8 Apr 2019

Kyla Brox: Pain and Glory

The last line of the last listed song on this monster album is “If you want a winner, I'm your girl”. How appropriate for someone who has just scooped up the award for winning the prestigious European Blues Challenge. This album just confirms that the international judges, in their wisdom, got that dead right.

Let me paint you a picture. Imagine if you will, one of those fabulous Big Band clips, where the stage is packed with the best musicians. As they swing from behind their music stands, those all-white spotlights syncopate around them, only stopping to hover as each takes a fizzing stand-up solo....a trumpet here, a valve trombone or a sax there, a killer harp, a rocking guitar, a huge Hammond or piano. Everyone gets a go. Then the bouncing spots gather together and stop centre stage and we see Kyla Brox in her Fabulous Frock sashaying into that pool of light. In two seconds flat, she gets that swinging, zinging audience dancing crazy. Offstage, you can just see The Duke and The Count fighting for her Agent's telephone number.

Ok? You are now sitting comfortably in the middle of Kyla's new album “Pain and Glory”.

It is a while since her last album – a beautiful personal commentary about a woman dealing with the blues - but, on this one, Kyla takes us to a totally different place, bursting with soul, jazz, a touch of torch and some spikey funk. Clearly, a huge amount of work has gone into the arrangements on every track. It shows. She has brought in a brass section, given a nod to Stevie Wonder with an artful clavinet contribution, often moves up-tempo and makes room for some inspired individual solo breaks which shake the mix - from classic harp to explosive Hammond. The usual pin sharp lyrics (mostly by Kyla and her two superb faithful guitarmen Danny Blomeley and Paul Farr), whilst still dealing with some poignant hurt, manage to throw a cheerier, more defiant and even occasionally sardonic take on some both tough and fun memories.

This album is yet another a example of how this 'bluesman's daughter' can, with a fine ensemble of top class musicians alongside her, deliver fabulous music in any shape, form or genre. For heavens sake, who else would throw a wonderful voice call and response (In the Morning) into a belting sax, full brass and Hammond number about adultery? Or manage to recall a moment of temptation (Devil's Bridge) over the top of a mix of some swirling keys behind a Santana inspired guitar break? Many of the tracks on here find Kyla in a positive mood - 'shake the worry out of my head' (Top of The World), 'I know I'll see you another day' (Sensitive Soul)...but for those who like their Kyla Brox puzzling wistfully about the cards she has been dealt, then you too will be very happy.

This is a big, beautiful, utterly professional, classy album. The joyful and smart 'Bluesman's Child' and the fine cover of 'Hallelujah' will undoubtedly grab some of the headlines but all sixteen songs are overflowing with vocal talent and lovingly crafted arrangements. I have only referenced a few of the tracks here but have no doubt, this is a collection to be proud of. “If you want a winner, she's your girl!”. Go Get.

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21 Nov 2017

Jo Harman: Live in Camden

Some four or five years ago, after watching Jo Harman transfix and bewitch an audience in a Yorkshire chapel, I ventured, in print, the view that this was exactly the kind of gig that show-cased all her strengths and talents at their best. Her total commitment and tangible involvement with her songs in front of a knowledgeable and appreciative audience is a gift that allows her almost to touch the listener and draw out an essential emotive response. Later, I was sent a single of her singing the heart-breaking Michael McDonald classic 'I Can Let Go Now' where she drills down into emotions you barely knew existed. This just confirmed all my views,
Some years on, although she has shown she can certainly dominate a huge arena or festival audience...(ParkPop anyone?), it is very pleasing to see the current range of Jo's comparatively intimate venue concerts getting the huge and devoted response that she so deserves. It is a very special talent for an artist to continually play so successfully, time and again, in the pressure-cooker of those up-front and personal appearances. For example, if you were fortunate to catch any of the recent Martin Taylor/Alison Burns concerts reprising Jo Pass and Ella Fitzerald, you will understand what I am on about. Everyone turns up with sky high expectations and are seldom, if ever, disappointed.
It is no wonder then that a live recording was seen as a credible venture.

