Live From Old York: Juan Martin, Chantel McGregor, ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Andy Fairweather Low & Wilko Johnson
National Centre For Early Music
October 10, 2012
Spanish guitarist Juan Martinez lives in Málaga, Andalucia, deep in flamenco country. He's also very familiar with UK concert stages, spending much of his time in London. Although stating that his Musica Alhambra project represents a rare meeting between flamenco and Arabic music, this isn't actually such a flighty concept given the embedded connections dating back to Moorish days. Collaborations between Andalucian and North African musicians are not massively unusual.
Martin's Musica Alhambra Quintet broadens the repertoire out even further, with Sephardic Jewish songs and influences from the Indian gypsy trail. The lineup included a strong element of multi-instrumental palette-changing. Paul Fawcus dodged from flute to clarinet to soprano saxophone. Louai Alhenawi swapped between ney flute and his percussion spread, which included goblet and small frame drums. The other percussionist, Chris Caran, also moved around his selective kit, at one stage even settling down to play tabla. Abdul Salam Kheir rationed out his involvement, but when he was onstage, singing and playing the oud, his presence made a significant impact, his voice making a vivid emotional connection.
Martin was retuning his guitar between almost every piece, joking that the English weather was too much for its body, following a master class down in Ronda, Spain. His style involved a contrast between delicate filigree details and more robust outbreaks of strafing strums. Martin refused to claim complete dominance, always allowing equal space for the other instruments. The driving concept wasn't so much guitar solos with backing, but rather a complete panorama of ensemble arrangements.
The entire concert was devoted to player permutations that continually refreshed the ears, with each member periodically taking a break, setting up smaller sub-groups at the service of each tune's requirements. The gig was almost sold out, and Martin took pleasure in forging a bond with the crowd, carefully explaining the background to each composition.
Much of the night was devoted to the 1996 Musica Alhambra (Flamenco Vision) album, from which this band sprouted, but towards the end of the evening, the quintet played a piece from Picasso Portraits (Flamenco Vision), one of Martin's earliest albums, released back in 1981. The reading was shorn of its original synthesiser part, and provided a prime example of Martin's anecdotal talents. He regaled the audience with an involved tale of performing at Pablo Picasso's 90th birthday party, as a terrified child prodigy. Then, it was Fawcus, who took the second set up to its ultimate climax, with a soprano solo that rose towards higher and higher levels of detail and excitement, right up to the free-form sonic edge.
October 12, 2012
The UK blues scene seems to be suddenly awash with younger talents, all making bold ascents with their nascent careers. Some of these players are female, which doubles the freshness factor. Meaning that the blues scene has mostly been a moonshine brewing den for potent male juices. Chantel McGregor plays guitar and sings, with the six strings providing her most powerful means of expression. She recently won in the 'Female Vocalist of the Year category at the British Blues Awards, although it's her guitar solos that emit the most potent thrill. The tour was lengthy, but this was almost a homecoming, as she hails from nearby Bradford.
The key to what makes McGregor interesting is the sheer variety of her material. Her own songs are violently rocking one moment, then soft to the point of almost departing the blues zone and becoming ballad pop. During this 90-plus minute set, she also played tunes by Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Nicks ("Gold Dust Woman," from her Fleetwood Mac days). This latter was part of a midway solo acoustic spot, which had the audience clutched in a spell of silence. Rejoined by her bassist and drummer, the rest of the set reclaimed an aggressively seething intensity, with several extended guitar solos bleeding through her already wounded amplifier. Previous dates had suffered from blowing valves, so now McGregor had the luxury of being able to switch between two amplifiers, giving both of them a testing time. McGregor displayed a noticeably energised connection with her drummer, entering a rampaging dialogue that kept escalating in extremity. Despite a preference for the rugged end of McGregor's repertoire, her gentler selections did add to the dynamic shading, so provided, perhaps, a necessary calming point.
And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead...
October 14, 2012
No calm was allowed two nights later at the same venue. At its most basic level ...And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead can perform as the core duo of its founding Texan members Jason Reece and Conrad Keely, who have a predilection for swapping guitar and drum roles. In its current incarnation, the membership is doubled, which doesn't particularly restrain the leaders in their multi-instrumentalism.
Arriving in time to catch the opening act, okay, so Maybeshewill isn't a band name that suits the Leicester post-rock combo, but that was the only negative observation to make about these tightly rehearsed headbangers. Well, not headbangers, in the metal sense. This crew's body language is gathered from a very specific style, native to the form. Heads, and indeed, whole bodies careened and collided in time to each precise explosive emphasis of a scientifically accurate riff construction. The group delivered a curt, tight and concise set, descending from Battles, Trans Am and even Tortoise, with a hint of Mogwai's faster, harder stretches. The keyboard was questionably orchestral, but luckily it was equal in the mix, rather than overly prominent.
