The Blue Train Scroller‘And why lump two gig reviews in different counties on different days together?’ I hear you ask.

  1. I am bone idle.
  2. These gigs are thematically linked. Bear with.

It has been a weekend of musical ‘barn finds’. This is where you stumble across a classic car hidden under a bale of straw in a barn somewhere and begin to unravel a story, finding in the process something which is rare and worth saving. And yes, this has happened to me a few times so I do know what I’m on about in that respect.

Hunter

Never, ever, give your band a name which ends in ‘er’. Look throughout musical history of the last century. It is simply the quickest way to buy a return ticket to whatever you wanted to escape from in the first place. 

Hunter is a bit of a local leg end in Leek. The band played the first Leek Festival 40 years ago when the world was new, back in 1977. They absolutely sizzled about 5000 folks in a local park before disappearing off as Leek’s one and only truly international rock band. Which is why they’ve returned for a hometown reunion gig – as a highlight of the Leek Arts Festival, 2017.

There’s is a strange story. A very competent pop / rock band of the kind that were just blown away by punk, they had a nice line in some decent tunes, a ‘novelty’ USP in that they had a fiddle player in formal dress (albeit with a less – than – formal – fiddle; this one has a Golden Virginia tin built into what might be described as ‘bespoke’ lines). They signed with one of the last pre – punk ‘pop impresarios’, Larry Page, and his Penny Farthing label which as I recall had the likes of Paul Da Vinci, Shocking Blue and Daniel Boone recording for it.

They struggled to make a breakthrough in the UK and always seemed about three months ‘off trend’ somehow; and were more than a little surprised to hear, in 1978, via a phone call from the label owner that a tune called “Rock On” that they’d knocked out as an amusing set closer and that none of the band members much cared for had gone to number 1 in Italy.

There followed hits and foraging parties to Australia and Japan; but time had caught up with them and the punk revolution did for any chance of being anything other than local heroes in the UK, despite an appearance on Tiswas.

But you can’t keep good musicians down; front man and prodigiously talented guitarist Les Hunt went on to join the Climax Blues Band and tonight, all of the original members bar the bass player have come together – and the current bass player has been playing with them for years – to play this reunion gig in front of a packed house.

I must admit to a enormous faux pas here; despite the consumption of nothing more than a very rock ‘n’ roll small bottle of Aldi water – much favoured by the gigeratti these days I think you’ll find – I somehow contrived to lose my notes including the set list; and so I’m restricted to overall impressions here, but really, I don’t think it matters all that much. The tunes are likeable enough, the sound authentic and engaging. Les Hunt plays a guitar which is warm and melodic when it needs to be and also a seriously blunt instrument when it needs to be; and it plays to best effect when weaving in and out of the extremely supple layers of sound from the keyboards. Indeed, as the set progressed it became more apparent that this is the key to how these lads seem to ‘bottle’ the spirit of the seventies; the keyboards could run the gamut from a funky “Superstition” – type vibe, a classic Steely Dan – style ‘smoking jazz’ rework, through the ‘old school’ Moog squeaks and blasts to a cheeky nod to ‘Close Encounters’ at the close of “Do You Believe in UFOs”. And the rhythm section was as solid as a rock and the two guest singers, who had also doubled up as the support act, really added some nice tonal touches to proceedings.

Re. UFOs; that title, though. You have to laugh. We don’t now, we did then. That’s because we know everything now. Which sort of spoils everything a bit. Destroys wonder.

And not because they played a string of covers by Mud, Sweet and Slade, because they stuck to their course of playing their own original body of work of their album tracks and singles released in different territories, I came away feeling more like I’d been immersed in the spirit of the seventies than if I’d been to a ‘revival’ show full of household names. And in for the kill they went at the end of the set with a lively blast through their Italian number 1 hit – the one they never really thought that much of. And to be honest, there isn’t much to it; a seventies mash – up of Sailor (Glass of Champagne, Girls Girls Girls etc circa 1975ish) and the Wombles, complete with that scraping, screeching but somehow compelling fiddle all welded to a sort of three minute schlock and roll pastiche (you may recall recalling the golden age of rock ‘n’ roll was a favourite musical pastime in the seventies). And the audience went bananas and danced in the aisles and all went home smiling. There are times when 40 years maybe doesn’t feel as long as it really is. Music can do that, when it so pleases. And as I made my way back home I couldn’t help but recall the lyrics of Kevin Johnson’s one – hit wonder ‘Rock n Roll (I Gave You All The Best Years Of My Life)….when he says of the music biz….

’You were changing your direction, never even knew…

..that I was always just one step behind you’.

