MOOD SWINGS Andy Peake (Biglittle Records) *****
Usually when I find out a disc is a drummer’s solo album my first thought is “Uh oh…”. By the time I got to the first chorus of the first song in Mood Swings (Make Peace With The Blues) I was in love. Smartly produced by Peake himself and played with the help of many of his musician friends, this is one of the coolest albums of the year.
Drummer/ percussionist/ songwriter/singer Andy Peake has stepped out from behind the kit to deliver a lively mix of blues and American roots music with fulfilling tangents into other forms like Salsa and Zydeco. Some of his musical compadres on Mood Swings are also known for their work with artists like Bonnie, Raitt, Elvis Costello, Beth Hart and Delbert McClinton, just to give you an idea of the talent pool he had to draw from.
Andy Peake grew up with a wide ranging menu of musical tastes to inspire him. His liberal pastor/ father and church organist/ singer mom encouraged a constant flow of American musical styles including church hymns, Broadway musicals, Ray Charles, Dave Brubeck, Antonio Carlos Joabim and the British New Wave of the 60’s like The Beatles, The Rolling Stones as well as pop music too. The breadth of this background can be felt and sometimes heard explicitly throughout Mood Swings, and a move to Nashville in 1987 saw him playing behind artists like Nicolette Larson, Tanya Tucker and Sweethearts Of The Rodeo. You can feel some of that experience in his drumming on songs like My Baby’s Got A Light On, but this is far more than a country record.
The songs on Mood Swings are as delightful lyrically as they are musically. On the album opener Make Peace With The Blues, Andy sings “I woke up this morning, like it or not” and this Zen-like bluesy rumba goes on to say how we all get the blues and can decide to resist or make it work for us. Bitter Pill is exactly what the title implies; a love lost scenario that nobody should have to go through yet many of us have. The gorgeous guitar work of Bill Cooley and Sam Broussard is mesmerizing.
As Y2K arrived, Andy turned his musical focus to engineering and studio production on several local projects, which has served him spectacularly well here. Top flight musicianship from Peake and his pals plus some top notch songwriting from him with a couple of songwriting buddies and incredible covers of Bob Dylan and Chuck Berry classics makes Mood Swings pretty much faultless, and a contender for my #1 of the year.
KEY CUTS: Make Peace With The Blues, Another Day Another Teardrop, Hip Replacement
COME ONE, COME ALL Circus Of Rock (Frontiers) ****
Not sure what to call this; an actual band, or a massive musical project spearheaded by Finnish drummer Mirka Rantanen of King Company. What I AM sure of is that Come One, Come All is a kick-ass record full of chunky rock & roll goodness.
Circus Of Rock is comprised of a killer lineup of musicians and singers that are likely unfamiliar to you. “A few years ago I started to think about recording a solo album” says Mirka, “however I didn’t want to do just a traditional solo album; I wanted to focus more on the great songs that don’t happen to have extra drum solos. I also wanted to include many fantastic colleagues with whom I have played over the years, and in addition a couple of great guest singers.” The end result is thick, pounding, melodic rock & roll that, generally speaking, ranges between Bon Jovi and mid-period Deep Purple with a Judas Priest sense of melodic riff-tastic heaviosity.
Musicians involved in Circus Of Rock come from bands like Amaranthe, Tyketto, Hardline, Nightwish, Leverage, Stratovarius, Brother Firetribe, Masterplan and others. Though the information I received with Come One Come All does list the musicians, it doesn’t go into detail on who did what exactly- you’ll need to hit the website for the lowdown on that. I thoroughly enjoy the thick wall of guitars and the lockstep riffing, the solos are excellent, and in many cases the keyboard work raises the songs above more than just ‘being another rock tune’, the way Jon Lord used to effortlessly raise Deep purple’s game time after time.
As much as I enjoy Come One, Come All, being a ‘rock & roll collective’ as opposed to an identifiable band, that means there’s a ceiling past which my excitement can’t go. That being said this is a wonderful, pounding bit of dramatic rock & roll, and peeking at the website it seems as though some live shows may very well be coming once all this Covid nonsense finally blows over. Of course I don’t live in and have never been to Finland so my chances of seeing Circus Of Rock onstage are low. If Come One Come All is all I get to hear from Mirka Rantanen and his band of merry men, I’m quite satisfied with that.
