Our first High Five of 2020 comes from Neil Sheasby songwriter and bass player with Stone Foundation. It’s become a bit of a ritual now and this is Neil’s seventh consecutive contribution to this end of year celebration – and it’s always the first one to hit the inbox. Lockdown and Lockdown Lite have caused major problems for Stone Foundation; they’re a working live band and virtually everything apart from a weekend of socially-distanced gigs in the Midlands has been cancelled/postponed. The band has pushed on with the release of its 2020 Top 40 album “Is Love Enough?” and they’re now working on the next one, proving that this year doesn’t have to be defined by the negatives. Anyway, over to Neil:

2020 – A new decade, boundless opportunity, a fresh optimism prevailed. Even its digits seemed to herald in some futuristic promise of a new dawn. Wipe the slate clean of social media tribalism & recent divides over the political warfare of nationalism, Brexit and the lack of a clear, forward, progressive vision. 

2020 – The turning of a new page. Positive thinking. A restoration of respect. And then…

Do I need to go on? Rip it up & start again. It’s good to try and dig out a few simple pleasures here once again for the annual High Fives feature…

1) I’ll begin in the obvious place. Music. This year’s soundtrack. Thankfully music always has the ability to inspire and lift you; in the most testing of times, especially so. The real surprise package of the year came courtesy of the most unlikely of sources, an album called “Pleasure, Joy and Happiness” by Eddie Chacon.

Previously a name unknown to me (at least that’s what I presumed), I’d chanced upon this record whilst navigating my way around Spotify and it just immediately drew me in. It’s sparse, direct and soulful. Of course I naturally assumed it was a new artist, that’s the problem with platforms such as Spotify, you don’t get that much info about a release but I’ve never been shy of doing a bit of homework and it came as a great revelation that Eddie Chacon turned out to be Eddie as in one half of naff 90’s chart toppers Charles & Eddie who had a global smash with “Would I Lie to You” in 1992.

Eddie had abandoned the music industry in the intervening years and this was his humble return after 30 plus years away. I think his story made me love the album even more…

2) Due to the circumstances I’ve had even more time to read and have really enjoyed books such as “Yeah Yeah Yeah” – Bob Stanley’s epic journey through the story of modern pop music, I thought Pete Paphides’ book was a glorious reflection, Chris Frantz’s “Remain in Light” I enjoyed even if it veered off the beaten track factually somewhat, and more recently I tackled John Cooper Clarke’s biography which possibly gets my vote for book of the year (musically related at least) 

 

 

3) TV highlight – “The Queen’s Gambit”

What a refreshing series! Beautifully cast and filmed, stylish down to a tee. Great story, great script. Wonderful acting and even managed to make Chess seem hip. 

Highly recommended if you haven’t seen it.

 

 

4) An indulgence on my part I know but this was a major highlight in an otherwise uneventful 2020…the rise and return to top flight football of my beloved Leeds United. Obviously it had been a long time coming (16 years to be precise) and it took an Argentinian bespectacled genius who perches on a bucket to enable a path back to glory. 

It’s been a revelation watching football again under Bielsa and reignited my love for the game. I’m so happy for my kids too, they never wavered in their support for Leeds but I’m sure there were times when they must have thought “why do we support this lot Dad?” 

Hopefully Leeds Utd can remain in the top flight of English football now and continue the ascent. Promotion to the Prem was a big moment in our house. I really can’t wait for the Trans-Pennine skirmishes with Man Utd again. 

 

5) Recording. Although our touring schedule has been decimated it has meant more time and opportunity to create & write. Our last album “Is Love Enough?” was actually completed quite some time ago so since then we’ve been chipping away at writing the next one. Lockdown just probably accelerated the process so we have been able to begin the recording of what may well become another Stone Foundation record, it’s been good to fill the void with creativity and keep the wheels in motion in that respect.

Obviously we all sincerely hope that there’s a way back to gigging as we have always known it without compromise or restrictions, it’s important we don’t get sold down the river under the guise of a “new normal”, we are all social animals and we need that communal connection. 

It’s what SF events thrive upon. 

My son Lowell (who’s 17 now) is studying music production at college and he’s been working on his own music through lockdown so I’ve been helping out and collaborating on that too which for me has been like starting out again as a teenager, learning new & different ways to create and record, all done in his bedroom too. The spirit prevails and the baton gets passed on…I like that. 

Just let me be completely serious here, the whole idea of reviewing albums and gigs and doing live music photography is something I wouldn’t have dreamt of ten years ago. Whatever gods you believe in, I will thank them for this opportunity. Every album I hear or gig I go to is another bonus and I truly appreciate it; I’ve made many friends as a result of doing this and had some wonderful times. Every year for the last five years or so, I’ve had few moments that stop me in my tracks and they’re still coming. Here are a few from 2019, in no particular order.

