EP Review: His Master’s Voice The Devils Blues- Woman

His Master's Voice The Devils Blues Woman EP Cover
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I first heard of His Master’s Voice when Mathias Hallberg reviewed Into Orbit’s latest album release show. I had been in the South Island at a sporting event, and came back to Mathias raving about this bluesy band from Auckland.

Needing to make up for missing the show, I made a point of seeing the band next time they visited Wellington, and Mathias was 100% right. They’re damn good.

The band sent me Woman yesterday. I’ve been playing it on repeat non-stop since.

His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington

Image: Will Not Fade

Take the blues and revive them with dosage of danger. Add filthy southern rock riffs. Swirl in a generous serving of Sabbath, Led Zeppelin and Deep Purple. Drop in a few drugs. And then, amidst the swirling haze, you will find you have produced His Master’s Voice.

They play with such a swagger. Whether laying down a doomy groove, or ripping into a fast-paced swing section, the music is saturated with infectious feel.

My personal favourite is first track, “Burning” – a slow burner with a smooth, rolling riff. That is, until frontman Jesse Sorenson cries out “Come the groove!” And that’s exactly what happens. It all kicks in. If the bass line doesn’t get you moving then wait til the tambourines start ashakin’ and the primal drums kick in. And then, just to send you over the edge, we have a guitar solo.

There is no denying how much Black Sabbath have influenced His Master’s Voice’s sound. The title track on this EP reminds me of “Electric Wizard”. Sorenson channels his inner-Ozzy as he wails over a sweetly picked guitar melody. The rest of the band joins in, and the soaring guitars and organs elevate the music to the next level.

The only problem with Woman is the duration. 20 minutes is not enough! But I’ve been playing it on repeat and I can’t see myself tiring of these songs anytime soon. But honestly, what more do you need? Groovy blues with a heavy edge. Music that will possess you to dance. It’s just fantastic.

His Master’s Blues have pulled it off again, and Woman comes with my highest of recommendations.

His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington

Image: Will Not Fade

Woman is due out digitally on Bandcamp on 1 October 2017, and will also be available through the usual streaming platforms. The CD will be available at the EP release show at The King’s Arms on October 28th.

His Master’s Voice links:

Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/thedevilsblues
Instagram: https://www.instagram.com/thedevilsbluesnz/
Youtube: https://www.youtube.com/user/thedevilsbluesnz
Bandcamp: www.hismastersvoice.bandcamp.com
Soundcloud: https://soundcloud.com/brando28
Reverbnation: https://www.reverbnation.com/hismastersvoice
Merch: www.thedevilsmerch.com

His Master’s Voice are:

Jesse Sorensen – Vocals and Guitar
Brandon Bott – Bass
Az Burns – Guitar
Renè Harvey – Drums
(Plus Paul Lawrence – Keys on ‘Evil’ and ‘Woman’)

 

Words and photos by Joseph James

Live Review: Saint Paul & The Broken Bones + Trombone Shorty

Saint Paul & The Broken Bones + Trombone Shorty The Chelsea Las Vegas
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Trombone Shorty

w/ St Paul & The Broken Bones

The Chelsea, Las Vegas

Saturday 26 August 2017

I felt a tad overdressed for the gig tonight. But I was in Las Vegas, and dress codes are strict here, so I opted for something slightly nicer than the fluro cheetah print spandex top I’d worn to Steel Panther the night previous.

First act St Paul & The Broken Bones were actually the drawcard for me. They were also dressed to the nines, so perhaps my nice shirt was a good choice. There were eight of them onstage – three in the brass section, bass, drums, guitar, organ and vocals – all well presented and experts on their instruments. Frontman Paul Janeway rocked a dapper red suit with checkered labels.

And they could play! I heard someone near me call them “this generation’s white James Brown”. I’ll leave that to you to decide on, but they sure could channel soul music as well as the best I’d seen.