And that, I think, is why the members of Hunter are very, very, very nearly men. And the fact that they are great musicians and they turn their trick with justifiable pride makes them a four-star listen.

The Blue Train

Saturday night and off to the leafy Nottingham suburb of Long Eaton to see The Blue Train go through their paces for the first time in donkey’s years.

There’s is another strange story.

It’s 1991. Having a hit in America is the Holy Grail for most musicians. As a territory – especially back in the days when people bought lorry loads of physical product – the numbers an American hit could generate were truly eye – watering. And once the juggernaut starts to roll…..it all makes the UK market look like a lightweight. Culturally important and yes, absolutely essential if you aspire to play Butlins one day, but tiny compared to The US of A.

Which would be fine if it was easy. Ask Robbie Williams. Ask the Specials. Etc etc. America has been the graveyard of dreams for generations of musicians. Many careers have collapsed while this particular ace was being chased.

But, quietly and inexplicably, The Blue Train did it.

They absolutely cracked it, first time out of the box.

Virtually no UK success to build on, no “Big In Japan” to open a few doors….signing to a small company which was a subsidiary of a bigger company, they released an album entitled ‘The Business Of Dreams’ from which the company, rather tentatively and with a modest budget in American terms, released a single entitled “All I Need Is You”.

Now, at that time in the UK, a song was released, entered the chart and if it was going to get anywhere it would be up there and doing fine, thanks, pretty much nationally with a few exceptions, within about 4 to 6 weeks, often less. 

In America, the sheer scale of the place means you have to stooge around as many of the states as your budget will allow, playing acoustic sets in radio studios, talking to journalists, appearing in record stores etc etc on a state-by-state basis. And as a consequence it is quite possible to have a hit on your hands in one state whilst being unable to get arrested in the next state. It’s a bit like trying to get elected as President but without the stupid haircut. The whole thing has to roll out across the country and build. Build a momentum.

And amazingly for this bunch of lads, that’s just what happened. Within a few months the single was at number 3 all the way across Los Angeles and was top 3 in Austin, Texas and Denver in Colorado, sharing the upper reaches of the charts with the likes of David Bowie and Tina Turner. And then it broke into the Billboard Top 30 nationally.

In just 3 weeks, this very English export had clocked up 83,000 plays on radio stations across the USA. That’s around a quarter of a million minutes of exposure to the biggest market for anything in the world at that time. The tune was then picked up by the producers of ‘Baywatch’ and as such still turns up at various far – flung locations around the globe in a thoroughly unlikely setting.

The record company was thereby presented with an open goal and for various reasons which need not detain us here, they ‘pulled’ the follow-up single when it was at number 15 on the US breaker’s chart and the whole thing fell to pieces.

Over a quarter of a century later and it is drummer Paul Betts’ birthday. The Blue Train decide to play a reunion gig at his party……and a few hundred people are to get the chance to see and hear what the fickle musical gods decided the UK would barely get to hear of or from.

The band open their set after a ground barrage of late 80s – early 90s American FM radio hits has been laid down by the DJ. They start with “Rain On The Way” and what immediately strikes compared to the slightly metallic and ‘automated’ sound on some of the album is the way in which there’s more reliance on a more ‘natural’ sound with singer Tony Osborne’s acoustic really ‘plumping up’ the overall ‘feel’ of the songs.

They really are an unusual sight to behold; both the above and lead picker Alan Fearn are southpaws and it feels at times as if you’re watching the gig ‘upside down’. Nothing ‘wrong way up’ about the sound, though; the lead weaves deftly in and out of the thick keyboard layers and the acoustic chops just serve to sweeten the mix. Birthday boy Paul Betts and newbie bass player James Hartley had clearly decided ‘they’re having it’ and don’t miss a thing all night. Indeed, one – off reunion gigs have something of a reputation for being messy, under – rehearsed affairs; no evidence whatsoever of that here.

Keyboard player Simon Husbands now lives in Minneapolis and has flown in especially for this gig and it doesn’t take much time to work out why. His contributions add drama and striking effects and contrast to the songs – like in “Hero Of The Hour” where the keyboard absolutely propels the song forward and his vocals are a great counter – point to the lead voice; and Tony Osborne’s voice is absolutely crystal and a fabulous vehicle for these songs.

Set highlights are a thunderous, anthemic “Hungry Years”, the aforementioned ‘Hero’ which gained some traction on the airwaves in the UK but nowhere near what it deserved, the spiky, Britpoppy “Fools” and an absolutely gorgeous version of “The Hardest Thing”, recently heard by millions of people worldwide propping up some video of Piers Brosnan on YouTube (and of course at the moment of absolutely no financial advantage to the band themselves). 

