Friday, 30 March 2012

A Bolt From The Blues

Published in the EG section of The Age (Friday March 30)
For online version, click here.

Kenny Wayne Shepherd

“I’d probably be behind the wheel of a race car,” states Kenny Wayne Shepherd emphatically when asked where he’d be if he’d never heard the blues growing up.  “I love automobiles, so I always felt if I wasn’t doing music, I’d be doing something with cars.”  It’s almost the quintessential childhood answer to the ‘What do you want to be when you grow up’ question – a race car driver, or a blues/rock guitar shredder.  Not an easy choice.

Luckily for himself perhaps, and certainly for fans of modern electric blues, the now 35-year-old Shepherd made the right decision.  Despite his young age (compared to the giants of the genre like Buddy Guy, BB King, Taj Mahal, Keb’ Mo’, Joe Louis Walker et al), Shepherd is a much respected player, and indeed, interpreter of this oldest of forms.

“Yeah, the blues is in everything I do, it’s the foundation of all my music,” he concurs, and he needn’t say more than that, as it shows – from debut record Ledbetter Heights (released in 1995 when Shepherd was just 18), to ‘Blue On Black’ the song on which he properly rose to prominence in 1997, to now releasing his sixth record, How I Go, Shepherd wears it, proudly, on his sleeve.

Having said that, How I Go, released late last year, sees this omnipresent guitarist in a state of flux.  Yes, the blues forms a base from which this music launches, but overall, the album is more considered, more mature perhaps – less shred, more thought.  “Yeah, I think so,” he muses.  “I mean, I’ve been touring and recording for two decades now and with that comes a bit of maturity.”

“It’s more [me broadening my songwriting and arranging] skills, and production skills,” Shepherd expands.  “I was really involved in this album, it’s the first one where I’ve been actually listed as a co-producer.”  He goes on to say that being “so immersed” in the record saw it move from him “constantly soloing” to “playing the right notes at the right time”, less flash, so to speak.  Playing the producer role was obviously a cathartic moment for him.

“Well yeah, I put a lot of work into this record, and I think the end result is really good,” he says, and it is.  For not only is it more mature, it’s a mark of the continuous evolution Shepherd has always strived for, within the blues he holds so dear.  Surely far more satisfying than driving a race car.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 23 March 2012

Record Review - Eric Bibb

Published in the Metro section of The Sydney Morning Herald (March 23).

Eric Bibb
Deeper In The Well
DixieFrog Records / ABC Music
As befits his reputation as one of the finest purveyors of roots music going around, Eric Bibb delivers yet again with Deeper In The Well. It’s a record that embodies the steamy, swamp sounds of Louisiana, but still with the blues nous and folky charm he’s become known for, these years past.

Recorded in the Bayou State at fiddle player Dirk Powell’s studio, Deeper… exudes a front porch, barefoot vibe: in the sleepy shuffle of Sinner Man, the swampy Bayou Belle, the melancholy and fiddle-swept Sittin’ In A Hotel Room. Bibb and his banjo and acoustic guitar lead the charge, there are lashings of fiddle and wailing harmonica abounding and a Cajun shuffle throughout, a bit of accordion – you can almost feel the sweat, see the smiles, smell the BBQ.  A fine new addition to Bibb’s canon.

Samuel J. Fell

Wednesday, 21 March 2012

Record Review - Justin Townes Earle

Published in the April issue of The Big Issue.

Justin Townes Earle
Nothing’s Gonna Change The Way You Feel About Me Now
Bloodshot Records / Inertia

Yet another record from troubadour Justin Townes Earle, yet another direction change from this perpetually poignant and painfully hip artist whose tumultuous past is well documented but whose musical journey is still only just beginning to unfurl.

Of course, Nothing’s Gonna Change… is still steeped in the soft country tones he rose to prominence on, it still references the dark folk stylings of Woody Guthrie and Earle’s father, Steve, but in this instance, via a smattering of subtle horn work and a sprinkling of keys throughout, Earle tags his love of Memphis soul – extremely well.

It’s not a big, bold soul statement by any means (perhaps with the exception of the rollicking R&B of ‘Baby’s Got A Bad Idea’), but the blood of Memphis, of the south, runs deep within the majority of works here; ‘Maria’ with its shimmering organ, the horn-laden ‘Memphis In The Rain’, the Otis Redding-like ‘Look The Other Way’.

