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Camden Rocks Festival 2018 – review

Funny things festivals. Are they about the music or the event? Or the food? Or the whole kit and kaboodle rolled into one. Not just rhetorical questions because they affect everything that happens on festival day. What should a good reviewer be looking for? In the first place there are the multiple stages to cover, bands that overlap and however carefully you lay a plan to maximise your time in the pit as soon as one band runs ten minutes over their allotted time it’s all gone out the window. Two stages is just about manageable. Three or four stages and you have to miss big chunks of the programme. Camden Rocks has twenty two stages to choose from, ranging from the classic rock and roll halls like Dingwalls and Koko to pubs and cafes.

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What makes Camden even trickier than any old 22 stage festival is that it’s not just about the music, or the event – it’s about Camden itself, the canal and the market and the Asculepeian snakes (they escaped from London Zoo and colonised the canal area years ago and every time I’m in the area I go looking for them but I’ve never seen one yet) and the Roundhouse (even if it’s not a festival venue it still dominates the Chalk Farm end of the festival area), and the pubs and the fancy dress punks who ply their trade on the bridge.

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Then there are the psychedelic shop fronts, the locks and canal boats and of course the street art, both official and unofficial. There’s even a witless Banksy or two. If you stand still too long in Camden there’s a good chance someone will paint over you and standing is frequently the only option you have because unless you’re eating at a restaurant or a cafe there is almost nowhere to sit. By late afternoon my poor old dogs are barking a treat.

Camden lays claim to being the music capital of the UK and it’s hard to argue. Manchester and Liverpool have had their moments but everybody and everyone has passed through Camden at some point. Just look at some of those 22 venues a little closer.

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There’s Koko, at Mornington Crescent, the southern extremity of the festival, founded in the 1870s by Ellen Terry, home to Charlie Chaplin and others and, having become a music venue in the late 1940s, the base from which the BBC broadcast the Stones in the 60s. As The Music Machine in the 70s it was the North London Punk Central, site of legendary gigs by The Pistols and The Clash and in the 80s it changed its name again, becoming The Camden Palace, spiritual home of the New Romantics and the venue for Madonna’s UK debut.

Or The Dublin Castle on Parkway where Amy Winehouse pulled pints, Madness began their careers and The Killers and the Arctic Monkeys made their first impact on the London scene and Dingwalls, legendary home of punk that has seen the almost everyone who’s anyone performing there – from Paul McCartney to The Clash (who shot the cover photo for their first album on the nearby stairs in Camden Market).

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And the list goes on. Plus of course there’s the market, home to a much visited statue of Saint Amy as Wilma Flintstone and more great street food than you can shake a stick at and even if it has all got a bit corporate there’s still enough craft and gimcrackery around to make it fun.

In the event the festival runs with military precision, with each band getting half an hour and then half an hour for clearing up and getting the next lot on – which means that at any given moment there are eleven gigs happening so hard choices have to be made. The early afternoon features plenty of up and coming bands and I catch some excellent indy sets at The Good Mixer with Elsewhere, The Fiddler’s Elbow with Lighthouse and at Dingwalls Canalside with Saint Jean who remind me a little of early REM, which in my house is considered to be no band thing.

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Down in the Dingwalls souterrain the Soap Girls, dressed only in some graffiti, a guitar, a feather boa and a butterfly head dress (each) are keeping the crowds happy with their mix of abrasive banter and catchy, riff driven grunge. They’re on their way to my home town later this month and I’m hoping to catch their full set at The Yardbirds.

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On the subject of the Yardbirds I end up parked next to a large blue van containing Hands Off Gretel who I last saw at that august venue. Described by no less a wordsmith than Ged Babey on Louder Than War as a technicolour grunge, angst-rocker, sex-punk death-rock, emo-pop band from South Yorkshire, and I can’t do better than that, although I think their geographic diversity may have increased following some recent line up changes. They’ve been championed by no less an authority than Paul Cook and have been supporting the newly renovated Professionals.