The band take a break after a spirited dash through “Reason” and return for a well-earned encore to play the hugely infectious “Wild Heart” and then, yes, it’s That Tune…..the huge American FM smash of “All I Need Is You”. And the crowd are up and they’re dancing and suddenly, and for just a few minutes, The One That Got Away has finally come home.

Conclusions to draw?

Here are two bands who, in their own times, enjoyed huge success in two different markets, but the problems they now face are remarkably similar. If you base yourself in Blighty, you really need to convert the success abroad into a homespun hit or two; but for their various different reasons, for these bands it just wasn’t to be.

But something else was and fair play to them for what they’ve achieved.

Both bands still play their own, original music and whilst various musicians in both bands make a living out of playing music which isn’t original to them, it is quite clear they both realise and understand the privilege and responsibilities of being able to play their own body of work.

Hunter will no doubt go on as a live entity, playing one-off showcase gigs in the Potteries for as long as they’re able and for as long as they enjoy it. And they’ve managed to ‘freeze’ that sense of the time which produced this music and they seem to take it with them.

The Blue Train, on the other hand, seem to have evolved their sound into something which to these ears sounds contemporary and in a way almost timeless, and because of this it would be a shame and something of a loss if this proved to be ‘just’ a one – off gig to celebrate a band member’s birthday.

Musicians can be extremely frustrating people. But, in turn, it must be extremely frustrating being a musician at times.

Especially when the ‘it’ you made when you ‘made it’ is an ‘it’ which doesn’t show up in the Guinness Book of Hit Singles and doesn’t turn you into the answer to a pop quiz question, alongside Chicory Tip. But compared to the journey both of these bands embarked upon, and are still on….does it really matter that much?The Blue Train Scroller

TheKorvids_02The Korvids, eh? I’m guessing it’s a korruption of the scientific term for the crow family. Anyway it’s the name given to a project put together by James Grant (surely I don’t have to tell you about his history) and Gordie Goudie (Simple Minds producer and former member of Echo and the Bunnymen and The Primevals). So the obvious collaboration would be a disco album, right? Well, not strictly; it’s certainly a dance album, but there’s a lot more than just disco lurking in “The Korvids”. Is it so far away from the music they’ve made in the past? In James Grant’s case, I would probably say no; he’s always had a bit of a funky element to his guitar playing and he’s not afraid to experiment, so a dance album’s not such a big step. Now a cheerful dance album; that’s another thing entirely.

The album covers a range of styles; the opener ”Bad Faith”, with its four-to-the-floor kick, congas, funky keys, hi-hats, melodic bassline and horns is pure joyous mid-seventies Studio 54. James Grant even throws in an Ernie Isley style guitar solo for good measure. Maybe a hint of the Average White Band in there as well. And that’s just the first song. “Tender Tyrannies” is about old records and the memories attached and has a Soul II Soul feel with a female vocal, squelching synth bass and clipped, funky guitar, “Slouch” has a groove that’s part Steely Dan, part humanistic Kraftwerk and previous single “Beach Coma” has an ambient Goa trance feel with synth pads and swirls and an acoustic guitar hook. Elsewhere, you can hear elements of Massive Attack and Eastern music in “Be My Enemy” and trip-hop in “Are You Bored with Me Baby?”

If you were a clubber in the late eighties/early nineties and you’ve grown up since then, this is the album for you. It feels a bit like the dance production process has been turned on its head; instead of building up from a groove and adding layers to create the finished product, this feels like the songs came first and the backing tracks were written to fit the songs. Either way, it’s a cracking album.

“The Korvids” is released on Friday April 28 on Nang Records.

And while we’ve got you here, how about checking a stunningly good song about Scottish families, another of James Grant’s classics:

Donnie ScrollerAnd by tortuous means we ended up at the above on Sunday. Solid Entertainments promote a series of live presentations in what aren’t normally the trendiest of locations, often as mini-festival type packages and very good value they are too if you fancy a day of live and 80% original music.

The day started around 2PM with a young band called Southbound. A bunch of schoolmates aged 18, you get a bunch of original songs in a covers-free set presented by a handy two guitar attack, a tight and well rehearsed rhythm section and a great Lighthouse Family-style vocal which had more warmth than the usual bruiser blueser. What they lacked in conviction and confidence on occasion they certainly had in quality playing and some very serviceable, if on occasion derivative songs. Enjoyable. One To Watch.

Two’s up, The Rainbreakers. From their gig sheet you can see they’ve pretty much played everywhere over the last year or so and it showed. You can absolutely expect a competent, square-jawed bluesy rock band. They started with a few of their own songs, including an OK ballad which might have been a cut above with a bit more of a soul twist in the vocal department. These were followed by the first covers of the day, a melange of Hendrix and Albert Collins, but they really weren’t looking like the time of day / week was doing much for them. A couple more fairly so-so songs and then Free’s “Fire and Water”, which was probably standout tune of the set along with set finisher “Nothing Going On”. They were OK, extremely good musicians, a safe pair of hands. And that was the crux of the problem really.

