Mike & the Mechanics ScrollerValentine’s Night in Buxton. You can’t get a table for a pre-concert meal without somebody thrusting a bunch of roses up your nose and insisting sir has the pink almond parfait cluster as a starter and you can’t get to the bar for snoggers, both the partnered and the furtive. Why do we keep foisting these ridiculous American celebrations of nothing in particular upon ourselves? Anyone for Black Friday….!

Gratitude, then, that tonight there’s a very trad Brit serving at the Opera House and not some awful American import. Bah, humbug.

Ben McKelvey has the task of opening for the rude mechanicals tonight and he’s clearly still trying to get over the shock of being asked to do so. His debut album “Life and Love in England” did rather well on the I-Tunes songwriter chart and you can see why. There are a couple or three contenders in his short set, hammered out with gusto and conviction on acoustic guitar, voice and tea-chest, including the rather lovely “Sunday”. Ben McKelvey inhabits a somewhat overpopulated sector of the musical universe and it is difficult to cut through the mediocrity and the ‘heard-it-all-before’; but he’s refreshingly honest, clearly delighted to be given a shot at playing some decent venues on a ‘proper’ tour and worth a listen.

And so, we present – Mike and the Mechanics. Pretty much an FM radio staple in the UK. They have been since the late 80’s. They seem to have been built on the same principle as Bill Wyman’s Rhythm Kings, in that the Mechanics seem to change and adapt to personnel changes and the requirements of that whilst also adapting to the demands of the songs which Mike Rutherford is writing at the time, with a variety of collaborators.

The first point to note is that if you’ve come out to revel in a night of Genesis nostalgia, this probably won’t be for you. There are Genesis tunes in the mix; specifically two tonight, “I Can’t Dance” and “Land Of Confusion” but their own repertoire is too wide and varied to become overly taken up with that; both songs were extremely well played but felt rather like a crowd-pleaser for the many Genesis fans in the audience; indeed, at one point Rutherford, rather endearingly, referred to Genesis as his ‘school band’. There was also a brief interlude where Andrew Roachford, now one of the Mechanics, sang his big solo stadium anthem ‘”Cuddly Toy”; the rest, however, was an interesting mash – up of Mechanised classics and tracks from the forthcoming album “Let Me Fly”.

If I might be permitted to deal with the matter of “Let Me Fly” first, the tracks from this which were given an airing seemed extremely tidy and show yer man Rutherford still knows how to pen a tune which flatters the FM medium beautifully; “The Best Is Yet To Come”, “Are You Ready” and the gloriously optimistic manifesto title track “Let Me Fly” are well worth a listen, preferably in an open-topped car (serving suggestion).

The Mikes’ classic hits are played with verve and a tremendous ear for detail and are a timely reminder that Mr Rutherford knows the difference between an airplay confection of the highest order (eg. “All I Need Is A Miracle”; check the intro. Music radio hour-starter all century long, trust me) and a stadium anthem (eg. “Word Of Mouth”). And of course the show-stopper, “The Living Years”, which I suspect is probably a ‘Desert Island Disc’ for a massive number of people who would only claim to have a passing interest in music. And in fairness, I think this is probably the biggest greatest achievement of Mike and the Mechanics; without a screamingly strong or obvious image and with a devoted but understated fan base, they do attract an audience who, along with the expected Genesis diehards and fans enjoy the music, don’t necessarily think about it too much, wouldn’t claim tribal allegiance to any particular ‘type’ of music or specific band, but like what they like and they like this. A bit like being an ELO fan, I suppose.

Probably the greatest compliment I could pay to the current line – up is that the phenomenal talent that is Paul Carrack is not missed in the slightest. Tim Howar and Andrew Roachford bring an excellent rock / R’n’B balance to the songs and Roachford definitely adds a whole slice of soul to tunes which, in their studio manifestation, might to some ears appear as a little sterile on occasion. On “Get Up” they even seem to create a sort of Sam and Dave vibe – and when Roachford disappears off into a seemingly-effortless vocal ‘fill’, the ghost of Sam Cooke suddenly enters the room. Which might appear to be a bit weird in the context of this kind of party – but the apparition is strangely appropriate and indeed welcome.

And that’s pretty much what you get; an extremely professional, fabulously well played body of largely original but familiar hit music and some nice new tunes thrown in. If you’re looking for ground-breaking creativity, probably not for you, but only the most churlish would be unmoved by the remarkable musicianship, finely-crafted songs and careful onstage recreations of productions of the highest standard. They’re touring the length and breadth for the next thirty dates and if you miss them, it’s your loss. I will also admit I might now wish to catch Andrew Roachford on his solo tour this autumn.

 What’s not to like?

