The Life Band - 'The Big Black Book'
Release Date: 3rd August 2018
‘The Big Black Book’ is the second album released by ‘The Life Band’, with just twelve months between the two - almost prolific in this day and age!
Quite frankly, I don’t know where they found the time! And yes, I’m old enough to remember artists regularly releasing more than one album a year, but those were different times, with different demands and pressures.
‘The Life Band’ is a collaboration between guitarist Martin Heath, who wrote all of the tracks, and lead vocalist John Smith, who also plays harmonica, guitar, bass and ukulele on the album (he’s a decent saxophonist, and probably plays a mean kitchen sink as well!). I first came across John when he was a student in a band called ‘The Big Sets’, playing some tremendous blues back home in Sunderland. I take every opportunity I get to see the band, or John play solo, but these chances are few and far between, based, as they still are, in Newquay, which is about as far away as you can get from Sunderland, without fleeing the country! But the north-east’s loss is most certainly the south-west’s gain....
The majority of John’s time appears to be spent with ‘The Big Sets’, who are gaining fans in mainland Europe now, after playing festivals and other gigs in France over the past 12 months. However, ‘The Life Band’ may be about to release their second album, but they have yet to play live, and it would be a shame if they don’t put this right.
Much of the band’s first album,‘In My Blood’, had a country-feel to it, and it’s there again on ‘The Big Black Book’. However, I’d say that it’s more country-blues this time around, with some traditional R & B, and a bit of rock, thrown in for good measure. This all demonstrates firstly, how dangerous and misleading it can be to put labels on music, and secondly, that ‘The Life Band’ has evolved into an even more promising prospect, with a style that is developing into one of their own - no label required.
Smith takes the roll of lead vocalist on all of the songs, apart from ‘Voices’, which I think is a wise move, as I feel he has the stronger voice. Heath now provides backing vocals and demonstrates that he’s no stranger to the guitar. However, it’s John who plays an excellent electric guitar solo on ‘Travelling Man’ - a really crackin’ rock track.
On ‘Voices’, Martin sings backing vocals and his acoustic guitar strings are the only other accompaniment for his son Simon on lead vocals. He lets us know about the voices in his head, telling him that he’s not the man he wants to be, or even who he thinks he is. He doesn’t have dreams about being a superstar, or superman, “....but the voices in my head say I never can”. All a bit depressing, but it reflects a period when John was going through a hard time, and Simon Heath delivers the words beautifully.
The songwriting on this album really is top drawer. ‘Whiskey is My Lover’ tells the tale of a life wrecked by liquor - if gin is ‘Mother’s Ruin’, maybe whisky should be known as ‘Father’s Ruin’! Then again, John tells us that “Whiskey is my lover, whiskey is my mother...sister and brother...but she’s all I got to get me through my life, since she drove away my family, drove away my wife”. It’s only to be hoped that this song is all about someone else’s experiences with the stuff - a lovely tune with clever words, which could maybe act as a warning to those who are whiskey lovers. A clever trick at the end of the track as well, with the instruments all quiet, the sound of the top being screwed off the bottle, and a wee dram being poured and drank down, followed by that satisfied “haaaa”, to follow the swallow!
A good way to finish the album, which opens seven tracks earlier with even darker sentiments, sung in a much less jaunty style. ‘The Big Black Book’ referred to in the title track’s name, is all about the angels taking in everything you get up to while on this earth. An almost constant death march style drum beat opens the track, and keeps going throughout, with some lovely bluesy harmonica providing light relief. The tales of death and derring deeds will lead you to the after-life down below - “if you don’t have a balanced book, you’ll rue the crooked path you took”. It’s a tremendous track to entice you to listen further, and if you do, you most certainly won’t be disappointed.
I hope John and Martin can find time to take their music out on the road. There’s nothing better than being able to see and hear music played live, right there in front of you. I look forward with some relish to them hopefully finding the time to do this, because there’s definitely no ‘second album syndrome’ here! It’s well worth a listen to at home, in the car, on your headphones, etc,etc, but where I think it would sound even better is from a stage, with the volume pumped up!
Elvis Costello And The Imposters
Newcastle City Hall
25th June 2018
I’m pretty sure that most people of a certain age will be able to name song by Elvis Costello that they like. He has had a long and distinguished career since his debut album, ‘My Aim Is True’, was released in 1977. Four years later, album number six demonstrated that not only was he a prolific song writer, but one who loves a variety of musical styles. At a time when the music world had been energised by the ‘punk revolution’, Elvis showed that if you worked hard, got the breaks and your songs were good enough, you had a chance of success....and his songs were very good!