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I catch Hands Off Gretel’s set and also Rews, whose brand of infectiously hooky high energy alt rock is new to me (and I’ll be keeping an eye open for them if they brave to cold of the north any time soon), beneath the massed surf boards at Fest, which is packed out for both and stop into The Monarch for Alvarez Kings, who conjure up some of the best South yorkshire indie you’ll hear in a long time. They’re off on an extended US tour soon, which is just reward for their excellence and a work ethic which has seen them become a growing force on both sides of the Atlantic.

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The prize for the most photogenic band of the day goes to Flavour Nurse at The Monarch who combine classic glam with psych and alt rock to create a potent mix that serves, as they say on their website, as musical medicine for a diseased world. In the absence of clinically accepted double blind trials I’m going to go with the fact that they sound great, a perfect blend of 70s glam and contemporary indie with just the right balance between archness and irony. Whatever you call what they do it’s exciting and wonderful and it is a tribute to their metabolisms that they are able to put on a show that belongs after midnight at eleven in the morning. They’re from Watford by the way, but we won’t hold that against them and they’re definitely ones to watch.
Highlight of the day is a close run thing between This Year’s Ghost who blast out a deeply reverberative set of fierce grunge at The Camden Assembly that has the whole building buzzing. Think Alter Bridge and Pearl Jam with a touch of The Deftones thrown in for good measure making for some seriously nasty in your faceness.

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Second contenders are Beatsteaks who, despite having possibly the worst band name ever manage to feature punk and rock and soul and some distinctly 70s cheese pop and frequently do it all at the same time as well as exhibiting considerable football skills and a happy knack for front row bothering.

When it comes to the final choice of the day – Twin Atlantic and Maximo Park at Koko, Sikth at Underworld, British Sea Power somewhere else I go for Public Image at the Electric Ballroom and possibly the only disappointment of the day. Not because they’re not excellent, John is on great form, trilling and chirping his way through his set, but because only ten togs get into the pit so the day ends with some disappointing photos.

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Next year Camden Rocks becomes a two dayer and I for one will be putting in an application for what is definitely establishing itself as one of the best events of the year.

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Tramlines Festival 2018 – preview

Okay it’s in Sheffield. It’s not as local as Bradley Woods or Humberston Fitties (grimsby places – locals will understand) but if you’re looking for a major festival to visit over the summer, one with a top quality line up, loads of extra activities, great value and not too much travelling involved then Tramlines is the one for you.

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Now in its tenth year Tramlines gets bigger and better every year. This time it will be held in Hillsborough Park, with four stages, a capacity of more than 40,000, and a range of entertainment including pop-up cinema, a stellar comedy lineup, special treats from Sheffield’s local breweries, a kids and family area and much more. It remains one of the best value for money city festivals anywhere in the country, with weekend tickets still available from http://www.tramlines.org.uk

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Household names from the worlds of indie, rock and roll, garage, rap, pop and hip hop are scheduled including headliners Stereophonics, Noel Gallagher’s High Flying Birds and Craig David’s TS5, plus Blossoms, De La Soul, Jake Bugg, Reverend And The Makers, Stefflon Don, The Sherlocks, Mabel, The Magic Gang, Coasts, Pale Waves, Gengahr, Naaz, Mullally, and Stereo Honey.

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Tickets have been selling fast are still great value at just £59 plus booking fee for a weekend ticket, covering all three days.

Keep an eye out for further lineup announcements – visit http://www.tramlines.org.uk or follow @tramlines.

John Prine: The Tree Of Forgiveness

Some albums arrive bearing the threat of disappointment heavy in their saddlebags, particularly if they’re by someone you’ve loved for years, someone who matters. A Cohen or a Mitchell, Springsteen or Dylan. Tom Waits and Elvis Costello and John Darnielle too. They’ve all delivered their share of late period disappointments. For every ‘Love And Theft’ there’s a Together Through Life and from the moment The Tree Of Forgiveness hits the doormat I’m on tenterhooks.

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It’s thirteen years since Prine’s last album of original material was released and in that time he has undergone surgery for both neck and lung cancer and I’ve undertaken a major reassessment of my list of the best singer songwriters of the last fifty years and Prine, by virtue of his sly dry humour and self deprecating mid-western surrealism has reached the upper tier of the pile.

