All posts by Darren Johnson

About Darren Johnson

PR, writing, campaigning and blogging

Rock/singer songwriter: album review – Craig Finn ‘I Need A New War’

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

Brooklyn-based band The Hold Steady had already made quite a name for themselves with their lyrical storytelling and classic rock influences when their front-man, Craig Finn, began a parallel solo career back in 2012. The classic riffs and catchy melodies of The Hold Steady had given way to a more mellow musical approach in a Johnny-Cash-meets-indie-rock sort of way but, clearly, Finn had happened upon something that many were looking for. Finn’s last solo album We All Want The Same Things, released in 2017, received no shortage of plaudits and he will be hoping to make a similar impact with I Need A New War. Again, Finn’s rich narratives, world-weary characters and laid-back, seen-it-all-before delivery take centre-stage on this new album.

“I saw this record as the third part of a trilogy,” says Finn. “Thematically, this was the third group of songs that I had written about smaller moments – people trying to stay afloat in modern times, attempting to find connection, achieving tiny triumphs and frustrating let downs in their day to day lives. Also, this was the third record in a row that I’d made with these musicians, along with engineer D. James Goodwin, following Faith in the Future (2015) and We All Want The Same Things (2017).”

Finn has moved effortlessly from twenty-first century rocker to timeless singer-songwriter and the musicians he has brought together evidently have a natural feel for what the artist is working to achieve. Horns, piano and sensitive guitar work fill out the sound and give the release the vibe of an album you instinctively know is trying to tell you something. I Need A New War will certainly help cement Craig Finn’s reputation of a modern-day singer-songwriter of some note.

Released: 26/4/19 Partisan Records

https://craigfinn.net/

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News: Cleveland Rocks – iconic independent record label relaunches

Cleveland International Records, the US independent record label that brought us the likes of Meat Loaf’s Bat Out of Hell and Ronnie Spector’s collaboration with the E Street Band in the late 70’s and early 80’s, is back in business,  relaunched earlier this year by the son of its late founder, Steve Popovich Sr.

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“My dad’s story is pretty fascinating, here’s this guy who grew up in a small coal mining town in Pennsylvania to becoming one of the most beloved and respected people in the history of the record business,” says Popovich Jr. He began working at the label out of high school during its second incarnation (1995-2003). “The idea to relaunch had been simmering for a while,” he adds, “when my father’s estate was finally settled after seven in a half years after his passing, it seemed like the perfect segue to me transitioning away from my company, Wrecking Ball Entertainment to relaunching Cleveland International.”

In the 90’s Popovich Sr. famously took on the might of Sony – and won. Popovich sued Sony for non-payment of royalties from Bat Out of Hell royalties. The case was settled out of court for nearly $7 million. As part of the settlement, Sony was required to place the Cleveland International logo on reissues of Bat Out of Hell. When Sony failed to comply, Popovich took to the courts once again and a jury awarded him an additional $5 million in damages in 2005. In 2012, Sony reached a final out-of-court settlement with Popovich’s estate over more unpaid royalties revealed in an audit performed prior to Popovich’s death in 2011.

The label is marking its relaunch with a CD and LP re-release of its mid-90’s all-star compilation called, Cleveland Rocks. In addition to Meat Loaf’s “Paradise By The Dashboard Light,” the 13 track collection includes classics by Ian Hunter (“Cleveland Rocks”), Ronnie Spector & the E Street Band (“Say Goodbye to Hollywood”), Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes (“I Don’t Wanna Go Home”), Just Us Girls (“Time Warp”), Iron City Houserockers (“Have a Good Time But Get Out Alive”), Euclid Beach Band (“There’s No Surf in Cleveland”), The Boyzz (“Too Wild To Tame”), Essence (“Sweet Fools”), Mike Berry (“I Am A Rocker”), The Rovers (“Wasn’t That A Party”) and Bat out of Hell collaborators Jim Steinman (“Rock and Roll Dreams Come Through”) and Ellen Foley (“We Belong To the Night”).

