The magazine - news, reviews and interviews

Latest in the magazine

I am reliably advised that the debut album by the Dirt Road Band (appropriately enough it'll be called ‘Righteous' because they are) is now completed and ready for pressing, so hopefully it'll be available to you very soon: I'll be reviewing it for you in due course too.

In the meantime, to give you both a taste of the delights in store and enable you to savour each new song on its own merits, the band have been sharing some individually.

I told you a little about both "What's Going Down" and "Next Train Out of Town" back last August (they date from the first batch of sessions with John Rivers at Woodbine Street Studio in Leamington) but unfortunately due to personal distractions at the time, I missed writing about "Don't Count for Nothing" in September.

The sharing of "Cheap Talk & Whiskey" now from the second set of sessions however gives me the chance to repair that omission while bringing you fully up to date with the original work which Steve Walwyn, Horace Panter & Ted Duggan have been creating to go with the many fine covers which made up their superb setlists when the band first got together.

Both are Steve's compositions yet I think within them both (and the narratives are contrasting) you can hear plenty of accumulated wisdom from the band (there have been plenty of calculations of the combined professional musical experience and it's impressive to say the least). Obviously that includes the chops of three artists long at the top of their profession (this is a rare example of my being able to write in a Coventry & Warwickshire music magazine about musicians with global profiles: though I live in hope of doing it more often) but more than that, they love this music. You'll probably all be aware that not so long ago both Steve & Horace were playing in commercially very successful & well known bands and now that's no longer the case. This then is a chance to combine their talents & musical preferences into something done out of love without the pressures of expectations which being in "name" bands can impose. Well I say that, but looking at how in demand they already are as a live proposition and anticipating the increased response once the album comes out, no doubt DRB audience expectations will soar accordingly. Which is not a bad thing.

One should also take account of the fact that they relish playing together: that explains the genesis of the group (actually for a one off event which then didn't actually take place) and is evident from what you hear. John also speaks of how enjoyable the sessions were.

The other aspect of the shared wisdom is in the lyrics: they seem to tip their hats to the lives & experiences on the road & in the business of working musicians. If "Cheap Talk & Whiskey" provides vignettes of the places they've all played & the sights they've all seen, then in "Don't Count for Nothing" one can detect the weary cynicism of "real" life as a musician: the struggles with finding success, being let down & exploited and the interminable drives between gigs (and long after this song was recorded, the DRB were stranded in the small hours when their van broke down recently: even with their stature you are not protected from those issues). In some ways I suppose it can be seen as a sequel to his own solo song "Instinct to Survive".

I certainly had no intention of reviewing these two songs as a pair, but as that's how things have fallen, it's interesting how they contrast & I suppose are a little microcosm of DRBmusic. On one hand you have the lyrically more upbeat "Cheap Talk & Whiskey" and on the other the grimmer more existential "Don't Count for Nothing". Reflecting this dichotomy are the accompanying styles. The former showcases their love of the "source" material: the authentic American blues sound. The latter is much more like that material as filtered through the British pub rock blues scene: grimmer, edgier and more urban. This sort of range & variety is presumably indicative of the album as a whole & not only will be tracks as yet unheard be revelatory, so will the running order, given their penchant for both the styles just mentioned, plus more country blues, funkier blues and the sort of material which reflects what certain guest musicians, whose contributions are as yet unshared, bring to the feast.

All four preview tracks are currently available as downloads via the DRB Bandcamp page (https://dirtroadband.bandcamp.com/) so you can get a heads up on the pleasures still to come.

Damn right they've got the blues: in all its varieties.

 [1 image]

As you know, with my finite resources (especially time), I handle my caseload for "Hot Music Live" by prioritising those artists whose work excites & uplifts me: it makes for pretty much consistently positive articles, avoids struggles to find pluses in work I can't locate them in easily and to some extent provides me with a quantity I can handle generally.

The rod I make for my own back with this strategy is that with going for the best, I can experience difficulties choosing adequate words to reflect both the quality of the music & the profundity of my own emotional response to it.

I persist though because I feel so strongly that their talent needs drawing to people's attention & because there is a remarkable correlation between the best music & the amiability of the people who made it.

You know by now the artists whose successive releases are knocking my proverbial socks off every time: how on earth do I raise the bar on my writing each review to try to keep up with how they are doing that with the music?

On this occasion, the band in question is HEK and once again they've produced a single, "Sinking Stones", which comes out on April 20th which is of such high calibre that I think it stands up against anything I hear in this style nationally or beyond, let alone locally. Britain needs to hear & embrace HEK in 2024.

Written by rhythm guitarist/vocalist Reiss Pinder, you must know who else contributes to this magnificent sound by now, but they really deserve a mention each time: they are bassist Liv Gardner, keyboard/synthesizer player Lucy Gardner, lead guitarist Josh Sellis and drummer/percussionist Sean Statham.

Individually, each is a very talented player, yet together they've found common ground and contributed to a highly distinctive sound which is one of the great strengths of HEK and I'm not sure that can be said of too many bands. This will take them far by itself. Hopefully Jon Webb of The Moonbase can accompany them on this journey as he's found a way of presenting this uniqueness in a pristine form, yet one in which each element is clearly discernible.

