A Real Labour Of Love: UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey – album review

Back in the good old days, before the great reggae wars, there was a golden age when everybody’s favourite British reggae band, the mighty UB40, in between producing fine albums of original music, issued a series of covers albums, collectively known as Labours Of Love. They sold more than 21 million of them and they gave the band some of their biggest hits, including, Cherry O Baby, Kingston Town, and Red Red Wine.

Since the band’s bifurcation we’ve had new albums from both sides of the great divide, but the new release from UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey is the first attempt to return to that tradition of covers with the band exploring the classic reggae sounds of the eighties. As Ali explained it to us in a recent interview these are the songs that he heard being played in Jamaica when the band were living and recording in the Caribbean and while some of them will be familiar to UK fans many will probably be unfamiliar.

It’s not rigidly conceptual, featuring as it does Stevie Wonder’s A Place In The Sun, (a Motown classic from 1966), and numbers from the late Seventies including Dennis Brown’s sublime How Could I Leave and Culture’s International Herb but it’s clear from the respectful way the material is handled that these are special to the band and the result is an album which, while not opening up any new or surprising territory, is still much more than an exercise in nostalgia.

Within a few days of release the album has already achieved the band’s highest chart position in 25 years, becoming their highest charting new album since their 1993 No.1 Promises And Lies and there’s plenty on show to please long term fans including Ali’s superbly soulful lead vocal, Astro’s singjay stylings (particularly on a fantastically complex version of Shinehead’s Strive) and the ten piece band on top form but there’s also a commitment to the material and to the roots of reggae that show how much this music means to Ali and his collaborators.

Highlights include a superbly fluid version of Beres Hammond’s She Loves Me Now, The Dramatics In The Rain, a deftly toetapping cover of J.C. Lodge’s “Telephone Love/Rumours and a delightfully pretty take on the Stylistics Ebony Eyes but for many people, me included, this is an album to play on repeat in the car, to let some of these classic tunes but strangely unfamiliar tunes make themselves into old friends.

UB40 Featuring Ali, Astro & Mickey are headlining The Royal Albert Hall on March 19 as part of the Teenage Cancer Trust series of gigs. For ‘An Evening Celebrating The Very Best In British Reggae’ they will be joined by Hollie Cook, Three The Hard Way – Brinsley Forde MBE (Aswad), David Hinds (Steel Pulse), Dennis Bovell (Matumbi) – and special guest David Rodigan MBE.

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Interview: Jess Clemmons

 
Jess Clemmons first came to the attention of British music fans a couple of years ago with the release of Here We Go Again, her debut album with The Bandits and one of the most exciting country rock albums we’ve heard in recent years. Many of the people who now count themselves fans first heard of her when her version of “Wichita Lineman” was played by DJ Terry Wogan, who afterwards declared it to have been even better than the Glen Campbell original. Praise indeed.

Since then she’s been a regular visitor to the U.K., touring all over the country and winning a large following. Last year her second album, Smoke and Mirrors was released. It was selected as one of the highlights of 2017 by Country Magazine and the lead single “Sister” received extensive airplay from the BBC.

She’s back on tour in the U.K. in February, kicking off at Fruit in Hull on February 6th and if you’re a fan of top notch country music then we’d highly recommend a trip to the north bank to catch the show. We got to talk to Clemmons about music, marriage and the perspicacity of small dogs, and we started by asking about the distinctive change of sound on the material on the new album.

idp: Let me start by congratulating you on Smoke And Mirrors. I’ve been listening to it for a couple of weeks now and it’s an excellent thing. It has a distinctly different sound to Here We Go Again. A little less country rock, a little more pop and gospel. Was this a deliberate decision or did it just happen, like a natural progression?

Jess Clemons: It was absolutely deliberate. The last thing that we ever want to do is to try to recreate something we’ve already done. There’s a kind of “if it ain’t broke don’t fix” it trap and some performers and bands fall right into it. It’s easier but it also means that you don’t grow as an artist and you don’t give the audience something new. Making a big change to your sound involves taking a chance and that’s why we spent a whole year working on the songs for the new album to try to get the best of both worlds – still recognizably the established Jess And The Bandits sound but with plenty of the new in there as well.

Jess And The Bandits By Sam J Bond

idp: Did it feel like a risk?