 

Mavis Staples @The Roundhouse

It wasn’t the first time I’ve had the opportunity to photograph Mavis; that was Cornbury Festival last year. This was different; it was the full-on show, the proper gig experience. Proper soundchecks, full-length sets and not having to dash off to shoot another band after the first three songs. And it didn’t hurt that the support for Mavis’s two gigs in England was Stone Foundation, my favourite current UK soul band; they rose to the occasion, powering through a tight set and grabbing the attention of an audience that had mainly come to see Mavis as part of the Innervisions Festival. I’d managed a couple of decent shots of her at Cornbury, but you never pass up an opportunity to photograph a legend again. Three songs from the pit, including a few that I’m still happy with, and then what? Get to the mixing desk, stand in front of it and enjoy the force of nature that is Mavis Staples and her band. The songs always had power, the band are totally on it and Mavis’s voice is undimmed by age. What a night.

Interviewing Graham Parker

Bit of context here. As a student in the late seventies (I know, you work it out), I had access to a lot of gigs and I was just getting into gig photography (Olympus OM-1, if you’re interested). I spent a fair amount of time as a DJ with current MusicRiot contributor Steve Jenner. As a DJ at that time in Students’ Unions, you got a lot of freebies. One of the freebies that grabbed my attention was an EP by Graham Parker called The Pink Parker EP (the original limited edition was on pink vinyl) and it ignited a life-long love of this guy’s music. He’s now one of several musicians that I’ve photographed at an interval of four decades; you get the picture, I’m a fan.

Cutting to the chase, in February of 2019, a Graham Parker tour celebrating the fortieth anniversary of the album “Squeezing Out Sparks” was announced and one of the dates was The Foxlowe Theatre in Leek, one of my favourite small theatres in one of my favourite small towns, coincidentally the current hometown of Mr Jenner. Tickets were bought and as the year went on, I thought it might be a good idea to collaborate with Steve on an interview with GP if we could swing it. Turns out (with the intervention of Neil Sheasby from Stone Foundation), we could. So, on Friday October 22nd in Leek, I found myself sitting with my oldest mate Steve Jenner opposite Graham Parker with a microphone between us. If you’ve got half an hour to spare, you can listen to it here:

It’s the first time I’ve been happy to use an interview as a podcast, rather than transcribing the whole thing. It was a bit of moment.

Sam Tanner album launch @The Half Moon

Heard of Sam Tanner? You really should have, he’s the man. Sam sings, writes songs and plays keyboards, but that really doesn’t do him justice. He’s the funkiest keyboard player I’ve heard, his songs are incredibly powerful and then there’s the voice. As a keyboard player and soul singer in the UK, the obvious comparison is Paul Carrack. I’ve seen both several times and I have to say my money’s on Sam. I first got to hear of him as a member of Mollie Marriott’s band, then as member of Brother Strut (check out this Ed Sheeran cover) before bumping into him at various gigs around town. All of that talent and it turns out he’s a really nice guy as well.

For the launch gig for his solo album he pulled out all the stops (thinly-disguised organ player gag) with a full band, horn section and backing vocalists (Mollie Marriott and Izzy Chase). This was a quality line-up with the kind of players that could follow any changes and sounded incredible. Sam was on top form vocally and even dealt with audience members talking in his trademark gentle way: “If you’re going talk along, can you do it in B flat because that’s the key the next song’s in…”. Superb band, superb vocals and lovely atmosphere; I floated back to Putney station.

Dana Immanuel & the Stolen Band @The Forum

While I’m ‘fessing up to all the bands I love, I can’t miss out Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band. I love these people as artists and as people. In October, I saw the band three times. Each gig was special in its own way, but a support set at The Forum with a full house was a huge opportunity. The band supported Polish eighties punk band Kult who still have a huge following in the UK. It can be difficult playing support to a band with a hugely partisan following, but Dana had a secret weapon (besides having a great band). Fiddle player Basia is Polish and did various links and introductions in her home tongue, which the audience loved. It’s a fabulous feeling to see one of your favourite bands get a rapturous reception at a big gig on their own manor. I suspect I’ll be at a few more Stolen Band gigs in 2020.

