Ryley Walker : Primrose Green, released March 2015

Ryley Walker, a guitarist and singer/songwriter from Chicago follows up his 2014 debut album ‘All Kinds Of You’ with a new collection of jazz/folk/rock songs, built on his percussive acoustic guitar picking and subtle accompanying instrumentation.

Some commentators have compared him with Nick Drake, I think that is because of a desire to find such a person rather than the reality. His free-form pieces have more in common with some of the more experimental work of John Martyn, but he is taking any influences in a new direction, adding a rockier edge too. This is most evident in the epic ‘Sweet Satisfaction'; it starts off like a track from Martyn’s classic album ‘Solid Air’ then the emotional lyric and acoustic vibe tangles up with a distorted electric guitar and drums building to an exhausting, relentless finale. Brilliant.

This is followed by the gentle string sounds of ‘The High Road’. A roving double bass introduces the instrumental passage of ‘Same Minds’ before the vocal soars and glides above it all. ‘Griffiths Bucks Blues’ is a zesty instrumental, ‘On The Banks of the Old Kishwaukee’ is a bluesy slice of Americana. In contrast, ‘Hide In The Roses’ could almost be from the soundtrack to sinister British horror-flick ‘The Wicker Man’. The opening track ‘Primrose Green’ has many of the good ingredients of the rest of the songs with a more mellow vocal performance.

So it is moving in a different direction from his first album, more loose and moody. I look forward to seeing him in concert..

http://ryleywalker.com/

Van Morrison: Duets, released March 2015

Van Morrison’s new CD is subtitled ‘re-working the catalogue’ and he has certainly dug deep, mining a rich seam of 16 songs from his 34 studio albums. Some of the choices are familiar but there are many tracks here that are less well-known. A rich menu for the dedicated fan and also an inviting opportunity for the large numbers who seldom delve deeper than ‘Brown Eyed Girl’ or ‘Have I Told You Lately’.

The guests all acquit themselves well, especially when they add some instrumental extra to Van’s top-notch backing band, step forward Mark Knopfler and Taj Mahal (guitar), also Steve Winwood (Hammond organ heaven!). A highlight is the version of ‘Higher Than The World’ with the jazz vocal and guitar from George Benson adding a different texture. Mick Hucknall confidently takes on the pastoral meanderings of ‘Streets of Arklow’ and Joss Stone sweetly sails and soars through the challenging loose structure of ‘Wild Honey’.

Clare Teal’s beautifully-judged performance breaks our hearts with the longings of ‘Carrying A Torch’, a sumptuous version of one of my favourite Van songs where the voices and backing blend perfectly. Michael Bublé must have been pleased to be given the show stopping stomp of ‘Real Real Gone’ and there is the long-awaited symmetry of ‘Whatever Happened to P J Proby’, a duet with…P J Proby! Mavis Staples belts out ‘If I Ever Needed Someone’ and as a fitting tribute the opening track is ‘Some Piece Of Mind’ with the late Bobby Womack.

Van’s voice is as on form as ever (see my recent live review) and is always a contrast to the guest, sometimes sharing verses, harmonising, leading or following. He has shared vocals several times before, live and on record with John Lee Hooker, Tom Jones, BB King, Ray Charles and the underrated golden tones of fellow Irishman Brian Kennedy (listen to ‘Tupelo Honey’ from ‘A Night in San Francisco’, the 1994 live album), as well as many others.

So will this uplifting album be the basis of the guestlist/setlist for a future live show…..?

http://www.vanmorrison.com/

Dexys: then and now

On Friday 20 March 2015, BBC4 are showing the film ‘Dexys: Nowhere is Home’, featuring what led up to their comeback album ‘One Day I’m Going To Soar’ and the triumphant accompanying live shows.