JC: Well there were certainly lots of times when I was in panic mode because much of this was so different from anything we’d done before but that was mostly before I’d really started living with these songs, sharing them with friends and colleagues. Gradually it came to feel less strange. I would take the old album and choose a song to play at random, and then I’d play one of the new ones and I came to realize that there was a coherence between the songs – a big similarity in the body of work, which is exactly what you want. I wanted to find a way to tie all the songs together because when you’re in a club playing live you don’t want it to sound like you’re performing songs that don’t belong together. So I’m really glad that I went with my gut and that my management team supported me and I decided to take a risk and go for it.

idp: There’s a lot of gospel influence on the album. Is that something that you grew up with? You seem to drop into the groove very easily.

JC: I did grow up singing in the choir and the gospel feel as always been a part of me. It used to hurt that whenever I would get a solo in church I was always given the gospel part and I used to say, “I want to sing the pretty little songs,” but soon I decided that I’d embrace it. When I decided to use the gospel sound on the new album it felt really good because I felt I was getting back touch with the gospel tradition within myself that I had not made use of for a long time. It was like I was going back to my roots and to being a little girl again.

idp: There’s an extensive list of writers who contributed to the album, many of them working with you as co-writers. Do you enjoy collaboration?

JC: I love it and I got to work with some fantastic writers on Smoke and Mirrors. Femke Weidema, who co-wrote “Sister”, is actually the producer of the album and it’s great to work with a producer who is also a songwriter because you can see a song go from it’s very beginnings to being almost complete in just a few hours. Having her as a producer with such gave me such an advantage. And there’s Emily Shackleton as well. She wrote “Every Little Thing”, which was a big hit for Carly Pearce and she’s fantastic to work with.

idp: So you work in Nashville but you live in Houston?

JC: I’m in Houston now and I think I have been here for longer than I’ve ever been but I’ve taken full advantage of the downtime including getting married. I’m Mrs Peavey now. I’m getting used to that but it still feels a bit weird writing it down. I’ll get used to that soon.

idp: I understand that your dog told you that he was the right one.

JC: Unfortunately my puppy died a couple of months ago but he was always very protective about who was around me. He was just a little dog but he was one of those little dogs who think they’re very big dogs. But when Chris was around he would just cuddle right up and I thought that if I hadn’t already figured out that he was the one then maybe I should just pay attention to the dog.

Jess And The Bandits By Sam J Bond
 
idp: I think you were also hit by hurricane Harvey.

JC: Oh yes that was precisely why we had to postpone the U.K. tour last year. It was scheduled and I had been in the U.K. for a month getting ready and everything was all set and then I got the word that my parents home and been severely affected. It was the worst thing I’ve ever witnessed especially from thousands of miles away. I spoke to my mum and she said, “Do what you have to do,” but I could have hear the pain in her voice so I asked, “Do you want me to come home?” and she just burst into tears and said “Yes.” I said, “Right I’m going home, people will understand.” She’s okay now. She’s back in the house and it’s coming together slowly. They don’t have a kitchen yet but they do have a bedroom and a bathroom.

idp: You also issued an old fashioned Christmas CD which has lots of U.K. country performers on it and a song by Gary Quinn. What do you think of the current U.K. country scene?

JC: I’m a big fan. I’ve been touring the U.K. since 2016 and I’ve seen the country scene develop so fast. I love the way a lot of U.K. country artists are using their own heritage to make authentic British country music. It’s not just a question of copying the U.S. music anymore.

idp: Are we expecting a mixture of new material and old when the tour comes round?

JC: Absolutely. It’s good to be starting in Hull because Fruit is an excellent venue and we’re hoping for a good crowd. I’ll try and put in the songs that people really love plus some from the new album and hopefully people will have had time to get to learn some of them and sing along.

idp: I’m sure they will. Have a great tour and we’ll look forward to seeing you in Hull.

The Flaming Lips: Zebedee’s Yard, Hull – live review

Flaming Lips

The Flaming Lips
Zebedee’s Yard , Hull
25th May 2017

Hull’s newest music venue is Zebedee’s Yard, close to the quayside. a car park by day, hemmed in by the backs of Victorian warehouses and office buildings. It might sound unglamorous but in practice it works just great, and while it’s probably destined to be a one summer only thing for the City of Culture celebrations it would be nice if it could continue to be used for the future because the city needs an pop up venue like this.

It certainly makes a great and slightly disorientating backdrop for The Flaming Lips,a band for whom great and slightly disorientating are the rule rather than the exception and they give us a show that certainly makes it into my top ten ever, an explosion of music, colour and joy whose psychedelia is only enhanced by the venue’s anachronistic red brick bowl.

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Everybody’s favourite young fogeys, Public Service Broadcasting, are the main support, equipped with tech and traditional instruments in equal measure and dressed as if they knew the yard’s buildings when they were young.

