Monday, March 20, 2017

TFTW Band comes of age, with Charlie Gracie

It was the night that the Tales From The Woods band came of age. They've provided excellent backing to numerous artists at TFTW shows over the years, but last night, at the Charlie Gracie show in Soho's Spice of Life bar, they got to perform their own set. And a fine set it was too.
Lead guitarist John Spencely showed that as well as being an excellent plucker he can sing as well, and his gritty and powerful vocals were well suited to this exciting rock and roll set. The rest of the band - Claire Hamlin on keyboards, Alex Bland on saxophone, Rob Davis on bass and Jeff Tuck on drums - were well up to the task and together the band put on a set to remember. They began with Maybelline, as a tribute to Chuck Berry, who died the previous day, before launching into Johnny and the Hurricanes' Crossfire, which gave Alex a chance to shine. John's vocals were really quite wild on Flying Saucers Rock and Roll and equally good on David Ray's rockabilly number Jitterbugging Baby. John joked about the band's name and said they had considered changing it to the Top Rankers, until they remembered promoter Keith Woods' inability to pronounce the letter R. Claire's keyboard dexterity was well to the fore on Huey Smith's Rockin' Pneumonia and Boogie Woogie Flu, as it was on the instrumental Swanee River, and the band's imaginative choice of material was illustrated well by the Crickets' Love's Made A Fool Of You, Conway Twitty's I'll Try, California Sun (a cross between Joe Jones's original and the Rivieras' cover, John said,) and Amos Milburn's Chicken Shack Boogie, again featuring Claire. Other numbers included a great version of Big Al Downing's Yes I'm Loving You and Gene Vincent's perennial favourite Say Mama. As an encore the band did Big Fat Mama, an original by Roy Young, who is one of the stars of the next Tales From The Woods show in the summer. Altogether this was an exciting set and it would be great to see the band do their own thing again.
The star of the show was Charlie Gracie, a man who made his name at much the same time as Chuck Berry was making waves back in the fifties. Now 80, Charlie is still an excellent guitarist and has an easy stage manner. His first number, Caldonia, showed off his guitar playing to good effect, and he ran through many of his best known numbers included Just Lookin', Wandering Eyes, Butterfly, Ninety Nine Ways, Cool Baby, Heart Like A Rock and, of course, his biggest hit Fabulous. He's been to London many times over the years and has picked up a Dick Van Dyke type accent, which he put to use on snippets of Maybe It's Because I'm A Londoner and even I've Got a Lovely Bunch of Coconuts. Other numbers included Rock A Beating Boogie, Don't Worry About Me (a tribute to his friend Eddie Cochran), I Love You So Much It Hurts, Tootsie, What'd I Say, Cottonfields and, as an encore, Shake Rattle and Roll. All of them were two minute master classes and much enjoyed by the packed crowd in this tiny venue. Charlie is welcome back any time. Well done Keith on another enjoyable show.

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Farewell to Chuck

It's no exaggeration to say that Chuck Berry was the most important and most influential rock and roll artist of them all. His death aged 90 leaves just three of the true rock and roll pioneers still alive - Fats Domino, Little Richard and Jerry  Lee Lewis - and although it wasn't unexpected at his advanced age, it's a sad day nevertheless. Chuck's brilliant guitar work and great songs were the inspiration for so many acts who followed him, from the Rolling Stones, to the Beatles and the Beach Boys and his legacy is still with us.
Born and brought up in St Louis, Chuck overcame a prison sentence for armed robbery by turning to music and eventually joining Johnnie Johnson's trio. Moving to Chicago he was recommended to Chess Records by Muddy Waters. And so began a run of great records that were exciting and amusing and which appealed not just to a black audience but to white kids too. Maybelline, School Days, Johnny B Goods, Reelin' and Rockin', Roll Over Beethoven, Rock and Roll Music, Sweet Little Sixteen, Almost Grown, Little Queenie, Sweet Little Rock and Roller  - all of them were classics which sound as fresh today as they did back in the fifties. His career was interrupted when he was charged with transporting a minor across a state line and he was jailed again. By the time of his return he had been championed by British groups such as the Stones and Beatles and  enjoyed a renewed round of success with No Particular Place To Go, You Never Can Tell and Nadine, among others. He made a triumphant tour of the UK and I remember seeing him with Carl Perkins and the Animals at the ABC, Croydon, in 1964 and what a show that was.
The hits dried up in the late sixties, although his only number one, the dreadful My Ding A Ling, came in 1972, but he toured relentlessly and I saw him on several occasions in the seventies, eighties and nineties. Some times he was good, sometimes he was poor, as he tended not to rehearse with the band and performed exactly to the time stipulated in his contract. But he was Chuck Berry, the greatest rock and roller of them all, so I was inclined to forgive those duff shows, preferring to remember the great moments.He continued to get into legal trouble, first with tax evasion and then with claims that he spied on women in the toilet of his club, claims that he denied but which he settled out of court.
A few years back I visited his Blueberry Hill restaurant in St Louis, where he continued to play once a month until his late eighties. I'm planning to go back there next month as part of my next US road trip, which includes a journey along parts of Route 66 from Chicago to Las Vegas. I was hoping I might catch a glimpse of the great man one more time. But now he's gone, and just as when Sam Cooke died, or Otis Redding, or Elvis or John Lennon or James Brown, the world is just a little poorer for his loss. RIP Chuck. Thanks so much for the wonderful music and the memories.
My top photo shops Chuck at the New Orleans Jazzfest in 1995. The one below shows today's little piece of serendipity. I visited my local car boot sale this morning and picked up No Money Down, his first UK release on London, which is also his rarest. It cost me all of 50p, so virtually 'no money down' and it's in great condition.

