A producer, a photographer and two musicians walk into a pub. Sorry, there isn’t a punchline to this; it’s just what happened. A quick pre-Christmas beer with some music business friends to chew the fat; what do you think we talked about? As always with these semi-unplanned sessions something good came out of it. We’ll leave it to Graeme Wheatley, bass player and songwriter with the band Deep Blue Sea to tell the story, enhancing it with some music trivia. You might want to start this piece whenyou have about an hour to spare because it’s a bit addictive, especially after Riot Towers made a contribution,

 

Sitting in The New Cross House pub the other night with Allan McKay (something that could very easily become habit forming), we were talking about his series of guest articles “High Fives” in Music Riot – sign up now if ya haven’t already!

I’ve written a few before and always like rambling on about whatever, so I was happy to quickly volunteer to write one for this Christmas – even before Allan gave me my first pressie of the year – even if I had no idea what to waffle on about.

We were with Iago Banet, a guitarist from a band that I’ve heard are not that bad and we were talking about a gig we did a few weeks ago. Our singer, Dre Smith, had lost her voice and we were doing the gig as a 3 piece – playing songs we’d never played before. I proudly boasted that I’d sang the entire lyric to “Blinded By The Light” by Brucie without a single rehearsal. Allan asked if I liked Manfred Mann’s version or the original best, then Iago reminded me that after 3 attempts we’d had to abandon “All Along The Watchtower” because I kept getting the first line wrong!!! Pride comes before…

Anyway, this conversation led to the topic of this High Five.

Five covers that I think are better than the original.

Only my opinion here – but when I got to thinking about it – there’s maybe 20 or 30 I could muse about. So, I thought I’d kick it off with two people who I consider to be un-betterable – but concede that in these two occasions, they are bettered.

 

Song 1

All Along The Watchtower – Bob Dylan – Jimi Hendrix

OK, if you know me at all, you may have heard me at sometime mention the name Bob Dylan. He’s the cat, the verbal acrobat-tery, the lyrical dexterity and temerity in all sincerity. A couple of weeks ago we were playing Bude R&B Festival, which involved a good 4 hour drive back and forth. Amanda Dal, our wonderful drummer, asked me, unprompted, to play the three albums Bob recorded in 1965 that “invented Rock Music as we know it”. Much to Iago’s horror. So we had a great journey back and forth listening to Bob. It’s Amanda’s turn next, so I am going to get 4 hours of singer songwriter LP. The fact that she’s a ringer for Bob makes me favourable disposed to her from the get go – so – I’m ok with this!

Anyway, some people say (fools that they are) that any cover of a Bob song is going to be better than Bob’s version. BUT THEY ARE WRONG!!!! This has only ever happened once in the whole wide universe since the beginning of time. And only one person could a done it. Jimi. Y’know, I’d love to be able to wipe the tape and hear Jimi’s version of Watchtower again for the first time. Can you remember that moment? I can’t. But listen to it now. The swagger, the invention, the sass, the sheer coolness.  Four minutes of perfect cool. If Jimi hadn’t recorded it, would we remember the original? Was it just a fairly average track on a subdued and pared back album from Bob who might have been wondering at the time where he was going next. Recorded in 1967 after the “fall” it was a total turn away from the more blues inspired electric albums and a return to his more folkie side, but Jimi took this track, rocked it up, funked it up and delivery to my mind one of the greatest little guitar pop songs of all time.

Oh, BTW, the title of Bob’s album, John Wesley Harding. It was named after a Texan outlaw of that name – only they spelled it wrong!!! He was called John Wesley Hardin.

Compare and contrast:

 

Song 2

Nothing Compares 2U – Prince – Sinead O’Connor

I was a big Prince fan. Still miss the guy. He might have had demons and might have been just a tad obsessed but look at the catalogue of pop songs. Inventive, fun, joyous, rude, rock and raunch and lovesexy. He made pop a bit dangerous, a lot of fun and a lot of cool – combined a bit of Jimi, a bit of Marc, a bit of James Brown and a lot of genius. Until Sinead covered this song I would not have thought anyone could touch the little chap at his own game. I kinda thought Prince songs were indelibly stamped with Prince’s logo. You can’t touch this….

I wuz wrong. The frailty and fragile nature of the song fits Sinead and both somehow meld. She is the song, the song is her. That just doesn’t happen very often – if at all. That revolting phrase “you owned it” churned out on brain dead TV talent shows ad nauseam for once applies. You can’t think of the song without thinking of Sinead and vice versa. They might be so entwined that it overshadows her career.

OK, that’s two down and just to sum them up, nobody else has done a cover of a Prince song better than Prince and ditto Bob. Argue away, I’m not listening.

