You might think that the world of music writers and photographers, particularly in London, is cut-throat, dog-eat-dog and devil-take-the-hindmost; the reality’s very different. Generally speaking, the people that fill the magazines, websites and press releases, and shoot the posters and album covers get on pretty well with each other. As a demonstration, we invited Moray Stuart, Live Music Editor of “Blues in Britain” to make a contribution to High Fives this year. To illustrate his High Fives, Moray included some cracking photos from great photographers, who all deserve a mention. Credits for the photos, in the order they appear below are: Tony Corner, Rob Blackham, Rob Blackham, Steve Thomas and Al Stuart. It’s good to have some decent photos on MusicRiot for a change. Here’s what Moray had to say:
“Not Mike Ross to Bear”
It’s pretty rare in my (admittedly limited) experience to find an artist where you just think ‘Oh yes!’ straight off: Rosco Levee (of whom more later) was one, and in 2016 it was Mike Ross. The single act I’ve seen the most times this year, assisted in no small way by the quality of the various musicians he’s teamed up with.
With Jack Hutchinson / Maker – Latest Music Bar, Brighton 22/01/2016
The necessity of an overnight stay couldn’t stand in the way of a first opportunity to catch Mike live. This triple bill had quality written all the way through it like a stick of seaside rock, with Jack’s excellent vocals ranging from surprisingly delicate at times to a taut, tense rasp and a full-band set from Maker, who with all the cocky swagger of the Faces (and the chops to match) embody early 70s louche, laddish verve. Mike’s own solo set was an astonishing display of power and soul, brimming over with loss, anger and resignation, moving from dark and menacing one minute to wistful the next. So good I even took my wife along.
With Jack Hutchinson – Ain’t Nothin’ But, London 14/07/2016
I’d never really got to grips with this venue: ram-jam-packed with tourists and Italian students it always seemed a daft place to go to hear music. But following the Brighton show I made a special effort to arrive an hour and a half before show time to snag a seat at the front for this acoustic duo set. It allowed them to “pay their dues” with plenty of classic covers as well as originals from both and even an unexpected Black Crowes number. Jack and Mike’s playing nicely blended American and British influences and Jacks grade 3 sandpaper rasp complemented Mike’s stentorian drawl. So good I even returned for their next ANB joint session.
Tuesday Blues, 100 Club, London 23/08/2016
The Tuesday Blues session has become a regular event this year but this was a cut above the usual fare, showcasing Mike’s new album Jenny’s Place. Great original song-writing, killer playing and singing, tone that could fell a herd of elephants, and the kind of assured polish, punch and fluidity normally associated with American bands, this was the best act of the fourteen I’ve seen at the 100 Club this year. Even slick Brum soulsters the Tom Walker Trio who headlined struggled to step out of the shadow cast by this performance. So good they released a live album of it.
Rosco Levee & Friends a.k.a Walrus – New Crawdaddy, Billericay 30/09/2016
Another schlep to an unknown venue courtesy of a hastily arranged bass player taxi (thanks Trev!) was well-justified by the return to the scene of the Kaiser of Chutzpah, the Tsar to the Stars, Rosco Levee (now new and improved with added Mike!) A positively electrifying set of old Southern Slide numbers, Mike originals and stunning new material from the upcoming Soul Roller album had me grinning from ear to ear like an imbecile (maybe not a good look but who cares). Probably the gig of the year for me, and a glorious harbinger of what Walrus might deliver in 2017. So good… just so, so good
Interview – A Pub, Central London 30/11/2016
OK, not an actual performance as such, but the funniest interview I’ve ever done: Mike and Rosco delivering a perfect blend of swagger, thoughtfulness, crudity, spirituality and self-deprecation, with more unprintable bits than an MP’s expenses report. Who else can cover Levi 516’s, Wookies, and benevolent dictatorships? ‘That song? I’ve done better shits than that’? and ‘I could give you a really detailed description of exactly where they went wrong: from their shoes, to their choice of patch leads, to their fucking choice of van… but I’m not going to’ were two of the choicer moments. So bad it was so good
Now I better sign off before POW! my fairy godmother appears
We’re big fans of Bob Malone here at MusicRiot so when I got the chance to meet up for a chat on the final night of his UK tour it was a bit of a no-brainer. Bob’s been in the UK for three weeks touring in support of his “Mojo Deluxe” album and the “Mojo Live” DVD and The 100 Club gig was the climax of a hectic tour schedule. So a very noisy 100 Club dressing room is where we got the chance to talk about old pianos, New Orleans and Southside Johnny, among other things:
Allan – So it’s approaching the end of the tour and we met on the first night in Southend. How has it been since then?
