Motörpace (Motörhead tribute) at The Carlisle, Hastings 20/8/16

My review originally appeared in the Hastings Independent 1/9/16

When there is so much excellent original music being performed live around the town should the Hastings Independent be reviewing tribute bands? It’s a moot point and for much of the past couple of decades I’ve been pretty dismissive of the whole tribute band scene; but two things began to change. Firstly, being exposed to world-class tribute acts, like Australian Pink Floyd, appearing on festival line-ups alongside original artists and experiencing first hand the sheer quality of the musicianship, regardless of whether it was original or not. Secondly, reflecting on the legacy of some truly iconic acts in the wake of a seemingly endless succession of rock star deaths in recent months, not least one Lemmy Kilmister at the end of 2015, and concluding that it would be a particularly severe case of cutting off one’s nose to spite one’s face to refuse to celebrate and enjoy the music of, say, David Bowie or The Eagles or Motörhead in a live setting just because the instigators are no longer with us. No-one ever got sniffy about the artistic validity of the Royal Philharmonic performing an evening of Beethoven so should celebrating the music of some of rock’s greatest icons really be that much different?

So here we are at The Carlisle then to witness the Motörhead tribute act, Motorpace. First, however, the band as they put it themselves “are their own support act” and rattle through a number of heavy metal staples by the likes of AC/DC, Metallica and Judas Priest before doing a full second set in full-on tribute band mode. Wisely, apart from the bass player/vocalist sporting some Lemmy-esque facial hair and a vaguely rock n roll-ish leather hat, the band avoid the temptation to play-act the roles of the former members of Motörhead and instead concentrate on getting the sound right; which they do with devastating precision. All the essential ingredients are there: the fast and furious bass-playing rumbling away like some industrial power tool, the hoary, growled vocals, the blinding guitar solos, the power drumming. It goes down really well with the Carlisle crowd which has swelled significantly by the time the band come on stage to do their main set in tribute to Lemmy and co. Punters lap up the likes of We Are The Road Crew, The Chase is Better Than the Catch, Overkill and, of course, Ace of Spades as well as more recent material like Thunder & Lightning from Motörhead’s final studio album, Bad Magic.

I’ve certainly become far more philosophical about tribute acts. If your entire experience of live music was to be nothing but an endless stream of tribute acts, each aping the glory days of bands gone by, that would be rather sad indeed; but as part of a balanced musical diet I see absolutely nothing wrong with taking in the odd tribute concert. This is especially so when the quality of the performance is as good as that delivered by Motorpace this evening.

https://www.facebook.com/motorpacetrib/?fref=ts

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Related reviews:
Motörhead – Bad Magic
Motörhead at Hyde Park

Ryley Walker at St Mary in the Castle, Hastings 5/8/16

My review originally appeared in the Hastings Independent 18/8/16

Although originally billed as a collaboration with legendary folk-rock double bass supremo, Danny Thompson, Thompson has had to pull out of this short tour due to illness. However, this did not prevent the young guitarist and singer-songwriter, Ryley Walker, from delivering a spellbinding performance at St Mary in the Castle. As the promotional blurb for the gig put it, someone who “plays guitar like Bert Jansch and sings like Tim Buckley” should not struggle to draw a supportive audience; and so it proved. 27 year-old Walker, from Illinois, is an exceptional acoustic guitarist, very much influenced by 60s/70s artists like the aforementioned Jansch and Buckley as well as the likes of Davey Graham and John Martyn.

The audience (absolutely typical for a folk/acoustic style gig of this type) is composed overwhelmingly of sixty-something baby-boomers and twenty-something millennials. Those of us in our forties and early fifties, like myself, are mainly notable by our absence. We are truly the lost generation as far as music like this goes. This is our collective loss I suppose; but it’s encouraging that the generation below us are picking up the baton, both as audiences and as performers, as the supremely talented Mr Walker exemplifies. A powerful songwriter and a talented musician with a distinctive voice, he’s not afraid to work across genres and thus brings a range of musical influences into his performance, from indie folk, to jazz to blues through to rock and psychedelia.

