Folk: album review – Pilgrims’ Way ‘Stand & Deliver’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

Following two previous albums (2011’s Wayside Courtesies and 2016’s Red Diesel) north west-based band Pilgrims’ Way are back with a third. There has been a line-up change since the last one, with Jude Rees now joining Tom Kitching, Edwin Beasant and Jon Loomes, but there has been no let-up in the band’s trademark vigour and verve.

Stand and Deliver is a concept album of sorts, that brings together a selection of traditional highwayman songs, always a rich and enduring source of material in English folk.

The album promises fifty different instruments across its eleven tracks and we hear oboe, bagpipes, flutes, recorders, hurdy gurdy, Jews’ harp, harmonica, concertina and melodeon, to name a few, as well as guitars, bass, drums and percussion.

In addition, the band cite almost as diverse a list of musical genres influencing their interpretations as they do instruments; from classic-era folk rock, through to Madchester, doom metal, disco and West End musicals.

The juxtaposition of the vocals of the three male members of the band alongside new member, Jude Rees, also adds to that sense of variety and contrast.

It is an ambitious project, for sure, and there could be a danger of something like this lacking coherence but the enthusiasm of the band and their combined musical talents definitely carry it through.

Material-wise, there is plenty that many folk fans will be familiar with, but the band definitely put their own stamp on well-known songs like Ibson, Gibson, Johnson and Cadgwith Anthem.

A sonically-menacing Saucy Bold Robber, with an arrangement inspired by a folk take on doom metal with some great vocals from Rees, is also another highlight.

The album finishes up with a spirited, tongue-in-cheek cover of the 1981 chart hit Stand and Deliver. How could any album about dandy highwaymen fail to pay tribute to Adam and the Ants?

Stand and Deliver is an ambitious album that is executed with style and panache. While there are obvious echoes back to some of the folk-rock albums of the classic early 70s period there is also something fresh, innovative and daring about Pilgrims’ Way that make this album a delight to listen to.

Released 20th October 2017

http://www.pilgrims-way.net/

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Dweezil Zappa at De La Warr Pavilion, Bexhill 13/10/17

This review was originally published by The Stinger here

‘Dweezil Zappa plays whatever the f@%k he likes’

As soon as I saw those words on a seafront poster advertising the show at Bexhill’s De La Warr Pavilion this was on my list of gigs to see this month. There have been ongoing and fairly ferocious spats between the Zappa siblings about how they take forward their late father’s legacy. And with admirable chutzpah from Dweezil this is being billed as ‘The Cease & Desist Tour’ following the lawyer’s letter he received.

Performing to a packed-out De La Warr, the performance is a vivid reminder of what a fantastic range of musical styles and influences Frank Zappa incorporated into his output, as well as what a fantastically accomplished writer and musician he was. From perfectly polished orchestral pop pastiches, to improvised jazz rock work-outs, to exquisite blues rock guitar solos the versatility of Dweezil and his band is truly impressive.

Of particular note, alongside Dweezil Zappa’s beautifully dexterous guitar playing and obvious love for his father’s music, are guitarist/lead vocalist Adam Minkoff, who has joined the Zappa band for this European tour, and female lead vocalist Cian Coey, who delivers some truly stunning vocals.

Set-wise, it being the fiftieth anniversary of the release of ‘Freak Out’, the debut from the Mothers of Invention, songs like ‘You’re Wondering Why I’m Here’ make an appearance, alongside later material like ‘Cruising For Burgers’ and ‘Studebaker Hoch’ as well as surprises like a wonderfully smooth rendition of the James Bond theme. There is no support tonight. Save for a short interval it’s just three exhilarating hours of Zappa. Climaxing with an inspired rendition of the Beatles’ ‘I Am The Walrus’, the audience are up on their feet for a rapturous standing ovation. Band and audience alike seem very pleased with their evening spent in Bexhill.

Succumbing to cancer in 1993, Frank Zappa was an early reminder of the mortality of that generation of musicians from rock’s late 60s/early 70s golden age. Such deaths are now reported with alarming regularity, of course. But whether it’s Zappa, Bowie or any number of rock ‘n’ roll’s true creatives, legitimate questions do arise about how we continue to celebrate their respective legacies. While few of us would opt to be stuck in an endless repeat cycle of non-stop tribute acts (or, God forbid, hologram shows) we do clearly want to find ways of continuing to enjoy such music in a live setting. In this respect, Dweezil has put together something that is creative, ambitious, affectionate and totally appropriate.

