When we review gigs, we talk a lot about the artists (quite rightly), but we don’t often mention the things that go on behind the scenes to make the magic happen. The people who take the financial risk promoting gigs, the sound engineers and, in some cases, volunteers who give up their time to create special nights for us. All of these things combine to make the magic happen; to make a great venue. And that’s what Allan’s looking at next, five great venues that have featured on the Riot Squad itinerary this year (and some in previous years).

The Union Chapel, Islington

For many artists, this is the Holy Grail of live performance. In an earlier High Five I wrote about Martin Harley’s desire to make this dream come true, which he did in a triumphant manner on March 10th 2018. But back to the venue. It’s a working chapel, which explains the superb acoustics (and the fact that you can’t take alcoholic drinks into the main chapel). It’s largely staffed by volunteers, which gives it an atmosphere that’s professional but warm and welcoming and carries its own little traditions. For example, unlike in Spanish hotels, it’s acceptable to reserve your seat (with a jacket rather than a towel) while you go to the bar, which works really well – if you know about it. A friend of mine saw a nasty little turf war break out when a party of latecomers shunted a bunch of coats along and took the reserved seats. You don’t want to upset the normally mild-mannered Union Chapel crowd.

The sightlines in the venue are good, the live programming is interesting and eclectic and the natural sound is always superb, which is why the unplugged encore is virtually de rigeur. And, with the photographer’s head on, I have to mention the gorgeous stained-glass window at the side of the stage. One piece of advice, which I gave to the friend who witnessed the seating incident; always take a cushion. Those pews are hard.

Green Note, Camden

Another award-winning London venue, although on a smaller scale than The Union Chapel, Green Note is nestled between the The Dublin Castle and The Edinburgh Castle in Camden and it’s a cosy intimate venue (the main room has a capacity of about 80, the basement about 20). Green Note is all about musical quality and, like The Union Chapel, it’s hugely eclectic. The sound engineers are always roundly praised by the performers and the atmosphere is always intimate. It’s like having a gig in your front room. There’s also a menu of tasty vegetarian snacks and a great selection of beers.

I’ve seen many gigs at Green Note and never one that I didn’t enjoy. It’s a completely welcoming environment that lends itself to an intimacy between audience and performer and, for reasons of closeness rather than acoustics, lends itself (again) to the unplugged encore. They’re always entertaining. Any downsides? The lighting isn’t ideal for photography but, if you’re any good you can work around that. I always have a warm glow walking back down Camden Parkway to Camden Town tube.

The Picturedrome, Holmfirth

It’s set in the Yorkshire Dales; it’s the village where “Last of the Summer Wine” was filmed and it’s picture postcard England. If your journey to the venue is longer than about an hour, you should stay in one of the many affordable hotels, guest houses and B ‘n’ Bs and soak up the atmosphere of the place before a gig. There are loads of good places to eat as well.

The venue has been open for live music for just over 20 years now (21st birthday celebrations coming up in 2019?). With a capacity of 690, it’s relatively easy to fill, with the right artists. The programming isn’t as eclectic as some of the London venues and it’s built mainly around heritage artists, but there’s absolutely no doubting the quality of what’s on offer. Well, it would have to be good to make me take a 400-mile round trip, wouldn’t it?

As an old cinema, it has a raked floor, which means that there’s less chance of being stuck behind the huge bloke and missing everything on stage (and there’s a balcony as well). The sound is always good and it has another huge pluspoint in the eyes of the Riot Squad’s Northern Man, Steve Jenner. It serves proper, hand-pulled, cask-conditioned beer; you got Mr J right there. And it’s a friendly and musically knowledgeable crowd. Just be careful in the winter, although there are worse places to be snowbound.

The Slaughtered Lamb

It’s situated in Clerkenwell, close to Farringdon and St Paul’s tube stations and it’s a bunch of contradictions. The live music venue is in the basement and is about the same size as the main room at Green Note. Like the Camden venue, the boundaries between audience and artists tends be fairly flexible. While the artists have green rooms available (generally), they tend to mingle with the audience throughout the evening, which creates a certain intimacy.

The sound is always crystal clear and, generally speaking, it’s what artists call a listening room. If you have a good song to get across, this room will allow you to do it; there’s just one thing to be aware of; the bar upstairs, which is mainly aimed at local workers having a beer or two on the way home. Nothing wrong with that, but those gatherings tend to be loud and the music is ramped up to compete with the background (?) noise. The result is that, in the basement bar (quiet and intimate), it sounds like the Dave Clark Five (ask your nan) are rehearsing upstairs. And (again like Green Note), the lighting’s a bit challenging for photographers. Me? I like a challenge.