It’s the first time I’ve seen them live and I’ll admit to sometimes harbouring grave suspicions about bands that play computers on stage. I’ve vented them in QRO reviews on occasion, so I’m ashamed to admit that I have relatively low expectations of PSB. In my defence I’ll just say that it takes about fifteen seconds to realise that they aren’t what I’m expecting at all. No crouching over the decks gesticulating like they’re communicating in some sort of sign language for the constipated. No dancing on tables. None of the shouting “Come on Hull make some fucking noise” which usually passes for literacy for players of the Apple Mac and related instruments.

Their complex weaving of live music and samples is completely thrilling and even if I’m not dancing, (which puts me very much in the minority), I am completely mesmerised. No good asking me about the first few songs because I’m busy with cameras but I spend the rest of the set getting my head round their sound, which takes some time.

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It’s not until The Other Side, which deploys samples from the Apollo 8 mission, that I start to pick the threads from the complexity sufficiently to understand what’s going on. It’s a great track with the tension rising throughout,like a hundred heartbeats woven into one until it reaches a massive crescendo.

Favourite tracks are hard to call because it still all felt very new but Everest, which closes the set, is incredible and when Public Service Broadcasting leave the stage I have a new favourite band.

And then we’re all set for the main event. As a prequel nets filled with huge balloons are manoeuvred into the gangway at the side of the stage but so bijou is Zebedee’s Yard the crew are unable to get them past the scaffold structure. After several minutes of effort, filled with the sound of popping rubber, they give up and the balloons are distributed to the crowd by way of a human chain. It’s an impressive piece of work.

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It’s my first live encounter with The Flaming Lips, a band whose shows have achieved legendary status. The previous night they were at Glastonbury, closing things up on the Park Stage. Tonight it’s a car park in Hull. It might seem like a bit of a come down but you have to remember that this year Hull is the official UK city of real, proper culture, and Glastonbury is, as ever, the home of middle class beardy weirdy wannabe culture.

It’s difficult to know how to approach a Flaming Lips review. If you’ve seen them before you won’t need a description. If you haven’t then you probably won’t believe me.

The balloons having been pretty much eliminated by the end of Race For The Prize, Wayne Coyne, dressed in crimson velvet, is joined on stage by several large inflatable manga characters for a glorious Yoshimi. For the first time ever I miss loads of shots because I am too busy singing along. When There Should Be Unicorns trots in Coyne rides a ten foot luminous equine monocerous into the crowd. It’s a dangerous thing to attempt and the only safety gear with which he is equipped are some inflatable rainbow wings and a pair of fluffy green crocodile feet. If it all sounds a bit predictable then all I can do is promise you that it’s great. The unicorn completes a full circuit of Zebedee’s Yard and Coyne dismounts.

After that it all gets a bit weird.

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The hamster ball comes out for a strangely poignant Space Oddity and there’s a giant rainbow, more confetti cannons than you can shake a stick at, and a large inflatable Fuck Yeah Hull sign which has a much more pleasing symmetry than the previous night’s bottom heavy Fuck Yeah Glastonbury.

What’s most important though is that at no point in the whole bizarre process does the quality of the performance ever slip below fantastic. There may be a lot of nonsense in the air but it isn’t allowed to compromise the music.

The Yeah Yeah Yeah Song is a huge singalong and Coyne seems pleasantly surprised at how many people are able to join in with verses as well as chorus. The show winds up with a storming She Don’t Use Jelly and a tender and lovely Beatles tinged Do You Realize, which has the crowd singing as they leave.

Ward Thomas: The Engine Shed, Lincoln – live review

Ward Thomas
The Engine Shed, Lincoln
25th May 2017

Credible British country music artists tend to be somewhat thin on the ground but with the arrival on the scene of Hampshire based duo Ward Thomas, (made up of sisters Catherine and Lizzy Ward Thomas) it certainly looks as though UK fans might have some top drawer home grown talent to cheer about for once. Call it the Nashville effect or the C2C effect, call it the Whispering Bob effect, but British country music is on the up.

Ward Thomas have two excellent albums to their names including Cartwheels, a UK number one album earlier this year, (and not the UK country charts either, the real proper chart), recorded in Nashville with Bobby Blazier and Chris Rodriguez, who have worked with Wynonna Judd and Shania Twain respectively and they have a deal with Sony who appear to be prepared to invest some serious effort in them. It’s pretty clear where Ward Thomas see their trajectory and it’s right up there where Taylor Swift is leading the way.