Nevertheless, however good the performance, the decision to release a 'live' album is anything but an easy one. Yep – crappy sound, no atmosphere, audience take-over, don't you love the outta-time clapping - the road to live album success is littered with the long forgotten bodies of those who tried and failed. Many a music collection has a live album filed under the 'why bother' section. On the other hand, when it works, it rightly becomes a serious and significant addition to a musician's body of work and is enjoyed as such.
Essentially, you are offering the listener one of the best seats in the house. A comfortable spot to which they can return constantly without having to queue or fight for a drink. A place where not only can some re-live their attendance at a memorable gig but tens of thousands more get to share that experience. It has to be right as there is nowhere to hide. Not many can do that.

Jo and her team have got this one exactly right. Recorded live at the Jazz Cafe, the album has been mixed by Dave Salley and Fred Mollin, the Nashville guys who put such a refined touch to the original phenomenal 'People We Become' album. Jo and her band of exceptional musicians Gary Sanctuary (keys) Nat Martin (guitar) Andy Tolman (bass) and Magic Johnson (drums) have been on the road working hard on this set from the album and it shows. Supplemented with backing singers (Niamh McNally and Natalie Palmer) and an additional guitarist (Luca Farrone) and although barely rehearsed and an apparently un-edited take, it brilliantly retains its raw edge and comes across as an atmospheric and emotional performance. Listening to Jo's commentary between songs is to have her talking to you.

If you are one of the many who were swept away by the extraordinary power and passion of the 'People We Become'  album, this is a must buy. It is a moment in time. It will wrap you round; it will bring you soul, jazz, funk, blues and maybe the odd tearful moment (yep, 'I Can Let Go Now' is in there) - but most of all, it will take you a significant step further into this talented singer and song-writer's amazing musical world. Jo is quite rightly very proud of it.

25 Mar 2017

Samantha Fish: Chills and Fever

I love it when an artist you enjoy and you feel you know their work suddenly throws you a subtle swerve and comes up with something that catches you right between the ears. That is exactly what Samantha Fish has done with her great new album 'Chills and Fever'. As someone with a well embedded roots music background, she grew up surrounded by blues and rock in Kansas City and first came to wider notice on one of those wonderfully rowdy Ruf Records' albums 'Girls with Guitars' Since then she has released a number of albums of mainly edgy rock-blues. Now she has corralled all of that back history and passion into one boisterous grab-you-by-the-throat collection in one place....and boy, she is absolutely at home there! 

It appears that she took herself off to Detroit, found herself a Detroit producer - Bobby Harlow - and a fabulous hugely experienced dynamic band in the form of the Detroit Cobras. The result is a terrific sassy album overflowing with kick-arse music sustained by an absolutely rocking crew of musicians. I love the range of this piece of work – many familiar tracks in here, from the likes of Jackie DeShannon and Alan Toussaint and there are some really smart and original arrangements to old favourites. Here we have some great shouty blues-rock, some tracks that verge on joyous pop, some Memphis soul cuts and some cooled down numbers from a proper blues singer. All of this is supported by the perfectly pitched Detroit Cobras who, with their punk blues background, bring her the whole package from rocking brassy New Orleans to sweet Hammond and guitar mix. On top of this perfectly formed backdrop, Samantha brings us some soul, some up-tempo blue-grass, a taste of get-off-your-butt and dance, some hot guitar-slinging and a touch of torch singing diva.

Although the album opens with the wonderful hundred miles an hour 'He Did It' and seldom lets up, there are some beautiful slower numbers where you can take a breath and listen to someone who knows how to tweak your emotional buttons. In particular, the fine Van McCoy/Nina Simone track 'Either Way I Lose', breathes some great passion into those killer words – Amy Winehouse and the tearful 'Love is a Losing Game' – comes to mind and the Barbara Lewis sad song 'Hello Stranger' has a super-cool jazz arrangement which lets Samantha fly like a bird. The CD has a couple of extra tracks but the last 'official' track is a spectacular rendition of the Skip James standard 'Crow Jane'. This brings to bear the powerful brass line up, some heavy guitar and Samantha's great smack-you-in-the-face version of those vengeful lyrics. 

This is an exciting, fresh, exhuberant and accomplished album. On here, Samantha has found a band, producer and mix-master who have given her the perfect vehicle to display her huge talent. Now, if they could bring the whole album to a live performance, I guarantee the walls would tumble and the roof would float away. Out at the end of March. Go buy.