And then of course, the heart-rending title track and ‘Unfortunately, Anna’, show exactly why Earle is so good with just his voice and minimal accompaniment – yet another positive step in the evolution of Justin Townes Earle.

Thursday, 15 March 2012

Salt Of The Earth

Published in Inpress Magazine (Melb) - March 14.
For online version, click here (Page 44)

Nano Stern

Chilean sensation Nano Stern has been called, “one of the most in-demand international artists on the domestic festival scene”, a statement which is verified beyond a doubt by the fact Stern will, this month, embark upon his seventh Australian tour in a little over three years.  “Yeah, well, I think even maybe more, I’ve been there under different things, so maybe like ten times or something, actually I’ve lost count,” he laughs.

It’s the fiery talent he displays on guitar, the poignant turn to his deeply meaningful lyrics, his passion for not only music, but what is right and just in this turbulent world of ours that has seen him embraced by Australian audiences – I remember seeing him at the Mullum Music Festival a couple of years ago and being mesmerised by the intricate way he’d build a song, beginning with subtle melodies before bringing it all home amidst a cavalcade of power and the aforementioned passion.

It’s all of the above which has seen Stern embraced within the boundaries of his own country especially, a place where the 26-year-old can barely walk the streets without being recognised and stopped, a place where he recently played to 180,000 people as part of a protest, and a place where his song ‘La Puta Esperanza’ has been adopted as the anthem of the ongoing protest against the Chilean government’s damming of two rivers in Patagonia – Nano Stern is the voice of a generation, much loved in his home country.

“Yeah [that means a lot to me],” Stern says of ‘La Puta Esperanza’ being taken up so wholeheartedly.  “And it’s kind of written out of the same motivation, it’s a protest, it’s a scream for reason to come to people.  And I’m glad that it’s used, I’m always authorising people to use my songs in documentary films or whatever, and of course I say yes [here], it’s an honour, a privilege to be able to help through your means of expression.”

‘La Puta Esperanza’ is the first single from Stern’s latest recording, his fifth studio album, Las Torres De Sal (which translates to The Towers Of Salt) which has already been tagged by fans and critics alike as “his strongest work yet”, something with which Stern agrees.  “Yeah, I agree,” he muses.  “And for many reasons.  I think I’ve matured a lot since the last time, things have happened in my life that gave more depth, starting with the writing, the lyrics, which unfortunately people in Australia cannot really relate too (the entire record is sung in Stern’s native tongue).

“I’ve also taken the freedom to explore different things in between the last album and this one,” he adds, “but also something which makes a huge difference is the way that we produced it.  It’s like a process – the first album I recorded everything myself, the second was pretty much the same but with some guests, on the third one it was the band playing but it was click tracked, but with this one we went hardcore and recorded old school, completely live in the studio, there is no dubbing at all.”

I’m interested to know how he found this recording process then, given it’s not something he’d done before, either by himself, or when collaborating with other artists.  “Well, it’s an actual recording, it’s not a studio magic thing,” Stern reasons.  “You can hear the music breathe a lot more, it feels more organic somehow.”

Organic is a fine way to describe Las Torres De Sal – it seems to seep from the earth itself, the music as real as the motives behind the songs contained within.  Organic is also a fine word to describe Stern’s rise to prominence here in Australia – from small beginnings to multiple tours in only a few years, and you can bet he’ll grace these shores a great deal more down the track.

Samuel J. Fell

Record Review - Fiona Boyes

Published in the March issue of Australian Guitar.

Fiona Boyes
Blues For Hard Times
Blue Empress Records / Only Blues Music

The Queen of Australian Blues returns here with Blues For Hard Times, a record which shows exactly why Fiona Boyes has laid claim to the aforementioned title for so long.  With an ease born of playing this music for years, Boyes strolls through a selection of mainly original tunes – simple fingerpicked, down-home numbers, a bit of N’Awlins swing thrown in, a shuffle here, a rag there, there’s nary a note wrong with this one.

And it’s the playing which holds this one up – lyrically, it’s great and Boyes’ voice is as fine as ever, but that simple guitar style of hers is what breaks through and shines.  Whether playing resonator, acoustic or electric, Boyes makes it real, she makes it shimmer, plus with the addition of the legendary Bob Margolin on a track or two, this is the mark of a great blues record.

