by David Scott·Comments Off on Jed Potts – ‘Talkin’ Apollo Blues’ Launches Today, 50 Years After Apollo 13 Mission
When not performing solo, Jed is lead singer and guitarist with his power trio, Jed Potts & the Hillman Hunters. The band released its eponymous debut album last year to critical acclaim for its American 1950s and 60s down home authentic blues sound. One reviewer opined, “Blues titans Jed Potts and the Hillman Hunters are as timeless as the classic British car but with the performance, power and refinement of a Formula One racer.” The blues has been in Jed’s blood from an early age, his parents having taken him to BB King and Robert Cray gigs as a child. Potts has been playing the blues professionally since he was 16 and is now one of the premier bluesmen in his native Edinburgh and beyond, including America where he has performed with Piedmont harp maestro Brandon Santini.
The versatile Potts swaps his Fender Stratocaster for an acoustic guitar and sings solo in the tradition of “talking blues,” a song format popularized during the Great Depression by the likes of Woody Guthrie. Potts’ vocal phrasing and timing in “Talkin’ Apollo Blues” are impeccable given the speed at which the words have to be recited in three minutes! Jed tells the story with an increasing sense of drama commensurate with the oxygen tank explosion which catastrophically damaged the spacecraft and forced the crew to orbit the moon without landing and to return to earth.
Once upon a time in the United States would unfold the story of three crewmates When the day of the launch was finally here the skies ‘round the Cape were bright n’ clear
A short while later they were well on their way and without being too cocky it was probably safe to say a successful moon landing was as good as in the bank until the boys in mission control asked the crew to stir-up a cryo tank. There was a real loud bang and all hell broke loose and the thing flew around like a headless goose and just when they were getting it to stay in one place they looked out and saw they were venting something into space. Turned out to be the oxygen. Houston, we’ve had a problem
At mission control it was clear within the hour the ship was losing air but also losing power. To get the crew home safe was the new objective of the mission but to turn the ship around was too risky a proposition. They wouldn’t land on the moon but they’d still have to go around. Would the oxygen last ‘til they were back on the ground? To lose an American in space is out of the question. Get our boys home with time to spare.
Failure is not an option…
A very cold three days later the most dangerous part was yet to come: re-entry was drawing near. Would the damaged spaceship’s heatshields hold or would it burn up in the atmosphere? *Stand-by for communications black-out. This radio silence should last three minutes but that had come and gone.
Everybody in Houston held their breath as time dragged on and on… Odyssey, this is Houston, do you copy? Thirteen, this is Houston, do you copy? Thirteen, this is Houston, do you copy? Then out of the sky a most glorious sight: three parachutes did appear! Roger that, Houston, this is Thirteen. We read you loud and clear. Everyone rejoiced, cigars were smoked, what an adventure this had been. And that’s the story of a successful failure, the story of Apollo 13.
To summarize the story, sustain the tension and maintain the relentless pace throughout with mesmeric strumming and fingerpicking background guitar work is a great achievement on Jed’s part.
All in all a neat tribute with a blues vibe to accompany it.
“Talkin’ Apollo 13 Blues” is accompanied by a video created by graphic design company Lentil. which will premiere via Jed Potts Facebook on Saturday the 11th April at 19:13 UK time – the 50th anniversary of the exact minute of the launch.
The song is available on all major streaming platforms including Spotify, and available for purchase on Bandcamp.
by David Scott·Comments Off on Singer/Songwriter Oria Aspen Releases Widely Anticipated New Single, “Wannabe”
New Jersey-based Oria Aspenburst onto the music scene just under a decade ago with her sensational debut album, Yellow Paint, an eclectic mixture of original pop/rock songs, soul/jazz vibes, and ballads. Her versatility is evident in the sensational cover of the Louis Armstrong classic, “What A Wonderful World,” beautifully sung as a duet with soul man Southside Johnny. The album received rave reviews as critics applauded both the musical qualities and the courage of a 17-year-old prepared to share her intensely personal journey on the hard road to adulthood. Despite periods of ill health, Oria has continued performing, mainly with her father (renowned guitarist Glenn Alexander), either as a duo or as vocalist with his band Glenn Alexander &Shadowland.
The good news is that Oria is back on the scene as a solo recording artist with “Wannabe,” a blockbuster of a single reflecting the maturity and confidence of a young woman who, in the true blues tradition, has experienced bad times but has the strength to come through them. Such is the power of music. To paraphrase John Lee Hooker, music is the healer when you are down, “all over the world, it can heal me, it can heal you.”
“Wannabe” starts with somber piano accompaniment reflecting Oria’s poignant lyrics, “As I sat down my body turned to stone / I’m lonely and I’m broken, I’m a long way from home.” The song builds gradually to a breathtaking crescendo created by the whole, perfectly balanced ensemble, interspersed with glorious interludes of light and shade rolling like waves. Soaring above this beautifully arranged backing music are Oria’s powerful and passionate vocals, impeccably phrased and with a sense of drama — as if she was singing from a Broadway stage. Her voice has a slightly husky edge and country feel, adding to Oria’s unique and intriguing sound. There is hope expressed in the words: “People can get you down sometimes but in the end / You’ve just gotta stay true to you.” The final climactic chorus communicates her emotions and negative thoughts when she was a teenager, the angst and despair palpable and almost unbearable by the end of the song: “I wanna be be a pretty girl but I’m not sure how tomake it through / I wanna be a skinny girl, I wanna be like you.”
“Wannabe” is a memorable and compelling song which hooks the listener in and won’t let go, the words and melody becoming embedded in the psyche for a long time afterwards.
Oria explains: “This song has been in the works for a long time. I wrote this song when I was 17 and in the middle of an eating disorder. I noticed that society tended to care more about the lives and problems of those who were thin and good looking, and believed myself to be unworthy of people caring because I was not what society wanted. Now at age 25, I got the opportunity to record this song after sitting on it for quite some time. Every lyric in the song still feels close to home, and I still deal with the same body image issues that I addressed in the song, just not to such an extreme extent anymore.”
Self-confessed wannabe Oria Aspen has the talent, originality and that special ingredient needed to be whatever she wants to be in the world of music. It is important to support artists who bare their souls with this degree of sincerity, so that others in similar circumstances do not feel alone but know that there is a friend and kindred spirit out there to help share the pain and to offer hope.
“Wannabe” is distributed by DistroKid from March 16th and available on iTunes, Medianet, Spotify and Deezer.
I woke up this morning, I got out of bed
The rain poured down on my cold and ugly head
As I sat down my body turned to stone
I’m lonely and I’m broken, I’m a – a long way from home
Someday I wanna be a pretty girl but I’m not sure how to make it through
Someday I wanna be a skinny girl, I wanna be just like you
I tried my hardest to shine like the stars
But I fell flat and got lost in the dark
It’s these kinds of things that make me stronger in the end
I wish I was happy but I can’t even pretend
Someday I wanna be a pretty girl but I’m not sure how to make it through
Someday I wanna be a skinny girl, I wanna be just like you
Oh, people can get you down sometimes but in the end
You’ve just gotta stay true to you, and
People can tell you that you’re never good enough
But in the end you’re the only one who decides what you do
I wanna be a pretty girl but I’m not sure how to make it through
I wanna be a skinny girl, I wanna be like you
I wanna be a pretty girl but I’m not sure how to make it through
I wanna be a skinny girl, I wanna be like you, like you
INTERVIEW WITH ORIA ASPEN
Hi Oria, how is life for you at the moment? Are you in the middle of a lockdown?
My life is pretty boring at the moment. I’m not on total lockdown, but there are certain hours that we can leave the house, and certain hours that we must be inside. I haven’t been having too hard a time with this change as I’m an introvert and usually stick to myself at home anyways. The only thing that’s really bumming me out about this situation, other than of course the fact that people are dying, is not being able to perform.
Congratulations on your new single which is very personal and emotional. Tell us about the recording of the track and the musicians you worked with in the studio.
It’s crazy, because when you’re recording, sometimes you don’t even get to see the other musicians. For this song, that was the case; I recorded the basic piano and vocals, and then sent the song out so that other musicians could lay their talent down on it. They recorded their tracks, and then we sent it off to be mixed and mastered. I love doing recordings this way, because nobody is breathing down the musicians’ backs telling them what to do. Each musician gets to let their talent run wild, and if anything needs tweaking, they fix minor details. The song really becomes all of ours as it changes with each instrument and effect which is really cool, and sometimes doesn’t happen when the musicians are all in one studio together telling each other what to play. Sometimes being all together can pull in exactly what is wanted, and when a specific sound is in mind, is often necessary. I enjoy that process greatly; however, for this song I wanted to work more loosely to create a sound that belongs to us all rather than to only the person or people controlling the atmosphere in the studio.