Poetry

I know it seems unlikely, but I got back into poetry. Over the last few years, I’ve become a fan and friend of the songwriting colossus that is Phil Burdett. It’s been no secret that Phil’s had some issues over the last few years and working on his poetry is something that’s been therapeutic. This year, Phil published a volume of poetry and prose (it’s very good and you can buy it here) and launched it at The Railway Hotel in Southend-on Sea with a performance featuring spoken word and songs aided and abetted by his long-time collaborator Steve Stott, playing the usual mandolin and fiddle. I’d forgotten how good it is to hear poetry performed live and wasn’t remotely surprised at the way Phil aced his first live recital. And the songs with Mr Stott sounded bloody good as well. As if this wasn’t enough, Ralph Dartford supported Phil with the launch of his latest volume, “Recovery Songs” and also went down a storm. The audience was perfect; totally silent during the performances and noisily appreciative at the end of each piece

And there’s still more. A few weeks later, Ralph launched (no pun intended) his volume, “Recovery Songs” from a floating bookshop on the Regent’s Canal in King’s Cross, supported by Phil and Steve. Not quite such a captive audience, but great to see people walking along the towpath stop to listen. Those two volumes are probably the first new poetry I’ve bought since “The Mersey Sound”. Another bonus was that I had the chance to have beer with some very interesting musicians, which is a theme that crops up elsewhere in these High Fives. There might be a good idea buried somewhere in that.

Nostalgia and a record

I can’t resist a bonus ball this time, inspired by the Graham Parker interview. In the same year that I first saw Graham Parker, I also saw a band from Birmingham that I’d heard a lot about, The Steve Gibbons Band. Imagine my surprise when I turned up to interview Southside Johnny at Shepherd’s Bush Empire in March to discover that Steve Gibbons had been added to the bill at short notice. Forty-two years isn’t my personal record for length of time between gigs I’ve seen an artist at; it ties with Brinsley Schwarz as a member of his band and as a duo with Graham Parker, but it’s quite impressive. My options for beating that record are pretty limited now; I think it might come down to seeing Ian Gomm or Billy Rankin again – just sayin’ guys, there’s a record to be broken here… To make everything perfect on the day, the interview went really well and the gig was absolutely storming. I love this job.

All images except Phil’s book cover courtesy of yours truly.

 

Neil Sheasby’s had quite a year this year. Not only has Stone Foundation gone from strength to strength (without even releasing a new album), but he’s become an author with the first volume of his memoirs, “Boys Dreaming Soul” hitting the bookshelves this year. When the call goes out for High Fives contributions, Neil’s always one of the first to reply, which is why he’s always at the top of the list when we publish. Here are Neil’s thoughts on some of the things that have crossed his personal horizon in 2019:

 

Touring

I never thought I’d be saying this but I appear to have re kindled a passion for touring over the past few months. Gigging and touring are two separate beasts, the gigs I can handle, in fact it’s fairly obvious to anyone who comes along to see Stone Foundation that it’s an enjoyable experience for us all, there’s certainly no going through the motions routine in evidence. Usually though that 90 minute release upon stage is sandwiched between endless hours of travelling & hanging around, but alas you barely get to see anything of the destination except for a hotel room, dressing room and a stage (I’ve been to Hamburg six times and I still couldn’t tell you anything about it except there’s a decent kebab house opposite The Mojo Club) 

Anyway, at some point over the past twelve months I have begun to appreciate and embrace my time spent on the road more. We began the year by doing a gruelling jaunt across Germany & Spain, the gigs were fantastic but the miles we had to put in, especially zig-zagging all over Espana were undeniably exhausting (I think the promoter had routed our tour by throwing darts at a map).

However, whilst this almost literally killed me off, the subsequent dates back here in the U.K. felt as though it was a bus trip up to Baddesley Ensor. A doddle in comparison. The summer tour of forests supporting Paul Weller was a bona fide high, not just hanging with him but the crowds! Wow! What a reception we received too. It felt like another corner turned, the bar once again raised and our music making a connection with folk who’d never seen us before. I loved every second of it and to add to my enjoyment even more I got the opportunity to take my son Lowell out on the road with us and for us both to share what unfolded was indeed a real solid bond. 

Our most recent tour reaped the benefits of this exposure and I’d go as far to say that the November gigs were some of our best yet, certainly the most enjoyable for us all. I’m now looking forward to a new decade, new challenges, new chapter and lots more new music. I’m buoyed and excited for the future. 

 

Page Turners

As you’ve probably gathered by now I’m an avid reader of music biographies, I don’t even have to really appreciate the subject’s career; I’ll pretty much read anything music-related (Phil Collins, for example) 

I think there’s been some great page-turners of late. I really enjoyed both the Brett Anderson books (whose music I could take or leave), Will Birch’s fine assessment of Nick Lowe and enjoyable biogs from Elton John, Debbie Harry & Andrew Ridgeley. 

Obviously it was also somewhat of a landmark achievement for me to finally get my own book “Boys Dreaming Soul” published and into print this year. I’m glad I decided to put it out there as the response and reaction to it has been humbling. I’m considering following it up but it’s just a case of assigning the time to do it as it’s a fairly hefty project to take on but enjoyable and cathartic nonetheless.