Compare and contrast:

Song 3

With A Little Help From My Friends – The Beatles – Joe Cocker

This is weird. The Beatles FFS? The greatest band ever. The greatest song writing partnership of the 20th century. The band that wrote the book (and the sequel). Have you heard some of the covers? “Hey Jude, Hey Bing”? Trust me, it was an album. My dad had it. Can you imagine the scene in our house? He was a jazz musician and I think he made this one attempt to be down with his son. He’d spent some futile time trying to tell me that all of this pop music stuff was nonsense and real music would eventually come into its own and Benny Goodman, Duke Ellington et al would be on Top of the Pops (Pops in this case being hep cat chat for Dads). Suffice to say most covers are cheesy in the extreme or just for shock value with nothing of value added. From Matt Monroe to Siouxsie Sioux. But, Joe? That voice. That presence. That simple honesty and stripped back truth. It’s a song, dare I say, that Paul didn’t really think was the Dog’s Bs so he suggested that Ringo sang it as a little bit of fun “What would you do if I sang out of tune?” and the whimsy fitted the feel of Sgt Peppers. But it was far from a stand-out track.

Now, fast forward a mere year or so. On stage at Woodstock and Joe says “the title of this song says it all”. The song is imbued with something more. A part of the hippy dream is captured in the performance. It’s a time piece. Oh and that voice? Come on. Just go have a listen. Band ain’t too bad either.

Song 4

Respect – Otis Redding – Aretha Franklin

Like Joe, this cover takes the song into places the original didn’t. Like the others too I guess. But with this one, you start pretty high up – with that voice, Otis. A voice that can quite easily make you cry. My Girl? Try A Little Tenderness? I Been Loving You Too Long? I’m tearing up now. And I’m a tough guy…

But Aretha takes a lyric that just might veer towards a bit misogynistic these days – y’know, man works all day – comes home to little lady cooking for him and expects a bit of R – E – S – P – E – C – T – and she makes it the first bona fide feminist mega hit defining moment of the decade. Oh yeah, and it was her major first hit after 10 years fighting against “the man”!!

What Aretha did changed the world. A cover version of a pop song changed the world? Yes, that’s what I said. Made a massive difference to the feminist movement and the civil rights movement. The impact of this little pop song can’t be ignored. That’s how deep my love is.

Oh, BTW, Otis didn’t really like the cover – but learned to live with it when the dosh rolled in – and also – listen to his version – most people think the lyric “R – E – S – P – E – C – T find out what it means to me” is part of the original.

Song 5

Girls Just Wanna Have Fun – Robert Hazard – Cyndi Lauper

For years I’d thought Prince wrote this especially for Cyndi. Someone told me some Fake News and I never questioned it. It’s a great song and it seemed believable. It’s my wife’s favourite “getting ready for Friday Night” song – so I had to include it for her.

There’s not a great deal to say about it other than, in Cyndi’s hands and voice, it’s perfect pop. In Robert Hazards? Well, have a listen to the song below. My main question is, How did Cyndi hear this very very average song and say “I can make this song a mega hit that will last generations and become Graeme’s wifes’ favourite “getting ready for Friday Night song” for all time”? I dunno the answer but one thing I will point out is, the song lasts 2 minutes and 30 seconds and the actual track lasts 4 minutes and 30 seconds. And by strange coincidence, when my wife says she’ll be ready in 15 minutes… you can fill in the rest.

Just before I trot off to have a mince pie, there were a couple of things I considered but rejected and hopefully some of these will incite you to invective 🙂

  1. Leonard Cohen covers – it’s easy to say other people sing them better than Lenny. That’s not the point. We can all say a photograph of a tree looks more like a tree than a Van Gogh painting of a tree. I don’t know where I’m going with that – other than Lenny is the Van Gogh of pop – funny, sad, dark, deep, tortured and Chaplinesque – there’s a crack in everything – that’s how Lenny gets in. I like his cracks. In his house there are many flaws – all of them interesting.
  2. Led Zeppelin – when you actually claim to have written all your covers yourselves – it doesn’t apply.
  3. Anyone covering Tom Waits with a gravelly voice – don’t be silly (Sir Rodney).
  4. Anyone covering Tom Waits with a lovely voice – as above.
  5. The Blues – it’s totally impossible to compare Crossroads – Robert Johnson to Cream. Both are wonderful in their own way – and I bet you can think of lots more examples. So, off you go, your challenge is now to name 5 blues songs that have brilliant originals and brilliant – but significantly different – covers.

Many thanks to Allan for allowing me to stop work for 3 hours to write this 🙂

Have yourselves a merry little Christmas, if the fates allow.

Cheers

Graeme

Written before the election December 2019 (I might not be in such a frivolous mood after that).