The album ends with Ian Hunter’s iconic paean to Cleveland. Although originally released by Chrysalis on the You’re Never Alone With A Schizophrenic album it became something of an anthem for both the city and the label. Hunter writes on his website The Horses Mouth, “The inspiration for Cleveland Rocks goes back to the old days when people used to make fun of Cleveland. Cleveland was ‘uncool’ and LA and NYC were ‘cool’. I didn’t see it that way. Lotta heart in Cleveland.”

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Cleveland Rocks released by Cleveland International Records April 5th 2019

https://www.clevelandinternational.com/

An afternoon spent with Dame Evelyn Glennie – Eastbourne College Theatre 14/4/19

Last Sunday I was privileged to host an afternoon of music and chat with Dame Evelyn Glennie in Eastbourne’s College Theatre. Beginning to lose her hearing at eight and deaf since the age of twelve this did not stand in the way of Glennie becoming one of the world’s most renowned percussionists. It was clear from our talking just how much her school environment played a pivotal part in this. This was not some generously-resourced specialist academy but a community school in Scotland. One where teachers happened to have a burning passion for nurturing creativity and one where something like a hearing impairment was not going to be a barrier to participating in the school orchestra. Glennie’s passion was nurtured and supported – indeed we had one of those people who played such a role in the audience for the event. Of course, being a full-time solo percussionist was not even a career that had previously existed but Glennie set about successfully inventing such a role for herself and remains an inspiration to many.

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She memorably played at the 2012 Games and during the course of our chat she talked us through some of the creative process that led up to that performance, not to mention the excessive degree of secrecy that was required from those chosen to take part in Danny Boyle’s opening ceremony. She also revealed that there had previously been an approach to play at the Athens Olympics in 2004. However, a change in artistic direction led to the commission being dropped. She had just told the audience that no creative collaboration is a failure even if it doesn’t quite work out – it’s always a learning experience. What, I asked her, was the learning experience in this case? Was she able to re-apply some of her original ideas for the London Games a few years later? No, she told us. The learning was far more about dealing with bureaucracy and as a result of that, she asserted, she was better equipped for that when the London Games came along several years later.

Audience questions there were many. What did she think about percussion as a form of healing? Had she ever considered collaborating with a visual artist? Where does she keep her instruments? What advice did she have for young performers?

And, of course, we had some wonderful, rich and deeply fascinating demonstrations. An array of instruments filled the stage. We were given a wonderful performance on Glennie’s prized marimba, for example. However, one of the most unexpected demonstrations came courtesy of several children’s wind-up musical boxes gaffer taped together. Setting them off one by one the first couple sounded entirely as you would expect. Once four or five were all going off together the effect was something quite different – and spectacularly sinister. She also talked us through some of the commissions she’s been given for film and TV soundtracks and gave us a demonstration of the waterphone and the evocative sounds that can create. (Check out Evelyn Glennie’s blog here for more of an idea!)

We ended the afternoon with a real treat as Glennie performed a piece of music called ‘Halo’ on an instrument called the hang. This is a relatively new instrument – think two woks welded together to make a kind of flying saucer shape with a few dents in it.

The effect was quite mesmerising and gave us a spectacular finish to a fascinating and thought-provoking afternoon. Certainly, we all came away thinking more about how we listen and how our bodies react to sound.

 

https://www.evelyn.co.uk/

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Live review: Steeleye Span at St Mary the Virgin Church, Ashford 13/4/19

It’s 2019 and yet another band are celebrating their fiftieth anniversary. That post beat-boom period of the late 60s to early 1970s was a period of exceptional creativity in popular music, perhaps unparalleled. From hard rock, glam rock, prog rock and, indeed, folk rock so many bands and styles made their mark and we are lucky to have a good number of them still touring today.