Rebecca Downes and her band have that sort of swagger that suggests they feel like they’re on their way and on the strength of this they have every reason to do so. The band have an elastic, Steely Danesque keyboard player who adds an extra dimension to what they can do and this meant their set had an interesting range. It took her a couple of songs to get into her stride vocally – by her own admission her throat was in a bad way, but hey, a trouper’s a trouper – but once she got to the cover of Erma Franklin’s “Another Piece Of My Heart” you knew it was going to be alright. Don’t know about the etiquette of playing “Rather Go Blind” when Chicken Shack were due on later but let us not dwell on that. Own stuff was interesting and well worth a listen. They done good and earned a decent reception.

Now then, now then. The Brew. Let me start by saying they got the best response of the whole day from the rather dour crowd and impressed all and sundry including me with their spectacular guitar trickery, and the amazing drum solo, which the drummer completed in barnstorming fashion with his bare hands. They were due off to mainland Europe the following day and if they can get the kit to hold together (repeated problems with the bass lapsing into acoustic mode and the bass player’s mic sounding simply dreadful) they will undoubtedly do well Over There. For me, though, it was a strange kaleidoscope of 21st century prog rock meets power trio. They are undoubtedly Onto Something and all three of them are ridiculously talented and if I had to pick one band from the line-up that was likely to Do Very Well In Future, it’d be these lads. Not for me though. It was a bit like going to see an early round of the FA Cup and instead being treated to a virtuoso display of keepy-uppy. Impressive but somehow unsatisfying. And I feel a bit churlish saying it as they didn’t half put a shift in and undoubtedly won the audience award.

So by the time Stan Webb ambled onto the stage with Chicken Shack it all had a slightly ‘after the Lord Mayor’s Show’ feel to proceedings.

Stan Webb has been in with them all, seen it, done most of it and remains one of the genuine British Blues legends who has a string of hit albums and hit singles, even, to his name. Generally regarded as a guitarist of rare ability and touch, what tends to be relatively overlooked is his extraordinary voice, a sort of high – intensity fog horn which even past the first flush of youth can hold a note which can break glass. He has a waspish sense of humour onstage and as the set started off slightly creakily (sound all over the place, some band members seeming to pick tempo or key more or less at random) his mood blackened and he took to introducing songs off mic as it was easier to be heard! Whereas many of us did find this highly amusing he did receive some choice Yorkshire vernacular, especially when he claimed it was like playing Batley Variety Club (at which point a punter who accused him of never having been there got both barrels and a glowing tribute to Ken Dodd for his pains). Never heckle an old ‘un. They HAVE heard it all before.

As things settled he ran through a series of Chicken Shack latest and greatest and during “Rather Go Blind” he went walkabout and ordered a pint of Carling from the bar, chatted up the young barmaid and did a sort of mid-gig soundcheck whilst the guitar tech faffed around with his guitar. Well, as he correctly observed, what else to do?

Given a diffident and rather tired audience, they went down well by the end of the set, the crowd won over by the sheer class on display, but he and his band will play better gigs and consequently they are – still – well worth catching.

Well done, Solid Ents – a brave and hopefully worthwhile enterprise with more of these shows in the pipeline. Catch one or stay in and watch the telly and the whole thing eventually falls over.

 

Villanelle TitleVillanelle” is the second instalment of a trilogy of albums released by Pete and Maura Kennedy in 2015. It’s a Maura Kennedy solo album but, not surprisingly, Pete’s a presence throughout, playing electric guitar, banjo, mandolin, organ, glockenspiel bass and drums. The album is a collaboration with Californian poet B.D. Love which was hatched in the summer of 2014 as a creative challenge. B.D. Love provided Maura with a set of poems which she had to be turn into songs without changing their structure. Now, that may sound like an interesting academic exercise but the project has produced some of the most beautiful songs I’ve heard this year by fusing poetic forms with a range of musical settings from across the Americana spectrum.

At fifteen songs long, I’m not even going to attempt to feature every song; there isn’t a bad, or even an average one, so I’m going with a few of my personal highlights, in no particular order. “She Worked her Magic on Me” is probably the most light-hearted of the lyrics; full of wordplay and double entendre, it’s a joyous romp of a song telling the tale of the amorous exploits of a magician’s assistant, featuring a nice gipsy jazz nylon-strung guitar solo from Pete. It’s not typical of the songs on the album, but it’s great fun. “Be the One” sounds like 1972 all over again with a groove that’s somewhere between Carly Simon’s “You’re so Vain” and Steely Dan’s “Do it Again” as a backdrop for a relatively straightforward love poem. As a bonus, Pete builds up the texture and atmosphere with some very moody organ.