It is arguable that the acoustics in this cavernous, iconic former church, and perhaps the atmosphere itself, tend to make it work better for folk acts than for rock bands. This gig is far from a gentle, relaxed strum-along though. It’s an incendiary performance with his two band-mates providing throbbing electric bass and wonderfully atmospheric, powerful drumming that throbbed, crashed and reverberated throughout the venue all night. They complement the guitarist perfectly and it makes for a more intense interpretation of his songs in comparison to his two excellent and well-received solo albums, but that’s all part of the excitement of live performance. There is light and shade and definite changes of tempo during the course of the evening, however. The Davey Graham/Bert Jansch guitar influence particularly shines through on the gentler, more laid-back tunes, where Walker is able to simultaneously coax hypnotic rhythms and beautiful intricate melodies out of his instrument.

“Wow. That was very intense, bordering on psychedelic,” concluded the two women sitting next to me when I asked them what they thought at the end of the night. I wouldn’t disagree at all. Two albums into his career, Ryley Walker is showing exceptional promise.

[Note: since this review Ryley’s third album has now been released. More details on his website below]

http://ryleywalker.com/

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Album review: NUA – Flow

My review originally appeared on the Bright Young Folk website here

Toronto-based instrumental trio NUA are fiddle player James Law, guitarist Graeme McGillivray and bodhrán player Jacob McCauley. The band draws on Scottish and Irish folk traditions. Flow is their second album and follows their well-received debut Bold, which came out in 2013.

A nice, clean, uncluttered sound, it is the interaction of the rhythms of the guitar and the bodhrán with the melodies of the fiddle that really make this band. However, that is not to suggest for a moment that the guitar and the bodhrán just remain in the background while the fiddle takes centre-stage. Launching their new album, Jacob McCauley recently explained, “We wanted to have three members that equally share the spotlight so to speak. Where each member can take on multiple roles depending on what is going on musically. Obviously when it comes down to it, we only have one melody player, but the guitar and bodhrán both have their moments to speak melodically instead of just rhythmically. The fiddle also has times to lay back and keep a more rhythmic feel or a more subtle drone.”

The result is an album of twelve original self-composed tunes, half joint compositions by fiddle-player, Law, and guitarist, McGillivray, and the remainder written solely by one or the other.

Opening track Wide Open makes for an uplifting start and sets the album up nicely, beginning with some bright, sunny-sounding guitar before being joined by some lovely fiddle that darts and dances around.

A whole album of instrumentals, regardless of how good each individual tune is, does need light and shade, depth and colour and several changes of gear to maintain the attention of most listeners, however. This CD is one that meets those challenges even, at times, within a single tune.

The excellent Ghostrider, for example, starts off with a very gentle and soothing melody but gradually gets more and more frenetic, drawing the listener in until finally, at the very, very end, the tune draws to a close with all the soothing gentleness with which it began.

A fresh and vibrant take on traditional Celtic music, a strong collection of original tunes and some inspired interplay between the three musicians, NUA are likely to continue cementing their reputation on the folk scene and no doubt pick up a few more awards with this, their second album.

Released: June 2016

http://www.trionua.com/

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The Equatorial Group at Music on the Bandstand, Bexhill-on-sea 6/8/16

Independent record stores that have managed to survive firstly the big chains, then the rise of Amazon then the downloading craze have tended to be the ones that made themselves far more than just a place to buy records and CDs. The Music’s Not Dead store in Bexhill-on-sea is a classic example. Its thirst for promoting music seemingly limitless and unconditional. Not only do they host regular live performances in store, they also hook up with the De La Warr Pavilion over the road to put on numerous events including this outdoor mini free festival on the terrace of the pavilion by the seafront. The first band on today The Equatorial Group particularly caught my eye.