The other element is that Reiss is such a good writer: one of those poetic lyricists (and I'm so glad his idea of poetic writing doesn't include the juvenile & irritating sacrificing of meaning to ensuring each pair of lines rhymes). It takes quite a few listens to grasp what many of his images might mean (and challenges like that pull you into the song and continue to reward you), though as with all good poetry, the general overall sense comes across right away.

Like a lot of his songs, it certainly sounds at least partially autobiographical and he often seems to heading down roads full of regrets and hurts. In this one, he may well be the protagonist, but there is an anonymous female character plus a mysterious "Joe". Who are these people? I'm not sure that I want a definitive answer: enigmas elevate songs for me & enable me to interpret them according to my own imagination. I think that option of personal applicability is a hallmark of the best songwriting: what emotional engagement is possible where the lyrics allow of only one interpretation?

The words of "Sinking Stones" contain many evocative images and they alone provide plenty of succulent listening moments. What do they add up to though? Is Reiss being pessimistic or fatalistic? Or is he just trying to process his experiences & feelings in order to survive? I'm not sure I know & hope you'll enjoy working that out. If this is literally stuff he's had to deal with, I ca only hope things are better for him now.

Round all this, the band wraps a web of that highly characteristic sound I mentioned: in this  case it serves partly as a counterpoint to the words (its far more upbeat & you'll know from plenty of previous articles how much I like it when words & music seem to be pulling in different directions, setting up yet more audience-friendly tensions) and partly to ratchet up the already high emotional quota. In which it's wholly successful: in fact at times it sounds like the instrumentalists are drawing more and more angst out of Reiss' vocals. Consequently he ends up in that weird state where he sounds almost out of control but you know he's not.

While this is going on, you suddenly start hearing other things going on at the same time & you need to peer aurally round the vocals on repeated plays to appreciate them. The rhythm section seem to be channelling later period Beatles, Josh is playing solos behind the vocals as well as in the tiny gaps left between them and then there are those glorious keyboard/organ swathes which are so important to the HEK sound. This time round, there are fewer instrumental showcase passages than on other tracks: they all come together for one unified arrangement and again that takes me back to my earlier point how they all favour the song & the band over individual agendas.

I do not nominate "singles of the week" but there are those who do & if they do not pick "Sinking Stones": why ever not?

 [1 image]

Most of the cast both musical & cinematic for the new Eyes of Isabel single "Every Single Day" will be immediately familiar to readers of past reviews of the band.

Another Tony Ally composition realised by John Rivers at Woodbine Street Studio in Leamington with both John & his colleague Ollie pitching in on the performance side as well as production side, this time Ian Black (of Man Made Moon and The RedHills) who guested on guitar on the previous single "Black Mamba" returns to add six and twelve sting guitar ("possibly the cleanest guitar sounds ever created" as he puts it) so maybe he's now a long term member of the team too.

On the inevitable film side (it's not possible to conceive of an Eyes of Isabel release without one: it's symbiosis) it's the established team of Andy McGeechan and Adam O'Neill who take the credit for the production (and both actually act in this one too). At this point multiple interpretative forces come into play as they always do and while this time I don't think that Andy goes off on extreme a tangent from Tony's original narrative intentions as he did with say "Crime Scene", once again a complex (even though short) plot illustrates a simple & abiding truth which as Tony puts it about "..when we lose the people that we love in our lives as long as we carry them in our hearts they will always be with us every single day..". Eyes of Isabel songs don't tend to shy away from the more difficult & less pleasant sides of life, but generally the films incline to leavening these via humour or through the filter of classic cinematic style. "Every Single Day" though is heavier on the heartstrings.

You can see at at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=MmWJvXNJhVw

The piano & organ (John I assume) set a tone which at one end of the spectrum is gothically morbid (or morbidly gothic) and even away from that leans towards the melancholic. Given that the narrative is about a chap losing his wife, that's perfectly suitable & shows the band to be capable of covering an emotional range. "Bittersweet" covers most of the story of how his memories (which are dramatized in the video) help him come to terms with his bereavement in a touching way. You can understand why they went for that clean guitar sound: this is no rock song and doesn't need an approach any heavier than the words & melody have already given us.

Filmed in Berkswell & London Road Cemetery, as noted Tony, Andy & Adam play roles as does Eyes of Isabel film regular Tracey Gillan and Leo Ally. With the exception of the rather over-dramatised hospital interaction, it's told visually quite gently (the location scenes are pastoral) and the two media work harmoniously together to tell the tale.

 [1 image]

Ironically, the tremendous personal enjoyment I got out of attending "A Celebratory Cruise on a Tiny Boat with Lauren South & friends" at the Albany Theatre in Coventry yesterday evening contributes to how hard it is to reflect what I experienced in adequate words.

I've long sang the praises of Lauren & her music and reviewed her debut solo album ‘Tiny Boat' (whose title track is also featured on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Eleven') in the magazine, again attempting to express my response as best I could. In the event of course it has received a great many equally glowing reviews since: she is definitely regarded as a rising star of the British folk scene.

That the musicians who contributed to the album included such eminent names as Ellie Gowers, John Parker & Ben Haines in addition to her regular duo partner Keith Donnelly is an accurate reflection of the esteem in which she was held even before she'd recorded anything.

The problem of course with working with such stellar names is that recreating the album live was always going to be tricky given the level of competing demands they are under: therefore it was wonderful how they were able to find this mutually convenient date (and they so enjoyed playing together that they are seeking to identify future possibilities which I urge you to try to witness).