Janeway was a real character. He was possessed by the music, letting it control him. He would “conduct” the rest of the band, adding his angelic coos to the music.  At one point he removed his golden shoes and threw them over his shoulder. Next he rolled around on the floor as he sang, before crawling under the drum riser – emerging from the other end like a caterpillar crawling across a leaf. I was in stitches. Janeway managed to do all this without missing a note, so I imagine he is well-practiced at this caterpillar routine.

The band played a mixed style, with some down-tempo soul music interspersed with upbeat funky numbers. Either way, it was great for dancing. Whether they laid down a groovy jam, struck up a flute solo, or let loose on the organ, it was all brilliant.

The band played for 80 minutes, despite only having two albums of material to draw from. And truth be told, I could have quite happily left after that set satisfied.

I’m glad that I didn’t though. Because as great as Saint Paul & The Broken Bones were, Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue were a step above.

That band – what a band!- they were a sight to see. To start with there were two drummers.

Two!

Drummers!

I don’t know if that excites everyone the way that it excites me, but two drummers in one band is something that I get very worked up about. They last time that I saw a band that featured two drummers was Tortoise, and they were outstanding. There was a dedicated percussionist as well – who may as well be a third drummer.

SO MANY DRUMS!!!!!!!

And moving on….

The excitement doesn’t stop there. There was bass – smooth, groovy bass. There were two guitarists – ridiculously talented shredders. Three talented backing singers (sat criminally low in the mix). And a trio of brass players, with two on saxophone and the star of the show adding his trademark trombone (and occasionally trumpet) to the trio.

I think back to when I first saw Gary Clark Jr play, opening for the Red Hot Chili Peppers in 2013. His very presence exuded coolness. And his playing only confirmed how slick he was. Seeing Troy Andrews – better known as Trombone Shorty – evoked exactly the same thoughts and feelings in me.

The man has talent. Whether he was singing or riffing along with the saxophones on the trombone, he impressed. I guess if you grow up around the hottest players in New Orleans, some of that talent is guaranteed to rub off on you.

Trombone Shorty The Chelsea Las Vegas Set List

It was all on. 12 people on stage will do that. Everyone was dancing about and enjoying themselves – both on and off the stage. It was so infectious. The lights added to the fun, although there was a touch too much strobing that made me dizzy. And I swear that the floor was flexing underneath me!

Trombone Shorty cut his teeth with the best, learning from an early age. And using all that knowledge and experience, he has fused the genres of his town to create fantastic, fun music, and assembled a stellar band to help him present it to the world.

As if it wasn’t enough to play such a great set, they finished the night by throwing a dozen free t-shirts into the audience. It was a generous notion, considering that those shirts cost almost the price of admission at the merch table.

I came to The Chelsea tonight hoping to see some class acts representing their respective cities musically, and wanting to dance. And sure enough, got both in spades. Now I can tick Saint Paul & The Broken Bones off my bucket list after their soulful set. And Trombone Shorty & Orleans Avenue blew me away. What better way to get a taste of the south?

 

Joseph James

The Family of Strangers Tour gallery – His Master’s Voice & Armed In Advance

The Family Of Strangers Tour
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The Family of Strangers Tour

These Four Walls, Armed In Advance, His Master’s Voice Blue Ruin 

Valhalla, Wellington
Saturday 29 April 2017

His Master’s Voice – The Devil’s Blues

His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, WellingtonHis Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington

His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington His Master's Voice - The Devils Blues. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington

Armed In Advance

Armed In Advance. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington Armed In Advance. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington Armed In Advance. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington Armed In Advance. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington Armed In Advance. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington Armed In Advance. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington Armed In Advance. Family of Strangers Tour. Valhalla, Wellington

All photos by Joseph James

 

Live Review: Into Orbit – Unearthing Album Release Show

Into Orbit His Masters Voice Unearthing Album Release Show San Fran
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Into Orbit

w/ His Masters Voice

San Fran, Wellington

Friday 10th of February 2017

 

I feel guilty, but it has become common practice for me to start a gig off at San Fran standing on the deck outside. Beer in hand and inhaling the second-hand smoke from my fellow concert goers outside. I watch the passers-by and mix ambient sounds of Cuba street with the music coming from inside the venue. This time it was different. As I was conversing with my friend Jon we both suddenly stopped looked at each other with a blank stare. ‘Hey that sounds a bit like Sabbath‘ he says to me. ‘Or Zeppelin’ I replied with a heightened sense of curiosity.

