All posts by Darren Johnson

About Darren Johnson

PR, writing, campaigning and blogging

First, Last & Always with Darren Johnson

I answered some questions here for Jason Ritchie​’s Rocking Chair blog about albums that mean something to me.

The Rockin' Chair

Darren writes on rock and folk and as well as being a regular contributor to Get Ready To Rock and various other publications he runs his own music blog. He has also handled PR for a number of artists in recent years, including Bernie Torme, Thunderstick and prog-folk outfit Dandelion Charm. Visit Darren’s music blog here: https://darrensmusicblog.com/

The first album I ever bought…

Excluding the albums that I taped off my dad as a kid (Status Quo, Monty Python and so on) and excluding the copy of Highway To Hell that my older step-sister passed on to me when she decided she was punk and would no longer be listening to AC/DC, the first new album I bought (well it was actually a present for my 15th birthday but it was exactly what I asked for) was We’ll Bring The House Down by Slade. I have…

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Live review: Toledo Steel at The Carlisle, Hastings 3/11/18

A third live blast of this band for me in recent months, Toledo Steel are rapidly becoming one of my absolute favourite modern-era heavy metal bands.

Although they released their debut album ‘No Quarter’ earlier this year, the band are not quite new kids on the block, having been around since 2011 and with two prior EPs and a relentless round of gigging under their belts. Unlike a number of similar bands, however, their line-up has been relatively stable during that time and on-stage they are a formidable unit together.

Rich Rutter’s powerfully melodic vocals, combined with the twin guitar assault of Tom Potter and Josh Haysom and some truly, truly memorable songs make Toledo Steel a really great classic heavy metal outfit.

Storming through a set-list including ‘Heavy Metal Headache’ and ‘No Quarter’ from their recent album and ‘City Lights’ and ‘Speed Killer’ from their last EP the impact on the crowd is instant. These are not just great songs. They are fully-formed heavy metal anthems.

And with a nod to the classic era of heavy metal that has done so much to help shape and influence this band we also get a brilliant cover of Judas Priest’s ‘Heading Out to the Highway’.

Following in the footsteps of Black Sabbath and Motorhead in having an eponymously-named killer track they leave us with a momentous blast of ‘Toledo Steel’ for an encore and for everyone to roar along to. Superb!

While the Carlisle is not packed tonight the band absolutely storm the place and it’s clear Toledo Steel have some committed fans in the audience, myself included. Hopefully, it won’t be too long before they are playing on far bigger stages to far bigger crowds. They 100% deserve it.

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http://www.toledosteel.co.uk/

Related reviews:

Toledo Steel – album launch gig in London

Toledo Steel at Mearfest 2017

 

Live review: Ashley Hutchings ‘The Beginnings of Fairport Convention’ at Cecil Sharp House 1/11/18

As well as being a hugely influential musician Ashley Hutchings is a natural raconteur and an elegant wordsmith and here he’s built on his previous touring show (captured on the album ‘From Psychedelia To Sonnets’ in 2016) to put something together specifically about the early days of the band he founded: Fairport Convention.

Part book reading, part anecdotal reflection, part theatrical performance, part quiz show (!) and part full-on folk-rock concert, The Beginnings Of Fairport Convention is a two-hour show celebrating Hutchings’ period with the band 1967-69 and the four iconic albums they released.

For these performances Hutchings has put a full five-piece band together. Initially influenced by the folk rock that was springing up on America’s west coast and the burgeoning singer-songwriter genre Hutchings and his band-mates perform material that the original Fairport performed in their early days: songs like Eric Anderson’s ‘Close The Door Lightly When You Go’ and Leonard Cohen’s ‘Bird On A Wire’. It’s far removed from the English folk rock that Fairport Convention would move on to in just a year or two’s time and Cecil Sharp might be turning in his grave if he were to hear what was being performed in the hallowed venue he gave his name to but Hutchings and co. do a superb job of capturing the sound, and some of the energy, of those early Fairport gigs. (Well I was only a toddler at time so what do I know but to my ears it was like having some of the BBC sessions from Fairport’s Heyday album being brought to life some fifty years later.)

