Wednesday, 30 January 2013

Record Review - The Revelers

Published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday 22nd January.

The Revelers
The Revelers

In a similar vein to Lil’ Band O’ Gold comes another Louisiana swamp/pop supergroup in The Revelers.  Made up of members of The Red Stick Ramblers and The Pine Leaf Boys, this quintet, with their eponymous debut, have made a statement – that they’re giving CC Adcock, Warren Storm and the rest of the Lil’ Band, a run for their musical money.

Heavy on the accordion and fiddle, deeply entrenched within the sweaty sounds of Louisiana, The Revelers draw as well from the blues, from folk, from Cajun sounds and beyond to craft what is a rock solid debut.  Sung in both French and English, this is a record which invokes nights dancin’ and drinkin’ down in the swamps, with just enough of a pop edge to have you kicking up your heels ‘til dawn.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 25 January 2013

Profile - Jon Spencer Blues Explosion

Published in the January issue of Rhythms.

Like a swift kick to the groin, the Blues Explosion leave you breathless, a little disoriented. Like a car backfiring on a quiet street in the dead of night, the Blues Explosion jolt you into the now, whilst still lingering in the past, an odd noise that could be something ominous but is actually familiar and true. Never before has such a hybrid – the warped reconstruction of the blues, the rock ‘n’ roll swagger and swill, the suss face of punk – been brought on with such aggressive aplomb. It’s the Blues Explosion, that’s just how it works.

Formed in 1991 in the simmering cauldron that is New York City, the Blues Explosion (fronted, of course, by Jon Spencer and backed to the hilt by Judah Bauer and Russell Simins) burst from the blocks and over the ensuing two decades, have built for themselves the most solid of underground followings, based on their incendiary live performances, their vicious, guttural records, their ethos toward making music and the experiences it brings.

Despite their underground success however, JSBX never broke through the pond-top scum to hit the mainstream, and so their music inhabited the murky depths instead, perhaps almost invisible to music fans who came along after the tail end of the ‘90s. But then in late 2010, the band reissued four of their, arguably, best records (1993’s Extra Width, 1994’s Orange, 1996’s Now I Got Worry and 1998’s Acme), preceded by a Best Of, Dirty Shirt Rock ‘n’ Roll: The First Ten Years.

After a hiatus that had lasted from 2004 until shortly before the release of Dirty Shirt…, JSBX had announced they were back, and you’d better believe it, perhaps rekindling an interest in the band, bringing new fans in. Perhaps even reigniting an interest within the band. “Well I guess so,” Spencer himself muses. “I think you’d have to go back further than that, to 2007 to the compilation of some of our singles… (Jukebox Explosion Rockin’ Mid-‘90s Punkers, on In The Red Records).

“We’d been on hiatus for about three yeas, but when that compilation came out, we got a lot of concert offers.  And so the three of us talked about it, and thought, well, lets give it a shot… and we could still do it and it felt good, and ever since then we’ve carried on, and it has picked up speed since the reissues.”

By the time Dirty Shirt… and the reissues hit the streets, it was fair to say that JSBX was back once more, which of course, brings up the inevitable – were they going to record new material? Spencer has been quoted at various times over the past few years as saying that is was certainly a possibility, and he wasn’t jiving. Meat & Bone, the band’s first record of original material since 2004’s Damage, is the result of the band being back together, rekindling their connection, and truth be known, it’s like they never left.

“I was a little nervous before we started playing again, and similarly, I was a little nervous about working in the studio again with Blues Explosion,” Spencer admits on the first time the band have been into a studio since they were last in Australia, where they recorded a version of ‘Black Betty’ for a television commercial in 2010. “When we did go into the studio, we already had all the material written, so the big thing was getting big performances down on tape. And the songs [then] dictated what we did in the studio… I’d like to think we all sorta thrilled to the raw power of the rock ‘n’ roll we were playing – that’s how we wanted to make it.”

Meat & Bone doesn’t so much as follow on from the band’s past two releases (the slightly reigned-in Damage and 2002’s Plastic Fang) as it does from the towering records that they recently re-released. This is a record which is old school JSBX – the punk is high in the mix, and despite the fact there’s obvious blues influence, this is whiskey-drunk rock ‘n’ roll, early ‘90s style.

“[The Reissues] reminded us that this is something special, it is something important,” Spencer says on that hard and gritty early sound which seems to have informed this new one, “but while we do cast an eye to what’s happened, I think it’s important to mention that this new one could only have been made by the band today… it’s the product of a band that’s been playing for 20 years. It’s kind of like a new start, something fresh, kind of like another first album.”

Samuel J. Fell

Tuesday, 22 January 2013

Record Review - Little G Weevil

Published in the Metro section of the Sydney Morning Herald, Friday January 18.

Little G Weevil
The Teaser
Apic Records

After even a cursory listen to The Teaser, the second cut from Kennesaw, Georgia, bluesman Little G Weevil, you can tell the man is a master of boogie blues.  This one is a steam train, to use an old blues reference, it chugs and bounces through a selection (all bar one, original) of Chicago-style boogie guaranteed to have you tapping, nodding, up and dancing.

In amongst the electric though, Weevil takes time to step back a little, bringing in some hill country (‘Back Porch’ and ‘Dad’s Story’), just him and a single acoustic guitar along with his deep baritone vocal, which brings some nice balance to an otherwise raucous, electric release.  It’s during the finger-snappers though, that Weevil shines – if you’re not moving during ‘Big City Life’ or ‘Highway 78’, you’re dead.

Samuel J. Fell

Friday, 11 January 2013

Feature - Gary Clark Jr

Published in the January issue of The Big Issue.

It was in the university town of Austin, Texas, that Gary Clark Jr. cut his teeth.  The now 28-year-old started playing guitar as a young teenager, drawing from the well of the blues, a steady stream that’s sustained music for generations. It opened doors and set him on his way. He frequented the musical haunts Austin has to offer, honing his chops, jamming with luminaries from Jimmie Vaughn to Hubert Sumlin. A young guy playing the blues, one of many in that part of the world.

“My [early] impression was that he was an eager, rather clean-cut ‘kid’ having a huge amount of fun playing raw, rocking blues shuffles and bouncing around the stage, flirting with the many young women in the audience,” remembers Bruce Iglauer, head of Alligator Records in the US, who’s known Clark “casually” for over a decade.

To hear Clark play now, though, is a far cry from then. In the years since, he’s morphed and evolved and has begun to explore. Today, Clark’s music is covered in a shiny rock ‘n’ roll sheen. It dips into country territory before bouncing back with chugging r’n’b, veering off to soul town and back to the rock. The blues is always there – it’s in his DNA – but he ain’t a simple bluesman no more.

“I saw him [again] 18 months ago. He was doing much more extended jamming, using effects like a fuzz box, wah wah and lots of distortion, sometimes playing to non-blues chord changes and a lot of extended jamming without making chord changes at all,” Iglauer says. “His persona was much more ‘slacker’, with an untrimmed beard, knit hat and kind of a slightly spacey way of talking. His persona and his music fit together both times, but they were markedly different.”

The sonic change can most likely be put down to a basic need to evolve. Being African American, there’s no doubt Clark was pigeonholed as a blues player and a blues player only, and so any rebellious young person would want to buck that trend and move away.

This he’s done, and because the change has resulted in a more “accessible” sound – there are Hendrix comparisons being made, and Lenny Kravitz parallels – Clark was picked up by Warner Brothers Records, a major label, who released his Bright Lights EP in late 2010. They saw in him a marketable way to bring roots music to the mainstream. The EP received heavy-rock radio play, and so Clark is now no longer an unknown, but is about to be introduced to the world at large.

And yet still that blues tag sticks around. He’d probably be the first to say he’s not a blues player, and yet the press persist – because of his background, his ethnicity, their own ignorance and laziness.

“It’s interesting to me to hear him portrayed this way,” muses Iglauer, whose Alligator Records is the biggest and longest-running blues label in the States. “It doesn’t seem to me that Warner is marketing him as a blues artist, and his new single reminds me more of Lenny Kravitz than the blues. I’m by no means a purist, but it seems like Gary is trying a lot of different music, some of it blues and blues-based.”

The phrase that pops up most is “saviour of the blues.” To anyone who plays the blues, who is actually a blues player, who embodies the ethos of this music, this is somewhat of an insult, an example of lazy journalism and a serious misnomer, as longstanding music critic at the Sydney Morning Herald, Bernard Zuel, is quick to point out.

“He’s not the saviour of the blues,” Zuel says of Clark. “Such a statement begs the question that the blues need saving in the first place. And then in what way is he saving the blues?  He is [a] youngish musician showing that the blues has a place in contemporary music, but for him as for many others, it’s only one element of his influences and his performance.”

Despite what others are calling him, Gary Clark Jr. is on a new trajectory. Those nights spent sweating it out in tiny Austin venues playing 12-bar blues are behind him. In front of him now is the whole world, the support of a major label, a new record in Blak & Blu (released last October) which sees him almost manically covering a range of styles under the large, ungainly roots umbrella, looking for a more universal sound – from the country tinge of ‘Travis County’, to the r’n’b balladry of ‘You Saved Me’ and the new soul sound of the title track.

“I think he’s making himself into an acceptable mainstream blues-based rock artist who hopefully will have a long career,” says Iglauer. Clark wouldn’t have seen this coming, but he seems to be taking it in stride. “You gonna know my name by the end of the night,” he sings on his cover of Jimmy Reed’s ‘Bright Lights, Big City’, and it seems he’s not far wrong.

Samuel J. Fell

Monday, 7 January 2013

Top Ten Records Of 2012

My Top Ten Records, as listed in the December issue of Rhythms Magazine, December 2012.

10. Chris Russell's Chicken Walk - Self-titled
This one is a cracker... guitarist Chris Russell along with drummer Dean Muller (Hoss, Cosmic    Psychos) playing low-down, dirty juke joint blues.  Getting some good press too, will no doubt be hailed as the Oz answer to the Black Keys, circa The Big Come Up.

9.  The Cactus Channel - Haptics
One of the 'new' funk and soul bands coming out of Melbourne at the moment, a bunch of school kids listening, and playing, the right stuff.  Instrumental, very much in the vein of the Brooklyn-based Budos Band, out of Daptone Records.

8.  Chris Robinson Brotherhood - The Magic Door
The second CRB record to be released in 2012, and the rest of the session which garnered Big Moon Ritual.  Warm, old-school '70s country/rock sounds, a little closer to '60s psych than its predecessor, but excellent none the less.

7.  Eric Bibb - Deeper In The Well
Yet another instant classic from this awesome purveyor of folk/blues.  There's never been an album of his I've not liked, and this one is no exception.  Recorded in sweaty Louisiana, heavy on the banjo and fiddle, a foot-tapper for sure.

6.  Hat Fitz & Cara - Wiley Ways
The second full-length release from this husband and wife duo, it's heavy on the scuzz and grind, very old blues sounds with more than a little lashing of Celtic influence.  Cara Robinson's voice, particularly on opener 'Power', is incendiary.  Ones to watch, no doubt.

5.  Jon Spencer Blues Explosion - Meat & Bone
One of my favourite bands of all time, and their first original studio recording since 2004's Damage.  And this one is a winner - harks back to the mid-'90s when the band were really rocking and rolling, as dirty and ragged as ever, a return to form.  Not that they ever left it.

4.  Money For Rope - Self-titled
Saw these guys at BigSound in September and they blew me away.  Got the record not long afterward, and was blown away again.  Doors for a new generation, tight and loose at the same time, an epic sound, an epic record - these guys are my new local favourite.

3.  The Sheepdogs - Self-titled
Not heard of these cats before this one arrived, despite the fact it's their fourth LP.  Out of Canada with an Australian frontman, these guys are in the vein of CRB in that they're bringing these old country/rock sounds straight from the '70s, into the now.  They're pretty scruffy around the edges, and that's a damn fine thing - drunken sing-a-long material.

2.  Mia Dyson - The Moment
Been waiting for this one for four long years, and the results are spectacular.  Not much like her first two records, but the evolution (which is marked) is perfect, Dyson wearing her heart on her sleeve, lyrically, and just blowing everyone away vocally and on guitar.  This is a stellar record from a stellar performer - mind-blowing stuff.

1.  Chris Robinson Brotherhood - Big Moon Ritual
The words needed to describe this record have not been invented yet, which makes me wonder how I ended up reviewing it.  Those warm, thick sounds of old - straight from 1975 - are just fantastic, there's not enough of this to go around these days, so these guys are a god-send.  Long, jangling tracks, jams and cuts and burns, it's epic, absolutely epic.  Not only the best record of 2012, but one of the best I've ever had the pleasure of listening to.

Samuel J. Fell - Assistant Editor, Rhythms Magazine, 2012.