John Bulley, Steve Stott & Phil Burdett

When I get a message inviting me to visit the Railway in Southend to interview Phil Burdett, there’s only one possible response – when do I have to get there? Well, it was a mid-July Friday afternoon and the interview was livened up by the presence of Steve Stott, superb fiddle and mandolin player with Phil’s ever-evolving band. As always where Phil Burdett’s involved, it was interesting and sometimes controversial. I’ve left out some stuff to protect the innocent and the guilty – sorry Phil. Anyway, here’s how it went.

Allan – To start on familiar territory, with the last album, “Psychopastoral”, the thing that immediately struck me was releasing it as one continuous track, which gets round the whole iTunes download thing about single tracks or whole albums.

Phil – I’m sure they’re quaking in their boots at iTunes, it is a little victory but it’s the best I can hope for these days; Pyrrhic victories. I crave more Pyrrhic victories.

Allan – It took me a while to get this while I listened to it on my trusty old media player on continuous cycle as it went from the end straight back to the beginning, that the album was a cycle from the early morning to early morning a day later. I said at the time that I thought it was an outstanding piece of work, as good as anything you’ve done, I think.

Phil – I must admit, I was surprised, in the sense that it was different from what I used to do and I thought I’m either going to get some new people who like it and hate everything I’ve ever done or just everyone will hate it. You get so involved with it and you think you’re creating Wagner’s “Ring Cycle” and someone tells you ‘This doesn’t make any sense at all. What are you doing? You’ve lost your mind.’ It was pleasing that some people that liked what I do liked it and also some people some that haven’t particularly liked what I’ve done before seem to like it as well.

Steve – There’s probably some of the style that you used to do still remaining but combined with what you’re feeling now, so it covers both ends.

Phil – It’s like Tom Waits, but not quite such a radical change (that’s the next album). He lost a lot of his old fans who said ‘I liked him when he was drunk and living in a dodgy hotel and being a sort of dharma bum’, but you get bored with it. You can come up with many artistic reasons ‘I decided to embrace the idea of a concept album, in my late fifties…’, but basically you’re bored and I couldn’t get into music after the operation and the stuff I went through there. I started playing and did a couple of gigs and I felt like a Phil Burdett tribute act and I thought ‘What am I doing this for? I’m trying to write more songs like this.’ If you’re trying to write something don’t do it. So I thought let’s do something I can’t do, so we’re doing a film now.

I’ve got to do a film soundtrack; there will be songs, and that’s made me and write the songs because I think I need a song here to go over this bit of film.

Steve – There are some great songs, actually, from the demos I’ve heard.

Phil – Thank you. I hope you’ve got that on tape.

Allan – When we were chatting earlier, you were saying something the film being a bridge between “Psychopastoral” and the next album.

Phil – It is; there’s a lot of stuff I wrote in the hospital; morphine is a wonderful thing. I read it back when I sobered up and I thought I have no idea what this man is talking about, then it started making sense gradually and I realised that a lot of it followed on from what I did on the last album but I didn’t want it to be the middle album before I get really depressing with the hospital songs. I thought it wold be nice if it had some other element to it, so I thought ‘Let’s make a film!’  And directly, I thought there was no way I could make a film with on no money, no budget and no actors

Steve – Not strictly true…

Phil – So we are, and the fact that it’s actually happening is what’s keeping me going because even the prospect of doing the bunch of songs I had written felt like ‘Here we go again’ but this will spark it off and it’s also got a visual element to it, which I like the idea of. It’s not a series of music videos joined together, but you know The The did that film, I want it to have that sort of feel to it, but there’s a bit more drama involved (with a small d). We’re not talking “Apocalypse Now”, we couldn’t afford the helicopters…

Allan – And this is not the only film you’ve been involved with recently, is it?

Phil – No, I’m a regular luvvie now. ‘Just in between films, dahling’. It’s a documentary about growing up in Basildon. It was initially about brutalist architecture but it seemed to evolve when the director met a lot of artists from Basildon and they were all so different but they all had a similar theme of a love/hate relationship with Basildon so it was about that; it was good fun. He let me witter on then edited it down to something that was almost coherent, so I was quite pleased with that.