The Bedford, Balham

This one’s a bit of a London institution really. It’s been renowned as a music venue for years and recently closed down for a refurb. I’m ashamed to admit that I’d never visited The Balham before this, but I went along to the opening night after the refurb to catch the buzz. It helped that one of my favourite bands, Houndstooth, was headlining. After the standard opening night glitches (the fire alarm being repeatedly triggered by the hazers), the night kicked off pretty much on time.

The performance space is what would have the pub’s back room in the past, but it’s a long way from being a dingy little corner of the venue. There’s an area in front of the stage which was completely open on the night, but can be configured cabaret style for more intimate gigs. And there’s a balcony; as a photographer, it opens up all sorts of new views, but it’s also a great place to see the entire stage without being miles away. So there’s absolutely no complaints about the physical space, what about the sound? Good news, it’s superb. The opening night was such a good experience, I’m going back again this week to have another look.

Finally a few honorary mentions: the intimate Nell’s Jazz & Blues in Chelsea (or West Kensington if you prefer), The Fowlowe Centre in Leek, Staffordshire which is attracting some fairly major touring artists now and the new, and ever-changing 26 Leake Street (near Waterloo Station) which is state of the art and has huge potential. They’re all great spaces to see live performances.

2018 has been a cracking year for gigs. I’ve been all over London and I’ve even managed to get to Staffordshire, Oxfordshire, Yorkshire and Brighton. I might have to do a count at the end of the year to work out how many different gigs and bands I’ve seen. I haven’t seen a bad gig, I’ve seen a lot of good ones and I’ve seen a few absolute belters. I’m guessing that those are the ones you want to hear about, yeah? As always, in no particular order.

 

Martin Harley & Daniel Kimbro @The Union Chapel

A year before this event, Martin told me after his gig at The Forge in Camden that he was booking The Union Chapel. He had no idea if he could fill the venue, or if he would break even on the event. At that time, I suspect I was more confident than Martin was. Anyway, fast forward a year to March 10th 2018 and a packed Union Chapel (almost sold out on pre-sales) saw finger-style guitarist Mike Dawes open for the dynamic duo. The intimacy of Martin and Daniel’s small venue performances scaled up perfectly for this particular venue. The combination of superb playing, perfect harmonies and the laconic interplay between songs was absolutely entrancing. Martin’s Weissenborn playing and Daniel’s virtuoso bass (I actually wanted to hear the bass solo) combined perfectly to create an almost Spectoresque wall of sound at times. And then the obligatory unplugged Union Chapel encore. Want a great Christmas gift? How about the live DVD?

Photo courtesy of John Hayhurst.

John Fogerty and Steve Miller @The O2

I really loathe the O2. It’s impersonal and it’s ridiculously expensive; it’s everything that winds me up about the enornodromes. And, as the start of the evening proved, if the mix isn’t spot-on it can sound awful in the auditorium, which it did for most of Steve Miller’s set. Which was a shame because the last half-dozen songs, when the mix was finally right, sounded superb.

But the reason for my tolerance of this corporate barn was John Fogerty. I’ve been a fan of his work since I was a teenager, progressing from Creedence Clearwater Revival to the solo material. He has a phenomenal back catalogue of classic songs, most of which were dusted off for this gig. When you can open your set with “Travelin’ Band”, you can’t go too far wrong. The band was absolutely stunning; all superb musicians, with keyboard maestro Bob Malone dashing around the stage between blasts of piano and Hammond. The greatest hits all got their airing (including the one we know better from Live Aid and Quo, “Rocking All Over the World”, which he only plays in Europe) but, in a little tribute to New Orleans, we got covers of “Don’t Mess With my Toot Toot” and the Gary Bonds song “New Orleans”. Just phenomenal. Read what Steve J thought about it here.

Albert Lee & Peter Asher @Cornbury Festival

For various reasons, Cornbury was the only festival I did this year. It was a bit of a mixed bag on the main stage, but the bill on the second stage across the weekend was eclectic and classic. The one performance I didn’t want to miss was Albert Lee & Peter Asher in the Caffe Nero tent on Saturday evening. I wasn’t disappointed; the songs were delivered in an Everly Brothers style (well, Albert did play in their band) and were interspersed with anecdotes about songwriting greats in the 60s and 70s on both sides of the Atlantic. It was all very laid back but the quality of the playing and the harmonies was absolutely superb. I’m a big fan of the duo format and this was the ‘two voices, two instruments’ at its absolute best. The tent was packed throughout the set and the entire audience left with a warm glow.