Borrowed Dress” is a very feminist piece showing the human cost of economic migration and ending with a prayer that the daughter of the central character will live a better life because of her mother’s sacrifice. It’s heart-rending stuff set against an appropriately Mexican-tinged arrangement. “Darling Cutter” isn’t just heart-rending, it’s harrowing; the back-story is established quickly before plunging into a cycle of alienation and self-harm which the narrator can see and is trying to break, although there is a hint at complicity. The contrast between the lyrical darkness and the uptempo, almost jaunty, feel of the song helps to emphasise the pathos of the events which unfold.

If you ever need an example of perfect track sequencing on an album, here it is; the song following “Darling Cutter” is the absolutely gorgeous “I Cried to Dream Again”, which is inspired by Caliban’s famous dream speech in “The Tempest”. The theme of the song is an unrequited love, but the musical setting and the achingly beautiful chorus feel like a resolution to the previous song’s darkness.

There’s no argument here about whether song lyrics are poetry or not (and that’s a discussion I’ve had a few times) because that’s how these lyrics started. Maura Kennedy has risen to an incredibly difficult technical challenge by crafting arrangements across a wide variety of styles which enhance the poetry and, as always, her lead and harmony vocals are perfect. When you add Pete Kennedy’s multi-instrumental skills to the mix, the result is an album that’s technically flawless and packed with feeling and emotion. You can’t ask for much more than that.

Villanelle – The Songs of Maura Kennedy and B.D. Love” is out now on Varèse Sarabande (302 067 339 8).

You can read the interview I did with Pete and Maura in London earlier this month here.

 

Meanwhile“Meanwhile” -- Part Time Heroes

Whilst this is completely new to me and probably the best album I’ve heard in 2014, it actually got released back in 2008 but pretty much passed everyone by. I first heard the track “Shadowlands” on Jamie Cullum’s Jazz show that airs on Radio 2; my ears pricked up immediately and I instantly sought out the album, which is a gem, not a duff track on it. They use various vocalists and it certainly has a contemporary jazzy feel to it but I also hear echoes of Terry Callier and lots of other stuff going on. It’s destined to be one of those lost classics, certainly worth investigating for sure.

Carleen_AndersonCarleen Anderson at Ronnie Scott’s

I didn’t get to as many gigs as I would have liked to this year due to Stone Foundation’s hectic schedule throughout 2014. The one that really stood out head & shoulders above everything else I saw this year was Carleen Anderson’s performance at Ronnie Scott’s at the start of the year. She is (still) such an underrated talent with an exceptional vocal range, obviously we (Stone foundation) were very fortunate to have Carleen grace our last album where she contributed an amazing vocal to one of our songs called “When You’re in My World“. She is an amazing songwriter and arranger too; her new material is just outstanding, as good as anything she has ever written and I really hope it sees the light of day sometime soon. It was an inspiring evening and one that will stay with me.

Eminent Hipsters“Eminent Hipsters” -- Donald Fagen

I’ve been reading a lot this year, much more so than usual, I have no idea why, perhaps I have been looking for inspiration to kick start my own scribblings again; I’m 12 chapters in to my first book but kind of stalled once again really due to other commitments but I hope to pick up the trail again come the new year and get it finished. This book by Steely Dan main man Donald Fagen was a real treat, his words danced from the pages. It covers all the cool hipster characters that influenced his own inevitable style, it also covers his late college years in New York where he first met Walter Becker his co-founder and musical partner in Steely Dan. It’s a very funny book too, especially in the latter chapters when documenting his time on tour recently with Boz Scaggs & Michael Mcdonald. It brings to life the up’s and down of the anxieties and indignities of life on the road in the most brilliantly humorous way.