Steve – The people the film’s about, or featured in the film, have all left Basildon, haven’t they? There’s not a single one actually lives in Basildon now.

Phil – Which was hilarious. A lot of the Irish diaspora sing “From Clare to Here” and “Off to Dublin in the Green” but they’re all in Finsbury Park now. ‘We all love it but we’re not going back there. Fuck that.’

Allan – As an ex-pat Scot I completely get that. So, without giving too much away in terms of plot, what’s the story with the film?

Phil – Well the “Psychopastoral” album was basically, the narrative throughout was called ‘the long walk home’ and it’s an idea that I’ve discovered that many of the people I like, in music and literature and poetry, were always disappearing into the wilderness looking for something and what they were looking for was somewhere they could go home and that was the vague idea. A lot of them went to nature; it was based around William Blake, John Clare and Arthur Rimbaud. They all disappeared to derange their senses and they all found out they were miles from home: ‘I don’t feel at home and that’s what I wanted in the first place. I wanted to feel something.’ That’s the idea of that album and going through my traumas, I thought ‘They were all walking’.

John Clare famously walked from High Beach to Helpston; he walked from this lunatic asylum, going home to what he thought was his wife, but was actually his mistress, who had actually died anyway so it was an exercise in the definition of futility. I used him as the central character and Blake was another one who didn’t actually wander, but he wandered in his head. He was seeking angels in the trees; he was a cockney mystic, like the Russell Brand of his day. They were people who had ideas beyond their station and then realised that they wanted to get back to their station. It was the idea of comfort without being comfortable and when you derange your senses there is a sense that nothing makes sense and that can be liberating but, after a while, it becomes just derangement.

Rimbaud gave up altogether and became a gun-runner, Blake started to write about Heaven-knows-what and Clare lost his mind. He thought he was Shakespeare, he thought he was a boxer at one point. So I thought the halfway house of madness is fine because you get the little insights. When that’s happening, that’s great, but once you’re in an asylum and you’re thinking you’re Shakespeare, that’s really not useful as an artist.

Brian Wilson’s an example. Everyone thought ‘How on earth did he write “Good Vibrations”?’ Look at the stuff he wrote once he reached his destination and it’s like a five-year-old writing; wonderfully produced and interesting, but still like a five-year-old. I wanted to avoid that, so while I was in the hospital I wrote all this really depressing stuff because I thought everything was coming to an end but when I came out, I thought it’s not coming to an end but I couldn’t think in the same way as I did.

 I thought it was a continuation. I’d lost a leg; Rimbaud lost a leg; Captain Ahab lost a leg searching for something and I grabbed the idea of the long walk home without a leg. That’s basically what this is all about. The further out you get, through drink, drugs, mysticism, anything, the less able you are to communicate it to people because they just think you’ve gone mad. But there’s a point just before it ends, before you do go mad, where it’s really interesting and that’s point I’m trying to hold on to in this film. And then it descends into depression and madness which is what the really interesting third album of the trilogy is about, but we’ll get to that later. I want to make it sound like Steely Dan actually because that’s the only way it’s gonna sell anything, either that or “Berlin” by Lou Reed, which I love, but it’s unlistenable to most people. This will make “Berlin” sound like Five Star

Allan– Looking beyond that, have you got any more plans for live stuff coming up?

Phil – It’s a bit tricky. I’ve lost all my mojo, although I don’t know what a Mojo is apart from a middle-class magazine for people who still like Crosby, Stills and Nash, but I don’t know. I’d like to do it but I want to have a point to it. It’s the same way I feel about the writing; I don’t want to do all this differently and feel I’ve changed my approach and then think ‘Oh, we’ll go and do some gigs’.

I’m having some poetry published at the end of the year and I’d like to include some of that in it because there’s a lot more poetry on the album. I wouldn’t mind dipping my toe in the water by doing stuff with Steve. We did a thing in a church, didn’t we?

Steve – Yeah, St Paul’s church. That was beautiful actually; it was purely acoustic, just a selection of songs that suited the venue. I suppose it was a kind of folky thing.