“Sounding like Crazy Horse colliding with Fleetwood Mac on a dusty road” as their Facebook profile has it. Gentle acoustic guitar, some nice pedal steel, harmony vocals and some great laid-back lead guitar solos, their blend of slow, countrified Americana was just perfect for a hot August afternoon with a few beers by the sea. They’ve got some good original songs, too. And as you could pick up both of their self-produced EPs (2014’s Glebe and 2015’s Elvis) on CD for a fiver it seemed silly not to buy them and explore this band a little further. I’m impressed.

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The Eastbourne-based band have been around since 2011 and are now happily on my radar for the future. Anyone into this type of music is well advised to keep an eye out for them. And well done to both Music’s Not Dead and De La Warr Pavilion for giving a platform to acts of this calibre.

https://www.facebook.com/theequatorialgroup/?fref=ts

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Dom Pipkin at The Kino Teatre, St Leonards 8/7/16

My review originally appeared in the Hastings Independent 22/7/16

With its shopfront facade and trendy gallery-cum-foyer you could be forgiven for thinking there’s something nice but not particularly unique about St Leonards Kino Teatre; but step inside the main auditorium and you are immediately transported into a beautiful dome-ceilinged 1913 cinema that’s been given a pleasing shabby-chic makeover. Just for tonight, however, it’s transformed into a legendary New Orleans piano bar with Dom Pipkin (“piano from London, soul from New Orleans” as his website has it) giving a captivating solo performance of high-octane rhythm and blues piano.

After support from Chasing Shadows, a vocal-guitar duo with an engaging acoustic set of Americana-tinged covers and originals, Pipkin takes the stage and begins a whirlwind tour of New Orleans classics; name-checking the likes of Professor Longhair, Jellyroll Morton, Fats Domino and Dr John.

Playing blues and jazz from the age of 12 Dom Pipkin has now established himself as one of Europe’s top interpreters of New Orleans piano and has built up an impressive musical CV. Past collaborations include projects with Ray Davies, Palamo Faith and Talking Heads’ David Byrne. As well as solo shows, he also performs regularly with his own band Dom and the Ikos, but tonight it’s just Dom and his piano. He combines powerfully dexterous piano playing with a nicely empathetic vocal delivery that suits a range of styles and assists in making the songs his own, whether it’s pounding rhythm and blues, elaborate jazz or soulful gospel.

On top of the obvious well-known classics like Blueberry Hill, Ain’t That A Shame and Iko Iko together with some less well-known historical gems from the New Orleans jazz and blues scene, we also get some real surprises, too. Chas and Dave’s Ain’t No Pleasing You is transported from the east-end boozers and re-imagined as a stomping New Orleans boogie woogie. Cottonfields, which let’s be honest most of us only know via the Beach Boys, is taken right back to its glorious Lead Belly blues heritage. Pipkin is also happy to share his knowledge of the songs and their origins and I certainly came out knowing a lot more about the history of the New Orleans scene and its colourful characters than when I went in.

A talented, energetic performer with an obvious deep love of his subject matter and respect for its history, Dom Pipkin and his piano make for a hugely entertaining evening.

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Diggeth at The Carlisle, Hastings 15/7/16

The Carlisle pub in Hastings is the town’s premier rock venue, hosting a range of up and coming bands, more established (yet not major league) acts as well as various tributes to some of the big name bands (usually all free). After a trawl around Hastings old town with an old friend, we made it into the Carlisle just as the night’s headline band, Diggeth took to the stage. If you’re not familiar with a band already it’s sometimes a bit of a hit and miss affair: you are never going to like everything after all. But this band immediately grabbed my attention.