There’s anecdotes, too, of course: the band’s first gig, Jimi Hendrix asking if he could jam with them one night and, for their second album, Sandy Denny joining.

After a short break the band return and Hutchings talks us through the band’s evolution from ‘Britain’s Jefferson Airplane’ to the pioneers of English folk rock, following the band’s tragic crash on the M1. Hutchings recalls the weeks spent poring over manuscripts in the library next door and the revolutionary sounds they began to create together rehearsing in the Hampshire countryside ahead of the recording and release of the iconic ‘Liege and Lief’ album. The unforgettable instrumental from that album (‘The Lark In The Morning’ Medley) is recreated together with a beautiful version of Richard Thompson’s and Dave Swarbrick’s ‘Crazy Man Michael’. Becky Mills, who performs on the aforementioned ‘From Psychedelia To Sonnets’ album, does a beautiful job throughout the evening performing songs once sung by Sandy Denny, Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews.

Ashley Hutchings “the single most important figure in English folk rock” as Bob Dylan puts it, has more than earned his right to celebrate the legacy of the band he helped create in this way and, with the help of some talented musicians, gives us a very entertaining two-hour show.

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http://ashleyhutchings.co.uk/

Related reviews:

Album review – Ashley Hutchings ‘Twangin’ ‘n’ a-Traddin’ Revisited’

Album review – Ashley Hutchings ‘From Psychedelia to Sonnets’

Album review – Fairport Convention ‘What We Did On Our Saturday’

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention August 2017

Albion Christmas Band at Kings Place 16/12/14

Folk/singer songwriter: album review – Steve Tilston ‘Distant Days’

This review was originally published in the Autumn 2018 issue of fRoots magazine

Just as Richard Thompson went down the acoustic retrospective route a few years ago with the very well-received Acoustic Classics, Steve Tilston follows with this excellent nineteen-track album which reworks songs from across his almost five-decade career. À la Thompson, it’s just Tilston, his guitar, his voice and his songs. There’s a beautifully laid-back vibe to the whole affair which really gets you focusing on the songs and appreciating just what a finely talented song-writer Tilston is.

Highlights include the autobiographical On The Road When I Was Young, which originally appeared on his 2008 album Ziggurat; I Really Wanted You, from his first album in 1971 An Acoustic Confusion; and his most covered song The Slip Jigs And Reels, originally released in 1992. There is also some deft guitar work on the previously unreleased instrumental Shinjuku, dedicated to Bert Jansch.

It’s efficiently packaged rather than lavishly so, with all nineteen tracks squeezed on to a single disc. However, detailed liner notes from Tilston himself give a track by track run-down on the inspiration behind each song as well as details on where they first appeared.

Much admired as an artist, much covered as a song-writer Distant Days is a timely celebration of the gentle force of nature that is Steve Tilston. With some lovely guitar, poignant lyrics and gorgeous melodies Distant Days is turning out to be one of my favourite releases of the summer. Highly recommended.

Released by Riverboat Records July 2018

http://www.stevetilston.com/

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Live review: John Fogerty at the O2 25/10/18

A few years ago when, tragically, we began to lose more and more of our rock ‘n’ roll icons I made list of artists I had never seen live before but wanted to catch before they finally stopped touring. I had pretty much ticked off everyone on my list (Alice Cooper, Deep Purple, Ritchie Blackmore, Jerry Lee Lewis, Sabbath with Ozzy, The Who, Steve Winwood, Roger McGuinn) apart from two – Chuck Berry and Creedence Clearwater Revival’s John Fogerty. Sadly, a Chuck Berry gig was not to be but at London’s O2 I finally got the chance to see John Fogerty.

Before Fogerty we have a full set from the Steve Miller Band, Miller himself celebrating fifty years in the business as he delights us with classics like ‘Abracadabra’, ‘Space Cowboy’ and ‘The Joker’. I’ve sometimes found the atmosphere in the O2 a bit sterile at times, particularly for support acts, and even though I can’t help feeling I would have liked to have seen this hour-long set in a more intimate venue nevertheless he and his band are warmly received and there is genuine affection for Miller and co.