Phil – It was. I’d like to do that with some poetry, just to see if I can read the poetry. There’s a couple of poetry evenings here where you can just get up and read.

Steve – I think the other thing is to enjoy doing it rather than have the pressure of putting on a big gig and inviting lots of people.

Phil – When we planned to do the album launch gig, I got to the rehearsal and then thought ‘What the fuck am I doing?’. If it had all been rehearsed without me there, I might have been able to turn up and sing it but I was just sitting there thinking that I wanted to do something else, I didn’t want to be sitting there churning out this stuff. It felt it important that the whole process changed, and what I don’t want to do is just get back to ‘let’s do a gig then. All the creativity has stopped, let’s go and regurgitate it live with some feedback.’

Steve – We were doing gigs to promote the albums that we all produced, so the was the reason for the gigs.

Phil – And that’s why they’re all platinum sellers…

Steve – So the question is, do we really need to do that?

Phil – The Leigh Folk Festival, I’d like to do something there next year; not just for ‘Oh, Phil’s singing again and he’s got one leg. Oh, well done, Phil.’ Unless I have my head chopped off, I can fuckin’ sing; Ella Fitzgerald managed and I’m a better singer than she is. (Followed by a loud cackle).

Allan – I suppose the thing is, whatever you decide to do, you’ve got a great bunch of musicians working with you.

Phil – I have, just don’t tell my band. No, it’s true; I’m really appreciative of the musicians I’ve been able to talk into doing stuff for nothing because it would have been very difficult otherwise. I don’t like having a regular band. I used to but now I feel like everything we do something it’s a new band almost because we evolve with this particular bunch, except the drummers…

Allan – That’s all a bit Spinal Tap isn’t it?

Steve – I don’t even know if I’ll be on the next album…

Phil – You are, but you’re playing drums. Just don’t get the drummer’s job, because then you know you’re out. No, it is a bit Spinal Tap with the drummers. The last one did actually spontaneously combust.

Allan – I suppose, Steve, you’ve got double the chance of staying in the band, playing two instruments.

Phil – He sneaks in with a false nose and moustache. ’I’ve found a new fiddle player – fuck it’s Stott’

Steve – I try to make myself as indispensable as possible.

Phil – He does; he’s currently learning the oboe. It’s great; I’m getting in touch now because I’ve got these demos for the soundtrack of the film, so I’m going to send them the stuff and we’ll get together at some point and we’ll go and record. We’ll record it at Senor Al’s (Al Franklinos) because it’s my favourite place at the moment.

Steve – It ties in very nicely with “Psychopastoral” because of the park…

Phil – Well, the songs are very different from “Psychopastoral”, so I would like it to have some continuity and that will come from whatever Al does.

Steve – And it’s the location in Peckham, where Blake’s tree is, so there’s a catharsis there.

Phil – I’d like to point out that he used the word catharsis there. Always avoid the words journey and catharsis.

Allan – And what about some of the other collaborators on “Psychopastoral”?

Phil – One of the linking voices throughout this three-album thing will be Lyndon Morgans (Songdog) who did the narration for the album (“Psychopastoral”) and he’s going to do the narration for the film, the subsequent album and the album after that, so I’m really pleased about that. He’s an old Welsh wanderer, a Celtic wanderer and I need his Richard Burton-like authority. I’ll be making him read stuff he doesn’t understand for the next two albums.

Allan – I must admit, those links on “Psychopastoral” worked really well. His voice is fabulous for those.

Phil – It was the thing I was worried about because it was the thing that was going to make it different in a way and with my zero knowledge of arrangement of the quasi-classical stuff that’s going on in the background, it was either going to be great or it was going to be shit; there is no middle-ground. And it was almost great…

Allan – And is there anything else to throw in before we wrap it up?

Phil – There’s my collection of reggae covers… I’m looking forward, in a way, to finishing this trilogy because I don’t know what I’m going to do after that, and I never felt like that. It was always just ‘Here’s another bunch of songs that I like, I’ll record them with musicians I like and we’ll put it out and some people will like it and some won’t and then we’ll do the Leigh Folk Festival, then we’ll do this, then we’ll play The Railway’. That’s not going to happen, so I’m really interested in what I want to do after that.