 

Music

I think it’s been an exceptional year for new music. If I remember correctly last year I told you how I was embracing Spotify playlists and all I was discovering via that medium, and that has just continued to turn up so much new incredible music and artists. 

The Colemine label is excelling in great new soul music and even established contemporary labels such as Daptone have spread their wings somewhat with releases by artists such as Doug Shorts. I thought the Michael Kiwanuka album was another winner too, a proper listening experience from start to finish. Durand Jones and The Black Pumas also showed a way of presenting soul by avoiding the cliches. 

In other areas I really enjoyed albums such as Nick Cave’s latest and the Lucy Rose LP that came out at the beginning of the year. 

 

Vision

I recently watched The Irishman. I’d read mixed reviews, mainly bemoaning its length but all those movies were three hours plus (Once Upon a Time in America, Goodfellas, Casino etc…) I’m not sure people have the patience or attention span they used to; I guess we have social media to blame for that? I found the film kind of emotional to witness, with what will surely be the last hurrah for the greatest actors of our  generation; De Niro, Pacino, Pesci and even Harvey Kietel all under the genius direction of Martin Scorsese.What a journey and what an incredible collection of talent, the likes of which we will never see again. I thought Pacino in particular was amazing. 

The Joker was also a masterclass in acting, I caught it at the cinema and it blew me away. A great intensity to Joaquin Pheonix’s performance. It’s fantastic to see an upsurge in thought provoking and challenging movie making. 

 

The Beautiful Game

I can’t say too much about this subject because I’ll end up cursing their season again but I have rekindled my love and passion for football over the last few years (I’m not sure it ever dwindled to be honest), it’s mainly due to Leeds United’s turn of form under the guidance of Bielsa, he’s a maverick and a visionary but most of all he’s a hell of a lot of fun, right down to the bucket he rode in on. 

I sincerely hope this is our time, the city is rocking and buzzing with optimism, investment and finance to make the giant leap into the premiership is all in place, it would be heartbreaking to fade away again post-Christmas and return to the merry go round of a managerial circus and also lose this incredible crop of young players. It’s the hope that kills you eh? 

I’m also catching a few Adders games when I’m not touring with the band and that non-league action still enthralls me. If you haven’t witnessed an away game in Burbage on a freezing cold Wednesday night in December, clutching a Bovril then you haven’t lived…

It’s a streaming wet and murky day in the Moorlands – and it pretty much doesn’t matter which set of Moorlands you’re in, it is giving way to a horrible ‘don’t bother’ kind of night.

Graham Parker doesn’t need telling this. He’s just played the first date on a solo UK tour celebrating the release of an acoustic version of his best-selling UK hit album, ‘Squeezing out Sparks’, in Exeter and has spent six hours swapping one set of Moorlands scenery for the Staffordshire Moorlands. For tonight he’s set to play The Foxlowe Centre in Leek. And despite a nasty ‘tour cold’ and having to survive recording a near-on half-hour podcast and radio interview with Mr. McKay and I following the sound check, this sprightly, twinkly 60-plusser is in fine voice when he hits the stage.

He follows a short and perfectly fine set by Stephen Wilson Jnr and once he takes the stage, always a slight and quite unassuming figure, you’re once again reminded of the ‘nakedness’ of the solo acoustic performer. No ‘The Rumour’-style brass section to ‘lean on’ here. The songs either do the job, and the performer can ‘sell’ them, or they can’t.

It kind of helps, though if you’ve got a body of work spanning decades which includes 3 UK top 40 single hits, and 4 top 40 UK hit albums. “Squeezing out Sparks” got to number 22 on the UK album chart and went Gold in a number of territories and is the most ‘stripped down’ of the albums which troubled the UK chart, so that kind of helps as well, as does the knowledge and experience which comes from touring, incessantly, for more years than seems possible and guesting recently on tour with the likes of vinyl single chart-toppers Stone Foundation.

He kicks off with “Fool’s Gold” from 1976 and the album “Heat Treatment”. It was a great song then and is a great song now and Parker’s nasal rasp is the ideal vehicle. His voice does indeed sound needle sharp and his acerbic and self-deprecating wit between songs is an object lesson in how to entertain when you ain’t singing. He follows this with “Chloroform” from 2005 and the album “Songs of no Consequence” and we’re off and running. He already has the near-sell-out crowd eating out of his hand.