How is ‘Wannabe’ being received by family, friends and more widely?
My friends all love the song, and my parents do as well. I am currently trying to get it out there, because I know that body image is something many people struggle with, and that this song can be very relatable for so many people.
Let’s get back to your childhood and your early life in New Jersey, when did you start getting interested in music and learning to play an instrument?
Ever since I was a very small child, I have loved music. With my dad being a musician, I had opportunities at a very young age to learn everything I could about music, and I gladly did just that. I began writing melodies before I could write words, and began studying piano and flute before the age of eight. I am extremely lucky, as music is my passion, and my father, who now plays guitar with Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes, had everything I needed to explore that passion.
Your father is a renowned musician, how much did he influence your choices and overall musical development?
So much! I have always looked up to my father as a level of talent I’d like to achieve. I loved music from infancy, but would never have had the means to pursue it if it weren’t for my father. At age thirteen I explained that I had written a few songs that I would like to record, and within a few weeks we were in the studio recording the beginning of my first album, Yellow Paint. After three years of work it was released, and I was addicted to writing and recording my music. Sadly however, mental health can be hard to maintain, and I ended up having to take many years off from music due to poor mental health. I am happy now to be back and feeling better; I am looking forward to recording more music, and “Wannabe” is only the beginning.
Can you remember the first record you ever bought yourself?
I bought a Demi Lovato record in my teens. I’m not sure it was my first, but I loved it. I always loved the soul in her voice and hadn’t heard that in a white girl before. Getting her record gave me hope that it was possible to be an awkward little white girl with a lot of soul. After this I found Amy Winehouse and was floored.
I hear that you are a fan of the great Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong. Who were your other main influences and what did you learn from them?
I love Billie Holiday, Louis Armstrong, Etta James, Nina Simone, and just about any other jazz and blues singer I can get my hands on. I love Ray Charles, and went to see him as a kid (I cried tears of joy). James Brown was also a huge influence of mine, and I was lucky enough to meet him after attending his amazing concert which was unbelievable. I have so many favorites, but my main influence has always been Ella Fitzgerald. Even though I’ve never been able to come close to the vocal sound she gets, I try to incorporate the little things that she does that I am capable of learning and executing. Of course I loved Amy Winehouse, and enjoyed her covers and originals quite a bit. As a teen I loved Miley Cyrus’ country pop type sound as well, and wanted to combine that country-ish feel with the soul of blues singers.
I have been listening to your highly acclaimed Yellow Paint album which is very special and I love its variety. How did the opportunity come about and what difference did its success make to you as a teenager finding your way in the world?
I had written a few songs, and showed them to my dad; he asked me if I would like to record them, and I said “of course”. There was originally not supposed to be an album, and I was supposed to record a few songs to burn CD’s for my family and friends. After about the third song, we realized that they were sounding better than we had imagined, and so we decided to record a whole album with other melodies and lyrics that I was writing along with my dad’s badass guitar skills; suddenly, we were sending it off to other musicians, and getting great results.
You are an excellent songwriter. Can you talk us through the process of writing a song and how lyrics and tunes come about?
I generally start the writing process with a single thought that comes to my head, something that I feel needs to be heard, or maybe something I’m having trouble dealing with. I usually write that single thought down, and depending on what kind of mood I’m in I either write more lyrics or let that thought sit there until I have a place for it. Once I have written a few lyrics I think about what I want the melody to sound like. Chords are always the last thing I put down as I like to have a set melody and lyrics to know just how bright or dark sounding the song needs to be. When putting chords to melodies I pick what fits the emotion, and if I’m ever stuck I can always pick my dad’s brain for his amazing musical theory skills to get the perfect-sounding chord.
Do you have a particular song you have written which is your favorite?
My favorite song I have written has not been released yet, so keep your eyes peeled for that. My favorite song that has been released, however, is “Party Song” from the Yellow Paint album. This song brings me back to a time when I thought I was the coolest s**t to hit the toilet bowl (teenagers, am I right?), and I was ready to cause mischief anywhere I could. Listening to it now makes me laugh, but I love the feel of it, and how my dad got to exercise his rock guitar chops on it.
I have enjoyed watching your most recent performances on YouTube, several as duets with your dad. These must have been quite an experience for you.
Whenever I can, I try to get someone to record our performances on my phone, or their phone, a video camera, anything. I do this because it is such an experience that I want to remember. Playing music with my dad while we’re in good health mentally and physically is something that I don’t want to ever forget, so I try to get it recorded as much as possible; sometimes I put the videos on YouTube. Lately I’ve been using YouTube almost like a cloud; it’s a website where I can put my recorded videos to go back on them and reminisce, not to mention there’s the added benefit of others being able to view your videos as well.
Who are the best musicians you have shared a stage with and why?
This is tough, because I share the stage with really talented people on a regular basis. Some of my favorite people I have shared a stage with however, are the New York Horns, Southside Johnny, Dave LaRue, Van Romaine, and of course, my dad. All the members of the New York Horns are really nice people so I always love not only being on stage with them, but hanging backstage as well getting to pick their seasoned brains. Van Romaine and Dave Larue kindly let me sit in with L.A.X., who play with my dad; I loved that experience and had a ball. Obviously, Southside Johnny is always a treat to be on stage with, and it makes me look forward to our pig roast in more ways than one. I love getting to be on stage with him for a few songs while supporting a great cause and eating great food.
What advice would you give to other aspiring young musicians about to embark on their careers?
Don’t listen to people who think that music isn’t a career. You can make anything into a career. Love knitting? Make it your career. Love eating? Make it into your career. Love music? Make it into your career. Anything can eventually become a career if you’re willing to do it as a hobby and have a side job until you gain a fan base/ customer base/ following and can afford to make it into your career.
In this era of music streaming and, in some cases, falling CD sales and diminishing live music venues (especially at this time of international pandemic crisis), what are the main challenges facing musicians?
Musicians are definitely struggling to find ways to make money and showcase our talents right now. We can’t gig at the moment due to the pandemic, and getting together as a group to play is nearly impossible as groups of people are to be kept at a minimum. One good thing about the timing of this pandemic is the existence of the Internet, and how far it has come. Thanks to the Internet, musicians can still stream and play together with the assistance of technology, however, getting new people to tune into our content is getting much harder.
You are an accomplished flautist and pianist, do you still play these instruments?
These days, I mostly use piano as a tool to write songs; I do of course still play though. Flute is always going to be a love of mine, and I’m trying to get back into it more these days. I use my flute skills where they are needed in our jazz gigs, but sadly those have stopped since this crisis started. It’s definitely understandable, and I hope everyone is staying safe, but it is a pretty big bummer not to be able to gig right now.
Do you have any other songs/recordings in the pipeline at the moment?
There is one song that has been recorded that I should be getting ready to release at the end of 2020. In terms of other music, I have a songbook full of ideas and some full songs that I will probably start recording soon.
What are your musical ambitions for the future?
I try to keep an open mind and not set my sights too high. Something I would really like to do with my music is to get more exposure, radio play on small stations that promote up and coming artists and gain a wider following. I also want to put out more music, which I definitely plan on doing. Another thing that I have wanted to do for a while, and hope to have time for during this shenanigans, is recording an album of jazz standards and other covers with my dad; fans have been asking for it and I definitely don’t want to continue denying them much longer, it feels wrong to make them go to YouTube, or come to a gig to hear us play jazz.
What do you think about the current blues, rock and jazz scene in Britain and the USA?
There’s a lot of talent out there right now, the obvious stuff but also many underground artists that are hard to find. The Internet is very much a double-edged sword in the fact that it can help you promote yourself and gain a following, but there is an algorithm involved, and in this day and age it is over saturated with billions of videos. You often have to do a lot of digging to find what you’re looking for, which can be frustrating, and once you find something you like, it can be hard to find other things that are up your alley. Websites tend to over-promote what is doing well, keeping those who are on top on top, and those who are trying to gain a following in the dark. That being said however, the Internet is a great way to promote yourself if you’re willing to do all the legwork, because you are certainly going to be buried below all the bigger artists when you first start posting.
Do you have a message for American Blues Scene readers?