The context must not be taken lightly either as it was in fact the monthly CVFolk event (the second Sunday) at the Albany Theatre, put together by Pete Willow: this is one of those vital events which offers performance opportunities for creators of original material who really deserve audiences who pay rapt attention: lord knows there are far too few of these and all those I tend to write about & feature on "Hot Music Live Presents" compilations could do with as many as possible: this will only sustain with your support. As it happens, the next event in this series (on May 12th) showcases Liam Vincent & the Odd Foxes whose track "Rise Up" appears on "HMLP12" (and Rebecca Mileham from that band was also in the audience yesterday).

Thus, the above mentioned luminaries were not the only ones on the bill: honourable mention must also go to Maria Barham & Becky Syson who played short, contrasting & well received support sets both as appetisers for the main act and as important contributions to the CVFolk night in their own right. Both came back on stage to contribute to the encore "Shine Away", helping to supply the harmonies which Lauren's young daughters had provided on record.

Which brings me at last to the point at which I came in.. these are superb songs as so many people have attested over the last few months. The calibre of these musicians is beyond both doubt & my levels of impertinence in even commenting on.

As I say, the songs have generally been performed by Lauren solo or with Keith's help, so are those sort of pieces so well constructed that they work in various arrangements. So what do these virtuosi bring to them?

Well of course fuller forms is the first answer: each came enhanced with additional nuances of sound which took the meanings into slightly different territories without loss of intent or emotional clout. This was ‘Tiny Boat Plus' and if you hear it next with just Lauren & Keith, you are in for a treat: it's just that on this occasion we got it with many cherries & other delights added.

Knowing the songs so well & the musicianship of each, I hope you'll excuse my getting out of the bind of trying to review the perfect & sublime by sharing moments of detailed joy.

As ever, Lauren switched between tenor guitar, violin and shruti box and Keith between six and twelve string guitars, but as Pete quipped, they could have had a competition to guess the numbers of strings needing tuning (apparently they got there very early to do this) across the band. And that was only stringed instruments.

In fact they switched continuously in an orgy of perfectionism to do each song justice.

Ellie, apart from performing backing vocals (and it says a lot that someone of her stature offered herself to Lauren in this role), made her stage debut on shruti box while Lauren switched to violin for "Hope/Boo to the Goose". She then debuted her thunder tube skills on "Weather the Storm" while Keith played a rain stick.

Ben, while remaining behind his kit was constantly on the move, switching sticks/beaters/brushes, retuning his snare mid set, changing cymbal type, deploying a vast array of percussion instruments & ultimately playing through bits of cardboard box for the right effect.

John too alternated between bowing & using his fingers so his ringing the technical changes were modest by the standards of the others, but one innovation I'd never before seen live which I enjoyed was how he & Keith quietly played on under Lauren's expositions: apparently conceived as "faffing about" to cover her own guitar retunings, nevertheless it provided a groovy accompaniment to her spoken word and elevated matters still further. More people should try this as it's really classy.

Ironically, they ran out of time: I'd loved to have heard "Judith's Song" as it's a favourite & no doubt they planned to play it.

It's possible to make something of a general statement and suggest that John's contributions in particular moved the songs from what might reasonably be described as in folk idioms to somewhere much more jazzy. This (partial) metamorphosis was not just one of the highlights of hearing the songs in these arrangements but helps Lauren's music move into a less rigidly defined genre definition. Ellie has gone this way before her of course: my recent review of her current work in progress as well as many recent releases shows that she may have started as a "folk artist" but there are many forms she excels in. Both Ben & John regularly play in a range of musical styles too. It's a grand thing to be solidly rooted in an authentic tradition, but that does not preclude growing branches in many directions too.

Lauren is a writer of great depth, perception & emotional integrity. She Is blessed in having the performance skills to interpret her own songs and those of others in exquisite ways and a stage presence of warmth and honesty to which audiences respond every time. Place those attributes within a wider setting composed of her peerless peers and you get something extra special. I promised myself that I would avoid using "magical" this time as I've done so many times before in relation to Lauren. Let's go with "mesmerising" for last night instead. What a privilege to have been there.

 [10 images]

I'm sure that my review of the debut album ‘New Beginnings' from Project Overload left you in no doubt of my excitement at the emergence of this original & dynamic young band. That's why we featured their single "Second Chances" on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Twelve' of course.

I'm therefore delighted to report for the first time on their live performance and it's true to say that they are even more exciting in that context.

Hats off to HMV Coventry for hosting the gig (look out for future ones they have planned: and not just their Coventry branch as you'll remember how much I enjoyed their fellow HMLP 12 featured Liam Vincent and the Odd Foxes album launch in HMV Banbury).

Credit too to sound engineer & mentor Mason Le Long for helping them achieve such an excellent sound in a space not designed for bands to play in: with a very economical kit too.

As I have said before, the Tin based "Live on Stage" mentoring project seems a superb & essential initiative through which talented young musicians can develop confidence in writing and playing what they hear in their heads without the pressures which the more cynical & commercially focused elements of the music business tend to impose upon such artists. Mason was saying that they've been working with some of this band since they were around ten years old and the outcomes yesterday speak for themselves: look out for a feature on the project in the magazine soon.

