17 May 2015

F - K: Steve Fulsham Band. Half Deaf Clatch. Jo Harman. Jenna Hooson. Stuart James. Jocks Juke Joint. Kenny Wayne Shepherd

Half Deaf Clatch: The Life and death of A.J Rail

I first caught Half Deaf Clatch live a year or so ago when he was riding high on the success of his terrific album 'A Road less Travelled'. It was, to coin a HatPhrase, 'true blues and no messin'. In his new album 
The Life and Death of A.J Rail, he is back on that dust road and has conjured up a charming, wry and raw tale of one man's journey long ago in the deep south. 

His hero is a bit of a fatalist, resigned to his lot and as such, Clatch picks up on and sings about all the tough grittiness and injustices of a hard life. However, the evocative lyrics of the whole album take that shrug-of-the-shoulders stoical stance that is so very familiar of the whole chapter of tough blues that came out of the deep south at the time. There is always hope. The sentiment is 'Yep. It's hard but that's the way it is...I ain't complaining, I'm dealing with it'.

It may be no accident that Rail is an anagram of Liar and in our mind's eye perhaps the guy sitting on the porch with his guitar, banjo and ready audience may be getting just a bit fanciful with his stories. Tracks about the 1927 Flood and the 1930s drought tell of the river rising and hard, hard times and throughout we hear – in, for example, 'Singing with Old Scratch', 'Old Time Soul' and Make Your Own Way', his complaint that his life means nothing to him and that you 'shouldn't believe in nothin'. One suspects that they are meant to play on the listener's sympathy in the way that many old bluesmen before him have done and one recalls the infamous blues/folk singer Abner Jay who was often economical with the truth. There is the familiar 'Boneyard Bound' message - the Final Gig – and of course, there comes the warning that 'you can't outsmart The Reaper'...and there's The End. Ok Rail, thanks for the tip-off.

We have to wait for the title hooked song 'The Ballad of A J Rail' until we get the inevitable meeting with the Devil at the Crossroads. This is a great atmospheric track. The Devil appears in a 'strange red glow'; the soul is handed over with a shrug - 'I won't need my soul' and in a nice twist, Rail figures aloud that singing in Hell ain't so bad a deal. There is also a delightfully optimistic track 'Boxcar Bulldogs', where we share the boxcar jumpers dream that maybe one day he'll get to Paris, France and all will be ok.

Throughout, Clatch's clear and uncluttered picking and occasional resonating slide hit exactly the right economical and unobtrusive note. There are some subtle storm effects and over-dubs slipped into the production and on a couple of tracks, the banjo is well employed to emphasise the down-home feel. Across it all, his rasping, sometime growling vocals hold us firmly in their raw deep southern story grasp.

This is an accomplished and thoughtful blues and roots concept album crafted by a fine musician and story-teller. Some of you will know that Blind Willie Johnson's track 'Dark is The Night' is out in deep space somewhere playing for ever on a Voyager satellite. I'd like to think that sometime in the future, A.J Rail will still be telling his story somewhere in the universe. In the multi-faceted history of the blues, this album is a classy reminder of where much of it started – and long may it continue...

Steve Fulsham Band - Hebden Bridge Blues Festival 2013

A short sentence to point you in the direction of the terrific Steve Fulsham Band playing at one of the free gigs to much acclaim. To walk in to a bar off the street and find a tight trio playing two Buddy Guys back to back with style and skill is always a thrill. Go look for them.
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Jenna Hooson - Hebden Bridge Blues Festival 2012 

Unsurprisingly, the Women of The Blues night was one of the most eagerly anticipated of the Festival and they delivered - and some. Then Hooson nearly burned down the Picture House. Never has front lady Jenna Hooson been on better form. The understated Richard Kershaw is one of those rare guitarists who can do it all but in such a subtle way that you are hardly aware he has got all the good notes – and the Hooson backline is as solid as a titanium rock. Audience on its feet, dancers throwing shapes and cries for more. From Janice Joplin roar to self-penned love blues 'Every Now And Then' - what else can you ask. No wonder this band is rocket-powered upwards in the business.....why has no-one signed them up?