Dweezil Zappa does indeed play whatever the f@%k he likes. But he plays it so well. And he does his father proud.

Set-list:

Latex Solar Beef
It Can’t Happen Here
You’re Probably Wondering Why I’m Here
Bow Tie Daddy
Harry, You’re a Beast
The Orange County Lumber Truck
Motherly Love
Any Way the Wind Blows
Mom & Dad
Tell Me You Love Me
Cruising For Burgers
James Bond Theme
Studebaker Hoch
Rollo
Advance Romance
I’m the Slime

– Interval –

Zomby Woof
Would You Go All the Way?
Wind Up Workin’ in a Gas Station
Dirty Love
Daddy, Daddy, Daddy
What Kind of Girl Do You Think We Are?
Bwana Dik
Lumpy Gravy
Village Of The Sun
Echidna’s Arf (Of You)
Let’s Move to Cleveland
Inca Roads
Duke of Prunes
Doreen
Dinah-Moe Humm
I Am the Walrus

https://www.dweezilzappa.com/

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Photo credit: Simon Putman

W.A.S.P. at White Rock Theatre, Hastings 12/10/17

This review is also published on Get Ready To Rock here

Loud, brash, obnoxious, Blackie Lawless’s LA metal outfit W.A.S.P. burst on to the scene in the early 80s and were never far from controversy. Over time, however, the band evolved and their output started showing signs of growing maturity. To be honest it’s not going to be too difficult for your music to start getting more mature if your first record is called ‘Animal (Fuck Like A Beast) is it?

The W.AS.P. of the early90s had moved on to recording a full-blown concept album. ‘The Crimson Idol’ tells the story of a boy Jonathan and explores themes of estrangement, drugs, fame, money and suicide. It has become something of a cult heavy metal album and, twenty-five years since it was originally released, Lawless and his band are touring it in full.

Apart from the ever-present Blackie Lawless, W.A.S.P. has undergone numerous line-up changes over the years and no-one else on stage tonight originally performed on ‘The Crimson Idol’ album. Nevertheless, the band are in fine form and there is some powerful playing from new drummer, Aquiles Priester, and from lead guitarist, Doug Blair. Lawless’s distinctive vocals are as strong and as recognisable as ever.

Songs like ‘The Invisible Boy’ , ‘Chainsaw Charlie (Murders in the New Morgue) and ‘I Am One’ are superb tracks and stand up well on stage. Unlike when some acts choose to revisit an album in full and take the opportunity to reminisce on the history behind every track, there is little in the way of on-stage chat tonight, but Lawless is a charismatic stage presence nonetheless. Visuals from the accompanying film for the album play on three large screens at the back of the stage, adding to the atmosphere. It’s a great album and a great performance tonight.

However, throughout the show part of me was excitedly anticipating the encore and, hopefully, a run-through of some of the great songs from the earlier, dumber, stupider, trashier era of W.A.S.P. It wasn’t a long encore – three songs – as the band didn’t get on stage until 9pm, having only just arrived in the UK following the Scandinavian leg of their tour. But we did get gloriously over the top versions of ‘L.O.V.E Machine’ and ‘Wild Child’ which made a fitting end to the proceedings. Was I disappointed that we didn’t have a bit more of this? A little – but that has only made me more determined to catch Blackie and the boys again when they are next over…

Set-list:

The Titanic Overture
The Invisible Boy
Arena of Pleasure
Chainsaw Charlie (Murders in the New Morgue)
The Gypsy Meets the Boy
Doctor Rockter
I Am One
The Idol
Hold on to My Heart
The Great Misconceptions of Me
The Real Me
L.O.V.E. Machine
Wild Child

https://www.waspnation.com/waspnation.htm

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Folk: album review – Georgia Lewis ‘The Bird Who Sings Freedom’

This review was originally published in the October 2017 issue of fRoots magazine

Georgia Lewis won the 2015 Bromyard Festival ‘Future Of Young Folk’ and she has already packed in a nicely diverse range of projects into her musical CV so far, touring and recording with prog-rock band, Maschine and performing regularly with The Causeway Céilí Band as well as with her own trio, where Felix Miller (guitar) and Rowan Piggott (fiddle) have been accompanying Lewis on vocals and accordeon for the past five years.

