'Greg Brice' by Greg BriceReview
As I indicated back in June when I covered a Greg Brice live performance at Stratford Playhouse Folk Club, anticipation of his debut solo album has been rising for some years amongst his many admirers.
At long last his eponymous release is imminent (it arrives on November 4th) though in one of those fascinating ironies which life throws up from time to time, as most of the album was recorded over only two & a bit days in the Sweet Shop in Stroud, it certainly wasn't the sessions of actual music which have caused us to wait so long.
In fact the actual recording needs highlighting as a strength of the album: while lockdown meant that most tracks were pieced together over the ether & modern tendencies have long moved in the direction of separate capturing of instruments & voices, this album reverts to the traditions which Greg so embraces & celebrates: live collective performances captured in the moment, where even slight variations from "perfection" add authenticity and character to songs.
And this is where another remarkable factor came into play. For although held in considerable esteem both here at "Hot Music Live" and generally in the local scene, it's a most strong indicator of an artist's worth when rated beyond Warwickshire by other musicians, especially when like Greg, you've not put a record out to demonstrate your talent. In this case UK Blues Challenge winners, The Achievers, offered their help and their bass player Jack Thomas and drummer Aron Attwood support Greg on the recordings with Aron producing & mixing it: another perfect example of how the best musicians support each other.
Not only that, but keyboards are courtesy of Stevie Watts, one of the best Hammond players there is (anyone who has worked this way with Steve Winwood, another giant of the instrument, must have impeccable credentials).
Unsurprisingly, many of the ten tracks on the album caught my ear at his performance in Stratford, including his reworking of Professor Longhair's "Tipitina" for guitar rather than its original piano. This cover is joined on the record in the centre of eight originals by Tony Joe White's "As the Crow Flies".
What strikes me about the originals straight away is their interesting capacity to sit astride both the blues tradition which is the heart of Greg's solo work and a much more contemporary approach to song writing which tells full stories of modern life rather than the usual blues lyrical style which tends to much more economical & repetitive phrases delivered almost as mantras. To this extent, we can detect an intriguing hybrid which incorporates both the qualities which Greg embodies as a solo artist & which attracts not just audiences but highly respected blues musicians, and the way his former band Fallow Man operated (check out their "Tonight Matthew" on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Four' to remind yourself of how he sounded in that context).
Greg in fact front loads the album with what he has identified as the most immediately accessible & while I totally agree that "Work For a Living", "Brother" and "Together But Long Distance" grab you from the start and tell you who this Greg Brice actually is, they are also very personal songs which plunge to the heart of who he is & who else is in his life: with no need to take on the huge challenges which have affected Greg & everyone else during the making of the record. They also delve much deeper into a person's psyche than the traditional blues format normally permits.
It's at this point where one might conceivably fear "will he get the thumbs down from the blues purists?" Many genres, especially those with feet in roots traditions do sadly contain narrow minded individuals who seal off the canon on the most arbitrary of grounds and pronounce "rules" on song form which act to suffocate any sense of living: and Greg is certainly aiming to breathe life into the blues. I'm pretty certain however that he'll either not get this reaction or be able to laugh it off given the reception he gets live & the names of those offering to work with him.
What you get throughout is his superb finger-picking which I suppose is his trademark (both electric & acoustic instruments crop up as his tools). One might not have thought that a standard like "Tipitina" could be reworked successfully so far from the instrument it was composed on, but Greg saw the possibility & triumphantly accomplished it.
Elsewhere, the style lends itself, however fast he picks, and he can pick fast, to providing space to appreciate the notes (and I like musicians who offer space to us) and for the words to sink home: in fact taking central stage as they should. Another egregious problem within the blues is "showing off" by adept players & frankly this writer derives nothing from listening to "songs" constructed primarily to demonstrate the technical skills of a player with no real aim of engaging emotionally with an audience nor saying anything of value. Greg has the technique & he uses it with skill, but also taste & discretion.
You won't, I suspect, be surprised to hear that Jack & Aron's playing fits into this template appropriately & equally tastefully, underpinning Greg's parts & not trying to thrust past him into any limelight. Stevie's contribution (on "Brother": guess whom that one's about) falls into the same category. He doesn't actually come in until nearly at the one minute mark and when he does, offers an interesting texture which differentiates this track from its brethren but even more important: Serves The Song.
It might be the power of suggestion, but sitting here writing this in late October, I detect a wistful, autumnal quality infusing ‘Greg Brice'. He is no blues shouter and although he raises his voice in passion to good effect from time to time, the overall feel resembles the English sense of understatement rather than the howls of Delta pain & anger though he does howl a bit on "Early Bird" to be fair). Part of this is also due to the deeply contemplative nature of the songs, rather than being simply reactive & descriptive, and proof that blues structures can be used to carry complex ideas as well as rawer ones.
The other limitation of the genre which Greg sidesteps neatly is that blues set ups tend to be at their best when kept simple (as they are here) and the classic blues pioneers had trademark styles of their own: which was great but after a century of blues musicians, wholly original sounds are hard to create while remaining in the genre & so the danger of producing albums of ten reasonably similar sounding songs is high.
Quite apart from including an extra instrument on one of the songs, Greg sorts this one out by a range of nuanced smaller variations which, in addition to the fine lyrics, are also another mechanism to keep you returning to the album to uncover more of its secrets. These include the aforementioned alternation between acoustic & electric guitars, variations in his singing, from clean arrangements to very dense & claustrophobic ones like "My Life", finger picking to slide (e.g. "As The Crow Flies" or "'Til I Don't Know When"), melancholia to the bounce of "Come On" or the groove of "Saturday Night". And behind every shift Greg makes, the rhythm section adjust accordingly & in a complementary manner.
So there you have it: well worth the wait in my opinion. Another top class album from a Warwickshire musician with Greg having taken the time to get it right & exclude the possibility of filler. The songs make an impact immediately but this is another album which doesn't so much just welcome return visits but positively sends out invitations to explore its finer points. If you want to find out what the blues might sound like in Central England in 2022, then ‘Greg Brice' by Greg Brice might well provide some answers.