Diggeth are a Dutch three-piece who’ve been around for about a decade now. Loud, crunching bass, powerful drumming, some great guitar riffs and those austere slightly Germanic-sounding, slightly American-sounding vocals that Dutch rock singers can pull off so well. But, very importantly, they had some really, really good songs, too. It’s all original material but pays enough dues to heavy metal and hard rock heritage to give some of the songs the immediate air of sounding like would-be classic rock staples. In fact it’s a sure sign of musicians making an impact on their audience if a band that you’ve never heard of before, play you songs that you’ve never heard of before and get you enthusiastically humming and moving along to them while at the same time still sounding fresh and original.

In terms of influences the band cite AC/DC to Metallica to Michael Schenker to Slayer, as well as many more. I was certainly impressed enough by Diggeth to fork out a fiver for their CD – Kings of the Underworld, released in 2014. No souvenir purchase that’s soon forgotten about this: I’ve played it at least half a dozen times in the three or four days since I bought it. Songs like the title track Kings of the Underworld and See You in Hell have already become memorable classics to my ears and this is a band I’m certainly pleased to have stumbled across.

https://www.facebook.com/Diggethmusic/#

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Album review: Ray Hearne – Umpteen

My review originally appeared on the Bright Young Folk website here

Umpteen is a new album from Yorkshire-based folk singer and songwriter, Ray Hearne. From an Irish family who settled in South Yorkshire he has his cultural roots in the traditional Irish tunes of his parents but is deeply influenced by the stories, surroundings and dialects of the South Yorkshire coal and steel communities he grew up in, and in the post-industrial landscape they have become, where he still resides.

As Hearne says in his own words: “Where were the songs of South Yorkshire steel and coal? I knew songs about the Ohio, Thames and Shannon but not about the Don and Rother which had flowed through the whole of my life. Where were the songs in our accent? Shocking to say, they were nowhere to be found. It dawned on me that we would have to write them ourselves.”

Following on from the well-received previous album The Wrong Sunshine, Umpteen is a collection of fourteen self-penned songs. As well as bringing in some evocative lyrics, delivered in a warm, rich, no-holds-barred South Yorkshire tongue, there’s also some fine musicians and guest singers performing on this too, including Belinda O’Hooley, Jude Abbott, Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar.

Highlights on the album include opening track Moonpenny Hill, a passionate, powerful folk anthem, bitingly, savagely political but equally full of warmth and humanity. Here, Hearne reflects on the everyday struggles of the 84/85 miners’ strike where, in spite of “bitter the wind from the south” there is the warmth provided by comradely solidarity, supportive sisterhood and thoughts of the coming spring.

Away from the political narratives The Longest Hot Summer, with lovely accompanying piano from Belinda O’Hooley, is a nostalgic recollection of the gift of long hot summer days where “blossoms are garlanded in ginnel and vale”, the old folk are on their allotments, and there is an age to wait between “clocking on and clocking off.”

The Hales of Henry Street is written in memory of Private Henry Hale of Rotherham and thousands like him slaughtered in the First World War. Folk listeners will have heard many similar, equally heart-rending, recollections in recent years. But the lyrics eloquently capture both the horrors of the trenches and the impact on the folk back home. Lush brass from Jude Abbot gives the song an evocative, mournful and thoroughly South Yorkshire feel.

Whether it’s hard-hitting protest songs about the Thatcher era, wistful memories of growing up or historical tributes to fallen brothers a century ago, the spirit of South Yorkshire oozes out of every groove of this CD with typical honesty, humanity and good humour. Ray Hearne has done his adopted and beloved homeland proud with this fine set of songs.

Released: May 2016

http://rayhearne.co.uk/

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Album review: Ashley Hutchings – From Psychedelia to Sonnets

My review originally appeared on the Bright Young Folk website here

Ashley Hutchings has been one of the most influential, not to say prolific, musicians in British folk over the past half century. He has also written some charming prose, and over the years has proved to be master of an engaging and entertaining delivery of the spoken word. After publishing a book “Words, Words, Words” in 2014, which collated some of his writings for the very first time, an obvious next step was putting this all together into some kind of touring show. That is exactly what we have here on this album.