So it’s a just slightly nervous moment when I set the thing playing but as soon as the first track gets underway, with a slight rush, as if we were walking into a gig in progress, it’s pretty clear that Prine is a man on form. He’s always had a knack for making records that sound like he’s conversing with you personally and the album maintains that feeling of intimacy throughout its length. No attempt is made (as far as we can tell at least) to hide the cracks in the 71 year old Prine’s voice, but they aren’t accentuated for effect either. Think Rubin era Johnny Cash but with less artifice. No sympathy cards being played here.

With a slightly echoey production and intermittent whispers from an unseen audience, most of the time it sounds like your favourite slightly eccentric uncle, the one that smokes and drinks too much now and then and teaches you magic tricks and tells smutty stories to embarrass your mum, sitting in a back room somewhere, or a barn maybe on hay bales, with his buddies and his guitar, chewing the fat and smoking a big one and singing a few tunes, mostly smiling but occasionally getting just a little bit sad.

It’s an altogether sparer collection that 2005’s Grammy winner Fair And Square with Dave Cobb on minimalist production duties and vocal assists from the likes of Brandi Carlile, Amanda Shires and Jason Isbell, but it’s all the better for it, full of sly jokes and homespun wisdom and irony.

There are plenty of changes of mood with a pair of excellent love songs – I Have Met My Love Today and Boundless Love – and two pieces of Prine’s distinctive homespun irony in Egg & Daughter Night and Lonesome Friends Of Science which manages to spin a poetic melancholy out of the decision by the astronomical world to downgrade Pluto to minor planet status leaving the former hero to spend his evenings hangin’ out in Hollywood In some ol’ funky sushi bar rather than with the big guys at the interplanetary dance as he did in his heyday.

When I Get To Heaven is a sort of a sequel to the wonderful irreverence of Jesus The Missing Years, a promise of posthumous debauchery with a honky tonk piano and a room full of people singing along (sounds like it anyway).

“I’m gonna get a cocktail | vodka and ginger ale | I’m gonna smoke a cigarette | that’s nine miles long,”

he promises and the album title reveals itself to be the name of the nightclub that he plans to open up in paradise, (if God lets him, and I think he will). It must get dull up there sometimes. There’s a baby gurgling away in the background and a giggling child and anybody who has ever walked across a supermarket forecourt in the dead of night and heard the strange laughter from the deserted children’s rides will understand how eery that can sound. Nobody delivers a memento mori like John Prine and a room full of children.

Album highlight for my money is the glorious No Ordinary Blue, which should be a staple of live shows for many years to come. It’s a song that shows Prine’s ability to work authentic sounding conversations into songs without straining the language or the metre –

She said, “Well what’re you thinkin’?”
“I’m just a-wonderin’”
“Is it somethin’ that I did?”
I said “It’s nothin’ | Just somethin’ | I picked up as a kid”

and also has my favourite moment of the album –

Last night | For a split sec | I was a train-wreck | I was a complicated guy
I hope we don’t find | This’s the last time | We ever say “Goodbye”

Prine is over in the UK this summer, including a stop at the Cambridge Folk Festival and if the press for the US leg of his current tour is anything to go by these should be the highlight gigs of the year, definitely not to be missed.

The Quireboys: Yardbirds Grimsby – live review

The Quireboys don’t do subtle. What they do is full on in your face rock and roll and they do it bloody well. Their reputation as a live band is second to none but they’ve also released a couple of well received albums in the last couple of years with White Trash Blues, a collection of standards from the repertoire of the likes of Chuck Berry and John Lee Hooker being a particular favourite in our house.

They’re regular visitors to Grimsby and their set at The Yardbirds opens with one of my personal favourites – Too Much Of A Good Thing, from 2013’s Beautiful Curse which sets the scene for the evening, plenty of classics, a few new ones and surprisingly few from White Trash, considering that this is listed as the album’s European Tour. It doesn’t matter too much though because the truth is that The Quireboys haven’t changed their sound a whole lot over the past thirty or so years and songs from their 1990 debut A Bit Of What You Fancy sit seamlessly alongside more recent material and it all sounds like it was ripped by main force from the 1970s heyday of British rock.

