I admit it; I’ve been really lucky this year. I’ve been to loads of gigs featuring bands and artists across a range of musical styles and I haven’t seen a bad one; fifty-two weeks of great gigs and now I have to pick out my five favourites. It was never going to be easy and the gigs that made this list were truly special for many different reasons. So, in no particular order, here we go.

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – Indig02 October 2016

little-stevenLittle Steven, Steven van Zandt, Miami Steve, Silvio from The Sopranos. This is someone who’s had a huge impact on popular culture as an Asbury Juke, an E-Streeter, an actor and the man who wrote the anti-apartheid anthem “Sun City”. If you grew up loving The Boss and Southside Johnny (and I did) you knew and loved this man. When I heard about this gig, part of the BluesFest at the O2, my only concern was to get a photo pass. Despite pulling every string I could, there was no joy, but I wasn’t giving up, so I borrowed my wife’s camera (a Nikon Coolpix P530 for the record) to try to grab one good shot of the main man. The thirteen-piece band (with horn charts written by fellow E-Streeter and Juke Ed Manion) was stunningly good as Steven ran through a set of his own songs, blues covers and old soul classics. There wasn’t a second’s respite and there was even a guest appearance from Richie Sambora. And I got the photo. What a night.

Underhill Rose @ Green Note

02-eleanorI’d been looking forward to this one for months, ever since I missed them at the same venue in April because of other commitments. After a lovely meal with Plus One, we made our way to the venue a fashionable fifteen minutes after doors open, only to find that the doors were still firmly closed and there were no lights. Power failure? Not a problem; the Green Note team lit up the venue with dozens of candles and Eleanor Underhill, Molly Rose Reed and Salley Williamson decided to play a genuinely unplugged set. The setting was perfect for the band’s beautiful melodies and glorious tight harmonies and created a level of intimacy that even Green Note doesn’t achieve very often. During the interval the power was restored, but Eleanor, Molly and Salley decided to carry on with a second completely acoustic set. A magical night.

Pete Wylie/The Mighty Wah @Water Rats 09/11/16

pete-wylieAs memorable as the previous gig but for very different reasons. I was a big fan of Pete Wylie in the eighties, but somehow managed to avoid seeing him live. This was the chance to find out what I’d been missing. Water Rats is a room at the back of a pub in Kings Cross; cosy but with a great atmosphere. The last time I was there, there were three people watching a band; me, the band’s manager and the sound engineer. This was different; ten minutes after the doors opened, it was rammed; not only that, but rammed with fans, people who wanted to see Pete Wylie. In that atmosphere, failure wasn’t an option. Pete has put together another powerful incarnation of The Mighty Wah! and their playing throughout was spot on; subtle when necessary and thunderous for the anthems; and there were plenty of those. It was a night of passion, humour and power with a performer who knows his worth and an audience who know their music. It wasn’t just a nostalgia trip either. He featured a stunning new anthem, “I Still Believe”, from his upcoming album titled, with typical Wylie moxie, “Pete Sounds”. The will to survive’s come back.

Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @St Pancras Old Church

Martin Harley scrollerRewind to the beginning of the year as musicians start to emerge after their short hibernation and the lovely St Pancras Old Church (lovely if you aren’t a photographer). It was gloves, woolly hat and brass monkeys looking for welders weather, but inside the church a full house was waiting for Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro. This was one of those intimate gigs where two incredibly accomplished musicians play material they love to play with a passion that the audience taps into, leaving everyone with a warm glow. Playing mainly Weissenborn (Martin) and upright bass (Daniel) the two wove complex textures that sometimes had you wondering where all of the other musicians were hidden. The two voices worked perfectly together and the interplay between songs was sometimes hilarious with Martin’s ‘Englishman Abroad’ persona as the subject of Daniel’s dry observations. Good news is they’ll be back next year. This was the only gig this year where I actually wanted to hear a bass solo (and I wasn’t disappointed).

Michael McDermott @Twickfolk, The Cabbage Patch, Twickenham 04/12/16

08-michaelI waited until seeing this gig before selecting my five favourites of the year. After hearing Michael’s two superb albums released this year (the “Willow Springs” solo and “Six on the Out” by his band The Westies), I wasn’t going to miss this performance. It was a solo show, using guitar and keyboard (and the inevitable harmonica) to create different textures and settings for the songs. Stripping away the full-band arrangements allowed the audience to focus on the quality of the writing and the raw emotional roar of Michael’s voice. The first half of the show, featuring songs taken mainly from the 2016 albums was an intense experience, emotional, sometimes harrowing and primal, songs punctuated by monologues which were surreal, often hilarious and sometimes tinged with sorrow. The second half was less of a roller-coaster but still packed with great songs. Michael McDermott provokes the same sensation I had when I listened to early Springsteen for the first time; there’s poetry, passion and a grim and gritty reality in his work that grabs you by the lapels and stares you straight in the eyes; you know that he’s lived the life. This is for real.