Steve – I think we ought to base that on whatever the outcome of the film is. You might want to do another film.

Phil – I’d love to. I’m not sure anyone else will; I’m putting many people in to therapy with this film but that would be great. But then again, I might just think ‘I’ve done that’. I won’t do it just because I’ve made a film and invent some spurious half-arsed concept…

Steve – I was just trying to generate some work for myself…

Phil – I know you were. Talking of which, there’s a collection of folk-based songs that I want to record, so I might do that as a little side project with some real folk musicians. Radical concept, I know. It’s simple; you don’t rehearse, you just have to sober them up. That’s something I wouldn’t mind doing as a side project; it’ll be nice, it’ll be my stardust memory. It was so much better when we wrote songs…

And that was where I switched off the recorder before the descent into totally scurrilous alcohol-fuelled conversation. The Basildon film that Phil refers to is ”New Town Utopia” and it’s a fascinating exploration of the development of the town and its impact on the creative artists living there. You really should watch it.

Photo courtesy of Richard Bolwell

Beth Hart is at the tail end of her USA and British tour that culminates at the Royal Albert Hall on the 4th May, but I’m glad I went to Portsmouth with its bright, clear acoustics and more intimate setting.  It may be nearly game-over for this tour, but Hart showed no signs of tiring, she began singing confidently in the auditorium while the band struck up. Working her way through the aisles, shaking extended hands as she sung her opener, “Somethings Got a Hold on Me” towards the stage, dressed in a simple black shift dress.

It’s a small set-up, with a drummer, bassist and lead guitarist, multi-instrumentalist Beth is left to rotate between keys, guitar and acoustic bass (which she is still learning) while doing vocal duties as well.  Hart has no new studio album to promote, but has just released “Live & Centre, Live in NY”, not a greatest hits package but an eclectic showcase of mainly more recent material but we get mostly a different selection tonight.

Hart is a long-time collaborator with blues guitarist, Joe Bonamassa, with whom she has made a few albums, but on this tour the lead guitar is taken up by John Nichols.  Hart has chosen a set list that moves a little away from the kind of wailing blues she has a reputation for and maybe she has picked songs that her new guitarist can cope with.  Nichols arrived on stage with a Telecaster, more known as a rhythm instrument, and my heart sank a little.  Although he swapped guitars after every song, it was mainly Telecasters so there were no flourishes or stunning solos to melt the lighting track or thrill the audience.

However Hart clearly loves her craft and a grateful crowd and her charisma shines out, with a more attacking version of “Don’t Explain” and Tom Waits’ jaunty “Chocolate Jesus”.  Although she makes covers her own with her heady brew of blues, jazz, soul and country, she also showcased her own writing talents.  “Tell Her You Belong to Me” is an emotional rendition of a daughter’s plea to her father regarding his infidelity.  Hart’s Mother was in the front row and there was some banter with her on some of the more autobiographical tracks, eventually dedicating “Baddest Blues” to her Mum.  Beth Hart easily held the large room, she was engaging with just the right amount of chat.  Hart talks openly about her mental health issues, she has bipolar disorder and addiction issues and once blew the $100k she won on a talent show on hard living in 6 months, but sobriety has brought a new focus for her talent, though the sparks of wildness show through in her tough but tender voice.

Watching Hart, you get the feeling that she really loves performing, clocking up a 2 hour show and eventually, after singing “My California” to her tour manager husband, he kissed her then physically pulled her off stage.  A three-song encore ensued, ending on “There’s no Place like Home” and a wonderful evening flew past successfully.

The photograph for this piece was taken by Richard Bolwell. You can see more of his excellent photographs and reviews here.

Ronnie Scott’s: it’s not the first venue you associate with performances by American comedy legends, but Sandra Bernhard’s not your average American comedy legend and this was far from the average twenty-first century stand-up gig. The style and structure of the performance harked back to the jazz and cabaret clubs where music and comedy took equal billing across the night and often across individual performances; the band stayed on stage throughout the comedian’s set and often helped out with improvisations. This was how Lenny Bruce delivered his routines.