Sorry Graeme, but we need to have the last word here (not about the election, not even going there), especially after squeezing in two High Fives in one piece, but we did mention another song, which was a band covering their own song. Thin Lizzy’s “Nightlife” version of “Still In Love With You” should have pushed all the buttons as a duet between Phil Lynott and the wonderful Frankie Miller, but it was a bit of a mid-tempo plodder. Someone obviously worked out that it was a potential anthem, slowed it down, stuck a truly wonderful Brian Robertson solo in there and, voila, rock classic.

First of all, let me say that this is only available in 375ml bottles rather than the standard 750ml, but it comes in two packages: plastic with a screwtop and glass with a genuine cork. But we’re more interested in quality than quantity aren’t we, so let’s have the tasting notes. Well, I’m getting leather jackets with studs and MOFO patches on the back, shoulder length hair, well-worn Levis and cowboy boots. The ambience of The Midland Hotel Bar in Mansfield in 1973 and Metal Mickey’s rock sessions downstairs in Nottingham Palais in the mid-eighties. It’s a robust flavour with the nuances of Deep Purple, Thin Lizzy and Wishbone Ash (with just a lingering aftertaste of Black Sabbath) and none of the thud and blunder of some of the less subtle bands of the era. It’s Austin Gold’s second album (or mini album) and it’s only available on vinyl or as a download.

There’s no denying that Austin Gold are influenced by seventies rock and that can be a blessing or a curse. For every band with twin guitars in harmony, memorable melodies, concise delivery and keyboards enhancing the guitar attack there were equal numbers of lumbering four-to-the-floor units, pretentious lyrics purveyors, over-long solo show-offs and big light shows that masked the defects of the materials.

You know where this is going; Austin Gold personify all of the elements of seventies British rock that I ever bought into while avoiding all of the elements that totally turned me off. The songs are melodic, they all come in about four minutes, there are no ten-minute solos (in fact no guitar pyrotechnics at all) and the drumming doesn’t rely completely on bass and floor tom. Absolutely nothing’s overdone; the songs run their course, maybe with a solo or two and they end. The Hammond and keys contribute to the overall sound rather than standing front and centre and the guitar riffs are simple, loud and effective. And they know how to write an anthem or two.

It’s definitely Côtes du Rhone rather than Beaujolais Nouveau.

“Austin Gold” is out now on Jigsaw (SAW 8).

This is an opportunity that doesn’t come along too often these days – an interview with one of my favourite singers and someone who happens to front one of the best bands I’ve ever seen; a bunch of superb individuals who make a formidable team. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes were on a lightning tour of Europe that included a night at Shepherd’s Bush Empire. Too good to miss, really, so I took a little trip out to Wild West London. Here’s how it went…

 Allan

It’s great to see you again, what are you up to these days?

Southside

Well, we have a lot of work this year. I mentioned the word retirement and they immediately booked a thousand gigs. We’re trying to write another Jukes album but it’s been going slowly, so really it’s just been touring and trying to write the album and that’s about it. There’s not much else going on.

Allan

On this tour you had a free day in London yesterday. Did you manage to have a look around?

Southside

I walked all round Shepherd’s Bush and around the mall and I wanted to go to the British Museum but I didn’t get it together to do that, but this is a great walking area. I like this place; it’s a little funky in some areas but that’s good for me. I just love walking around London, all the different areas. It still feels like I’m somewhere other New Jersey. Even after all these years and all these times, I still feel glad to be here.

Allan

I’ve lived here fifteen years now and the city’s changed so much in that time.

Southside

It’s impossibly expensive to rent here. Occasionally I think, maybe I’ll go over there for a while, but you’ve got all the Russians and Saudi Arabians that are buying up all the properties. There are people who have lived here for a long time and they’re all right, but if you’re trying to buy a house, you’re out of luck.

Allan

You’ve done Wales and Scotland on this tour as well.

Southside

Yes, we played Cardiff and we played Glasgow. I always like playing Glasgow because the audiences are down-home, very New Jersey, if you know what I mean. They’re very enthusiastic and it matters to them. There’s no pretence about loving the music, it’s just really honest ‘get out and have a good time’ people.

Allan

I think South Wales is a lot like that as well.

Southside

We’ve played a few places in Wales, but not enough for me to really know it. I’ve played a lot of places in Scotland many, many times and I’ve got to know a number of people up there and they’re very authentic people. I really like that.

Allan

I think Jukes fans are like that generally.

Southside

That’s true. We play New York and people drop in to slum it with The Jukes and I don’t really care for that kind of thing. Our audience is like us; there’s no pretension about it.

Allan

And at Holmfirth, you actually had to add a second show this year.