First, I want to say that I am extremely grateful to you, American Blues Scene, all of the other contributors, readers and listeners for giving many new artists, such as myself a platform and for keeping so much great music alive. I encourage everyone to continue to make the highest level of music possible, be expressive and of course support other music and musicians. We’re all in this together. There is so much music out there and you can always find something that piques your fancy if you’re willing to search. The harder you search, the more likely you are to be the first to know about artists who will be the face of tomorrow, and that just feels cool!
by David Scott·Comments Off on Holy Moly & The Crackers’ Ruth Patterson on Coping with the Coronavirus Crisis as a Disabled Musician
The impact of coronavirus on musicians worldwide is significant, as featured recently in American Blues Scene. Ruth Patterson, founding member and lead singer/multi-instrumentalist of Holy Moly & The Crackers, gives insights into the challenges faced when the touring stops. Ruth takes immunosuppressant drugs for her arthritis and following medical advice will be in self-isolation for the next 12 weeks. A fortnight ago, as the band raced home after their European Tour was suddenly canceled, she wrote the following about how, as many people stare down the barrel of similar quarantine measures, lessons can be learned from the disabled community.
As a disabled touring artist, me and my bandmates’ careers have had our fair share of disasters but the new coronavirus pandemic has taken it to a whole new level. Like many bands, it has destroyed our immediate future and there is an increasing uncertainty in what lies ahead. Last week our 6-week European tour was dramatically cut short only 2 weeks in. As the borders suddenly began shutting, we faced a 20-hour van race back home to Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, avoiding as much contact with people as physically possible. It is tragic for us, but as I scroll social media for updates and see how many others face the same gloomy predicament, it occurs to me how irrationally stable I feel about the situation. Yes – I hate to be out of work, to disappoint our fans and to have a tour, that took months of planning, grind to a halt (and let’s not even get started on the grim financial implications). But I don’t feel quite the same panic as everyone else. And it’s something that I see across the disabled community: we are just quietly carrying on as normal.
As the rest of the world goes into crisis about how they’ll cope with cancelling social occasions, working from home, living frugally for a while as they self-isolate themselves, the disabled community is perhaps more resilient. We suffer set-backs and disappointment in our lives often on a daily basis, with a wide array of challenges: having to take time off work; unexpectedly having to muster up money for new mobility aids with no other option available; often living on very low income and somehow having to make it all work. Living with a chronic illness and disabilities means we have to constantly adapt and learn to be positive and productive in the face of chaos. We just carry on. It is business as usual for us.
I was diagnosed with severe arthritis when I was 15 and then with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS) at 21, and I have been a wheelchair user since. I take immunosuppressant injections, which have led to a number of serious illnesses due to my compromised immune system. Let me be clear, this is not a pity party. I don’t feel sad about any of this. If anything, these experiences have given me super powers. Like anyone on immune suppressants with chronic illnesses/disabilities, we know how to take care of ourselves better than most. But we also know how to empathise and support others in our community. We survive months of bed rest and hospitalisations whilst managing to keep our heads above water. We got this. If anything, non-disabled buddies who are really feeling the uncertainty, stress and anxiety might now need our help and skills on how to cope.
In the current climate us immune-suppressed warriors, along with older people, are significantly more at risk and it’s something which all people need to recognise. Look out for your chronically ill/disabled family, friends and acquaintances. Listen carefully when we ask for help and make sure you’re aware of what not to do if you’re visiting someone with a compromised immune system. But don’t pity, don’t patronise, don’t ostracise us. We’re probably the most resilient people you know right now and we can teach you a thing or two on how to weather this storm. We’re all in this together so let’s be kind and build some bridges to last into the future.
From a career perspective, to make matters worse, Ruth had been appointed Artist In Residence at the prestigious Sage Gateshead concert venue, using her residency to work on a solo project around her experiences as a disabled frontwoman. This was due to culminate in the writing and production of a debut album and first solo performance at Sage Gateshead in June, the latter now postponed. Not to be deterred by either isolation or disappointment, Patterson is moving forward with her usual tenacity and creativity, starting with a live solo performance from her living room.
This session, Live From the Living Room, was streamed live to a venue in Italy on 21st March via Facebook from the home of Ruth Patterson in Newcastle upon Tyne, England. It was viewed by an estimated 7000 people worldwide — one of the biggest audiences to watch a debut solo performance.
Ruth started by engaging with the virtual audience and expressing her empathy with the Italian contingent over the devastating impact of COVID-19 in that country. Sitting at her upright piano, the confident songstress launched bravely into one of the most renowned tracks of the 1960s, Bob Dylan’s “Ballad Of A Thin Man” from Highway 66 Revisited. Patterson proves to be a brilliant storyteller through her expressive, conversational-style vocal delivery as she adds drama and suspense to Dylan’s lyrics. It takes a consummate performer to select an iconic song from a legend’s back catalogue, and to nail it perfectly which is exactly what happens tonight. Ruth makes it clear that she is still very much part of Holy Moly & The Crackers, and the slow ballad version of “All I Got Is You” from the band’s recent Take A Bite album confirms this intention. Sung solo with gorgeous piano accompaniment, the lyrics seem to take on a new, more personal and emotional meaning that captivates the listener. It was Salem which propelled the band to international fame, the cinematic soundtrack “Cold Comfort Lane” having garnered 1.5 million hits on one music-streaming platform alone. The title track of the album might have a dark theme relating to Salem witch trials, but everything else about it is uplifting. Patterson’s extraordinary vocal range, from the mellifluous to piercing tones complemented by the subtle rhythm changes on the keys, contribute to an upbeat finale. There is a poignancy about including “Hospital Beds” by Cold War Kids given the mass hospital misery caused by the rapid spread of the coronavirus pandemic. However, Ruth always manages to communicate hope and positivity when confronted with tragedy, emphasizing the shared friendship and joy of the song as well as the sadness.
The eagerly anticipated follow-up single premiered in the living room; “Somebody Else” is a heart-wrenching reflection on love and betrayal. Ruth always seems to be in control while baring her soul with amazing courage, conviction and just a hint of vulnerability. This vibe shines throughout a song that encapsulates emotions so deep they become embedded in the listener’s soul. Ruth’s debut single, ‘”I’d Give It All,” is a beautifully crafted love song which starts with attitude rather than sentimentality, the emphatic piano chords a precursor to what she doesn’t want. Not for her “the dozen red rose roses laid at my front door” or the fine wine and dining which “sticks in my throat.” And when it comes to diamonds, “well it might as well be coal.” The strong poetic lyricism of this song is emphasized in the next observation: “And though I know it’s all to please me but the perfume stings / My eyes are not adjusting to the bright lights.” The jazz-inflected vocals set the scene perfectly for the killer line, “You’ve missed the point babe / love is always silent.” While lacking the stringed instruments on the single, there is an innate elegance to this stripped back performance. Patterson’s lyrics soar above the piano chords as her quest to discover the right kind of love, keeping it and never letting go reaches its climax.
The session ends with the appearance of Ruth’s husband Conrad Bird for a duet: the aptly named “I Will See You Again,” their intense chemistry evident for all to see and hear.
For 45 glorious minutes, collective worries have been forgotten and our weary spirits and heavy hearts lifted. Ruth says her farewell, shares her experience of the loneliness of a long quarantine, reminds us to wash our hands, to do whatever we are asked to in order to save lives, and to stop buying toilet rolls! The screen goes blank and we move forward with a renewed sense of determination to overcome this awful disease.
by David Scott·Comments Off on Impact of COVID-19 on the Blues
Following the widespread cancellation of tours and gigs, with associated loss of income, American Blues Scene contacted four UK and Irish blues musicians to assess the impact of this awful virus on their livelihoods. We also asked them how they are coping and what steps they are taking to continue promoting their music and engaging with fans.
Well, of course it’s had a huge impact on my life and my husband too as we are both musicians, so it’s our employment gone temporarily (and our upcoming festivals). We were super excited about returning to Glastonbury 2020 but in the whole scheme of things it’s only a small short-term price to pay. I’m so worried for all the smaller festivals and clubs. These places have been our lifeline and keep us alive. They need to work so hard to keep going even in a good climate. I’m really hoping the governments do all they can to help and support them to stay alive.
I’m trying to stay in touch with fans out there. I’m doing videos from the studio and will hopefully do a small concert live. Even doing wee online live video collaborations with other artists has started now since the outbreak which is a positive thing. Who knows where they might lead in the future. We also have a few fun ideas for upcoming posts lined up too which I am excited about.