Martin Harley scrollerIt’s a bit like an eclipse; the perfect gig depends on the alignment of artist, venue and audience and it doesn’t happen too often, so it was a privilege to see Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro play to a full house at St Pancras Old Church. Martin and Daniel got together originally in the US and, after touring together, made the album “Live at Southern Ground” in a single afternoon. So the logical next step was to tour in support of the album and that’s how they came to be playing a beautiful and acoustically perfect venue just behind the Eurostar terminal.

Martin and Daniel display the relaxation on stage that comes from complete mastery of your craft. Instrumentally they’re both at the top of their game, but they both have great voices and they’re accomplished songwriters. They aren’t trying to prove anything, they just want to play (and maybe sell a few albums). Throughout the set they created a rapport and intimacy with the audience, telling self-deprecating stories about life on the road and Martin’s first corndog, eaten onstage during a festival gig.

And they played some music as well, covering his career from the eponymous 2003 debut up to “Southern Ground” and a few covers as well, including Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, the Leadbelly classic “Goodnight Irene” and that old Bible Belt favourite, Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”. Highlights; yep, there were a few of those. The second song in, “I Can’t be Satisfied” featured an enthralling Daniel Kimbro bass solo (I know, I’m praising a bass solo, but it probably won’t happen again for a long time) and “Blues at my Window” in D minor (the saddest of all keys) which built up to an incredible finish with what seemed like three Weissenborns playing together (a feat which was repeated at the end of “Chocolate Jesus”) at the end of the evening.

In the second set, “Goodnight Irene” was taken at a beautifully languorous pace with plenty of Weissenborn fills and the lovely “Winter Coat” took off when Daniel Kimbro’s harmonies kicked in Two superb sets followed by a bravura encore of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”. It really doesn’t get any better; two virtuosi playing together to create an unrepeatable experience for the select few crammed into a beautiful acoustic space.

Just a word about the audience; I’d expected the usual blues crowd of male aficionados in their sixties, but the majority of the crowd was in the twenty-to-forty age group with even a scattering of under-tens. They were buying a huge amount of albums in the interval, including the vinyl version of “Southern Ground”, so maybe there’s hope for real music yet.

 

SOTS ScrollerIt’s less than a year since I first saw Sound of the Sirens doing a support set for Mad Dog Mcrea at The Half Moon in Putney. It’s been an eventful ten months for Abbe and Hannah, with festival appearances and a headline show in their home town of Exeter, and this time around they were headlining a sellout gig at St Pancras Old Church, so absolutely no pressure at all. The venue was a pretty inspired choice; it’s an intimate setting but big enough to cope with the full dynamic range of Sound of the Sirens, from a cappella to two guitars, two voices and percussion. The stage was lit by a bedside lamp at either side, creating a cosy ambience which worked well for the performers.

Annie Rew Shaw, also from Devon, was first on stage, playing her melancholic piano-backed songs of sorrow and loss, helped out by an occasional bit of fiddle accompaniment. The songs, and Annie’s fabulous voice, got a good response from an appreciative audience. Tom Figgins was up next; again the songs were good and Tom’s swooping, soaring delivery kept the audience enthralled throughout his set. Both support sets were really strong performances, building up towards the headliners without threatening to steal their thunder.

The runaway train that Sound of the Sirens were riding for most of last year could have been derailed at any time if they hadn’t been prepared for it, but they took everything in their stride and looked completely unfazed by their increasing popularity. Becoming a headline attraction almost overnight (after years of hard work) is a huge challenge that Abbe and Hannah seem to be dealing with pretty well at the moment.

Wednesday’s gig was a ninety minute set, a huge leap from the tight thirty minute support sets they’ve been doing for so long. A lot of bands with one album would struggle to find material to fill an extra hour, but with an album, three EPs and a constant stream of new songs, they made it look like the easiest thing in the world. They both like to interact with the audience and their intriguingly random humour builds a strong rapport between songs as guitars are swapped and mandolins retuned.

They took the opportunity that the longer set presented to build up the momentum, ease back a little and then build again to a barnstorming climax with the live favourites “The Gift” and “Together Alone”. The rest of the set was a mix of songs from the three EPs (including “The Fear”, “Next Year”, “All That I Could Find” and “Stars”) the album “A Long Way to Fall” (including “The Night Before”, “Up to the House” and the magnificent “Faith in Fire”) and a few surprises. There was a cover of The Maccabees “Pelican” and a few new (or unrecorded) songs including “Best Intentions, “For All Our Sins”, “Cross Our Hearts” and “Smokescreen”.

Any nervousness that Abbe and Hannah had before the gig didn’t last very long. It’s fair to say that the audience were onside right from the start but, by the end of the night, the potent mix of well-crafted and powerful songs, superb harmonies and counterpoint and sheer enthusiasm sent everyone home buzzing. I suspect it won’t be too long now before Sound of the Sirens will be playing in a venue near you.