Steve’s been writing for us on an occasional basis for a couple of years now and his work is always worth reading. With this feature, the only stipulation we make is that the list is five items long (and we don’t always get that). Otherwise you can say whatever you like as long as the lawyers approve it. We all love going to gigs and we see a lot of live music and that’s great; we see things that we love. The downside is that the more gigs you go to, the more you see of the things that aren’t quite right. Here are some of those from Mr Jenner’s experience this year:

1) Beer – a tale of five lagers.

lager-lager-lagerNow, when I go out to see a band, I like a beer. To be honest I like a beer when I don’t go out to see a band as well which is why I also have problems with 4. But for the sake of the good Lord, why, why oh why do some venues insist on dishing up five – count them – five – draught lagers AND NO BITTER? WHY?? Take the O2 Indigo as exhibit A. Gorgeous venue. Excellent sight lines, marvellous acoustics, washroom facilities you could picnic in – and NO BITTER! My most recent visit there was to see Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul and what a breathtaking gig that was. But it also happened to coincide with the night when the Guinness was ‘off’. (What does that even mean? It was past sell-by? It was giving off a sulphurous odour? WHAT?) And so we were offered a wide range of near – identical fizzy light brown chemical substances which could loosely be described as ‘lager’ (and don’t even try to tell me British Bud isn’t ‘lager’). I wasn’t expecting an array of twelve real ales and a couple of nice porters, but – not even John Smith’s, the last refuge of the scoundrel? Bah and humbug.

2) Music Before The Event.

mixtape11Music selection before the band comes on can be a very mixed bag. This seems to vary between ‘let the roadies pick it, we couldn’t care less’, or ‘let’s put the support band’s album on, we couldn’t care less’ through to ‘I’m the bass player and I’m going to treat you to a selection from the very darkest corners of my record collection – a variety of tracks so obscure you’ll only just recognise them as ‘music’, and that means I’ve won….’ I feel pre – gig music choice is deceptively important. It sets the mood and tone and can almost be seen as a statement of intent. Try not to do any of the above. Might I suggest a suitable pre-set approach might be along the lines of; ‘these are the songs written by others that we wish we’d recorded, played by other artists we admire’. That’d do it, generally speaking. Special mention to Brian Wilson at Brighton who seemed somehow to have managed to persuade the ghost of the James Last Orchestra (ask your grandma) to record a medley of his greatest hits. Strangely mesmeric and it worked!

3) Support Band PA.

mixing-deskIt’s the oldest trick in the Guinness book of gig skulduggery – get your sound engineer to torpedo the mix for the support act. Sure helps you look even better when you come on. But really; do headline bands STILL need to be doing this to the poor souls who have ventured forth to warm up the crowd for them to entertain? We went to see Jools Holland at Ipswich Regent recently. The sound for the support band was so poor that even if my life depended on it I couldn’t tell you the name of the band or indeed the title of any of their songs. OK, maybe it was the band’s own fault, maybe it was nothing to do with the main act’s PA crew. But it still often is, and come on guys, we’re better than this. Especially when the support band has been hand-picked by the headliners because they think they’ve got something. There’s no kindness or even particular advantage in handing over a poisoned chalice. And why headliners keep referring to the poor dears as ‘Special Guests’ whilst abusing them thus is a bit of a laugh. If you were a guest in anyone’s house and they treated you like that you’d be on Facebook like a shot and don’t try to tell me otherwise.

4) Slim Seats (Is Not A Slide Guitar Player).

venue-seatingI’m sitting on my chair at the rather lovely MEN Arena. As big venues go, it is not a bad watch and very user friendly to get in and out of. If only the same could be said of the chairs. They seem to use this system where the ‘temporary’ seating in the auditorium kind of clips together in a very intimate way; and the chairs are slightly smaller than Ryanair to start with, and they are by no means alone in this. And, as luck would have it, a similarly ‘bonny’ bloke appears to be the tenant of seat K27, the seat which is cheek – literally – by jowl with The Author. Flopping down adjacent to me, spilling one of five types of homogenous lager on my arm and presenting profuse apologies through a mouthful of stadium dog, I’m already feeling my sixty – odd – quid entertainment experience is being compromised. Ken Dodd better be pretty damn good now.

