Friday, February 13, 2015

Les Johnson and Me Live at Leytonstone What's Cookin'

‘Les Johnson and Me’ are a six piece, part rockabilly, part country, Scottish cum American roots music band. They played last Wednesday night at What’s Cookin’, one of the most exciting music happenings in the UK. It can be found most Saturday and Wednesday nights at the Leytonstone Ex-Servicemen’s Club in north-east London, and Sundays at the Union Chapel, N1.

“Les” is a 54 year old sharp-dressed crooner, pencil thin with dark baritone voice. Highly personable, he told me after the gig that he has been doing this for 7 years; he started when he was 47. His day job, he says, is running a Glaswegian charity. He and his band are a treasure. Check out the wonderfully named “Hitting the Small Time Big” via the band’s website. Listening to it again I get the Jim Reeves comparison that his website invites you to make. Especially if you imagine a previously unreleased Jim Reeves' track on a soundtrack to a Quentin Tarentino film not yet made. “Break My Heart”, also available to listen to, made me cry on hearing it again.

On the night “Les” (he did tell me his real name, but I had one too many Guinesses that evening) performed all his own songs with one exception, a totally unexpected cover of “Senor”. This was possibly the least successful performance of his set, but it still thrilled. It’s taken from what Les rightly described as a much underrated Dylan album, “Street Legal”.

Les’ band are, as I understand it, essentially the Shiverin’ Sheiks (also on Holy Smokes Records), who are more or less the same things as The Strange Blue Dreams…I think. Of particular note was the southern-fried lead guitar player, and the double bassist. Les and the young female backing singer dropped out after the interval; the rhythm guitarist took over vocal duties, a mandolin player was added, and The Strange Blue Dreams were born.

The Dreams had a more mannered take on their shared musical roots, slicker in a sense, but somehow less effecting. The singer is a talented guy, but he could not quite command the same amount of attention. Perhaps it’s an age thing, i.e. mine and many members of the audience. You’d probably be more likely to dance to the Dreams and more likely to weep into your beer to Les. As I get older it’s the weepers that get me.

John Martyn’s “Spencer the Rover” (Live at the Brewery Arts Club version); Shirley Bassey’s cover of “And I Love Her So” (from Live at Carnegie Hall) and Judy Garland’s version of “Smile” (as performed on the Ed Sullivan show) are right up there. Not that there’s anything wrong with dancing. When the Dreams were on stage, Les and his backing singer pulled some fancy moves, as did a lady from the audience who, sadly, was the only actual punter to tread the boards on this occasion.

Stephen and Ali Ferguson continue to present roots musical gems. I sure as hell wish I’d bought Les’ latest CD, “15 Hands”, on the night, but even better would be for Stephen to get someone to record some of these performances for a What’s Cookin’ “Live in Leytonstone” CD. He could have a classic in the making.

Monday, February 9, 2015

Neil Halstead, Pete Bruntnell and Danny George Wilson - Live at Hastings Electric Palace

Three sympathetic English souls have teamed up for a series of ‘In The Round’ singer-songwriter performances in the UK. Last night they arrived at a gem of a venue on the English Riviera: the Electric Palace Cinema in Hastings Old Town, Sussex. Danny Wilson initially got the most attention - by force of personality and sheer volume. For my money the subtler song-writing and performing charms of Neil Halstead and Pete Bruntnell had more to offer, however.

Danny, he of Danny and the Champions of the World and Grand Drive, is less suited to the unplugged acoustic vibe. After all his ‘Champs’ band is a full-throttle affair. Ironically perhaps, such was his vocal force that Danny could have been totally unplugged; it would have been more comfortable for all of us if he had. However Neil and Pete (pictured left and centre respectively; see below) kept an amusing comic routine going as they shared one mic stand between them.

Neil has performed with Mojave 3 and Slowdive, names familiar, like the Champs, from BBC6 Music. Solo, his sensitive but engaging vocal style, and measured, subtly powerful, songs, were perfectly able to hold this, admittedly small, audience. Initially he came across as the Nick Drake of the three; Pete, harmonica in tow, being the Neil Young (especially circa ‘Hawks and Doves’); with Danny as Bruce Springsteen. By the end of the evening all three had imposed their very distinct personalities and such comparisons had become (largely) superfluous.

All three also deployed amusing on-stage, between song, banter, both with the audience and each other. The drollest was Pete, who came across as a more accessible Peter Cook. Sardonically introducing a song (‘Meet the Swells’) ‘inspired’ by building development issues from when he lived in Surbiton, he humorously toyed with the audience’s liberal sensibilities before launching into a typically passionate, intense, and empathetic performance.  Introducing ‘Tin Streaming Song’, Pete began to muse on the death of mining in Devon, before self-effacingly cutting that short and launching into his strongest performance of the night, which ended with a chorus that, for him, was untypically loud and demanding, but no less appropriate for being so.

