Tuesday, 14 September 2010
For those who don't know David Rovics, he's an amazing folk/bluegrass singer-songwriter. I don't think it's any exaggeration to say he's the natural heir to people like Woody Guthrie (not that Woody would have wanted an heir I'm sure). I've been meaning to post something about David Rovics for a while, so watch this space, I'm sure I might soon.
Monday, 23 August 2010
Standing outside, the Last Days of Decadence looks like any one of the pubs and bars on Shoreditch High Street. But step across the threshold and you enter the glamorously debauched world of a Prohibition-era Speakeasy.
The decor is authentically 1920s, and the drinks too match. A handful of girls at the bar are decked out in full ‘flapper’ outfits, accompanied by boyfriends sporting suspenders and trilbies, although most are uniformed in jeans and t-shirts. Tonight’s entertainment isn’t rigidly anachronistic either, the theme taking second place to putting on a damn good show.
Our compere for the evening is a flamboyantly camp vaudeville act, who sings and baits the crowd in a sequined Union Jack waistcoat. He introduces a Barbarella-themed cabaret dancer and a stand up magician who shocks the audience as frequently as he entertains. Then the act I’m here to see.
Beth and the Black Cat Bones make an understated entrance to the stage. Refreshingly full of energy they start in fifth gear, belting out their 50s-inspired Blues. Lead Vocalist, the eponymous Beth, has a tight leash on her extensive range, delivering the sort of formidable female voice that characterised Motown.
Rhythm is the essential component of anything you want people to dance to and the Black Cat Bones have that covered. The sturdy drums and bass, played by Charles Benfield and Rob Pokorny, are joined by Jess, as rhythm guitarist, for most of the songs. But when she hits her cue, Jess breaks into wild solos, inspiring envy in the heart of every guitar owner in the room. Having earned the nickname ‘B B Queen’, she never strays into indulgence.
Tonight is Jess’ last night, not that it shows. When they finish their set, the audience won’t let them. Often the encore is merely a convention, with Beth and the Black Cat Bones it’s the only way the crowd can satisfy their cravings.
The Last Days of Decadence is a fantastic venue for an act with the originality of Beth and the Black Cat Bones. Velvet curtains on the stage, mirrors on the walls and martinis on the bar remind you that going to see band should feel this indulgent.
All photos by James Munday, for more of the night click here.
For a taste of the magic that was the old Beth and the Black Cat Bones line up, their EP 'Off to the Moon' is available now. For more information or dates of gigs with their new line up, go to www.myspace.com/bethandtheblackcatbones
There's cabaret every Saturday at the Last Days of Decadence and most of it's pretty awesome.
Friday, 13 August 2010
The album is a mix of Beastie Boys delivery, guitar picking that it's a crime not to dance to and lyrical references name-checking the great and good of Blues. Stylistically it flits from acousitcally mournful, dipping a toe over the border with Country, to spitting rhymes like old-school hiphop.
For those afeard that this may be too much experimentation, be like a double bass and fret not. The songs are consistently danceable tales of girls and partying, from the opening track Maxwell Street to the closing ode to the fuller-figured woman, Neckbones and Gumbo.
This album is well worth seeking out and suffers from only one major flaw, it isn't as good as seeing 24 Pesos live.
Saturday, 31 July 2010
Stompin’ Dave Allen is one of the hardest gigging musicians in British blues (if you don’t believe me check out his tour dates) and he never fails to entertain. Now’s no exception as Stompin’ Dave’s Electric Band release their latest album Mystery Train.
As an artist, Stompin’ Dave is hard to define; he sounds perfectly suited to being a solo acoustic performer, but equally so as the front-man for this electrified three-piece. He mostly tours in the UK’s South East but his voice is pure Americana.
The new album is in keeping with that spirit of ambiguity, as Dave shifts from whooping like Jerry-Lee Lewis amid mad piano solos on I’m On Fire to sounding like a 60 year old Detroit bluesman on Mean Sad World. This mix of styles keeps a tight hold on you as the album switches between well known classics and self-penned originals which sound so much like classics that they’ll have you questioning whether or not Stompin’ Dave invented the blues.