They certainly write terrific country pop songs, not those huge lumbering epics that some country artists prefer but sweet little songs about love and aspiration and their voices are superb, with just the right amount of heartache and Southern twang without it getting silly. So for my part their show at Lincoln Engine Shed on Thursday 25th May is about finding out whether they can carry it off live and the answer is that they can do it in style.


Extra security checks mean that we only get to see the last couple of songs from openers Wildwood Kin which is a shame because from what little we heard their harmonies were terrific, particularly on their cover of Crosby, Stills and Nash’s Helplessly Hoping. They’ve got a packed schedule of summer festivals on the way and if you get the chance to see them you should definitely take it.

Whatever the little bit of magic is that turns country music into gold Ward Thomas have oodles of it and then some. They take turns at lead vocal and their four piece band are as sharp as you could wish and they switch between the Roadhouse style bluesy swingers and the softer ballad style numbers easily, performing an acoustic section mid show by way of variety.

Highlights include Town Called Ugley which recalls The Mamas & The Papas Creeque Alley, Cartwheels and the new single Material and they round the show off with Push For The Stride, the opening track from 2014’s From Where We Stand, probably the first Ward Thomas song that many of the crowd tonight heard and just about the perfect way to finish. It’s a song full of platitudes, I’ll give you that, but it’s a song that gets even the most curmudgeonly of us, (that would be me), tapping their toes and as we leave we’re all smiling and singing as we scour the pavement for an authentic looking stalk of corn to chew on.

~

Ward Thomas: Website | Facebook | Twitter

All words and photography by idp

The xx: Nottingham Arena – live review

Can it really be eight years since The xx picked up the top prize at the Mercury Awards? Seems like only yesterday, and even though they’ve released two albums since then and are seasoned veterans of the music industry, I still find that I worry about them, just a little. Partly it’s because their photos often make them look sort of vulnerable, but mostly it’s because their music sounds so personal and revealing. They seem to put much more of themselves on the line than other bands.

Maybe I’m wrong, but as I head for my first ever live encounter with the band, at Nottingham on Saturday 4th March, I find that I’m just slightly nervous about how their sound will translate to a packed arena (and from the crowds making their way through the streets in the direction of the Arena, it was pretty clear that it will indeed by packed out).

It’s not the size of the venue, so much as the presence of all these other people. I would gladly sit at the back of the arena and just let the sound wash over me, that’s what The xx songs are for, but sharing these intimate moments with thousands of others seems a bit too public. I don’t even do selfies. And I listen to The xx when everybody else has gone out. They’re not for sharing.

It’s the band’s first U.K. gig in four years and they sound pleased to be back, endearing themselves to the locals by referencing one of their early gigs at The Bodega (pause for cheering).

Since the last time they were round these parts, Jamie Smith, a.k.a. Jamie xx, has arguably become the best known of the trio, following the success of his 2015 solo album In Colour, with its array of complex beats and samples and subtly shifting melodies, and his parallel career as a producer and DJ. Here he’s positioned on a riser at the back of the stage, more or less invisible to much of the crowd (and to camera persons in the pit), but when he’s due an extended solo, an ingenious mirrored ceiling tilts into position so that we can see him scurrying between drums, keyboards, timpani, decks and electronics. It’s a fascinating view and a little bit like one of those overhead shots of maze tests done on small animals, giving the show an air of scientific enquiry, which it rather suits.

Vital to the group dynamic Smith may be, but The xx still look and sound like a trio of friends and it’s still Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim who take most of the responsibility for delivery. They work so well together, both instrumentally and vocally, that they are capable of changing the mood of a moment by the very subtlest of inflections, achieving a mesmerizing symbiosis.

There’s some smoke and lighting effects, and the aforementioned mirror, but precious few of the other tropes of the modern arena show. No elaborate posturing, no silly dances. Sim does the occasional mid riff spin, but he looks quite sheepish afterwards as if he feels like he’s let himself down a bit. There’s no cinematic back projection, no descent into the crowd, no bringing people onto the stage, and definitely no huge bouncing balls that drop from the ceiling, such as occurred last time I was at this venue, for Elbow.

This is grown-up music played rather seriously for an audience of grown-ups, and while there is plenty of dancing on the tiers, at the back where I’m standing it’s mostly people listening intently with their heads cocked slightly to one side and a toe tapping gently in time.

Songs from new album I See You predominate in the set list, but their first album xx is not far behind, and old and new material mesh together to create a unified whole with only the subtlest of tweaks to the arrangements. But then again subtlety always was The xx’s strong suit.