He candidly admits “Waiting for the UFOs” is probably the weakest song on “…..Sparks” but plays it anyway (Why, Graham? This has, in fairness, dated a bit) before a triple of “Every Saturday Nite” from recent album “Cloud Symbols”, “Stick to the Plan” and “Black Honey” all of which are played with humour, verve and panache by someone who knows how the tread the boards. He’s nobody’s idea of a world-beating guitar picker, but he’s perfected the art of using alternately a large acoustic and a Telecaster (not to mention a kazoo!!) to accompany himself to a perfectly appropriate effect, especially the acoustic, which he plays with a choppy, rhythmic style which ‘drives’ songs along. Another recent song in “Bathtub Gin” leads into the album opener on “….Sparks”, “Discovering Japan”. Often used a set opener when playing ‘full band’ gigs, this once again proves what an unusually-structured but striking piece this is in a live setting. Well into the ‘back nine’ now, he helter-skelters through to a paint stripping version of album title track “Howlin’ Wind”, which heralded the start of Parker’s recording career back in ’76, “Back to School Days” and a positively desperate-sounding ‘Stick To Me’. This was always a great song which all but disappeared under the ‘kitchen sink’ production which was thrown at it when the album was recorded and indeed it didn’t ‘do’ anything like as well as it should have done due to alleged cack-handed record company shenanigans (“Mercury Poisoning”, anyone?) and then a celebratory bundle of “White Honey” a top 40 UK hit on ‘The Pink Parker’ EP, “Is The Sun Out” and a blisteringly angry version of the new red vinyl single, “Nixon’s Rules”, which is ripping up a few trees as a searing critique of Britain’s failed and increasingly discredited drug policy.

He leaves the stage to rapturous applause to head off in to the next night on his UK tour, nursing a heavy cold but in the secure knowledge that man flu is temporary, class is permanent. He remains one of the few artists to emerge from the era of the ‘new wave’ with an ever-increasing appreciation of his qualities as a song writer and a performer; a reputation which, at the time, was probably ‘disguised’ and certainly under-appreciated by the demands of a very strange time. Bizarrely enough, as an artist, his time is probably Right Now. And it appears to me, watching him onstage in Leek tonight, that he’s clocked this. Go GP.

Imagine a story that starts with a fanatical Jam fan in the town of Atherstone who draws pictures of the band’s album covers in his exercise books during lessons at school and fantasises about being in his own band. Imagine that kid forty years later turning to his right at Islington Assembly Hall and seeing Paul Weller making a guest appearance with the band, Stone Foundation, that the kid has played with and believed in for a huge chunk of his life. Now that would make a great story, wouldn’t it? Bloody right it would, especially when the kid is Neil Sheasby, known to fans of Stone Foundation for his gritty on-the-road diaries spilling all the gory details (and the pleasant surprises and triumphs) of life in a band in the 21st century.

Brother Sheas (as Paul Weller refers to him) is a natural storyteller, who’s never short of an opinion and has the knack of pacing the narrative perfectly, in a style that captures perfectly his spoken delivery and with an ability to deliver the killer punchline when it’s needed. I’m not going to spoil the book for you by retelling the stories – I mean, the whole point of this is to make you want to buy it and read it. The only spoiler I’m going with is that the story stops short of the formation of Stone Foundation (which I’m guessing will come with the second volume).

The story “Boys Dreaming Soul” tells is of passion for music, passion for the right clothes, riotous times and bad behaviour, life in a small working-class town (and I can relate to most of those) and a lifelong friendship that comes to define both of the people involved. Neil’s deadpan delivery is perfect for the music business anecdotes, but he’s equally effective with the serious business, and there’s a fair amount of that as well.

This book will make you laugh; it might make you cry. If you’re interested in music at all, and why are reading this if you aren’t, you’ll be fascinated by Neil’s stories of his various bands and nights out at music industry schmoozefests and the memories he evokes with playlists for each chapter of the book (Neil loves a playlist). He’s a very engaging author and he’s created a compelling memoir in “Boys Dreaming Soul”. It’s a story of complete commitment to an ideal whether times are good or bad, happy or sad. And it made me realise we were at the same gig in Nottingham thirty years ago.

It’s available at the main online stores but why not try here first. It’s out now.

Well, that was all a bit intense; four nights of gigs spread across North and West London (and those are just the ones I opted for – there were plenty of other great gigs across the capital, but you can only be in one place at a time). With so much on offer, the choices weren’t easy, but I witnessed four cracking gigs, all headlined by bona fide legends and with some astonishing up-and-coming support acts. And it’s the only festival I’ve done where I could get a decent shower and sleep in a comfortable bed. 

 

Mavis Staples & Stone Foundation @Roundhouse 04/07/19 

This was all about the songs (and Mavis Staples’ incredible voice). No long solos; just deliver the song and the message and move on to the next one. Stone Foundation delivered a powerful support set for Mavis, for the second time in three days and demonstrated why the are the new soul vision. All the elements fit, the songs are strong and the horns and Hammond are the perfect icing on the cake. The finale of “Tear Your Playhouse Down” leaves the crowd elated and ready for the main event. 