Backed by Graham Bundy on drums and Chris Lonergan, playing bass so rhythmically you could set your watch to it, Stompin’ Dave serves up frantic lead guitar and measured, soulful piano with deft skill. The result is an album that not only sounds like it features a host of blues legends, but also sounds as fresh as music did when they were writing it.
Mystery Train is out soon, available from www.stompinstore.com
Thursday, 22 July 2010
It might have something to do with the fact that most music stores lump Blues in with ‘World Music’, ‘Easy Listening’ or, if they’re especially small/apathetic, ‘Other’. It might also have something to do with the glut of middle aged, white Blues-accountants who’ll dismiss you quick as you can say Robert Johnson for not having the latest Scorsese box-set pre-ordered.
But fret no longer new-comers. In my on-going quest to talk about the music I love until a court order is taken out against me, I’ve prepared the following must have intro to the Blues.
Son House – Death Letter
Son House will always hold a place in my heart. Robert Johnson might get the credit for being the quintessential Bluesman but an early recording of this song graced the Library of Congress archives before he was even born. He released 21 albums over the course of his long, strangely clean-lived life. Most of these were recorded live in the traditional Delta Blues style.
The song is a typically Son House mix of Christian soul-searching and emotive, rhythmic slide guitar. It also features that fine Blues staple: the dead true love.
Fleetwood Mac – Coming Home
Rumours might be the best selling album of all time but FM’s earlier, perhaps less well-titled album, The Pious Bird of Good Omen is where the true Blues gems can be found. From the distorted electric slide intro and right through its distorted twelve bar blues Coming Home is 2 minutes, 38 seconds of twenty four carat Blue.
Rory Gallagher – I’m Not Surprised
Rory Gallagher is, in this humble writer’s opinion, the greatest electric guitarist the world has known, in any genre. Having said that, I couldn’t decide between songs for just one to recommend, Bad Penny is great, so are Loan Shark Blues and Tattoo’d Lady. I decided that as his back catalogue was so flawless I’d recommend one of his more unusual songs.
I’m Not Surprised is genuinely tender. It tell the familiar story of a man wronged by his woman to a backing of honky-tonk piano and acoustic guitar. Unlike most of the 1970s Blues, this is something you can put on and relax to... although it is equally at home played on an old jukebox in a smoky bar room.
So that’s it for now. Go, listen, enjoy, then tell your friends about these great songs. I hope I’ve given you a range of styles. These are three of the greatest songs ever written. However, even as I write that another twenty spring to mind, so I dare say there’ll be a part 2. The only question now is what would you have on your list?
Saturday, 3 July 2010
Every musical genre has its clichés. There are as few heavy metal tracks about unicorns as there are Rap songs about respecting women and learning to appreciate what little you’ve got. Blues certainly isn’t an exception to this rule as armies of middle aged, white Englishmen will attest, taking to the stage at open mic blues nights to sing about “goin’ down to the roadhouse” and how their baby has done gone left them.
All of this makes me very happy that the new Eric Street Band album is soon to be released on Southside Music.
For those unfamiliar with the other E-Street Band, their last album, the Journey, was a masterpiece of dirty bottle-neck slide guitar and lyrical originality. Their soon-to-be released offering, titled the Drifter, ploughs the same whiskey-soaked furrow.
The essence of good ol’ fashioned blues is still there, songs about drinking, dancing and one stands, usually followed by early mornings on the road out of town, are all there. What Eric Street Band does is to own these stories. They aren’t singing about a 1920s black American riding the roads, they’re singing about four old British guys doing it, and that truth makes the image that much stronger.
It helps that the band is fronted by Denis Siggery, a man whose voice is equal parts Rod Stewart, Roger Daltry and a 72 hour bourbon binge, and that he’s supported by three of the most competent Blues musicians in Britain. But that’s no reason why bands with healthy lungs and livers shouldn’t learn a lot from this.