There are constant changes of pace and emotional colour so that the audience’s interest never wavers. Brave For You arrives fragile and delicate but develops into a piece of noise-rock that has the temporary seating vibrating in time to the bass line, and it’s followed by Infinity, whose stillness is profound, the whip cracks slicing their way across the arena like the theme music for an unmade British western. The repeated five note riff that introduces Violent Noise is mesmerizing, and having opened the show with Say Something Loving, they close the main set with a cover of Smith’s Loud Places before returning for On Hold, Intro and Angel, neatly combining the best tracks from each of their albums into ten minutes of achingly pretty encore, and proving that I needn’t have worried about them really.

The xx: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Fun Lovin’ Criminals | The Urban Voodoo Machine: Engine Shed, Lincoln – live review

Before any gig a little bit of research is called for. Read some interviews and reviews. Do some back catalogue trawling. Sometimes it’s a chore. Sometimes it’s bewildering and baffling. Sometimes it’s painful.

With the Fun Lovin’ Criminals, it’s a case of, “Wow, these guys are great. How come I don’t listen to them more?”

Maybe it’s because I’ve come to associate frontman Huey Morgan with panel shows and 6Music. Maybe I was a late adopter of the whole urban R&B thing. Either way, visiting the FLC back catalogue is an eye opener and a real pleasure. Their fusion of rock, hip-hop and urban jazz still seems very contemporary.

All of which means that when I arrive at the Engine Shed in Lincoln on Thursday, February 16th, my expectations for the night are high and they go even higher when I find out that the support are The Urban Voodoo Machine, who have been at the top of my must see list for a long time. I have read and edited so many reviews of the Machine over the past few years, all of them glowing, that I find I’m slightly afraid that they have to be a bit of a let down. Can any band be that good?

The answer is that they can. Imagine Tom Waits at his wildest fronting Gogol Bordello with elements of the punkest mariachi ensemble and New Orleans marching band thrown into the mix, and you’ll have something approaching their sound, but it’s not just their sound that matters. I’m a bit suspicious of costume bands. I calculate that the fancy dress is usually a cover for some sort of musical deficiency. Over the years it’s been a pretty good rule of thumb but in the case of the UVM it doesn’t apply. Decked out in red and black, with a priest on stand up bass, a zombie on drums, a sequined moll on saxophone and cymbals and a carefully choreographed off kilter madness throughout, the band change positions and instruments and styles while delivering as good a set of up tempo gypsy stomp as you’ll hear in a very long time. Fantastic stuff.

The Crims open up with the sly Fun Lovin’ Criminals (what else?) and within a few bars the audience are moving in time to the music. There’s even some singing along going on near me, which is pretty impressive, because it’s not an easy song.

From then on it’s classic after classic with the band on great form, Morgan displaying some smart guitar chops, Frank Benbini on drums holding everything together, which is a big responsibility in a funk hip hop band without a bass player (mostly), and ‘Fast’ Brian Leiser on an impressive range of instruments including horns, keyboards, decks, and swanee whistle. His versatility means that the band can play in a wide range of styles from the classic funk soul of Love Unlimited to rock and jazz as required and when he gets that bass out they really rock the joint.

The set is a real crowd pleaser, heavy on the late 90s favourites from Come Find Yourself and 100% Colombian with a couple from later albums like Classic Fantastic in the mix for good measure. Scooby Snacks gets a huge roar and comes in considerably heavier than I remember it, Korean Bodega is superbly wild, and in between the tunes Morgan takes the opportunity to indulge in plenty of banter with the band, the audience in general, and a woman in the front row in a check shirt in particular.

The main set finishes with a lounge bar All The Time In the World before an encore of We, The Three, Up On The Hill and Big Night Out.

Usually on the way home I start my research for my next gig via the iPlayer, but tonight I just leave the Criminals on shuffle.

Fun Lovin’ Criminals: Website | Facebook | Twitter

The Urban Voodoo Machine: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Alter Bridge, Volbeat, Gojira: Leeds arena – live review

Who is the best vocalist currently working in rock music? We could argue that one all day. It’s the kind of debate music fans love and of course we’d never get a definitive answer. But we can be pretty sure that if it came to a vote then Myles Kennedy of Alter Bridge, a man who was twice considered for Led Zeppelin duties and doubles up as vocalist for Slash’s touring band, The Conspirators, would be near the top of the poll.