Southside

Yep, Holmfirth is one of our favourite places to play. When we first played there, we got lost. We were driving through fields; the GPS on the bus was completely screwed up and we ended up going through a farmer’s field and thinking ‘Where the hell are we?’

Then we got there and it’s a small town, very picturesque and I thought ‘This is going to be terrible’ and it was great.

The people were just so over-the-top and the place sounded good and there was a snooker table in the dressing room. It was just one of our really fantastic nights and we had a great show, so we always look forward to coming back because they’re always good shows, so everybody’s excited about it.

Allan

And I think this year’s the twenty-first of the venue re-opening as a cinema and music venue, so they may be commemorating that.

Southside

Twenty-one years, huh? I wonder how many times have we’ve played there?

Allan

I saw you there in 2010, I think.

Southside

I think that’s when we started playing it, maybe a little earlier.

Allan

The last time I was in Holmfirth was in October last year to see Graham Parker with his new band The Goldtops, featuring some of the horn players from The Rumour and it felt like a throwback to that period in the late seventies when there was so much great music, and it was strange to see that Steve Gibbons, also from that era, had been added to tonight’s bill.

Southside

(Laughs) I didn’t know that. I just saw now that he was on the bill – that’s great.

Allan

And seeing Graham Parker made me think about the legendary tour that you did together in 1977.

Southside

That was great. What fun that was. Both bands were in the same bus; a lot of poker playing, a lot of talking, a lot of beer-drinking. And it was a competition every night; who’s gonna kick whose ass on that night. We really made some long-time friends on that tour. To us it was great because we saw all these towns you wouldn’t usually see. We played everywhere and all the nice theatres like this place. So for us, a bar band, it was an amazing tour. It really felt as though we were getting somewhere.

Allan

And also, going back to that era, Squeeze are just about to do another tour of the States.

Southside

That’s great, love them too. That was a great time for music. When you think about it, I liked all the punk stuff too. The Sex Pistols came to one gig with Ronnie Spector and the guys from The Damned were at The Nashville Club. Rat Scabies and I almost got in to a fight. It was one of those wonderful times.

Allan

I can remember in a history of punk I was reading (“’77 Sulphate Strip” by Barry Cain), I saw a photo of you and Graham at The Nashvillle.

Southside

Yeah, we were part of that era, but we weren’t ever punk. They welcomed us and we met the Stranglers, Eddie and the Hot Rods and all those other guys. We knew Thin Lizzy, those guys came to our gigs; we used to go out drinking and there were nights you couldn’t remember coming home to the hotel.

Allan

Is there any new music that you’re listening these days?

Southside

I’m still listening to a lot older stuff too, but there’s such a lot out there.

Allan

The reason I ask that is that I hear a lot of new Americana, people like Ed Dupas and Gerry Spehar. Some of it isn’t well-known and might never be, but what I really notice is the political stuff that’s coming to the fore now as the election of Trump seems to have politicised everyone.

Southside

Yeah, you can’t get away from it and you’re almost forced to take sides because the egregiousness just overwhelms you; the stupidity and the greed and the complete lack of compassion for anyone except for rich people. And even then, the people that are in the White House now don’t have feelings for anyone but themselves, from top to bottom, and it’s frightening, you know.

It’s going to swing back the other way now, once Trump has gone, whenever and however that’s gonna happen. I saw Jason Isbell at the Ryman Auditorium in Nashville and he was just fantastic, but he’s become more political too. The album that I really like, “Something More than Free” is very personal and human and real-life oriented, but I know that his latest stuff is becoming more and more political because you’re forced into it. You’ve got to speak up about it.

Allan

Getting back to the music, this incarnation of The Jukes is probably the most stable ever.

Southside

Yes, it’s been solid for a long time; I don’t count the years. It’s also the best band I think I’ve ever had because they’re all just all just great soloists but the ensemble work, there’s no selfishness if you know what I mean. I don’t know, I‘m just really enjoying this band; I can throw any kind of curve ball at them and they hit it, so I can do whatever I want on stage, we do some strange stuff, and they seem to follow very well and it’s not just ‘ok, now what you gonna do dummy?’.

Allan

Well that’s the question that I deliberately wasn’t asking…

Southside

Well, I think they are. With Tommy (Seguso) on drums now and John’s the best bass player I think we’ve ever had. Jeff’s an incredible keyboard player. All of the guys, the horn section, they carry a lot of weight and they handle it very well. It’s got so that I can relax and not worry about what’s going on behind me. I always like that feeling of being free on stage to do and say whatever I want and with this band, I’m very comfortable with that.

Allan

I always thought the danger was, with a band that good, there’s a chance that it can be like eight quarterbacks on stage.