5) (Ain’t Got Nothin’ But) The Ladybog Blues (Again Mama).

ladybogsVenues, promoters and bands themselves often bemoan the relative lack of female punters and offer various socio – politico – entertaino(?)- reasons for this. The truth is much simpler. There are not enough bogs for women. It is not rocket science. As a bloke you cruise past, cheerfully unzipping before you so much as reach the door, whilst the queue for the ladybogs has already lit a campfire and are preparing a bivouac for the night. And it’s not even a good chortle for the average bloke; they’re tricky blighters, these women. I know. I’ve been kept by one as a sort of house pet for the last forty years or so. As a token bloke, they hold you personally responsible for all life’s discomforts and they take it out on you as a representative of the foul brood who have brought them to this ignominy. Please, ye great and ye good, if you make one resolution this year, it has to be more ladybogs in music venues. And High Five to you, too.

double-take-scrollerThe promotion campaign for “Double Take” features some of the artists involved (Rod Stewart, Paul Carrack and Huey Lewis) talking about the first time they saw Frankie Miller. Now, that’s a great idea.

Freshers’ Week, Dundee University, 1976 and the first gig of the year was Frankie Miller’s Full House. I went to the gig with my new mate Steve (still a mate and writing great reviews for MusicRiot). The band were superb and we left the gig raving about Ray Minhinnet’s guitar work, Chrissy Stewart’s bass playing, but most of all about Frankie’s stunning soul voice. He started the ballad “With You in Mind” a cappella, and with perfect pitch, before the band dropped in underneath the vocal; I was completely hooked from that moment. I’ve seen an awful lot of gigs since then, but I’ve never heard a band that nailed it so completely, song after song.

So let me put “Double Take” into some kind of personal and historical context. As Frankie slowly fought back from the brink after a brain haemorrhage in 1994, you would hear occasionally from friends on the Scottish music scene about his progress; not frequently, but often enough to know that things were gradually improving, and it carried on like that until 2012 when word started to leak out that a project with Frankie’s old demo tapes was in progress. It’s taken over four years and probably a few unexpected twists and turns, but the final result is “Double Take”, nineteen unreleased Frankie Miller originals reconstructed from demo vocals, and all but one reimagined as duets with singers that wanted to be involved with the project. Although Frankie’s biggest chart hits (“When I’m Away From You” aside) were interpretations of other people’s songs, he also wrote a shedload of great songs for himself and other artists.

The nineteen songs on “Double Take” are pretty representative of Frankie’s songwriting output, covering soul, blues, rock, country and ballads. And that’s the staple diet of Scotland, right there; forget your deep fried Mars Bars. All of the songs have been arranged around the original demo vocals (with Frankie involved in quality control), but the quality of the voice is so good that almost everything sounds like a full-scale production. To be honest, given the choice, I’d rather listen to Frankie Miller demos than most singers’ finished product.

The guests on “Double Take” are a mix of megastars and people that Frankie knew and worked with in the past. Without listing the whole lot, how about Joe Walsh, Elton John, Kid Rock, Delbert McClinton, Kim Carnes and Willie Nelson. Add those to the ones listed at the top of the article and you’ve got a huge amount of respect across musical styles for Frankie’s work. Great news for fans of Frankie from the mid-seventies is that Full House appear on three songs in the middle of the album. “When It’s Rockin’” (with Steve Dickinson) is a horn-driven rocker, “Beginner at the Blues” (with Delbert McClinton) is a slow blues and “To Be With you Again” (with Kim Carnes) is a mid-tempo ballad. For a while there, I was back in that night in1976.

With so many songs and such a variety of arrangements, it’s difficult to pick standouts, but the gospel choir of “Where Do the Guilty Go” (with Elton John) and the country ballad “I Want to Spend My Life with You” (with Willie Nelson) are hard to beat, while the hauntingly simple “I Do”, with only Frankie’s vocal over a sparse arrangement is the perfect closer for the album.

This has been a long journey for some very dedicated people, culminating in an album that can only add to Frankie Miller’s legacy by bringing those powerful vocal performances to a wider audience and unearthing so many unreleased songs. This is a classic.

“Double Take” is out on September 30th on Universal.

Here’s a sneaky little peek for you:

BW ScrollerMy mate can drink 3 pints of lager through a straw in less time than it takes to boil a kettle.

According to some, this makes him a ‘legend’.

Brian Wilson is regarded by many as a ‘genius’.

I would argue these labels have caused problems for both men and have probably influenced their behaviour and probably not in a good way.

Fortunately, these days, Brian Wilson is old enough (73) and wise enough to realise that Einstein was a genius and yer man Brian Wilson is extremely good at what he does and what he did. It kind of takes some of the pressure off.

Crushed up against the barrier for one of a very small number of UK dates at the ‘Together The People’ Festival in Brighton on a soaking wet and windswept evening that screamed ‘Autumn!’ very loudly isn’t really the vibe you want upfront of the appearance of the guy most responsible for connecting music and summer in America in the sixties, but this is Britain after all, and all that a temperate climate implies. Or to put it another way I’m cold and wet and I really hope this is worth it.