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This is timeless music. If you were determined to be mardy about it you could say that they’re a band who haven’t developed much in three decades but you could also say that if you’re that good at what you do why change things around?

Spike is on fine form, the celebrated soft rock rasp is as good as ever and we are reminded early on that we are in the presence of one of the all time great microphone stand jugglers but what’s a little bit of false ceiling damage among friends? It’ll fix easy enough. He’s a force of nature, roaming the stage, playing the crowd, dancing on his own or with the band, bandannaed as always, the piratical effect accentuated by a long scarf and one velcro sea boot. Curiously enough the last time I photographed The Quireboys he had a broken leg as well, on that occasion caused by a heavy tackle in a game of football (that’s soccer to some of you) against giants of British metal, Saxon.

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He’s not the only one set for a good time – the whole band look like they’re ready for a party. Guy Griffin’s guitar is the perfect foil as always, particularly on Going Down and This Is Rock And Roll which feels like a stadium filler in need of a stadium and sets the walls and furniture buzzing. They’re the just the band for a proper dark and sweaty rock club like the Yardbirds. Highlights include a raucous 7 O’Clock and I Don’t Love You Any More (obviously) but also a gorgeously sleazy cover of Slim Harpo’s King Bee, with Keith Weir’s honky tonk piano a driving force and Sleepy John Estes’ Leavin’ Trunk.

They round things up with Sweet Mary Ann and Sex Party which is about as good a singalong finale as you could wish for and we’ll be keeping an eye on the website to check that they’re making their annual visit again next year.

 

The Vive Le Rock Awards 2018

It’s Wednesday, March 28th and the great and good of the classic era of punk and new wave gather for a night of celebration at the inaugural Vive Le Rock Awards. The O2 Islington is the place – a 1980s brown brick purpose built venue at the back of a shopping centre just to the north of The Angel. (That’s one of the blue ones on the first quarter if the Monopoly board if you’re a traditionalist like me. None of them new fangled localist boards in my house). Tonight there are 300 carefully invited guests and 200 paying punters and the squeeze is on for an evening filled with the sound of working class people getting uppitty, celebrating the old times and getting royally smashed.

It’s one of those nights that makes you pause for a moment for a ponder about the state of the music magazine industry. Looking along the shelves in your local newsagents is not always a pretty sight these days. It’s a case of turning up with your cash and hoping your favourite read is still on the go. Seems like a big name crashes every couple of months or merges to pursue economies of scale or goes 51% up for sale.

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It’s the internet wot dun it of course. The print market is tough, we know that but there’s still a thriving market for niche titles that do just what they say on the tin and among those Vive Le Rock is one of the market leaders.

Founded in 2010 by the good people at Big Cheese and having recently reached its fiftieth issue, Vive is the go to publication for British fans of rebel music, whether from the past or the present day. From Gene Vincent to The Ramones, Motorhead and The Pistols to The Gaslight Anthem or White Lies or Rancid. If it used to get up your grandma’s nose back in the day or if it pisses off your kids now then it’s probably grist to the Vive Le Rock mill.

The design and content of the mag pay homage to the days of the classic fanzine so that despite all the corporate necessities that go with publishing in the twenty first century it still manages to be an outsider magazine for outsiders.

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The main business of the evening is of course the distribution of awards but there’s some fine music as well and after a welcome and a little bit of history from editor Eugene Butcher we kick off with the house band for the night, who go by the soubriquet of The Vive Le Rockers’ but in fact they are most of The Urban Voodoo Machine which is about as good as a house band gets. They fall in perfectly behind each of the solo performers in turn, a masterclass in musical adaptability.

If you’re going to spend an evening celebrating classic British punk then you can’t start off better than a set from living legend T.V. Smith, formerly of The Adverts and nowadays in serious danger of acquiring national treasure status. The current issue of Vive Le Rock has an excellent feature on the music of 1978 and Gary Gilmore’s Eyes and One Chord Wonders, both from that year, still pack a punch.

