recreate the clickety-clack of the train on the track to perfection. Dee Hunter’s piano is the perfect foil for Phil’s voice on the haunting “Christmas in Casablanca” while Steve Stott’s fiddle on “Come Out Without a Hat (It’s Bound to Rain)” and “New Greyhound Rag” give an authentic country/bluegrass feel to the songs. And let’s not forget Colleen McCarthy’s lovely backing vocals and producer Mark Elliott’s esoteric samples.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” is an example of how good an album can be when it’s put together by people who love what they do and they do it very, very well. Put the players together with another superb set of songs from the polymath poet of Westcliff-on-Sea and you’ve got a very fine album indeed. Any proper record collection should have some Phil Burdett in it and this is as good a place as any to start. “Humble Ardour Refrains” coming soon.

“Shaky Path to Arcadia” and “Humble Ardour Refrains” are both available to pre-order now from Drumfire Records.

Phil PenmanPhil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.

 

 

Into the SeaAlbum of the Year (aka I Love My Label)

In the literal sense Dean Owens’Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.

 DartsI Love My Job Sometimes

Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.

Sleaford ModsKeeping The Fires Burning (aka One That Nearly Got Away)

Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them.  Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability.  Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.

 Hannah Rose PlattBright Young Thing

One nomination for this category of mine this year.  I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.

 

Death Cab for CutieReturn to Form

Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases:  John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’sKintsugi”.

 

Two of Allan’s High Five albums this year were released on Drumfire Records so it was a ridiculously obvious choice to ask the owner of the label (and live music promoter) Phil Penman to contribute to this feature. Once again, we got some really interesting choices.

When Allan ask me to contribute to High Fives, I thought that it would be easy – just pick five albums, I thought. But I wracked my brains and (not including Drumfire Records releases) I could not come up with a single 2014 album I thought was truly ‘great’.  A dozen or so ‘good’ albums but nothing to change my life. Maybe I just haven’t found them yet. So what did excite me in 2014?

The SoundI Love My Job Sometimes.

The Sound – “Box Set #1” (“Jeopardy”, “From the Lion’s Mouth” and “All Fall Down”). Privileged to work on this and truly delighted with the results, and even happier to be working on a second box set for Feb 2015 release. Adrian Borland is sadly missed. The music from this great band has really stood the test of time. Consistently high standard.

 

 

John GrantOne that nearly got away.

Not from 2014, but new to me. John Grant – 2 albums of enormous beauty that I’ve listened to more than any others: “The Queen of Denmark” and “Pale Green Ghosts”. It was hearing these that made me realise how much I crave music that is new to my ears and not just the latest in a succession from artists I already know and love.

 

 

The CarnabysBright Young Things.

Great to see local boys The Carnabys release their debut album “No Money on The Moon”. Great hard working lads, winners of Hard Rock Rising and an album that really exudes the energy and honesty they deliver live. These boys perform with smiles on their faces, which is so refreshing – not po-faced, earnest trying-too-hard-to-be-trendy. Not ground-breaking perhaps, but if you get a chance, see them live. With the right breaks they could be huge. Accessible rock.

 

Urge for OffalReturn To Form (Again).

Proving that quality can go on and on, the only time this year when one song had me running to the shop to buy the album. Half Man Half Biscuit’sWestward Ho! –Massive Letdown” was that song. “Urge for Offal” is a good album, which also contains my lyric of the year: ‘‘Cresta! What the fuck were we drinking?!’

 

 

DrumfireI Love My Label.

Ok, so I couldn’t not mention it. Drumfire released two albums in 2014 and both made Allan McKay’s High Five. We made our first ever piece of vinyl – Ags Connolly’sHow About Now’, we hosted great shows with Dean Owens, Martin Stephenson, and Clive Gregson…. but my favourite thing?  Phil Burdett’s launch show in Westcliff. I’d only ever seen Phil perform solo. The launch show with full band made me fall in love with his music all over again. World, you don’t know what you are missing.

In parting, I’ll add that I’ve really tried to find new music, and the following half a dozen albums definitely deserve honourable mention (and barely a country album in sight): FKA Twigs, Future Islands, Sturgill Simpson, Royksopp, Strands Of Oak, Honeyblood.

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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAThis 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.

08) Federal CharmFederal Charm and Southside Johnny @The Apex, Bury St Edmunds

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

Dean OwensYou 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

10) Marcus BonfantiMarcus 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

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAYet 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.