KEY CUTS: The Beat, Caught In The Middle, Set Me Free
SHAKEY TRILL Shakey Trill (independent) *****+++
Just got this yesterday. As of this minute there are 23 albums on my list of discs waiting for review; I gave this a cursory listen while ripping it into the computer to use on my internet radio shows and it jumped to the front of the line. Shakey Trill are a gutsy and raw acoustic blues duo from Saugeen Shores, Ontario. This, their debut, is classic blues the way God (or the devil, if you prefer) intended us to hear it.
“Shakey” was a nickname given to vocalist/ guitarist Mike McDonald because of his jittery hands and Trill, by definition, is the sound of two noted being played rapidly back and forth. Tyler Pantlin’s harmonica work is on the same wavelength as McDonald’s guitar playing. Blues fans throughout southern Ontario have noticed, and their effortless sound landed them onstage at the legendary Orpheum Theatre in Memphis as finalists at The International Blues Challenge in 2019.
“Tyler and I met through common friends and like minded musicians” Mike says, “(and) we quickly realized that we had similar interests in roots music. We decided to put together a blues duo after a few years of collaborating in various bands.” Shakey Trill hit me in much the same way as Matt Andersen’s Push Record: The Banff Sessions collaboration with Mike Stevens in 2011, one of my favorite albums of all time. Despite being just voice, acoustic guitar, harp and some percussion, both albums are soulful and moving. Alec Fraser’s production on S.T. is exquisitely simple, giving each instrument (including McDonald’s voice) room to express itself without stomping on toes. Perhaps it’s that simplicity of sound that lets you really get inside these songs.
Shakey Trill features 10 original tunes that demonstrate Mike and Tyler’s firm grasp on the form, plus heart-stopping covers of Muddy Waters’ Can’t Be Satisfied and Sonny Terry & Brownie McGhee’s Dark Road. I love all kinds of blues but there’s just something about the intimacy of acoustic blues that really does it for me. Shakey Trill has been in my collection less than 2 days as I write this, and it’s already a favorite.
KEY CUTS: I Love That Woman, Build An Institution, Dark Road
UNDER YOUR SPELL Tito Jackson (Gulf Coast Records) ****
Let’s get this out of the way right now- yeah, it’s that Tito Jackson, older brother to Janet and Michael. Under Your Spell is Tito’s Gulf Coast label debut, a serious blues record with some hard funk… an irresistible combination.
Those that only know Tito from his work with The Jackson 5 will be quite surprised by Under Your Spell. No pop fluff here, gang; the disc is bluesy funk (or funky blues) with fat, muscular grooves you can ride all day long. Jackson’s talents as a singer, songwriter, guitarist, producer and arranger all come to bear on a surprisingly excellent record that, despite any descriptions you can come up with, can play in a number of formats.
Tito Jackson’s life in the music business has led to great connections and the guest list for Under Your Spell is impressive; George Benson, Joe Bonamassa, brother Marlon, Eddie Levert, Kenny Neal, Bobby Rush and Stevie Wonder all contribute to make this one a monster. Aside from his own tunes he takes on blues classic like Big Leg Woman and, as a friend and admirer of BB King he pays tribute to the late king of the blues with a funky n sultry version of BB’s 1964 classic Rock Me Baby that includes the voice of B’s daughter Claudette, plus tasty lead guitar from Tito and George Benson
I don’t know anything about the music Tito has made outside of The Jackson 5, but I’m really enjoying what he has to offer here. Under Your Spell, according the album credits, was produced and/or co-produced by a Michael K. Jackson with a nice bottom-heavy sound that you can physically feel. It’s hard to think about this particular Jackson clan without at least a cursory thought to the familial weirdness, which is obliquely addressed in All In The Family Blues. Songwriting duo Gamble & Huff, who penned hits for The Jacksons and The O’Jays, came out of retirement to write that for Tito.
I dug the Jackson 5 stuff on the radio while growing up and solo stuff from Michael and Janet too, so I was curious to find out what Tito had to offer outside of ‘the family’ and I am not disappointed. Equal parts funk and soul with a side of blues, Under Your Spell is a nice piece of work.