After the interval the atmosphere is simply buzzing as John Fogerty takes the stage. His voice, his guitar, his songs and his stage demeanour leave every member of the packed O2 in no doubt that we are in the presence of one of the true icons of American rock music. The classic songs come thick and fast: ‘Travelin’ Band’, ‘Up Around The Bend, ‘Who’ll Stop The Rain’, ‘Born On The Bayou’ and many, many more. And paying tribute to the musical traditions of the American south the band deliver fine covers of ‘My Toot Toot’, ‘Jamabalya’ and ‘New Orleans’ before launching into another round of era-defining Creedence classics, including ‘Have You Ever Seen The Rain’, ‘Fortunate Son’ ‘Bad Moon Rising’, ‘Proud Mary’. Fogerty’s post-Creedence output is represented by ‘The Old Man Down The Road’ (the track for which Fogerty was famously accused of plagiarising one of his own earlier songs in one of his many legal battles) and ‘Rockin’ All Over The World’ (indelibly imprinted in the minds of every British rock fan due to Status Quo’s legendary cover – but it’s great, for once, to see the song performed by the man who wrote it).

My one tiny regret is that we don’t get ‘Some Day Never Comes’ a moment of sheer unadulterated brilliance on CCR’s very patchy final album, recorded just as the band were imploding. Nevertheless, every single second of John Fogerty’s set tonight is a bucket-list performance at a bucket-list gig. I am very happy I was there to witness it.

Set-list:

Travelin’ Band
Green River
Hey Tonight
Up Around the Bend
Who’ll Stop the Rain
Lookin’ Out My Back Door
Rock and Roll Girls
Good Golly Miss Molly
Psycho
Long as I Can See the Light
Mystic Highway
Born on the Bayou
My Toot Toot
Jambalaya (On the Bayou)
New Orleans
Have You Ever Seen the Rain?
Rockin’ All Over the World
Down on the Corner
The Old Man Down the Road
Keep On Chooglin’
Fortunate Son
Bad Moon Rising
Proud Mary

https://johnfogerty.com/

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Singer/songwriter: album review – JR Harbidge ‘First Ray of Light’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

Involved in the Midlands music scene since his teens, in bands such as the grunge-influenced Third Bullet as well as production work for a variety of outfits, a change of direction, together with a change of location, has led to a new, more introspective approach for JR Harbidge. Out goes the harder-edged rock artist to be replaced by a soulful, Americana-tinged singer songwriter. The album itself has flavours of Bob Dylan, Crosby, Still & Nash and Neil Young.

There’s a distinctive feel to Harbidge’s vocals, some nice acoustic guitar work and some fine supporting musicians who capture that laid-back Americana vibe just perfectly. The thing about the whole singer songwriter routine, though, is that you really have to have the songs to pull it off. And I’m pleased to say Harbidge has more than delivered in that department. There’s a maturity about the song-writing that belies the fact this is a new direction for the artist.

Covering themes from the personal to the political, from relationships (‘The Side Of You That Cares’) to war and peace (‘I Won’t Support Your Wars’) the songs are engaging and the lyrics elicit empathy. Harbidge has an ear for a good tune as well: “I always try and bring out melody in everything because I live to sing along to songs. If I can’t sing along to a song I’m not interested in it.”

With a voice you can easily warm to, songs you can easily relate to and melodies you can hum along to this is a worthy solo debut for JR Harbidge. Well worth exploring further.

Released by Absolute via Universal/Sony on 5th October 2018

https://jrharbidge.com/

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Folk: album review – Young Waters ‘Young Waters’

This review was originally published in the Autumn 2018 issue of fRoots magazine

Not a duo, no Young and, indeed, no Waters, Young Waters are actually a young five-piece folk band led by songwriter, vocalist and guitarist, Theo Passingham. The band won Bath Folk Festival’s ‘New Shoots’ competition in 2016 and this led to a recording session at Peter Gabriel’s renowned Real World studios. Indeed, six tracks of the eight tracks on the album were recorded in a single day at that session.

