Big Dave McLean is that rare thing – a prophet that is actually recognised in his country. In the same week that Southside Johnny was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, it’s been announced that Dave will receive an appointment to the Order of Canada. The comparison with Southside Johnny isn’t just plucked out of the air; they’re both people who are passionate about their music, they both love their blues and they both came to recording significant numbers of their own songs late in their careers. Dave has nine of his own compositions on “Pocket Full of Nothin’” alongside three covers and all of the originals have all earned their place. So you take all of that and add Black Hen’s Steve Dawson as player and producer and you already have something a bit special, but there’s a little bit more.

Not only was the band fully tooled-up for country and urban blues, but the addition of a horn section and Hammond added more of a Stax feel as well (I’m trying not to labour this, but hints of Southside Johnny again) and they were ready for the big one. You’ve got the songs, you’ve got the chemistry, why not just do the show right here kids? And they did; most of “Pocket Full of Nothin’” was recorded live on the studio floor over a few days, and because of that, it sounds fresh, almost raw, and dynamic. The arrangements sometimes feel a bit unusual (you don’t often hear resonators and horns together) but Dave’s raw country blues shouter voice pulls all of the elements together perfectly for this bunch of songs that takes the blues idiom as its jumping-off point on “Songs of the Blues” with a fairly smooth twelve-bar arrangement filled out with the horn section, contrasting with Dave’s rough-hewn voice. The styles pan out across the blues spectrum from the swampy Southern groove of “Don’t Be Layin’ That Stuff on Me” to the good time jump blues of “All-Day Party” and the raw country blues of “Pocket Full of Nothin’”.

Which is what you would expect from a lifelong blues player, except there’s a bit more. The album’s two closing songs, “Manitoba Mud”, in praise of the literal and metaphorical mud that pulls people to the city and keeps them there and the simple gospel-tinged optimism of “There Will Always Be a Change” bringing the album to a hopeful end.

This album moves Big Dave McLean from the role of respected bluesman to genuine songwriting talent.

“Pocket Full of Nothin’” is out now in the UK on Black Hen Music (BHCD0091).

It gets kind of personal here. I first heard of Michael McDermott in 2016, just before the release of “Six on the Out”. I was at a bit of a professional low point and I was blown away by the searing honesty of Michael’s songs. And where do you go from a low point? Well, obviously, it’s upwards and I’m pleased to be moving in the same direction as Michael McDermott. And that album as The Westies wasn’t Michael’s only release that year; he released the more contemplative solo piece “Willow Springs” a couple of months later. I’ve been passionate about music for a long time now and I don’t think I’ve ever heard two albums from one artist that were so complete released within two months of each other.

Three years on, Michael McDermott’s creative flame still burns magnesium-bright; the proof is in “Orphans”, Michael’s latest album. Songwriters don’t like to let anything go to waste, and this is a bunch of songs that didn’t quite fit on “Six on the Out”, “Willow Springs” or the equally-superb “Out from Under”. Doesn’t mean they’re not good songs; Southside Johnny’s first three albums, “I Don’t to Go Home”, “This Time It’s for Real” and “Hearts of Stone” are laced with stunningly-good Springsteen songs that wouldn’t have worked on “Born to Run” or “Badlands”. And I’ll seriously fall out with anyone who says that “The Fever”, “Talk to Me” and “Hearts of Stone” aren’t classic examples of the songwriter’s art.

But back to Michael McDermott (although The Boss isn’t an inappropriate reference to throw in here); the songs on “Orphans” are the niggling doubts; those songs that just wouldn’t let go, even after the albums were out there. These songs are seeing the light of day because they deserve to, and because they complete the picture painted by “Six on the Out”, “Willow Springs” and “Out from Under”.

“Orphans” pulls in elements from all three of those albums. These aren’t out-takes; these are great songs that refused to die. The album opens with “Tell Tale Heart”, a song that, in one line, made me question my orthodox view of British socio-political history; that’s not a bad start to an album. Of the remaining eleven songs, there isn’t a bad one and “Sometimes When it Rains in Memphis”,Full Moon Goodbye” and “Los Angeles a Lifetime Ago” would grace any album. And these are the songs that didn’t make the original cut.

“Orphans” is the missing piece in the jigsaw of the three previous albums, completing the journey from success through degradation to redemption and it’s absolutely essential. It’s out now on Pauper Sky Records and Michael will be in London in early May to launch the album. In the meantime, just have a look at this:

 

This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along too often these days – an interview with one of my favourite singers and someone who happens to front one of the best bands I’ve ever seen; a bunch of superb individuals who make a formidable team. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were on a lightning tour of Europe that included a night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Too good to miss, really, so I took a little trip out to Wild West London. Here’s how it went…

 Allan

It’s great to see you again, what are you up to these days?