Opening the door we move towards the stage with gusto. We are met by what His Masters Voice have come to dub The Devils Blues. A fitting title for their high-octane brand of music. As we stand in the center of the floor the sound surrounds us. A sound fronted by mournful wails reminiscent of the classic American soul. The crash of cymbals and driving bass with facial hair to match puts a giant smile on my face as the rhythm section are only a pair of cheap sunglasses away from ZZ Top’s legendary back row. Giving the rhythm just enough personal flair to give it a contemporary feel while staying true to the roots that took hold in the American South so long ago.

slowly but surely

His Masters Voice at San Fran. Image. Mathias Hallberg

It is a hard-fought battle, but slowly the crowd is being beaten into submission. More and more pour through the gates. One by one they are summoned to the dance floor by shrieking guitars. Carrying just enough gravel and grit to stand toe to toe with any Metal band that is foolish enough to take the challenge laid out by His Masters Voice.

As the set comes to an end I was feeling a bit too giddy. Obviously, I needed a beer and the bartender is glad to serve us up a couple of pints of the golden nectar. He would soon come to regret his decision for in my overly excited state I felt compelled to convince him of just how good the show was. The look of terror on his face earns a sensible chuckle. I slowly back away and leave him in peace.

Not one to disappoint Into Orbit step onto the stage and get straight to work, introducing us to their new baby, Unearthing. San Fran’s hall is filled with thundering drums and meticulously layered guitar. Into Orbit must be close to the top of the list of loudest bands that I have seen. So much sound is produced by just two musicians. Paul Stewart on the ever looping and layered guitar and Ian Moir manning the battery. Drawing a decent crowd with their virtuosic Prog Metal sound I am taken once again into their world joined by their ever growing fan base here in Wellington. Their story is told by everything from soft-spoken guitar melodies to full on sludgy heavy metal riffs. Always building and releasing tension in the room.

A successful album release show, sadly (or not) overshadowed by a world-class performance by the opening band.


Links

Into Orbit

His Masters Voice

Live Review: Ash Grunwald at Meow, Wellington

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Ash Grunwald

Meow, Wellington

Saturday 28 December 2015

Blues rocker Ash Grunwald started the night off with a trifecta of songs about surfing. All three were ridiculously funny, especially “Dolphin Song” – based on a true story of a pod of dolphins rescuing him from a shark. The song ended with Grunwald making absurd squeaky dolphin noises into the microphone over the top of his guitar solo which lightened up the mood of the venue.

The first song had been relatively calm, reflecting the dinner table environment that Meow had put on. But a few songs in Grunwald couldn’t help but let loose with some roaring blues numbers. Out came the resonator guitar and the slide, and there was little holding back from then on.

Ash Grunwald Meow

It was a joy to watch him wailing and stomping and letting rip on the guitar. The tunes were infectious and before long most of the people in the bar were on their feet and moving. Grunwald’s didn’t take himself too seriously, cracking jokes and making silly impersonations in the middle of songs. He was clearly having fun on stage, and projected his humour onto his audience.

I expected a small setup from a man playing a solo show, but in reality it looked like he was piloting the Starship Enterprise. Grunwald was perched atop a red stool, with an impressively large array of effects pedal to his left, two microphones in front of him, and something called a foot drum at his feet. This foot drum was ingenious. It somehow housed cymbals, a snare, egg shakers, a tambourine and a bass drum – all playable through the use of pedals. It offered more dynamics than a standard stompbox and really enhanced the overall sound. The two different microphones also helped to mix up the sound, with one having plenty of reverb and effects going through it.