Frequently described as ‘neo-folk’ comparisons have been made with everyone from Fleet Foxes to Fairport Convention. Composers, Philip Glass, John Taverner and Estonia’s Arvo Pärt are cited as inspirations, too.

Although the album includes a traditional song as well as another cover, the remaining tracks are all written by Passingham. We are told, however, there is a heavily collaborative approach in terms of seeking out just the right arrangements and harmonies for each song which has certainly paid off. There is a delicate frailty about Passingham’s voice which suits the lyrical content perfectly. Song titles like Dust, Bleary Eyed and Weary Soul give you somewhat of an idea about what to expect, yet the beautiful melodies and beguiling acoustic guitar add contrast and texture to the mix, as do the the deliciously warm choral-inspired harmonies. It is the latter where the Fleet Foxes comparisons are most evident.

Already making an impact on the festival circuit, Young Waters have delivered an impressive debut here.

Released: September 2018

https://www.young-waters.com/

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Live review: John Verity Band at Printers Playhouse, Eastbourne 20/10/18

When the booking for another venue in the town had fallen through and John Verity’s wife/manager, Carole, put out a call out on social media asking for possible alternatives I suggested Eastbourne’s Printers Playhouse, fast establishing itself as a decent small venue. Given that my off-the-cuff suggestion actually worked out and the John Verity Band were able to secure a booking there I thought the least I could do was get myself along. No chore this though. I have seen the former Argent guitarist at various Butlins weekends and it’s always a highly enjoyable set.

Playing some beautifully emotive slow blues as well as a few well-chosen rock classics, John Verity and his band-mates, John Gordon on bass and Liam Gray on drums, give us ninety minutes of sheer quality in this intimate and tightly-packed upstairs venue. While there are a fair few self-written songs played tonight, like ‘Blues in Heaven’ a beautiful tribute he had written for a former colleague and friend who passed away, there’s no shortage of covers either. Verity has never been at all snobbish about doing cover versions, whether blues standards or rock classics, but he always puts his own indelible stamp on them with his own inimitable guitar sound. As well as a cracking cover of a late-period Etta James song ‘The Blues Is My Business’ we are treated to J.J. Cale’s ‘Cocaine’ and, towards the end an awesome version of Hendrix’s ‘Purple Haze’.

Though he defines himself as a blues guitarist through and through, Verity does tell the audience, he “did have a little diversion at one point” before launching into the familiar powerful chugging intro of ‘Hold Your Head Up’ for a superb version of the Argent classic.

A hugely-talented blues guitarist, a genuine rock legend, an engaging stage personality with a nice line in self-deprecation and a really, really tight, together band it is well catching John Verity on one of his frequent tours.

http://www.johnverity.com/

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The new wave of classic rock: six more bands to watch out for

There has been a definite groundswell of bands forming in recent years playing their own original brand of classic hard rock/metal, influenced by both the first wave of hard rock/metal bands formed in the late 60s/early 70s and the NWOBHM (New Wave Of British Heavy Metal) formed a decade later. Following my last round-up a few months ago, here is another batch of bands that have gone out of their way to impress me recently.

1. Ethyrfield

Absolutely everyone who saw them at Minehead’s Giants of Rock this year was raving about Ethyrfield. Not me I’m afraid – this was one of the bands I sadly missed at Minehead. However, I finally managed to catch Ethyrfield at the New Cross Inn and it was well worth the wait. Aged just 17, 16 and 14, Zach Cornish (vocals/bass), Ben Cornish, (vocals/lead guitar) and Dan Aston (drums) put in an absolutely incredible performance. Tony Iommi has mentored the band, they’ve picked up various awards and were voted winners of the introducing stage at Giants of Rock this year and will thus be returning to the main stage next year. I’ll be there. Simply incredible.

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https://www.ethyrfield.com/

2. Saints Of Sin

If many of the bands flying under the NWOCR look to the NWOBHM scene of the late 70s/early 80s for inspiration Saints Of Sin appear to have stepped straight out of the LA metal scene circa 1987. Big hooks, catchy choruses and bags of attitude they were one of Friday’s highlights for me. The band’s excellent album ‘Welcome To The Circus’ is well worth getting hold of.