As you may remember, there was a 40% lineup change in the band during the course of recording the album & so not all the band wrote or were terribly familiar with several tracks: credit to them for taking these in their stride alongside the ones they'd helped write.

We heard much of the album, but also a handful of newer songs: almost all still at "working title" stage, even if they had the songs themselves down tightly. They also had the taste to finish with a cover of The Wombats' "Lemon to a Knife Fight" (which to me is a relatively recent song but is presumably rock history from their point of view) and this is by no means not a hint at how they sound.

I said that they were even better live than on record…. Quite understandably the opener, the album title track was performed with the same level of diligence and care as the whole record. However once that was past, a great deal of inhibitions seemed to melt away and aided by the sound mixing, took the other songs into new, vibrant territory.

Another key is how much they seem to enjoy playing: tracks were attacked with verve and energy and as you all know, that sort of thing is central to how audiences respond to bands: as they did on this occasion.

Vocalist Emily Birtwistle was one of the revelations: she co-wrote and sang on many of the songs but as noted, had to adapt to a few that she didn't. Throwing herself into the set, she increasingly revealed a power which came across much more live than in the studio and I truly hope she explores that aspect further. What I especially appreciated was how she used this ability to punch harder sparingly to good effect: it really works much better in a nuanced performance and I sincerely despair of one trick pony singers blessed with powerful pipes who keep on demonstrating it in one dimensional sets.

The rhythm section too came into its own live and again power was one of the characteristics but founder members Callum Hall (bass) and Joe Friday (drums) seemed to have more space to demonstrate their considerable technical skills and at one point I mentioned to Mason how much I liked the bass sound he & Callum had devised with the instrument prominent in many songs.

Guitarists Tom Male & Lucas Male are called just that: they don't seem to have that rhythm/lead dichotomy in their own minds and watching them you can see why: both play lead parts at various points. They tend to aim to mesh together into the jangle pop sound which they use as their mission statement (with the splendid addition of "with sharp elbows") and as I'd bee playing some early Aztec Camera on my drive over, the comparison formed in my head: I wouldn't be surprised if they listened to Johnny Marr either and of course they covered The Wombats. With female vocals, maybe Altered Images and The Bangles are on their playlists too. Personally as I love that sound, you can understand another reason why I so much enjoyed the gig.

The "sharp elbows" bit is crucial though: Project Overload are keen to sing about their world and their perspectives on it: "Society's Standards" (possibly the highlight of the set and maybe worth considering as a single), "Reassuring Sound of No", "Nightmare" and the newer "Wildfire" (if that's what it ends up being called) are not just shimmering pop ditties but emotional statements (including plenty of righteous anger) and I imagine that it is no coincidence that these particular tracks followed each other in the heart of the setlist & drew such powerful performances.

If Project Overload are the future of at the very least our local music scene, then I'm delighted. I look forwards to the "end of term" gig for the Live on Stage bands to which Mason invited me: I imagine that the other ones are on the same upward road as this one, albeit probably not as far along it. If they have as much self-belief in their own ability to write songs they have such ownership of in addition to excellent musicianship, then they'll go far. In a world where too many artists are being coaxed into emulating the already successful & colluding with that, it's so refreshing to hear bands write & perform their own thoughts & values with such truth. I really can hear the difference & I heard it on this occasion.

 [8 images]

As foretold in my recent account of my visits to two workshops for Streets Arts Project, the professional musicians who facilitate them came together on Saturday (in two shows such was the demand & level of support) at Stratford upon Avon United Reformed Church to raise funds for the project.

The theme was a tribute to the final concert by The Band (filmed by Martin Scorsese) in 1976 and featured a core band of Katherine Abbott (acoustic guitar), Jack Blackman (electric guitar), Wes Finch (bass guitar) and Jono Wright (electric guitar) performing as WLDFLWRS augmented by friends including Ben Haines on drums (I remarked to him afterwards how rarely I get to see him play rock music on a full kit: which was a treat), Adam Barry on keyboards (essential for the set in question) & vocals and James Maguire on saxophone (he also took a verse as vocalist on "The Weight") in addition to others, whom I'll name later, as vocalists.

With so many people whom I'm used to hearing as lead vocalists on their own material, this was a definite supergroup, but what impressed me was not only their sense of democratic collaboration (I certainly wasn't expecting egos from people who give so much in terms of working with homeless & vulnerable amateur artists) but how their voices, blended beautifully together with the help of sound engineer George Adams, emulated the seamless harmonies of The Band: not least on the multiple parts in "The Weight". What a great metaphor this created to reflect the values of the project overall.

Taking this & the church atmosphere (a canny choice to go with this venue rather than the adjacent Playhouse where the workshops and Street Arts album release concerts are held) into account (and of course it was on Easter Saturday), the deeply spiritual aspects of the songs were emphasised: pretty appropriate given the philosophies of Street Arts. Set closer (at least for the first set) was "I Shall Be Released" (with Katherine on lead vocals) and for this, Adam ascended (literally) up to the church organ. You couldn't wish for a more fitting finale.

Obviously recreating the entire original concert (it ran for over five hours) wasn't terribly practical, so WLDFLWRS opted for highlights of some of the best known songs by The Band, opening, as with the original gig, with "Up On Cripple Creek" thence "The Shape I'm In", "It Makes No Difference", "This Wheel's On Fire", the highly appropriate song in Stratford "Ophelia", "The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down" and "The Weight".

