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

Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul – Indig02 October 2016

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

Underhill Rose @ Green Note

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

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

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

Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @St Pancras Old Church

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

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

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

Soultime TitleIf you’re looking for something that’s easy on the ear to use as aural wallpaper for your commute or as background music for a dinner party, then stop right here; this is proper music. Southside Johnny has been making music with various Asbury Jukes for over forty years and compromise isn’t something that he’s about to start now. The quality of the songs, the playing and the arrangements is what it’s all about; always has been, always will be. Southside had fraught relationships with his various labels in the days when bands signed to a label and hoped that the label would make them successful but it hasn’t worked that way for a while now so Southside has moved on to a completely different way of working; he has control over the creative and business processes. ‘When’s the album being released? When it’s ready’. And “Soultime!” is well and truly ready. It’s taken a while (the last album “Pills and Ammo” was released in 2010), but Southside’s a very busy man these days; not only is he trying to keep an eight-piece rock and soul band in line, but he’s also working with his Americana project The Poor Fools, comprising various Jukes and some of the extended Jersey shore family.

Through the various incarnations of The Jukes, Southside has always had a collaborator helping with songwriting and musical director duties; Steve van Zandt moved on to the E Street Band as Springsteen went up through the gears and Bobby Bandiera took on the ‘safe pair of hands’ role with Bon Jovi on his seemingly endless world tour. Which, after an overlap with Bobby, left Jeff Kazee, keyboard virtuoso with a great high tenor soul voice, as the partner in crime. And, as much as I love the work of Little Steven and Bobby Bandiera, the Jeff and Johnny combination is producing some stunning results as Southside takes more credit for his songwriting contributions and Jeff Kazee adds his voice to the mix as well; it’s a potent combination.

In 2001, Southside released “Messin’ with the Blues”, an album of songs illustrating his love of blues, but also demonstrating the variety of styles within blues music; fourteen years later, “Soultime!” applies the same template to a cross-section of soul styles. It’s not too difficult to identify the influences, but the quality of the writing and the performances ensure that this is an album to be judged on its own merits.

The opening track “Spinning” throws all the ingredients into the blender to create a manic Stax feel. Everything’s there, from the horn fills to the breakdown, building back up with John Conte’s bass, Jeff Kazee’s Hammond and Glenn Alexander’s guitar, to the call and response vocal and the big horn finish. There’s barely time to get your breath back before “All I Can Do” the mid-tempo Johnny/Jeff duet. The two voices combine perfectly and a sweet tenor sax solo from John Isley is the icing on the cake. “Don’t Waste my Time” could be early Jukes, musically and lyrically as Southside tells the ‘my girl done me wrong’ story supported by backing vocalists Elaine Caswell, Layonne Holmes and Catherine Russell before Neal Pawley steps up for a trombone solo.

Looking for a Good Time” is the album’s defining song. The inspiration for the album came from hearing “Superfly” in the booze aisle at the supermarket and watching how the shoppers reacted. “Looking…” captures the upful mood of Curtis Mayfield in 1970 perfectly; if anything ever made me wish I could dance, this is it. The namechecks in the lyrics say it all, really: ‘Isley Brothers and Curtis and Sly and Bobby Womack too’; it’s perfect. “Words Fail Me” is a mature love ballad with very tasteful backing (even drummer Tom Seguso is reined in), muted horns and a lovely flugelhorn solo from Chris Anderson; Johnny’s voice is sublime and it would melt a heart of stone. “Walking on a Thin Line” has a faintly menacing Latin feel evoking Isaac Hayes, The Temptations and The O’Jays but still totally Jukes.

What comes next is a very rare thing indeed; an instrumental on a Jukes album. “Klank” is the love child of “Soul Finger” and “Third Stone from the Sun” with harmonica and tenor sax solos; they’re allowed to have fun as well, you know. Carrying on with the levity, “Ain’t Nobody’s Bizness” is a bit of light-hearted fun with a cast of Damon Runyon characters and a nod to “Check Mr Popeye” from way back when, which takes the intensity down a little bit before the final three songs.

I’m Not That Lonely” totally nails the Motown sound (Four Tops, anyone?) while “The Heart Always Knows” harks back to a much earlier time (Sam Cooke, or maybe The Cascades). It’s a slow, gentle ballad with some nice pizzicato strings courtesy of Jeff Kazee and acoustic guitar from Glenn Alexander and it takes off the heat for a few minutes before the final offering. “Reality” takes its influence from the psychedelic soul of the late sixties/early seventies with some interesting synth sounds and John Isley’s flute (and is that bass sax on there as well?), strings and muted horns; it gets kinda busy in there at times.

Southside Johnny set out to evoke a certain era of soul with this album; he wanted to make us feel good, the way we did when we first heard all of the great artists who influenced this album, and it’s an unqualified success. The arrangements perfectly capture the feel without sounding like The Faux Tops; he and The Jukes have created a perfect homage to music that was the soundtrack to the sixties and seventies. Over forty years down the line, he still has that raw, emotive voice that cuts through Hammond and horns and straight to the heart. Working with Jeff Kazee and the latest incarnation of The Jukes, he’s turned out a modern soul classic.

“Soultime!” is released on September 1 on Leroy Records.