He’s followed by Master of Ceremonies Ginger Wildheart with a set that includes two from  his newest long player, Ghost In The Tanglewood, to whit Daylight Hotel and Golden Tears and a favourite of mine, Toxins And Tea from 2015’s Year Of The Fanclub.

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The awards themselves are shared among some of the biggest names in punk and roots music with Kirk Brandon picking up the Pioneer Award on behalf of The Cure, Best New Band going to London Oi favourites Booze & Glory and the Roots Award going to The Selecter.

Best Film is presented by Brix Smith-Start and goes to the team from Buttz films, creators of Rebellion, Gary Crowley gets best re-issue and AC/DC drummer Chris Slade picks up the Rock In Peace Award which commemorates Malcolm Young. Perennial favourite street punks Cock Sparrer are best live act.

Album Of The Year, presented by Shakin’ Stevens, goes to The Professionals for What In The World. It’s my first visit with Paul Cook’s gang since Tom Spencer replaced Steve Jones on guitar and they sound just as driven and gloriously rough at the edges as they did at their late 70s prime. Going, Going, Gone – a tribute to messrs Lemmy and Bowie, is a new track that’s definitely worth checking out and although I haven’t got What In The World Yet, on this evidence it’s definitely near the top of the list.

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Best International Performer goes to Michael Monroe of Hanoi Rocks, who manages to overcome his natural shyness to pick up the trofe from Steve Diggle of The Stranglers. He later takes the stage for two songs with the house band during which he manages to climb over most of the stage equipment and perform some remarkable feats of balance on the mojos.

Charlie Harper is up next to get the King Rocker/Icon Award from Captain Sensible and he delivers a couple of songs including CID, as full of raucous energy as you could wish.and then it’s over to England legend Stuart Pearce to present the Band Of The Year Award to The Damned. And it’s up to them to close things down with a set that includes New Rose, Jet Boy Jet Girl and even a brief Wot.

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What have I missed? A great piece of rock and roll from the legend that is Shakin Stevens, Stuart Pearce leading a chorus of Sensible’s a wanker when the cherry bereted one and his bandmates fail to appear to pick up the best band award, an encounter with the luminous choppers of Spizz of Spizzenergi and there are plenty more moments and it’ll have to be enough just to say that it was a great night and if they do it again next year I’d like to be on the list please.

 

Erasure: Hull City Hall – live review

So City of Culture year has been and gone and what a year it was. From my point of view it meant Jeff Lynne, The Flaming Lips, Ocean Colour Scene and lots more. The question now is whether or not Hull can continue to attract big names, to the new Venue, or the football stadium or my special favourite Zebedee’s Yard for open air gigs and, of course, to the amazing Victorian pile that is the City Hall.

Early signs are promising – maybe the City of Culture can do attitude is still around – and we have the likes of Orbital and Chase & Status and local hero Calum Scott lined up for the summer. The year’s major musical events start out with a sold out show from 80s pop legends Erasure at the City Hall.

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Support comes from up and coming nu-disco star Bright Light Bright Light who is making his second visit to the venue, having played last year’s LGBT rights festival night. He’s got some great catchy songs, a style that’s midway between classic pop and musical theatre and a nice line in restrained ironic showmanship. Plenty of the crowd at the front are obviously fans already and it looks like he’s made a few more by the end of his set.

The stage set up for Erasure is a surprise, with the duo separated from each other for most of the show, Andy Bell performing in the narrow space between the front of the stage and a large ziggurat constructed from scaffold and fluorescent tubes atop of which is Vince Clarke with his keyboards and a guitar. There are two dancers and singers who initially occupy frames, also fluorescently defined, on either side of the stage but their contribution is pretty minimal. All eyes are on Bell who dominates proceedings by sheer charismatic presence although Clarke descends from the gods towards the end of the set it almost seems like a one man show.

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But what a great show it is. Even though I’ve been playing Erasure tracks all week I’m amazed by the strength in depth in their back catalogue. The set kicks off with an eerily gorgeous Oh L’Amour and heads for a climax with Sometimes and Respect but along the way are Stop, Drama, Blue Savannah and a variety of Love related matters including Chains Of, Victims Of and Who Needs It Like That.