Southside

Well, we have a lot of work this year. I mentioned the word retirement and they immediately booked a thousand gigs. We’re trying to write another Jukes album but it’s been going slowly, so really it’s just been touring and trying to write the album and that’s about it. There’s not much else going on.

Allan

On this tour you had a free day in London yesterday. Did you manage to have a look around?

Southside

I walked all round Shepherd’s Bush and around the mall and I wanted to go to the British Museum but I didn’t get it together to do that, but this is a great walking area. I like this place; it’s a little funky in some areas but that’s good for me. I just love walking around London, all the different areas. It still feels like I’m somewhere other New Jersey. Even after all these years and all these times, I still feel glad to be here.

Allan

I’ve lived here fifteen years now and the city’s changed so much in that time.

Southside

It’s impossibly expensive to rent here. Occasionally I think, maybe I’ll go over there for a while, but you’ve got all the Russians and Saudi Arabians that are buying up all the properties. There are people who have lived here for a long time and they’re all right, but if you’re trying to buy a house, you’re out of luck.

Allan

You’ve done Wales and Scotland on this tour as well.

Southside

Yes, we played Cardiff and we played Glasgow. I always like playing Glasgow because the audiences are down-home, very New Jersey, if you know what I mean. They’re very enthusiastic and it matters to them. There’s no pretence about loving the music, it’s just really honest ‘get out and have a good time’ people.

Allan

I think South Wales is a lot like that as well.

Southside

We’ve played a few places in Wales, but not enough for me to really know it. I’ve played a lot of places in Scotland many, many times and I’ve got to know a number of people up there and they’re very authentic people. I really like that.

Allan

I think Jukes fans are like that generally.

Southside

That’s true. We play New York and people drop in to slum it with The Jukes and I don’t really care for that kind of thing. Our audience is like us; there’s no pretension about it.

Allan

And at Holmfirth, you actually had to add a second show this year.

Southside

Yep, Holmfirth is one of our favourite places to play. When we first played there, we got lost. We were driving through fields; the GPS on the bus was completely screwed up and we ended up going through a farmer’s field and thinking ‘Where the hell are we?’

Then we got there and it’s a small town, very picturesque and I thought ‘This is going to be terrible’ and it was great.

The people were just so over-the-top and the place sounded good and there was a snooker table in the dressing room. It was just one of our really fantastic nights and we had a great show, so we always look forward to coming back because they’re always good shows, so everybody’s excited about it.

Allan

And I think this year’s the twenty-first of the venue re-opening as a cinema and music venue, so they may be commemorating that.

Southside

Twenty-one years, huh? I wonder how many times have we’ve played there?

Allan

I saw you there in 2010, I think.

Southside

I think that’s when we started playing it, maybe a little earlier.

Allan

The last time I was in Holmfirth was in October last year to see Graham Parker with his new band The Goldtops, featuring some of the horn players from The Rumour and it felt like a throwback to that period in the late seventies when there was so much great music, and it was strange to see that Steve Gibbons, also from that era, had been added to tonight’s bill.

Southside

(Laughs) I didn’t know that. I just saw now that he was on the bill – that’s great.

Allan

And seeing Graham Parker made me think about the legendary tour that you did together in 1977.

Southside

That was great. What fun that was. Both bands were in the same bus; a lot of poker playing, a lot of talking, a lot of beer-drinking. And it was a competition every night; who’s gonna kick whose ass on that night. We really made some long-time friends on that tour. To us it was great because we saw all these towns you wouldn’t usually see. We played everywhere and all the nice theatres like this place. So for us, a bar band, it was an amazing tour. It really felt as though we were getting somewhere.

Allan

And also, going back to that era, Squeeze are just about to do another tour of the States.

Southside

That’s great, love them too. That was a great time for music. When you think about it, I liked all the punk stuff too. The Sex Pistols came to one gig with Ronnie Spector and the guys from The Damned were at The Nashville Club. Rat Scabies and I almost got in to a fight. It was one of those wonderful times.

Allan

I can remember in a history of punk I was reading (“’77 Sulphate Strip” by Barry Cain), I saw a photo of you and Graham at The Nashvillle.

Southside

Yeah, we were part of that era, but we weren’t ever punk. They welcomed us and we met the Stranglers, Eddie and the Hot Rods and all those other guys. We knew Thin Lizzy, those guys came to our gigs; we used to go out drinking and there were nights you couldn’t remember coming home to the hotel.

Allan

Is there any new music that you’re listening these days?