Steeleye Span are not resting on their laurels, however. This tour is about far more than a career retrospective from the band’s weighty back catalogue. The band have a new album out and songs from that are given as much prominence in the set as some of the old favourites. The album is not officially released until June but it’s available for sale on the tour so you can get a sneak preview via both the stage and the merch desk. In contrast to the epic prog-folk of the band’s Wintersmith album of a few years ago Est’d 1969 is very much in the spirit of the band’s ‘classic era’ early 70s albums, both in terms of song choices and overall sound. A version of Dave Goulder’s ‘The January Man’, an adaptation of John Masefield’s poem ‘Roadways’ and various traditional ballads from the album are among the songs performed tonight. Of course, there is room, too, for a good number of Steeleye Span favourites like ‘One Misty Moisty Morning, Alison Gross and Black Jack Davey. A new song, the beautiful ‘Reclaimed’ written by Prior’s daughter and sung a capella forms part of the encore, along with the ever-present ‘All Around My Hat’.

With a line-up that’s always been evolving only Maddy Prior remains from the band’s earliest days. Unlike those other veterans of the folk rock scene, Fairport Convention (whose fluctuating line-up has stabilised in recent decades), Steeleye Span continues to evolve. Jessie May Smart, who replaced long-standing fiddle player Peter Knight a few years ago, is currently on maternity leave so her place on this tour is ably filled by classical violinist Violeta Barrena. Lining up alongside Maddy Prior, the rest of the band’s current members are Julian Littman, Andrew Sinclair, Roger Carey, Liam Genockey and Benji Kirkpatrick. Talented players all, they bring a fantastic assortment of instruments, sounds and techniques with them, not to mention a rich array of voices.

Although rightly celebrated as icons of folk rock this band have always continued to vary their style, their set-list and, very often, their line-up from tour to tour which means there’s always an element of the unexpected and nearly always something very special to look forward to. Long may that continue.

Set-list

Harvest
One Misty Moisty Morning
The Elf Knight
The January Man
Alison Gross
Old Matron
Thomas The Rhymer
Tam Lin
Roadways
Black Jack Davy
Little Sir Hugh
The Weaver And The Factory Maid
King Henry
Seventeen Come Sunday
Domestic
Reclaimed
All Around My Hat

http://steeleyespan.org.uk/

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Related reviews:

Steeleye Span live 2017

Interview with Julian Littman

Steeleye Span live 2015

Steeleye Span live 2014

 

 

Live review: UFO at Shepherds Bush Empire 4/4/19

The house lights dim on a packed auditorium and a bell tolls. This isn’t the doom-laden intro to an epic number like Sabbath’s ‘Black Sabbath’ or AC/DC’s ‘Hells Bells’ though but rather the familiar clink-clank-clank of time being called at your local. For this is UFO and this is the Last Orders Fiftieth Anniversary Tour, marking both the band’s five decades together and their final set of gigs together. Fiftieth anniversary tours and farewell tours are both, of course, something we are seeing rather a lot of in the world of classic rock these days.

The band’s legendary guitarists, Michael Schenker and his replacement Paul Chapman, are long gone and bass player, Pete Way, bailed out a decade ago. However, the band still boasts vocalist Phil Mogg, drummer Andy Parker and keyboard player/rhythm guitarist Paul Raymond. Three out of five is definitely not bad for a rock band of this vintage these days.

Although never in the mega-league of stadium rock bands UFO have been a phenomenal presence in the UK rock scene and beyond. While they are rightly acknowledged for Schenker’s virtuoso guitar work back in the day, it must also be remembered, that UFO gave us a slew of absolutely classic songs. Indeed they’ve probably left us with significantly more truly memorable songs than some of the bands in the stadium-filling mega-league. It’s very much about celebrating those songs tonight and the classics come thick and fast: ‘Lights Out’, ‘Only You Can Rock Me’. ‘Love To Love’, ‘Too Hot To Handle’ and many more. The impressive ‘Burn Your House Down’ from the band’s Seven Deadly album and ‘Run Boy Run’ from 2015’s A Conspiracy Of Stars get a look in representing the more recent material but it’s mainly a night for the familiar classics. The band are in fine form, guitarist Vinnie doing a great job replicating some of Schenker’s most famous solos.

