Winter Mountain’s album “I Swear I Flew”, which was released in mid-November last year was one of those that worked perfectly as a coherent, self-contained project; you should really listen to it. It was also one of those that made you want to hear the songs played live. I got the chance to do that at 229 Venue 2 and I was absolutely right; it was exceptional, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. The album is mainly (but not completely) quiet and introspective but the live show was a very different beast.
Support on the night was Cornish singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer, who warmed up a gradually-increasing crowd with a mix of the traditional (“Cadgwith Anthem”) and twenty-first century protest songs like “Build a Wall” – you can probably guess what that one’s about. With a decent voice, some interesting chat between songs and a playing style that uses a thumb instead of a pick (anyone remember Richie Havens?), Josiah got the audience onside and ready for the headliners.
Winter Mountain’s set opened with the wistful, impassioned romanticism of “Girl in the Coffee Shop”, a chance to set the tone for the evening, demonstrating Joe’s soulful voice and allowing the band to ease their way in before the Springsteenesque roar of “Sunlight, Good Roads”. Joe Francis has created a unique mixture with Winter Mountain, blending influences from the worlds of folk (mainly Gaelic), roots, country rock, southern boogie, straight ahead rock and many others. Springsteen aside, you can hear echoes of Hothouse Flowers, The Waterboys, Rob Thomas and Gin Blossoms (remember them?). The set had its quieter, more reflective, moments, particularly the (almost) solo interlude featuring “The Morning Bell”, the poignant “January Stars”, “Lucky Ones” and “Stronger When You Hold Me” but the set really caught fire when the band were playing full-tilt songs like “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” in balls-out Lynyrd Skynyrd mode as Joe started throwing lyrics from Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” into the mix. So hats off to Alik Peters-Deacon (guitar), Jake Galvin (bass) and Garry Kroll (drums) for a great, dynamic set and also to 229’s sound man, who did a lovely job in a venue that was barely half full.
Anything else you should know? The songs were split almost evenly between the first and second albums and the set ended with a Beatles cover, the early “Oh! Darling”. The audience was completely silent during the quiet songs and went bananas during the raucous ones. The band covered all the bases of the glorious musical mash-up perfectly, while Joe’s powerhouse voice left you in no doubt that he has a massive rock voice as well. It wasn’t quiet the night I‘d expected, but it was a belter; that’s the way to spend a Thursday night in London.
Coming to a festival near you soon, I imagine.
You can see some photos from the gig here.
It’s fair to say that it’s been a while since we featured an artist from Northern Ireland, but equally fair to say that Simon Murphy is one that’s worth waiting for. “Let it Be” is Simon’s debut featuring twelve songs that exude the assurance that comes when they’ve been well and truly tried out and developed in a live setting. Nothing feels out of place on the album, which has a wide variety of instrumental stylings to support songs that are sometimes heartfelt, sometimes witty, but always superbly crafted. The songs are good enough to work with only acoustic guitar as backing (as “The Idiot” does on the album), but contributions from Anthony Toner (slide, lap steel and electric guitars), Linley Hamilton (trumpet) and Kaz Hawkins (vocals) all help to create perfect backdrops for Simon’s songs.
The album’s opening song, the uptempo “Once Upon a Time”, grabs the attention immediately with an outrageously infectious chorus and catchy trumpet hooks and from there on it’s a bit like Thunderbirds: ‘anything can happen in the next half hour’. “Not in my Name”, “Here Goes Nothing”, “My Baby” and “2 Ghosts” are all built around acoustic guitar and either violin or cello while the beautiful “The Idiot” is stripped back to just guitar and vocal, the perfect backing for the song with no distractions, allowing lines like ‘Girls are from Venus, boys they’re from bars’ to stand out. “Evergreen” has similar instrumentation but the Nashville styling also brings in lap steel and some lovely harmonies from Charlene Law, who complements Simon’s voice perfectly adding honey to each song she appears on; you just have to love the irony of ‘Teach me patience, but do it fast’.