Somewhat unusually, there was a note outside the venue alerting punters to the extreme volume levels threatened inside. A rare warning for a rock club. Austin's Trail Of Dead obliged with a set that featured hardly any lulls in the jet engine scale decibel-counting. Not that it was bereft of subtleties; it's just that these were carried out on a greater scale. This was an older school of rock, with its roots in 1990s grunge. The assault was unremitting, but never slipped in its powers of engagement. Keely spent most of his time upfront on guitar, also tackling lead vocals, which had just the right amount of strained abrasion, mid-tour. By set's end, the band was passing around a bottle of Jack Daniel's, sating themselves and setting it on its travels amongst the frontal throng. It was that kind of evening. The final encore was completely genuine, as most of the band looked like they weren't planning on delivering yet another song. Ultimately, there was no escape.
Andy Fairweather Low & The Low Riders
Pocklington Arts Centre
October 17, 2012
Welsh singer/guitarist Andy Fairweather Low is many artists to many folks. Some fans revere his hits with the 1960s pop group Amen Corner. Others remember his 1970s solo albums. Some have caught him in the combos of Eric Clapton, Roger Waters and Bill Wyman. This scribe was captivated fairly late in the day, as Low became the lead guitarist in trombonist Chris Barber's band, replacing the prematurely deceased bluesman John Slaughter.
It was clear from this gig that Low's heart is now deep in the blues, and that he considers guitar soloing as being of equal importance to singing. He even felt is necessary to issue a warning at gig's start, just in case some punters had come along expecting an unremitting sequence of poppy chestnuts. Of course, Low still obliged with those old ditties, but his two sets were very much occupied with the blues. They were also well-populated with searing guitar solos.
Pocklington Arts Centre lies in a village around 10 miles outside York, and it clearly has its own scene. The gig looked virtually sold out. The theatre was quite small, with a cossetting acoustic quality and a punchy, clear sound system. All the better to frame Low's guitar sound, which sparked and smoldered with a barely contained charge. It was a king amongst amplifier emissions, and he had the playing fluency to match. The dapper Low chose to adopt the image of a banker, or maybe a tidier, disciplined type of science fiction nerd. Spectacles and skinny tie. No beer-spattered t-shirts for this band. But it still proffered an old school soulful blues, burned by smoking edges.
Low demonstrated a very distinctive vocal style, singing high, keening lines out of the tightened corner of his mouth. Perhaps Sting was influenced by him at some stage. Nick Pentelow was a major asset, providing saxophone solos on most of the tunes, invariably ridged with a captivatingly rough texture. The other members were bassist Dave Bronze and drummer Paul Beavis. The set ranged from "Bend Me, Shape Me," once covered by Amen Corner, to songs by Webb Pierce and Jimmy Reed, then "When You're Smiling" and "Wide Eyed And Legless," jack-knifing into a meaty "Peter Gunn" and the eponymously titled "Low Rider." Even if a song wasn't blues or R&B, the prevailing band sound adopted the stylistic traits of those musics. Low's governing personality and musicality managed to transform all of the material, even if some songs might have been too bland in their naked state. The Low Rider personality embraced all of the songbook's diversity, filtering everything into a toughened band sound.
October 18, 2012
Another man with a hot guitar sound is Wilko Johnson, although attempting to pick apart the seams between "'solo"' and "rhythm" is a challenge, when the riff becomes the abstract explosion, then jolts back again. Only a few weeks earlier, Johnson's old band had played at this very venue. Even if the current Dr. Feelgood now featured no original members, its style remained closer to that of the old combo. Since departing Feelgood in 1977, Johnson has evolved to the point where that outfit's established sound is now incorporated into a general landscape of garage rock, with jazzed, funked and souled trimmings. Most of these emanated from the exceedingly agile bass antics of Norman Watt-Roy (an old Blockhead), who was caught in a perpetually soloing frenzy, even as he delivered each sinuous bass line. Johnson's hair of yore has been replaced, or rather, has vanished to reveal a shining dome. His manic chicken-walking (complete with equally manic staring eyes) remained the same, telegraphing each scattershot guitar punctuation. Playing for well over an hour, Johnson stirred up a rarely witnessed atmosphere of crowd-exultation. This was another crammed gig at Fibbers, with a pact of electricity transmission made between the audience and band.