‘The Bird Who Sings Freedom’ is Georgia Lewis’s debut album. Joining the regular trio are Tom Sweeney on double bass and Evan Carson on percussion. As well as thoughtful and innovative interpretations of traditional folk songs like Raggle Taggle Gypsies and Wife Of Usher’s Well, Lewis takes an inventive approach to sourcing other material. The title track, and album opener, is based on the words of poet and civil rights activist, Dr Maya Angelou, set to music by Seaford singer, Jerry Jordan, and covered by Lewis. Meanwhile, on True Lover she has a stab at setting an A.E. Houseman poem to music, with some pleasing results.

Until One Day, inspired by the forced separation of her great-grandparents during the war, is Lewis’s one wholly original composition and shows promise as a songwriter in both lyrics and melody.

It is also worth listening out for the fiddle contributions of Rowan Piggott, another rising star of the folk scene who has his own debut solo album out shortly. Piggott plays some suitably authentic-sounding traditional Swedish fiddle accompaniment on his own composition on the album: A Royal Game / Kungsleden.

A delicately expressive voice, Lewis’s final song, the murder ballad Lady Diamond, very much put me in mind of the way Sandy Denny might have approached and re-interpreted a traditional ballad like this. And that has got to be a huge recommendation from my point of view. An album worth checking out and a name worth keeping an eye on.

Released July 2017

http://www.georgialewis.co.uk/

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A tribute to my dad and an appreciation of a huge, life-long, deep musical education

Ok, so it’s not the usual theme for my blog but ten years after my dad passed away I want to pay tribute to him and the wonderful, passionate, life-long love of music he helped give me. This is the speech I gave at his funeral ten years ago:

“On behalf of the family I would like to thank everyone for coming today and paying their respects to Alan Johnson, my dad. Of course, I have no need to remind any of you what a lovely man my dad was – what a sense of fun he would bring to every occasion, what a great help he was to everyone and what a fantastic friend.

As his family we got all of that and much, much more. He was a wonderful father to myself and Lisa, a wonderful step-dad to Ann and a wonderful grandad to Rosa and Isabella. But most of all he was a wonderful husband to Jackie – two people who not only loved each but loved every minute of each other’s company.

Growing up, my early memories of my dad was when he was working in a bakery then a sweet factory. Now obviously it’s every kid’s dream to have a dad who baked cakes and made sweets for a living but unfortunately neither of these were well-paid jobs. I remember him and my mum spending night after night assembling stacks and stacks of toy watches and at Christmas time sticking wings on Christmas tree fairies to earn some extra money. But as a child I was totally oblivious to any financial hardship. There was always so much love and so much fun when my dad was around I only found out much later on how tight money was at that time.

One thing I have certainly inherited from my dad is his love of music. I remember being ill in bed when I was about six or seven. In those days kids’ bedrooms were not what they are today – there were no TVs, stereos or computer games. But my dad carried his record player up to my room with a big stack of records so I had something to do. I remember playing all the records until I found the one I liked best and then playing it over and over again. My dad heard what I was doing and came up and we listened to it together. And we enjoyed listening to music together ever since. The list of bands I have seen with my dad reads like a who’s who of British Rock: Slade, Status Quo, the Rolling Stones, AC/DC, Whitesnake, Uriah Heep and Dr Feelgood. And I am not even going to mention the annual family outings to see Gary Glitter every Christmas….

I remember the first time they went on a cruise. Jackie told me how they had been invited to have dinner at the captain’s table. Jackie asked the stewardess why, of all the people on the ship they were to be given this honour. The stewardess explained to Jackie that the Captain liked to surround himself with interesting and unusual people, and that her husband was the first person he’d ever seen playing air guitar in the ship’s ballroom.