Southside

(Laughs) No, they’re very good that way, there’s a certain ethos in being a Juke in that you’re working hard to please the audience, but you’re also trying to find new ways to play things and different ways to express yourself and, with this quality of musicianship, you can do that and you can let people go wherever they want to go and they let me go wherever I want to go. When it becomes rote, when it becomes just going through the songs, I’m out. That’s like working in a cubicle for an insurance company, I just don’t want that.

Allan

And the Jukes fans love that attitude as well, don’t they?

Southside

They like it when we take chances, and if we fall on our face, they laugh. And we do too.

Allan

How does the music business, or what’s left of it feel to you these days? Do you find it easier to work the way you’re working now?

Southside

Oh yeah, I’m not part of the music business. I own my own label. It’s all organic for me; I don’t have to worry about pleasing anybody other than the audience and so if I want to put out an album, I’ll put out an album, like we did the Billie Holiday thing or The Poor Fools. I can do whatever I want, I don’t have to please anybody but myself as far as the organisation’s concerned. So I don’t even think about record companies. To me they’re manufacturing artists. Some of them are good, some of them are terrible and phoney and awful but it’s all down to one or two acts; you don’t have record companies with fifty acts that they’re trying to make a career with; it’s either blockbusters or ignore it.

Allan

I’ve noticed that at Jukes gigs and with other bands doing similar things, younger fans are appearing.

Southside

Yeah, the fans are bringing their kids and their grand-kids, but that’s all right. We’re fun on stage, I think everybody gets that even when it’s not the kind of music a younger person is used to, but with rhythm ‘n’ blues and soul being so popular again these last five or six years, it’s interesting to see them coming and they understand what we’re doing, and there were a few years where I don’t think young people would have got what we were doing.

Allan

And you can see it coming through in bands like Hardwicke Circus, who supported you two years ago. They’re kind of modelled on that Jukes ethos, aren’t they?

Southside

Well, there’s a lot of bands like that out there. There’s a lot of soul singers out there and it’s great to see. The only thing I don’t like is manufactured music and I never have really enjoyed that. But if that’s what people like, that’s fine; I don’t judge people that way.

Allan

Well, thanks for your time and I’m looking forward to the show tonight.

Duchess TitleOk, let’s get the whinge out of the way first; I really wish smaller venues would do something about their stage lighting. On a night when it looked like you had to have a pass if you weren’t taking pictures, the  lighting made it almost impossible to get a decent photo. Rant over. The good news is that the support for the evening, Shady Blue Orphans were very good, knocking out a great set of mainly seventies and eighties rock covers including “Hold the Line”, “Jump” (Van Halen, not the Pointer Sisters) and the classic Thin Lizzy ballad, “Still in Love with You”. The playing was spot on and singer Tony Monk has a very special rock voice. I spent ten minutes working out that his voice sounded a lot like Music Riot favourite Aynsley Lister, and that’s a very good thing in my book.

Anyway, on to Space Elevator. Their debut album was reviewed here last year and this is the first chance we’ve had to get out and see them live. For the Garage gig (the first of their summer mini-tour) the line-up was reduced to a four-piece, the band playing without the benefit of Elliott Ware’s keyboards. The songs from the album all fit in somewhere between good and very good and the standard of musicianship is as high as you would expect from seasoned session players but with all due respect to David Young, Brian Greene and Chas Maguire, it still needs another ingredient to make it special; to get upfront and sell that expertise and hard work to the audience. The not-so-secret weapon for Space Elevator is The Duchess and it’s fair to say she’s impossible to ignore. The voice is big and she commands stage centre with hyperactive moves and catsuit set to stun.

The set was basically a runthrough of the album with the occasional unexpected ingredient thrown in to spice up the mix, and it held together really well as a live set, opening, as the album did, with “Elevator”. The singles “I Will Find You”, “Loneliness of Love” and “Oils and Bubbles” were interspersed with “Ordinary Day”, “We Are the Losers” (which are definite singles material as well), “Little White Lies” “More Than Enough”, “Really Don’t Care” and “We Can Fly” to showcase almost all of the album. Two non-album songs, “Take the Pain” and “Far Away” were slotted in before the two sides of the current single and we even got a cheeky cover. I wouldn’t have predicted that “Day Tripper” would be a Space Elevator cover but the band made it their own with a truncated riff and a harder edge that worked particularly well. And not forgetting an encore of “Love in an Elevator” to round things off.

There were a couple of technical glitches, but you have to expect that on the first night of a tour and it was still a banging set. The songs work well live, the rhythm section was rock solid and David and The Duchess have all the melodies you could ever need. Throw in that extra bit of onstage exhibitionism and you’ve got the perfect rock package.