The ensemble set-up is promising though, with a massive array of instruments you aren’t likely to see at many festivals this year. This is perhaps unsurprising as Wilson’s band intend to recreate “Pet Sounds”, the 1966 album which forced the Beatles to ‘up their game’; a fantastically complex concoction which even with today’s technologies must be a challenge to present. For it is 50 years since Brian Wilson recorded “Pet Sounds”, and this tour honours that landmark.

It is also a ‘good sign’ when the best part of a dozen musicians troop on, including The Man Himself and fellow founding Beach Boy Al Jardine, who is so fabulously wealthy he CAN’T be doing this for the money. This clearly isn’t going to be a bargain basement cabaret trip. These boys look like they mean this.

But what are we going to get? Fabulous though it is, the album is not two hours long. Intentions stated straight away, though and after the briefest of intros Wilson announces the band’s intention to start with the ‘finest record The Beach Boys ever made’ – a sentiment Al Jardine seemed to concur with – “California Girls”. Cue the mellotron-style opening and flatulent orchestration, which sounds like distilled essence of summer, and off we go. Rinky-dinky, rinky dinky, rinky dinky, rinky dinky, Game On, we’re off and running. “I Get Around”, ”Shut Down” and “Little Deuce Coupe” in short order, followed by Jardine taking the lead on “California Saga”.

So, twenty minutes in and we’ve already had songs about girls, cars, California surf culture. That’ll do me, lads, we can all go home happy now. Quit while you’re ahead.

On, then, troops Blondie Chaplin, a South African guitarist who was a Beach Boy for a year or so in the early 70’s. He’s a real old Les Paul-totin’ rocker and he’s been in with the Rolling Stones, Bonnie Raitt, and insert name here. Some observers have been a bit unkind about his contribution to the tour but I must say I really think it added a bit of mid-set ‘grit’ to proceedings and he made a fine job of “Wild Honey” and the massively under-rated “Sail On Sailor”.

After that Wilson introduces the “Pet Sounds” section of the show, slightly apologetically announcing that we’ll be back to some good old rock n roll later; but for now, the band will present us with the more personal and intimate delights of probably the most influential American album of the sixties (a claim I make despite the fact it took America about two decades to realise this).

And sure enough that’s exactly what they do, from the angel’s harp and six-ton drum strike which announces “Wouldn’t It Be Nice”, through the Folkeoke of “Sloop John B” and the song which Jardine blithely reminds us is Paul McCartney’s favourite song, the majestic, dignified and perfect “God Only Knows” through to the crystalline beauty of “Caroline, No”, complete with the audio train charging across the stage marking the end of the album with the barmy barking dog et al.

And did they pull it off?

Too right they did.

But how? It is no secret that the ageing process and the difficulty of the journey has robbed Brian Wilson of some of that fabulous range and vocal flexibility. He also seems to need a bit of help with the lyrics, using a sight screen linked to a tablet computer. No shame in that. That’s just using technology to support what you’re doing. No different to using a PA system or an FX pedal. And he has another formidable weapon in his armoury as well. He’s in fine voice trucking through the mid range sections of the likes of “California Girls” but when it all gets a bit much he chucks the ball across to Matt Jardine, who was pitch-perfect all night and reached the places which a 73-year voice could no longer be reasonably expected to scale (and in fairness, sometimes never did; many of the most striking voice parts on the original recordings weren’t Brian Wilson).

He’s also got Al Jardine. We were warned upfront of the tour that he might not be at all the dates, but I don’t see how. Quite apart from his audible contributions to proceedings he did seem to be a key part of Traffic Control on stage; a lot of what happened seemed to be going ‘through’ him and if that’s the case then you can call me Al, for this was a masterclass.

And Wilson’s penultimate secret weapon; the band. With a total age somewhere around 10,000 years or so they are probably the oldest collective I have ever seen at a rock gig; but what you get is the sum total of a great many misspent youths. If I were Brian Wilson, even if I reached the point where I couldn’t sing anymore or tinkle the ivories I’d probably still want to tour with them just for the sheer joy of hearing my compositions played before a live audience with such love and craft. They are very special musicians.

All great musicians attract the best musicians. That’s a given. But these are something else. At times the sound from percussion, through keyboard to the bass sax and back through the spectacular control of the often mind-boggling bass guitar parts, was breath-taking.

And the final clincher is the material. “Pet Sounds” played live is an earth-shattering experience. And to think this guy created this when he was only 23. It is a work of, errm…..

And just in case anybody thinks it is home time; how about “Good Vibrations”, “Help Me, Rhonda”, “Barbara Ann” – played more rocked-up than I recall and evoking the ‘garage’ feel of the original version by The Regents – “Fun Fun Fun” and a balls-out “Surfin’ USA”. Ensemble bow, no encore, PA system plays “Beach Baby” by British band First Class, and a slightly stunned and absolutely soaked clutch of folks make their way back through the Brighton mud.