Mogg’s trademark geezer-down-the-boozer stage patter belies the fact that this is a historic moment – as the band’s history as a live act draws to a close. There’s another gig in London tomorrow night but Mogg’s on-stage banter is firmly focused on such weighty matters as Albert Steptoe’s junkyard and some waitress in Glasgow not knowing who Jimmy Page is rather than any overblown pomposity or thank you speeches. The venue is absolutely rammed as we say our goodbyes, however. (Too rammed if truth be told – Shepherds Bush Empire frequently seem to be over-selling their gigs beyond human comfort levels these days,) Yelling along to ‘Doctor Doctor; and ‘Shoot Shoot’ as the guys come back on stage for an encore seems a fitting way to say farewell to a band whose music I’ve been enjoying for almost forty of their fifty years. Cheers UFO!

Set-list:
Mother Mary
We Belong to the Night
Run Boy Run
Venus
Lights Out
Baby Blue
Only You Can Rock Me
Burn Your House Down
Cherry
Love to Love
Makin’ Moves
Too Hot to Handle
Rock Bottom
Doctor Doctor
Shoot Shoot

http://www.ufo.band/latestNews.html

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Related review:

Michael Schenker Fest at Shepherds Bush Empire

Interview with blues/Americana rising star Elles Bailey

This interview was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

I recently caught up with blues/Americana singer-songwriter Elles Bailey to talk about her newly-released album Road I Call Home, about the impact of her critically-acclaimed debut and about her current tour.

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GRTR: Your debut album was fantastically well-received. At what point did you start to feel you had something really special on your hands? While you were writing? Or recording? Or mixing? Or not until you started to see the reactions and read the positive reviews?

EB: I guess it was when the critics and their fans got there hands on it and the reviews started to come in that I was like ‘hang on, I think folks are really liking this!’ I find it is really hard to be objective about your own music but I am really pleased that Wildfire got the reviews it did, across genres! That took me by surprise.

GRTR: You must have felt under quite a bit of pressure when it came to putting the second album together. What was your overall philosophy when it came to writing and recording Road I Call Home?

EB: Just be honest – I wanted to write an album that was honest, bare to the bones, not sugar-coating anything!

I guess there was a bit of pressure when it came to putting this album together but it was such a blur of a year I am not quite sure how it all happened! I’m currently sat in my managers office and looking at the vinyl…. And that’s weird, actually having it physically in my hand and thinking – ‘how the hell did this happen?

GRTR: What has the experience of co-writing with some of these iconic song-writers been like, compared to writing songs on your own?

EB: I love to collaborate when I write, its great being in a room with someone sparking off ideas and working with folks like Roger Cook, Bobby Wood and Dan Auerbach is kinda mind blowing. Every now and then I have to pinch myself just in case I am dreaming!!

GRTR: What’s been your most memorable live gig so far and how much are you looking forward to doing Ramblin’ Man in July?

EB: The album launch at The Lexington in London was totally off the chain. The album had been out a couple of days and had loads of people singing the words back to me! I felt like crying it was so emotional! I’ll never forget that gig!

Ramblin man….. I can’t wait and am so excited to finally see Beth Hart live!

GRTR: There’s a lot of different influences in your music – from blues to country to rock to soul. Name some of your favourite artists.

EB: Gosh I have so many but right now I am listening to Mavis Staples, Christ Stapleton, The Band, Larkin Poe, Hozier ( I love his new record) and Ida Mae to name a few.

Elles Bailey’s Road I Call home was released on March 8th. Review here

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Photo credits: artist publicity

 

Live review: The Story of The Blues at The Printworks Hastings 21/3/19

Tonight’s The Story of the Blues tells the tale of one of Black America’s most celebrated and influential contributions to popular music through a combination of archive film footage, spoken narration and live performance. Put together by Hastings’ own Green River Blues Band, the town’s Printworks venue is absolutely packed out for them.