Southside

I’m still listening to a lot older stuff too, but there’s such a lot out there.

Allan

The reason I ask that is that I hear a lot of new Americana, people like Ed Dupas and Gerry Spehar. Some of it isn’t well-known and might never be, but what I really notice is the political stuff that’s coming to the fore now as the election of Trump seems to have politicised everyone.

Southside

Yeah, you can’t get away from it and you’re almost forced to take sides because the egregiousness just overwhelms you; the stupidity and the greed and the complete lack of compassion for anyone except for rich people. And even then, the people that are in the White House now don’t have feelings for anyone but themselves, from top to bottom, and it’s frightening, you know.

It’s going to swing back the other way now, once Trump has gone, whenever and however that’s gonna happen. I saw Jason Isbell at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and he was just fantastic, but he’s become more political too. The album that I really like, “Something More than Free” is very personal and human and real-life oriented, but I know that his latest stuff is becoming more and more political because you’re forced into it. You’ve got to speak up about it.

Allan

Getting back to the music, this incarnation of The Jukes is probably the most stable ever.

Southside

Yes, it’s been solid for a long time; I don’t count the years. It’s also the best band I think I’ve ever had because they’re all just all just great soloists but the ensemble work, there’s no selfishness if you know what I mean. I don’t know, I‘m just really enjoying this band; I can throw any kind of curve ball at them and they hit it, so I can do whatever I want on stage, we do some strange stuff, and they seem to follow very well and it’s not just ‘ok, now what you gonna do dummy?’.

Allan

Well that’s the question that I deliberately wasn’t asking…

Southside

Well, I think they are. With Tommy (Seguso) on drums now and John’s the best bass player I think we’ve ever had. Jeff’s an incredible keyboard player. All of the guys, the horn section, they carry a lot of weight and they handle it very well. It’s got so that I can relax and not worry about what’s going on behind me. I always like that feeling of being free on stage to do and say whatever I want and with this band, I’m very comfortable with that.

Allan

I always thought the danger was, with a band that good, there’s a chance that it can be like eight quarterbacks on stage.

Southside

(Laughs) No, they’re very good that way, there’s a certain ethos in being a Juke in that you’re working hard to please the audience, but you’re also trying to find new ways to play things and different ways to express yourself and, with this quality of musicianship, you can do that and you can let people go wherever they want to go and they let me go wherever I want to go. When it becomes rote, when it becomes just going through the songs, I’m out. That’s like working in a cubicle for an insurance company, I just don’t want that.

Allan

And the Jukes fans love that attitude as well, don’t they?

Southside

They like it when we take chances, and if we fall on our face, they laugh. And we do too.

Allan

How does the music business, or what’s left of it feel to you these days? Do you find it easier to work the way you’re working now?

Southside

Oh yeah, I’m not part of the music business. I own my own label. It’s all organic for me; I don’t have to worry about pleasing anybody other than the audience and so if I want to put out an album, I’ll put out an album, like we did the Billie Holiday thing or The Poor Fools. I can do whatever I want, I don’t have to please anybody but myself as far as the organisation’s concerned. So I don’t even think about record companies. To me they’re manufacturing artists. Some of them are good, some of them are terrible and phoney and awful but it’s all down to one or two acts; you don’t have record companies with fifty acts that they’re trying to make a career with; it’s either blockbusters or ignore it.

Allan

I’ve noticed that at Jukes gigs and with other bands doing similar things, younger fans are appearing.

Southside

Yeah, the fans are bringing their kids and their grand-kids, but that’s all right. We’re fun on stage, I think everybody gets that even when it’s not the kind of music a younger person is used to, but with rhythm ‘n’ blues and soul being so popular again these last five or six years, it’s interesting to see them coming and they understand what we’re doing, and there were a few years where I don’t think young people would have got what we were doing.

Allan

And you can see it coming through in bands like Hardwicke Circus, who supported you two years ago. They’re kind of modelled on that Jukes ethos, aren’t they?

Southside

Well, there’s a lot of bands like that out there. There’s a lot of soul singers out there and it’s great to see. The only thing I don’t like is manufactured music and I never have really enjoyed that. But if that’s what people like, that’s fine; I don’t judge people that way.

Allan

Well, thanks for your time and I’m looking forward to the show tonight.

The Southside Johnny gig Commandments; they’re important, and you should always abide by them.

1st Commandment – Watch the support band. In my experience of, ahem, one or two Southside gigs, the support is always worth watching and Curse of Lono had been on my radar for a few years. Most of the audience followed the 1st Commandment and made the early start to catch Curse of Lono doing their second Southside support tour.