It can’t be very often that the pre-eminence of Kennedy’s vocals is given a run for its money but at the Leeds Arena on Friday, December 2nd, we’re treated to a magnificent display of power and technique from not just one but two vocal greats, with Kennedy’s crown coming in for some serious pressure from Michael Poulsen, lead vocalist of Danish rockabilly metal outfit Volbeat.

It’s a 6.30 start and I’ve no chance of making it for hard rockin’ kiwis Like A Storm (subsequent YouTubeing indicated that I missed out, and I’ll be keeping an eye open for them in future) but I manage to catch the second half of a superlative set from Gojira. The Frenchmen certainly know how to put on a show and many critics tip them for superstardom. On this showing that sounds perfectly reasonable and they certainly know how to whip a crowd into frenzy – the ferocity of their performance being matched on the night only by a particularly terrifying circle pit.

Volbeat wear their influences on their sleeves. They reference Johnny Cash early on at the opening of Sad Man’s Tongue and later welcome Barney Greenaway of Napalm Death for a rousing Evelyn. As you’d expect the set is dominated by tracks from their most recent album, 2016’s Seal The Deal & Let’s Boogie (there can’t be many better ways to start a set than The Devil’s Bleeding Crown), but the highlights come when they rifle through the back catalogue a little for a captivating Lola Montez and Still Counting, for which they bring about half the audience on stage to sing backing vocals. Poulsen’s vocals are riveting throughout, particularly on the inspirational Let It Burn, for which phones and lighters (remember them?) are out in force.

Alter Bridge arrive quietly, sneaking onto the stage in the dark and launching into The Writing On the Wall. Their schtick throughout is to play down the grandstanding and showmanship in favour of being four ordinary guys playing some music. That’s not to say they don’t play a great show – they assuredly do – but it does mean that they put their energies into the performance, not into playing ‘Look at me, I’m famous,’ and they’re all the better for it. A little bit of modesty can be very endearing at times. With Kennedy on vocal and guitar duties he can’t roam the stage like some do, so he has to make up for some visual riffs in favour of musical ones – he’s a pretty good guitarist too, although he did seem happy to be released from instrumental duties and to interact with the front rows on Metalingus.

Alter Bridge are anthem rockers at heart and they have a knack for coming up with great melodies that give Kennedy something to really lean into. On songs like Ghost of Days Gone By and Farther Than the Sun Kennedy gives it that unique blend of passion and controlled power that made him famous back in the Mayfield Four days, but it’s on Blackbird that he really shows just what it is that makes him the best in the world with an extraordinary blend of power and emotion, accentuated by Mark Tremonti’s guitar work. On Waters Rising Tremonti takes the vocal duties while there‘s a moving solo acoustic performance from Kennedy for Watch Over You. Among the many highlights were a hard driving Addicted To Pain and the anthemic Rise Today, which closed the show and sent the fans home happy.

On this showing Alter Bridge are definitely shaping to be one of the major arena rock bands of the next few years with Volbeat not far behind and you should definitely catch both of them if you get the chance.

Jess and the Bandits: Fruit, Hull – live review

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Jess And The Bandits

Fruit, Hull

27th April 2016

It’s only a couple of years Jess Clemmons and her Bandits got together (having met while she was supporting them on tour under their alternative identity, The Overtones), and in that time they’ve had a hit album on the country charts (the excellent Here We Go Again, now available in a new deluxe edition), wowed Sir Terry Wogan (Sir Tel on Louder Than War – that’s another one off the bucket list), while playing live on his show and established a reputation as one of the most exciting live acts on the circuit. The chance to catch up with them at Hull Fruit is too good to pass up and word has clearly got round because when we arrive, plenty early enough for the supports the place is already buzzing.

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Support comes from Hull four piece The Mighty And The Moon, whose country tinged songs recall Damien Rice with a hint of Tom Waits gravel. I particularly like Port In A Storm with its lovely, old fashioned slouchy waltz time but there are lots of other great songs in their set and they have a new album on the way soon.

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Tour support are Luke & Mel are a duo from Cumbria and either Yorkshire or Lancashire (depending who’s asking) but they sound like they just stepped down off the stage at the Grand Old Opry. Highlights of their set include their cover of Little Big Town’s Little White Church and their new single, Bad Habit, which has that authentic Southern rock twang, calling to mind Miranda Lambert.