You can still see the rest of the tour here:

Railway Venue, Bolton                       April 25

Arts4every1, High Wycombe             May 9

Homefest, Buckinghamshire              July 19

David Young is the guitarist and songwriter with Space Elevator, who released their very fine debut album this year. When we asked him for a music-related Top 5, here’s what we got:

When we decided to release the Space Elevator album on vinyl I actually had to walk up the road to the local Oxfam to buy a couple of vinyl albums just to reacquaint myself with the size of the lyrics and general artwork.

This led to a fervent re-buying of most of my old vinyl all over again once I purchased a new deck. It is all (except for a couple) second hand, either from shops or e-bay.

My top five vinyl purchases so far are not necessarily my favourite five albums but the five that for some reason have given me most joy since purchasing them again in this format.

So here we go.

Queen 2Queen 2-- I was bought this for Christmas by my Gran when I was 12. It was  October and she was down visiting from Glasgow. I ran home and played it before she came home on the bus, watching for her coming down the road. Once she was home that was the record gone for two whole months until Christmas. No possible way of hearing it. Tell that to a twelve year old nowadays!! It’s their best cover, inside and out!

 

 

FightingFighting- Thin Lizzy -- I bought this album when on holiday in Bournemouth when I was 14. It had the U.S. building site cover which is more tasteful than the “weaponry” of the UK version. Same cover this time. Took me right back…brilliant.

 

 

 

Paul StanleyPaul Stanley -- My favourite Kiss solo from 1978 was always Paul’s. I picked this up from a guy in New York on e-bay in great nick with the original poster from that awful jigsaw poster they did, and with the specific Paul merchandise sheet.

 

 

 

21122112-Rush -- Back in the days of vinyl, I had every Rush album and treasured them. Signals was my favourite, but bizarrely I never owned 2112 on vinyl. I had a cassette. It’s great opening up the gatefold sleeve and seeing the album as it should be. I also forgot how good side 2 is!

 

 

 

TThree Sides Livehree Sides Live-Genesis -- I got into Genesis quite late and this was the first album I bought. I recently purchased it in mint condition in a shop for £4.00 It sounds absolutely superb!!

Federal Charm coverThe first time I saw Federal Charm, they were supporting Southside Johnny (I know, you’re shocked that I was at a Southside Johnny gig) in Bury St Edmunds six months ago.  I was gobsmacked on that night by their playing and confidence but I wanted to see the band play live again before writing a review.  Since then, the band have released their first album (and very good it is too) and they’ve been playing shows across the UK.  The current tour is a blues/rock package with Laurence Jones and Mitch Laddie.  I’d love to tell you about Laurence and Mitch, but I could only stay for the Federal Charm set; next time, guys.

Federal Charm are Nick Bowden (vocals/guitar), Paul Bowe (guitar), L D Morawski (bass) and Danny Rigg (drums) and they’re from Stockport.  It’s pretty much the standard rock band line-up with the added bonus that the quality of Nick Bowden’s playing allows the band to drop in a bit of twin lead guitar work to the mix.  The relatively short set focuses mainly on the album, ripping through the big riffs of “I’m not Gonna Beg”, “There’s a Light”, “No Money Down”, and “Tell your Friends” before slowing things down with their stunning version of “Reconsider”, giving Paul Bowe the chance to let rip with blues, rock, and funk/rock solos.

So how do you follow the big showpiece song?  You speed things up and get some audience participation as well, and if they don’t know your songs well enough then you play something that they do know, the Golden Earring classic, “Radar Love” and it works perfectly as a lead-in to the dirty riff of “Reaction”.  Throw in a couple of non-album songs as well and you’ve got a perfectly-paced set of twenty-first century blues rock.

Federal Charm have been together less than three years, but they play with the assurance of seasoned and honed rockers.  The rhythm section is rock solid as the band move through changes in tempo and style within songs (particularly “Reconsider”) and Nick Bowden and Paul Bowe are charismatic and energetic frontmen.  The two guitars are used together in different ways ranging from straightforward rhythm or riff and lead guitar to more complicated twin guitar stylings with nods to The Stones and Thin Lizzy.  It’s not difficult to pick out the influences, but they’re put together with such style that the end result is something that’s pure Federal Charm.

As the opening band in a three band package in London on a Tuesday night, you might expect to struggle, but Federal Charm ripped into their set as if they were playing a sellout gig at the O2, and that attitude made them a lot of friends on the night.  There are a couple of things that make this band stand out. The first is that Paul Bowe is a very, very good player and he always looks like he’s having the best time ever.  The other is that when you watch Nick Bowden sing, you have to ask where that incredible rock voice comes from, and he doesn’t even make it look difficult.