2nd Commandment – To reinforce the 1st Commandment, the support band(s) always get the same level of sound and lighting support as the Jukes.

3rd Commandment – Get to the venue early. You have been paying attention, haven’t you? The support band(s) are going to look and sound great. Trust me. Curse of Lono played at a ridiculously early time but a bunch of powerful songs (“Valentine” was a standout) delivered by a locked-in rhythm section (Neil Findlay and Charis Anderson) while Felix Bechtolsheimer’s vocals were underlined by Joe Hazell’s creative guitar lines and the keys of Dani Ruiz Hernandez. It’s a big sound it’s hugely appreciated by the gathering crowd. That’s another band on my ‘to watch’ list. Which leads me to…

4th Commandment – Show your appreciation for the support band(s). Jukes followers are fiercely loyal, but they’re music fans and if a band is good and gives it a bit of wellie, they’ll get right behind them. Which meant a great reception for Curse of Lono.

5th Commandment – Expect the unexpected. Bear with me while I digress. 42 years ago I saw the first incarnation of the Steve Gibbons Band touring on the back of their Top 10 hit “Tulane”. I was a fan. I got the band to autograph the lyric sheet of my copy of “Any Road Up”. I discovered Steve Gibbons at about the same time I discovered Southside Johnny. And the unexpected bit? Two days before the gig I discovered that the latest incarnation of SGB had been added to the bill for the Empire show. Which, added to the fact that ‘Our Man Oop North’, Steve Jenner, had reviewed a Steve Gibbons gig in Leek for us a few weeks ago, added an extra layer of weirdness.

The band played in the way that you would expect professional musicians with a few miles on the clock to play. They were tight and assured, allowing Steve Gibbons to get on with what he does best. And he’s still got the voice; the man is his seventies and he can still do it on the big stage. It was a relatively short set featuring original material, covers of rock ‘n’ roll classics and, of course, some Bob Dylan. It was a bit of a strange experience hearing “Watching the River Flow” covered in the same style I’d heard it covered 42 years earlier. And then it’s time for Jukesville.

6th Commandment – Ignore the setlist. It’s a standing joke with band and fans. The only reason it’s there is to give the fans at the front a chance to gamble on how far the band get down the list before taking the scenic route (usually two or three songs, if you ever want to place that particular bet).

7th Commandment – Prepare to be entertained. This is a phenomenal bunch of musicians. They deserve to be namechecked individually. The Asbury Jukes are: Tom Seguso (drums), John Conte (bass), Jeff Kazee (keys), Glenn Alexander (guitar), Chris Anderson (trumpet), Neal Pawley (trombone), John Isley (sax) and Southside Johnny. And let’s not forget Joe Prinzo and Hood who hold it all together. I haven’t mentioned vocals because they all can, and do, sing. Check out the harmonies on “Walk Away Renee”.

8th Commandment – Show your appreciation. These guys are seriously good players. As an ensemble they build a solid platform for Southside to deliver his honey-over-gravel vocal, but everyone gets at least one solo during the set and Jukes fans show their appreciation of the solos in the same way the audience in a jazz club would. And it’s always well-deserved.

9th Commandment – Expect the unexpected (I know, but it’s worth repeating). The band doesn’t know what’s coming next, so why would the audience? There are some songs that you would expect to hear every time (“The Fever”, “I Don’t Want to Go Home” and probably “Walk Away Renee”) but the rest of the set’s up for grabs. Southside has a huge back catalogue to choose from and the band has a phenomenal repertoire of covers to call on, so the set includes seventies classics like “Love on the Wrong Side of Town”, “This Time Baby’s Gone for Good” and “Without Love”, “Cadillac Jack” and “Woke Up This Morning” from the blues album and “Spinning” from “Soultime”. Throw in the covers; “Ride the Night Away” (J Geils Band) and the Willy DeVille song “Mixed-Up, Shook-Up Girl” and you’ve got a great night.

10th Commandment – It’s all about the band. In Johnny’s opinion, this is the best incarnation of The Jukes (watch out for the interview in a few days) and the partnership with Jeff Kazee is a huge part of that. Both have superb voices and the combination of Jeff’s high tenor and Johnny’s rich baritone is a thing of rare beauty. And that’s before we even get to the quality of the playing.

And that was Friday night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire; I can’t think of a better way to spend a Friday.

There was a fleeting reference in the interview I did before the soundcheck to retirement. You never know if any given Jukes gig is going to be the last you’ll see, so make the most of it. Next time they’re in the UK, I’ll see you down the front.