Belle Roscoe & Lisa Canny @26 Leake Street

This was the first night of live music at a new venue and it introduced me to not one but two new artists.

Belle Roscoe are brother and sister Matty and Julia Gurry. They play gigs in the duo format, but also have a band for bigger gigs (like this one). The songs are strong, the harmonies are great and the arrangements, with Matty’s guitar and Julia’s floor tom and keyboard playing augmented by bass, drums and guitar are powerfully percussive. It’s a big sound and it completely won over a crowd who were mainly there for the occasion, and not necessarily the music. And that was just the start of the night; there was still Lisa Canny to come.

Lisa also adapts her live arrangements according to the size of the venue. She’s perfectly happy with just the harp and banjo, but this was also a full band set. Lisa’s originally from Cork and a traditional Irish music background; that background is part of what she’s about now, but there’s a lot more. She blends Celtic influences with pop and rap to create a totally infectious mix that’s unlike anything I’ve ever heard before. I’m not exaggerating when I say that at times most of the audience was absolutely stunned by what they were seeing and hearing. And then the finale; Lisa playing a projected laser harp (honest, and I was stone-cold sober). A bit of a night.

Skatalites & The Majestic & Nell’s Jazz & Blues

Another night out with Steve J and Mrs J in a slightly smaller venue. Nell’s is renowned for its intimate atmosphere, with a cabaret layout and a very chilled vibe. I hadn’t heard The Majestic before and I loved the band; proper roots reggae. They’ve been around for years doing their thing around West London and they’re such a powerful reggae unit. It’s not about individuals, it’s about everyone playing their part to create a slinky, sinuous groove. I hear a band like this and I can’t understand why there are people who say they don’t get reggae.

 

I didn’t know what to expect from Skatalites, apart from the obvious “Guns of Navarone”. The membership may not be the originals, but most of these guys have been in the band for decades. They’re tight and punchy with the classic tenor sax, trumpet and trombone horn section. It’s a pleasure to hear guys who are this good just doing their thing; but that’s not all. Part way through the set they were joined by the phenomenal ‘Queen of Ska’, Doreen Schaffer. She’s looking a little fragile now, but the voice is still there and the audience loved it. I think I had something in my eye at one point.

It was a taste of carnival at the end of October.

Not so much a gig review as a triumphant celebration, I think. On March 16 2017 I was talking to Martin Harley after a gig he’d played with Daniel Kimbro at The Forge in Camden. He told me that he’d booked The Union Chapel for a gig in March 2018 and he was hoping he could make it work because he’d always wanted to play there. That’s the kind of romantic idealism that will always blindside me; I was sold on the idea instantly. Flash forward fifty-one weeks and I was listening to Martin, standing in front of the stage at The Union Chapel two hours before showtime telling me that the night was almost sold out on pre-sales. It was a bit of a “Field of Dreams” moment; flying in the face of the best professional advice, he filled The Union Chapel and decided to film the event as well.

I suppose you want to know what actually happened on the night. Well, it was opened by Mike Dawes, an incredible finger-style guitar player who combined virtuoso-level technique and passionate playing with outrageous stagecraft and a wicked sense of humour. You should really make the effort to see him play; you’ll fall in love instantly. Just for trivia fans, his first ever gig was supporting Martin Harley eleven years ago.

As for Martin and Daniel, this gig was the perfect demonstration of what they do. They’re gifted songwriters, they have superb voices (Daniel’s sweet tones complementing Martin’s more bluesy and soulful rasp) and they each play a couple of instruments incredibly well, Martin playing acoustic guitar and Weissenborn while Daniel plays upright bass and acoustic guitar. The atmosphere on stage was so relaxed that a thousand-capacity venue had the intimacy of a house gig where the performers were sipping and chilling and just enjoying the vibe. The highlights are completely subjective, but Martin’s Weissenborn tour-de-force on “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and Daniel’s environmental ballad “Loyston” are difficult to beat, apart from two very special moments.

The first was the opening song of the encore, an unplugged, stage-front-and-centre version of Martin’s gorgeous ballad “Winter Coat”. It was breath-taking. The second was the well-deserved standing ovation at the end of the encore; it was a celebration of a wonderful performance and an artist who had the faith to follow his dream. Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro, I tip my hat to both of you. Book it and they will come.

Let’s start 2018 in the traditional way by dusting off the Riot Squad crystal ball and having a peek into the next few months to see what we have to look forward to. As always, in no particular order.