Something else I have inherited from my dad is love of a good debate. My dad had an opinion on everything (and you would often get to hear all of them in a single evening!). He was always proud of my political career but I think he was also slightly envious that anyone could be paid for arguing with people as a full time job and not just have to make do with doing it in the evening as a hobby. But there was a much deeper side to it than this. Like his parents before him he really did care about the world about him. He cared about justice. He cared about making life fairer and that is something I have been able to take forward in my own work. And though he argued with everyone I don’t remember him ever falling out with anyone.

Something I have not inherited from my dad, sadly, was his DIY skills. No challenge was ever too big for him. Whether it was rebuilding the battered bodywork of his Ford Anglia with hardboard and bits of wood – respraying it and painting on some home made “go-faster” stripes and it was as good as new. Or a few years ago when there were damp problems in his badly-built kitchen extension – he simply removed the bottom few layers of bricks, jacked up the entire kitchen on car jacks and then replaced the bricks. But it was not just do it yourself for himself – it was do it for everyone else as well. I know there must be so many people here today who remember him doing things for them – fitting new washing machines, helping with wiring. He just loved helping people.

It was a life cut tragically short. But it was not a life of regrets. He absolutely lived life to the full and he brought so much fun to every occasion and so much pleasure to those around him. I am proud of him. Goodbye dad – my friend.”

Darren Johnson 30 October 2007

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Folk – album review – Peter Knight’s Gigspanner ‘The Wife Of Urban Law’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

Folk rock icon, fiddle supremo and former Steeleye Span-er, Peter Knight, along with the rest of his trio Gigspanner have been busy lately. This is their second new album of the year. First, in the summer came a live album from the expanded line-up of the band (known as the Gigspanner Big Band) and now this autumn the trio release ‘The Wife Of Urban Law’.

For those unfamiliar with Knight’s current outfit (Gigspanner actually began as a side project to Steeleye Span but is now his main focus after leaving his former band four years ago), they veer more towards the folk end rather than the folk-rock end of the spectrum. However, to merely describe them as folk ignores the huge range of musical influences that are at play on a Gigspanner album; from English folk to eastern European, French, Cajun, African and even aboriginal influences.

This latest album continues in that vein and is as expansive and inventive as ever. Knight’s virtuoso fiddle is, of course, an intrinsic part of the overall Gigspanner sound but so, too, is the suitably atmospheric acoustic-electric guitar of Roger Flack and the absolutely spellbinding percussion of new boy, Sacha Trochet, who took over from original conga player, Vincent Salzfaas, recently.

Material-wise, imaginative interpretations of traditional folk songs like ‘Green Gravel’ and ‘Bold Riley’ sit alongside self-penned numbers like the lively ‘Urban’s Reel’ which opens the album and ‘Lament for the Wife of Urban Law’ based on an inscription on a 19th century Oxfordshire gravestone which gives the album its title.

Hypnotic, infectious, inventive and utterly, utterly unique, Peter Knight’s Gigspanner continue to shine and this is yet another superb album from the trio.

Released 31 October 2017

http://www.gigspanner.com/

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Previous reviews:
Gigspanner at Hastings 2017
Gigspanner Big Band at Hastings 2016
Gigspanner ‘Layers of Ages’ album
Steeleye Span in London 2015

Rock/metal: album review – Wicked Stone ‘Ain’t No Rest’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

Formed in 2015, Wicked Stone are a British five-piece hard rock metal band, citing influences such as Guns n Roses, Alter Bridge and Black Stone Cherry ‘Ain’t No Rest’ is band’s debut album from Wicked Stone.

The title track is a strong opener. A powerful chugging riff with some nicely melodic lead guitar and a catchy chorus, their music definitely embraces a timeless classic rock feel while the vocals give it a more contemporary edge. ‘Hit It ‘n’ Quit’ It is another stand out track. Big and bombastic with a machine gun-like rhythm section and a Guns N Roses-esque stadium rock chorus, I can imagine this going down well live. ‘Rattleshake’ is another great track with some superb soloing which definitely helps convince you this band has got something going for it.

And in bolstering their classic rock pedigree still further the band can point to their drummer, Olly Smith, who played alongside current Judas Priest guitarist, Ritchie Faulkner, and the daughter of Iron Maiden bass player, Steve Harris, in the Lauren Harris Band. The other members of the band are Joe Hawx (vocals), James Forrister and Ryan Stageman (guitars) and James Amos (bass).