Tracks from the new album World Be Gone are interspersed throughout and on tonight’s showing it’s a strong piece of work. All around the City Hall it’s pretty much a non stop dance-a-thon, from the main hall to the steep galleries and what more perfect way could there be to celebrate some of the most elegant and romantic pop music ever than dancing the night away.

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By the time Clarke descends for the last couple of songs you’d imagine that people would be exhausted but of course they’re not and the final Respect is a triumphant statement of the power of great pop music to unite people in joy. Fantastic stuff.

Interview: Reggae legend Ali Campbell

As founding members of Britain’s biggest reggae band UB40, singer Ali Campbell, second vocalist Astro and keyboardist Mickey Virtue topped the UK singles chart on three occasions and sold 70 million records as they took their smooth yet rootsy musical blend to all corners of the globe. Now with ‘A Real Labour Of Love’ the trio give us a fresh take on the legendary series of albums, putting the focus primarily on reggae tracks from the 1980s.

We got to talk to Ali and we started out by asking him about the inspirations behind the new album.

idp: First of all congratulations on a fine new album. It’s got the real classic UB40 feel – a bit cheeky, a bit sly, a bit chilled, a bit romantic. It’s going to be very popular with the fans, I’m sure of that. And it sounds like you were all having a lot of fun in the studio.

Ali Campbell: Well yes, we loved it. It’s a delight to go into a studio to record songs that you already know and that you love. That’s why we called them the Labour of Love albums. We’ve called this one A Real Labour Of Love just to differentiate it but they were very successful albums. We sold more than 21 million of them and some of our biggest hits came from them including Cherry O Baby, Kingston Town, and Red Red Wine.

What made you decide that the time right for a new version and what’s special about the songs on this one?

They’ve been asking us for a long time to do another one so we thought that enough time had passed and we should give it a go. The songs that we cover on this album are all over thirty years old now. They’re the songs that we listened to when we were on the road with the first Labour Of Love album. When we made that album we were we were just covering the songs we grew up listening to – the songs that made us love reggae in the first place – whereas this one takes us into the 80s. These are the songs from when I was in Jamaica.They’re all classics and big hits in the reggae world and we’re trying to bring them to a new audience.

I’ve spent a long time on YouTube and elsewhere tracking down the originals of some of these songs and it has reminded me just how powerful great pop can be. How were the songs for this album chosen and did they bring back a rush of memories for you of the time when you first heard them?

Well most of them are reggae classics that I was listening to in the 80s like JC Lodge’s Telephone Love and Strive by Shinehead which is a great record. And then of course there’s She Loves Me Now by the great Dennis Hammond which is the first single from the album. There’s a really nice and funny little film to go with it and you can find that online. These are the sounds that made us love reggae in the first place and when me and Astro sat down and started to draw up a list we were like all we got to have some Dennis and we’ve got to have some Gregory. It really is a joy to do these albums. It’s always nice doing your own material but it’s a lot easier and more fun to cover songs that you love. It’s only what The Beatles did and the Stones and The Who but they loved blues and we love reggae. Their hero was Bob Dylan and mine was Bob Marley.

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It sound like you’re still as passionate as ever about making music.

It’s the best job ever and i think I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world right now. I think this is the best thing we’ve done in 25 years.

How does your approach to a covers album differ from making an album of original material? It must be important to avoid doing anything like a note for note copy.

If there’s a secret to it, it’s that you have to stay true to the melody because that’s why you liked the song in the first place but then we do our take on it and we try and make it more accessible to a pop audience. That’s all we’ve ever tried to do really, When we started the band in the first place my main idea was because I loved reggae music I wanted to promote reggae music.

Just like I loved dub and I wanted to spread the word about that. There’s a song by Goldie Lookin Chain and one of the lyrics goes “I wouldn’t know what dub was if it wasn’t for UB40” and hearing that for the first time was one of my proudest moments. The first dub album we did was our third album I think. Present Arms had gone in at number two and we thought this is the perfect time to do a dub album and show people what it’s all about. A lot of people brought the album and then took it back to the shop saying it was faulty. No vocal and some strange echoey sounds. But if you look all around the world at pop music today so much of it is informed by reggae beats. People like Justin Bieber and Ariana Grande even The Script. I saw them the other day doing a reggae track. The Sly Dunbar beat, the Bogle beat, that’s what contemporary dance music is at the moment. So reggae is more influential now than it’s ever been which makes me happy.