Ana_MatronicRadio DJs

This year I rediscovered the joys of the radio. A couple of programmes in particular really inspired me. Ana Matronic’s Disco show that aired on Friday nights for six weeks on Radio 2 was a real winner; she didn’t so much play obvious disco musak in the sense of the naff, cliched sound you would imagine but focussed on the real grooves of that period such as the influential Salsoul sound and some of the orchestral arrangements that people like Barry White popularized with Love Unlimited and also the wonderful world of Gamble & Huff and that whole Philly thing. It introduced me to a lot of new stuff that I hadn’t heard previously like Francine McGee’s “Delirium”; I also ended up buying the whole works, a box set of Philly stuff. Don Letts’ show on 6 Music has also turned me on to a lot of new music too; only last night I heard something by Jaga Jazzist called “Made for Radio” that had my attention from the off. I think it’s great to know that there is still some really thoughtful radio still being aired and made; long may it continue. It’s how I first got inspired, by listening to Peel on a transistor in my bedroom when I should have been doing my homework; I guess in many ways I was………

No Deal“Space is the Place” -- Yusef Lateef / Melanie De Biasio “No Deal”

I’ve been gravitating towards a more jazzy sound over the past couple of years. I’ve kind of not lost interest but put Guitar / Rock music on the back burner for a while; it’s not what I want to inform me when it comes to my own writing at the moment. I’m more pre occupied with space in arrangements; this Yusef Lateef track kind of personifies that mind set. I’ve heard a lot of great new music too this year but mainly in a pop vein like the Jessie Ware album & that Jungle single “Busy Earnin'” which I really liked. Also one of my favourite new albums and discoveries of this year has been the Melanie De Biasio album “No Deal…”; she is a classically trained flautist from Belgium who has a tremendous voice too. It’s a great record and one that also exemplifies my love of space in the music. It’s not in a hurry to impress; it creeps up on you. In saying all of this I must admit that I was impressed with Ryan Adams’ spectacular return to form on his last (self-titled) LP; the production and sound of it is incredible. It sounds like “Rumours” which is a tough task to pull off.

My Black Arts TitleSo, here’s an interesting one; “My Black Arts” is the second album from The Dream Logic. The core of the band is singer and guitarist Charles Compo, bass player Jerry Brooks and drummer Camille Gainer but the album also features cameos from guitarists Eric Krasno (Soulive) and Vernon Reid (Living Colour). As far as trying to pin a genre on the band, I’m sticking to guitar-based at the moment.

The first track, “My Red Heart”, opens with some guitar and percussion noodling before dropping into a groove that echoes “Gaucho”-era Steely Dan (right down to a sprinkling of atonality in the guitar solo) with clean guitars and keys under Charles Compo’s very distinctive vocal, which has more than a hint of Sweet Pea Atkinson (more about that later). From here on in, the band takes on a variety of different disguises, as it tackles a range of musical styles.

“Cisco Kid” and “When I Go” have a bluesy feel, the first funky, and the second a slow blues with very clean picking in the style of Albert Collins before a coda which shifts to mid-tempo before a paint-stripping guitar solo. Drums and bass are fairly funky throughout and the songs “”Just Can’t Quit It”, “The Way That I Want It” and “Think I’ll Stay” stick fairly closely to a funk template.

“It’s Murder”, with its driving bassline, “I Hope It’s Real”, with a catchy guitar hook and guitar fills in the verses, the Southern swamp boogie of the single “Drunken Monkey” and the all-out driving tempo of “Headlights Into the Darkness” (with a hint of pastiche in the backing vocals) all help to establish the band’s rock credentials while “Don’t Judge” has slow 70s style soul arrangement with nice laid-back, almost jazz, guitar.

The remaining three tracks are the seasoning which gives the album its unique flavour. “Biznasty” (with a lyric about a music business sleazeball) is propelled along by Stones-style intertwined guitar parts with an added sitar to give the song its individual style. And then things get weird. “Trying to be a Buddha”, a slow piece which evokes 80s-era Prince meeting Tom Verlaine is almost a mantra, while the closing (and title) track, “My Black Arts” is a loose jam which perhaps made a lot more sense in the studio than it does here.

On the positive side, the playing is superb throughout, particularly when the arrangement is for two guitars. There’s a lot of variation; it’s never boring because you just don’t know what’s coming next and the band sounds fairly convincing across all of the genres they tackle. The negatives are that there’s probably too much material here (14 songs) and the title track, “My Black Arts”, comes over as a bit self-indulgent and aimed at the band rather than the listener. The band is obviously influenced by a tremendous variety of styles and the finished product here feels mostly like Steely Dan interpreted by Don and David Was (who also had a penchant for including half-finished jams and other bits of weirdness on their albums) with hints of many other styles. It’s not a bad album at all; it’s a good album which might have been even better with a tighter focus.

 

Play the GameHow about that?  Less than a month into 2014 and I’ve just heard my first great album of the year; it’s by Brothers Groove, it’s their debut and it’s called “Play the Game”.  So what’s so great about this album then?  All of the songs are well-crafted, but the quality of the playing and the vocals push it way beyond run-of-the-mill British blues.  If you want to see how the band describe their influences, you can look at their website, but it’s only going to tell you part of the story; you can list the influences (and you can hear them from the first play), but the craft lies in the way those elements are blended together subtly and tastefully.