Bob – It’s been great; a few funky gigs, a few spectacular gigs and we’ve worked hard. We had a couple of nights where we didn’t have gigs but we still had a radio show or a long drive; we’re a hard-working group.
Allan –Have you had any particularly good gigs?
Bob – This one’s definitely gonna be a good one and Keighley Blues Club, that was a really great crowd and Scotland as well, and we also played on the Isle of Wight.
Allan – I remember when we met in Southend you were talking about Italian audiences.
Bob – They’re full on, right out of the box, from the first song.
Allan –Do you notice any differences in the audiences around the UK?
Bob – Well it sometimes takes three or four songs here. The north is different from the south, as you know. I didn’t until I did these long tours here; England was just England like people think America is just America but here it’s five different countries with completely different cultures.
Allan – Have you played The 100 Club before?
Bob – No, but its reputation precedes…
Allan – How does that feel?
Bob – It feels good. I was soundchecking with the grand piano earlier and the sound engineer had footage of Paul McCartney playing that same piano.
Allan – I think it’s great to see it with the lights up and look at all those great photos around the walls of the people that have played here in the past.
Bob – I love places with history like this; you feel like you’re part of a continuum.
Allan – You’re promoting the Mojo Deluxe album at the moment. What kind of a reception has the album had?
Bob – I think it’s the most press and radio I’ve had on anything I’ve done and it’s my twentieth year of making records, so I’m happy with that.
Allan – After doing what I think of as the day job with John Fogerty, how does this compare? It must be a huge culture change.
Bob – It’s different. I’ve been doing this for twenty-five years; this is what I do, and I’ve been playing with John for almost five years now. With this, so long as the sound man is competent I’m happy. Everyone thinks it must be weird to go from small crowds to big crowds, but it really isn’t. As long as it’s a good musical experience and you’re connecting with an audience; that’s why we play. You can’t really control the size of the crowd and also when I do this it’s a mission; when I play with John it’s his gig. I’m lucky to be there but it’s his gig. I get my solo but other than that, it’s all about him and I’m just in the background.
Allan – Trying to avoid the pyrotechnics…
Bob – Trying not to burst into flames during “Fortunate Son”, exactly.
Allan – So when you’re out doing your own stuff, here and in the States, what would be your ideal band line-up?
Bob – The ultimate, when I’m not touring; when I’m LA, and I don’t have to put people in hotel rooms would be a nine-piece band. I just did a DVD, which I did the way I would like to do it and I had three female background singers, percussionist, drums, bass and guitar. I do a lot of stuff with horns as well, for years I had a horn section, so it would be a nine to eleven piece band and a second keyboard player would be great, to play the organ parts. (If you’re really paying attention, you’ll notice that the total number of musicians is only eight, but there’s a slide guitar player on there as well. I hope your heart isn’t broken by that omission Marty Rifkin.)
Allan – On your own tours, particularly in the UK, you rely on the venue providing the piano. Have you had any horror stories with that in the past?
Bob – Well, usually I carry a digital piano for when there’s no real alternative, but most of the places I play now, if there is a real piano, it’s usually in good shape, but I’ve been to places that had a hundred year old upright and some of the keys didn’t work but I kind of like to play those anyway, just for the challenge. It’s like going in the ring with this old piano and fighting it to see who wins. I love real pianos because they all have personality; the digital ones are handy and they’re light and they don’t go out of tune, but they don’t have much of a personality. They get the job done.
The one in Southend, that’s got some issues. It’s got some broken strings; it’s one that I fight to the death but I like playing it because it’s an old Bösendorfer.
Allan – I did notice a few problems at the soundcheck that night…
Bob – It needs a rebuild, but still I’m glad to see it.
Allan – You’re classically and jazz trained; was there any one thing that turned you into a rock/blues pianist?
Bob – The rock thing came first. One of those things was hearing “Sergeant Pepper” for the first time, so it’s you guys, it’s your fault. Then I heard Billy Joel and Elton John and not very long after that the New Orleans thing, which blew me away, and then Ray Charles and I became a huge student of that stuff but the rock stuff was always there.
Allan – Were you singing right from the start?