Now hear ye. We’re in the 90th minute with this now. Catch this tour. I don’t care what you have to do. Go to Oslo if you have to. Yes, Brian Wilson will barely move throughout the evening. Yes, his voice isn’t capable of doing all the things it did a while ago. But…..the body of work, the range of songs played, the virtuosity of the band, the sheer richness of the sound. And the voices. The Voices, plural. Unfortunately due to the age-related limitations I’ve already referred to I can’t give this the 5-star review it probably deserves because as I’ve said before, you can only review what is in front of you. But it was pretty clear to me I had been in the presence of genius.

Damn. That G – word again. Sorry, Brian.

Rude Boys ScrollerOK I’ll admit it. I’m in a bit of a 2 Tone loop at the moment. As part of “Tales From the Towpath” we struggled up the Coventry canal to, well, Coventry, and I can cheerfully admit I have never seen more rats or prostrate drunks on a section of canal than on the section between the junction with the North Oxford (Hawksbury for all fans of the genre) and the Coventry Basin – but we had set our hearts on visiting the 2 Tone village complete with the Coventry Music Museum. And after an extortionate taxi ride from the Coventry Basin, at which we duly arrived albeit not without incident.

And brilliant it was, too. The guys here clearly have a firm grip on the 2 Tone heritage, but at the same time they realised they wouldn’t pull in the ‘heritage’ funding without the general Coventry music stuff. So along with the 2 Tone saga – probably the world’s most accurate record of the last great working class youth music movement in the UK – you get everything you need to know about Frank Ifield and Vince Hill. Mock ye not; Four UK number 1 toons for Frank. Come back and laugh after you’ve managed likewise and I’ll listen to you. Until then, Look and Learn.

I did wonder if the irony of having his biggest hit being a cover of a toon most favoured by Teutons most likely to bomb your chip shop was lost on our Vince (“Edelweiss”, just in case you missed that one) but I dwell not on such matters.

Incredible number of One Hit Wonders, though. Jigsaw, Pinkerton’s Assorted Colours, King. Remember “Love And Pride”? Thought so. And what about The Primitives? There you go you see. The only area to produce more one hit wonders seems to be Wales. “They Shoot Horses Don’t They?”. Anyway. Where was I?

Yes.

So, fully fired up on 2 Tone and having listened to very little else but old Trojan masters on the way up from Warwickshire to Staffs, we happened to chance upon The Swan at Stone. Somewhere between Coventry and here you cross the border into The North. The temperature drops by about five Celsius and it starts to rain with a near-professional intensity, and whereas in the beautiful south, the rain is warm, up here it is cold. I mean you wouldn’t call a town ‘Stone’ if it was in the South, would you. Course not. Stands to reason.

So we stopped at Stone and there are two things which make Stone exceptional. A Mexican restaurant called Chico’s and a superb real ale pub (at least it would be if they could just keep the beer a degree or two cooler) called The Swan which is about twenty yards off the Trent and Mersey canal, which do indeed sweep right though the middle of the town, and tonight they are hosting The Rude Boys, and you can guess the rest.

The Rude Boys have toured incessantly in various guises but are Staffordshire’s only serious 2 Tone /ska band. They start proceedings tonight with a melange of Paul Weller, kicking off with “Peacock Suit” and “That’s Entertainment” before morphing into a whole range of back catalogue stuff including more Jam (eg “Strange Town”), more Weller (eg “Changing Man”) and Style Council (“You’re The Best Thing”).

After the break they’re back with a mix of 2 Toners – particularly courtesy of The Beat and The Specials – and a chunk of true ska beat courtesy of Toots. They were very well received by a pretty full pub, for a Thursday night, and despite the occasional vocal frailty, Hank the bass player knew how to handle a fully-grown Rickenbacker, Ryan the guitar player knew his chops, and Neil the drummer hit the rimshots like a good ‘un. Some may say a classic pub night and not a lot else but for me this is your new British folk music. Make of it what you will. The Rude Boys are taking this into the future and are making a living out of it, and good for them I say.

They’re a good night out, especially if you’re in the mood.

City Funk OrchestraIt may be stretching a point to provide a ‘tales from the towpath’ where we had to catch a combination of trains and tubes to get to this gig, but hey, this is London after all – and unless you’re going to Dingwalls you really shouldn’t expect to float to a gig.

The crowd might have been a bit sparse for a Saturday night but a whole bunch of people had decided to spend another two hours of life watching Germany win on penalties after extra time. Clearly, in a week of surprises no doubt a predictable, nay, inevitable outcome was a comfort to some. But those who did so missed a storming, uplifting Saturday night out.