While I am not quite sure all of the songs are memorable enough to immediately pass the singing-in-the-shower test (always the sign of a genuinely classic hard rock record for me) there is, nevertheless, some real promise shown on this album and ‘Ain’t No Rest’ it is a worthy debut.

http://wickedstone.co.uk/

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Blues rock: single review – Big River ‘Hometown Hustler’

A big, fat, bluesy southern-rock sound, Big River know how to pull off an authentic classic rock vibe. Hometown Hustler is the band’s single release ahead of their forthcoming debut album. A meaty riff, gritty vocals, catchy chorus and delicious harmonica, Hometown Hustler also showcases some fine songwriting abilities as well as, hopefully, providing a real taste of what the album has in store when it’s released later this year. The band maintain Hometown Hustler has already become a firm live favourite after being introduced into the set earlier this year and I can see why.

Having enjoyed the Gravesend-based band last year when they shared a bill with ex-Bad Company guitarist, Dave ‘Bucket’ Colwell, it was clear then that they drew on some impeccable musical influences and could turn out some classic-sounding guitar-based blues rock. This new release has cemented their reputation in my mind. A band well worth checking out.

Big River are Adam Bartholomew (vocals), Damo Fawsett (guitar), Ant Wellman (bass), and Luke Calvert (drums).

Released: August 2017

https://www.facebook.com/bigriverblues/

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Metal: album review – Klogr ‘Keystone’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here 

Keystone is the new album from Italian-American alternative metal outfit, Klogr. Some may find the juxtaposition of very melodic, rather proggy instrumentation with grungy, alt-rock vocals something of an acquired taste but there are certainly some strong tunes here.

As with their previous album ‘Black Snow’ environmental themes loom large. Explaining the thinking behind the title, band-leader and vocalist/guitarist Rusty Rustichelli reveals, “Man proclaimed himself the “Keystone” of our system but he is just a guest, a not-essential animal. Without a lot of underestimated living beings, like bees, the cycle of nature would suffer serious damages. The earth without human beings could exist, human beings without the earth, no.”

One of the stand-out tracks is ‘Dark Tides’, dedicated to the marine conservation campaigners, Sea Shepherd, with whom the band have had a long association. Melodic and thoughtful, yet forceful and, at times, downright brutal, it warns in dramatic fashion of the threat posed by the destruction of the ocean ecosystem.

The album has been mixed by triple Grammy winner, David Bottrill, who has an impressive CV, working with the likes of Peter Gabriel, Muse, Smashing Pumpkins, Tool, Dream Theater, Stone Sour and Rush.

Personally, the vocals don’t really work for me but that is not to deny there is some great musicianship on this album along with some compelling song-writing, some powerful lyrics and some quality production. Fans of the band will certainly not be disappointed with ‘Keystone’. ***

Released October 2017

https://www.klogr.net/home/

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Folk-rock: EP review: Merry Hell ‘Come On England!’

This review was originally published by Bright Young Folk here

“An alternative national anthem” is what Wigan-based folk-rockers, Merry Hell, bill the title track of their new EP, Come On England! It is not difficult to see where they are coming from: in a country that’s been riven by inequality and division, they aim to present a hopeful vision for the future.

There is passion, defiance, warmth and optimism in the lyrics: “On the streets I have seen those with greed and hate in their eyes; and those with their hearts and their hands open wide.”

The socio-political theme continues in We Need Each Other Now which, like the title track, also appears on the band’s current Bloodlines album. Again, this is an anthemic sing-along with heartfelt lyrics that one can imagine resonating really well with audiences on the live folk scene.

Lean On Me, Love is more personal and more reflective, a gentle acoustic track, yet with Andrew Kettle’s powerful, distinctive vocals still delivered with that same air of sincerity and determination.

The final track is a live version of The War Between Ourselves, a bouncy Levellers-esque slice of indie-folk that has been a mainstay of the band’s live performances since Merry Hell first formed in 2010.

An alternative national anthem? That might be a tad ambitious but this EP certainly contains some rousing anthems for troubled times and it is highly likely that Come On England! will be a firm live favourite in the band’s set list for years to come.

Released: August 2017

http://www.merryhell.co.uk/

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