Samuel J. Fell

Record Review - Blue Shaddy

Published in the March issue of Australian Guitar.

Blue Shaddy
Across The Road
Independent / Only Blues Music

The first thing that’ll strike you about Across The Road, the fifth album from WA rootsters Blue Shaddy, is how comparatively low key it is.  Their last effort, 2008’s Bury My Ghost, was a foot-stomper to be sure, as their live set is in spades, whereas this one seems to be quieter, more considered, a lot more subtle.

The slide playing of frontman Jim McClelland is, for the most part, very much an accompaniment to his voice and the harmonica work from brother Belly is the same, save for a few choice ‘freak outs’ here and there.  This strikes me as an odd move for the group, as they’ve built their rep as a pretty high-octane act, particularly in the early days when they sported two percussionists.  Still, it’s delivered with feeling and passion making for a solid, albeit rather reticent, result.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 9 March 2012

Record Review - Dom Turner & Ian Collard

To be published in the Metro section of the Sydney Morning Herald (March 16)

Dom Turner & Ian Collard
Mama Thinks We're Crazy Too
Fuse Music Australia

With an evident deep respect for hill country blues, Backsliders guitarist Dom Turner and harmonica extraordinaire Ian Collard team up here to pay homage to this most primal of genres, and to one of its icons, ‘Mississippi’ Fred McDowell.

Tunes from the likes of McDowell, Blind Willie McTell, Sleepy John Estes and Leadbelly (whose version of ‘Gallows Pole’ this pair reinvent in their own ragtag style) adorn the set, lovingly recreated and stamped with the trademark sound these two have forged over decades of playing this music; Collard’s rolling harp work, Turner’s rusty-stringed style of playing, adding to these classic tunes an invigorated sense of urgency.

Turner and Collard show here why they’re at the forefront of blues in the modern age, re-crafting these songs with a passion that will never die.

Samuel J. Fell

Mama Thinks We're Crazy Too is available now through FUSE Music Australia.


Published in the EG section of The Age (March 9).
For online version, click here

Pieta Brown

When Pieta Brown graces our shores for the second time later this month, it’ll be riding high on the release of her fifth record, Mercury, an album that continues on in that rich vein of melancholy begun with her eponymous debut in 2002. 

It’s a record of deep moods and soaring imagery, it’s ethereal really, and in fact, from the ether is where a lot of it came from.  “The recording of it was definitely strongly influenced by this dream I had,” Brown recounts.  “I had these songs going through my head and was really beginning to think about recording, and [about that time] I had this dream about a barn, somewhere in Alabama, which is where I grew up.

“So I walked through this barn (in the dream) and it was all kinda rundown but really beautiful… and I thought, ‘I really want to record here’, and I walked out the back and there was this guy sitting in these old bleachers,” she smiles.  “And there was an instrument case sitting next to him, with some sort of instrument I’d never seen before.”

The funny thing here, says Brown, was that a few days later she reached out to a friend based in Nashville looking for somewhere to record and he’d just converted his barn into a recording studio.  “He sent me a photo of it, and it was so much like in my dream, that I felt like it was meant to be,” Brown laughs.

From there, Mercury came together with remarkable ease, being laid down in only three days, all live, all musicians together in the same room, a recording method Brown had not utilised in the past.  “It was really fresh, it just felt really ‘in the moment’,” she concurs.  “Usually, with headphones, you’d be playing to the song, but here they were playing to me, [we were playing to each other].”

It gives the record a remarkable earthiness, something which is buoyed with the addition on the track So Many Miles, of one Mark Knopfler.  “Oh, that was an honour to have Mark on,” Brown smiles, having recently played support for a run of Knopfler shows through the US.  It was on that tour last year, incidentally, that Brown wrote Mercury’s closing track, No Words Now.

So Mercury came together like a dream – literally, in some cases – and marks the continued rise and rise of an incredibly precocious player and songwriter.

Samuel J. Fell

Thursday, 1 March 2012

Big Sound

Published in the March issue of Rhythms magazine (The Bluesfest Issue).  Excerpt below...