Thursday, March 16, 2017

James Cotton RIP

James Cotton, one of the true greats of the blues, has reportedly died aged 82. Born in Tunica, Mississippi, James was inspired by Sonny Boy Williamson II and took over his band in the early 50's. Originally a drummer, he joined Howlin' Wolf's band as a harmonica player and made his first record for Sam Phillips at Sun in Memphis. Joining Muddy Waters' band in 1955 he became the band leader and stayed with them until 1965.He formed his own band, with Otis Spann on piano, and recorded an album for Vanguard. Later he recorded for Buddah and for Alligator and Blind Pig. Despite throat cancer he continued to tour and his final album in 2013, Cotton Mouth Man, included contributions by Gregg Allman, Ruthie Foster and Delbert McClinton, among others.
I saw James perform at Hopsons Plantation in Clarksdale and at the King Biscuit Festival in Helena on several occasions and despite his lack of mobility and vocal incapacity he always put on a good show. My photo shows him at King Biscuit in 2014.
Another death, at the young age of 60, is that of Joni Sledge, founder member of Philadelphia disco
group Sister Sledge. Formed in 1971 they enjoyed some success with 'Mama Never Told Me' and 'Love Don't Go Through No Changes With Me' but it was under the direction of Nile Rodgers that they hit the big time. 'He's The Greatest Dancer', 'We Are Family' and 'Lost In Music' were huge disco hits and their success continued into the 80's with 'All American Girls' and 'Frankie', a UK number one.