The beating heart of Brothers Groove is the interplay between Shaun Hill (guitar, vocals and main lyricist), Nigel Mellor (guitar and vocals) and Deano (bass and vocals).  On this album, they’re helped out by Wayne Proctor (drums and production), Bob Fridzema (keyboards), Bennett Holland (piano) and Sam Weeks (backing vocals), but the creative focus of the band is definitely the interplay between guitars and bass.

The band move effortlessly between the crisp funk of “Play the Game (Save your Soul)”, “What’s the Deal” and “Understand Me” (which wouldn’t sound out of place on either of Donald Fagen’s first two solo albums) and the slow, brooding blues of “Treat ‘em Mean”, “Another Girl” and “Will I See you There?”  And there’s the jazz-funk of “My Guitar” (a love song about a guitar), the psychedelic feel of “Never Gonna Happen”, the shuffle groove of “Duty Calls” and the soulful “Easy Found Love”, held together by some tasteful Hammond chords  and featuring a typically understated wah-wah guitar solo.

This is an album that doesn’t rely on big production techniques or guitar pyrotechnics to get the message over; it’s all about superb technical playing where the two guitars mesh perfectly in a way I haven’t heard since listening to Onnie McIntyre and Hamish Stuart of the Average White Band.  The resemblance doesn’t end there, either; the lead vocal sounds uncannily like Alan Gorrie at times and I’m definitely not saying that’s a bad thing.  Brothers Groove as players are so good that they make intricate inter-woven arrangements sound incredibly simple; they aren’t, it’s down to ability and dedication.  They have the confidence to play without pushing everything to the limit; the quality of the songs and the individual players’ techniques ensure that nothing sounds forced, from the opening guitar riff of the title track to ripple of Fender Rhodes at the end of “Will I see you there?”.  To complete the picture, lead and backing vocals are spot on throughout; I can’t find anything to dislike about this album.

The members of the band have obvious influences, but these are woven into the pattern so cleverly that they create something that’s fresh and contemporary.  Imagine Steely Dan without the snarky sarcasm or the Average White band without the horns and you’re pretty much there.

Out now on Shabby Toad Records (BRGROOV1).  Distributed by Cadiz Digital.

Ok, call me obsessive if you like but as well as listening to a lot of albums and going to as many gigs as I can, I also read the odd book or two about music and popular culture and many of those are worth sharing with anyone who checks out MusicRiot regularly.  This list was difficult to pin down to five from the start, but it became even more difficult on Christmas Day when I was given a copy of the Donald Fagen memoir/tour diary/article compilation, “Eminent Hipsters”.  So I guess that’s a pretty good place to start.

“Eminent Hipsters” – Donald Fagen

Eminent HipstersWhere do I start with Donald Fagen?  With Walter Becker, he was half of one of my favourite 70s bands, Steely Dan and then went on to release the classic solo album, “The Nightfly” in 1982, followed (not too closely) by “The Kamakiriad” in 1993.  You’ve probably guessed by now, I’m a bit of a fan.  “Eminent Hipsters” is partly an explanation, through a series of articles, of the factors which influenced the Steely Dan sound (cool jazz, cop dramas and wise-ass comedians) and the Donald Fagen solo sound (science fiction and mid-century paranoia).  If you love the music, you’ll be fascinated by these observations about its roots.  The second part of this slim volume is devoted to Fagen’s diary from the 2012 “Dukes of September Rhythm Revue” tour which is, by turn, snarky, moving, insightful and downright hilarious.

Donald Fagen writes in an instantly-identifiable style betraying a debt to Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, which sneaks in when describing Audrey Hepburn in “Breakfast at Tiffany’s” as getting :”out of that cab on Fifth Avenue in a black dress and pearls in the early morning, I wanted to sip her through a straw”.  It’s beautifully written and you can get through it in a few hours; it takes 170 pages to deliver a message that most rock biographies take at least five times as long to get over.

“Bedsit Disco Queen: How I Grew Up and Tried to be a Pop Star” – Tracey Thorn

Bedsit Disco QueenIf Donald Fagen’s prose style is easily identifiable, then Tracey Thorn’s is even more so.  I’m always impressed when musicians get this right (Peter Hook and Luke Haines also do it particularly well) and, from the first paragraph, this is pitch-perfect ‘Popstar Trace’.  The book takes us from the Marine Girls beginnings through the EBTG false starts and eventual success to the beautiful Massive Attack vocals (I’m biased, but you should read about the origins of the modern classic, “Protection” here) and the worldwide Todd Terry-remixed success of “Missing”.

