We’re big fans of Bob Malone here at MusicRiot so when I got the chance to meet up for a chat on the final night of his UK tour it was a bit of a no-brainer. Bob’s been in the UK for three weeks touring in support of his “Mojo Deluxe” album and the “Mojo Live” DVD and The 100 Club gig was the climax of a hectic tour schedule. So a very noisy 100 Club dressing room is where we got the chance to talk about old pianos, New Orleans and Southside Johnny, among other things:
Allan – So it’s approaching the end of the tour and we met on the first night in Southend. How has it been since then?
Bob – It’s been great; a few funky gigs, a few spectacular gigs and we’ve worked hard. We had a couple of nights where we didn’t have gigs but we still had a radio show or a long drive; we’re a hard-working group.
Allan –Have you had any particularly good gigs?
Bob – This one’s definitely gonna be a good one and Keighley Blues Club, that was a really great crowd and Scotland as well, and we also played on the Isle of Wight.
Allan – I remember when we met in Southend you were talking about Italian audiences.
Bob – They’re full on, right out of the box, from the first song.
Allan –Do you notice any differences in the audiences around the UK?
Bob – Well it sometimes takes three or four songs here. The north is different from the south, as you know. I didn’t until I did these long tours here; England was just England like people think America is just America but here it’s five different countries with completely different cultures.
Allan – Have you played The 100 Club before?
Bob – No, but its reputation precedes…
Allan – How does that feel?
Bob – It feels good. I was soundchecking with the grand piano earlier and the sound engineer had footage of Paul McCartney playing that same piano.
Allan – I think it’s great to see it with the lights up and look at all those great photos around the walls of the people that have played here in the past.
Bob – I love places with history like this; you feel like you’re part of a continuum.
Allan – You’re promoting the Mojo Deluxe album at the moment. What kind of a reception has the album had?
Bob – I think it’s the most press and radio I’ve had on anything I’ve done and it’s my twentieth year of making records, so I’m happy with that.
Allan – After doing what I think of as the day job with John Fogerty, how does this compare? It must be a huge culture change.
Bob – It’s different. I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years; this is what I do, and I’ve been playing with John for almost five years now. With this, so long as the sound man is competent I’m happy. Everyone thinks it must be weird to go from small crowds to big crowds, but it really isn’t. As long as it’s a good musical experience and you’re connecting with an audience; that’s why we play. You can’t really control the size of the crowd and also when I do this it’s a mission; when I play with John it’s his gig. I’m lucky to be there but it’s his gig. I get my solo but other than that, it’s all about him and I’m just in the background.
Allan – Trying to avoid the pyrotechnics…
Bob – Trying not to burst into flames during “Fortunate Son”, exactly.
Allan – So when you’re out doing your own stuff, here and in the States, what would be your ideal band line-up?
Bob – The ultimate, when I’m not touring; when I’m LA, and I don’t have to put people in hotel rooms would be a nine-piece band. I just did a DVD, which I did the way I would like to do it and I had three female background singers, percussionist, drums, bass and guitar. I do a lot of stuff with horns as well, for years I had a horn section, so it would be a nine to eleven piece band and a second keyboard player would be great, to play the organ parts. (If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that the total number of musicians is only eight, but there’s a slide guitar player on there as well. I hope your heart isn’t broken by that omission Marty Rifkin.)
Allan – On your own tours, particularly in the UK, you rely on the venue providing the piano. Have you had any horror stories with that in the past?
Bob – Well, usually I carry a digital piano for when there’s no real alternative, but most of the places I play now, if there is a real piano, it’s usually in good shape, but I’ve been to places that had a hundred year old upright and some of the keys didn’t work but I kind of like to play those anyway, just for the challenge. It’s like going in the ring with this old piano and fighting it to see who wins. I love real pianos because they all have personality; the digital ones are handy and they’re light and they don’t go out of tune, but they don’t have much of a personality. They get the job done.
The one in Southend, that’s got some issues. It’s got some broken strings; it’s one that I fight to the death but I like playing it because it’s an old Bösendorfer.
Allan – I did notice a few problems at the soundcheck that night…
Bob – It needs a rebuild, but still I’m glad to see it.
Allan – You’re classically and jazz trained; was there any one thing that turned you into a rock/blues pianist?
Bob – The rock thing came first. One of those things was hearing “Sergeant Pepper” for the first time, so it’s you guys, it’s your fault. Then I heard Billy Joel and Elton John and not very long after that the New Orleans thing, which blew me away, and then Ray Charles and I became a huge student of that stuff but the rock stuff was always there.
Allan – Were you singing right from the start?
Bob – I started singing when I was fifteen probably. I started singing because I wanted to impress a girl I had a crush on. I just played classical piano but “Your Song” by Elton John was the first thing I ever sang in public; I thought ‘She’ll love me if I sing this song’. I was a terrible singer, some people still say I am, but I learned to work with what I have.
You write songs and there are obviously lots of people with better voices than me but when you write songs you have a story to tell and people always respond to the story and sometimes you’re the only person that can tell it.
Allan – We’ve had “Mojo Deluxe” this year, so what’s next on the agenda.
Bob – Well, I’ve got this DVD coming out and the audio from that was so good, we’re thinking of putting that out as a live record next year and I’ll make another new record, so I’ll probably get the live one out next year and in 2017 I’ll have a new studio album. I’ve got to get realistic about this; I’ve got about half the songs I need for another record.