Bobby Bandiera (Photo by Keith Golub)

Bobby Bandiera (Photo by Keith Golub)

I first saw Bobby Bandiera play in June 1995 at The Leadmill in Sheffield as part of an unplugged-style tour with Southside Johnny.  I know; it’s a huge surprise that I was at a Southside Johnny gig, but you have to take my word for it.  Looking back at it with the benefit of nearly twenty years of hindsight, the tour was probably an attempt to find out if Southside still had a following in the UK and whether a tour with a full band was a viable proposition.  On the night, Johnny and Bobby were outstanding; it’s surprising how much variety you can squeeze out of two voices, a guitar and a few harmonicas.  They played every request that came from the audience and proved that good songs are still good songs when all of the arrangements are stripped away.  Before the gig, I knew that Southside was a great singer and harmonica player; after the gig, I knew that Bobby Bandiera was a hugely talented guitar player and a very, very good singer.

Bobby played in various bands on the Jersey shore following his debut in 1968, building a reputation as a gifted player and was considered as a replacement for Steve Van Zandt in The E Street Band for Springsteen’s “Born in the USA” tour.  It didn’t happen, but in the following year he joined Southside Johnny and The  Jukes, following the departure of Billy Rush and kicked off a collaboration which has lasted for nearly thirty years.  I’m guessing that playing in The Jukes isn’t as lucrative as playing in the E Street Band, but it has other rewards.

I’ll come back to this later, but I truly respect any musician who naturally leads a band (whether it’s as a singer, guitarist or songwriter, and Bobby is all three) and can also take a back seat for a while and just be one of the players; Jimi Hendrix couldn’t do it, and he wasn’t the only one.  When Bobby joined The Jukes they were mainly functioning as a live act and releasing albums that only the dedicated fans were buying but, from the very start to the present day, they remain a live phenomenon and Bobby has always been a perfect fit for Southside’s live performances.  I’ve heard a story, from someone who knows, that Southside always likes to test any new Jukes (and there have been plenty of those) by suddenly, mid-gig, calling a tune that they haven’t rehearsed.  I’m willing to bet that he never caught Bobby out that way because according to Billy Walton, another hugely versatile frontman and supporting guitarist, Bobby’s memory for songs is legendary.

There must have been a settling-in period but I’m guessing that it didn’t take very long for Bobby to become a perfect foil for Southside and give the singer a chance to drop down a few gears during live sets by passing the baton to his guitarist for a few songs.  Leading any band isn’t easy, especially if you’re talking about nine or ten musicians and having Bobby Bandiera as a trusted lieutenant (in the same way that Springsteen has Steve Van Zandt in the E Street Band) helped keep the Jukes a tight live unit while adding another great voice to the mix.  Any musician who joins The Jukes has to be a gifted player; you don’t play the same set night after night and you never know which song (or version of a song) is coming next.  Apart from the challenge, the upside of this is that the musicians never get bored or complacent.

During twenty years with the Jukes, Bobby has also released three solo albums and continues to play live in New Jersey with the Bob Bandiera Band whenever he’s not touring in his current day job .  Did I forget to mention that Bobby has been touring as part of Bon Jovi’s live set-up since 2005 in a supporting role?  He’s usually described as rhythm guitarist, but I’m going to get all controversial on you here and say that there’s much more to it than that; the reason that Jon Bon Jovi wanted Bobby Bandiera in the touring band is that he needed a safe pair of hands.  If your lead guitarist has had well-documented substance and reliability problems, then you need a reliable backup plan and Bobby Bandiera is about as reliable as they come; a tremendous guitar player who also adds very strong vocals.  In April 2013, Richie Sambora left the tour at short notice and, in Canada, for one night only, Bobby Bandiera shook off the rhythm guitar tag and took on all the guitar duties, doing the job that he was brought in to do.  It didn’t last long, as another shredder, Phil X, was brought in the next day to replace Sambora.  And that incident kicked off all the predictable online spats between fans and friends on various sides of the debate (and not a serious word from any of the protagonists).

For what it’s worth, I’m not keen on bands bringing in extra players (for whatever reason)without giving them full bandmember status but, ultimately, it’s up to the players involved to do what they think is right.  I don’t think you can criticise a musician for taking a supporting role which (presumably) pays well without the dubious benefit of a spotlight and big-screen shot; it’s a hard world out there as a professional musician and it’s getting harder.

I know it’s difficult if you live in the UK, but the best way to appreciate the artistry of Bobby Bandiera is to see him live.  You can find YouTube clips of “C’mon Caroline” and covers of “Like a Hurricane” and “Baba O’Riley”, but the quality’s variable at best, and it’s almost impossible to find his albums online (at least at anything less than eye-watering prices). So, I guess the best I can hope for is that Jon Bon Jovi takes an extended break and Bobby comes back to the UK on the next Jukes tour; it’s unlikely but if it does happen, Music Riot will let you know about it then it’s up to you to go out and see him.

Some guitar players throw shapes and use smoke and mirrors (and the occasional wind machine) to grab your attention, but Bobby Bandiera doesn’t need any of that; he just has to play and sing.  He’s a very modest guy who seems to be happy just to be doing something that he’s very good at, and that always looks and sounds good on stage.  Whether he’s playing with his own band, The Jukes or a group of teenagers at a rock school, he’s always a great player to watch and he always looks like he’s having a great time.  What more could you ask for?