Recorded at a single performance at Wigan Parish Church in February 2016, From Psychedelia to Sonnets brings together songs, poetry and spoken passages from both Hutchings’ own previous work and other works that he’s had a close involvement with.

It’s all linked with a string of anecdotes, reflections and observations from his life and musical career. The musical parts feature the talents of Becky Mills on vocals and acoustic guitar and Ruth Angell on vocals, violin, pump harmonium and piano.

Of the spoken word sections, Hutchings’ contributions include a reading of the sleevenotes he produced for the 2003 reissue of the very first album of the band he founded: Fairport Convention. To the uninitiated, the thought of someone reading out old album sleevenotes to a public audience could appear a deathly dull proposition, bordering on psychological torture. But this is no ordinary album and no ordinary man. In this case we have possibly some of the most evocative sleeve notes ever written: “What we wore, Pollock-style paint-splattered shirts, fringed jackets, scarves various, dark velvet, boots with the heels worn down, voluminous hair…”

Listeners do get to hear far more than just sleevenotes, though. Poems written by Hutchings, such as The Complete Angler and You Are What You Eat, form part of the set alongside a variety of other readings. The spoken-word parts are then interspersed with a number of songs throughout the album.

In spite of Hutchings being a wonderful bass-player and hugely influential band leader few would argue that that this was on account of his singing abilities. He has, however, always had a knack for seeking out some enormously talented vocalists to work with over the years. This album continues in that tradition. Musical highlights include one of two songs on the album that originated through Hutchings’ work on the Lark Rise to Candleford theatre productions: ’Til The Time We Meet Again, sung beautifully by Mills. A Song of Two Bridges, where Angell and Mills alternate the lead vocals and each adopts the persona of a world-famous bridge in conversation with one another is another highlight.

For anyone wanting an introductory overview of Ashley Hutchings’ recorded work this album is not an obvious place to start. There are various compilations that do a much better job of that. However, for those who maintain a keen interest in Hutchings’ never less than fascinating career, or for those who have recently seen one of these shows live and are looking for a suitable memento to relive the event, then this CD is well worth a purchase.

Released: April 2016

http://ashleyhutchings.com/

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Review: Sun Studio tour, Memphis

In the history of rock ‘n’ roll there can’t be many more important places on the planet than this modestly-sized building on the outskirts of Memphis. 706 Union Avenue, Memphis, Tennessee is the home of Sun Studio, where Sam Phillips established his Memphis Recording Service back in 1950 with the aim of giving a recording outlet to black blues musicians like Howlin’ Wolf and BB King; where Ike Turner and others recorded what is now commonly held up to be the first rock ‘n’ roll record: ‘Rocket 88’ in 1951; where a young Elvis Presley walked in to cut a one-off disc, supposedly for his mother; where Elvis, Carl Perkins, Jerry Lee Lewis and Johnny Cash all recorded their early singles; and the place which indisputably can proudly claim to be the birthplace of rock ‘n’ roll.

Sam Phillips moved the Sun operation to a larger nearby facility in 1959, which somehow never quite managed to repeat the pioneering and magical success of the original, and by the 1970s 706 Union Avenue was being used as a hairdressers. In 1987, though, the building, along with the next- door diner, was reopened as a studio and tourist attraction and is now listed as a historic national landmark.

 

Sun studio run daily tours and a free shuttle bus service can ferry you between downtown Memphis, Elvis Presley’s Graceland and Sun Studio. The old diner is now a gift shop-cum-cafe and the tour first takes you upstairs to a compact but magical display of period artefacts; including studio equipment, instruments and other historic memorabilia. A tour guide talks you through the history and plays snatches of music, including that very first Elvis recording: ‘My Happiness’.