Allan – I interviewed Southside Johnny in July 2014 in London…
Bob – Southside Johnny was also one of the big things in my youth and I should mention this because growing up in New Jersey, we all knew Southside Johnny. This was the 80s and you couldn’t hear that kind of music on the radio at all and so my first real exposure to r’n’b, blues, horn section kinda music was Southside and I learned from that and went back and figured out all the other stuff. He was huge for me.
Allan – When I interviewed him at Shepherds Bush Empire last July, we spoke about his new album “Soultime!” and he said they were aiming to get it out for Christmas 2014 and that finally came out in August this year.
Bob – Yeah, that’s about right. I toured here last year and I had half of “Mojo Deluxe” out as “Mojo EP”. We had finished recording and it was half-mixed and there were some problems and we couldn’t get the other half mixed in time and the promoter said ‘The whole thing is you have a record out for this tour; we can’t get any press without a record’ so we had half a record out as an EP, just in the UK for the tour.
Allan – And that worked really well as a sampler for the album.
Bob – And by the end of last year the whole thing was done but then we needed a three month ramp for the release date to get it publicised and I was touring through the spring, so we just put the whole thing off and it came out almost a year later. That’s how it works. There are so many factors; if you have a lot of money involved, you can get things done a lot quicker. On a limited budget, you still need time to publicise, so you often end up delaying.
Allan – One final question; do you have one song that tears you up and gets you really emotional?
Bob – Yeah, “One for my Baby”, the Sinatra song; that one kills me every time. It depends on the day; it could be something else on another day.
Allan – Thanks very much, Bob.
And there you go; a private audience with the great Bob Malone, who was as entertaining offstage as on. Since we spoke, I’ve had a chance to watch the “Mojo Live” DVD and it’s superb, capturing the magic of a one-off performance absolutely perfectly. It has great performances from all of the musicians and it’s a whole load of fun; keep an eye out for it.
So when I was offered the chance to see Federal Charm (who I’ve already seen a couple of times) and Ian Hunter (who I’ve never seen) at Shepherds Bush Empire, I jumped at it. Not literally; obviously I caught the Central Line, and I could write a whole article about that experience alone. It’s instantly obvious that Ian Hunter’s playing tonight; there’s an incredible variety of t-shirts on audience members, starting from his Mott the Hoople days and going all the way to his latest album, “When I’m President” (2012).
As I sidle into the photo pit, I’m surprised by the size of the crowd pushing up against the barrier. Actually I’m worried because if they’re staking out a place for Ian Hunter, then their bladders won’t hold out till the end of his set (two hours, in the end). So I’m pleasantly surprised (and relieved) when Federal Charm stroll onstage and the crowd behind me erupt; it feels like a significant moment in the band’s history.
It’s hard to believe that Federal Charm have been together for less than two years, they have the confidence and swagger of a band that has been together for a lifetime. And it’s obvious that they really enjoy what they do. From the opening Page-like riff of “I’m Not Gonna Beg” Paul Bowe, Nick Bowden, L.D. and Danny Rigg hit the ground running and the crowd, their own fans and Ian Hunter’s, are with them all the way. It’s a short set, featuring songs from their first album so after about thirty minutes we’ve had “Too Blind to See”, “No Money Down”, “Somebody Help Me”, “Tell Your Friends”, the show-stopping “Reconsider”, “Reaction” and “Come on Down” and the crowd is nicely warmed up for Ian Hunter. The band pulls together some traditional rock elements (the big riffs, two lead guitars and strong songs) to create a powerful sound completed by a voice that has no right to come from someone with Nick Bowden’s physique. They’re working hard and it’s paying off.
Ian Hunter has surrounded himself with a bunch of great musicians (Andy York, Steve Holley, Paul Page, Jack Petruzzelli, James Mastro and Andy Burton) giving him the freedom to play a bit of acoustic, bit of piano and a bit of harmonica with a solid band to back him up. After watching him play a two-hour set, it suddenly occurs to me that he’s only five years younger than my mum; incredible really.
As there’s no album to promote on this tour, it’s pretty much a greatest hits set running through the Mott the Hoople hits and solo material from a career spanning almost forty years. The only Mott hit in the main set is “All the Way from Memphis”, but I think we all know what’s coming at the end. Second song in is one of my favourites, “Once Bitten, Twice Shy”, his first solo hit and from here on every song is a Hunter classic including “Now is the Time”, “When I’m President”, “All American Alien Boy”, Irene Wilde”, “Wash Us Away”, “Girl from the Office”, “Bastard”, “Ta Shunka Witco” and the Velvets cover, “Sweet Jane”. I don’t think any Ian Hunter fan is going to complain about that set list.
And then comes the encore and the band seems to have expanded; yep, that’s Mick Ralphs up there as well for a rollicking run through “Roll Away the Stone”. The next song, “Life”, shifts seamlessly into the crowd-scene anthem, “All the Young Dudes” with all of the backing vocalists and Federal Charm onstage to help out with the choruses and then, with one quick chorus of Leadbelly’s “Goodnight Irene”, it’s all over. I really didn’t know what to expect from Ian Hunter but he’s obviously still got it and deserves his rock legend status and his faithful fans. As for Federal Charm, they’re still on the way up and I don’t think the peak is even close yet. Keep your eyes and ears open for them.