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).