Dallas Frasca

They say you can’t keep a good woman down – they could have been talking about Dallas Frasca when they said it, whoever they are.  For you can’t keep Frasca down – no matter what the world hurls at her, she balls it up and hurls it right back, a guttural blues howl laced with demonic slabs of guitar riffage the likes of which would have Beelzebub himself quavering in fear and fright, coming right at you.  Duck, or suck it up and get on board.

Since releasing her debut LP, Not For Love Or Money in 2009 (an album which followed on from a couple of extremely successful EPs), Frasca has gone through her share of hard times – relationships ending, gig takings being stolen, life in general, she had the blues, we all have the blues, tough times, but she can’t be kept down and so now, with master guitarist Jeff Curran and new tub-thumper Pete McDonald hot on her heels, Frasca is releasing Sound Painter, her second full-length release, an album she describes as being, “our best work yet”.  She could be right.

“[It’s about] overcoming and moving forward, feeling empowered again and getting rid of any shit feelings,” Frasca declares on the motives behind the 11 songs that make up Sound Painter.  “[But] I feel that the whole album is quite positive – and also dark, you’ve gotta get things out, but overall it is an empowering message, and hopefully it inspires people when they listen.”

In addition to the empowering nature of the lyrics as well, the music itself is all about power.  Album opener, and also lead single, ‘All My Love’ begins with a solitary vocal before shattering into fuzz-drenched guitar riff heaven, and it’s pretty much open slather from thereon in.  This excites me – I was a fan of Frasca’s early work, the EPs, (that down, dirty, slab-of-raw-meat blues explosion), but not so much her debut LP (with its highly polished production, pop leanings and what I viewed as a trip down a path Frasca didn’t need to go).  Sound Painter is very much rooted in the former camp – this is Frasca and her Gentlemen going back to their roots.

“Totally, I one hundred percent agree,” she affirms.  “I think, for us, it was really important to have a very strong vision of what we were trying to achieve.  And we did, so I feel we’re along the roots of where we began, but it’s an evolution.”  This is a solid assessment.  Not For Love Or Money was a very real move from where they began.  Sound Painter, to much more of an extent, adds to what they’ve done, giving it that feel of ‘this is what we do best, but we’ve added these parts too’.

Samuel J. Fell

Parallel Worlds Colliding

Published in the March issue of Rhythms magazine (The Bluesfest Issue).  Excerpt below...

Yann Tiersen

Yann Tiersen inhabits a different world, one where it’s not an odd prospect to be caught dancing with the devil – a giggle behind a hand – where sonic spectres float free and things are layered, melded, booming bangs and subtle stirs, velvet cushions built for ears and French red wine fit for two.

Or perhaps only for one, for Tiersen works alone.  He builds these creations – albums, others will know them as – and bends them to his every whim and he does it by himself in places dark and light, places brimming with inspiration, virtual notes posted on trees and in the way people walk, resulting in one man making albums and then taking them to others to reinterpret and bring to the people.  “I do record the albums on my own,” Tiersen muses. “I like the contrast of being in the studio alone.”

Contrast is a fine word to use for it sums up the man’s music to a tee; it’s a veritable landslide of light and shade, layered as I mentioned, a living and breathing being that seems to pulse as you listen to it, you can almost see it waking from slumber.  Skyline is the latest entity, and it heaves with some unseen Frenchness that I have trouble wrapping my brain around.  Still, a solo project these creations begin as, then they’re taken to the Band – Tiersen isn’t a solo artist when it comes to performing – and they rework and take to the stage like a flock of scruffy geese.  Oui, Oui.

“With Skyline, the songs are quite complex, so we’re able to play with them,” Tiersen explains on the transition his compositions undergo once they’ve been recorded and are ready for outside consumption.  “We can make different versions that are quite close at the same time… it’s [actually] quite natural.  It’s like being in a band and just coming to them with a song you’ve already written.”  Indeed, except Tiersen has already recorded and released it – strange, no?

Not according to the man, it is as he says, natural, and has been over the course of his seven full-length creations thus far (not to mention a slew of EPs, live records and soundtracks).

Samuel J. Fell

Absolutely Fabulous

Published in the March issue of Rhythms magazine (The Bluesfest Issue).  Excerpt below...

