Album Reviews

Jason Vivone & The Billy Bats The Avenue

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Another contender at this year's International Blues Challenge in Memphis, Jason Vivone & The Billy Bats were there to fly the flag for their home-town of Kansas City. The title is taken from a former Mafiosa retirement street in the burg where Vivone himself pitched up and bought a house back in the 90s.

This eight-track release reflects life and love, despair and hope in equal measures as lived on the Avenue over the years and features a full-blown seven-piece outfit with a soaring sense of humour and an astute eye on the world around them. Most tracks are written by Vivone himself and his slide-guitar work hints at more than a passing nod to the fretwork of former Kansas City resident picker Casey Bill Weldon. Vivone wields his beloved cigar-box guitar with style and clear class here, supported by some neatly pitched electric banjo - an otherwise troubling thought, perhaps - from Ben Hoppes.

The remainder of the band comprises Matt Bustamante in percussion, drums and backing vocals; Paula Crawford on backing vocals, percussion and guitar; Rick MacIvor again backing vocals, and keyboards, piano and organ; Jeremy Clark on bass, and Joanna Berkebile on percussion and vocals. This is a mighty fine album, a tad quirky in places and at turns but an overall charmer worth discovering.

Jen Lane This Life of Mine

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Submitted by Lee Fraser

Jen Lane grew up writing and singing, creativity naturally streaming through her vocal chords and fingers. She had an album released when she was still a teenager. With the release of a fourth album, “For the Night”, momentum was building and the outlook on her future was full steam ahead. But then a fluke accident ripped up the tracks suddenly.

The years following that injury saw Jen in and out of hospital and physiotherapy. There were multiple surgeries and unforeseen effects that straddled her with pain and immobility. While her husband, John Antoniuk, was touring his own albums, Jen was stranded at home, trapped in their Saskatoon home month after month. But as Henry David Thoreau once said, “All misfortune is but a stepping stone to fortune.”

With a bundle of new songs under her arm, Jen sought out an opportunity to record a new album in the US with a desired producer. It didn’t work out, but everything happens for a reason. The stars aligned with the opportunity to record the album with producer John Ellis, who has worked with the likes of Barney Bentall and The Be Good Tanyas.The recording studio was an alpaca farm, in the heart of beautiful British Columbia. The serene surroundings, the workspace designed by a veteran of the scene and accommodations suited to a musician’s lifestyle were all conducive to inspiration and peace of mind. All the best qualities of Jen’s vocal talents are evident on this album, which is surely the result of this locale.

Lucinda Williams The Ghosts Of Highway 20

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Yet again, Lucinda pulls out all the stops with another double album full to overflowing with her quirky, sly take on life, love, death and virtually everything in between.  Each of her previous two albums seem to have been sideshoots leading up to this offering where she again writes with extraordinary power and vision, depth and assurance, each of the 14 tracks seamlessly earning its place in the evocative and emotional mix.

Ghosts of Highway 20 is simply another ground-breaking bit of grit from a well-worn, care-worn Nashville genius. I, for one, thought she'd inevitably struggle to top her last wonderful offering, Down Where The Spirit Meets The Bone. And, it comes as little genuine surprise to find that she has again pulled it off in spades. Never predictable, Williams is always irresistible, thoughtful and ready to take you by the guts, shake you by the nuts when you least expect it. This is clearly a truly great artist sailing steadily, against the tide at times, towards ever-expanding horizons and musical harbours. Ghosts is an album that really deserves enormous success. If you don't yet have this one, get out and grab a copy as soon as possible. This is bound to be one of the best of the year.

Danny Marks: Cities in Blue

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Submitted by Lee Fraser

The year 2013 was a year of good fortune for Danny Marks and we, his fans, have been reaping the rewards ever since. The latest reward for our patience has just been released: “Cities in Blue”, the album. “Cities in Blue”, the television series, is an eight-episode series on HiFi featuring both the history and the current scene of eight North American cities or areas with strong blues connections. Danny Marks was approached to host the show and to write a song to accompany each episode of the television series. It was a natural progression to evolve those songs into an album of its own. This compilation of songs is a 35 minute tour of the names, the styles and the guitars of the blues in North America.