I remember being very surprised when I learned that the sixth album, ‘Almost Blue’, was going to be Country and Western. I’m not a big fan of this style of music, but if Elvis was doing it, I was going to listen. My copy still retains the sticker that reads:
“WARNING! This album contains Country & Western music & may produce a radical reaction in narrow minded people.”
......and, of course, it really was rather good!
Although the many attractions within Elvis Costello’s music kept pulling me back to record shops for a few years more, it is now 29 years since I bought my last album (‘Spike’ in 1989). Over the last couple of years though, friends who had recently seen him perform said that he still puts on a brilliant live show. So I was glad to get the chance to see him at Newcastle City Hall this week.
Elvis Costello And The Attractions split up in 1996, but keyboard player Steve Nieve and drummer Pete Thomas continued to work with Elvis following the acrimonious departure of bass player Bruce Thomas. The addition of Pete Faragher to play bass saw the band change their name to Elvis Costello And The Imposters, which must have made him feel really welcome!
On Monday night, the addition of backing singers Kitten Kurio and Briana Lee brought a whole new dimension to the band. Their bluesy soulfulvoices combined well with the new arrangements given to the old classic songs, making this a night that will remain long in the memory!
‘Tears Before Bedtime’ was stripped right back and slowed down, with Kitten and Briana’s vocals completing the progression of this song into the superb category. “I don't want to talk, I don't want to fight, how wrong can I be before I am right”, they sang, over and over, until Elvis changed course, the lighting switched to blue, and and we were off with ‘I Don’t Want To Go To Chelsea’. A tremendous staccato beat carried the song along, with a lovely guitar solo from Elvis grabbing the attention.
Elvis’ voice has stood the test of time very well, and sounded of similar quality to when he was much younger, which is remarkable considering that he turns 64 in August. By the end of the concert, the strain of singing for two hours started to tell, but this was hardly surprising. His timing was superb on ‘Watching The Detectives’, which was played with a hint of a reggae beat, interrupted by another fantastic guitar solo.
The first half of the set closed with the excellent and much-extended ‘I Want You’, which I felt could have been shortened slightly, but again contained some wonderful musicianship.
The second part of the show kicked off with just EC’s echoey electric guitar accompanying him on the classic ‘Alison’, with Kitten and Briana again adding that little extra to bring some sparkle to the song. This was followed by perhaps my favourite of the night so far, with Elvis tickling the ivories on a very slow, sublime, bluesy version of ‘I Can’t Stand Up For Falling Down’.
Steve Nieve returned to the stage to take over on the piano for the again much slowed down version of ‘Accidents Will Happen’, which brought tingles to the spine.
The band reassembled for the final few songs, and the night drew to a close with the whole audience finally taking to their feet for ‘Pump It Up’. It was a magic way to close the show with everyone rockin’ away as if they were thirty years younger.
Echo and The Bunnymen
The Sage, Gateshead
30th May 2018
The Bunnymen took to the stage in Hall One of The Sage Gateshead, accompanied by a
cellist and a couple of violinists. Something a bit different to say the least, which helped
to make this a memorable evening. It felt like ‘heaven up here’ in my seat on the first floor,
as we all listened to the newly arranged classic songs, and some material from the new
Mind you, if you’d told me this would happen in 33 years time, when I first saw them back
in December 1985, at The National Club in Kilburn, I would probably have thought you’d
been on the loopy juice!
As for playing under chandeliers, on a stage where the acoustics are second to none,
within an iconic building, designed by a world famous architect....I think even Ian
McCulloch would have thought that you were having a laugh. Although, a few years later
he might have asked if you had forgotten the opening lines to ‘Silver’
‘Swung from a chandelier
My planet sweet on a silver salver’
So, there was a lot for your eyes to take in, and your ears to listen too. Mac, of course,
looked very much like he always does, in black leather jacket and black jeans, his hair the
same colour, and with shades still in place - as cool as ever, and, considering he’s nine
days older than me, bloody sickening!
The tour shares the name of the album that is set for release in October this year- ‘The
Stars, The Oceans and The Moon’ - and the theme ran through many of the numbers in
the set. It surprised me that there are so many songs by the band that contain references
to these natural features.
The songs from the Bunnymen’s back-catalogue rolled out, one after another, all
sounding familiar and fantastic, yet different. Particularly good on the night were
‘Bedbugs and Ballyhoo’, with that brilliant baseline still there, as ‘bee bumbles’ along, and
the ‘thunder rumbles’; the awesome ‘All My Colours’ opened really slowly, with some high
pitched notes coming from the two violins gradually reaching small crescendos; and they
were in evidence again on ‘Bring On The Dancing Horses’, as they almost neighed in
anticipation of Mac’s still beautiful bass voice coming in.