Having a fascination with this genre, both in its original country blues acoustic format and its later electrified form (not to mention the influence it had on both American rock ‘n’ roll in the 50s and the British beat groups of the 60s) this was always going to be a must-see for me as soon as I saw it advertised. I was a little worried that if the band didn’t quite get the tone right that, however accomplished they are as players, we might end up with something that ends up being over-romanticised and shall we say a little saccharine Opening with Sam Cooke’s 1961 hit ‘Working On The Chain Gang’ I thought we may be at risk of going down this route but any notions that they might not pull this off are soon dispelled. Narrator Jonathan Linsley talks us through the early roots of the blues starting with the shameful brutality of the slave era and the spirited songs of defiance that arose from that. The film footage that plays on the screen behind reveals a highly moving montage of images, from the almost impossible to absorb images of slave-sale stores on US high streets through to footage of some of the heroes of the emerging blues scene in action. The six-piece Green River Blues Band deliver a passionate and skillfully-played set taking us through early songs like ‘Take This Hammer’ and ‘Pick A Bale of Cotton’ through to later songs like ‘Crossroads’ and ‘Sweet Home Chicago’. Between songs narrator, Jonathan Linsley gives us glimpses into the lives of some of the performers like Lead Belly, Lightnin’ Hopkins and Robert Johnson.

After a short interval and the band are back one stage, the acoustic guitars now being replaced with electric. Now we move later into the mid-twentieth century, the band presenting us with timeless classics like ‘Got My Mojo Working’, ‘Smokestack Lightning’ and ‘Little Red Rooster’. Of course, though these remain well-known classics today by the 1960s many of the songs, and certainly many of the performers, had fallen into obscurity – until, of course, picked up, adapted and re-popularised by a bunch of middle-class white boys on the other side of the Atlantic. The show touches on this and clearly this was the entry-point for where the blues came into the lives of the guys on stage tonight.

The show celebrates the songs and those who created and performed them while pulling no punches in terms of the poverty, the hardship and, often, the brutality of the environment that the blues sprang out of. A moving and passionate celebration of the genre the biggest surprise is possibly that this is not some slickly-produced show that regularly tours the country but that tonight is strictly a one-off, put together out of love with all profits going to a local good cause.

If the Story of The Blues were to be rolled out beyond a one-off night in Hastings Printworks, however, I am absolutely certain it would find appreciative audiences in many venues. The Story of The Blues is a genuine triumph for those who put this together.

https://www.facebook.com/Greenriverbandpage2016/

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Bernie Tormé 1952-2019: a true guitar legend

I first became aware of Bernie Tormé as the colourful high-octane guitarist with Gillan back in 1981 when I was 15, when the band’s cover of ‘New Orleans’ was zooming up the charts. Bernie’s utterly distinctive, fuzzed-up, glam-punk, hard-riffing, rock guitar was as much an intrinsic part of that band’s sound as Ian Gillan’s vocals.

A year or two later I caught Bernie live couple of times with his post-Gillan outfit Electric Gypsies for two incendiary gigs at Clouds in Preston. The second of these gigs led to my first meeting with the man himself. A small group of us hung back after the gig and I was to discover what a warm-hearted and engaging man this was. This was someone who took the trouble to chat to a bunch of half-pissed teenagers, who joked around with us but who took our questions seriously and seemed genuinely moved by our enthusiasm. And that night Bernie signed my copy of Electric Gypsies for me – which I still have.

Fast forward thirty-odd years and, following a couple of equally incendiary gigs at London’s Borderline, the indefatigable Peter Cook put me in touch with Bernie and I ended up being approached by him to do the PR for his Dublin Cowboy album. A few months ahead of the release date I’d been gearing up the publicity for the launch of the crowdfund appeal. However, such was the unwavering support and love coming from Bernie’s fans, that the funding target was reached in less than nine hours on day one. It was a joy to work on the campaign for the album and I saw at first-hand Bernie’s sincerity and generosity in the way he engaged with fans. Dublin Cowboy deservedly attracted some great reviews and Bernie gave some great interviews but when I sent my invoice for the amount we agreed at the end of the campaign he emailed me back to tell me to alter the invoice because he wanted to pay me more.