Thankfully our wee boy Bobby Joe who’s one and a half keeps us entertained for the most part. We are making this a good opportunity for quality family time, nature walks, cycles, art and crafts etc. Mainly we try to exercise and take time to write and record songs that we haven’t had the chance to do. We also take time to listen to older albums that we had never got the time to enjoy and watch videos from artists who inspire us. I love reading too, I’m reading Alan Lomax,The Land Where The Blues Began. It’s a super read, very informative. I believe this will provide us with a new way of looking at and appreciating Mother Earth, slowing down a little and really appreciating our families and valuing their importance even more than we do.
It’s the simple things in life. Maybe we all needed to press stop momentarily. Nothing really stops this modern world turning but this has and it really makes you stop and think about what’s most important in life. Hopefully we will get back to making and enjoying music together soon.
The Covid-19 situation is hugely disruptive and costly for us, both as individual working musicians and as a band. From the band perspective, the entire tour designed to promote our new album Railroaded has collapsed and, with it, the impetus it would have brought to its promotion. As an independently produced album, with no record company backing, there is also a major financial consideration, as the album cost over £2000 to produce and the majority of sales in our part of the musical marketplace still come from CD sales at gigs. We were looking to mitigate this by live streaming some gigs but the latest UK government regulations in term of group gatherings make this impossible to do. There is potential for modern online technology to allow us to perform as a band from completely different locations and this is something that our bass player Craig is looking into. I am also going to experiment with streaming solo sets from home and am even thinking about having a “virtual” Craig and drummer Paul, by using the album stems of their recorded parts and playing live alongside these.
We are trying to maximize streaming opportunities for Railroaded and our debut album, Stranger. Whilst the lack of financial benefits to the recording artists are well publicized, it still allows us to get the album heard all over the world. The financial element of recorded music tends to be of secondary consideration these days, contrary to when I first started in the business. Back then, artists would release an album and then tour to promote it and encourage sales, which would be their primary income source. Nowadays this has flipped onto its head, with recorded music being used to popularize artists in order to sell tickets to live shows: these now being the main source of income. Sadly the effect of this is that artists such as Joe Bonamassa are charging large sums for tickets, which feels like it’s pricing folks out of the market, when in fact I suspect that, were the individuals to calculate how much they used to spend on albums rather than streaming etc. the costs wouldn’t be so different.
Another vital source of assistance for bands like us, during these gig-free times, is the Independent Blues Broadcasters Association (IBBA) and the likes of journalists in the written press. They really are so important to us as, even more than streaming, writers allow our music to still get to the ears that we want to listen to it. Especially now, it’s very easy to just think in monetary terms about the music scene (particularly if you are currently a couple of grand out of pocket as I am) but the primary purpose of John Doe Trio (and most other blues bands, I would opine) is to provide entertainment and pleasure to those who appreciate our style of music. The blues radio broadcasters and blues journalists allow us to do this, even when we are unable to get out and perform to folks directly. I can’t express enough how important this is to the likes of our band.
These are strange times indeed. My internal soundtrack is bouncing between moody Skip James, apocalyptic Blind Willie Johnson and ecstatic Sister Rosetta Tharpe. Aretha Franklin and Susan Tedeschi next, I think! The direct impact on me is up to 60 cancelled shows. Perhaps more depending on how long this all continues. We’ve been working two years toward the release of Work My Claim (March 2020) and the celebration of my 30 years on the Road (a tour from late February to early July). I was a couple of weeks into the tour when we had to pull the plug. The grim reality is lots of money invested in PR, advertising and preparation for this tour over the last year or so, and thousands lost in just weeks through cancelled shows. I have built my career on gigging. I identify as a ‘road dog,’ if you know that expression. For me, it’s all about the face-to-face. Not only do I count on it for my livelihood, but I genuinely love it. To my way of thinking, music is all about what happens in a room with an audience. All the rest of it is just a means to get you to that room with those people. I’m old school in that way, I guess. Gigging has been the constant of my 30-year career. Now that is off the table, I’m trying to figure out a way to stay connected with my audience. They have been great before and I’m assuming we’ll find new ways to connect.
Like so many others, the strategy is to try and keep in touch via social media. I have a new Patreon page and an email list that I connect with every week or two, but I also use Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram. I’m filming videos of songs – deep cuts from my back catalogue, old blues songs – and beginning to post them. We’re also planning a series of live streaming concerts from my office. Additionally, I’ll be doing online guitar lessons as well. Of course I’ll keep co-writing with my collaborators – we can do that online – and figuring out other ways to stay connected with my musician friends. I’m not tech-phobic by any means, but I’ve never had a home studio or a live streaming set-up before. To be honest, I didn’t have time. Now I have the time and I have the need, so taking ‘baby steps’ learning how all this works and asking lots of questions. Many of my peers are way ahead of me here, but I’m kind of enjoying the process. It inspires me to think outside the box. We’re all being challenged to be inventive in a way we haven’t had to be before.
I don’t really have any hobbies other than guitar, song writing and music, so those continue as part of my daily routine. I’m re-discovering reading and trying to re-learn the fine art of sitting still and being attentive to what’s around me. I’ve put the flight cases in the loft for now and have truly unpacked for the first time in I don’t know how long. Who knows what can happen? I’m also listening to my music collection again and making it a point to explore the music of other musicians, something I’ve not had the opportunity to do. I watch their videos and, in some cases, order their music. Long before thirty years ago I loved this acoustic roots music and I’m delighted to discover I still love it not only as a player but as a listener.
Our first cancellation on arrival in Calais on, yes you guessed it, Friday 13th March, was for a gig that evening in Abbeville, France. We were on a double bill with Chris Bergson and Ellis Hooks. As soon as the Eurotunnel train hit Calais I got a message from my agent saying that France’s President Macron had banned events of over 100 people. Myself and the band waited in Calais for a couple of hours for final confirmation that the show was off, which inevitably came and so back we went. Slowly over the next few days it became clear that all of my work for March April and May in Europe and the UK would be cancelled. I must admit this was initially a great shock. The work was some of the best I had received in France, Romania and Holland and Spain and it seemed that we’d turned a corner this year with sold out shows in Paris and just outside Lyon. On a more practical level – there was the money situation which is pretty nightmarish I’m sure for all musicians and indeed any creative freelancers who are living on a job by job basis without anything saved up. The next few months will be challenging to say the least and hopefully the government will step up a bit more and help the self-employed somewhat further, and whilst I write this it looks like they will be. The one positive thing about being a professional musician is that if you’ve stuck with it and toughed it out over the years, you’re used to fighting through unexpected situations, cancellations and financial challenges that have made you stronger in the face of adversity because you have no choice if you want to carry on. I’ve decided to use the vast amount of new free time as positively as possible to start building up my online teaching presence internationally and to try and monetize it. It’s something that I’ve wanted to do for some time. I love breaking down both the legendary masters of the harmonica and writing new stuff to help with understanding different aspects of instrument and the art of playing the music. I’ll also be writing and planning my new album. That way I’ll be on top of the overall concept, songs, artwork photography etc. when the touring kicks back in. I will also be writing some articles on blues masters of the past and also interviewing blues masters of the present for some magazine articles including Billy Branch.
I wish all my fellow musos well, and look forward to catching up on the other side of this.
by David Scott·Comments Off on Troubadour Sean Taylor Live in London
It is significant that Green Note in Camden, near to where Sean Taylor resides, should provide the setting for a Live In London album representing the pinnacle of his musical achievements after two decades as a road warrior. The intimacy of this iconic venue (Taylor’s spiritual home), and the presence of family, friends and fans who packed the place to the rafters, makes it a special night.
With a guitar on his back and an old fedora hat, the troubadour walks nonchalantly onto the stage and launches straight into “Heaven” with its trademark fingerpicking, mesmeric strings’ accompaniment and hushed vocal tones. “Texas Boogie” hits that groove instantly and is a perfect tribute to the blues greats Lightnin’ Hopkins and Stevie Ray Vaughan. The slow, anthemic opening to “Little Donny” is the prelude to a candid critique of the President of the United States, the crescendos and changing pitch of vocals intensifying the anger. But the UK doesn’t escape political activist Taylor’s wrath either. ‘”This Is England” is a spoken word stream with evocative guitar accompaniment exploring life today, and English identity in this broken generation: “Write me a jingle with a million hooks, WhatsApp me Mr Shakespeare ain’t no time for your books.”