And so to Jess And The Bandits who get a huge cheer when they take the stage. Although Jess herself may have forgotten (until reminded by the fact checkers at the front), they played a storming set at the Cottingham Festival last year and I think half the crowd from that gig are here tonight. Texas born Jessica Clemmons is a force of nature, never still for a moment, dancing and striking poses, by turns confidential or coquettish, always charming, always commanding the room. At one point there is some chatter at the bar and she lets the culprits know that she’s not happy. It must have been something important because the rest of us can’t take our eyes off her.

Her set is a mixture of roadhouse country, torch songs and blues and she delivers in spades on every song with a style that’s a bit pop, a bit rock, a lot of blues and one hundred percent country. As well as the amazing voice she’s a terrific songwriter and songs like Kiss You Now and Love Like That establish a high standard for the rest of the night but the first really heart stopping moment is a cover of Lee Brice’s I Don’t Dance. Performed as a duet with keyboard player Steven Reid Williams, it’s completely lovely and displays perfectly the breathtaking liquid clarity of her voice.

She follows up with audience favourites My Name Is Trouble and Nitty Gritty, a rallying cry for everyone everywhere who isn’t a size eight. In the chorus she sounds just a little like Alanis Morissette, (which is considered a good thing in our house), and the song, which has made her the country music Meghan Trainor, deserves to be a huge hit. I feel positively guilty for not dancing with everyone else, but I resist the temptation.

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There are also some terrific covers including Bonnie Raitt’s Love Sneaking Up, (which she nails absolutely, leaving no room to doubt her blues credentials), The Dixie Chicks Some Days You Gotta Dance and an extraordinary reworking of Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Linesman, a song she played to considerable effect on the Wogan show, the first time many of us became aware of her work. It’s a brave thing to take on a beloved standard that’s so associated with another artist, but she makes it all her own, with a reading that concentrates on the love song elements of the lyric but also brings out the existentialism of the original.

Highlights? Well they all are really. There’s not a dud in the show, but Stop Me, a great piece of power pop that wouldn’t be out of place on a Disney soundtrack is an album track that I didn’t appreciate fully until I heard it at this show and What If, on which her voice rises from breathless whisper to full on country diva goddess in a matter of a few bars, is a revelation too. Kiss You Now is another that lights the place up, as does Wanted Man, with Clemmons clearly revelling in the chance to let her bad girl run free for a while. Her solo single, Single Tonight, is a similar vein, and it’s a great piece of Shania Twainish sexy country blues. I’m going to name every song on the set list soon. They’re all great.

So there you go – classic country with blues and pop sensibility to spare. I think I’m supposed to find fault with something, it’s traditional, but I’m not going to and if you see that they’re anywhere near you soon make sure you go see them.

~

Jess And the Bandits: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Luke And Mel: Website | Facebook | Twitter

The Mighty And The Moon: Website | Facebook | Twitter

All words by idp. and photography by idp

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The Lumineers: Albert Hall, Manchester – live review

The Lumineers 001

The Lumineers

Manchester Albert Hall

19th April 2016

The Albert Hall. But not that Albert Hall. This one is in Manchester and it’s a small miracle of Late Victorian gothic baroque. It was closed up and forgotten about for thirty years until being reopened in 2011. It’s a huge pit of a place, with a superb three quarter balcony and just dilapidated enough to feel like you’re in touch with history. Getting to the toilets involves a huge trek through a subterranean maze, in corridors lined with those creamy ceramic tiles that have a curved profile in the corners. It’s like changing tube lines. The stage is bow fronted with a large overhang at the front which makes navigating the pit pretty tricky but fortunately the edge is marked out in white tape like in Tomb Raider.

First up is Canadian singer songwriter Andy Shauf who plays a deliberately restrained set to an already packed house on a stage drenched in blood red light, which suits his mixture of wistful fragments of poetry and disarmingly humdrum accidental murder ballads and while his live performance lacks some of the counter intuitive jazz embellishment that make his album The Bearer Of Bad News such a riveting listen, it’s still clear that Shauf is someone to watch for the future. Which doesn’t necessarily mean the distant future because his new album, The Party, arrives on May 20th.

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Restrained is not an adjective you could use about The Lumineers. Their set is part hootenanny, part singalong, part revivalist prayer meeting and all a big come as you are party at someone’s very large house. It’s relaxed and joyful and sharp as a nail and the band are clearly having a great time. They’re helped by their relationship with their audience which has the kind of warmth that you expect at gigs by people who have been around a lot longer than The Lumineers. They seem to have engender the same kind of affection that you expect at a Springsteen gig, it’s almost tangible. I don’t think I’ve ever been at a show where all of the audience knew all of the words to all of the songs before. The singalong starts right from the opening Sleep On The Floor and keeps going until the end of the show, only going quiet when the house lights go on so the band can conduct an acapella audience version of Ain’t Nobody’s Problem. Suddenly everybody gets self conscious. That’s audiences for you.