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Stuart James - Hebden Bridge Blues Festival 2012

Sprinting the fifty yards back to Blue Horizon (joke), The Hat was overwhelmed by Stuart James. He has played with Dr Feelgood and Joe Bonamassa and ain't no slouch. Playing hard-drive rock blues, Stuart takes no prisoners and just smashed it brilliantly to the delight of a packed house. The Hat has to report a Magic Festival Moment. Just as Stuart kicked into the Rory Gallacher number 'Baby I Want You', our Paddy Maguire (Rory's biggest fan) walked in. It was Rory's birthday as well. Paddy's beam could have powered the Main Stage for a week.

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Jocks Juke Joint - Three Compilation Albums 2012/13

Not a lot of people know that The Hat is a direct descendant of a fearsome and very successful clan of murdering Border Reivers, Raiders and cattle thieves. By rights, I should be living in Stobs Castle, Roxburgh, wearing my rare blue family clan tartan and drinking proper drink. This quite reasonable aspiration was sadly thwarted because in 1712 some ungrateful and churlish wretch burned down My Castle and most of the legal records of My Rightful Inheritance. I mention this, not to unnerve you with my impressive lineage, but to add credence to my observations on a recent piece of Scottish musical history.

Even if you have only a passing interest in the background of any of our much loved music and how it came to be archived, you will probably know that Alan Lomax was one of the greatest of American folk and blues music collectors. Similarly, Cecil Sharp was the extraordinary man who collected our huge inheritance of English folk music. The wonderful title 'Songhunter' was attached to these two and many more dedicated individuals who painstakingly collected names, music, lyrics, dates and recordings,so that we, in the future, could enjoy what they found before it disappeared for ever.

With the arrival of the internet, digital storage and compact recording equipment, this task is now made much easier but it is still a rare breed that does the job thoroughly and makes it easier for the rest of us. One such riveting example of how important this is and how exciting it can be when it is put together with care and love is the recent Jocks Juke Joint trilogy comprising three discs crammed to overflowing with a stunning cross section of the contemporary Scottish blues community.

Kick-started with a fire-in-the-belly passion and enthusiasm by Nick and Lewis Hamilton and Duncan Beattie, it is easy to see how the project took off and developed a life of its own. You can understand how the mad meetings and the back of an envelope notions caught the imagination of the artists and turned into an internet-led success. Every musician, singer and song writer clearly gave it their all - as eager publicists as well as artists. The seed of a smart idea grew rapidly into a national and international viral sensation with thousands of hits. The first album was launched to great acclaim in September 2012 and amazingly, was followed just a few months later by the second. Spring 2013 saw the launch of the third album. Somehow, they have gathered together fifty three tracks full of surprises and thrills covering everything from electric and acoustic to folk blues and even a bit of swing. The reviews are consistently warm and supportive.

What was particularly encouraging about the reception given to the project was the way the reviewers and internet stations got behind it – not simply because it is a Great Listen, but also because it represented, possibly for the first time, a serious coming together of a significant collection of Scottish blues music and a major acknowledgement of a traditional depth of Scottish talent where amongst others, Tam White, Alex Harvey and Frankie Miller have proudly led.

The Hat has previously wondered out loud about the value of compilation albums. Often they are simply a re-run of the 'best of' with a few 'make-weights' thrown in to make up the numbers. The JukeJoint project is different, not only because its long arm reaches right into the heart of the blues in Scotland; not only because it is hot, exciting and contemporary but particularly because its driving forces have, in putting it all together, managed to follow in the footsteps of Lomax and Sharp and have carefully documented and recorded for us a classic moment in Scottish blues history. You have to agree that took some nerve, ambition and imagination... I'll raise a dram or two to that...                                                                        
Jo Harman: Found A Place

You would need to have a heart made of reinforced concrete not to be totally entranced and taken over by this stunning new piece of work from Jo Harman

An EP entitled 'Found A Place', it apparently started out as something of a studio experiment, but developed into a fans only 'thank-you' album to those who have loyally followed this exceptional singer from her first ventures, club and festival gigs, through her majestic debut album 'Dirt On My Tongue' and now as she prepares for a follow-up to be be recorded stateside next year.

This is a beautifully produced stripped-back affair where Jo's close-up voice (the production is such that you can almost touch the breathing and phrasing) clutches you from the very first note of the very first poignant track 'Lend Me Your Love' and will not let go until the fade of the last number.  If you have ever been lucky enough to have seen Jo live you will know how demonstrative she is on stage. I saw her many years ago totally absorbing the high vaulted acoustics of an old chapel like a lightning conductor – so to be able to retain that electric magic in a studio, as she does, is a sure sign of the emotional power of her distinctive voice.