The blues-infused “Hold On” highlights the best of the peace and justice campaigner’s songwriting acumen, nimble finger-picking, percussive guitar work, and soft, mellow vocal delivery. The intriguing mantra of the words creates a calming effect, the chorus being as relevant in today’s virus-stricken world as we all seek to hold on in these difficult times — whatever happens. Every word sung in this show is enunciated and heard clearly thanks to the crystalline sound quality, benefitting the gentle, balladic “Perfect Candlelight” from the 2009 Walk With Me album which is greeted with rapturous applause. The response to the popular and atmospheric “Calcutta Grove” is equally generous. Taylor possesses the chameleon quality of switching suddenly to gritty and powerful vocal delivery as on the upbeat “Feel Alright.”
Sean’s blues hero, Skip James, is acknowledged with an innovative interpretation of “Hard Time Killing Floor Blues,” and the first opportunity for the audience to sing along. “The Only Good Addiction Is Love” is a beautiful slow ballad based on a quote by former Uruguayan President ‘Pepe’ who gave his money to charity. The 2015 album of the same name was a game changer for Taylor in that it confirmed his status as a poet, all-round musical virtuoso and Renaissance man alongside his other musical credentials. Sean intricately finger picks his way through the Spanish-influenced instrumental “Lorca” before subtly moving on to “Heartbreak Hotel,” the latter sounding nothing like Elvis as it is given an intelligent makeover. Also unique is the haunting, rapid pace of “Nightmares” with its spine-tingling repetition of “I know she’s gone” creating an eerie vibe. Sean’s previous album, The Path Into Blue, was highly acclaimed for its sincerity, passion and poignancy — none more so its title track dealing with mental health issues which tonight is dedicated to World Mental Health Day, the date of this concert.
Another highlight is “So Fine’” with its dazzling guitar intro and funky rhythm is one of Taylor’s finest compositions, the lyrics reminiscent of Paul Simon at his peak. The aggression, heartache and anger in “Stand Up” with its piercing harmonica and stomping backing are reflected in the words, “Wipe away the poverty, wipe away the greed / I’d rather die on my feet than live here on my knees.” Dedicated to the Extinction Rebellion movement, it is a reminder that Taylor has a social conscience and strong beliefs. He genuinely cares, so he will not sit back in the face of austerity, global environmental issues, injustices and corruption. “Troubadour” is a personal story of life on the road where Sean has spent most of the past 20 years. Sean is not allowed to leave until after an encore, so he obliges with two instrumentals, “Basho” and “Anji,” before ending with the aptly named “Hit The Road Jack.”
Appropriately, at this stage in his career, Sean Taylor has by definition delivered his best album yet, because it is just the man and his guitar “at home” singing his best songs to the people he loves. History will judge Sean as one of the most influential musicians of his generation. He tackles contemporary issues including austerity, climate change, depression and disasters of Grenfell proportions with truth and integrity while offering hope in the pursuit of truth, peace and love. Listeners of this album will hear the blues in many of the challenging themes covered as they pierce the heart and soul of humanity while demanding a response. This live compilation propels Taylor further towards membership of the pantheon of elite musicians, alongside Dylan, Cohen, Van Zandt and Martyn.
Artist: Sean Taylor
Title: Live In London
Label: Sean Taylor Songs
Release Date: March 18th, 2020
Running Time: 73 minutes
HOW THE CORONAVIRUS PANDEMIC IS AFFECTING SEAN TAYLOR
With loads of musicians losing huge incomes from cancelled tours and gigs, American Blues Scene asked Sean to assess the impact of this awful virus on their livelihoods. We also asked him what steps he had taken to continue promoting his music and engaging with the fans.
Like many artists, venues, and promoters I will be losing a lot of income. I have lost at least two months of tour work already and by the looks of things probably more. This is an unprecedented time, and it is going to get tougher for everyone. There is no safety net for musicians and as a workers’ movement we must be united in calling for collective worker protections and support. It is also very important to remember that as musicians we all have a duty of care to the beautiful people who support the music. We should be following the world health organization’s call for social distancing, Offering support for musicians and venues that cancel events to protect the public health is crucial at this desperate time.
I have released a Live in London album that I am selling via my website to get by and the response has been beautiful. I was only going to sell this album at concerts, but I have lost a lot of work and I have to try and survive. I have been writing a lot which I do anyway as it’s my job. I will look into livestreaming gigs, but the road is my home and I miss it already.
by David Scott·Comments Off on New Gráinne Duffy Single, “Blue Skies,” Banishes Coronavirus Blues
If ever there was a time for optimism, positivity, faith and hope, this is it. For blues fans, our beloved music is a lifeline, and because it is shared with a global community we are never alone. As John Lee Hooker reminded us in his 1989 comeback album, The Healer: “The blues is a healer all over the world, it healed me it can heal you.” At a time of increasing gloom and doom it is important to look out for and to share the green shoots of recovery. One such moment is “Blue Skies,” as Irish guitarist, songwriter and chanteuse Gráinne Duffy looks beyond the dark clouds to those clear blue skies. This punchy, upbeat, hard-riffing blues track stays in the listener’s psyche for a long time — the perfect antidote to current woes.
A compatriot of and spiritual successor to Rory Gallagher, multi-award winning and Glastonbury favorite Duffy has legendary status in her native Ireland and beyond. Anyone not familiar with her music should think Bonnie Raitt meets Joe Walsh (to use an American analogy), but even this comparison does a serious disservice to Gráinne’s distinctive musical identity. What makes her unique is the innovative blend of blues, rock, Americana, country and Celtic influences, inspirational songwriting and performances characterized by intense, emotional vocals and dazzling fretwork.
The infectious riff precedes Gráinne’s smoky, powerful vocals reaching an eruptive crescendo with the chorus, “I got the blue skies baby up above / I got the bright lights burning and I just can’t get enough.” The singer is clearly in a good place and enjoying the vibe which she transmits with her trademark sincerity and raw energy, complemented by atmospheric background vocals. Duffy’s piercing guitar interludes are timely and tasteful with virtuosic guitarist Paul Sherry maintaining the mesmeric pace and rhythm alongside the dynamic drums and bass. Gráinne’s superb vocal range is evident as she softens her voice to add drama to the beautifully crafted lyrics which reflect the happiness in her life and career. Gráinne never loses the pure joy of singing, and she exudes the cheerfulness we all need to reassure us at this difficult time.
Remember the wise words of the UK journalist and writer Allison Pearson: “Viruses come and go, but spring returns. Always has, always will, bringing new life new hope.”
You can hear more of Gráinne Duffy on her highly acclaimed 2017 album Where I Belong while waiting for her new CD release later in the year.
by David Scott·Comments Off on Introducing UK Blues Royalty: Zoë Schwarz
For the past 100 years, America has been home to the best female blues singers in the world. Starting in 1920, Mamie Smith entered blues history as the first African-American female artist to make vocal blues recordings. In 1923 Bessie Smith was hailed as the “Empress of the Blues” and the first blues superstar, around the same time as Ma Rainey gained the title “Mother of the Blues.” Billie Holiday was regarded as the “First Lady of the Blues,” and she began recording in the 1930s. Other illustrious names since then include Sister Rosetta Tharpe who also pioneered the electric guitar; Etta James, Koko Taylor, Shemekia Copeland, Mavis Staples, and most recently Beth Hart are among others. While there are many excellent young women blues chanteuses on the UK side of the pond such as Jo Harman, Joanne Shaw Taylor and Elles Bailey, few can yet claim greatness as authentic blues singers. One notable exception is Ruby Turner. And another, Zoë Schwarz, is at last achieving the recognition which her prodigious talent deserves after years of relentless gigging.
This sixth studio album, Chameleon, from UK’s Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion comprises 12 original and diverse tracks and continues the band’s inexorable trajectory to the top. It comes after nearly a decade of building a loyal fan base, touring extensively and writing/recording songs of increasingly sublime, melodic and technical virtuosity.
“Life Goes On” is a jaunty, catchy opener. Zoë’s voice sounds like no one other than Zoë Schwarz. Such is her unique formula of classical, jazz, blues and every other genre she has absorbed into her heart and creative imagination. The brass section is unleashed on the heavy riff-laden “Better Days.” The chanteuse’s powerful, evocative voice leads its explosive crescendos with dramatic intensity. The intriguing, poetic lyrics catch the attention they deserve: “All at sea, hopelessly adrift, and desperately waiting for the tides to shift / waiting for you to send me a sign, cast adrift no land’s in sight / I remember better days.”
The jazz-infused guitar and fluent Hammond interludes on “If Only I Could Be With You” complement the lead singer’s impeccable vocal range and timing. The absence of a bass guitar in the line up gives dexterous keyboard player Pete Whittaker the space to create a distinctive style, which he achieves with aplomb — the fills and solos at times reminiscent of The Doors’ legendary Ray Manzarek.