The rest of us, we just get the joy of listening to it.
Tour dates and albums available at www.ericstreetband.com
Monday, 14 June 2010
Monday, 7 June 2010
It’s a frequent truism in Blues music that artists are often best known by others’ work. Son House is the guy Robert Johnson played with as a boy, Hendrix is best known for covering a Dylan song and Bobbie McGee is the subject of a croon by Kris Kristofferson or Grateful Dead. The truth about Bobbie McGee, however is far more interesting.
One of the most interesting characters of the American Folk revival, Bobbie McGee was never called on by the same fame that went knocking for Dylan, Donovan or Janis Joplin. Yet she undoubtedly influenced a generation of artists and did more for the ‘protest song’ than many who are better known. The proof of that lies in her legend which pops up in works for Richard Berman to Kat Walker to Janis Joplin, as well as those names that have already graced this page.
For those not familiar, Bobbie was a singer songwriter whose work falls into the genre-chasm of one person alone with their guitar. Her work shows clear signs of traditional blues and folk influences. Her stand alone album, Songs for Working Women, features versions of the staple tracks Bread and Roses and the Death of Mother Jones.
Yet her work stands out from the looming crowd of her contemporaries. There is a definitely Country sound to her songs, both musically and in the way they engage with contemporary issues. Her version of Union Maid, a song made famous by Woody Guthrie, opens with a Texas-fried slice of pedal steel but ends with a surprising openness on the subject of equal pay for women.
Writing openly confrontational lyrics, as Bobbie did, was incredibly brave at a time when Feminism had been sitting in the shadow of everything from the Black Civil Rights movement, through opposition to Vietnam to plain old indifference. Many of the issues she sang about are still being fought today and it’s impressive to think she was prepared to raise them as a performer in a time when politically active female singers were unheard of and men controlled the record industry.
The weight of the odds stacked against Bobbie’s work may be one of the reasons it’s so hard to find these days. Her one album is out of print and she fails to even have a Wikipedia page, seemingly the measure of cultural significance. With the rise of new media for music, the balance is being restored and both Amazon and the internet radio Spotify now hold MP3 copies of her album. So go, listen and enjoy the work of a woman who was as talented as she is unheard of.
Friday, 28 May 2010
Long recognised as one of , if not the most important Jazz albums of all time, Kind of Blue has been examined from enough angles to make a nun blush. Quadruple Platinum selling, placed 12th in Rolling Stone's top 500 albums of all time and inspiration for everyone from James Brown to Pink Floyd. Yet against these odds, Brunel University lecturer Paul Lashmar has teamed up with a specially arranged band to offer a take on the album that is both new and surprisingly timeless.
Part of the Brunel University Jazz Outreach Project, which aims to make Jazz more accessible, the show begins with a history that finishes at the album being cut. Perhaps surprisingly, this evening of Jazz and lectures is likely to appeal to hipcats and square Jazz novices alike.
At the core of the show, titled simply Kind of Blue: Homage to Miles Davis, is a live performance of the album. This is delivered, in its entirety, by a band of the highest calibre musicians under the leadership of veteran Band Leader Frank Griffith. If arranging and orchestrating a band to replicate the sound of the two Manhattan recording sessions that created Kind of Blue weren't enough, Griffith also plays an active part in the first half of the show.
Lashmar's introduction to the scene that first created Miles Davis then Kind of Blue avoids indulgence at every step. No mean feat from a man who is visibly passionate about his subject. Key points on the road are expounded, explained and then it's off to the next stop. Punctuation in this whistlestop tour are provided by Griffith, who, along with his band, provide musical examples which make real every place, era and mood.
It looks likely that this show will be a small part of the Brunel University Jazz Outreach Project. If it's anything to go by, they will no doubt be a flawless juggling of musical history and toe-tapping music. And it should go without saying that if you don't own the album, you should daddy-o.
Wednesday, 26 May 2010
Putting aside that sensual feast, what does British Summertime mean? Festivals. But where does the committed Blues peg their tent to get the most of this year's musical offerings?
