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.

7 Feb 2017

Jo Harman: People We Become

It is always interesting to read what an artist has to say about themselves – and not just about their influences, their favourite colour and their childhood ambitions. Buried in amongst the tsunami of words, publicity releases and reviews of her quite spectacular latest album 'People We Become', are some words from several of her pre-launch interviews...”I have only ever tried to be me – and that's what (this album) is. It's me.”
There, I suspect, lies one of the keys to this extraordinary singer's success. 

Uncomplicated and uncompromising and focussed. I first saw her live nearly four years ago, headlining a festival and her voice made an indelible impression. A couple of years later when reviewing 'Found a Place', I wrote “her voice is an extraordinary, unique, powerful and emotional blessing.” It still is, but in Jo's own words, her voice 'has matured in the same way as her songs and song-writing have matured' - she is still moving forward, learning, developing, exploring and still imbuing her songs with that rare and total vocal emotional commitment and yes, 'being me' is an excellent place for her to be.

'People We Become' is an absolute tour de force. It gathers together in one place, that huge tapestry of range, depth, style and emotion that we have come to expect from this artist. The tracks move from the anthemic to desperately sad and tender soul and almost pop-based finger-clicking and upbeat Motown. Her song-writing is incredibly personal and you know you are in the company of someone who has travelled down that road. For this writer at least, this is where she touches your heart best and tracks like 'Person of Interest', 'Silhouettes of You' and 'Changing of the Guard' bring it all up close and personal. There is a lot of pain, hurt and sorrow here. 
Her song-writing, employing phrases like 'I will carry you', 'I don't want you to be like me', 'I've tried and tried' and 'walk away' provides her with the perfect emotional platform from which to float her voice. This is someone who can pick a note from the floor and then touch the sky with it. There are also tracks on here, like the amazing 7minute piano driven 'Lend Me Your Love' that lead you along quietly ('it's so easy') and build up to a gut-wrenching climax only to finally let you down.
Everything about this production shouts class. Jo went to Nashville and collaborated with Fred Mollin to produce the album and it shows. She is surrounded by the finest musicians (buy the album to find out who they are!) and in consequence, every little bridge, fill, intro and outro, or whispering backline is beautifully constructed, the pauses and silences beautifully nuanced and every time - whether it be the atmospheric guitar work, the sometimes delicate and sometimes rocking piano interventions or the careful swell and feel of the backing singers – they get it just right.
I've only touched on a few tracks here, rather than list them all - they are all good, powerful, poignant and moving. If you have an ear you will enjoy the listen - again and again. It is a wonderfully crafted piece of work and deserves all the plaudits that are coming its way. Every track on here is totally accessible and will carry you with it - and it will still be played many years from now. 
If 'learning, maturing and being me', as Jo puts it, can produce an album of this quality, then let's hope Jo keeps on being Jo...