Monday, March 13, 2017

Soul Clap 10th Anniversary, New York

Noah Shaffer was lucky enough to attend the Soul Clap 10th Anniversary in New York recently. Here's his review. Many thanks to Dave Thomas for the use of his photos of the event.
The occasion for this staggering lineup of soul greats was the 10th anniversary of the DJ parties thrown by NY DJ Jonathan Toubin. Some may have heard about his return DJing after a bizarre and horrible incident in which a driver drove into his ground-floor hotel room while Toubin was sleeping. Toubin is known for spinning uptempo tunes for young crowds complete with a dance contest and an MC. He is definitely an entertainer and while there are many fine Americans DJs who play soul 45s at their local watering hole, Toubin has managed to carve out a steady touring circuit around the US.
The 800 capacity Warsaw (AKA the ballroom of the Polish-American National Home - you can snack on perogis between sets) was sold out well in advance and quite packed. As we all know the quality of a soul show is almost entirely dependent on the quality of the backing band, and I'm happy to say that those duties were handled exceedingly well by the band of Nick Waterhouse, a West Coast 'soul revival' singer/songwriter. Nick's secret weapon is JB Flatt, the keyboardist who has played with Eli Paperboy Reed for years and who is no stranger to doing arrangements for soul veterans as he had the same job as musical director for the on-hiatus Dig Deeper/Brooklyn Soul fest series. Another Paperboy alum, M. Juliani Brooks laid out some scorching tenor saxophone solos.
Waterhouse started off the night with some of his own tunes, which I can't say I found very distinctive or interesting. Then it was time for the veterans. First up was the only act on the bill I'd never seen: Ural Thomas, the latest in the seemingly endless line of rediscovered soul acts who have surfaced out of unlikely locales, in this case Portland, Oregon. Ural brought with him his own young singer/drummer (who annoyingly seemed to think he was Ural's duet partner) as well as the horn section from his hometown band. He was quite entertaining in a versatile set of his own originals.
Next up was Baby Washington. While her early 60's ballads are true gems, she can be a bit of a shy performer compared to most of her 60's R&B peers. At least she seemed fairly comfortable and soldiered through her brief set for the appreciative audience.
As time matches on very few artists with links to the 50's remain. Over the years I've seen Young Jessie put on explosive performances at the Ponderosa Stomp, Dig Deeper, Viva Las Vegas and other vintage shows. Jessie is now 80 and has slowed down considerably but he was still in fairly good voice for the original 'Mary Lou' and 'Hit Git and Split.'
At this point the show had been OK but really needed a burst of energy. That came courtesy of Maxine Brown who still looks and sounds decades younger than 78. JB has worked with her a number of times before but wrote new charts for 'Oh No Not My baby', 'All In My Mind' and 'One Step At A Time.'
A brief band stage gave the Waterhouse band a break while the sprawling Joe Bataan Orchestra set up. Joe's astounding legacy as a pioneer of doo-wop, boogaloo, salsa, Chicano soul and hip-hop is indisputable. Sometimes his live shows are a bit uneven, especially in front of audiences that don't have much interest in hearing about his religious conversion. While he still started with 'Lord's Prayer' Bataan stayed much closer to his boogaloo roots for the rest of the night and his tight band really had it together as they blasted out mega-medleys of his hits like 'Subway Joe.' The only misfire was a Chaka Khan cover the lyrics of which Bataan read from a scrap piece of paper. But it was still one of the more compact and impactful sets I've seen him do.
After the Bataan orchestra had cleared, one of Toubin's dance contests was held, after which the Waterhouse band returned. Indian-Canadian garage/soul performance artist King Khan was put on stage for what was certainly a change of pace.
Now it was back to the legends for the man who began his stage show with this memorable quip: 'Hi everyone, I'm Archie Bell and if you see any Drells you're drunk as hell!' (Actually Eli Paperboy Reed and two female background singers appeared and remained for the rest of the night.) Archie did 'I Just Can't Keep Dancing,' 'There's Gonna Be A Showdown' with a cameo from David Johansen and then of course he ended by demonstrating how to do the 'Tighten Up.'` It's impossible not to have a good time when Archie is on stage.
I was looking forward to seeing David Johansen as a number of years ago I'd seen him put on a blistering Howlin' Wolf tribute with Hubert Sumlin on guitar. I think he might be more effective as a raw bluesman than as a slick soul belter, but the audience loved hearing New York Dolls numbers like 'Personality Crisis' done soul style with a horn section.
The night ended on a very strong note with an artist who never lets her audiences down, Irma Thomas. Like with Maxine it is impossible to believe that Irma is really in her late 70's based on the strength of her performances. I actually prefer seeing her without her band the Professionals, and I've rarely heard her with better backing or arrangements. 'Breakaway,' 'Anyone Who Knows What Love Is,' 'Ruler Of My heart' and 'Time Is On My Side were all impeccable and to finish things off we were treated to 'Hittin' On Nothing.'
The next night saw another Toubin party at a much smaller venue, Baby's All Right'. that featured Waterhouse, Ural Thomas and King Khan reprising their sets plus Eli Paperboy Reed in a blues quartet format. Even Ponderosa Stomp honcho Dr Ike was on hand to DJ.

Friday, March 10, 2017

The Suffers at the Jazz Cafe

I made my way to the Jazz Cafe last night (with Dave Carroll and Dave Williams) to see The Suffers, a soul band from Houston who were making their UK debut. I saw the band at the Blues and Barbecue Festival in New Orleans last year and thought they were promising, especially their bubbly singer Kam Franklin, but not outstanding. I thought that the more intimate surroundings of the Jazz Cafe might suit them rather better than an open air festival. I was wrong. Kam has a decent voice and an energetic stage act, but the band overall was mediocre and the material, much of it far removed from soul, rather bland.
Just as in New Orleans, Kam was wearing a black top and a shortish red skirt - not a flattering look for a plus size lady. She is the centre piece of the band and did her best to whip up some excitement in the audience, which was a pretty good size for a little known band. Kam said that the band had been together for six years, but had no record deal and were relying on word of mouth to get their music heard. They describe themselves, or perhaps have been described by others, as purveyors of Gulf Coast Soul. The seven piece band, including a horn section which gave them some depth, were proficient but not outstanding and to my ears  they lacked any real soul in their playing. It was left to Kam to hold things together and she did her best. They began with Good Day, a reggae styled track from their self-produced CD, and other numbers included Slow It Down, a rather frantic I Think I Love You, the slower Stay and Do Whatever. These are all self penned by the band and combined elements of funk, reggae and rock with a degree of soul, but they lacked a soulful cutting edge. Kam used to be an investment banker, she said, whilst the keyboard player worked at NASA before going full time as a band two years ago. On the evidence of last night they should keep their options open career wise.