Glasto does a good line in returning artists, their performers being just as loyal as their patrons. This year Seasick Steve returns to capitalise on last year's performances, no doubt with his goodybag full of homemade instruments. Joining him are the Skiffle Punk Blues Folkies Hobo Jones and the Junkyard Dogs and Alabama 3, a band who can be utterly relied on to be both wasted and entertaining.
Seth Lakeman provides his own brand of heartache-twinged folk and smouldering good looks, a trade that Jackson Browne has been plying for years and continues to do so. At the other end of the spectrum, flying the flag for old, haggard and classic are the country legend Willy Nelson and king of the New Orleans Jazz scene Dr John.
Newer acts gracing this years festival are Frank Turner, The King Blues and the comedian Adrian Edmondson performing with his band The Bad Shepherds.
And if all that lot doesn't sink your battleship, then dance your socks off to John Allen and The Blues Band.
Known for satisfying the heavier, more mosh-heavy brand of music, Carling's Reading and Leeds festivals still manage to hold their ends up for some quality Blues.
Frank Turner and The King Blues both make appearances here, as well as at a few other major festivals. Whilst neither have the shot-to-stardom-after-50-years fame of someone like Seasick Steve, both are as entertaining as a barrel full of drunken chimps. The end result of said barrel would probably be a mixture of Blood or Whiskey, which incidentally is the name of an irish folk-punk act with bluesy edges playing this year's festival (there would be some chimp carcasses too, but unfortunately there isn't an act called that).
Perhaps the biggest name on Carling's line-up are the Brighton-based Mumford & Sons, whose stock in trade is a mixture of folk instrumentation, timeless fashion and god-questioning lyrics so beyond their years you'd find it hard to believe Lenoard Cohen hadn't written them. You'll dance, you'll cry, you'll stay near the front of the stage too long and will get punched by a Slayer fan.
Known for gracing the party season with a middle-class, middle-aged combo of books, theatre and just a little music, Latitude provides a more mature festival. This doesn't stop them playing host to Frank Turner and Mumford & Sons too. Nor does it stand in their way of clearing a stage for the suprisingly dark musical stylings of Richard Hawley. The ex-Pulp and Longpigs member uses his acoutic six-string and a mellower than mellow voice to captivate an audience and shouldn't be missed.
For fans of 60s and 70s Soul, Jonathan Jermiah will hold the floor at the Word Arena on the Friday. His mix of Blues-Soul is served acoustically on a bed of orchestral strings with the faintest garnish of wise and heartfelt lyrics.
So whether you want to dance, dwell or just enjoy yourself, there's big Blues on offer at even the most mainstream festivals this summer.
Monday, 17 May 2010
The film will be an adaptation of Richard DiLello's memoir 'The Longest Cocktail Party'. Taking the same name as the book, it promises to be an affectionate and humorous take on the inner workings of the Beatle's record company in the two years leading up to the band splitting up.
Gallagher insists he wants the film to be more than just another biopic. He told reporters "It's a between the scenes thing", going on to say that it would tell the whole story of Apple. "No one will be auditioning for John, Paul, George and Ringo. It's about the characters behind the scenes".
Andrew Eaton, the film's producer, said talks were ongoign with Apple to license some of their music from the period. The soundtrack is likely to feature acts such as Badfinger and Billy Preston, as well as original material from Gallagher's new band.
Full details of the film are to be released later this month at the Cannes Film Festival.
Sunday, 9 May 2010
Happy Birthday Robert Johnson.
Despite there being no known records of Robert Johnson's birth, all the most informed guesses have it as May 8th or 9th in either 1911 or 1912. As one of the truest traditions of Blues is not letting a lack of evidence ruin a good story, it seems like a great time to look back at works of the man who is possibly Blues' brightest star.
The influence Johnson has had on the genre borders on the immeasurable; Clapton called him "the most important blues singer that ever lived", he was among the first ever people to be inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame and was ranked fifth in Rolling Stone's list of the 100 Greatest Guitarists of All Time. All of which isn't too bad when you consider he only made 41 recordings in his short life.