The stage line-up for “Sandemonium” is Sandra plus piano, drums and guitar; her act has developed over the decades from purely stand-up to a combination of songs, observations of everyday New York behaviour, politics (almost inevitably), showbiz stories, family stories and some stream of consciousness, Lenny Bruce-style riffing and spritzing. And that’s before you get to the impressions, which are seamlessly stitched in to the tapestry of the performance, not as stand-alone routines but as a way of smoothly moving the narrative along. Here’s an example.

The show opened with the usual introductions, Sandra talking about the greats who performed on the Ronnie Scott’s stage, segued effortlessly into a Nina Simone in Paris story that evoked the subject perfectly. And another; a routine about talking the subway to work on her “Sandyland” radio show led into a powerful interpretation of Tom Waits’ “Downtown Train”. The framework of the set was tightly constructed but gave the impression of total spontaneity; that’s the work of an artist with a genuine gift and a commitment to hard work. The songs, you ask? Well, it was an eclectic mix that included “Little Red Corvette” and a Pachelbel’s Canon mash-up featuring “Let it Be” and “Take on Me” among others.

This particular show was the third over two nights as part of a short visit combining the gigs and a hectic promotional schedule. Even starting at 11:15, Sandra Bernhard gave her adoring audience a full-on, inspirational performance and was willing to spend time after the gig with every fan who wanted an autograph, a selfie or just to say hello. I’m converted.

Maybe you already know that Allan’s a bit of a Southside Johnny fan. Ok, a lot of a Southside Johnny fan. So, we decided to invite Johnny to contribute to the 2017 High Fives. And he did, with not one but four sets of High Fives chosen by our random category generator. That’s the kind of value you get at a Jukes gig. Take it away, Southside…

 

Steven Van Zandt

5 songwriting heroes

Cole Porter

Tom Waits

Steven Van Zandt

Bob Dylan

Smokey Robinson

 

5 places he’d play every night 

Paradiso Amsterdam

Paradiso, Amsterdam

Shepherd’s Bush, London

Birchmere, Alexandria, Virginia

Stone Pony Summer Stage, Asbury Park, NJ

Anywhere in Cleveland, Ohio

 

5 people he’d like to meet 

Mark Twain

Mark Twain

Big Bill Shakespeare

Barack Obama

Willie Dixon

My mother’s father

 

5 favourite harmonica solos

Little Walter

Big Walter, “Walking By Myself”,

Sonny Boy Williamson “Don’t Start Me Talking”,

Little Walter, “Tell me Mama” and “Lights Out”,

Paul Butterfield, “Born in Chicago” and a thousand others.

 

5 covers he hasn’t done yet

Way too many to list.  Happy New Year!

 

It’s a musical ‘all you can eat’ buffet; a long-time outsider’s view of American popular music exploring some of the high protein meat dishes, but meandering through some of the more delicately flavoured and textured dishes as well. To add to the complexity, it’s a set of songs created by a self-taught musician who also happens to have studied for a popular music degree. Sophistication and raw rock power are both on the menu for this musical feast. On his previous album, “Whatever You Wanted”, Bob Bradshaw saved the best (in my opinion) for last, closing the album with the wonderful road song, “The Long Ride Home”. On “American Echoes”, he opens with the lovely, acutely-observed “Exotic Dancers Wanted”; all of smalltown America is there as he melds Tom Waits with Bob Seger’s “Mainstreet” to create a quiet classic of a song about desperation, drugs, booze and pole-dancing. He even throws in a W.B. Yeats reference.

To keep the culinary metaphor on the boil, “American Echoes” is a smorgasbord of musical stylings, or a pick ‘n’ mix if prosaic is your preference. It ranges all the way from the out and out rocker “Weight of the World”, with its huge riff, two guitars and The Who stylings to the acoustic ballad “Stella” with a Chris Izaak guitar sound and a vocal that’s a dead ringer for Elvis Costello in lower-register ballad mode.