Highlights of Neil’s contributions were ‘Tied to You’ , ‘Mighty Engine’ and ‘False Start’. There was no problem in tackling the latter. Yet, tired - he had driven his fellow musicians from the previous night’s gig - Neil struggled to remember the words for a couple of other songs in succession. ‘Elevensies’, he claimed, was used by US public service broadcasting as an anti-drugs song  - ironically, according to his website and to his comments last night, as he is rather fond of chemicals. Another song with which he struggled was a tale of love forlorn, but he was determined to nail it and, eventually, after two false starts, he did. The audience though, amused by his and Pete’s shoe-gazing musical sensibilities and seemingly stoned (or just knackered) disposition, didn’t care, in part because of the love they felt for these performers, whether already converted, or, in my case, getting there. These guys are no slouches either, to which their packed performance schedules, together and apart, testify.

I wish I could enthuse as equally about Danny George Wilson. He admitted to an overuse of ‘whoas’ in his lyrical range. He is not alone in this, it is this era’s favourite vocal tic. Danny uses it with more feeling than typical of much mind-numblingly moronic pop on which it appears, but generally he sounded like a man trying too hard. Sometimes his over the top sensibility worked – breaking, mid-way through one of his own numbers, into ‘Stand by Me’ was bold, inspired, and he got away with it. Other times songs that told tales of hitching to a gig with his Dad or of a love affair with Henry, a van that had once transported his band’s kit, were just cloying.

These are three great guys who, despite their musical differences, gel. They each added nice guitar and sometimes vocal touches to accompany the other. It was a shame though that they only truly shared singing and guitar duties on one song, the finale, and the one cover of the night, John Prine’s ‘At the Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’. This though was a sublime way to end the show.

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Mike Hatchard's Crowhurst Breakfast Jazz - overeasy and sunny-side up

Mike Hatchard, jazz musician and singer, played a nearly two hour set this afternoon in the tiny East Sussex village of Crowhurst. Mike is a jazz and popular music veteran. As a young man he was Matt Munro’s musical director, he played with Barbara Thompson's Paraphernalia, and in recent years he has been playing up and down the English south coast with Herbie Flowers, former bassist with Sky and session man on many a classic 1970s rock album.

Those who came to Mike’s Jazz Breakfast at 1030 am on a Sunday morning in Crowhurst Village Hall were served bacon butties and coffee before he took to the electric keyboard, opened up with Sinatra's 'Come Fly With Me', and then provided the audience with a musical guide to some of the leading pioneers of 1920s jazz piano.

Mike plays with feeling and can sing often highly challenging and diverse material. A ragtime number associated with James P. Johnson and a boogie woogie tune popularised by Charles ‘Pinetop’ Smith were played with dexterity and gusto. Performing ‘Spain (I Can Recall)’) a Corea/ Rodrigo/Maren/Jarreau tune that Al Jarreau normally sings is not easy, but Mike carried it off. George and Ira Gershwin’s ‘Someone to Watch over Me’ was sung and played with great tenderness. 

More striking still was his take on  ‘The Dutchman’. The subject matter of this Liam Clancy folk number is a lifelong love ravaged, but not ended, by senility. Mike clearly loves this song deeply. It should have brought the house down. The audience were, I think, still taking it in long after he had moved on to the next number. 

Mike has great rapport with the audience, regaling them with tales from the road, which in his younger years was often traversed by bicycle. Such was the sympathy that Mike created, he even got away with an embarrassing ‘comedy’ number from a very different era: ‘Have Some Madeira, M’Dear’, a tale of an old man seducing an underage girl with the aid of fortified wine. 

At one point Mike brought on Crowhurst’s newest resident to play the trumpet. Paul Eshelby is a professor at the Royal College of Music. More importantly he is a sensitive as well as a virtuoso musician. I am sitting in a village hall with 50 people on a Sunday morning watching Paul play ‘My Funny Valentine’ to Mike’s skillful piano accompaniment and thinking that in many other Sussex villages this space would be reserved for amateur dramatics and the bingo. In fact the children’s club was scheduled to follow.

Toward the end of his set Mike picked up the fiddle and performed a couple of numbers in a swing style accompanied by Paul and Steve Savage, an accordionist.  The three musicians’ feigned exit through the audience brought very loud applause and many, well-deserved, shouts for more, to which Mike responded by switching to an acoustic guitar to perform a French gypsy jazz number with Steve.

A great show. Look out for Mike performing with Herbie Flowers at the St Mary's in the Castle in Hastings, and elsewhere on the Sussex coast.