If these well known & well loved songs demonstrated a sense of community which embraced those on stage and flowed out into the audience, paying tribute to the many guests who'd been part of the concert (including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Joni Mitchell, Dr John, Ronnie Hawkins, Muddy Waters, Paul Butterfield, Van Morrison, Ringo Starr, Ronnie Wood, Eric Clapton, Neil Diamond and many more), threw the spotlight back on individual singers, each with major challenges.

To me, the big highlights of this aspect were Nigel Clark's take on "Helpless" (close your eyes and it actually sounded like Neil Young was singing it): a performance of staggering power and impact and Katherine's version of the horrendously complex "Coyote". I think most performers would probably settle for just navigating Joni Mitchell's idiosyncratic song, yet Katherine gave a relaxed & natural sounding performance which again lived up to the original.

Something of a surprise was Generation Jones' (Jon Beynon & Geoff Carr) choice of  "Furry Sings the Blues": this fine song was omitted from both the film and soundtrack album (I have no idea why) and so I hadn't realised that Joni had played it on the night. It's good, even when you think you know the whole set, to have your expectations challenged in this way.

The next step for Street Arts will be the recording of the songs crafted in the most recent set of workshops. Look out for the subsequent release of their fourth album and its launch gig. They haven't yet got a further cycle of writing/recording planned (apart from anything it requires funding), but hopefully so valuable is the Street Arts project to not only the members of the project (many of whom were there in support: as was the Mayor of Stratford who is the patron on the charity) but the participating professional musicians and the many who support them as audiences, that the legacy of the work done & the values it possesses will long endure. 

Finally, much credit again to Street Arts founders Doug Armstrong & Jackie Lines, without whose initial vision & subsequent very hard work, none of this would have happened.

 [10 images]

It's been some months since I last wrote about Danny Ansell (amazing but true considering his prolific releasing and gigging) but he's back now with his new single entitled "Fireworks" out on April 24th.

He's a very grounded artist as you know (which probably accounts for the ongoing quality of his writing as he doesn't let success go to his head) but when even he describes it as "brilliant" (and his bar in my opinion is pretty high as my reviews indicate), then you'll know that he and his band really rate this one.

 The band's perspective isn't lightly dropped in there: Danny has had the song in his solo setlist for quite some time but has bided his time recording it until "it realised its potential" which he feels has now happened after the full band (his rhythm section being of course Patrick Beard on bass guitar & Steven Shelley on drums) have been playing it since last year.

In addition to his own feeling that they developed the song fully, impetus came from Eddie Thomas of Hednesford-based band Marquis Drive (whom they've been working with frequently in recent years) who has encouraged them to let him produce tracks of theirs.

Consequently they've been working at Woodworm Studios in Oxfordshire (founded by Dave Pegg of Fairport Convention) & both "Fireworks" and "Hurry Up and Slow Down" came out of those sessions.

Joining them there were Chris Eardley who added lead guitar to each track and Leon Harrison (also of Marquis Drive and also Ocean Colour Scene & Fun Lovin' Criminals) drummed on the latter.

So there you have the ingredients: a song long & lovingly worked over & honed to perfection with a new producer able to bring an outsider's perspective to the music while knowing the band well.

So how do they fare? Well as mentioned, Danny is delighted with both the process and the outcome (who am I to argue with that?). Undoubtedly, "Fireworks" is ‘bigger' than it would have been if Danny had put it out nearer its time of creation: both the band arrangement & production contribute to that. However, most (if not all) of his songs are so well rooted in the traditional craft of writing that they sound good in stripped down as well as band arrangements: I dare say most local music fans have heard most of his more well known songs in both formats live and enjoyed them equally, if differently. That said, I see why he waited & took the route he did: this sound certainly brings the most out of the track.

His songs usually have some degree of the epic in them (even the tender intimate ones): it's his trademark and the DNA of "Fireworks" is infused with it: therefore enhancing that aspect and ensuring that it's well served by arrangement & production is what justice demands.

The band throw themselves into playing with gusto and the huge sound and performance they come up with brings me to the first comparison I've given to Danny and his band with The Who (it's possible I suppose that this was in their minds). Even the production (and I can't remember a more overtly "produced" song of his) adds effects which drive it in that direction.

He's probably aiming to equate his feelings to one of those massive celebratory pyrotechnic displays and they pull that one right off: his audiences are going to love this one in this form.

To run slightly further with The Who theme, "Fireworks" is meaty, it's beaty, it's big and it's bouncy and it'll light up concert venues this summer. In fact, it may be too big a song for all but the largest indoors ones & be warned: it may fill your house and wake up your neighbours when you play it at home.

And the further good news is that Danny has another single already cued up for July when "Hurry Up and Slow Down" will come out.

 [1 image]

John Douglas from the Trashcan Sinatras will be making his solo debut in Coventry at The Tin on the 4th May. John says "I am heading out on my debut headlining tour of the UK. The show will feature me, my acoustic guitar and songs.I will be playing songs from my recent solo album, some of my favourite Trashcan Sinatras songs from through the years, some new songs and some choice covers.The shows will be very intimate affairs, a relaxed musical and storytelling evening. Come along, bring a friend… see you there"

 [1 image]

There is not a huge lot I can offer in reviewing terms regarding Stylusboy's new release of a new acoustic version of "Fourteen Days" since I wrote about the original version back in May of last year when it came out as a single, & of course it later appeared on his 'Back in the Day' EP as the song was part of his "Good Neighbours" songwriting project, crafting tracks based on the life stories of  isolated older members of the community.