There’s some excellent artwork with the album and you’re auctioning some of it for charity. It’s nice to see performers taking an interest in the music as an artefact for a change. We used to love reading the album sleeves and looking through the racks at the record shop but now it’s all electronic, living in download world as we do.

It can be a bit soul destroying when you spend a year or two of your life making an album from its inception to the point where it’s finished and you spend all that time and all that money and all that effort and then you see people listening on little white headsets coming out of their phones. It’s like why was I worried about getting the bottom end to sound just right and trying to marry the bass drum and the bass guitar perfectly; it all seems a bit futile but it’s what we do. When you go back and you’re re-recording tracks that you remember as classics they always seem a bit rougher than you remember them. So it’s nice to go in and do a clean version and try and reduce it as best I can.

You act as the producer on the album. Is that something you’ve always done.

UB40 have always produced their own around music and I like to be there at the mix because there’s nobody else who knows better than I do how I want it to sound. We had Sly and Robbie mix for us but even though they’re geniuses and we love them it’s never been exactly what we wanted out of our own music. We believe we’re the ones who know what it’s meant to sound like.

Any particular favourite tracks on this album that you’d recommend we go listen to?

I think people should go and have a look at the funny little movie that goes with She Loves Me Now. It’s a terrifying thing to follow in the footsteps of Dennis Hammond I felt the same way when we did Many Rivers To Cross. It’s a tall order. I had a lot of sleepless nights and worry because he’s one of my favourite singers. It’s a bit like taking on Stevie Wonder. That’s got to be one of my favourite tracks on the album because it’s one of my favourite songs of all time anyway.

You’ve got lots of festivals lined up and an arena tour as well so you’re going to have a busy few months.

We’re doing mostly festivals in England and Europe this year. I still love touring and playing live. As I said I’ve got the hottest reggae band in the world at the moment we’ve we’ve had Morgan Heritage play with us, and Inner Circle and and Jo Mersa Marley. Raging Fyah too, they’re one of my favourite bands of the moment.

Well thanks for the chat, congratulations again on the album and we’ll hope to catch one of your summer festival shows.

Thank you.

Jess & The Bandits: Fruit, Hull – live review

Last September, just as Jess Clemmons was setting out with The Bandits on a UK tour in support of her new album, the gospel influenced Smoke And Mirrors, Hurricane Harvey struck her hometown of Houston, Texas, causing extensive damage to her mother’s home and necessitating the cancellation of the tour. Five months on and she’s back with us, kicking off the rearranged tour at Fruit in Hull and proving to the doubters (if there were any) that the change of style hasn’t diminished her ability to create some of the finest cast iron ballads and torch songs you’ll ever hear.

Opening the show is up and coming Glaswegian country pop artist Kevin McGuire, who is also on a roll at the moment with the release of 2017’s debut EP Foreign Country leading to performances for the BBC and at the Nashville Meets London Festival.

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Highlights of his set include the new single Late, 3am which is an unusual up tempo break up song written from the perspective of a rejected lover who now unwillingly finds himself in demand again, and the last song of the set, Alright Tonight, which I’d recommend checking out soonest you have the chance. McGuire is one of a growing number of home grown country performers who seem confident enough to produce authentically British country music without the need to slavishly follow US music, although he is clearly influenced by the likes of Rascal Flatts and Sam Hunt.

Jess Clemmons has changed the line up of her band since I saw them last. They’re still bandits of course, but they’re different bandits, better suited to her new sound, on display on the fine new album, Smoke And Mirrors. There are still plenty of high powered country rock grooves of course, she hasn’t gone all wimpy on us all of sudden, and the show kicks off with My Name Is Trouble straight out of our favourites playbook before swinging into love Like That, another favourite and I’m Not Going Home, whose power shows the close connection between both sets of songs old and new.