Maybe you already know that Allan’s a bit of a Southside Johnny fan. Ok, a lot of a Southside Johnny fan. So, we decided to invite Johnny to contribute to the 2017 High Fives. And he did, with not one but four sets of High Fives chosen by our random category generator. That’s the kind of value you get at a Jukes gig. Take it away, Southside…

 

Steven Van Zandt

5 songwriting heroes

Cole Porter

Tom Waits

Steven Van Zandt

Bob Dylan

Smokey Robinson

 

5 places he’d play every night 

Paradiso Amsterdam

Paradiso, Amsterdam

Shepherd’s Bush, London

Birchmere, Alexandria, Virginia

Stone Pony Summer Stage, Asbury Park, NJ

Anywhere in Cleveland, Ohio

 

5 people he’d like to meet 

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Big Bill Shakespeare

Barack Obama

Willie Dixon

My mother’s father

 

5 favourite harmonica solos

Little Walter

Big Walter, “Walking By Myself”,

Sonny Boy Williamson “Don’t Start Me Talking”,

Little Walter, “Tell me Mama” and “Lights Out”,

Paul Butterfield, “Born in Chicago” and a thousand others.

 

5 covers he hasn’t done yet

Way too many to list.  Happy New Year!

 

As gigs go, music journalism and photography is about as good as it gets for this ‘wee boy fae East Wemyss’. When you do something for over a decade you’re going to have a few frustrating experiences; what you hope for is that the genuine bangers even up the balance, maybe even tip it into the positive. It’s no exaggeration to say that 2017 has been astonishing year with some moments that would have my eighteen-year-old self wondering how on earth all that happened. But even with the volume anchored at ten, there were some moments when it sneaked up to eleven (‘it’s one higher’). In no particular order, these are some of those moments.

Stone Foundation @Islington Assembly Hall – I’ve been a fan of Stone Foundation since the moment I stuck a promo of their album “To Find the Spirit” in the CD player about four years ago. It hit me with that sucker punch of Hammond and horns from the first bell and followed it up with a hit of pure twenty-first century British soul. I’ve watched as the band’s abilities and sheer bloody hard work have steadily moved them up the rankings. I guess it helps that they’re such a great bunch of people as well.

Their latest album “Street Rituals” was recorded at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studios with Mr Weller guesting on a couple of songs and now they can headline at the bigger London venues. So when they announced a tour gig at Islington Assembly Hall, it looked like a reasonably good punt for a Paul Weller guest appearance, the odds shortening when, collecting my photo pass, I discovered that access to the pit was for the entire set. It wasn’t just limited to one Magic Moment either. Not only did PW join the band to take the lead vocal on the gorgeous “Your Balloon is Rising”, he also appeared later for a cracking version of “What’s Goin’ On” (with a hint of “Something in the Air”). Not only two great performances that might never be repeated, but one of my favourite photos of the year (above). More SF to come…

Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes @The Forum, Kentish Town – I first heard Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes in 1977 and I was hooked instantly. I’ve never fallen out of love with that voice and the sound of that band (Hammond and horns again, with big rock guitars as well), but I could never have imagined the first time I heard “The Fever” it would mean the start of a long-term relationship rather than a one-night stand. Fast-forward to the second decade of the twenty-first century and things get a bit intense – I was asked to do some green room shots of Gilson Lavis presenting Southside with a pen and ink portrait of himself he’d done a few months before. And then I was asked to interview Gilson about his upcoming New York art exhibition and to take some photos of the gig.

I was in the green room with one of my all-time heroes and his incredible band, shooting the breeze and listening as the band arranged a guest performance with Gilson before being thanked by one of the band for a review I’d written of his side project. HTF did that happen? And then they went on to play a storming set with Gilson guesting on “Key to the Highway”. I still can’t believe it.

Stone Foundation @The Empire – This one’s easy; you can get all the background above. No surprises this time, I knew from the off that Graham Parker was the support for this gig. I’ve always been a huge fan and I was at the gig with my old friend and sometime MusicRiot contributor Steve Jenner and his lovely wife Sue. While I was backstage sorting out my accreditation, I bumped in to Neil Sheasby, bass player and co-songwriter with Stone Foundation, who was also having a ‘pinch myself’ moment because Graham Parker had brought along Dave Robinson, former Stiff Records supremo, who was regaling the band with his seventies music business stories.. One of the things I was sorting out backstage was photo pit access. I mentioned earlier that SF had allowed access for the whole gig in Islington; This time they went one better; they highlighted the songs that would feature guest appearances later in the set and ensured that that the photographers had pit access. That’s proper attention to detail.