A generous, warm-hearted man as well as a wonderful, unique musician and a superb showman, Bernie Tormé will be greatly missed by many. A true guitar legend.

Darren Johnson

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Folk: album review – Dan Rauchwerk ‘We Are More Than What We Leave Behind’

Part of New York-base folk band The Lords of Liechtenstein, the harmony vocals of Dan Rauchwerk, in tandem with his brother Noah, have hitherto drawn comparisons with the Everlys. Now he’s doing a Don (or is it a Phil?) and branching out into a solo career. We Are More Than We Leave Behind represents Rauchwerk’s first album released under his own name.

Witty, quick-fire, thought-provoking lyrics reveal a real gift for storytelling. Whether real or imagined we are introduced to some intriguing and compelling characters in Rachwerk’s quirky ten-song alternative history lesson. Mrs McLaughlin is cautionary tale about war and young men signing up but rather than ending in death and mourning like so many folk songs it finishes with the would-be soldier’s mother visiting the recruiting sergeant to give him a piece of her mind. Victoria, meanwhile, “a devil to the Irish, grandmother to the Czar” is a wry look at the legacy of empire.

There is an attractive quirkiness to the music, too, with Rauchwerk’s collection of old instruments including a vintage parlour guitar, an oversized mandola and an Irish button accordeon all being heard on the album. Kyle Joseph on bass guitars and keyboards, Sam Kestenbaum on keyboards, and Spencer Inch on bodhran and assorted percussion assist Rauchwerk, along with Caitlin Mahoney on additional vocals.

Strong melodies and captivating lyrics, We Are More Than What We Leave Behind provides a modern and endearing take on traditional folk storytelling.

Released: December 2018

https://danrauchwerk.com/

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Singer songwriter: album review – Mike Silver ‘Alchemy: Fifty Years In Song’

The independent label Folkstock has had an enviable record in bringing young up and coming artists like Kelly Oliver to wider attention. Here, however, Folkstock give us a 16-track career retrospective of singer-songwriter Mike Silver.

As the press blurb itself notes: “Despite a few brushes with national media, Mike has remained the preserve of the initiated.” Such brief brushes include a session for Bob Harris on Radio 1 in the 70’s and airplay on radio 2 for his 2003 song ‘Not a Matter of Pride’ but I must admit Silver had completely bypassed my radar. It’s to the credit of Helen Meissner’s Folkstock label, therefore, in aiming to redress that.

Learning to play guitar at a young age, successfully auditioning for a place in John ‘Johnny Remember Me’ Leyton’s backing band at 16 but turning it down for the security of the South Eastern Gas Board instead, Silver eventually found his artistic calling and re-invented himself as an acoustic singer-songwriter in 1969.

Mike Silver for BBC profile

This compilation therefore marks Silver’s fifty years in this guise and is a fitting celebration of his undoubted talents as both a songwriter and performer. Some beautifully intricate guitar work, thought-provoking lyrics and a warm and engaging vocal delivery make Alchemy: Fifty Years In Song a pleasure to listen to.

Personally selected by Silver, the tracks span from 1984 through to 2012 (Were there licensing issues with accessing the earlier material or has Silver simply made a personal preference for songs from his later era?) Highlights include the addictively catchy ‘Walk Away’, the self-pitying sing-along drinking song ‘Oh Doctor’ and the poignant and beautifully played ‘Breaking the Silence’ reflecting on the plight of Europe’s Jewish population in the 1930s and 40s.

A fine singer-songwriter and something of an unsung hero these past few decades, Mike Silver and his Alchemy compilation are well worth checking out by anyone with an interest in the acoustic singer-songwriter genre.

Released by Folkstock Records 26th March 2019

http://mikesilver.co.uk/

Alchemy cover art Mike Silver

Photo credit: artist publicity