After an absence of a couple of years to deal with serious health issues, Phil Burdett’s back in business again and firing out creative sparks in all directions. The action starts on Saturday January 27th at The Dickens in Southend with the launch gig for Phil’s latest album, “Psychopastoral”. He’ll be backed by the sublime Phil Burdett Group and the support band will be Winter. But that’s just the start; Phil has big plans for the rest of the year, including recording a double album of the songs written while he was in hospital, working on an art/film project and completing a book of poetry and a novel. We’ve got an interview with him coming up in the near future, so just watch this space. (Breaking news on this, Phil’s currently looking for a new venue for the gig on the 27th after The Dickens closed down over Christmas).

 

While we’re on the subject of grand ambitions, let me tell you about Martin Harley. He’s doing a three week tour of the UK with upright bass player extraordinaire Daniel Kimbro. They work together perfectly as a duo, both live and in the studio. The songwriting’s first class, the playing’s perfect and the harmonies are superb; even the chat between songs is interesting and often hilarious. Anyway, one of Martin’s ambitions is to play the Union Chapel in Islington, so he’s booked it for the last night of the tour on Saturday March 10th and he’s promoting the gig himself. It’s the perfect venue for Martin’s music and the Riot Squad will be out in force to support such a brave venture.

 

Another musical partnership we’ve been following for some time is Dean Owens and Will Kimbrough. Will’s guitar playing is in high demand; I lost count of the albums I reviewed in 2017 that featured Will’s playing, but he’s built a special relationship with Dean that’s led to a full-scale collaboration on their latest album “Southern Wind”. We’ve had some sneak previews here and we’ll be reviewing it in the next couple of weeks ahead of the official release date of Friday February 16 on At The Helm Records. You’ll love it.

 

2017 saw the release of the ‘lost’ PP Arnold album and the announcement she’s going to be making an album this year at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studio. It’s fantastic that “The Turning Tide” has finally been found, but even better that Pat is actually making original music again. And there’s plenty of speculation round the water cooler here at Riot towers about possible guest appearances and collaborations on the new album.

 

Finally, and this is specifically a London thing for the moment, late January will see the launch of Talentbanq, the latest venture for Ray Jones. Ray, former Development Director at Time Out has a passion for music that would shame most journalists and he’s always been willing to put a lot of time and effort into promoting new talent. Now that he’s no longer at Time Out he’s focussing his energies on promoting up-and-coming artists with Talentbanq. We’re still waiting for more details, but we do know that it’s going to be an interesting ride.

 

The Riot Squad get invites to all sorts of venues in London and various other parts of the country, so we thought it was only fair to ask occasional contributor Ian Stratford to give us a rundown of some our favourite places to listen to music and photograph performers. Here’s what he came up with (in no particular order:

The Union Chapel, IslingtonThere is absolutely nothing to criticise about this venue. It’s a working church that’s staffed by volunteers that seem to have been selected purely on the basis of their friendly attitude. The acoustics are absolutely superb and the stage is a very beautiful setting. Allan loves giving the Nikons a little outing there and generally gets a bit of a result. Go there and have a look; you’ll love it.

Rosanne Cash @The Union Chapel

Green Note, Camden – There’s something very lovely about the award-winning Green Note. It’s not the biggest venue, but the Riot Squad has seen some great nights there watching some really high-quality performers from the UK and further afield. The sound is always absolutely perfect and artists love to play there. Oh, did I mention the great selection of vegetarian food, lovely staff and real beers as well.

Hannah Aldridge @Green Note

Paper Dress Vintage – We liked this venue when it was in Shoreditch, but the move to Hackney was inspired. The venue is now above the main retail area and the atmosphere at the gigs the Riot Squad have seen there has always been cracking. We saw Amanda Rheaume there at the Americana Music Association UK showcase this year and had a great night. And don’t forget there are another two venues within five minutes walking distances from PDV, MOTH and Oslo, and they’re both worthwhile as well.

Amanda Rheaume @Paper Dress Vintage

2 Northdown – Bit of an unconventional one this. It’s more of a comedy venue but it’s been hijacked by Ray Jones of Talentbanq for his Acoustic Sex nights. The setting is unfussy with straight white lights on the stage, but the sound is always spot on and the talent on stage is exceptional. It’s also a great place to meet people from the music industry. It’s become one of Allan’s favourite nights out.

Joe Slater @Acoustic Sex

Rich Mix, Shoreditch – It’s a mix of a cinema, an Indian diner and a gig venue. We’ve tried two out of the three on Riot Squad nights out. The food in the diner is gorgeous and the atmosphere in the venue is electric. Each time we’ve been there the audience has been incredibly receptive and the performers have played great sets.