Starting with a whisper on “Hello My Old Friend,” Zoë stretches her vocal chords to the limit as the mood changes dramatically during the song. By contrast, the uptempo “Give Me The Key To Your Heart” bounces along nicely courtesy of Rob Koral’s dazzling guitar work. Rob has established himself as a major player on the UK blues scene, his magnificent axe work featuring strongly throughout the album. Zoë’s voice soars gracefully above the intricate, tasteful guitar and keys on the balladic “I’ll Be Here For You.” Reggae syncopations are brought to the fore on “I Hope I See The Day” and add further variety to the eclectic mix.
The deep well of blues tradition is never far from the surface. So “When The Blues Come A Knocking,” Rob’s searing guitar shares center stage with Zoe’s edgy lyrical delivery. “Amazon Woman” is the ultimate road warrior song for the ‘super hero’ at the center of this apocalyptic maelstrom — Pete Whittaker’s swirling Hammond, Rob’s slash-and-burn axe and Paul Robinson’s dynamic, pulsating percussion generating the pyrotechnics.
“I Cry Just To Think Of It” is a tribute to the magnificent arrangements which permeate the CD, Patrick Hayes’ trombone and the tenor sax of Ian Ellis in perfect synchronization with the rest of the band driving towards its climactic finale. Chameleon is the best word to describe “Tell Me,” Zoe’s voice now possessing an almost childlike quality before changing to the coolly sensual tones of “Come And Lay With Me” with its calming, atmospheric background keys.
Just when the listener thinks it’s all over, a bonus track — or rather a pièce de résistance — emerges from the ether, which is so beautiful and inspirational it takes the breath away. Zoë is singing “Lover Man” and sounding uncannily like Billie Holiday in the 1940s. The manipulation of the phrasing and tempo, the timbre, the vibe and the improvisational skills could be straight out of Lady Sings The Blues.
Chameleon is an empowering, exhilarating, groundbreaking album which pushes and at times re-draws the blues boundaries whilst staying mainly within its conventions. When the award is handed out for the best blues recording of 2020 embracing innovation, passion, musicality, lyrical intelligence and vocal supremacy, Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion must surely be a strong contender.
Artist: Zoë Schwarz Blue Commotion
Label: 33 Records
Release Date: April 3rd, 2020
Running Time: 56:42
Interview With Zoë Schwarz and Rob Koral
David Scott, UK correspondent for American Blues Scene, caught up with Zoë and her partner, co-writer and guitarist Rob Koral to hear their story prior to the release of the band’s new album.
Following a succession of very good and highly acclaimed studio albums in a period of less than a decade, your sixth and new release, Chameleon, is breathtaking and represents yet another major step forward. Can you talk us through some of the tracks and their vibes individually and give us some insights into the stories behind them?
Rob: The first thing about the material for the new album is that all the songs vary so much in mood, tempo and feel; hence the title Chameleon. The opening track, “Life Goes On,” unusually for us, doesn’t feature a solo and instead has a relentless and hypnotic groove and story, so there’s the first surprise. Highlights for me are “Hello My Old Friends,” “When The Blues Come A Knocking,” and “Come And Lay With Me.” Zoe I’m sure has different favorites. It wasa fun summer sitting in the garden with an acoustic guitar and a notepad coming up with these ideas. At the start of each project, the idea of coming up with another bunch of songs feels daunting. But to be honest, once the ball gets rolling it just seems to flow, and represents a lifetime of music making.
The recording, mixing and mastering are exceptional. Wayne Proctor is regarded as excellent in this field. What is he like to work with? And please tell us about Andy Banfield’s input at Superfly Studios.
Rob: It was a smart move for us to use Wayne again after his successful start with us on The Blues And I Should Have A Party, our previous studio album. A few years back, Wayne in fact had implied that he thought he could really enhance our music by raising the bar on the sound and production. He was dead right and we are absolutely thrilled with the result. Wayne was familiar with our music and of course likewise; we had heard several albums he had produced, and were seduced by the cohesive and impressive production. It was very nice for us to pass the mixing baton on to someone we could trust. Seeing a whole project through from start to finish ourselves is massively time consuming. Also we wanted to hear someone else’s take on our music. Andy Banfield at Superfly was fantastic to work with. He’s a top engineer and the studio has a great vibe. He has an unflustered and decisive manner, and as a result we were all very chilled. We decided on arrangements and which takes to use ourselves. We track the music “live” to keep it vibrant and real, that’s probably what we do best. I’m very much of the feeling that what I play “in the moment” is the right thing. I’d say that most of the time I play my best on the first couple of takes. After that, the right side of the brain tends to take over too much. And I’m sure ourkeyboard player Pete Whittaker and drummer Paul Robinson are the same. One day, resources permitting, I would like to have a go at taking more time over the recording process and being more clinical, if only to see what would happen.
Will you be choosing a single from this album yet? If so, it must be a difficult choice! My personal favorites are “Amazon Woman,” “Hello My Old Friend,” and “Tell Me.” But really they are all great songs.
Yes. Two, actually: “Hello My Old Friend” and “Amazon Woman.” We have got a couple of really great artistic videos to go with them.
Zoë, tell me about your musical relationship with Rob and how it works?
The first interesting thing is that we are poles apart in our musical backgrounds. I initially sang sacred music, was classically trained, learned to read and write music, and conduct choirs. Rob comes from that completely self-taught generation, from the street if you will. We first met in the summer of 2001, and I can categorically tell you that the first song we played together was “Lover Man,” a song that was made famous by the one and only Billie Holiday. I can still remember finding the chords that Rob played strange and unusual; this was the initial collision of musical upbringings. I’m a determined sort of person, and so wanted to play this music that I was going to persevere no matter what! The way we bridged this gap was to gig, gig, gig over the next several years! I can let the cat out of the bag here and now and say that we’ve paid homage to that moment in time, by recording “Lover Man” for this recording session. It was a one-take performance and is a bonus track on the album by way of a hidden track. Just hang on for 20 seconds after “Come And Lay With Me.” Actually, Rob and I played our first gig four or five days after this initial meet and practice session. As we continue to gig together, Rob introduced me to, and made me perform with (in the context of our own band), several top-class elite players. Perhaps even way before I was ready! This was a massive learning curve for me and stands me in good stead to this very day. Looking back on this period now — wow, I’ve got to say I was very brave, and green! Rob on the other hand, of course grew up with this music. But interestingly, says I have a definite leaning towards singing the blues. I think he’s right, but it’s very curious, because that music was not in my world growing up! One final and interesting point: through the formation and development of our band Zoe Schwarz Blue Commotion, it has brought Rob back to his early and passionate love of rock music. So in a bizarre way, we have both been very good for each other. Anyway, the proof in the pudding is when you hear the music, and our album. I think this new album is our best to date! If people do want to check out the music we initially played together, there are three albums of ours that I’d like to recommend. I am not going to categorize the music, but just tell you the albums are called Celebration, Slow Burn, and a Zoe Schwarz album titled Blue Commotion. This is where we got our band title from, our first being Good Times.
Over the past few years you have gigged relentlessly, building up a healthy fan base, as well as releasing several outstanding and highly acclaimed albums. Given this context, are you happy with where you are career-wise at this point in time?
Playing creative, original music is a hard road. Our realistic goal is to play on great stages at good venues and festivals in front of people who have come to hear the music. On top of this, to write some seriously good song, perhaps that people want to cover; anything over and above this is out of our control. We do think we have written some good songs though. However, the belief in what we do is supported by the fact that some of our biggest fans are established and well-respected artists and critics who really know their stuff. That feels very nice for us.
What do you regard as your most significant achievements to date?
As an instrumentalist, vocalist, or band, the most sought after goal is to have your own style or sound, it is not easy to achieve this, but we are confident in saying that we believe we don’t sound like anyone else. We’re so proud of that. How do you achieve this? Well, by believing in yourself and trusting your instincts. We also don’t censor or tell the guys how or what to play ever. Add into the equation sheer stubbornness and a refusal to be diverted.
Zoë’sstyle is a wonderful, intriguing mix of blues influences including Billie Holiday and several contemporary artists which is great for the listener.