And that, in essence, is what City Funk Orchestra are about. From the get-go you just know you’re in safe hands. Within the first half a dozen songs we’ve had a slick, uptown “Back Together Again” where the blend of voices paid genuine homage to Donny Hathaway and Roberta Flack, Patrice Rushen’s “Forget Me Not” featuring some real ‘period’ bass playing from the absolutely imperious Rick Mitra, a great version of “Love TKO” which took the pace down briefly before the first set ended with a very acceptable “Ain’t Nobody”.

The voices of Noel McCalla and Louise Warren matched each other beautifully, even if Noel was occasionally a little bit found out when ‘doing’ Barry White. Quite simply, he’s very competent in the lower register but he’s absolutely astonishing and has a genuinely soulful intensity when he heads up the scale. By the same token Louise was astonishing when she let fly at Aretha’s ‘Rock Steady’ but seemed a little at sea on material which perhaps needed a little more control such as Sister Sledge’s “Thinking Of You”.

High points of the set for me were a warm and sinuous version of Luther Van D’s “Never Too Much” and a crowd-pleasing “I’ve Found Lovin” which really rolled back the years for many of the assembled.

As already alluded to, the rhythm section of Rick Mitra and Geoff Dunn never missed a beat. Guitarist Nial Tompkins showed he was equally at home playing the funky scratch you need for the likes of “Good Times” alongside occasional pyrotechnic lead fills, and Gary Sanctuary on keyboards had his hands full providing the depth and breadth of backing needed to ‘trick’ the assembled into not missing a horn section – which is probably the main thing that was missing.

But you can only review what is there – and what was there was enough to have the floor full of dancers and a room full of smiley Saturday night. City Funk Orchestra go out there and Do The Deed. They really are a party on legs. The set may have been a tad predictable but what did you want for your money? And to be fair they were considerably less predictable than Germany on penalties.

Mad Larry ScrollerThere’s nothing quite like it is there? I mean, music. Sometimes it just creeps up on you and whacks you over the noddle when you’re least expecting it.

The game plan as I wander through England picking out the odd gig here and there was to catch Henry Cluney, of Stiff Little Fingers fame, who was due to play The Wheatsheaf, a pub in central Oxford, on the particular Sunday afternoon in question.

And I got there late and missed him. However, this being a sort of package bill straggling across Sunday afternoon into the evening promoted by local hotshots GiddyUp Music, I thought I’d swing by and at the very least grab a beer and an earful, the way you do.

Walk through the door of the authentically cramped and sticky-floored Wheatsheaf and suddenly you’re in pubrock heaven, circa 1975. Mad Larry and his band are on stage – well, more accurately just to the left of the bar – and are blasting through an incendiary “Drinkin’ Man’s Blues” which gives way to a cheeky and well-played reggae tune which I must confess I didn’t recognise and then an absolutely storming version of “You Keep A Knockin’” which would have shamed many of the pantheon of greats who have had a tilt at this one. We then get some self-penned ditties, liberally laced with tales of beer, drugs, naughtiness and more naughtiness, stirred in between a Bo Diddley, a BB King and all played with Feelgoodian pace and attack culminating in Mad’s album title track “Dirty Work” before a wham-bam encore featuring some exceedingly tasty guitar work by Dan Collis – who’s full-on ‘yer ‘aving it’ approach reminded me more than a bit of the late, great Gypie Mayo – and honking harmonica of the greasy, sleazy variety from Kevin Busby. Blooming great engine room as well; take a bow Ron Wyatt and Anthony Christmas on bass and drums respectively.

Despite this being the last set of a long afternoon, the pub was rammed with punters all grinning that silly grin you do when the beer and the live music combine most agreeably. And for the life of me, I couldn’t think of an occasion which more accurately summoned up the spirit of the pub rock RnB gigs of the mid seventies when, if you lived in the right bit of the country, you could stumble through the door you could hear music leaking from and catch The Kursaal Flyers, The Motors, The Feelgoods, Lew Lewis, Kilburn and the High Roads, and insert name here. The only thing missing was the nicotine and I don’t smoke. And I have to say that’s how I like my nostalgia; not in pre-packaged compilation form, but about a yard away from you, at ear-whistling volume, with some own recent tunes flung in for good measure (Mad’s album was released in 2014) and played with enthusiasm and conviction.

I implore all right-thinking people in Oxfordshire and thereabouts to beat a path to The Wheatsheaf whenever GiddyUp promote one of these jollies and indeed specifically to go see Mad Larry’s Band either here or when out and about elsewhere (they have been a regular guests of The Pretty Things just recently, which is no mean accolade).