If you’re into blues, rock, great guitar playing, great singing or any combination of the above, you really should get out and see these guys at any of these gigs.

The Book of Invasions - A Celtic SymphonyI’ve always been fascinated by the way a love of music can link episodes in your life, even when they have nothing else in common.  When you meet someone and discover that you were at the same incredible gig years before or that you both love an obscure country, soul, blues or rock artist that no-one else has heard of.  Or when you’re managing a venue and your entertainments manager tells you that he’s booked an artist for a St Patrick’s Day gig called Johnny Fean and you realise that it’s the Johnny Fean who played with Horslips twenty years earlier.  Then, another fifteen years later you post something on a social network and the same Johnny Fean “likes” it.  That’s the kind of link I mean and I want to tell you about the band and the album that triggered these coincidences.

Horslips had released five albums before “The Book of Invasions --  A Celtic Symphony” was released in April 1976.  This was the first album the band recorded for Elton John’s label, DJM, and despite heavy promotion (including coloured vinyl singles) and good reviews, it only achieved an album chart position of 39 for one week in the UK.  One of the reasons it’s so memorable for me is that it was part of the soundtrack for my “A” level revision through the long hot summer of 1976 (alongside Gallagher and Lyle’s “Breakaway”, Thin Lizzy’s “Jailbreak” and the Joe Walsh live album “You Can’t Argue with a Sick Mind”).

So, what makes the Horslips album a Closet Classic? The band had experimented with various permutations of rock, Irish folk and Celtic mythology on their previous albums, but it was on “The Book of Invasions” that everything gelled with the long-cherished idea of creating a classical symphony from these components.  Just to wrap some context around “Invasions”, this was the era of the concept album when virtually every artist or band was trying to create a theme to link a few dodgy songs (yes, I do mean you Rick Wakeman) to create a pseudo-classical work.

Is it a symphony?  Well, it’s split into three movements and it has a leitmotif which crops up throughout the album in various guises. “Daybreak” opens the album with the “Tá ‘na lá” (“It is day”) theme from a traditional Irish drinking song, in one of its many appearances, as a trumpet major key triad followed by a guitar harmonic version which leads into a harmony guitar version. before modulating into a more menacing minor key.  And that’s just the first track.  I’m not going to list all of the folk tunes used on the album because you can find them for yourself on the Horslips website; I’ll just say that it’s quite common on this album for a song to morph from a traditional ballad into a classic 70s riff-driven rock song.

If you’re looking for classic Celtic rock songs, then you’ll find plenty of those on this album.  “Trouble (With a Capital T)”, “The Power and the Glory” and particularly “The Warm Sweet Breath of Love” (a dead ringer for the under-rated Thin Lizzy song “Running Back”) would all sound perfectly at home on “Jailbreak” which was released in the same month.  But it’s not just the rock songs which work on “Invasions”; the folkier “The Rocks Remain”, “King of Morning, Queen of Day” and “Sideways to the Sun” (the story of the downfall of the Tuatha De Danann) and the instrumental interludes are all beautifully played.

I’m not saying “The Book of Invasions” is a perfect album, but it does have its perfect moments (the segue from “The Power and the Glory” to “The Rocks Remain”, for example), and at a time when everything can be found online, it would be a shame to miss this one.  The scope of the album is quite breathtaking; Irish mythology rubs up against folk melodies, rock arrangements, symphonic themes, a huge range of instruments and bags of style to create a genuine classic album.

This album was the chart highpoint for Horslips in the UK and, although the subsequent “Aliens” and “The Man who Built America” were popular in the USA, the band split in 1980.  Like many bands from this era, Horslips reformed for selected gigs in the noughties and can still be seen live occasionally.  If you’re into rock or folk or both and you haven’t heard this before, you really should give it a listen especially after I’ve made it so easy for you.

 

KaleidoscopeHere’s a really interesting idea.  The Dirt Tracks new single is three songs in one, but not in the style of say, “Bohemian Rhapsody”, where each distinct section segues into the next; it’s a bit more complicated than that and it’s a very clever idea.  To get the full impact of “Kaleidoscope”, you need to be able to isolate the right and left stereo channels because the two songs are panned to opposite ends of the stereo spectrum; if you listen to only the left channel, you hear one song and if you listen to only the right channel you hear another song.  Still with me?

To make this idea work, the songs need to have the same tempo, structure and chord sequences, but after that you can get a bit creative and The Dirt Tracks have got very creative indeed.  Each track has its own drum pattern, chiming guitar arpeggios and sampled sounds and stands alone as a complete song.  The concept is that one of the songs represents rationality while the other represents emotion and the combination of the two songs demonstrates the conflict in the human mind between the two contrasting approaches to the way we interpret information.