There’s a bit of lyrical invention as well, to match the musical melange. “My Double and I” is a modern take on the Jekyll and Hyde theme matched up with a laid-back New Orleans jazz groove (with a nod towards Steely Dan’s “East St Louis Toodle-oo”), while “Working on My Protest Song” combines the kind of rhythms Paul Simon discovered in Africa with a mildly sarcastic dig at musicians who opportunistically appropriate protest movements for their ends. And the list goes on.

The bottom line is that Bob Bradshaw has produced another very fine album indeed. “American Echoes” is packed with great lyrical and musical ideas and gets better with repeated plays.

“American Echoes” is released in the on UK Fluke Records on Friday October 20.

Pierce Edens - 'Stripped Down Gussied Up' - cover (300dpi)There’s an expression that always rings alarm bells when I read it in connection with musicians: genre-bending. And have you ever heard anyone actually use the expression in conversation? Anyway it manages to insinuate itself in to the press release for the Pierce Edens album “Stripped Down Gussied Up”, which is as contradictory as the title suggests; the arrangements have been stripped back to basics then topped off with a selection of ambient noises and studio trickery. It’s a bit like taking all the bodywork off your car, down to the chassis, then sticking a spoiler on the back end. Pierce has a voice that you might say is original and has character; it’s certainly idiosyncratic and I found it difficult to take over a whole album; you find yourself wanting to give him a bagful of consonants. To give you an idea of what I mean, he manages to out-Waits Tom Waits on his cover of “Mr Siegal”.

There were positives as well; “The Bonfire”, checking in at over six minutes, is powered by relentless, strummed acoustic guitar as the story of a doomed relationship unfolds with a lyrical hint at the Beatles’ “Norwegian Wood”. “I Can’t Sleep” runs on the same fuel with the addition of Kevin Reese’s over-driven electric guitar and a quickfire, almost breathless, vocal delivery from Pierce. If you like a bit of aural experimentation and a twisted vocal delivering dark tales of smalltown North Carolina, then this might be just the thing for you.

“Stripped Down Gussied Up” is released on Friday June 2.

Keegan McInroe ScrollerKeegan McInroe seems pretty relaxed about the whole process of touring, in fact he seems pretty relaxed all round. If you listen to his latest album, “Uncouth Pilgrims”, you’ll know that he’s travelled extensively and used his experiences to create some great songs. It’s obvious from the moment you open the door of The Lighthouse on Battersea Park Road that it’s not the ideal gig for a singer/songwriter. It’s Friday night, noisy and full of the ‘few beers after work’ crowd, but Keegan doesn’t seem too bothered; it’s a gig he’s done since his first tour here in 2004 even though the pub has changed hands and function since then. Having a quick chat before the gig, he’s remarkably unfazed by the audience, explaining that he’ll just play a few more covers than usual and some of the songs from the new album.

And that’s just what he did. His own material, mainly from the new album, was slotted fairly evenly into the two sets and included “Lumberjack Blues”, “Give Me the Rain”, “I Got Trouble”, “Flower Song for Barefoot Dancers”, “Nikolina” and “Lay Down”. The stripped-down versions worked beautifully live and the audience didn’t distract too much; there was even a fair smattering of applause around the room.

As for the covers, well, he didn’t put a foot wrong; he even played a couple of unexpected old favourites of mine. There were songs by the songwriting giants (Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and a tribute to Merle Haggard) and a few less predictable choices. Only three songs in, he made the brave choice of tackling Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” and, despite a fairly noisy crowd, he made it work. The more esoteric song choices added the spice that made the evening unique; Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Life by the Drop” and Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” (both stories of addiction) introduced an element of pathos, while Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” and Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” (which closed the second set) gave Keegan the chance to demonstrate his blues licks.

If this gig had been in an established ‘listening room’, the audience chatter would have been hugely distracting, but it was a free gig in a local pub and Keegan took a pragmatic view of the situation, playing to the people who were interested and tuning out those who weren’t. His own songs are well crafted and worked perfectly in the stripped-down format. He’s also a really nice guy.

Uncouth Pilgrims” is released on Friday May 27th

Martin Harley scrollerIt’s a bit like an eclipse; the perfect gig depends on the alignment of artist, venue and audience and it doesn’t happen too often, so it was a privilege to see Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro play to a full house at St Pancras Old Church. Martin and Daniel got together originally in the US and, after touring together, made the album “Live at Southern Ground” in a single afternoon. So the logical next step was to tour in support of the album and that’s how they came to be playing a beautiful and acoustically perfect venue just behind the Eurostar terminal.