The real magic moment came towards the end of the evening with a guest vocal by Graham Parker on his old Ann Peebles cover “I’m Gonna Tear Your Playhouse Down”. Magical because of a stunning performance by everyone on stage, but also because GP hasn’t played with a horn section in years and he’s said GP and The Rumour will never play live again. And a big shout to Jalen N’Gonda, the first support act (who was superb in a Marvin Gaye-style) and popped up during “What’s Goin’ On”. These guys know what they’re doing.

Hannah Aldridge & Jetbone @Windlestock – The night after the gig above as it happens with the same audience plus Mrs M, who can go out because it’s not a school night. Anyone who knows me will know that I’m a huge fan of Hannah Aldridge. She writes powerful and moving songs, she has an incredible voice and she has those cheekbones. I never get tired of photographing Hannah; it’s a different visual image every time, but that bone structure is always there. Anyway, this time she’d brought along Jetbone from Sweden to play a support of their blues-inflected Southern boogie and as her backing band.

I love a chance to photograph artists in different environments and this was a great opportunity. Towards the end of the set Hannah put her guitar to one side (got my interest already), picked up a tambourine (camera in hand) and went into full Janis Joplin mode (jeez, never thought I’d see that). It was a night packed with stunningly good performances (including the opening set by Rebecca Reidtmann), but the tambourine thing made my night.

Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band (private gig) – I had a significant birthday a few days ago and invited a couple of bands, Deep Blue Sea and Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band to play at the event. They were both superb. I’ve seen Dana a couple of times and the band is great, the original songs are superb and she knows how to deliver a powerful cover. Now these gigs are difficult, because audience chatter (seriously frowned upon I serious music venues, and rightly so) is almost inevitable as people catch and are perhaps introduced for the first time. Dana and the band took it in their stride and won over a crowd that ranged in ages from three (my great-nephew, who was completely smitten) to eighty-one (my mum and mother-in-law).
They took a short break after a storming first set and returned for a second set with an audience that was particularly noisy. With no introduction they launched into an almost a cappella (a little percussion) two-part harmony version of the Janis Joplin classic “Mercedes Benz” which completely silenced the audience and immediately dragged attention back to the stage. Unconventional certainly, but they had the audience eating out of their hands after that. I’ve seen a lot of classic pieces of stagecraft, but that was probably the finest.

If you’ve got any moments like those that you want to share with us, message us on the Facebook page or email musicriotboy@gmail.com. And thanks for following us.

You never know where the next review’s coming from; could be the inbox, could be the letterbox, could be backstage at a gig. Yeah, it’s the last one. A couple of weeks ago, Glenn Alexander slipped this album into my greasy mitt backstage at The Forum in Kentish Town. Glenn’s the guitar player for Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes (amongst other things) and he released this solo album last year produced by the Jukes saxophonist, John Isley. If you’re a Jukes fan and you look at the credits for the album, you’ll recognise most of the names; when you work with world-class musicians in the day job, why not use those guys when you pursue your own vision?

I’m not giving you a detailed biography of Glenn Alexander; you can find that anywhere. All I’m saying is that this album proves conclusively that Glenn is a lot more than just an incredibly good guitar player. The album opens with the fairly straightforward boogie of “If Your Phone Don’t Ring”; it’s great fun, the horns are every bit as good as you expect the New York Horns to be and it’s a joyous start to the show. Without reading the sleeve notes, it’s obvious that the second song “Earl Erastus” is deeply personal for Glenn. It hints at Jerry Reed’s “Amos Moses” and it’s a tribute to Glenn’s granddad, who raised six kids during the Depression; it has huge emotional power and a lovely New Orleans horn coda of his  favourite hymn (I’m guessing) featuring a vocal from Oria Aspen.

From there on in, it’s a melting-pot of the influences flowing over a teenager growing up in the centre of the USA; there’s the funky soul  and Elvis-referencing “Memphis Soul”, the country feel of “I Picked the Wrong Day (To Stop Drinkin’)”, the horn-fired shuffle of “Get A Life” (featuring Southside on harmonica) and the slow blues of “Blues For Me & You”, a duet with Oria Aspen contrasting Glenn’s rough-hewn blues vocal with Oria’s more pure jazz stylings.

You might think that was enough, but there are still surprises to come. The album’s penultimate song, “The Odds Are Good”, proves that Glenn Alexander’s not just about melody and guitar solos; the lyrics are clever, and in the style of Dylan or early Springsteen. This guy is much more than a great rock guitarist, he’s a very gifted songwriter and a pretty good singer in a Joe Walsh kinda style. There’s no real commercial imperative behind this album, it was created for the sheer joy of making music with stunningly good players. Great songs, Hammond and horns; this is the business, what more do you need?

Glenn Alexander & Shadowland” is out now on Rainbow’s Revenge Records.