Bob – I started singing when I was fifteen probably. I started singing because I wanted to impress a girl I had a crush on. I just played classical piano but “Your Song” by Elton John was the first thing I ever sang in public; I thought ‘She’ll love me if I sing this song’. I was a terrible singer, some people still say I am, but I learned to work with what I have.
You write songs and there are obviously lots of people with better voices than me but when you write songs you have a story to tell and people always respond to the story and sometimes you’re the only person that can tell it.
Allan – We’ve had “Mojo Deluxe” this year, so what’s next on the agenda.
Bob – Well, I’ve got this DVD coming out and the audio from that was so good, we’re thinking of putting that out as a live record next year and I’ll make another new record, so I’ll probably get the live one out next year and in 2017 I’ll have a new studio album. I’ve got to get realistic about this; I’ve got about half the songs I need for another record.
Allan – I interviewed Southside Johnny in July 2014 in London…
Bob – Southside Johnny was also one of the big things in my youth and I should mention this because growing up in New Jersey, we all knew Southside Johnny. This was the 80s and you couldn’t hear that kind of music on the radio at all and so my first real exposure to r’n’b, blues, horn section kinda music was Southside and I learned from that and went back and figured out all the other stuff. He was huge for me.
Allan – When I interviewed him at Shepherds Bush Empire last July, we spoke about his new album “Soultime!” and he said they were aiming to get it out for Christmas 2014 and that finally came out in August this year.
Bob – Yeah, that’s about right. I toured here last year and I had half of “Mojo Deluxe” out as “Mojo EP”. We had finished recording and it was half-mixed and there were some problems and we couldn’t get the other half mixed in time and the promoter said ‘The whole thing is you have a record out for this tour; we can’t get any press without a record’ so we had half a record out as an EP, just in the UK for the tour.
Allan – And that worked really well as a sampler for the album.
Bob – And by the end of last year the whole thing was done but then we needed a three month ramp for the release date to get it publicised and I was touring through the spring, so we just put the whole thing off and it came out almost a year later. That’s how it works. There are so many factors; if you have a lot of money involved, you can get things done a lot quicker. On a limited budget, you still need time to publicise, so you often end up delaying.
Allan – One final question; do you have one song that tears you up and gets you really emotional?
Bob – Yeah, “One for my Baby”, the Sinatra song; that one kills me every time. It depends on the day; it could be something else on another day.
Allan – Thanks very much, Bob.
And there you go; a private audience with the great Bob Malone, who was as entertaining offstage as on. Since we spoke, I’ve had a chance to watch the “Mojo Live” DVD and it’s superb, capturing the magic of a one-off performance absolutely perfectly. It has great performances from all of the musicians and it’s a whole load of fun; keep an eye out for it.
So, what happens when you get to The 100 Club just as the doors open for a private event on a Sunday evening? Well, the obvious answer is, not a lot, so plenty of time to check out how the stage set-up looks and work out the best photo angles for later. When that’s done, there are still only four people in the place, so what next? Right, ask the sound engineer about the programme for the night; apparently The Grahams (the band I’ve come to see) are going on at 9:30. Is there a support band, don’t know mate. Oh well, time for another bottle of lager then.
Then, out of nowhere, the door opens and what is unmistakably a bunch of musicians walks in; the instrument cases are always a giveaway. After about half an hour of intensive roadying and oneing and twoing, we have ignition. None of this leaving the stage and coming back to make an entrance; a quick line check on the vocal mics and its 1-2-3-4.
Surprisingly, after all the last minute preparation, The Orange Circus Band was pretty good, playing hillbilly Americana with a constantly changing instrumental line-up featuring bass, acoustic guitar, banjo, mandolin and fiddle and featuring a bit of the almost obligatory Woody Guthrie. They finished with the lovely four-part harmonies of the gospel song “I’ll Fly Away” and everyone was happy, but I can’t help wondering how much better they could have sounded, with a full-on soundcheck.
No such problems for The Grahams; they soundchecked before the venue opened and blasted straight into the set with “Griggstown” from the new album, “Glory Bound”. Although Doug and Alyssa Graham’s second album was released this week in the UK, this gig was about the short documentary, “Rattle the Hocks”, made at the same time, about the influence of the railways on the growth of Americana music, which is showing at Raindance Film Festival. Although the album versions of the songs feature full band arrangements, the songs are so good that they all work with two guitars, two voices and a bit of percussion. The set featured mainly material from “Glory Bound” including “Kansas City”, the folky and personal “Blow Wind Blow”, the album’s closing song, “The Promised Land”, “Tender Annabelle” from the bonus tracks and the double entendre-laden “Biscuits”. All of those were delivered with style and panache, but there were also a few very special moments.