I know that most people don’t think of Billie Holiday as a blues singer, but I most definitely do. She had a really hard life and as a result had so much emotional power in her vocal delivery. Not the archetypal blues shouting, but lazy, behind the beat phrasing, which really appeals to me. Yes, she didn’t often sing straight 12 bar blues, but instead favored the 32-bar format of the Great American Songbook. To me that’s an advantage in learning one’s trade, because of the musicianship required to know your way ‘round and not get lost in the form. Of the current crop of singers, I really love Beth Hart. And here in the UK I love Kyla Brox and Alice Armstrongalthough of course there’s a whole bunch of fantastic women bringing their own brand to the blues table.
Rob, you have an interesting and individual guitar style, how did this come about and who were your early influences?
Thank you! I’ve never really copied solos note for note. I’ve just absorbed the vibe of a player I like. I work on my playing every day. It is such a potent means of self-expression; you can tell your story and say everything you need to through the instrument. Important players to me at the beginning were Eric Clapton when he was with Cream, Jann Akkerman, Wes Montgomery, Allan Holdsworth, and Robben Ford… They were all super important to me. If I had to sum up one thing that distinguishes my way of playing from standard pentatonic blues playing is that I nearly always play “on the changes.” Put simply, this means to outline, or spell out, the sound of the chords via the lines you play over them. In other words, if you were to take away the backing you would still hear the sound of the chord changes. This is so important, and I can hear instantly if a player knows their stuff or not. So many rock players don’t really think this way or indeed have the vocabulary, yet it is such a good skill to acquire. After all, it is 2020 now! Strong words I know, but it’s true. Matt Schofield and Robben Ford are great examples of modern blues playing.
You have written some classic songs, notably “Broken,” “Angel of Mercy,” and “Beatitudes.” What are your favorites, and can you talk us through the songwriting process?
Well, there’s three of our favorites right there in your question, and we’d like to add “This Is The Life I Choose” and “I Believe In You.” We hope we’ve created a few more favorites on this album. Our songwriting process starts in either one of the two obvious ways: with a guitar riff or chord sequence, or a set of lyrics. Sometimes the songs happen instantaneously as we sit together in our music space, and sometimes we throw it around for a few days. Having a sense of mood can transform the simplest cliché, make it sound fresh, and give it a new meaning.We don’t have a formula or musical template for writing songs, and we don’t throw an idea away if it starts taking a direction seemingly outside of our original idea. It’s amazing what happens to an idea when you bring it to the band, and how it can change character completely and surprise you in a very positive way. The moral of the story is don’t put constraints on your ideas, and keep an open mind. Another huge factor for us in relation to the general fruition of our music is that we can honestly say that we have never told another player what to play. We bring them the musical DNA, i.e. the musical arrangement and chord sequence, and then Pete Whittaker and Paul Robinson add their magical ingredient. That’s how we feel a band should work.
Tell us about the qualities of your band members, how they have developed musically and what they bring to the overall sound?
You could say that like-minded people attract each other and it’s the same in music. We have similar musical tastes, interests and history. That’s why it works, and why we started playing together in the first place, and that’s why we chose Pete and Paul for the band. They simply bring creativity, personality, technical brilliance, and a massive musical authority!
In this era of music streaming and, in some cases, falling CD sales and diminishing live music venues, are there challenges in maintaining the status of a professional musician? is it harder than it used to be?
It’s definitely harder, just simple things like driving from A to B, parking a car, getting up the M1 or M5 on a Friday night, getting your guitar on a plane, battling double yellow lines as you try and load into a gig… These are definitely problems that the first generation of British blues players didn’t have to deal with, so we just have to be more organized these days. Things like YouTube and the Internet generally are a great help in getting the music heard in this age where middle of the road music dominates all mainstream outlets. Streaming is contentious amongst musicians. But my opinion is if people really like what they hear they will buy it anyway, and quite possibly come to a gig.
What do you think about the current blues scene in Britain and the USA?
Zoë: There are so many passionate people who really care about the blues scene in the UK and commit so much of their time to the cause. I’m thinking of people who run radio shows, music review websites, magazines, clubs and festivals, not forgetting organizations like the IBBA and the UK Blues federation. We’ve met so many lovely people, and without wishing to sound corny, they, together with the people who love going to gigs, make it all worthwhile. The same applies to the musicians; the camaraderie backstage at festivals is always great fun. They are mostly a friendly bunch.
Rob: There’s a hell of a lot of energy out there, and the majority of the bands are of the blues/rock persuasion; some good, some not so good. I guess this is understandable considering the resuscitation in interest of the American blues culture originated here in the UK, albeit repackaged and reborn via the much more heavily amplified British bands who fronted what became known as the ‘60s British Blues Boom.
Observing the American blues scene from over here it seems that the more traditional bands are more popular and doing well in the polls, compared to over here where the scene is dominated by blues rock, such as those at the forefront of the ‘60s blues boom in London.
Do you have a message for American Blues Scene Readers?
Please check out our music. I think you’ll like it! American reviews have always been very favorable to us, and we’d love to play there. I sense we would go down well!
by David Scott·Comments Off on Brooks Williams: Road Warrior
Statesboro-born Americana, folk and country blues singer, songwriter and guitarist Brooks Williams celebrates 30 years as a musician with this 29th album, Work My Claim (Red Guitar Blue Music). Work My Claim, the latest album from Williams, is being released for his 30th anniversary tour. The itinerant bluesman shares his roots with fellow Georgian Blind Willie McTell. One of the hardest working troubadours in the business, Brooks is based in the UK but tours on both sides of the pond sharing his prodigious talent across two continents. Brooks has selected and re-recorded 12 tracks from his extensive repertoire and given them fresh interpretations with the help of a group of accomplished music making friends.
A bracing scene is set with “Inland Sailor,” the title of the 1994 album which kickstarted his career — one prophetic reviewer at the time predicting, “The buzz on Brooks Williams is about to become a roar.” The expressive, poetic lyrics of his original songs would in time become a trademark. Brooks paints a picture in words of the turning tides, the dramatic movement of the wind, the turbulent waves beneath his feet, the haunting cry of the gulls and the smell of the sea. The vibe is enhanced by the accompaniment of fiddle, mandolin and harmonium all reaching a crescendo alongside Brooks’ driving guitar rhythm and flowing vocals.
It was Dave Alvin who penned the timeless classic, “King Of California.” By the time Brooks recorded it in 2013 he was able to make it his own, this latest version taking the song to a new level with the ethereal backing of Jim Henry’s mandolin and the fiddles of Aaron Catlow and John McCusker, the latter also contributing harmonium and whistle. Williams has gained a considerable reputation as a consummate storyteller — none more so than on “Frank Delandry” the New Orleans guitarist who died under mysterious circumstances. The contrasting light and shade of Brooks’ voice and guitar maximizes the suspense of this engaging tale.
“Seven Sisters,” from the highly acclaimed 1997 album of the same name, is rich in the imagery of this small chain of mountains in the Pioneer Valley of Massachusetts and another master class in songwriting. Brooks was still establishing his blues credentials in 1995 when Knife Edge was released, featuring the old Doc Watson track “You Don’t Know My Mind,” with Ralf Grottian’s harmonica interludes adding style and authenticity. Williams proves he can write contemporary blues songs, such as “Here Comes The Blues.” He exhorts, “The world’s gone mad, it’s come unglued,” enhanced by the exquisite vocal harmonies of Christine Collister and Phil Richardson’s inspired piano contributions. Two other tracks from the most recent album, Lucky Star, are given makeovers: “Jump That Train” is a fine addition to the repertoire of memorable train songs in blues history thanks to Brooks’ brilliant slide guitar and powerful vocal duet with Collister. “Whatever It Takes” is transformed from a tear-jerking ballad on Lucky Star to a ragtime-infused, emphatic love song. Such is Williams’ skill in writing several different melodies to the same set.
On “Georgia,” Brooks is nostalgic for his hometown, “the Piedmont’s crowning jewel” reflected in the intricate finger picking style of the guitar playing, and mellifluously so. “Mercy Illinois” is the tale of a small town tragedy, the music less important than the true story. It is pure joy to watch Williams perform solo at a gig and to observe how he delivers the lyrics with such feeling and intensity whilst playing acoustic guitar with dexterity and desire — a scenario replicated on Duke Ellington’s “I Got It Bad (And It Ain’t Good).” This is front porch blues at its best. “My Turn Now” is a fitting finale with its clipped phrasing, rhythmic grooves and sumptuous slide. Is this going to be the year of victory for the TT motorcycle racer? “I’m tired of paying my dues, of being gracious when I lose.”
