Little Steven & The Disciples of Soul
Wicked Cool/Big Machine
Bringing Sunshine to the Edge of Town!
A few weeks ago and for no apparent reason I decided to make a list of my Top 10 Gigs of all time and at #6 was Little Steven and the Disciples of Soul at the much lamented Newcastle Dingwalls in 1983. The band were so big and the stage so small the horn section actually had to stand beside the stage!
For the uninitiated Little Steven is a) Miami Steve Van Zandt b) the best ever guitarist in Springsteen’s E-Street Band 3) Silvio in the Sopranos d) Frank in Lilyhammer and e) the co-founder of Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes.
Then…..an e-mail arrived asking if I’d like a copy of his/their new album.
HELL YES KIDDA!
Sounding more than a little bit like Springsteen himself; Little Steven’s first ‘solo’ album in nigh on 20 years gets off to a killer start with the red hot title track SOULFIRE. Combining bang-bang Rock n Roll with some blistering Southern Soul the band sound like teenagers swaggering around the stage of a High-school prom; not the ‘men of a certain age’ that they actually are.
That high octane vibe continues through track #2 I’m Coming Back, and the third time I played this song Mrs. Magpie caught me dancing in the kitchen as I made a cup of coffee!
A lot has happened to Van Zandt since those heady days in the early 80’s when this band were in their infancy; and the intervening years haven’t diminished his love of music one iota as you can tell when he revels in the spotlight on the gorgeous ballads Love On The Wrong Side of Town and I Don’t Want To Go Home; with the later having a touch of Sam Cooke about it, if I’m not mistaken.
It’s all too easy to dismiss Van Zandt as ‘just a guitarist and showman’ but listen to the lyrics in The City Weeps Tonight which nods adoringly at the crooners he would have listened to in his teenage years.
Another song that should be ‘listened to’ for the same reasons is Down and Out in New York City, which sounds like it could be an out-take from SuperFly until you listen to Stevie’s razor sharp observations which are very, very topical and a tad Political with a capital P.
Not for the first time this year the title of ‘Favourite Track’ is a toss-up, between the blistering Blues Is My Business which in another world would have been a huge hit for Joe Cocker; and the other is the super-cool Alt. Rock n Roller St. Valentine’s Day which got turned up to 11 the first time I played it in the car (and head-banged and fist-pumped to it!). Let’s just call it a tie, shall we.
Apart from the classy production and a slightly smoother and well worn rasp to Van Zandt’s voice this album is just as exciting in every nook and cranny as the Men Without Women LP was when I bought it in 1982………35 bloody years ago!
Released May 19th 2017
LOVE/FEAR (48Hrs in Traitorland)
Stone Barn Records
The State of The Nation Set To Music.
A few years ago Neil Young got a lot of publicity for a poor album when he complained that no-one was writing protest songs any-more. Hmmmm…..Neil should have a mailing list like mine!
Riding high on the success of his previous album Nathan Bell intended writing a follow up made of ‘love songs’ but local and international political events changed all of our worlds at the end of 2016; and in the spirit of all those great Folk Singers through the ages he got righteously angry and wrote these 11 raw and emotional songs; then with only a harmonica and acoustic guitar recorded them over two days straight.
The Big Old American Dream which starts the proceedings is as powerful an opener as I’ve heard in years. It’s dark, ragged and poetic in equal measures with more twists and turns than a prairie wind; and it will keep you rooted to the spot every time you hear it.
The Long Way Down is a classic of the genre; with Bell’s road worn voice straining with emotion; conjuring up the spirit of Townes Van Zandt to get his message across and…..boy…..that message needs to be heard by ‘the powers that be.’
I’ve never been sure what it means when people talk about ‘the human condition’ but I think it describes the subjects in the title track Traitorland Rules For Living In) and also What Did You Do Today? Springsteen sings ‘blue collar’ songs but these characters have blue collars that are frayed at the edges with no sign of a replacement. Listen AND learn.
The album is sort of split into two, with the final five songs being performed ‘live’ , in the studio I presume and things actually get darker and deeper.
Coal Black Water is a fascinating song; being written and performed before President Trump repealed several statutes undoing coal mining legislation; thus ‘creating jobs for Americans’. As a son of a miner myself; Nathan Bell captures my proud Father’s spirit in as much as he hated his job and never wanted his four sons to follow him down that hole and Nathan tells a similar story.
MIA (Bill in 75) tells a story of a bright young man who went to Vietnam and came back a broken man; in much the same manner as Slaid Cleaves sang about on his last album Still Fighting The War.
The first time I heard So Damn Pretty I was left stunned in my chair. A type of ‘talking-Blues’ Bell captures the heart and spirit of the woman in the story in a way I’ve probably only ever heard Guy Clark manage…..and that’s quite some compliment.
I’m not sure an album like this needs a ‘favourite song’ but that’s how I roll; so I’m choosing a song about something I too saw in 1968. I was 10 going on 11 and wasn’t sure what it meant when two (black) American sprinters in the Olympics hung their heads and raised leather gloved fists when their national anthem was played. Nathan Bell captures the spirit of that evening in a Blues lament worthy of Robert Johnson or Billie Holliday.
Obviously not an ‘easy listen’ and nor was this album meant to be and nor should it be, as Nathan Bell unravels not just America’s underbelly but if you stretch your imagination the underbelly of the Western World.
Released May 12th 2017
JOURNEY TO MEMPHIS
The Soul of America Smoulders and Burns Brightly.
It’s odd how we eventually stumble on the music we love, isn’t it? In the case of singer Amy Black from Nashville TN she left a successful career in marketing to pursue her ‘dream’ singing songs. As you’d expect she worked the local circuit, gradually evolving from straight up Country through the Americana movement until she saw Mavis Staples supporting Bonnie Raitt one night and something ‘clicked.’
Subsequently she has become obsessed with Soul and R&B, studying it from the Roots upwards, culminating with her last album The Muscle Shoals Sessions, which has been something of a success; so much so (JOURNEY TO) MEMPHIS follows a similar route with 7 classy original songs and 3 extremely well chosen covers.
From the first snatches of the Hammond organ and brass groove on opening track It’s Hard To Love an Angry Man, I had a feeling I was going to like this album; and when Amy Black’s stylish voice slides in to the mix I was completely smitten.
This is immediately followed by The Blackest Cloud; a really punchy song that strolls along like the strong woman who isn’t going to show how hurt she is, in the lyrics. Already I’m thinking ‘Dusty in Memphis’ but without the overbearing strings and orchestra.
The first cover song comes in at #4, a sweet and emotional take on Otis Clay’s If I Could Reach Out (and love somebody) and just the sort of Stax or more likely Atlantic Soul song that would have closed the evening at our Youth Centre back in the early 1970’s. Mmmm mmm and mmmm!
That’s exactly where Amy Black sits in my mind; she has a wonderfully rich and expressive voice and alongside producer Scott Bomar they have recreated that timeless sound which sounds just as cool on Gold Radio as it will on the hipster Internet stations.
The deceptively gentle on the ear Nineteen could easily be an anti-Vietnam love song sung by Nina or Aretha; but it’s not, these razor sharp lyrics are by Amy herself and are about a young man who chose to ‘do the right thing’ and fight for his country in Afghanistan, Syria or wherever. Beautiful and sad in equal measures and bares repeated listening.
Thankfully this followed by a sassy, late night hip-swaying take on Further on Up The Road with it’s red hot guitar solos to lighten the mood.
What do I pick for ‘my favourite song’? It would be all to easy to select the BB King inspired I Need Your Love So Bad which closes the record; or perhaps the swaggering slice of steamy Southern Soul that is What Makes a Man?
But after a lot of deliberation I’m going for the deep down gorgeous Let The Light In, which has Gospel overtones but is Soul with a capital ‘S’ boys and girls……Soul from and for the soul.
A week ago I’d not heard of Amy Black; but I’ve just spent a small fortune buying her back catalogue…….and I think you will too.
Released June 2nd 2017
Blue Elan/Fathead Records
This Lady Sings The Blues With Grit and Polish.
It tells you something about where my head is at these days that the name Janiva Magness meant nothing to me when I first played this stunning mini-album; only to find that I’d reviewed her previous album LOVE WINS AGAIN and loved it to bits!
To celebrate that album receiving a 2017 Grammy Nomination; alongside Producer Dave Darling and a red hot band Janiva Magness has been in the studio and recorded six of her favourite song; all Blues ones of course!
You know exactly where the first song here; I Can Tell is coming from via the raw Bo Diddleyesque guitar chops and the sullen way Ms Magness delivers her ‘message’ to her cheating man……this is the Blues baby; and very Dark Blues indeed. Just like the Doctor ordered.
Already a word of praise must go out to Janiva Magness’ band; who are equally understated and brilliant in equal measures.
It’s a brave woman who covers an Etta James song but alongside Sugaray Rayford they turn If I Can’t Have You into a spicy duet full of red hot passion and a whole lot of Soul with a capital S.
OOOOHHEEEE! The biggest surprise of all comes next when the guitars are cranked up and Janiva rocks the joint to it’s very foundations on Tired of Walking; the type of sweaty R&B I’ve loved for 40 odd years and very little has sounded feistier or, dare I say it……sexier.
While I didn’t recognise the sassy Country-Blues song Buck at first; a quick ‘Google’ found it first came to prominence via Ms Nina Simone and it’s actually one of my favourites on her Greatest Hits album. Here; it’s a little different from the others as it has a ‘Country-Blues’ flavour to it; but the whip sharp guitar and electric piano spine keep it on track, and make it fit in perfectly.
The all too short EP/Mini-Album comes to a close with a sweltering reinterpretation of Freddie Kings Pack It Up; a song that is just perfect for Janiva Magness’ hip-shaking and swaggering style of Blues. Perfect to dance to but just as good to listen to when your heart is broken and the world doesn’t understand your pain.
Regular readers won’t be the least bit surprised to find that my Favourite Track comes when things slide even darker and deeper on the beautiful second track, Al Kooper’s magnificent I Love You More Than You’ll Ever Know. Here Janiva turns the lights down low and stares intently at the telephone, which never rings on a song first heard on a Blood Sweat & Tears; which actually sums up this particular version.
In the olden days artists recording albums of cover versions was seen as ‘contract filler’ but now with charts a figment of the imagination, singers like Janiva Magness can pretty much choose to record albums like this just for the ‘love of the music’ and the world is a better place for it.
Released May 12th 2017
THE BOTTOM OF MY HEART
WOW! This came right out of left field. Hayley McKay is a local lass to me; coming from 30 miles away in the People’s Republic of Darlington…….but her oh so sweet Country tones could easily come from Tennessee or Texas.
Unlike so many of her generation who want instant fame via Talent Shows; this young lady has served her apprenticeship playing clubs the length and breadth of the UK and also providing support at major venues for artists as diverse as Tom Jones, Albert Lee and Martha Reeves.
This delicious single comes from latest album FAVOURITE PLACE.
Released May 5th 2017
The Big Gun Show
THE DOOR (EP)
The Soundtrack To a Messy Friday Night.
Sadly some albums that are sent to us fall by the wayside and others sit around gathering dust before I get around to penning my magic words about them. This applies equally to the bigger names as well as the many DIY albums that cross my desk by the way.
Then, very occasionally something arrives that instantly piques my interest …sometimes it’s the artwork or Press Release (which rarely get read before the first listen) or in this case a handwritten letter that told me the band found our site via the Sarah Shook review and described their sound as ‘Keith Richards meets Ray Wylie Hubbard’……the sun was shining and there was nothing on the TV so I thought, I would give the 5 track EP a quick go.
Crashing guitars and a singer that sounds like he’s been living on cigarettes, beer and French Kisses since leaving the crib came billowing out of the office stereo; and when Gunter Woodson splutters “I got my Swagger back!” followed by some thumping hypnotic drumming I knew I was gonna love whatever followed.
The song itself, Swagger is the type of 80’s Rocker I loved from the likes of Thunder and The Quireboys……all tight jeans, sweaty t-shirts and Friday night drunken attitude……SWAGGER indeed.
Track #2 the raunchy ballad Begin to Begin slows things down; as Woodson sings straight into the eyes of ‘the hottest girl’ in the front row, making her go weak at the knees and making every fella in the room feel jealous and slightly inadequate.
Not a word I particularly like using, but Bitch is a snarling (unrequited) love song and the way he describes the young lady in question (“trouble in stereo”) I guess she is indeed a ‘Bitch’; but he keeps coming back for more…….we do, don’t we?
With a guitarist who owes a lot more to Slash or (my hero) Warner E Hodges than Keef and a singer who sounds like he’s been around the block at least twice and is now on his third trip, The Big Gun Show have a big, big ‘sloppy bar-band’ sound that only comes from knowing what you’re doing. This type of Rock n Roll just doesn’t get any better than the quaintly titled Chablis and Weed; which is a full-bodied Rock Ballad and will have the crowd swaying from side to side with their arms wound around their lovers or Best Buddies when played live.
The whiz-bang guitar that opens the final track Behind The Barn; coupled with some super-sweet pedal-steel reminds me of something else; but that’s for another day. Until then this cracking Country Rocker is easily my Favourite of the five; and certainly left me wanting MORE!
There are a million bands out there who sound a bit like this; but 99% of them are still playing Freebird and Satisfaction but The Big Gun Show have that extra ‘something’…..great original songs? A great singer? Super cool guitarist? An A* rhythm section? Whatever…..this EP is going straight into the car ready for the drive to work with my Cheap Sunglasses on; then for the drive home After Midnight when the roads are quiet and the engine will be loud.
It’s that type of music.
Released March 28th 2017
Ben Hunter, Phil Wiggins & Joe Seamons
A BLACK & TAN BALL.
Country Blues That Will Warm The Cockles of Your Heart.
Work commitments meant that I had to miss the Ben Hunter, Phil Wiggins & Joe Seamons concert in Newcastle back in February; and when friends were still texting me three days afterwards to tell me that I’d missed the ‘Best show of the year’ I knew this trio must be something pretty special.
My problem with reviewing the album was always going to be that this type of Authentic, Rootsy Blues music is generally best seen and heard live rather than on disc.
A BLACK & TAN BALL starts off with an exquisitely performed Murder Ballad called Do You Call That a Buddy, which revolves around a rusty voice, molasses thick harmonies and some beautiful harmonica from Phil Wiggins.
These three musicians, know the Blues backwards and treat each song as if it’s a Classical piece of music bringing brand new dimensions to old standards like John Henry (a live version btw) and Leadbelly’s Poor Howard which they turn into another Murder Ballad.
As musical historians the trio have found some amazing songs in the archives and bring a Louis Armstrong Jazz tune Struttin’ With Some BBQ to a whole new audience; and it’s a similar tale when Phil Wiggins sings Do Nothing ‘Til You Here From Me. You’d swear it was something you’d hear in a 30’s Mississippi Juke-Joint; but it’s actually a Duke Ellington ballad; but that’s the beauty of this album; all preconceptions fly out of the window very quickly.
While Ben Hunter, Phil Wiggins & Joe Seamons’ many and various talents are never in doubt it’s on the glorious Guitar Rag and Shanghai Rooster that they really shine; as they did apparently when they played the Jumping Hot Club.
Albums like this make it very difficult to choose a favourite song; as each certainly has its own merits; but make a choice I will.
The title nearly went to Ben Hunter’s raw and authentic version of Bullfrog Blues; which sounds just like it must have done in the 1930’s and nothing at all like Rory Gallagher’s trademark version in 1972.
But the title of ‘Favourite Track’ goes to another re-interpretation of a Country Blues standard that sadly means as much today in 2017 as it first did when first performed in 1935; Lane Hardin’s Hard Time Blues has been twisted and turned many times over the years; but hearing it revert back to a wailing lament with a rudimentary guitar, banjo and harmonica backing is both gut wrenching and tear inducing in equal measures.
As I guessed this album has not been an ‘easy listen’; and nor was it intended to be. The songs are as dark as they are rich and in Ben Hunter, Phil Wiggins & Joe Seamons each one is treat like a special gem and given the respect it deserves.
A BLACK & TAN BALL will not just appeal to Blues aficionados but is a great starting point for anyone wanting to delve into this fascinating area of The Blues.
Released March 27th 2017
Martin Stephenson and Shipcote
The legendary Martin Stephenson and Graeme ‘Shipcote’ Anderson talk about their time in The Toe Rags (and more); who are reforming for one night only on 1st August in the Q Festival Speigletent in Baltic Square, Gateshead alongside Jumping Hot Club regulars…. HYMN FOR HER (USA), BRENNEN LEIGH & NOEL McKAY (USA) and GEORGE WELCH & CHRISTINE JEANS on 1st August 2017.
Tickets £16 #DetailsComingSoon
A GIRL IN TEEN CITY
Continental Song City
A Teenage Folk Opera From One of Canada’s Finest Singer-Songwriters.
Even though I own one of her earlier albums Suzie Ungerleider aka Oh Susanna has flown under my radar for a few years now; probably because I don’t recall her ever playing in NE England (although I could be wrong of course).
Several friends are huge fans and have travelled many hundreds of miles to see her sing in concert; so it was with massive interest that I slipped this shiny disc into the office stereo.
Mmmmmmmm…..Opening song Flashlights is very nice indeed; and I could instantly tell from her distinctive voice why my friends are smitten with the young lady from Vancouver. Even this early into the album I was impressed with the way Susie tells her story using clever couplets and simple language.
While each song about a young girl struggling to come to terms with life, love and growing up in a small time stands apart in its own rite; A GIRL IN TEEN CITY links them together into a type of narrative.
With that in mind songs like Tickets on the Weekend and the heartbreaking Walked All The Way Home will resonate with many of us; not just young girls…..that’s for sure.
Most songs here are acoustic or acousticish; but that doesn’t stop the articulate My Boyfriend taking on a bit of a Bangles Pop-Rock sound and will, no doubt become a fan favourite in concert.
The detail in some of the lyrics is exceptional; the way Suzie describes seeing WOLF BOY for the very first time made my heart bulge as I remembered that ‘feeling’ of seeing someone ‘special’ for the very first time; then the subsequent glimpses and glances. All that coupled with some pulsating piano playing and a band that sounds like an orchestra couple to make for a very theatrical three and a half minutes.
A simple song tucked away somewhere in the middle took my breath away; as again it captured a moment in my own life; The Darkroom At The School; and must be the only song ever to describe sexual tension by using developing a photograph as a metaphor; ‘pushing up the f-stop a half/in the darkroom at the school.’ I loved it and it made me smile.
As a photographer myself that song was obviously a contender for ‘favourite song’ but instead I will go for the brilliantly fragile My Old Vancouver which made my tilt my head towards the speakers as the narrator finally gets to look back on those heady teenage years with the benefit of age and some hindsight; but not rose coloured glasses.
For what it’s worth when Mrs. Magpie heard this for the first time; she was reading a Sunday newspaper and eventually looked up, slightly puzzled then mouthed, “Nanci Griffith?”
While Oh Susanna does have a distinctive singing voice and a very personal way of constructing her songs; I immediately knew what my wife meant as there is a definite ‘air’ of the young Nanci Griffith all the way through A GIRL IN TEEN CITY and that’s not a bad thing at all.
Released UK May 12th 2017
Released North America May 26th 2017
THE KNIGHT SESSIONS
Big Lake Music
The Girls Are Back In Town And Re-Invent Folk!
Madison Violet aka Brenley MacEachern and Lisa MacIsaac are an old fashioned Folk duo with a identifiable modern sound all of their own.
Although they have been together (in the musical sense) for 18 years I think it was about 8 years ago when I first saw them at a Jumping Hot Club gig upstairs in the packed Central Bar, Gateshead.
A love affair began that night.
This album begins with a very simple and self-depreciating We Are Famous; but listen carefully and their trademark harmonies will fill your head like a finely woven silken fog.
Both Brenley and Lisa are inordinately talented multi-instrumentalists and for THE KNIGHT SESSIONS they decided to go back beyond basics; trawling the junk shops of Toronto for any discarded sad and lonely ‘toys’ and instruments in need of care and attention but could make an organic sound unlike anything they had made before.
Some older songs have been re-imagined using this format and while it’s not always apparent what is where; the result is exceptional and surpasses the experiment with grace.
These Ships, for instance appears here twice; first as an impassioned acoustic song and then closing the record with a very radio friendly almost Electronica re-mix.
Another song that has been re-worked is Ohio, from YEAR OF THE HORSE and …..wow……the girls voices melt together in a way I’m not sure I’ve ever heard from non-siblings; and the intricate guitar and fiddle playing is stunningly good too.
I wish I knew why; but the ‘Americana/Roots’ music coming out of Canada in the last ten years has generally been of a very high calibre and Madison Violet have been at the forefront; and with beautiful almost lo-fi songs like Don’t Let Your Heart Be Troubled, Operator and How We See Love that trend continues with relish.
Not for the first time Mrs. Magpie and I disagree as to what is the ‘best’ song here; I adore the timeless and heart-shredding Trouble and she insists Hush; something akin to a ‘band effort’ with a slight Reggae tinge to it making it unlike most other Madison Violet efforts makes it the winner.
As usual she is right; of course.
Unlike most of their contemporaries Brenley and Lisa have thrown caution to the wind on this album; obviously keeping their integral ‘sound’ but modernising it and making it accessible for a younger generation while not alienating old fogies like me (and you?) which is quite some feat; and all done without the aid of a safety net.
RELEASED UK May 5th 2017
Released Canada/USA 2nd June 2017