Mavis Staples is almost the same age as my mum (Happy Birthday for Wednesday, Mavis). The passion for the music is undimmed and the voice is still a force of nature. The audience would happily listen to the classics (who wouldn’t want to hear “Slippery People”, “For What It’s Worth” and “Respect Yourself”), but Mavis also has a new album out at the moment and the title song “We Get By” fits seamlessly in as the set draws to a close. By the end you’re left in no doubt; you have been in the presence of a legend. You have been Mavised.

Mavis Staples

 

Maceo Parker, Down to the Bone and Jen Kearney @Roundhouse 05/07/19 

If Thursday was all about the songs and the singers, Friday at Roundhouse was about two things; virtuoso playing and, most importantly, the FUNK. All three sets combined jazz and funk in various proportions with a few other elements thrown in. Jen Kearney opened with a short but powerful set with Latin overtones and hints of Steely Dan at times. Superb instrumental performances from the whole band and powerful vocals from Jen herself. Definitely one to watch. And then Down to the Bone ramped up the atmosphere before the headliner with a set of jazz-funk instrumentals with hints of New York and Cuba and nods towards the Average White Band, Nuyorican Soul and maybe very early Chicago. Great fun and fabulous musicianship. 

Then came Maceo. Coming onstage to “1999”, it was obvious that this wasn’t just about musicianship; this was a show. The playing was superb, but Maceo likes to perform as a bandleader, and why not? There was plenty of humour, with a little piano/alto jazz duet on “Satin Doll” to establish whether it was a jazz or funk audience (resoundingly funk, if you needed to know) and a trombone/keys duet on “My One and Only Love”, but it was the funk that was well and truly slam-dunked with a glorious cover of Marvin Gaye’s “Let’s Get it On” featuring a cameo Maceo vocal towards the end. And that was the sound of another legend winning over the Innervisions crowd. 

Maceo Parker

 

Janet Kay & Carroll Thompson with Hannah Francis @Under the Bridge 06/07/19 

Hannah Francis has a fabulous voice, no doubt about it, but, as a showcase for new talent, you have to wonder why she only had two songs with backing tracks and no live musicians. Whose decision, I don’t know, but I don’t think it did anyone any favours. And that’s the negativity out of the way.  Lovers Rock is by definition a nostalgia thing and the people who get nostalgic about it are really enthusiastic and knowledgeable. And friendly. It was the most relaxed and amiable of all the audiences over the weekend; everyone was there to have a good time. 

Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson are known as the two queens of Lovers Rock; they’ve been doing this for years and they’re incredibly good at what they do. They duet and then they alternate short three/four song sets of their classic songs. The difference this time is that they both have covers albums out at the moment so we’re treated to Carroll covering “Make it With You”, “Where Do Broken Hearts Go?” and “Take Another Little Piece of my Heart”, while Janet covers “Betcha By Golly Wow” and “Wishing On a Star”. The audience is young and old, male and female and multi-ethnic and everyone’s just vibing on the tunes. It’s a perfect demonstration in West London of how we can all live together. 

Carroll Thompson

 

Gilberto Gil & Caravela @Shepherd’s Bush Empire 07/07/19 

The final night of Innervisions has me visiting what used to be the BBC Television Theatre in The Bush. Apart from a strange domestic at the bar, this is the most laid-back of all the gigs. It must be a Latin American thing. The music has never been my field of expertise, but it’s always had the feelgood factor and interesting rhythms and, like all of the headliners, Gilberto Gil is a legend in the spheres of music and politics. 

The night opened with Caravela, fronted by singer Ines Loubet and with a lineup of guitar, keys, bass, drums and percussion. They wowed the Empire crowd (it may have been a bit partisan) with their superb musicianship and Latin polyrhythms topped off by Ines’ powerhouse vocals. Even a non-dancer like me found the rhythms irresistible. And then it was Gilberto Gil time. 

The semi-circular backline looked like a set-up for a cast of thousands (or eight or nine multi-instrumentalists and backing vocalists) with Gilberto seated front and centre with an acoustic guitar for the opening three songs, which were all new and ebbed and flowed through stylistic and personnel changes as Gilberto worked solo, played duets and did full band arrangements, before changing up to electric and getting to his feet. However deficient your dancing feet may be, you can’t resist the seductive rhythms that will have you tapping your feet and your fingers and singing along to the wonderful melodies. Another legend whose reputation is well-earned. 

Gilberto Gil

 

And that was it for Innervisions 2019. Can’t wait for 2020. 