So, does it work?  When we listen to music in stereo, what we usually hear is a soundscape where various instruments, sounds and voices appear to be positioned at various points from left to right between the speakers or headphones; we expect the lead vocal to be in the centre and anything goes after that.  If we hear a sound at exactly equal volumes in the right ear and the left ear, the brain tells us that the sound is directly in front of us.  If a sound is louder in the left or right ear, the brain positions it spatially to the left or the right.  Have a listen to Thin Lizzy’s “Don’t Believe a Word” to hear how that works; the vocal is in the centre and the two guitars are far left and far right.

“Kaleidoscope” plays with that concept by pushing everything to the extreme right or left of the stereo spectrum.  The two songs are very cleverly dovetailed together with instrumental and vocal parts combining in the stereo mix to create a completely new (but similar) song and the harmonies created are particularly effective.  I’m only guessing here, but I suspect that everyone will hear this in a slightly different, personal way which is dependent on the way they process music mentally.  I listened to the two individual tracks first before combining them into the complete song.

After hearing the individual parts, combining them has a very disorientating effect because we hear sounds in an unusual and unexpected way as the brain struggles to adapt to a new way of listening; the instrumental and vocal parts seem to combine in the centre at times while separating across the stereo channels at others, creating the illusion of moving in and out of phase at times.  And that fits in well with the idea of humans having different cognitive styles and processing sensory inputs in different ways.

This is a very interesting piece of experimental music which explores the way the human brain processes music but it’s a lot more than that.  It’s a song which, in the combined
form, is slightly disturbing, but totally captivating and you really should give it a listen.  And while you’re doing that, check out the first two singles “The Madding Crowd” and “Never Been to Mars” because they’re very good as well.

Available on Monday 5th August on iTunes and Spotify.

Federal CharmI have one rule of reviewing that I never break.  I never read a review of something I’m about to review myself.  It’s a good discipline because I know that I’m not being influenced by anyone else’s opinion.  It’s been really difficult with this album because the press releases and Facebook posts I’ve seen have all made me realise that it needs hard work to do this justice because all of the obvious comparisons have already been made and I’m not going to repeat them.

This is a very, very good debut album from a band who have everything in the locker; strong songs, great playing and outstanding vocals all combine to create a very listenable and accessible funky rock album from this Manchester band.  Federal Charm are Nick Bowden (vocals and guitar), Paul Bowe (guitar), Danny Rigg (drums) and L.D. Morawsk (bass), they’ve been together for about two years and this, their first album, features eleven original songs plus a cover of the Lowell Fulson classic “Reconsider Baby” (listed here as “Reconsider”).

The band draw their inspiration from the classic British blues-rock period of the early 70s and play with the assurance and verve of a much more seasoned outfit.  There are obvious influences which I won’t bore you with, but you can also hear touches of Wishbone Ash, Thin Lizzy and the Stones in their twin guitar arrangements, which are under-pinned by powerful drumming and basslines which are more melodic than you might expect from a rock band.  Throw in an occasional touch of Hammond or piano, and you’ve got a classic rock cocktail.  And then there’s the vocals; Nick Bowden has a superb rock voice and he’s equally at ease with the all-out rockers and the slow bluesier material.

The album kicks off with two riff-driven rockers (“I Gotta Give it Up” and “I’m Not Gonna Beg”) before slinking into a funkier groove with “No Money Down” and the slow blues of “Somebody Help Me”.  “Reaction” takes the pedal back to the metal before a keyboard swell eases into the brooding menace of “The Stray”.  “There’s a Light” and “Tell Your Friends” are funky strutting riff-rockers leading to another tempo change for the superb rendition of “Reconsider Baby”.  It’s a brave choice given the list of blues players who have already covered the song (Eric Clapton and Joe Bonamassa off the top of my head) but it works because it’s played at a slower tempo and the emphasis is on the vocal rather than the guitars.  “Come on Down” is powered by another funky riff, while the final two songs “Any Other Day” and “Too Blind to See” nod in the direction of the Stones, particularly the intros.

As a debut album, this is a great snapshot of Federal Charm.  They wear their influences proudly and they move effortlessly from slow blues to balls-out rockers.  The track sequence works perfectly as the album starts and finishes on big rock songs and the slower songs create a contrast to the more raucous rockers.  It’s full of melodic invention and great playing from all four members and the quality of the songs is excellent from start to finish.

While I thoroughly recommend the album, I have to say that you really should make the effort to see the band live to get maximum bang for your buck; they play with a self-assurance that never steps over the line into arrogance and Nick Bowden’s voice is superb live.  They’re playing all over the country in next few months to promote the album, so get yourself out there and see them.

Out on Monday July 1 on Mystic Records (MYSCD213).