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Usually at this point I’d pick some highlights, but tonight it’s all good. Hey Ho arrives earlier than expected, as do Cleopatra, Classy Girls and Ophelia and with other bands you might expect so many big songs so early to lead to problems later on but it doesn’t. The Lumineers have enough quality material to keep things running just nicely and the band are flexible enough to change formats to keep things interesting throughout. Wesley Schultz is ever present, his voice as honey toned and emotional live as it is on the band’s studio work, complemented by the colours added by Jeremiah Fraites’ percussion and Neyla Pekarek’s cello.

After the show people are singing Hey Ho in the street and if this performance is anything to go by I’d expect The Lumineer’s next visit to Manchester to bring them to The Arena, just up the road and I shall be able to tell people that I saw them when they were still playing interesting and slightly dilapidated Victorian chapels. I shall be a bit smug.

~

The Lumineers: Website | Facebook | Twitter

Andy Frasco & The UN: Happy Bastards – album review

Album Cover
Andy Frasco & The UN

Happy Bastards (Ruf Records)

If I was organising a party and I wanted to make it a really good party I’d get Andy Frasco & The UN round to play a few tunes. I’m not sure that they’d all fit in my living room, (alongside core members Andrew Frasco (lead vocals & keys), Shawn Eckels (guitar & vocals), Ernie Chang (sax), Andee Avila (drums) and Supaman (bass), they have a large and eclectic rotating membership) but I’d put a few in the kitchen maybe and a couple on the stairs and people could just dance round them.

That’s what they are really, a fabulous band for dancing round.

Frasco’s style is a mixture of dirty blues and retro funk and soul, all given a modern makeover with plenty of horn thrown in. That’s an essential part of the mix. It’s almost impossible to imagine Andy Frasco and the UN without horn. Their music is all about happiness, sex, good times, sex, love, and being a free spirit. And horn.

And if at this point I’m giving you the impression that this album is the product of a one track mind, well let’s settle on two track. Because there’s a lot of great music in there as well. And music and lasciviousness have a long and honourable shared history. Frasco’s music is fun music. And who doesn’t like fun? Frasco calls it an adrenalin shot of pure escapism.

“We want people to be happy,” is his musical mission statement. “To smile at their faults, love life for what it is, and follow the beat of their own drum. We’re just trying to throw a party and get people to turn off their phones, leave their stress and complications at the door, live in the moment and just celebrate life for a few hours. If by the end of the night I see 90 per cent of the room laughing and smiling, then I know I did my job.”

Andy Travelling Light!

It’s also music that reconnects with that era before rock and soul split apart, when musicians of all races could share a stage without anyone even commenting. Frasco cites Wilson Pickett, Marvin Gaye, Buddy Guy, The Band, Samantha Fish and Houndmouth as blues players who inspire him and while it’s an unusual list, it’s a good one. This week of all weeks maybe we should add Prince and Beyonce in there too, people who can transcend artistic and cultural barriers as if they weren’t there, making music that speaks to everyone.

The band have spent the past few years living in vans and playing 250+ shows a year and according to Frasco this is the first of their CDs to really capture their unique live style. (Which is not to say that the others are bad by any means – check out 2007’s Half A Man for confirmation).

Album opener, Tie You Up, kicks off with a burst of deeply funky, loping bass that can’t help reminding you of Amy Winehouse (maybe she should be in that list too) and it’s almost a surprise when Frasco’s vocal kicks in rather than hers, but he’s got that same sly, knowing vocal thing going on, and the track builds into a great little rocker as does the second track You’re The Kind Of Crazy That I Like, a tribute to the manifold joys of being involved with mad women.

The scene once set the album keeps up a breakneck pace with tracks that range from 1970s slap bass funk on Doin’ It, evocations of Motown’s golden age on the snappily titled Blame It On the Pussy (seewhat they did there?), the Zutonesque (neologism alert) Good Ride, a madcap blues stomp on the superb Mature As Fuck, some whistling reggae on Here’s To Letting You Down and even a smutty Hawaiian torch ballad called Let’s Get Down To Business.

It’s certainly an album that lets the band show their versatility and there isn’t a track on there that would make you even think about skipping it. A fine thing for keeping in the CD player in the car, although probably not child friendly enough for the school run – parental advisory and all that you know.

~

Andy Frasco & The UN: Website | Facebook | Twitter

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