John Fairhurst @Rich Mix

Howard Jones Gallery ScrollerWell, that was an interesting experience. For most of the evening I felt like a gatecrasher at a meeting of a benevolent religious sect. I never felt unwelcome but, as an impartial observer (I liked the run of singles between 1983 and 1986) I couldn’t share the devotion of the fans who had all the albums, knew all the songs, B-sides included, and had stayed with Howard Jones for over thirty years. And I’ve never seen so many couples in their forties/fifties cuddling at a gig. These were people who had grown up with Howard’s music and made it part of their lives. Taking their cue from his Buddhist beliefs, they were ready to welcome outsiders to the celebration; they certainly extended their welcome to Rachael Sage as a support act.

I’m slightly biased; I saw Rachael a couple of times last year and loved her “Choreographic” album. Accompanied by her usual duo partner, violinist Kelly Halloran, she played a short (thirty minute) set taken mainly from the latest album, featuring “Loreena”, “I Don’t Believe It” and “Heaven is a Grocery Store Clerk” and a new, unreleased, song about the Dakota Access Pipeline and the plight of the people of Standing Rock Reservation. The Howard Jones fans warmed to Rachael’s very personal style of writing and the powerful performance of her guitar and keyboard-driven songs punctuated by Kelly’s violin (ever heard wah-wah violin before?) and occasional backing vocals. A great audience response and the stage was set.

Howard Jones performs solo, with only a digital piano as accompaniment and it’s quite a challenge to deliver a set featuring songs that were mainly driven by big eighties synths, but he’s worked hard to pare down the arrangements for this format. Unlike a lot of eighties nostalgia acts, he sticks to his own material (with one exception) because he knows his audience and he knows what they want to hear. He knows what they want to hear because they’ve been emailing their requests for months and the set’s based on those requests. Value for money? It’s a full two hour set with the songs (including “New song”, “What is Love?”, “Like to Get to Know You Well” and “No One is to Blame” and lots of album tracks) interspersed with Howard’s anecdotes and the fans’ reasons for requesting particular songs. And that’s the only real problem for me; the stories of people’s lives, with the triumphs and tragedies, attached to particular songs evoke memories of the sickly Simon Bates “Our Tune” feature which premiered on Radio One in the eighties.

That aside, Howard Jones’ solo piano accompaniment works perfectly and his voice is holding up really well. I probably wouldn’t have chosen this gig, but I was entertained without being totally engaged and it was fascinating to see such a loyal audience. And the one non-Howard Jones song was a George Michael tribute – “Careless Whisper”.

You can see photos of Rachael Sage here and Howard Jones here.

Phil PenmanPhil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.

 

 

Into the SeaAlbum of the Year (aka I Love My Label)

In the literal sense Dean Owens’Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.

 DartsI Love My Job Sometimes

Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.

Sleaford ModsKeeping The Fires Burning (aka One That Nearly Got Away)

Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them.  Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability.  Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.

 Hannah Rose PlattBright Young Thing

One nomination for this category of mine this year.  I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.

 

Death Cab for CutieReturn to Form

Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases:  John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’sKintsugi”.

 

As you can see from the piece below, Dean Owens has had a pretty eventful 2015 (including four London gigs, the release of his album “Into the Sea” and the two major events at the end of the piece). We’re pleased he’s had a chance to slow down a little and tell us about some of his personal highlights this year. Dean’s also given us a substitute for his five-a-side team, so we’ve decided to include that as well.

 

All the Light we Cannot See“All the Light we Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr. A really poignant and moving story, beautifully written.

 

 

 

 

Doug SeegersA gig I really enjoyed was Doug Seegers at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth. Kind of took me by surprise. His is a great story of survival. Check out his debut album “Going Down to The River” which was produced by my friend Will Kimbrough.

 

 

HeartsA big highlight for me was seeing my team Heart of Midlothian win the league and promotion. It was great to be at the matches with my dad (the inspiration for Dean’s beautiful song “The Man from Leith”).

 

 

 

Ambrose SalvonaVisiting the grave of my great, great Grandfather Ambrose Salvona (the lion tamer) with my dad in the Scottish Highlands. Ambrose features in the song “Dora” from my new album “Into the Sea”. It’s a great story.

 

 

Bob HarrisFinally doing a session for legendary presenter Bob Harris at BBC Radio 2 was special. It was kind of strange sitting opposite the great man and singing a couple of songs for him. Strange in a nice way.

 

 

 

Dean  ScrollerOpening for Roseanne Cash at Union Chapel in London was one of the best shows I’ve ever played. Such a beautiful venue. It was a magical evening. (This event also got a mention in one of Allan’s High Fives this year).