“The Life of Brian’s Son” and “I Smell a Rat” both have a much rockier feel (a hint of The Cars, maybe) and poke fun at the ‘all style, no substance’ pop culture and its adherents. “The Life…” upends positive clichés to create some of its impact while “I Smell a Rat” melodically sticks the knife in to a serial self-promoter. It’s a pretty effective way of dealing with the inevitable chancers you meet in the music business; don’t get mad, get melodic.
“Meet Me on the Other Side” and “Lone Star Heart” are delivered in a country rock style with chiming guitars and perfect backing vocals which evoke The Gin Blossoms’ “New Miserable Experience” (a classic of its time, or is that just me?) and the primal stomp of “I Have a Voice” benefits hugely from the voice of Kaz Hawkins. The album is twelve great songs played well and sung convincingly.
If you like a bit of melancholy in your music (me, how did you guess?), then this just might appeal to you. Simon has a voice which conveys emotion without using any of the diva tricks, evoking Gin Blossoms’ Robin Wilson, Rob Thomas and my old favourite Iain Matthews, and a bunch of great songs to play with; “Let it Be” certainly does it for me.
When I’m reviewing music I always focus primarily on the quality of the vocal, the quality of the playing and the quality of the lyrics. With blues albums I expect the playing to be good and if you get a great vocal performance as well, that’s a bonus. Lyrically, it’s easy to fall into old blues clichés and I guess it’s understandable in a musical form that places such an emphasis on performance and improvisation. On this album, Aynsley Lister nails the playing, the vocals and the lyrical themes; that’s why “Home” (his tenth album) is a great modern blues album. I mean where else are you going to hear a song inspired by “Life on Mars”? And I mean Gene Hunt, not David Bowie.
Aynsley has responded to the implosion of the music business (referenced in the album’s second song “Broke”) in the same way as many other performers; he decided to bypass it completely and record and release material on his own label (Straight Talkin’ Records). He’s an accomplished songwriter and a inspired lyricist, tackling some of the standard rock themes on “Home” and “Insatiable” with a creative, poetic twist and moving into less conventional subjects with “Broke”, “Hyde 2612” (the Gene Hunt song) and “Free”, the very moving tribute to his friend Rod Thomson. He covers a wide range of blues styles, but the lyrical themes on “Home” are pushing at the boundaries of the blues/rock genre and that has to be a good thing if the genre aims to survive the music industry meltdown.
The album features a couple of covers, placed together in the running order. The first, the James Morrison song “You Make it Real”, shows that Aynsley isn’t afraid to put his own stamp on a contemporary song while the Leslie Bricusse/Anthony Newley standard “Feeling Good” is pitched somewhere between the Nina Simone and Muse versions with robust guitar work and a powerful vocal.
And that brings me quite neatly to Aynsley Lister’s vocals. His reputation is built around his playing (which is faultless), but he has a fabulous voice which isn’t always in the characteristic blues style. His vocal style is very radio-friendly with a hint of plaintive melancholy which nudges into the territory of Rob Thomas (former Matchbox Twenty frontman) at times and maybe (for those of you with very long memories) he has a hint of Iain Matthews.
So we’ve got some sensitive and quite radio-friendly songs but if you’re into the heads-down, no nonsense mindless boogie there’s a bit of that as well with the barrel-house boogie-woogie of “Sugar” and the album closes with the jazzy “Straight Talkin’ Woman” where eight bars of stuttering, staccato guitar develops into a powerful flowing solo.
The band is superb throughout. Andre Bassing (keyboards), Steve Amadeo (bass) and Wayne Proctor (drums) are perfectly at ease with the album’s varying musical styles and provide a rock solid foundation for Aynsley’s guitar and vocals. I’ve reviewed a few good new British blues/rock albums over the last few months, but “Home” stands above the rest because of its variety, songwriting quality and willingness to move the blues forward in the twenty-first century. This is classy, blues writing, playing and singing of the highest order.
Out now on Straight Talkin’ Records (STR 2612).