Gilson scrollerBy an interesting series of coincidences, I found myself backstage at a Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes gig at The Forum in Kentish Town pointing the trusty MusicRiot microphone in the direction of Gilson Lavis. If you have any interest at all in popular music, you must have heard of Gilson in one of his two musical careers; he’s a great and highly respected drummer but I wasn’t there to talk about his music; we don’t do the obvious stuff like that at MusicRiot. I was there to talk to Gilson about art. There’s a reference at the end to Johnny stealing my thunder; he voicebombed the interview about a third of the way in to talk to Gilson about how much he loved Squeeze. 

Allan Hi Gilson. Some of us know you as the drummer in Jools Holland’s Rhythm and Blues Orchestra, The older ones know you as the drummer in Squeeze, but now you’ve got a new career as an artist, so how did that start?

Gilson Well, it started out of boredom really. I lead a pretty clean life these days; I don’t drink or any of the other stuff, thankfully and hanging about on the road or hanging about in hotel rooms, I’ve been doing it for about fifty years now, and it started to get a bit wearing, so I started to doodle and the doodles turned in to sketches and the sketches turned into paintings and now the paintings have turned into exhibitions. So it just sort of grew really and I’m in a very privileged position because with my position in the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra we get to play with some of the world’s best entertainers and performers and I see them close at hand and I try and paint them, and I think I can capture some of the real essence of the person.

Allan You had an art school background didn’t you? Did you continue to draw after you left art school and joined Squeeze?

Gilson No, I went straight into music, the driving force being sex; I wanted to pick up girls. It never really worked, but I got into the music business and I’m still doing that so the art was just put away really. I didn’t pick up a sketch pad or an easel or a paintbrush until about ten years ago, when I started again.

Allan Do you think you choose your subjects or do you think they choose you?

Gilson It’s a mixture of both really. As I said, I tend to sketch and paint people that I work with and sometimes I’ll get inspired by an image I see of somebody and I’ll paint from that, but really it’s working with these people that’s the driving force.

Allan You’re working mainly in acrylic on canvas aren’t you? Do you work in any other media?

Gilson Yeah, I do. I do ink sketches. That’s really what I do on the road, sketch in ink, but when I’m at home, I’ve got a large studio and my own gallery, so I paint at home and sketch on the road.

Allan In the creative process, do you have certain steps that you follow? I’m thinking of the preparation; I saw the Louis Armstrong sketch that you did and obviously you couldn’t do that from life so presumably you researched that online.

Gilson I do actually. A lot of the people I’ve painted or sketched, they’re too busy to sit for me; they’re not going to come round to my house and sit, so I do have to sketch from images. I try to take photographs when I’m working with them and sketch or paint from those, but it’s not always possible, because some of these people like Louis are no longer with us, I have to research them and I look for images that are inspiring and I tend to blend three or four images to get the look that I’m searching for, so it sort of grows.

Allan I’ve met quite a lot of musicians who have other artistic pursuits, painting, photography and so on. Do you think it’s a bit of a release valve?

Gilson I’m sure it is, it absolutely is. Though it’s a real privilege to work with the Rhythm and Blues Orchestra; it’s high profile and we play big venues, but it is quite a restrictive environment. I’m there to make Jools sound good, I’m there to make the big band work, I’m not really cutting loose on what I want to do and the painting really allows me to be creative. 

Allan So the band becomes the day job and your creative outlet is the painting.

Gilson But it’s a very enjoyable day job, I’m in a very privileged position.

Allan I’m fascinated by the paintings and the way they reflect the personalities of the people you’ve portrayed and it struck me that they’re not hyper-realistic, but they’re a long way from caricature, aren’t they? The one that particularly struck me, and I wonder how people will react to it, was Keith Moon, because he has a really serene look in that portrait.

Gilson Well, thank you. There are many, many images of Keith being crazy, that’s what he’s famous for, but I really wanted that sort of innocence of the young lad before he went on that crazy journey. I think that’s what I was aiming for, that innocent, lost look, not even knowing what’s going on. What went on of course was craziness and death in the long run.

 Allan That was what immediately grabbed me about that particular image, the innocence. I understand that you’ve got a book of some of your images out as well.

Gilson Do you mean the one with the drummer portraits?

Allan That’s the one.

Gilson It was released two months ago actually. It’s eighteen portraits of drummers that have influenced me with a short snippet of a quote by each of them. I was asked many times, who influenced me as a drummer and eventually I thought “I know, I’ve got a good idea, what I’ll do is I’ll paint my influences and put them in a book” and it seems to have worked really well, it’s popular and it’s selling quite well, I’m pleased to say. It’s called “Drummers” by Gilson Lavis.