KEY CUTS: Love One Another, Got Caught, Rock Me
CHANGES Toby Hitchcock (Frontiers) *** ½
Another solo album here from the voice of Pride Of Lions. Changes has nothing to do with the Bowie or Black Sabbath songs of the same name. What it is, is melodic rock verging on hard rock, with Toby’s powerful tenor pipes taking centre stage.
As a singer, Hitchcock invites comparisons to Bobby Kimball of Toto, Jimi Jameson from Survivor and even Foreigner’s Lou Gramm, though that last one seems a bit of a stretch. Still, you can’t argue the fact that the man brings it; the range of a Dennis DeYoung and passionate delivery of Michael Sweet. The keyboard textures and drum samples do sound very 80’s, which can be a good or bad thing depending on how you feel about that sort of thing. The music of that era was often frosty, not my cup of tea.
Aside from Hitchcock’s vocals Changes includes the excellent guitar playing of Martin Jepsen Andersen, the drums of Nicholas Papapicco, and the keyboard work of Alessandro Del Vecchio, who also produced the record. Lots of dramatic flourishes throughout to go along with the equally passionate lyrics, and yet something is leaving me a bit cold. Toby has a great voice, but maybe if he pulled it back for more nuanced performances- though he does do that on intro to Run Away Again– it seems like he’s always going balls out. If it was a straight hard rock record, cool… but sometimes it’s a little over the top. But then again maybe that’s what Toby’s fans want from him, that Broadway style bravado in a rock & roll context.
Hitchock’s formidable pipes aside, what really save this disc for me is Andersen’s guitar work… his rhythm parts are in tight with the bass and drums, and when he steps out for a solo you can almost see him throwing his head back and closing his eyes as he just lets it rip. Great vibrato and dexterity there, very expressive. Changes isn’t the best album I’ve heard this year, more like somewhere around the middle of the pack.
KEY CUTS: Forward, Run Away Again, On The Edge Of Falling
MICK PINI & AUDIO 54 Backtrack (bandcamp) *****
This is a collaboration between German based/ Leicester blues veteran Mick Pini and Audio 54 producer, writer and musician Craig Marshall. If you like late 60’s/ early 70’s style British blues at all, you’re going to enjoy Backtrack a whole bunch.
Pini was once described by Eric Clapton as “the legitimate successor to Peter Green”, and after taking this disc for a spin I completely hear what he was talking about. There’s a primitive, ethereal power to some of these tracks that’s hard to shake. Backtrack was initially conceived by promoter/ blues deejay Pete Feenstra as a great way to update Mick’s music. This is a compilation that features Pini’s favorite songs from across his extensive 25 album/ 55 year career. The tracks have been remixed, re-mastered and, in part, re-imagined by Marshall. As Craig explains it, “I think this album updates Mick’s past. More importantly it paves the way for his new material and collaborations.” “It’s a dream come true to find a producer like Craig” Mick says. “He’s inventive and a catalyst in pushing my music in new directions.”
Backtrack sounds as delicious on my stereo as another prize album in my collection, The Best Of Peter Green’s Fleetwood Mac. This bad boy has it all, from Greenie-style haunting blues to big band blues, shuffles, slide guitar blues and real lowdown blues. As a singer Mick sounds at times like Clapton, but as a guitarist I definitely hear and feel the comparisons to Peter Green. You can hear Pini’s mileage, and in the blues that’s a good thing. Mick formed his first band at age 15 and became a fixture on the Midlands blues scene and has played Liverpool’s The Cavern as well as London’s Marquee Club. Despite his long career- he was discovered in the late 80’s by the legendary Mike Vernon- I’ve never heard of Mick Pini before, and as this album plays I have to ask why not. I don’t know nearly as much about the European blues scene as I would like to, and there are so many artists and records out there I just can’t hear ‘em all.
So, that’s the deal. If Peter Green’s music tickles your blues bone, then Mick Pini’s Backtrack Collection is going to curl your toes and leave you wanting more.
KEY CUTS: Blues For Peter Green, Standing In The Rain, Blues Is Cheap