This one, I hope you'll recall, came from the testimony of RAF veteran John (102 years old at the time of the project) about the fortnight he spent behind enemy lines during the Second World War, having been shot down, until he reached safety & evaded both the Nazis and being the victim of friendly fire by his own side who initially mistook him for a spy.

The whole tone of these songs depends on the story being paramount, so the first version was kept relatively simple. Stripped back even further to be nearer to the sound most of us have experienced hearing it played live, emphasises the emotions & respect for its subject yet further.

You can catch him live (quite probably playing this song) on March 30th at the Tin (with M G Boulter) and if you subscribe (99p for one month) to his Ko-fi page, you can see the full video of his recent (February) CV Folk gig at the Albany Theatre..

 [1 image]

As I've said before, I'm obliged that Duck Thieves provide their own self description for the aid of potential audience members & reviewers: while I like a challenge (and that probably makes for a better review), I'd never have come up with "Indie Panto pop and punk performance art" if left entirely to my own devices.

It's this insouciant individuality which endears them to audiences (they've played Coventry Pride, the Main Stage at the Godiva Festival and supported The Specials at Coventry Cathedral so it's not just a cult niche they occupy) yet beneath the playfulness always lurks more profound concerns. "A spoonful of sugar helps the medicine go down" someone once alleged & perhaps Duck Thieves were listening.

The only thing to perhaps set against their thankfully regular live performances is the rather large gaps between releases: this is their first since lockdown. I enjoyed a discussion on the matter with Justin Wing Chung Hui of the band at the recent Septic and the Tanks album launch: I suggested the issue reflected a high standard of care in composition: he rather more self deprecatingly felt that it was because he was a slow writer.

Their ‘Eyes Up Here' EP (produced by Mason Le Long) which comes out on 6th April 2024 with a launch party at the LTB Showrooms with Project Overload and Creaking Twitch in support is possibly the band at it's most polemical in terms of what they are singing about, yet in classic Duck Thieves delivery mode.

It might even be a concept EP, the theme of which could be summed up as a manifesto of "how to live your life right". Part of that is the sound: which suggests optimism and carpe diem. The other part is the lyrical content which pretty much offers a set of "you don't want to do it like that" illustrations which not only contrasts with the music, offering a powerful duality & tension (I love it when writers do that) but over all creates a dialectic (ditto).

The songs ("I'm Not a Virus", "Eyes Up Here", "Geeks Make Better Lovers", "City of London Love" and "For the Love not the Money") for the most part are unflinching in their assaults on things which at worst outrage them & even at best tend to disappoint them: misogyny, racism, oppression, stereotyping, judgementalism & dumping people all take their turns in the intense glare of the Duck Thieves' spotlight.

Within its beam, you need to be quick witted though: if you want to grasp each song in its entire glory, not allowing yourself to dance like a Duck Thief or anyone else for that matter to the exclusion of comprehension, you do need to focus your ears & brain on the words, regardless of what your feet may be doing.

Despite Justin's modesty, clearly a lot's gone into the words: both the quality of wit & metaphor and the sheer number: you get plenty for your money.

They don't pull punches and possibly people might call this their best work: I certainly would not argue with that.

Album opener "I'm Not a Virus" is the anti-racist one mentioned above and is a response to the prejudice the media stirred up against East Asian people as a result of COVID19. Its direct inspiration is the French #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus campaign in response to newspaper headlines such as "Yellow Peril".

Switching between section of punk fuelled anger & hurt ("Why am I the story? I'm not a fucking virus") and the classic Duck Thieves subversive responses in a party format ("We'll infect you with our sick tunes/We'll infect you with our dance moves/We'll infect with our killer grooves/That's how we'll infect you"), the track is clarity itself.

The title track is cut from similar uncompromising cloth and is built around a litany of misogynistic comments which Michelle has had aimed at her face: and her chest. Consequently the patriarchy gets it with both barrels and its witless, demeaning rhetoric is hurled back in contempt (you'll need to listen to "Eyes Up Here" yourselves for those sections as I don't particularly wish to repeat them) accompanied by statements of intent ("Eyes up here!/Cuz ya time is up/Cuz we had enough/Eyes up here!/Cuz we're now fed up/And we're getting tough/Eyes up here!/Calm down dear/ Let's see more of that rear/ Eyes up here!/We're sick of your shit!/Stop staring at my tits!"). I defy anyone to consider that to be a mixed message. I like the way the band use the vocal resources available to them to deliver the problems in male voices and the responses in female. Musically it's classic punk agit-pop as direct as say Crass and that's not something you hear enough of.

"Geeks Make Better Lovers" brings a more recent musical template to the EP with a grinding rock tune to set a sardonic review of various cliches & stereotypes of how we should present our bodies & behaviours that through amplification via the ever-expanding media become restrictive on our individuality and eventually cause distress when people cannot adhere to them nor acquire the items which signify materialistic "success".

"City of London Love" alters the tone: we've moved from anger to sarcasm & arrive now at sadness: the loss of a lover, though even this bitter-sweet tale is made more astringent by the termination of the relationship being carried out via intermediaries. That's not nice & unfortunately it's apparently a true story of what happened to Justin.