Formed in 1980 as ‘Dexys Midnight Runners’ by singer Kevin Rowland, the fortunes of the band have varied dramatically, starting with the critical acclaim for debut album ‘Searching For The Young Soul Rebels’ and number one single ‘Geno’. This was followed by a change of direction into the ‘celtic soul’ of 1983 album ‘Too-Rye-Aye’ with blockbusting hits ‘Jackie Wilson Said’ and of course UK and US number one ‘Come On Eileen’, destined to be included on 80s compilations for evermore. Line-up changes are well documented elsewhere, as is the status of the ‘neglected classic’ 1985 third album ‘Don’t Stand Me Down’ and the long barren years.

Then mostly it all went quiet until the rumours of a new album due for release in 2012…

… And what an album it was, the distillation of the best of all that had gone before, honed to perfection with an as-live sound (listen to those drums!) and a variety of musical styles to accompany Kevin Rowland’s impressionistic life story, his lyrics linking the songs into an inseparable whole. Themes of friendship, relationships and love, creativity, national identity, ageing, masculinity, insecurity, it was all there… delivered in Kevin’s unique vocal stylising, pulling in and engrossing the listener. Some band members from the past were back, with the addition of keyboards(hear the tide of Hammond organ on ‘Thinking Of You’) and writing from Mick Talbot, long-time collaborator with Paul Weller and most recently Wilko Johnson.

The live shows bravely started with the entire album: when I saw them at Cambridge Corn Exchange the audience were not yet familiar with the required demands of the new material on the listener, but were held rapt until the last note. The second half of the concert was more familiar, including a blistering version of ‘This Is What She’s Like’, the centrepiece of the (currently unavailable?!) third album.
Later in the tour I saw them again at Bury St Edmunds Apex, a more intimate venue and by this time the new song-cycle had really reached hearts and minds. Three of the pivotal songs are about the idealising/idolising of a woman, played brilliantly by Madeleine Hyland who suddenly appeared singing in the high seats at the back of the venue. She then joined the rest of the band on stage for the theatrical vocal duelling of getting together (‘I’m Always Going To Love You’) and an abrupt break-up (‘Incapable Of Love’), with Kevin at his tortured best.
It was the highlight of a great show and tour culminating in the nine night residency at the Duke of York’s Theatre in London, as featured in ‘Nowhere Is Home’.

Embrace and enjoy…

http://www.dexysonline.com/

Wilko Johnson, Junction, Cambridge, 6 March 2015

This was the welcome return of Wilko Johnson to live performance with a sold-out charity benefit concert for Addenbrooke’s Hospital, after their pioneering surgery led to a cure for his cancer.
The musical atmosphere had been well set up by support band Eight Rounds Rapid, with their sharp, smart punk-fuelled R&B, reminding me what a potent instrumental combination guitar (played by Wilko’s son Simon), bass and drums can be, topped with sneering vocals from David Alexander.
Then an emotional ovation as Wilko and his band arrived on stage. Any doubts that his musical edge had been blunted were quickly dispelled. He has an electric stage presence, strutting and staring, at one with his guitar. His style of playing incorporates percussive chops with short lead lines and patterns built in, shown to good effect in ‘Sneaking Suspicion’ and of course the classic ‘Roxette’. The recent collaboration album (with Roger Daltry) was heavily featured including triumphant title track ‘Going Back Home’, with the timely opening line ‘I wanna live the way I like…’. Norman Watt-Roy was coaxing and wrenching jazzy lines from his bass and solid drumming was provided by Dylan Howe.
There was a discernible ripple of concern in the crowd when Wilko left the stage after 40 mins during ‘ Everybody’s Carrying A Gun’ but we need not have worried, he was soon back having allowed time for more bass acrobatics from Norman. A long encore of ‘Bye Bye Johnny’, heartfelt thanks to the hospital staff and he was gone (but he will be back for the Cambridge Folk Festival…)

http://www.wilkojohnson.com/
https://www.facebook.com/EightRoundsRapid

John Otway, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 5 March 2015

John Otway is a true original, frequently touring and sometimes recording since his first ‘hit’ in 1977. Like John Cooper Clarke from the same era he is difficult to fully describe to the uninitiated, but he has kept the punk ethos alive, musically eccentric and with added humour and a cult performance that has an incredibly loyal following (as he joked ‘sometimes there are people in the audience who have seen me more than once…’).

Bizarre cover versions of pop classics(?) ‘You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet’, ‘Crazy Horses’, ‘Blockbuster’ mix in with his original songs ‘Really Free’, ‘Beware of The Flowers’ (7th in a national poll to find the greatest pop lyrics of all time!), ‘ Bunsen Burner’ along with a Bob Dylan parody, headbutting the microphone, failed acrobatics and one-sided banter with Deadly, his onstage roadie.’ ‘Body Talk’, as performed many years ago on ‘The Young Ones’ TV show, features percussive body sensors and the wailing sound of the theremin is pushed to its limits.

It is all hilarious, he is such a likeable, self deprecating performer that even though you have seen it all before you will be there the next time too. The humour dominates but sometimes the emotional sentiment of his songs cuts through, such as the relationship aftermaths described in ‘Middle Of Winter’ and ‘We Know What She’s Doing (She’s In Love)’. ‘Poetry And Jazz’ is a longer detailed narrative of a difficult growing up process and shows his songwriting talent.

Sometimes described as ‘Rock and Roll’s Greatest Failure’, I think his longevity proves otherwise…

http://www.johnotway.com/

Public Service Broadcasting: The Race For Space, released February 2015

Public Service Broadcasting are an electronic and acoustic duo, ‘on a mission to entertain and educate’. By combining the original recordings of speeches and commentaries with different musical settings they create a variety of involving and atmospheric pieces. Careful crafting of the voices meld perfectly with the sentiments of the added music. It is not the normal expectation that a song will inform you of historical or cultural events, but here we get the full rundown of the competition in the 1960s and 70s between Russia and America to get people into space and on the Moon.

The prologue is John F. Kennedy’s stirring 1962 speech setting out plans for the future Moon landings over a background of ethereal voices, then the electronic pulsing of ‘Sputnik’ evokes the worldwide excitement of the first satellite. ‘Gagarin’ is a lively brass-funk workout, released as a single, then the optimistic mood is brought down with ‘Fire In The Cockpit’ reminding us of the fatal dangers always present in the early days of space. ‘The Other Side’ is brooding and tense electronica with commentaries from the Apollo 8 mission into lunar orbit. ‘Valentina’ commemorates the first woman in space with gentle strings and acoustic guitar and the heavenly floating vocals of Smoke Fairies, who will be accompanying PSB on their upcoming tour.
At last it is ‘Go!’, building genuine excitement in music and words as Apollo 11 finally lands on the Moon. ‘Tomorrow’ uses a looser structure to end the album on a speculative note, finally playing out with layers of keyboard, drifting off into space of course (a nod to the end of Holst’s Planets Suite?)

In concert they combine the sampled audio with live playing and visuals, I am looking forward to it…..

http://publicservicebroadcasting.net/

Blossoms, Portland Arms, Cambridge, 18 February 2015

The Vryll Society are an accomplished five-piece band from Liverpool, their spacious sound occupying territory from The Cure to The Stone Roses with many points inbetween. Long songs allow the mood of each to develop, no instrument pushing forward too much, as if the sound is approaching from a long distance away to gradually immerse the listener. The lead singer has an enigmatic anti-presence on stage, but he is still a hypnotic focal point. They appear to be named after a mystical energy force, which perhaps they have secretly harnessed??

Blossoms, another quintet, named after a pub in their home town of Stockport, have an unstoppable energy force all of their own, a poppy/indie/retro combination starting from the first song, the confident ‘You Pulled A Gun On Me’. Swirling organ and strong three-part harmonies add to the attractive mix and amiable frontman Tom Ogden bonds well with the audience. The stage was bathed in eerie blue light for the more acoustic and mellow ‘My Favourite Room’, then ‘Scattered Rain’ was particularly impressive, a bit different and changing direction all the time. ‘Cut Me And I’ll Bleed’ and the closing single ‘Blow’ are catchy and straight into the memory receptors. After this extensive UK tour they are off to Japan soon, on tonight’s showing I’m sure there are great things in store…

http://www.blossomsband.co.uk
https://twitter.com/TheVryllSociety