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https://www.saintsofsin.band/

3. The Black Bullets

The Black Bullets who, if I had to describe them, bring to mind a meeting of Bon Scott and Angus Young circa 1975 and The New York Dolls. Sleazy, raunchy, dirty and brilliantly fun this is the kind of music you could never tire of. From an amazingly strong line-up of acts at the New Cross Inn’s Four Sticks Classic Rock All Dayer back in March The Black Bullets were one of my favourite bands of the day.

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https://www.facebook.com/TheBlackBulletsUK

4. Tomorrow Is Lost

Tomorrow Is Lost, a young band from Newcastle formed last year and fronted by female singer, Cass King, were one of the highlights at the New Cross Inn’s second Four Sticks event this October. Great vocals and a real sense of showmanship I snapped up their two recent EPs after their set and they are now a definite addition to my ‘ones to watch’ list.

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https://tomorrowislost.com/

5. Animal Drive

Bite! Is the debut album from Croatian hard rock band Animal Drive. Four guys in their mid to late twenties, front-man Dino Jelusic has toured as a vocalist with the Trans Siberian Orchestra. I came equipped with zero knowledge of the Croatian rock/metal scene prior to reviewing this CD but extremely polished production, a thunderous rhythm section some blinding guitar work and powerfully melodic vocals means there’s much to like about this album. Such is the sheer professionalism of Bite! that it wouldn’t be out of place sitting alongside releases from much more experienced and established bands. One of the most impressive debuts I’ve heard in a while.

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http://animal-drive.com/

6. New Device

Polished melodic hard rock and catchy well-written songs, New Device proved to be a great start to the day for when I caught them at the New Cross Inn’s first Four Sticks classic rock event. I picked up a copy of their 2013 album ‘Here We Stand’ and my initial positive impressions were definitely confirmed. Lead singer Daniel Leigh is an impressive vocalist, both when handling the all-out rockers as well as the slower, more sensitive material.

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http://www.newdevice.co.uk/

Related post:

A renaissance in classic heavy metal: six bands to watch out for

 

Folk: album review – Bert Jansch ‘Just A Simple Soul’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here 

The exquisitely talented Bert Jansch, the former Pentangle guitarist who died in 2011, has been inspiring musicians for decades – from Jimmy Page and Paul Simon to Johnny Marr and Graham Coxon. Indeed, it was another admirer, Suede’s Bernard Butler working with Jansch’s estate, who compiled this double double disc set. The ‘best of’ collection spans Jansch’s entire solo career.

Writing in the sleeve-notes, Butler makes a telling point: “Bert lived and breathed the sound of the guitar and its endless possibilities for communication, storytelling, conversation, emotional dialogue.”

This certainly comes out in the compilation. However talented and dexterous a guitarist Jansch was, his gift was always deployed in the pursuit of the songs and the stories and the emotional connection with his audience, never merely technique for the sake of technique.

Given Jansch’s considerable back catalogue of twenty-three studio albums, beginning with his first self-titled album in 1965 through to his final solo album The Black Swan from 2006, there is a huge amount of material to choose from – and this is just his solo career – the compilation doesn’t touch his Pentangle output or other collaborations. Butler has chosen well, however. Well-known classics like ‘Angie’ and ‘Needle Of Death’ rub alongside lesser known tracks like ‘Sweet Rose’ from the 1985 album From The Outside. Presented chronologically across thirty-nine tracks, each of the eras are well represented and it’s a thoughtful and thorough retrospective which beautifully showcases Jansch’s mastery of the acoustic guitar, his song-writing skills and his innovative interpretations of traditional material.

Just A Simple Soul works both for those looking for an introduction to Jansch’s back catalogue and for committed fans looking for a lovingly-compiled career overview. As Bernard Butler puts it: “We have a life’s work here, and what a life Bert Jansch has given us.”

Released 26th October 2018 on BMG

https://bertjansch.com/

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