Martin and Daniel display the relaxation on stage that comes from complete mastery of your craft. Instrumentally they’re both at the top of their game, but they both have great voices and they’re accomplished songwriters. They aren’t trying to prove anything, they just want to play (and maybe sell a few albums). Throughout the set they created a rapport and intimacy with the audience, telling self-deprecating stories about life on the road and Martin’s first corndog, eaten onstage during a festival gig.

And they played some music as well, covering his career from the eponymous 2003 debut up to “Southern Ground” and a few covers as well, including Richard Thompson’s “1952 Vincent Black Lightning”, the Leadbelly classic “Goodnight Irene” and that old Bible Belt favourite, Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”. Highlights; yep, there were a few of those. The second song in, “I Can’t be Satisfied” featured an enthralling Daniel Kimbro bass solo (I know, I’m praising a bass solo, but it probably won’t happen again for a long time) and “Blues at my Window” in D minor (the saddest of all keys) which built up to an incredible finish with what seemed like three Weissenborns playing together (a feat which was repeated at the end of “Chocolate Jesus”) at the end of the evening.

In the second set, “Goodnight Irene” was taken at a beautifully languorous pace with plenty of Weissenborn fills and the lovely “Winter Coat” took off when Daniel Kimbro’s harmonies kicked in Two superb sets followed by a bravura encore of “Nobody’s Fault but Mine”. It really doesn’t get any better; two virtuosi playing together to create an unrepeatable experience for the select few crammed into a beautiful acoustic space.

Just a word about the audience; I’d expected the usual blues crowd of male aficionados in their sixties, but the majority of the crowd was in the twenty-to-forty age group with even a scattering of under-tens. They were buying a huge amount of albums in the interval, including the vinyl version of “Southern Ground”, so maybe there’s hope for real music yet.

 

HAR ScrollerA long time ago, I really struggled with the musical concept that the most important thing wasn’t the notes, but the space between the notes. I was a bit literal and musically unsophisticated at that time, but I managed to get my head around the idea before it got me into any arguments. The reason I’m inviting you to have a laugh at my expense here is that Phil Burdett’s album “Humble Ardour Refrains” has some wonderful examples of using the space between the notes to create atmosphere and emotion. This is one of two albums that Phil’s releasing simultaneously on Drumfire Records (you can read about “Shaky Path to Arcadia” here) and if you take the two albums together, it’s an extraordinary achievement.

He’s used the same musicians (with the addition of flute and sax on this album from Paula Borrell) to produce two very different albums; musically, “Humble Ardour Refrains” has a more acoustic, folky vibe and there’s a much more confessional, intimate feel to the autobiographical material. I’m sure that everyone listening to this will pick out different songs that they love, but my instant favourite was “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”; Russ Strothard’s melodic bass line works perfectly with John Bennett’s clipped guitar and Jack Corder’s congas to create a backing that rolls along seemingly effortlessly under Phil’s sub-apocalyptic vision of Southend and Canvey. When you add Paula Borrell’s meandering flute, the result is sublime. It’s a song that took me back to John Martyn at this very best.

If we’re talking comparisons (and we are), Tom Waits would be proud of the lo-fi stomp of “Jackleg Preacher” with its ‘ruffian choir’ and yuppie-vilifying lyrics; the band can do subtle, but they can also crank it up like a bar band. I should really mention “Chickenwire” as well; I can’t think of any other songwriter who can write a love song (unusual in itself for Phil) that includes the lines ‘This sick life worships morning tide & Satan’s sleeping on the shore, He’ll leave his bitter truths behind – callous, cruel & raw’.

As always, the metaphors range far and wide, from The Bible to French literature with musical references from Dexys to Dylan and Songdog dropped into the mix as well. “Humble Ardour Refrains” is a very personal album exploring childhood and lost innocence, London, absent friends (“Likes of Us”), some very dark times and the mental and physical place that Phil finds himself in at the moment.