As if it’s not enough to stage a festival across some of London’s most iconic venues over five nights at the beginning of July (Wednesday 3rd to Sunday 7th), Innervisions has placed a large dollop of icing on the top of this particular cake. We told you earlier about the festival but since that time there have been, as they say, developments. In addition to the superb and varied line-up of headliners announced earlier, we also now have confirmed supports across the festival.

And not just any old supports. A competition jointly organised by Innervisions Festival and The Arts Council has given twenty unsigned artists the opportunity to appear on the big stage to packed houses across the festival. Just to give you a flavour of how this pans out over the five days, Sans Soucis and Chloe Bodur support Joel Culpepper at Under the Bridge on July 3rd, Belle Benham supports Gentleman’s Dub Club and Submotion Orchestra at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on July 5th and Hannah Francis supports Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson at Under the Bridge on July 6th. And obviously many more that you can discover at www.innervisionsfestival.com. Not only do you get to see some r’n’b legends, you also get a quick shuftie at the next generation. Double bubble.

And don’t forget some of the more established support acts that are appearing; Van Morrison will be supported by James Hunter, while Mavis Staples has the UK’s most happening soul band, Stone Foundation opening for her at The Roundhouse in the middle of their woodlands Paul Weller support tour. Try to catch as many as you can, these gigs will be phenomenal.

Here’s a sample of the supports for you:

So what makes the perfect festival? A line-up of artists that you really want to see, obviously, but maybe I’m approaching this from the wrong direction. There are many, many aspects of festivals that fill me with dread, including sanitation (or lack of), over-priced food and drink, the great British weather and big one; camping, glamping or whatever you favour in the area of al fresco sleeping. Now if there was a festival where I had the choice of loads of interesting gigs and the option of curling up in your own bed after a nice shower, that’s the one I’d be going for. Now, as it happens, there’s something closely resembling that happening in London this year, for the second time, going by the name of Innervisions Festival promoted by the APMG group.

The line-up features an impressively varied list of artists including Van Morrison, Mavis Staples (supported by the wonderful Stone Foundation), Maceo Parker, Fela Kuti, Gilberto Gil, Gentleman’s Dub Club, Janet Kay and Carroll Thompson playing at a range of venues including Under the Bridge, The Roundhouse, Islington Assembly Hall, Shepherd’s Bush Empire, Indigo at the O2 and Earth between Wednesday July 3rd and Sunday July 7th.

You can see the full updated line-up and links to ticket sales on the Festival website. Here’s how it’s looking at the moment:

So if you’re a fan of any of the artists on this line-up grab yourself a ticket or two for any of the gigs, arrive at a reasonable time, leave the wellies at home, enjoy the gig and then get the tube home to a nice comfortable bed and wake up the next day feeling refreshed and without the prospect of a mile-long cue for a tepid shower. Just sayin’.

 

As ever; songs, not singles. These songs are all from albums that we’ve reviewed this year (that’s Stone Foundation ruled out again – sorry guys). There’s something else, apart from greatness, that links all these choices; they’re not the only songs from the albums they feature on that could have made this list. The albums are all wonderful pieces of work taken as a whole, but they all feature at least two standout tracks that would have been seen as singles in a different musical era. There were difficult choices but ultimately it had to be whittled down to five songs. In no particular order, here are Allan’s favourite five songs of the year; the songs that made his heart soar or made him cry, but definitely made him hit the repeat button.

 

“The Last Song” – Dean Owens

Just to be contrary, it’s actually the first song on the album, ”Southern Wind”, which was a collaboration with Will Kimbrough. One of the things Dean and Will bonded over was their love of Ronnie Lane, whose influence is all over this one. Having heard it live a few times, where it tends to appear towards the end of the set, confirms the power of the song and allows Dean to riff on repeated choruses by throwing in lines from, for example, “Ooh La La”. It’s fun and it’s memorable; if you don’t love this, you’ve got icicles for ventricles.

 

“Love in Wartime” – Birds of Chicago

Absolutely gorgeous. This clocks in at about the six minute mark but you just want it to keep going. It’s one of those that seduces you in with a gentle intro then builds and builds to the first chorus. And by that time, you’re hooked; you’re there for the duration. Maybe there’s a nostalgia thing there; the feel, the chord progressions are a lot like classic mid-seventies era Bob Seger. The melody’s hummable, the harmonies are superb and it’s hugely uplifting. I dare you not to be moved by this.

 

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

This is a song where you just have to accept the Bruce Springsteen comparison because this is a stadium rocker in the mould of “Born to Run”. It’s a monstrous ‘wall of sound’ production driving along by pounding, relentless floor toms and a huge full band arrangement. In the context of the album, it’s the song that represents the start of the upward turn in Michael’s rehabilitation and the uplifting lyrical message is carried along on the tide of a widescreen musical setting. Taken out of the context of the album, it’s a song that FM radio in the States would have been all over in the 80s – not just a powerhouse arrangement, a potent message as well.