A few new songs were interspersed amongst all the old favourites, with ‘How Far?’
getting possibly the loudest reception. But it was the reworked favourites that seemed to
be best received. Mac often introduces ‘Lips Like Sugar’ as the best song ever written,
but no such accolade this time. It was played with a constant unswerving baseline which
seemed to control the range of the his vocal delivery, and resulted in a version of the song
that will hopefully be included on the new album.
Mac’s voice struggles a little to reach the heights it once could, but he recognises this,
and adapts the songs accordingly. He still sounds amazingly good. After ‘Seven Seas’,
the woman next to me said “He still holds it together, doesn’t he,” and she was dead
right! Will Sergeant’s guitar stood out on this track as well.
As ‘The Cutter’ brought the set to an end after an hour and five minutes, I realised that the
grand piano that had sat on the stage throughout the performance hadn’t been used yet,
and boy were we in for a treat! The first encore started with possibly my favourite
Bunnymen song - ‘The Killing Moon’ - slowed right down, mainly played on the piano and
They all left the stage again after ‘Never Stop’ was given the makeover treatment, but
came back again to close the night with a version of ‘Ocean Rain’ that seemed to be
played even slower than the original.
A special way to finish off a very special night, and one which demonstrated that Echo
and The Bunnymen are still huge stars themselves.
George Shovlin And The Radars - 'Nothing To Lose'
Release Date: 1st March 2018
This is the first self-penned album from George Shovlin And The Radars, but, from the first notes you hear on track one, it’s glaringly obvious that these guys are no novices!
The first incarnation of the band, as The George ShovlinBlues Band, ended after 10 years in 2005, but in thosedays they played classic blues numbers in their own style. It had proved to be a pretty successful path to follow, with a support slot on John Mayall’s 2004 tour evidence that their popularity was spreading beyond their native north-east.
Strange then that they went their separate ways the following year. “The band had just run its course,” lead guitarist George Lamb told me. “We all stayed friends, but decided we wanted to try new things.” Fast forward to 2014, and when George Shovlin got in touch with ideas of getting back together, Lamb surprised himself by saying ‘OK’ straight away.
Not long before Shovlin had contacted him, Stu Burlison, the band’s bass player, had suggested that maybe they should give it another go, but Lamb had been reluctant. “It seemed like it would be a backward step, so I wasn’t that keen, but not long after talking to Stu, when George got in touch, I just decided...why not!”
So, after persuading Kev Scott to join on drums, the band returned as ‘George Shovlin And The Radars’ in 2014. Before joining Shovlin in 1995, Lamb had written songs and done session work for the likes of Keith Emerson, Kiki Dee and Jimmy Nail, amongst others. He had never given up on song writing, and the band has gradually introduced some of the compositions that he and Shovlin have written themselves over the last year or so into their live performances.
The opening track on ‘Nothing To Lose’ is one of them. ‘Don’t You Just Love The Blues’ kicks off and with a short guitar solo from Lamb, before George Shovlin starts telling us how he and his friends love the blues, imploring us to come join them, and why the heck not when it sounds as this good! George travels down the ‘Blues Line’ from Chicago to New Orleans telling us about friends he called in to see, or at least listen to, on the way. A mid-tempo rhythm gets the feet tapping from the off, and the two further guitar solos from Lamb get the album off to a cracking start.
A notable feature of the album is the inclusion of some top quality keyboards from Paul Wilson on around half of the tracks. His fingers warm up with a jog along the ivories during a lovely little solo in the middle of ‘Don’t You Just Love The Blues’, but really get running in a longer solo in the up tempo ‘Cruisin’ Come Sundown’. The piano brings an added dimension to the sound of the band, which takes the already high quality sound up another notch.
However, the two main features of this album for me are the top quality guitar playing of George Lamb and the sumptuous gravelly tones of George Shovlin. This voice was born to sing the blues, and has got better and better over the years. It’s one that the uninitiated may think was born in the deep south across the pond, rather than by the ‘Wear Delta’, as George likes to call home, on the north-east coast of these islands of ours.
On the slow blues number ‘I Don’t Mind’, Shovlin really does go to work! It’s a beautiful slow blues number that opens quietly with slight echo on Kev Scott’s drums, and, after 12 seconds, George Lamb gets the song moving with a short solo, teeing up Shovlin to begin a sad lament to his maker. “Whatever may be Lord, I don’t mind,” he sings with so much sadness in his voice, you just want to give him a hug, and tell him everything’s going to be alright. The feeling in the voice and the touch on the guitar, combine so well with the slow rhythm to make this possibly my favourite song on the album.