About halfway through the set, the first highlight was the gospel-tinged and deeply personal “Mama”, which was the first really emotional moment, followed fairly quickly by “The Wild One”, which is a standout track from the album. It’s a tragic coming-of-age story with a huge uplifting chorus and it’s a single if I ever heard one. It’s gorgeous. “Lay Me Down” was another album high point which translated perfectly to a more stripped-down format and had Alyssa shifting from her pure and clear country tones to something much more like Alanis Morissette or eighties Marianne Faithfull. Which just left “Glory Bound”, inspired by Woody Guthrie’s “The Farmer-Labor Train” as the unplugged encore and a final lovely moment.
Seeing The Grahams live was quite an experience. Doug and Alyssa built a warm rapport with the audience by talking about the film, the album and their relationship, emphasised by their obvious onstage chemistry. The songs are intensely personal and are delivered with passion, power and beautiful harmonies; by the end of a gig, you’ll feel elated but wrung-out. If you missed this one you can catch them on their UK tour in November.
Imagine a world where musicians master their instruments and voices by playing (solo and as a group) until they know that their music is good enough for the public to hear. Where musicians get together to play music that they believe in; music that’s passionate and inspired. Where success is measured in emotional response, not midweek chart positions. Where the playing is more important than image, and integrity is more important than overnight success and bread and circuses TV shows. Where bands play live and it sounds better than the vinyl/CD/download because it’s not all about clever production and autotune. Where a singer isn’t some deluded hyper-melismatic Whitney wannabe. Where bands actually respect their audiences. I visited that world two nights ago when I saw Stone Foundation headline the Delicious Junction fifth birthday party at The 100 Club.
After a variety of short support sets, including one from Simon Wells, who was unfairly ignored by most of the audience (despite a guest appearance from SF’s Gary Rollins), it was time for the main event. It was big smiles all round from the audience, and the band, playing their third sell-out 100 Club gig this year; and it was bass player Neil Sheasby’s birthday. The band opened with the title song from the latest album, “To Find the Spirit”, and from that point on it was their night. Stone Foundation doesn’t make any distinction between support and headline sets; the guys just get on and give it the beans. This is a gang in the great tradition of Dexys; it’s not about individual egos, it’s about the big picture and this picture’s a masterpiece where every element counts.
Underpinning the band’s sound is the rock solid rhythm section of Neil Sheasby and Philip Ford; it’s not necessarily fussy, but it provides the core for everyone else to lock in to. They’ve played together for a long time now, and it shows. New recruit Robert Newton’s congas add a subtle new flavour to the live sound, while Ian Arnold’s keys and Neil Jones’ guitar fill out the mid-range and add some melodic flourishes. Neil Jones is one of those singers who sound better live than recorded (and I’m not saying that he sounds bad on the albums). And then there’s the icing on the cake; the horns. Gary Rollins (sax), Spencer Hague (trombone) and Gareth John (trumpet and flugelhorn) are spot on as an ensemble punching in three-part fills but individually they all take solos which fit perfectly with the songs without going over the line into self-indulgence. As an old Stax and Atlantic fan, I’ve always loved the Hammond and horns combo, particularly when it includes the more subtle flavours of trombone and flugel, and these guys are the real deal.
The set was split between songs from “To Find the Spirit”, including the title track, the epic slow groove of “Don’t Let the Rain” and “Wondrous Place”, and old favourites like “No More the Fool” and the stomping “Tracing Paper”. There was even a surprise during the encore as the band motored through a cover of “Jumping Jack Flash” and then it was all over. Oh, and a bit of DJ set from Paolo Hewitt as well; what more do want from a gig?
It’s been a good year for Stone Foundation; “To Find the Spirit” charted well in the independent chart, Paul Weller endorsed it, they’ve had national radio play and Sky Sports is using tracks from it regularly. The band has had support slots with The Selecter and The Blow Monkeys and toured as headliners, and with Nolan Porter. They’ve also had a DVD out over the summer, put together by Lee Cogswell and they’re doing a Japanese tour in November. This is a bunch of people who are passionate about their music and willing to put in the hours and the miles to bring it to the public, whatever it takes; I truly admire them for that dedication and I hope their star continues to rise in 2015.
Maybe it’s time to welcome the new soul vision.