Brooks Williams has spent the past 30 years honing his craft and developing a sound which he has made unique by drawing upon and reworking the genres he has grown up with. Work My Claim is so much more than an album; it is a career-defining statement, an important legacy and a lifetime achievement.
The Brooks Williams Interview
David Scott for American Blues Scene:
Your latest, Work My Claim,is receiving the highest possible accolades and is clearly a very special piece of work which brings fresh interpretations to previously recorded songs. Can you tell us what the title means and the story behind how the album came about?
The first step was to sort through songs from each of my 29 recordings. I spent about a year trying to determine which songs still felt relevant to me and which ones seemed to warrant a re-recording. The production decisions were easy: I wanted it to be acoustic, all based around the song itself. The title ‘Work My Claim’ comes from gold mining. One literally stakes an area (puts stakes in the ground) and claims (lets everyone know) they are going to work this patch ‘come hell or high-water,’ as the saying goes, as they will live off whatever proceeds they can dig from the ground. I sunk my stakes in the ground 30 years ago and announced to whoever was listening that I’m going to work my patch of the music world. I’ve been working that patch ever since. Was then. Am now.
I feel that the musicians on your latest album make a significant input, notably Aaron Catlow and Christine Collister; can you talk us through their individual key strengths and contributions to the overall sound?
In terms of the production sound of ‘Work My Claim,’ I knew I wanted to include fiddle and harmony vocals throughout. I met Aaron on tour in The Netherlands and was knocked-out by his playing. He was my first call and he is a delightful contributor. My second call was to Christine Collister. I’m a huge fan of her singing and am delighted to have her voice on the recording. My friend John McCusker surprised me by taking one of his two days off from the Mark Knopfler Tour to play on a few songs. Likewise, I was able to connect with my favorite pianist, Newcastle’s own Phil Richardson, as well as American mandolinist and good friend Jim Henry (we recorded an album called ‘Ring Some Changes’ twenty years ago), and a wonderful German harmonica player I met on tour called Ralf Grottian. All these sounds enhance and support the songs. They flow as natural as anything I’ve ever recorded.
Is there a song from your career that you are particularly proud of?
I’m especially proud of “Here Comes The Blues.” On ‘Work My Claim’ I’ve included the never-before recorded third verse. There’s also “Whatever It Takes,” which is recorded here as I first wrote it. “Inland Sailor” sounds like it was written yesterday. I’m also proud of “Gambling Man,” from ‘Lucky Star’.
Can you say a bit about yourself, how you became involved in music and your musical influences and experience?
My mum was a classical singer and ensured that there was always music around the house, but it was all classical music or Broadway musicals. I discovered rock and roll listening to late night radio and as I got older the rock and roll began to win out. Not giving up on her hope that I would play classical music, when I was ten years old, she enrolled me in a summer music programme to learn classical violin. It was a good way to keep a bored kid off the streets during summer holidays I think! Lucky for me, though, while I was at this summer camp I was befriended by a guy called Alan who worked in the kitchen. He was much older than us kids, probably all of 17, and he played the guitar. I was mesmerized by this and begged him to teach me something. He taught me how to play the chords to “Hey Jude” and the opening riff to “Purple Haze”. That was it. I was hooked! I begged my mother to buy me a guitar and, bless her, she took a chance and bought that guitar for me, a nylon-string little number like the kind Jose Feliciano played. Not exactly rock and roll, but it was a start.
My older brothers also influenced the music I listened to because they were so switched on to what was popular at the time, Beatles, Elvis, Chuck Berry, Beach Boys, Eric Clapton, Allman Brothers. They had a record player in their room and played their music at full volume. There was no way not to hear it! I just took it all onboard and got really excited about it all. Later I began to choose my own music, Hot Tuna (a bluesy spin-off of Jefferson Airplane), Bonnie Raitt, Taj Mahal, Ry Cooder, Mark Knopfler. About this time most of my peers started switching to the electric guitar but I really loved the acoustic guitar, by then I had a steel-string, and I found my way into the acoustic side of roots and blues music.
Having been born in Statesboro Georgia, were you aware as a youngster of Blind Willie McTell and his southern roots?
Funnily enough in my childhood no one really talked about the blues legends. We have the British Invasion to thank for that! Last year when I was on tour in the southern US states, Jo and I were amazed by the number of memorials there are to the old blues guys, like Lightning Hopkins and Blind Willie McTell. But when I was young no-one acknowledged these blues masters. It took people like Eric Clapton doing “Crossroad Blues” to teach me who Robert Johnson is. In fact, I thought the Allman Brothers had written “Statesboro Blues” because they are who I heard singing it. I didn’t even know the name Blind Willie McTell at that time! It was later that I figured out the connections between it all: that the music I enjoyed listening to and was trying to play was the music of the blues masters.
It was a long, slow road because no-one in my family played this music. I was really on my own in listening to blues/roots music. I did a lot of self-educating. I would go into record shops and I’d buy records blindly, based on what label released it, or whether it had a cool guitar pictured on the cover! So it was a slow process building up a repertoire of songs that influenced me. What changed my whole experience was when I moved to Boston when I was 17. Boston had an incredible live music scene, mainly coffee houses and tiny little clubs, and it is where I first saw solo roots performers. People like Chris Smither, John Hiatt, T-Bone Burnett, Rory Block, David Brombery and Taj Mahal. It was like a university degree course in solo acoustic roots performing and writing.
You are an excellent songwriter. Can you talk us through the process of writing a song and how lyrics and tunes come about?
Many blues artists cover songs from an existing repertoire but I prefer to find the inspiration to write my own material using the song structure of blues with a recognizable pattern of verse and chorus. It is important to have writers in the blues world so that these become the traditional songs of the future. I compare the process of writing instrumentals to film soundtracks because in my mind I am seeing scenes and I reflect on these visual images. For example, “Goodbye Walker Percy” is a tribute to the late Alabamian novelist and philosopher who lived in New Orleans so I had to create a feel for New Orleans so this piece feels like that city on a hot, humid day.
I look towards real life links but then I pull back from specifics and turn them into a universal idea. I then take the concept and then think about how it can be something others can relate to. Blues talks essentially about the human condition and how people relate to it. I cannot relate personally to picking cotton but I can relate to working hard for little reward as many people have jobs which don’t earn them much money.
Give us some idea of your life as a musician. How do you find life on the road, touring both sides of the pond and do you enjoy the touring life?
It is a fantastic life, to do what you love, and I am very lucky to be doing this work. It’s been 30 years and counting! There are also challenges to this life. The most obvious one being the travel involved and the number of nights I am away from home. I’ve been trying to get a handle on this in recent years, to balance the time I’m away and the time I’m home. This is important because when I first got married to Jo from Cambridge we tried to live on both sides of the Atlantic, but that was a logistical nightmare. So all things being equal with work and family, it made sense in our situation that I should move here to the UK although we also go back to America regularly for tours and to visit family.
Tell me about your guitar workshops and other musical education activities.
I run quite a few workshops in the UK and France as well as in the US. They traditionally focus on a specific aspect of guitar playing, like slide guitar or classic country blues chords. They are aimed at people who want to learn how to achieve a specific sound on their guitar but are a bit frustrated by the progress they make on their own. Even with all the stuff available on YouTube and the internet, small group tuition is often a better way to achieve this. The groups in my workshops, between 6 and 15 participants, are small enough so that everyone gets a lot of personal attention but big enough so that the players also get to enjoy playing together. I’ve learned most of what I know from other players and that is how this music lives. It gets passed on so I guess I’m carrying on that tradition with these workshops.
What advice would you give to aspiring guitarists?
My main advice to aspiring guitarists is that it is really important to understand the roots of what you are doing. You need to understand what came before and that paves the way towards innovation.
What are your plans and touring schedules for the rest of the year?
I’m touring pretty much the whole of 2020. I’m looking forward to our tour dates in the USA at the end of February/March and the UK in April-May. I’ll be doing some of the shows with Aaron Catlow and Phil Richardson. I’ll also be doing a few gigs with Rab Noakes. Boo Hewerdine and I will also do a handful of shows and record a new album for 2021. I’ll be back and forth from the UK to the USA a few times. Come December 2020 my wife and I are going on holiday!
Do you have a message for the American Blues Scene readers?
My experience with blues music is that it is a very powerful music style. It’s stronger than many people realize and is as relevant now as it was when W.C. Handy first heard the slide guitar on that darkened train platform way back when. Don’t sell it short or restrict it to one thing. It’s bigger than you can imagine. Open your mind and ears to the future possibilities. It’ll be here long after we’re dancing somewhere else.