The Fabulous Thunderbirds

The Current Lineup
Around thirty-eight years ago, Kim Wilson met Jimmie Vaughn somewhere in Texas, the result of this fortuitous meeting being the birth of The Fabulous Thunderbirds.  Almost four decades later Vaughn is no longer involved – he left the band in 1989 – but the T-birds, as their legions of fans call them, are still going strong.  Maybe even stronger, in fact, given the mileage they’ve clocked up, the number of shows they’ve played, the records they’ve released.  38 years is no mean feat, and the Fabulous Thunderbirds are a shining example of how you can last that long, remain relevant and show no signs of slowing down, as they zero in on their fifth decade.

Of course, it’s not just been Vaughn who’s left the fold, even the T-birds haven’t retained their original lineup all this time – players (including guitarists Duke Robillard and Kid Ramos and keysman Gene Taylor) have come and gone – but it’s been the new blood that’s come in that’s helped sustain the group, the other element being the continuous presence of the perpetually enigmatic Wilson, the man who basically binds it all together, who’s been there since day one.

“I was hoping,” Wilson laughs heartily when I ask him to cast his mind back to 1974, if he ever envisioned the band lasting this long.  “I mean, that’s the thing you play for, and the beautiful thing about this kind of music is you can do it your whole life and really elevate all the time.  It’s not one of those things you’re supposed to get worse at.”

‘Getting worse’ isn’t even in the T-bird’s lexicon, its polar opposite being the only thing close, and this is what the group have done, from album to album, from gig to gig, even as things have changed and the landscape has become different.  “It was kind of wild [back in the day], crazy stuff happening all the time, a bunch of people being too high all the time,” Wilson laughs, reminiscing.  “It had its moments, that’s all I can tell you.  I don’t think it was a very healthy time, I feel a lot better now than when I was a kid,” he adds with another laugh – yeah, it’s different now, but no less potent.  Musically, of course.

Despite this potency, the T-birds haven’t ever hit commercial heights or crossed over into the mainstream per se, but they’ve developed a cult following that’s swelled the world over and in the course of almost forty years have more than established themselves as among the best purveyors of, as Wilson puts it, “American music”, for despite the fact they began as a flat out blues band, it’s since become all about bringing in a true mélange of influence.

Samuel J. Fell

The Heat Is On

Published in March issue of Rhythms magazine (The Bluesfest Issue). Excerpt below...

Canned Heat

The current lineup
Next month, The Rolling Stones will celebrate their 50th anniversary.  Half a century of Mick and Keef, half a century of hit songs and records, half a century of blues, rock ‘n’ roll, ups and downs, ins and outs.  Half a century.  This is a seriously long time, and there aren’t many bands that can lay claim to such an achievement.  In fact, I can think of only one other that is even close, a band, formed 47 years ago, who are as firmly rooted in the blues as The Stones, perhaps even more so, and a band who, incidentally, played at the very first Bluesfest, back in 1990 when the festival was a one-day event held at the Arts Factory in Byron itself.  The band in question?  Canned Heat.

“50 years in and people say, ‘Oh they’re too old, they can’t do it’, and yeah, perhaps if we were a dancing troupe,” laughs original drummer, Adolfo ‘Fito’ de la Parra, who prior to joining the heat in late 1967, had backed the likes of Etta James, T-Bone Walker and Ben E. King.  “But that’s not the case.  The older we get, the more interesting we get I think.  Just like the old black [blues] guys – the older they got, the more valuable they were.”

Whether you’re aware of the Heat or not – they certainly never attained the level of fame their quintegenarian peers did – you know their music.  ‘On The Road’, ‘Going Up The Country’, ‘Lets Work Together’, songs which reeked of ‘60s counterculture, songs which lived and breathed the power and the passion exuded by those ol’ blues cats.  Fronted by Bob Hite and Alan Wilson, two musicologists if ever there were any, the Heat delved back into the obscure and odd, pulling these blues tunes back into the limelight, along the way creating timeless classics of their own.  If it’s boogie blues you’re after, forget The Stones, it’s Canned Heat that’ll light your fire.

“Well, we just want to keep going, and I guess I’m to blame,” de la Parra laughs again when I ask what the secret is to Canned Heat’s success and longevity.  “I’m the one who’s kept the band going, all the way through even after the tragedies we suffered and all that, and it’s been mainly staying positive in the mind and loving the music.  We have money now, we could retire if we wanted, but there’s something else, sort of justifying your presence in this world.”

Samuel J. Fell