Allan I understand there’s an exhibition coming up in New York as well.

Gilson There is, yeah, at the Salomon Arts Gallery in Tribeca and it opens on the fourteenth of September. I’m really excited about it; I’ve been fortunate enough to have a few exhibitions in Great Britain but this’ll be the first in New York and I’m really excited by it and a bit nervous, to be honest, because we’re all deeply insecure, us painters, we’re all waiting to be laughed at.

Allan I think photographers are exactly the same. Your career must have had so many highlights, is there anything that really stands out in your memory as a real high point?

Gilson Yes, there is. It was when I was fortunate enough to get the phone call to play drums with Smokey Robinson on Later and on rhythm was Eric Clapton, Jools Holland on piano and Dave Swift on bass and me on drums. In fact there’s a little story about that, we were there, Eric, myself and Jools were there ready to rehearse with Smokey and he was flying in from America and it got to his allotted rehearsal time and we got the message he was a bit tired so he’ll be here in a couple of hours. We all downed tools and waited and then he didn’t show up, he was still a bit tired, and the show started to be recorded and we still hadn’t seen him and I’m sitting behind the drum kit and Eric’s looking a bit sort of worried. We knew the song, everybody know Smokey’s songs. The band before us was playing and thirty seconds before they finished, Smokey Robinson walked out on to the set and I’ve never seen anybody look more like a star than he did; he glistened. His skin was beautiful, his hair was just perfect, he had an incredibly dapper suit; he walked out and I counted the song in and we played it and he was just magnificent and then he turned round and nodded at Eric, he ignored me completely but I don’t mind and off he went and that was it, that was my experience of Smokey Robinson. But it was fantastic, it was a real buzz to play with one of my heroes, and there have been many.

Allan Johnny actually stole my thunder earlier because I was going to say at the end, did you know that Johnny’s a big fan of Squeeze and Jeff Kazee’s also a huge Squeeze fan.

Gilson I didn’t know. I had no idea.

And with that, we had to clear out of the Jukes’ dressing room as the band prepared for the show, but not before Gilson presented Johnny with an ink portrait of Mr Lyon himself. A couple of hours later, Gilson joined The Jukes on stage, taking the drum stool for “Key to the Highway”. And here’s the Keith Moon portrait:

Keith Moon Gilson portrait

Horns ScrollerWant to know why Southside Johnny still has a fanatical fanbase after over forty years? It’s really simple: he has a stellar group of musicians working with him, they have a lot of fun, and the audience never knows what’s coming next. There are a few songs that are non-negotiable, but for the remainder of the set it’s like “Thunderbirds”; anything can happen. Where else would you hear someone drop a verse of the Ramones classic “I Wanna be Sedated” in the middle of an instrumental break. And, talking of surprises, who expected Gilson Lavis (Squeeze and the Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra) to make a guest appearance for the blues classic “Key to the Highway”? And did you know that Johnny and Jeff Kazee are huge fans of Squeeze?

It isn’t just about Southside Johnny; it’s about a group of eight people who are very good at what they do – take a bow Jeff Kazee (keys), John Conte (bass), Tom Seguso (drums), Glenn Alexander (guitar), John Isley (tenor sax), Chris Anderson (trumpet) and Neal Pawley (trombone) – and to enjoy every minute of it. They can all sing, so the harmonies are spectacular, and they’re a band, not eight individuals (don’t take my word for it, read Jay Lustig’s just-published interview with the man himself).

Now if you come to a Jukes show expecting a carefully-choreographed run-through of the same songs they played last night, and the night before and so on, you came to the wrong show. The audience at a Jukes show expects to be surprised, they expect randoms (though I bet not too many expected “I Wanna be Sedated”) and they want the thrill of not knowing what’s going to happen next. Hell, most of the band don’t even know that. And what they got, from the piano intro and horn riff of “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” was about 135 minutes of old songs, new songs, Lyon/Kazee songs, Little Steven songs, covers, blistering solos from the horns, guitar and keys and just enough quiet moments to offer a contrast to the power of the rest of the set.

And standouts for the night? Well, they hit the ground running with punchy versions of two early classics, “Love on the Wrong Side of Town” and “This Time It’s for Real” and then time-warped forward forty years to “Spinning” from “Soultime” and for over two hours it was a roller-coaster; all killer, no vanilla. You wanted blues; you got it. You wanted soul; you got it. You wanted rock; you got it. You got a singer who’s been in the business over forty years and still wants to go out every night and give every audience a unique experience aided and abetted by the best band in the business. It really doesn’t get any better than that, and every UK gig now is a bonus; make the most of it. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes – living legends.

You can see the photos from the gig here.