And then it’s down to the actual studio, first passing the reception area, once staffed by Sam Phillips’ assistant, Marion Keisker: a pivotal figure in the history of rock ‘n’ roll, and the one who first spotted Elvis’s talent. But like too many women in the music business, one who’s name often doesn’t not get the recognition it deserves.

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The studio, itself, has been recreated using authentic equipment and instruments from the era and, in spite of it’s post-Sun uses as a hairdressing salon and everything else, the original studio soundproofing that Phillips and Keisker applied by hand is still there to this day.

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The tour guide ends the tour by bringing out an original studio microphone from the control room, one that Elvis and Jerry Lee and Johnny had all sung into at the start of their careers. He tells us it was donated by Sam Phillips on condition that it wasn’t just locked away in a glass case but that visitors could pose and have their photographs taken with it. You can’t get a better photo-opportunity than that and it’s a great end to a magical tour of a historic site.

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Related review: Jerry Lee Lewis at London Palladium

Album review: Sandy Denny – I’ve Always Kept a Unicorn: The Acoustic Sandy Denny

My review originally appeared on the Bright Young Folk website here

Arguably, the finest female singer songwriter Britain has ever produced, it’s perhaps only been in recent years that Sandy Denny’s legacy has begun to start getting the due recognition it deserves. Yet on the other hand can there be too many attempts at repackaging? One Sandy Denny collection after another has been released in recent years so it is prudent to explore the purpose behind this latest one.

Indisputably, Denny appeared on some of the most iconic folk-rock albums the genre has ever produced. British popular music would certainly be much poorer had she never made albums like What We Did On Our Holidays and Liege and Lief with Fairport Convention or Fotheringay, with her own short-lived band of the same name.

At the same time, it is also not unreasonable to argue that a voice as unique and as precious as Denny’s also deserves the chance to be appreciated on its own terms: to be heard “pure, unadulterated and most untouchable” as the sleeve notes to this album boldly state, not merely as a singer in a band, however brilliant that band may be.

Even during her later solo career, which could perhaps have provided opportunities for the pure unadulterated Denny to come to the fore, her solo albums failed to remedy this for one reason or another. Each of her solo albums thus contained a plethora of guest musicians and elaborate arrangements, to the extent that they still receive very mixed reviews even today. Many a reviewer has argued that in spite of her outstanding prowess as a vocalist Sandy Denny never managed to make a truly outstanding solo album. So this is where this new collection comes in. Indeed, the extensive sleeve-notes for this CD cheekily subtitle it “The Best album Sandy Denny never made.”

So what it doesn’t try to do is attempt to provide a comprehensive overview of her entire recording career (as the 2010 Sandy Denny boxed set sought to do), nor does it simply collect together some of the best-known versions of her best-known songs (as other compilations have done). What it does do is bring together acoustic versions of forty songs from each stage of her career. Archives have been mined for demos, alternate takes, live recordings and BBC sessions.

While only a handful of these tracks have been previously unreleased, according to the sleeve-notes, that is arguably missing the point of this collection. It’s not really about unearthing new material or trying to gather together everything Denny has ever recorded. Rather it’s an attempt to bring some coherence to her recorded output and present her songs in a way that showcases her unique vocal talent with modest and simple, though still very beautiful, acoustic accompaniment.

Amongst the two CDs worth of track, the collection includes the beautifully understated acoustic version of Who Knows Where The Time Goes that Denny sang with the Strawbs, a guitar and vocals acoustic master of Fairport Convention’s She Moves Through The Fair, a brilliantly powerful piano and vocals version of Solo and a stunning live version of Blackwaterside, both from her solo career.

In an era where we can all get rather tired of the endless repackaging of classic artists and the endless attempts by record companies to find new ways of making money from the same old recordings, I’ve Always Kept A Unicorn – The Acoustic Sandy Denny is a project with a purpose, a logic and a coherence and as such it does Sandy Denny’s legacy proud.

Released: April 2016

http://www.sandydennyofficial.com/

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