Tracey’s style is perfectly self-deprecatory; you never feel a hint of false modesty and the mentions of famous musicians are always very matter-of-fact, including the story about waiting to pick the kids up from school and being shouted at by George Michael from a Range Rover.  This is a wonderful memoir from a genuine pop star.

“Yeah, Yeah, Yeah: The Story of Modern Pop” – Bob Stanley

Yeah,Yeah,YeahIt’s obvious from the outset that this is actually a companion piece to the classic 2012 St Etienne album, “Words and Music”.  The album was a voyage through the history of British pop music and the book is an extended verbal remix of the ground covered by the album.  What’s equally obvious is that Bob Stanley is both an enthusiast and an insider, which gives him a unique perspective on his subject.  He aims to show the links between different styles using not just the music, but also sociological and technological developments.  If you’re interested in the history of pop music and you’ve done a bit of research, you might disagree with some of his pronouncements, but it’s a big book and you’ll probably agree with ninety per cent of them.

The book takes the first NME chart in 1952 as its starting point (which is logical and not controversial) and the end of vinyl as a chart force in 1993 as its end point, when the first Number One singles not to have been released as a 7” single or (a few months later) on vinyl at all topped the charts (if you want to know what they are, you can buy the book ).  It’s a slightly more controversial choice but still with a logical basis for someone who grew up in the age of vinyl.  The book has an authority derived from Bob Stanley’s experience as a writer and member of a very successful pop group but never slips into the socio-cultural academic approach of, for example, Simon Reynolds.  The theme that underpins everything else in this book is that Bob Stanley is still a fan who wants you to come round and listen to his records, and that makes this an unmissable book.

“Here Comes Everybody: The Story of the Pogues” – James Fearnley

Here Comes EverybodyI’ve always been a fan of the “inside story” biography, particularly those that aren’t ghost-written attempts at cultural revisionism.  This memoir by James Fearnley is, at times, brutally and crushingly honest about members of The Pogues and he doesn’t spare himself either.  The book begins by setting the scene with Shane MacGowan’s departure from the band in 1991 before moving back to Fearnley’s initial meeting with MacGowan at an audition for The Nips in 1980.

The book is a (mainly) unsentimental account of the rise and fall of The Pogues from the viewpoint of someone close enough to see everything but with enough distance to retain some objectivity.  From the chaotic managerless beginnings through the unpopular but successful stewardship of Frank Murray, the story is underpinned at all times by MacGowan’s unpredictability and seemingly random self-destructive urges.  James Fearnley tries very hard to balance the singer’s inexcusable behaviour against the genius of the songs, but it’s up to you if you buy that line; I certainly don’t.  My only criticism is that James Fearnley spends a little too much time trying to emphasise the fact that he’s a writer and occasionally introduces unnecessarily florid prose to prove it; putting that aside, it’s still a winner.

“Sounds like London: 100 Years of Black Music in the Capital” – Lloyd Bradley

Sounds like LondonBear with me for a minute here; this will all make sense presently.   Earlier this year I read “How Soon is Now?: The Madmen and the Mavericks who made Independent Music 1975-2005” by Richard King.  It’s a very good book and a must for geeks like us, but it attracted a lot of criticism because it didn’t touch on the black music scene.  Richard King was even accused, pathetically, of racism in some quarters; you might even have read about it.  Personally, I prefer to read authors who write about subjects they understand and that really inspire them; if Richard King didn’t have the expertise, contacts or inspiration to write about the black music scene, then Lloyd Bradley certainly did.

The title is a little misleading; there’s very little about pre-1950s black music, and it also deals with regional English offshoots from the London scene but those aren’t criticisms, just observations.  The reason for the comparison with Richard King’s book is that one of Lloyd Bradley’s recurring themes is that black British music has always developed and prospered healthily out of the mainstream when produced and distributed independently.

Once the book reaches the point where Lloyd Bradley can introduce interviews with the players who made black British music happen (the steel pan players, the jazzers, the sound system pioneers, the Britfunk players and the mainstream crossovers Eddy Grant, Janet Kay, Jazzie B and the rest), the narrative really takes off with stories of the sound systems and records being sold out of the back of a car and distributed around the country in the same way.  Lloyd Bradley takes us through calypso, ska, reggae, lovers rock, dub, britfunk, 98 bpm, trip hop, jungle, d’n’b, UK garage, dubstep and grime along with a host of short-lived one-way streets with an unassuming and easy authority that is very seductive.  If you want an introduction to black British music, this is the book for you.

OK, spoilers alert; I’ve relented.  I’ll tell you that the chart-toppers Bob Stanley refers to in 1993 and 1995 respectively are Culture Beat’s “Mr Vain” and Celine Dion’s “Think Twice”, but you should still read the book.  Actually you should read all of these books.