Bit of a disappointment he didn’t do “Zoom” though. Or is that Fat Larry? And did he just lose weight or go mad as well?

Blues Summit ScrollerI have seen the future of rock n’ roll.

Ever feel that you’ve been ‘ad?

These two famous rock n roll misquotes sort of sum up my reaction to one of the strangest live music events I’ve ever attended anywhere. No – make that any kind of event, anywhere.

Indulge me a moment whilst I attempt to explain the venue. A convent, formerly the home to a silent order of four nuns, in an extremely quiet and secluded corner of England at a discreet distance from the bright lights and fleshpots of, err, Stroud.

Bands play on the altar of the convent chapel, replete with stained glass windows, and the obligatory(!) trombone wedged behind the altar and sewing machines and alarm clocks scattered around the huge stone windowsills.

The rest of this huge venue appears to be part hotel, part bar, part restaurant. The whole place has a sense of brooding oak darkness about it and the sleep of centuries of silence.

The chapel itself has around 100 or so seats arranged tidily on the chapel floor and further seats in the pews around the edge.

There appears to be no signage to speak of and getting into the venue is more by luck than by judgement, as is finding the bar as you wander around the gloomy, doomy corridors in search of a pint of 6X. Or absolution. Or both.

Eventually, showtime, and this is a very precise showtime as the show is being filmed.

The audience tonight appears to be about 30 people or so, many of whom appear to be here by invitation. By now, the casual observer would be wincing for the poor promoter who would undoubtedly be facing a night dedicated to St. Flatbroke, Patron Saint of The Unsustainable Loss.

So, Blues Guitar Summit take to the stage, unfeasibly close to the declared 9PM start time for rock n roll. The three – guitar attack of Chris Corcoran, Mal Barclay and Paul Garner  are very good value, having distinctly different guitar styles, having a wide and varied repertoire from blues shuffles to solid rock boogie-woogie tunes to four on the floor 50’s rock n roll and some classic gems, such as a very likeable version of “Tequila”, for example. The rhythm section, Jamie Lawrence and Robert Pokorny on slap bass and Gretsch sticks and pans form a solid and confidence-inspiring backdrop to whatever direction the assembled guitarists head off in. The voices are workmanlike and functional, as tends to be the case, but some of the playing is genuinely inspired and very enjoyable, especially “Crawl” and ‘High Heel Sneakers’.

But something feels, very, very weird – and it isn’t just the rather ‘creepy’ venue. The band are almost treating me like I’m not here. I feel like a sort of irrelevancy. And the reason why slowly begins to dawn.

We were told at the start of the show by the smiley, jolly MC that the show was being filmed, and streamed. Nothing unusual in that, perhaps, but what became rapidly clear was – that was the whole and only point. The kit being used to film, record and stream the gig was light years in front of virtually anything I’ve seen outside the BBC and the stage / altar lighting was clearly set up with this in mind. The venue claims to be the world’s first ‘pay-to-view’ subscription live venue. Punters, anywhere in the world, pay a fee to stream the show or pay a subscription fee to stream a sequence of shows – and, worldwide, there are sufficient numbers of fans of particular musicians or a particular genre of music to make this a viable exercise.

And therein lay the problem with the performance. The band were playing directly to the camera. I was just there to be another pair of clapping hands. My ten quid ticket purchase made not a jot’s worth of difference, nor my attempts to help support the venue by purchasing another pint of 6X. I felt rather like the telly equivalent of canned laughter.

So, if you like your Rock n roll without the muck, the stale beer and the piss, this is for you. Me? I felt a little bit like I’d been used as a prop. True, I was offered free pizza and drinkies afterwards and the staff and management of the venue were kindness itself but almost as soon as the band had finished – without an encore of course as the transmission end time had been reached (an ironic request for an encore was greeted with nervous laughter) – I felt a rather tremendous urge to leave. Ten minutes later given the lack of signage we were still trying to leave. Eventually we gave up and asked one of the management team where the exit was as we wished to leave; and was told, with jolly candour and good cheer, that they didn’t like it when people left and why not stay for some pizza, at which point my companions and I did actually start to do that odd run-walk thing they do in all the best horror films.

In summary, a good but sterile performance in a very strange circumstance. The Blues under laboratory conditions. Not for me.