So after throughly both impressing and depressing us at the same time, a pick-me-up is required, and George seems to realise this. The next track - ‘Just Wanna Have A Good Time’ - is much more upbeat. It happily bounces along with Shovlin reflecting on how he’s been lucky to reach where he is in life. He had a health scare recently, and the song seems to be George thanking not only ‘his lucky stars’, but his family and friends for helping him through these hard times. A guest appearance from Mick Cantwell from another top quality north-east blues band, ‘The Groove-a-Matics’, helps to make this track a bit special. A good sax solo always does the trick for me, and this one is sandwiched between George Lamb’s loud repetitive few bars that he plays at the end of each chorus. It’s a sound that is very different to anything else on the album - tremendous stuff!
On track one, Shovlin sang about how he and his friends Johnson, Leadbelly et al ‘just love the blues’. One of his ‘real-life’ friends makes the first of two welcome appearances on the album, with a wonderful harmonica solo forming the intro to ‘Lord Hear My Prayer’. Jim Bullock is one of the best harmonica players around, and for nearly ten years from the early 1980’s, was half of a formidable blues duo called ‘The Biscuit Kings’ - the other half being George Shovlin. The harmonica is synonymous with the blues, and Bullock again has the ability to raise the quality level up even more on this crackin’ track. It is yet another song on which Shovlin growls and barks his way through the lyrics, emphatically getting his message across.
If you ask someone to name their favourite song on an album, they will rarely have just one or two options, if they really like the album. I nailed my colours to mast and went for ‘Lord Hear My Prayer’, but the reality is that virtually all the other ten run it very close. In my opinion, there isn’t a weak track amongst them.
If a better blues album is released in this country during 2018, I will be very very surprised, so if you only buy one album this year, make it ‘Nothing To Lose’ by George Shovlin And The Radars - I guarantee that if you love the blues, you’re going to love this!
Nine Below Zero
at The Cluny, Newcastle
Friday 24th March 2017
I’m ashamed to say that I couldn’t name you a song by Nine Below Zero, so this was one of those nights when I wasn't not sure how it was going to turn out. But, when my mate had asked back in December if I fancied going to see them, I’d had no hesitation.
I'd seen Nine Below Zero live once before, several years ago in Kendal when we were staying with friends. I wasn't a big fan, but they were quite impressive on the night. So, three months ago, when Mick Firth asked if I fancied going to see them at the Cluny, I gave my standard response of "why not!".....and thank goodness I did - they were treeeemendous!
The night got under way with a set from Charlie Austen playing acoustic guitar and singing some of her own numbers. "She's one to keep an eye out for," I thought - she's got a great voice. Well, I didn't have long to wait to see her after she finished a promising set - she shares lead vocals in NBZ with Dennis Greaves!
The Cluny is hardly a big venue, but I have to say the 8 members of Nine Below Zero surprisingly didn't seem too crowded on the almost matchbox-like stage. The band has been around for 40 years now, and whilst founder members Dennis Greaves on lead guitar and vocals and harmonica player Mark Feltham are still there, there’s been several changes in personnel. I don't know how long they’ve included a brass section, but however many it is, it's not enough! The sax and trumpet really brought the performance of the band up a notch or two, and that's some feat when you are sharing the stage with one of the country's best harmonica players.
Mark Feltham was voted Best Harmonica Player in the British Blues Awards 2016, so it was brilliant to see this master of the harp at work. But to be honest, the whole band were pretty damn good at what they do - a tighter unit you couldn't possibly wish to see. Even Dennis' Cockney wit and repartee went down well with the Geordies!
The whole set kept the toes tapping and I’d challenge anyone present if they said otherwise. While still not sure of any of the song names - I’m pretty rubbish at remembering track names for my favourite bands, never mind any others - but there were one or two that I think I got, and which stood out for me. ‘Crawling Up a Hill’ was vaguely familiar, and a quick glimpse at Google reminded me that I’d heard the original by John Mayall a while back; and ‘Once, Twice, Three Times Is Enough’.
But this wasn’t an evening for examining your naval and noting down every track name - it was all about enjoying the moment, and keeping those toes tapping. It reassured me that going to see live music can be very therapeutic - I hadn't been feeling 100% for a few hours before the gig, and had contemplated staying at home. But not long after arriving at this great little venue in Newcastle, and listening to the first few numbers I perked up no end, and by the time came to wend a weary way back to Wearside, all was well with the world!