 

“Son of an Immigrant” – Gerry Spehar

A perfect example of the song that leads you in a certain direction before pulling the rug from under you and twisting the point of the narrative. It’s not just an example of a clever narrative trick; like the rest of the album, this is a powerful commentary on the current state of the USA, and its current leader. The song has a very clear message; if you go back far enough almost everyone’s an immigrant in the land of the free. Like “Out from Under”, it sits perfectly within the context of the album without needing that context to shine as a great song.

 

“The Shape of You” – Rod Picott

Sometimes a song just needs to find the point in your life where it fits. This one happened for me on the Tube on the way back from a gig at Green Note. I’d already heard it a few times but this time it suddenly hit home. It’s about the realisation that someone has become a part of you. In this case because that person has gone, but I guess the image works if they’re still around. The song opens with the image in the title, then develops that image. It’s a really simple idea but beautifully effective. The arrangement’s sparse, with mainly acoustic guitar and vocal with some very subtle Will Kimbrough guitar atmospherics just lurking in the background. Delicate and gorgeous.

There are many other songs that could have been on this list; there’s so much incredible music out there, but these were the ones that were buzzing around my consciousness when I put this together. Have a listen, and I hope you enjoy.

Let’s be honest about this, I’m just using this to buy time until a few more guest contributions start to come in and I’m seriously hoping that’s going to happen some time soon. What we have in this selection is some shots that managed to be left out of the original selections for various reasons that I’ll explain as we go along. Anyway, I like them and they’re pretty much all we’ve got for today, so let’s just run with it, shall we?

 

Basia (Dana Immanuel and the Stolen Band) @The Vaults, Leake Street

The only reason this one didn’t make the cut for the original monochrome set is that it was only shot on Saturday December 10th.I don’t know what it would have displaced, but it would have been there. I’m a huge fan of this band; musically they’re superb, they’re great fun and there’s always something very visual going on. There aren’t many bands with five visually striking characters, but these guys are always great to photograph and they always throw some interesting shapes. The biggest problem is knowing where to look; there’s always so much going on. This is Barbara, or Basia, whichever you prefer.

Sound of the Sirens and Samantics at The Slaughtered Lamb

Did I ever mention that I love Abbe Martin and Hannah Wood, or Sound of the Sirens, as they’re better known? Yep, thought so. The Holy Grail of Sirens photography is to get a shot with Hannah and Abba facing you, but without microphones in front of their mouths. Sounds easy, yeah? I beg to differ. Myself and fellow gig photographer Richard Bolwell have been trying for years without success. I’m still not sure that this qualifies, because it’s between songs during the encore, but it captures the spirit of a great night and the dynamic between the three people on stage.

Red Berryn (Dominic Cooper) at Leek Blues & Americana Festival

I decided to escape from London for a few days to head Up North to Leek in Staffordshire, where I worked for a while in an earlier incarnation. I was heading for a Graham Parker gig in Holmfirth on a Sunday, but it coincided with the festival. In for a penny then. The format of the Festival is lots of pubs putting on gigs of various sizes over three days and you never quite know what you’re going to get. What we got early doors on Friday was Red Berryn who did Chuck Berry. So, all the usual duck walk shots, but then I got that brief moment of complicity between performer and photographer that just worked.

Julian Eccleston (Houndstooth)

The band formerly known as Coffeepot Drive; are you still with me? OK. Whichever name they go by, this band is hot, hot, hot. I took Mrs M along to see them and told her that if she didn’t love them, I would sell all my guitars. Well, the Les Paul and its poor relations are still with me and Houndstooth are still the funkiest rock (or rockiest funk) band I know. And they are lovely people. One of the many times I saw them play this year was in the Caffe Nero tent at Cornbury Festival. The lighting was, well, daylight filtered through canvas basically, so the challenge was to find some visual interest. Julian saved the day by wearing mirrored shades that nicely reflected the framework of the tent. I owe you one Julian.

Kathryn Williams (supporting Stone Foundation at Islington Assembly Hall)

Time to ‘fess up. When I picked the original High Five black and whites, I completely forgot about this one, which is pretty dim given that Kathryn really liked it. As always at The Assembly Hall, the lighting was variable but OK if you picked your moments. If you’ve seen more than half a dozen of my photos you probably realise that I tend to get in quite close and crop quite tight. This one needed the space isolating Kathryn and emphasising the apparently pensive mood of her stance. I was really happy with this one, even on a night when I shot Paul Weller and Graham Parker, as well as Stone Foundation.