Paul and Jacqui promoThe first and most striking thing on arriving at Stoke Victoria Hall is the stunning stage backdrop – very 1930s Russian, very tractor target 5 year plan, very Heatongrad. Very Beautiful North, if you will. No. Didn’t think you would. Anyway. This stage backdrop, a thing of not inconsiderable beauty, was created by a gentleman from Stoke – a Port Vale fan – who Mr Heaton astutely observed wasn’t in attendance as like most Port Vale fans he probably doesn’t like to leave the house much. And the point I make is that with every utterance, with every word, inflection and gesture, you get the idea that yer man Heaton, he understands. He understands the workings of the world, The System, the relationships which are forged in the long shadows of our Northern industrial past, and the implications these have for people living in the Now. And for years he’s been one of our leading chroniclers of these and as a consequence has created a body of work which is both artistically and commercially pretty much peerless.

Entry to Russianesque martial music, which, if there was a Heatongrad, would be permanently bleating from roof–mounted speakers on a drab–looking tram system, and we get “Wives 1, 2 and 3”, “Pretenders to the Throne” and “Man Is The Biggest Bitch Of All”, the latter being from their outstanding recent offering “Wisdom, Laughter and Lines”. They play seven tracks from the latest album and, whereas rather too often with artists with a considerable ‘heritage’ the ‘new ones’ are tolerated rather than enjoyed, the tunes from the new album were deftly worked into the set and were received with interest and enthusiasm. About a quarter of the way through the set the first Housemartins classic, “Five Get Over Excited” – thundered through with great aplomb and fizz by the four eye–wateringly excellent musicians accompanying the two main protagonists. You have to say, despite previous incarnations and previous line – ups being far from untidy, both Paul and Jacqui appeared to be absolutely revelling in the support of possibly the best musicians they’ve ever toured with. And through the set I kept hearing odd echoes – bit of Joe Meek there, bit of Motown there, bit of The Hollies almost out of nowhere. All the best writers are magpies.

In amongst the inter–song raps, a shortened version of the story of “Rotterdam” – where he thought he’d lost the notes for 20 songs including the aforementioned. Turned up in his hotel room. And how expensive a loss would that have been? At the time of “Rotterdam”, virtually everything the Beautiful South turned out became instant FM radio gold – and they’ve remained so ever since. Rarely has a writer and musician had his finger so securely on the pulse of The Sound Of Things That Win; the sound of a nation. And along with “Rotterdam” there were plenty of those airplay giants in this set – “Prettiest Eyes”, “I’ll Sail This Ship Alone”, “Old Red Eyes Is Back”, and “Good As Gold, (Stupid As Mud)” were all rammed home with conviction and were enthusiastically received, especially the latter, the life–affirming lyrics never sounding better – and I include the original recording in making that statement. And I haven’t so much as mentioned the voices yet.

If he was just an unnaturally-gifted songwriter that would be enough, but he’s also a phenomenally powerful and original voice as well. And talk about Hold A Note; he is sooo precise. The phrasing, the sustain, the use of the mic for distance etc etc., he is a massively accomplished performer, which is I suspect for many, expertly disguised by his ambling gait, shambolic appearance and diffident manner (and how does anybody manage to perform as he does in a plastic waterproof jacket? And why?)

Paul Heaton as a solo vocalist would be more than enough to carry it but oh my goodness, with the added textures and harmonies of long-time collaborator Jacqui Abbott, it is all just too irresistible. Only parallel I could attempt to draw is Paul Simon is a damn fine writer and vocalist and you’d love to go and see him any day of the week. And would we prefer that served with Art Garfunkel?

Thought so.

And throughout the set she proved herself a fine performer in her own right as well and she was presented with ample opportunity in a set which required both, then one, then the other, to take centre stage.

And as ever with these things, compiling a killer finale is an absolute must to send everyone home grinning themselves to death. So we enjoyed “DIY”, complete with the geeky dance moves from Mr H., an exuberant “Happy Hour”, which couldn’t help but roll back the years for so many of the assembled multitude (had been a sell-out gig for ages), a funked-up 70’s-style “Perfect 10”, followed by an uplifting and unifying “Caravan Of Love” – then a short break for the crowd to go bonkers before the band returned to storm through a sort of dub version of “A Little Time” which, I am convinced if it had been released in that form would have actually been an even bigger hit than it was, the sublimely naughty “Don’t Marry Her” – and then a final breather before returning to an avalanche of large orange ‘The Prisoner’ – style balls, an explosion of golden glitter – and a dash through a fave from the latest album, the previously-mentioned “Heatongrad” and finally “You Keep It All In”.

There’s nothing wrong with it. Buy “Wisdom, Laughter and Lines” – if you haven’t already – and go out and catch this tour. Off the top of my head I can’t think of many British songwriters and acts which have access to such a body of work, are still producing stuff which stands up to that body of work today, are earth-shatteringly brilliant live – and are willing and able to perform in venues where you don’t need to remortgage your house or buy high-powered binoculars in order to enjoy it.

Five stars with a bullet.

 

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.