It's the most poetic cut on the EP and the narrative (with colder sections from the third parties contrasting with the idealistic voice of the protagonist) sits on the most gentle, melodic arrangement here. A sort of male version of a Lily Allen (at her least sweariest) track.

Closer "For the Love Not the Money" return us to where we (sort of) started in the Far East and the Hong Kong pro-democracy protests. Duck Thieves connect their own motivation of making their music for love rather than commercial gain with the smears aimed at some of the protesters (Carrie Lam, Nathan Law and Joshua Wong are specifically name checked) that they were being paid to do so. (In fact allocating one verse each to these activists reminds me a little of "Jail Guitar Doors" by The Clash who use a similar structure).

Yet again the sound contrasts with the other tracks: this one is a sombre, electro-orientated arrangement with the voices going down more classical routes: choral & operatic. These help to place the song at the "more in sorrow than anger" end of the EP's spectrum and add profundity to their tour d'horizon of our world today. It's an ambitious piece given what they are trying to do and they pull it off with aplomb: again time well spent in preparation.

The other spectrum within the EP is of polish: the earlier tracks resound with such fury that they come across almost improvised: outpourings of instinctive rage. Things have calmed down sufficiently by the time "For the Love Not the Money" comes around to sound much more considered, though I imagine similar amounts of care and thought went into them all. However this range again provides the EP with excellent diversity and stylistic variety.

Duck Thieves articulate what's in their hearts and minds and do so both unambiguously & with charm. This strong connection with their own truths (and there's quite a range of these even within a five song collection) provides the fire burning within each track: it also frankly makes a reviewer's life easier. All too often I come across what seem to me to simply be exercises in songwriting without any genuine feelings on the writer's part (these don't ever end up in reviews as I can't find anything positive to say about them, however classy the outcome of the exercise might appear). Give me truth & emotional intelligence every time. Like Duck Thieves do with ‘Eyes Up Here'.

 [2 images]

I'm really pleased to be reporting on the latest single from Rheo Uno: "Dead and Done". It seems ages since I last wrote about her: it was when "Take It Slow" came out: that could be because I seem to have missed a release in the meantime. Not sure how that happened but my apologies to you & to her.

Co-written with Charles Drew again, it's quintessential Rheo Uno. Part of that is the characteristic layered writing. You can dance along to it, oblivious to the meaning of the words & still derive much personal enjoyment, or you can dive a bit deeper into the track & get more of the obvious effort she put into the words. Which I think is more respectful…

As tends to be the case, that content is darker than most dance music seems to be: it concerns to liberation from a toxic relationship: "it's about reaching that point mentally, where that person can't touch you anymore" (let's face it: the title is quite a clue here).

Much as one might applaud the honesty of the words (and the clarity of truth gives the song its emotional lift beyond just a song to dance to), although writing it seems also to have gifted Rheo new power and acted as a form of catharsis, personally I'd rather she'd not had to go through it…. To return to her own words: "I realised I was really coming back into my own as an individual and this is where the song stems from. I'm not resentful, I just don't let that person hold any space in my life any longer. I'm doing Me and whatever you're doing, is none of my business."

I don't think anyone gazing upon Rheo from the outside would take her for anything other than a confident and assertive young woman: however I suppose that "Dead and Done" brings us back to the realisation that externals (especially those curated for the public & social eyes) can tell partial and misleading stories. Anyone can be hurt.

Musically the song is another exercise in imaginative and anti-formulaic writing: one of those songs which is robust enough to also be coming out on 29th of March in an acoustic version (and it's interesting how artists like Rheo, Ivy Ash, Emma McGann or The Rising/The Night Hearts are managing to write well honed dance/pop songs which are not prisoners of genre, format nor arrangement). Personally, I'd actually be perfectly happy just listening to it for aural pleasure (it's that good) but as I said, I feel that she deserves my deeper engagement.

Ad it's not just me either it would seem since it's already Track of the Week on BBC Introducing for Leicester. (It's also worth noting that Jess Iszatt on Radio One likened her to Raye: a career high already for 2024 as far as Rheo in concerned).

One final note: I tend to refer to Rheo's tongue entering her cheek at some point in most of my reviews: she does seem to like to defuse the heaviness which comes into her songs with the use of humour & equally bridge the gap (almost subversively) between her formal "goddess" visual persona and the true humanity she clearly possesses. In this case, I draw your attention to the rather unusual cover art: no it's apparently not a staged shot but "the results of my birthday celebrations in January". Can you think of anyone else with the chutzpah to take that route? It's hard to do so.

 [2 images]

As you'll know from various earlier reviews, both of Street Arts Project releases & of their associated launch gigs, I thoroughly support this marvellous initiative which supports street sleepers, homeless and vulnerable people in Stratford upon Avon.

However I'd always wanted to sit in on one of the project workshops at Stratford Playhouse in which their music is composed & developed and I'm so grateful to the group for letting me do so a couple of times this month (on 1st & 15th February).

Some of the songs are essentially conceived by individual group members & then brought to the workshops to share & develop communally. Others are totally group written with everyone pitching ideas in.