This album has a great mixture of magic and content: there are fun little moments that get you smiling the first time you listen, and a richness in the compositions that keeps you listening repeatedly. This is definitely an album that you can put in regular rotation. Danny Marks has assembled the blues royalty of Toronto - Ken Whiteley, Julian Fauth, Alec Fraser, Al Cross, David Rotundo among them – and recorded an album that feels as spontaneous and heartfelt as any one of his live shows. It’s moments like Sherie Marshall’s backup vocals on “Memphis Got Soul” and Chris Whiteley’s trumpet on “Once I Was Crazy” that have the power to give you goose bumps.

Dave Kelly: Solo Performances Live In Germany 1986-1989

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Submitted by Iain Patience

If ever there was a UK bluesman needing no introduction it must surely be Dave Kelly. If anyone has paid his blues dues in this country, and beyond as this release proves, it must be him.  Always in total control of his music, Kelly has been packing them into small, sweaty clubs and bars alongside bigger venues across Europe and the UK for more years than even he might want to remember.

As this double-disc set shows, he has been touring Germany for many years now, a country with a strong blues-fan base and where his style of intimate acoustic mastery and anecdotal sidetracks and wisecracks slip down with absolute ease, despite language differences.

All of the 35 - yes, 35 - tracks here in this double album come from soundboard recordings made by Kelly's on-the-road soundman back in the late-eighties when the bluesman was a regular annual feature at clubs and bars across Germany. They only came to light relatively recently when Kelly was again on the German road and his old soundman turned up at a gig bearing boxes of tapes he'd made back in the day.

The Ukulele Orchestra Of Great Britain: Pretty Girls

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Submitted by Iain Patience

The latest wonderful fun-filled release from this talented, eclectic - at times, downright mad - bunch of ukulele-toting British musicians is a 13-track collection mostly culled from their back-catalogue of marvellous, inspired covers of modern popular music.

A seven-piece outfit, the UOGB (as they're often known) is a genuinely superb band of wandering minstrels creating musical mayhem with that least likely of riotous instruments, the ukulele. I confess a love for this band and its British eccentricity. They are each and every one of them virtuoso players with an unbounded sense of the absurd and humour in equal measure.

This album is sub-titled - '20th Century Punk Classics', reflecting the roots of many band members and featuring such gems as The Undertones brilliant 'Teenage Kicks'; 'Sex & Drugs & Rock & Roll' from Ian Drury; The Sex Pistols old favourite, 'Anarchy In The UK (here as 'Anarchy in The UK…ulele); Joe Strummers' 'Should I Stay or Should I Go.' Each track masterfully played and brimming over with pure fun and pleasure.  This is a band that has a well-deserved, growing and devoted fan-base across Europe. As a live act they are impossible to second-guess and will switch effortlessly from a uke-driven Bach cover to Robert Johnston's blues followed by a movie theme, often with barely a pause for breath.

If you've yet to hear this band, 'Pretty Girls' is an excellent into to their inspired madness.

Paul Cowley Rural

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Submitted by Iain Patience

This is a twelve-track album stuffed with tasteful, acoustic and slide guitar picking from an Englishman now resident in rural France - hence the title.

Cowley, originally from the Birmingham area, includes strong covers of many standard traditional acoustic classics including a couple from the ever-popular, melodic Mississippi John Hurt - 'Monday Morning Blues' and 'Pay Day'; another couple from Mississippi Fred McDowell - 'Write Me A Few Of Your Lines' and 'You Gotta Move' together with some Muddy Waters, Son House, Bukka White and Rev. Gary Davis. All are played with punch and talent supported by his gritty, quality vocal delivery. These tracks are interspersed with four self-penned titles in the tradition that sit well seamlessly within the overall mix, If there's a flaw here, for me, it's Cowley's take on Gary Davis's oft-overcooked 'Candyman', a tricky track to reinvent or bring with a fresh flourish. But this is a minor blemish in an otherwise cracking album.

'Rural' is a release that will appeal to most lovers of traditional acoustic blues and should ensure that Cowley himself reaches a wider audience with his ability fully to the fore. Rural blues it may be but this is no sluggish or stagnant backwater offering.  In reality this is a very good, balanced and varied album of good old Country Blues with fretwork and slidework of quality aplenty. A rewarding release well worth catching.

The Ragpicker String Band

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Back in the day we had so-called supergroups, bands of big-name musicians jamming together, producing big-selling albums and reaping huge financial rewards for their collective efforts. An era now seemingly long gone and partly forgotten.

The Ragpicker String Band breathes interesting life into that previous historic theme with a decidedly acoustic, 1930s ragtime-blues tradition at its core. The fourteen track album has no title, instead simply singling out the individual stylists and band members on its front cover: acoustic guitar picker and singer Mary Flower, easily one of the finest ragtime-blues pickers in the USA today, here joined by Mandolin/resonator mando-master Rich Del Grosso, again probably the finest blues mando-man on the road and Martin Grosswendt, yet another superb acoustic bottleneck-guitarist-cum-mandolinist-cum-fiddler.

Tracks include mighty fine takes on a few John Estes standards, 'Clean Up At Home', Milk Cow Blues' and 'Black Mattie', together with 'Lonely One In this Town' from the Mississippi Sheiks, a Mary Flower-driven old traditional winner, 'Trimmed and Burning' and even a surprisingly successful stab at an unexpected jazz classic with Thelonious Monk's 'Blue Monk'.

Debbie Bond: That Thing Called Love

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Submitted by Iain Patience

Back home in Tuscaloosa, Alabama, following a roller-coaster, roaring, successful tour of the UK and France, Debbie Bond remains elated by the whole experience and confirms she is already booking both repeat and new dates and festival gigs for her next tour in 2016.

'Our summer tour of mostly England and Wales, was simply wonderful. We met loads of our old buddies and made loads of new friends along the way,' she says. When Bond mentions her UK buddies, she means playing alongside the likes of some of the country's finest blues musicians, guys who need no introduction to UK blues fans - drummers Sam Kelly, Micky Barker and Pete Hedley, plus soulful Sax-man Sam Carless. As usual she was also partnered by her musical and life-partner, Londoner 'Radiator' Rick Asherson on Keys, Harp and growling vocals.

'Following the tour, tiring though it was at times, I now know I'm up for much more. I'm already looking forward to next year. I know I'm now roadworthy and ready to roll,' she jokes.

And though she evidently had a great time on tour in the UK and France, Bond is clearly happy to be back home. Alabama has been a positive musical inspiration to her and she gladly talks about the extraordinary encounters she has had with some literally legendary US bluesmen from the Deep - southern state.

Tim O'Brien: Pompadour

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Submitted By Iain Patience

It's a surprise to discover this is Tim O'Brien's first release since 2011 when 'The Crossing' launched to widespread acclaim.  Of course, O'Brien himself has been busy between takes as a soloist, and with his other pet projects Red Knuckles & The Trailblazers and Hot Rize, and as a member of the Jerry Douglas-led award winning country outfit The Earls of Leicester.

A well-established US Americana/modern country/bluegrass festival favourite, he is also a sideman of note and lends his multiple talents to countless other artists each year both vocally and instrumentally where he majors, it seems, on most acoustic instruments. Basically, if it can produce a tune, O'Brien can play it - banjo; guitar; mandolin; fiddle; bazouki - the list seems endless.

He's also a noted songwriter and many artists have cut their teeth with his tracks over the years. With 'Pompadour' O'Brien again produces an excellent album full of eclectic tracks and influences that range across the gamut of emotion, energy and genres. Around half the tracks are self-written while others reflect the dazzling diversity of styles this guy has mastered: Woody Guthrie, Michael Hanley, Dan Reader and even James Brown all get a look-in here alongside his ever-present, Irish traditional fiddle fun.

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