Even if you ignore the simultaneous release of “Shaky Path to Arcadia”, this is an astonishingly good album from an artist who really should be much better known than he is. I can’t even choose between the two albums; you should just give yourself a treat and buy both.

“Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” are both out on January 29 on Drumfire Records.

Chris Difford TitleThere’s only one band I’ve seen more often than I’ve seen Squeeze (answers in the comments box if you think you know who that is) and one of the interesting things they have in common is that they don’t have a precious attitude about the recorded versions of their songs. Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook have always been willing to try new arrangements; I must have heard half a dozen different versions of “Goodbye Girl” over the years and I never heard one I didn’t like. On this tour, Squeeze is basically Glenn’s band The Fluffers plus Melvin Duffy and they all play on the new album “Cradle to the Grave”; each member brings their own particular contribution to the overall sound. Simon Hanson is the archetypal drummer, full of energy and charisma, while his rhythm section partner, Lucy Shaw, dominates the right side of the stage with electric bass, double bass, ukulele and backing vocals. Stephen Large adds keyboards (including accordion and melodica) and Melvin Duffy plays just about anything with strings, including pedal steel and Weissenborn guitar. They’re all wonderful players (and singers) and add layer upon layer of instruments and vocals to the live sound.

But what about Dr John Cooper Clarke as support? Well, he’s promoting his new album “Anthologia” and the idea of supporting a band’s nothing new; he did it hundreds of times during the punk era. Nearly forty years on, it still works; there are no musical rivalries between bands to worry about and JCC’s mix of manic recital and laconic links and gags is a perfect way to warm up for the Squeeze hometown gig. The old favourites are there, “Beasley Street”, “Evidently Chickentown” and “Twat” (including verses which weren’t in the original) as well as newer material like “Beasley Boulevard” dealing with the gentrification of inner cities. There’s more chat between poems than in the past and it’s usually hilarious, offering a novel and skewed perspective on everyday life. There’s the occasional stumble in the motormouth delivery, but that’s forgivable and he leaves the audience well and truly ready for the main event.

After an intro from Danny Baker, the set begins with Glenn Tilbrook wandering on stage while playing some intro music which morphs into “Hourglass”, with one of the catchiest of many catchy Squeeze hooks. As you might expect from two people with the experience of Glenn Tilbrook and Chris Difford, the set is perfectly paced, seamlessly weaving three-quarters of the new album in with the old classics and a few surprises. There’s a double hit of nostalgia on this tour as well, because the “Cradle to the Grave” material is set in the early seventies and a few of the songs are already familiar to the audience.

The quality of the band and the range of instruments they play allows for an incredibly varied set musically and visually; everyone sings and they’re able to vary the dynamics of the set by having the entire band along the front of the stage (and even into the audience) a couple of times for a more intimate acoustic feel. The performances are all absolutely spot on but there’s a hugely contagious enthusiasm at play as well. Everyone on stage is having a great time, and who wouldn’t, working your way through some of the finest pop songs ever written. There’s even a couple of non-originals too; The Tom T Hall classic “Harper Valley PTA” gets an energetic run through while Chris takes a lead vocal on a laconic version of Tom Waits’ “I Don’t Wanna Grow Up”. As for the hits, “Hourglass”, “Is That Love?”, “Another Nail in my Heart”, “Tempted”, “Pulling Mussels from the Shell” and “Up the Junction” are all fairly close to the originals while an intimate hits section in the middle of the set has a zydeco version of “Slap and Tickle”, an acoustic version of “Goodbye Girl” with congas, and stripped back acoustic version of “Black Coffee In Bed”.

Hearing those catchy, inventive melodies and clever but under-stated lyrics again is a reminder of the importance of this band to a whole generation in the UK, evoking a time when life wasn’t necessarily better but it was a lot simpler and the soundtrack was superb. You still have five chances to see them on the UK leg of their tour and “Cradle to the Grave” is available now as well. This might just be the time to re-acquaint yourself with two of British pop’s finest writers.

And here’s a coincidence; the only band that I’ve seen more times than Squeeze has two members who are big fans of Chris and Glenn. Who could they be?