Vocally she’s in fine form voice is in fine form – she’s as good a country singer as I’ve ever heard live – capable of a wide range of emotional colour plus considerably more out and out charismatic sexiness than one person really ought to possess. It’s not fair really it isn’t.

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The set is a mix of the best of the two albums with highlights including The World’s Still Round, whose brooding verse explodes into some great rock and roll, White Lies which slows things down a little but has a classic broken lives and shattered dreams feel to it, Gone Girl for which Clemmons channels her inner Dolly Parton and Nitty Gritty which has the whole room singing.

By tradition the set includes a couple of covers – on this occasion it’s Mama told Me not To Come and Bonnie Raitt’s Love Sneaking Up which is followed by the outstanding track from Smoke And Mirrors, the gospel anthem of empowerment Sister.

And of course the show ends with some of real favourites – bring the house down rocker Ready Set, the emotionally supercharged Fault Lines and to round it all off Single Tonight.

A fine show from one of our favourite performers and if I get the chance I’ll try to catch another show later in the year. If you get the chance you should too.

The Damned: O2 Apollo, Leeds – live review

As I made my way from the car park to the Academy for the show the night air was filled with rain and the sound of bells. Ringing in the damned.

The original goth punks were rumoured to be on good form, with a new album in the works, a single getting plenty of attention and the return of Paul Gray on bass and there was a long queue waiting to get out of the drizzle.

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First up one of the best surprises I’ve had in a long time. Usually before I set out for a show I check to see who the support are but on this occasion I forgot, so it’s a real pleasure to find that it’s no less a personal hero than Slim Jim Phantom, Stray Cats drummer and rockabilly guru playing some of the rawest rock and roll you ever heard. The other two places in the trio are a movable feast, (I believe Captain Sensible and Dave Vanian sometimes appear), but on this particular night the top class sidemen are James Walbourne and Nick Wilkinson, whose day jobs are as guitarist and bass player respectively for The Pretenders.

Their set takes in classics spanning the history of rock and roll from Carl Perkins’ Matchbox and The Womack’s It’s All Over Now to a terrific That’s Alright Mama that sets off at a slouching amble before bursting suddenly into a run and reminding us all just what it was that made rock and roll great in the first place. They tie things up with the Cats very own contribution to the rock and roll classic song book – Rock This Town.

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And so on to the main event and the Academy was pretty much full for The Damned who open with All Messed Up, Lively Arts and Silly Kids Games, representative of a set that’s heavily weighted towards the band’s glory days from the late 70s until the early 80s.

There’s a great British tradition of looking for the clay in the feet of our musical heroes and as such I feel like I ought to say at this point that The Damned weren’t a shadow of their former selves. We don’t have Johnny Hallydays in England.

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In fact The Academy crowd is treated to a great show with the band on excellent form, having a fine old time and revelling in the sheer joy of making some very loud music in company of several thousand like minded individuals. What more could you ask?

Front and centre Dave Vanian is bathed in Hollywood light as he struts his stuff with his retro mic and long black coat, while over to stage left The Captain finds himself a little pool of purplish darkness in which to hop and bop and twist, leaning over his guitar like a tangled marionette and offering occasional pithy comments. Paul Gray dances almost non stop and even Monty manages to escape his decks for a few brief moments of electrifying dad dancing during New Rose.

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Highlights include an anthemic Stealer Of Dreams, a raucous Elouise and the new single Standing On The Edge Of Tomorrow, featuring some ringing guitar riffs but what was most noticeable was how adeptly the band switches styles, one moment full on punk, next moment Vanian is transformed into a Neil Diamond style crooner. At one point he’s a fire and brimstone Old Testament prophet conducting a chorus of Woah ah Ohs on Devil In Disguise, next he seems to be channelling the spirit of The Housemartins.

The show closes with a mixture of old and new including Generals, Evil Spirits, (again the forthcoming album sounding like a good thing) and the classic Smash It Up before the band responds to the appeals of the assembled company by returning for a final cover of the Elton Motello classic Jet Boy, Jet Girl.

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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.

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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.

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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.