As you know, quite a few professional musicians facilitate the group (most of whom we have featured in the magazine doing their day jobs) such as Jack Blackman, Wes Finch, Katherine Abbott, Jono Wright, Geoff Carr (from Generation Jones) and Nigel Clark (of Dodgy fame): though not all could be there for the sessions which I attended. However I was intrigued as to their role: with their vastly greater experience than the other group members, did the latter feel inhibited? Did the songs tend to go the way the professionals shaped them?

Naturally, knowing them, the experienced musicians would not wish such a dynamic to evolve, but it is hard to see how it might not unless handled with insight & sensitivity. Over the two sessions I witnessed, it certainly did not due to those attributes being central to what was going on. Even more so, I was taken with the overall ethos: this was totally democratic and I've never seen such mutual respect in a group situation: I wish I'd managed to encourage it in some of the classes I have taught. Everyone listened to each other without any interruption whatsoever. (It is illuminating that project co-founder Doug Armstrong told me that key aspects of the environment they fostered included "respect , honesty and we never judge. We are all equal in that room"). In addition, group members encouraged & drew each other out & praised each other's contributions.

The role of the facilitators was largely that of amanuensis: Wes in particular acted as scribe to free people to come up with ideas. Their contribution was described to me as "putting pieces of a jigsaw together" and I can agree that's what I saw. They also tended to keep the tune going while the ideas were coming in: this allowed members of the group to fit lyrical ideas into the music easily and to join in on their own instruments when they felt confident they knew the structure. (I'd also add that while I was there, Geoff was providing one to one instrumental tuition too).

What wasn't particularly expected was the speed at which songs came together: seeing as I'd only ever experienced them finished, I had no idea how long they had taken to refine: I rather assumed quite a long time. However on both of my visits, songs came together jaw droppingly fast: and I'm talking good quality ones on a par with those on the released albums. Obviously full arrangements & totally completed lyrics weren't there yet, but the essence was.

Generally the group focuses on matters personal to themselves & their lives in their writing: the process clearly helps them articulate themselves (though as I've commented on in the album reviews, the tone is always optimistic despite the very considerable challenges they have faced & continue to face in their lives: so it's hard not to see this process as offering them forms of esteem raising & empowerment). So on my first visit, I heard a song which may end up being titled "In the Future" coming together and this week one ("It's All Going On") documented their own writing sessions. Other subjects which you may get to hear on album number four include "Lifestyle Choices", "New Horizons" and "You in My Bed (Happiness is a Hot Water Bottle)": the latter of which only contains the words "hot water bottle" in the title: it's not in the lyrics, so listeners will need to figure that one out. The songs you see may touch on the simpler joys of life but are not necessarily simplistic in their composition. I also got to hear group member Craig's solo song "Falling" which the group worked on. Members variously added guitar, harmonica and ukulele to the arrangement as they felt appropriate.

Though I was aware of the workshops as an activity & the three albums to date, I hadn't fully grasped the complete range of what the Street Arts Project have done: they've now held over a hundred separate workshop sessions but there have also been eight concerts plus two plays and poetry days too.

In fact we are coming up to the fifth birthday of the project (which I hadn't realised) so what a great chance to wish them a happy birthday. Once this current round of workshops & subsequent recordings is complete, the resultant tracks will again be released on Spotify & Bandcamp and there will be another concert.

I'm obliged to project founders Doug Armstrong & Jackie Lines for filling me in on some of the facts I didn't know. Like an iceberg, much of their work is not fully visible: which of course is why I was keen to explore the process as well as the outcomes, but there are also aspects around supporting the wellbeing of group members including provision of sleeping bags, clothing etc which must necessarily remain more discreet in its delivery & publicity.

Equally my little episodes at peeping behind the curtain to see how the songs come together cannot compete with the insights of those who are part of the group & so I am appreciative of some of them for sharing their testimony here:

Craig Giles "It's a life saver really for some of us. If gives people a bit of a focus to do on a Thursday and through the music and learning to play it brings you together as a community. People have made friendships here and you can't fault it"

Wes Finch: "The Street Arts Project creates a regular, relaxed and welcoming space for people to connect and be musically creative. We provide songwriting workshops and guitar lessons and then encourage people to record the songs we make together and then perform at our concerts. We have a lot of fun and a great sense of camaraderie and achievement from it."

Katherine Abbott: "The thing I love about Street Arts is that everybody feels entirely equal and on a level as soon as we sit down in that room. It's a space where everybody can express themselves freely without fear of being judged. We laugh a lot together.

Jack Blackman: "The Street Arts Project is a truly wonderful thing to be part of. To be able to meet once a week and be creative with the participants is a joy and a privilege. It's so special and lifelong friendships have blossomed. Big love and appreciation must go to Doug Armstrong whose enthusiasm and support keeps the Street Arts Project rolling and long may it roll!"

Jono Wright: "I have been involved with Street Arts for about 2 years. It is such a wonderful project that brings together extraordinary people to do amazing things. Doug and Jackie have created such a wonderful environment and I love being part of it."

Though I haven't a date yet for the next Street Arts Project concert, there is one significant date for your diaries. Several of the facilitating musicians have banded together as WLDFLWRS and are playing at Stratford United Reformed Church on 30th March (matinee & evening performances) in aid of the project. The theme is the Martin Scorsese/The Band movie/gig "The Last Waltz" and so they and some of their friends will be looking to emulate the setlist of that concert.

 [1 image]
Page: