Category Archives: rock music

Rock bands and music

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

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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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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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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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Folk/rock/renaissance: album review – Blackmore’s Night ‘To The Moon and Back’

20 years and beyond – 2 CD compilation

This review was originally published by Get Ready To Rock here

In spite of being a long-time admirer of Ritchie Blackmore and in spite, also, of a real love of acoustic folk-rock, Blackmore’s post-Rainbow outfit is something that has largely passed me by. Incredibly, it has now been twenty years since Blackmore and his wife, Candice Night, started up the Renaissance outfit Blackmore’s Night. This 26-track double CD gathers tracks from across their various albums, together with some bonus material.

Blackmore and his band of merry minstrels have come in for quite a bit of stick from rock fans over the years, ever since he swapped his Fender for a mandolin. In truth, however, there is a huge amount of variety on this album: from lush, Enya-esque tracks with beautifully atmospheric vocals from Candice Night; to jolly, folksy sing-alongs; to renaissance-inspired instrumental tracks; to straightforward soft rock covers.

For me, some of the material works far better than others. I found songs like ‘Home Again’ a bit twee and cloying, satisfying neither my folk appetite nor my rock appetite. There are, however, plenty of highly listenable tracks in the collection, too. The ones that worked best for me included songs like ‘Somewhere Over The Sea’ which really showcase Night’s vocals in a lush musical setting, as well as some of the instrumental tracks which really showcase Blackmore’s musicianship. Tracks like ‘Minstrel Hall’ build on the baroque-inspired themes that he began to explore in his early Rainbow days. It’s not all acoustic, either. On tracks like ‘Fires at Midnight’ there are some stunning electric guitar solos that put one in mind of early Rainbow. Rainbow fans will also appreciate a nicely done cover of ‘I Surrender’.

Overall, there is much to like in this collection. Blackmore is an incredible musician, regardless of whether he’s playing a Fender, an acoustic guitar or a hurdy-gurdy; while Candice Night is a fine singer with a beautiful voice. I only wish they would exercise a bit more quality control on some of the more obvious material.

Released: August 2017

http://www.blackmoresnight.com/

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Related review:
Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow live at Birmingham 2017

Fairport’s Cropredy Convention August 2017

This review was also published by Get Ready To Rock here

Fairport Convention’s festival at Cropredy has been an annual fixture for almost four decades now but the big celebration this year was marking the fiftieth anniversary of the band’s formation. In the eight years since I have been going it has always been quite an eclectic bill, straddling folk, rock and retro pop. This year it leaned more towards the folk-rock end than normal because, it being the fiftieth anniversary, a number of sets from ex-Fairport members and close associates were on the bill. This meant there were lots of acts that I was really looking forward to, this time, even if there was perhaps a little less variety in the festival line-up than normal.

Before we got to the three-hour set from Fairport Convention on the Saturday night, therefore, there were plenty of highlights over the three days: including the ever-impressive Show of Hands; last year’s festival darlings, The Pierce Brothers, who returned for a repeat performance; and the Gigspanner Big Band (where Peter Knight’s trio join forces with folk duo Phillip Henry & Hannah Martin). Of the Fairport friends and family spin-offs we had Ashley Hutchings’ recreation of Morris On, a stunning solo set from Richard Thompson and original Fairport vocalists, Judy Dyble with her Band of Perfect Strangers and Iain Matthews with Plainsong. Lots of highlights there.

And niggles? With a three day festival and three days of camping and drinking and music we normally choose an act we’re not too bothered about for a bit of early evening down time back at the camp-site. On the Friday, the Trevor Horn Band drew the short straw for us this time. I’ve never been too bothered about either ’80s Yes or Buggles I figured. But sadly it meant missing a surprise guest appearance from Russ Ballard. ‘Since You’ve Been Gone’ (Ballard’s hit for Rainbow) and ‘God Gave Rock n Roll To You’ (the Argent classic). Both sounded great from the comfort of our gazebo anyway…

Marillion sounded good but they did a dedicated fans’ set rather than a festival set. I’ve got my one greatest hits album and was really hoping to hear a few more songs I was familiar with that I could sing along to. To me, Marillion not doing ‘Kayleigh’ at a festival is as daft as Petula Clark not doing ‘Downtown’. Happily the latter obliged. Would I pay to go and see a Petula Clark gig? Probably not. But was singing along to ‘Downtown’ in a field with several thousand others one of those not-to-be-missed life-affirming moments? Absolutely!

While it might not have been my favourite Cropredy line-up ever, it was definitely, without a doubt my favourite Fairport performance of all time. Fairport Convention are a band that never knowingly pass over the chance to celebrate an anniversary and they certainly pulled out all the stops for this one.

Things began with a couple of songs from the modern-day Fairport and then suddenly, magically we were transported back to 1967 with all of the surviving members from the first album reconvening on stage for a stunning recreation of the first track on the first album ‘Time Will Show The Wiser’, followed by ‘I Don’t Know Where I Stand’ and ‘Reno, Nevada’. It completely captured the magic of that first album and was really special seeing Ashley Hutchings, Simon Nicol, Richard Thompson, Judy Dyble and Iain Matthews sharing a stage together. When early Fairport reconvene like this I am always reminded of when groups of old school friends get together they often seem to slot back into the roles and pecking orders of decades ago. Even though he has not been a member of the band for 48 years, Ashley Hutchings effortlessly slots back into the role of band leader, doing all the talking and introducing the songs.

Tragically, it is now increasingly challenging to reconvene some of the later later line-ups of the band and more and more stand-ins are required. Nevertheless, Chris While does a superb job filling in for Sandy Denny and likewise Chris Leslie for Dave Swarbrick’s fiddle parts, in renditions from the iconic Liege & Lief album. Songs from other classic albums Full House, Nine and Rising From The Moon (with Sally Barker on vocals) also get a good airing.

The set-list is heavily weighted towards the band’s first eight years or so, with only a smattering of songs from later eras but considering Fairport’s outstanding legacy of truly groundbreaking from this period that seems entirely appropriate.

Having seen Fairport Convention on stage some twenty-five times now and never once failing to enjoy them, for me this has easily been the best. A stunning way to celebrate fifty years.

Fairport Convention set-list:
Bottom of the Punchbowl / East Neuke of Fife / Ye Mariners All
Summer By The Cherwell
Time Will Show the Wiser
I Don’t Know Where I Stand
Reno Nevada
Suzanne
Farewell, Farewell
Crazy Man Michael
Come All Ye
The Deserter
The Lark in the Morning Medley
Tam Lin
Walk Awhile
Poor Will and the Jolly Hangman
Sloth
Now Be Thankful
Sir Patrick Spens
Fotheringay
The Ballad of Ned Kelly
Talk About Money
Rising for the Moon
White Dress
A Surfeit of Lampreys
The Hiring Fair
The Hexhamshire Lass
Jewel in the Crown
Who Knows Where the Time Goes?
Our Bus Rolls On
Dirty Linen
Matty Groves
Meet on the Ledge

http://www.fairportconvention.com/

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Other recent reviews:
Come All Ye box set – album review
Fairport’s 50th anniversary concert at Union Chapel

The death of Elvis is relayed to a caravan in Morecambe. August 1977

A caravan site in Morecambe, Lancashire. My older stepsister returns with the morning paper and attempts to relay the day’s main news to my mum.

“Elvis dead.”

“Elvis’s dad? What about Elvis’s dad?”

“No. Elvis is dead.”

“Elvis’s dad’s dead?”

No. Elvis is dead.”

At this point my mum bursts into tears. It had always been her ambition to see him, she tells us. And now she would never get the chance.13615008_10154293790751449_4858489364011888766_n

Looking back, the death of Elvis was a bit like a prototype Diana moment for 1970s Britain. And for this 11 year-old it certainly didn’t seem very cool. And throughout my teenage years thoughts of Elvis tended to revolve around cheeseburgers and white jumpsuits and awful films and general excess.

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But slowly that began to change. As my voyage of discovery with rock music careered back through the 70s and then the 60s and then the 50s it was impossible to ignore the presence of Elvis and it was impossible the brilliance of songs like Jailhouse Rock and Hound Dog and That’s All Right Mama.

Gradually, Elvis started becoming cool for me. Indeed, when I began switching from vinyl to CDs in the early 90s one of the first discs that I bought was Elvis’s greatest hits. And not long afterwards that was joined by a compilation of Elvis’s early Sun recordings where you can sense the palpable excitement as Elvis and his fellow musicians bring together white country influences and black rhythm and blues influences to create something truly special.

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Indeed, everything about the tiny Sun Records studio in Memphis held a growing fascination for me. My mum, of course, never got to see Elvis. But she did still harbour a lifelong ambition to visit his Graceland home. And I was just as keen to set foot in Sun studio. So last year we arranged a trip to Memphis together and both got to fulfil our ambitions and pay our respective homages.

Thank you Elvis. January 8th 1935 – August 16th 1977.

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