Jo has always been surrounded by top class musicians and one of the things that make this album so impressive is the way their classy presence - particularly the oh-so-delicate piano (Mark Edwards) and string arrangements – is so beautifully dovetailed into the songs that they are barely noticeable. In consequence, the voice, quite rightly, has nowhere to hide.  One of the covers on the album, Jo's absolutely heart-breaking rendition of the Michael McDonald song 'I Can Let Go Now' is a fine example of the subtlety of the accompaniments, even when she is reaching out with increased volume and passion. This track alone would make a best-selling single but everything on here is a fabulous demonstration of her ability to get right to the core of a song and imbue it with her own distinctive magic.

I don't care if Jo sings the blues or ballads or boogies to some swing. What has become clear over the years is that her voice is an extraordinary, unique, powerful and emotional blessing. It is obvious that she totally engages with her material, wherever it comes from – and if you get this album, I guarantee you will find it difficult not to take that emotive journey with her. A wonderful piece of world class artistry.

Jo Harman - Hebden Bridge Blues Festival 2013

The Hebden Chapel was the perfect venue for headliner Jo Harman. Bestriding the stage, in front of the pulpit, she took ownership of the place and her Congregation just lapped it up. The exciting thing about this singer is not just the sheer power and quality of her voice but the manner in which she uses it. Whatever the number - and the set contained a vast range of material - she
brought to it all the subtleties and nuances that only a fine and accomplished artist can. Deep and heart-felt soul with drawn-out and movingly sustained power, stomping bluesy up-beat, the sparse and tender phrasing and even swinging jazz phrase elision were all perfectly pitched for the evening. The audience jumped from whooping and hollering to leaning forward and hanging on every word - and back again. Although Jo is apparently lining up big audience venues, it seems to The Hat at least that this kind of gig - where she could almost touch the audience vocally - shows all her strengths and talents at their very best. Her involvement with her songs, as she is singing them, is tangible and her knowledgeable audience  knew and understood that. Surrounded by a band of superbly professional and understated musicians who complemented her perfectly, Jo delivered a true Headliner's set.

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Kenny Wayne Shepherd on tour: Holmfirth

The Holmfirth Picturedrome was the perfect venue for the second gig on the brief Kenny Wayne Shepherd Band UK tour. Not too big, not too small and rammed to the rafters with knowledgeable fans, all with a good view plus terrific sound balance. There was a real atmosphere bouncing in the joint and the band seemed to visibly respond.

They started at a hundred miles an hour and only occasionally paused for breath. This is such a tight group of musicians, seriously well rehearsed with great stagecraft but nothing got in the way of the brilliant individual musicianship. 

As you would expect, Kenny leads from the front with his astonishing range of guitar skills and styles and the crowd is brilliantly worked by his long-term charismatic singer Noah Hunt. Alongside them, and rock-solid, were bassman Stuart Nelson and drummer Chris Layton, who managed to lock into stride, walking bass lines, skip beats and even dance rhythms without ever missing a beat. Sitting behind a couple of keyboards was Riley Osbourn (ex Willie Nelson) and it was an unusual delight, when the band had segued into a BB King moment, to see them step back and let Riley loose with a classic rolling barrelhouse break which got the audience punching air.

Make no mistake though, the star of the show is Kenny Wayne Shepherd. This is real talent. There is real passion here. A self-taught Louisiana lad who had his very first album go platinum nearly twenty years ago. More recently he was asked by Stephen Stills to join with him and Barry Goldberg to form a 'super group' called The Rides and, almost inevitably, their first album crashed straight into the top of the Billboard listings.

The set for the evening covered a whole range of styles and influences and some stuff from his previous albums and Kenny was pretty clear in his comments to the audience that it was all coming from his roots and most of those roots were the blues. Consequently, it was no surprise that amongst the fast hard blues-rock, he played Elmore James, Johnny Guitar Watson and three back to back BB King numbers, with a flying Noah getting the audience going with a stomping version of 'Done Lost Your Good Thing Now'. A final treat was a re-working of 'Deja Voodoo' from his first album complete with Hendrix riff and – yes - the guitar over the back of the head!

A terrific top-flight classy, passionate band giving a hundred percent. Look Out Glasgow, Aberdeen and London, they are coming your way soon. If they are not already sold out grab a ticket now.
(Pic courtesy Anthony Firmin)