What can you say about a man who is a celebrated as this? Very little that hasn't already been said, which is why here we're celebrating his own words with the three of his songs that tell his story.
Ramblin’ on My Mind
“Running down to the station, catch the old first mail train I see
I got the blues about Miss So-and-So and the child got the blues about me”
As with so many of his song, ‘Ramblin’ on My Mind’ recounts Johnson leaving a woman who did him wrong. However, it could just as easily tell the story of his childhood. Born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi, the young Robert had to leave an early age after his mother entered into a dispute over land with a lynch mob. In the following years he was passed backwards and forwards between his mother and father before joining his mother more permanently in Robinsonville, Mississippi in 1919.
Spending his youth wandering set the pace for Johnson’s life. Like many Americans, he spent the 20s and 30s of the great depression wandering the country looking for work. The recordings we have of him now all date from two sessions in this period, in San Antonio Texas. The recording roster shows he laid down the tracks between two other ‘ethnic’ acts, a hillbilly band and a Mexican guitarist.
Cross Road Blues
Around 1929 Robert Johnson met the musician and lay-preacher Son House, who had moved to Robinsonville to be closer to his musical partner Willie Brown. The elderly bluesman recalls the young Johnson following him around trying, and failing, to imitate his style. The legend then goes that Johnson disappeared for a few months and returned with an unnatural ability to play any song in any style. You can hear the debt Johnson pays to Son House’s traditional style in the younger man’s versions of ‘Preaching the Blues’ and ‘Walking Blues’.
So many legends surround Robert Johnson, from the cause of his death to the things he saw wandering the dusty American roads, that without his recordings it would be hard to believe he ever really existed. One, however, captures the imagination like no other.
The story of the crossroads has been added to various parts of Johnson’s life. It tells of his insurmountable desire to be a great Blues musician and that he is told (as we don’t know, let’s say it was by a wise old man with only one eye) to go at midnight with his guitar to the crossroads by the Dockery plantation. There he was met by a tall, black man who tuned his guitar, played a song and handed it back. When he received it, Robert could play anything he wanted on it. The crossroads and magical abilities he is given tie this story in with much older Voodoo and Black Magic rituals and the Christian idea of a Faustian pact, in which the devil gives you superhuman powers in exchange for your soul.
Whatever the truth or history behind this story, and overlooking the fact that ‘Cross Road Blues’ makes no mention of the Devil, it has certainly helped to make the myth of Robert Johnson so appealing.
Kind Hearted Woman
“Aint but one thing,
Makes Mister Johnson drink,
I’s worried ‘bout how you treat me, baby”
A two-in-one love letter to the women of the world and the drinking they drive men to, ‘Kind Hearted Woman’ is a song that has helped to prop up one of blues oldest clichés. The image of the travelling bluesman, living for whiskey and women, is one of the few that truly fits Johnson’s life.
After his first wife died during childbirth, Johnson reportedly had a string of female dalliances. These were probably helped along by his burgeoning musical career. Whilst he recorded his 29 songs (some of which had two or three takes) in just two sessions, taking to the road again as soon as he’d finished, that was enough to give him some fame within his own community. About as far from noble as a down-home bluesboy could get, Johnson exploited that fame to get girls.
Just as with his birth, nobody knows for sure the circumstances in which Robert Johnson died. According to one story, his womanising was his downfall. After a string of affairs with married women, a jealous husband poisoned the singers’ whiskey with strychnine, killing him at the age of 27.
Happy Birthday to you...
In his few short years, Robert Johnson helped to define what the Blues is. Never limited by genre, style or the seemingly impossible, he set the stage, put out the chairs and even baked some snacks for the generations of singers and guitarists that followed him. So, on his birthday, why not stick on some of his music (it's all out of copyright, so you can listen guilt free online), put a dash of strychnine in your whiskey and enjoy one of the greatest guitarists and singers of all time.