Grunwald played a range of songs from his repertoire, old and new. There was no prepared setlist, he just picked songs which suited the mood. He took requests from the audience, and also played a variety of covers drawing from blues legends such as Jimi Hendrix, Son House and Howling Wolf, as well as Van Morrison and Gnarls Barkley.

Two highlights included acapella covers of “Grinnin In Your Face” and “John the Revelator”. Grunwald ditched his guitar and bellowed the songs with his powerful voice, clapping to keep the beat. For the latter song he ventured into the audience and encouraged everyone to clap and wail along.

It was a fun time. Grunwald was at home on the stage, fueled by espresso martinis and improvising as he went.  He announced his last song after having played for an hour and a half, only to have to extend his set at the request of his audience – not that he seemed to mind. Some audience members thought highly enough to each tip him $20 for his performance, despite his protests that they should at least take a CD in exchange for their money. And is there a better indicator of great show than people insistent on paying more than the price of admission to attend?

Joseph James

You can also read my interview with Ash Grunwald from a few weeks ago here.

 

Interview: Ash Grunwald

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Ash Grunwald answers the phone and then breaks off to yell to his young daughter to go see her mum.

“Sorry bro” he apologises.”I just saw a snake in the garden, and I wanted to make sure my little girl was safe.’

Living in Byron Bay, Australia, brushes with snakes and spiders are pretty common, he tells me.

“I’m pretty desensitised to spiders. I’m not even scared anymore. I used to be a bit. But snakes I don’t like. Here we have ’em all. We have all the venomous ones because where I live is sort of sub-tropical. We have the big pythons and everything. But the pythons are cool.

“Like I was having a shower – we have this outdoor shower. I looked up and basically next to me was this three metre python, just hanging. I was like ‘…oh. How’re ya goin?’ They’re absolutely harmless. Well… not absolutely harmless. They are harmless, but you don’t want them to bite you. They really hurt if they bite. And they’ll strike you like a machine gun – they just keep biting. You can get big scars and stuff like that. So you’re not going to just go pick one up, of course.”

Chatting with Grunwald is entertaining. He’s laid back and forthcoming. I observe that Byron Bay, with its annual Bluesfest, is a natural fit for a man who is known for his own swampy, blues-inspired music.

“Bluesfest was my ultimate,” he agrees, “I’ve probably played it three or four times. I’m from Melbourne originally – nice culture, shit weather. I’d come up to Byron and be like ‘This is paradise!’ I’ve got a family now. We’re about 20 minutes out, near the beach. It’s a nice little compromise. It’s not too busy and [you’ve] still got access to all those things that you love about it. It’s pretty alternative, and it’s an idyllic location. I probably did 20 laps of Australia [on tour] before I made my decision, after about seven or eight years on the road.”

Grunwald is committed to his local community, recently getting up-in-arms about coal seam gas mining in and around Australia. He has been pressuring banks to divest from mining companies because of the environmental damage that they are causing. It’s a clear theme in his latest album, so I ask him to elaborate on his views.

“For the last album there was a strong message very much influenced by my work trying to stop coal seam gas mining from coming into my area here, and also going to the front line, where they’ve already got it up in Queensland. The lessons that I’ve learnt in that are just passed on in the songs.

“In another interview I was asked about a song titled ‘The Worst Crimes Are Legal’, and I really do stick by that. I’ve done a lot of travelling in the third world and people say ‘oh, it’s so corrupt!’, but the only difference with the corruption is that it’s not legal, and it doesn’t have a lot of papers that need to be filled out in triplicate. But it’s almost, in a sense, more honest. There are many systems set up to benefit multinational companies, to benefit the rich more than the poor. It’s not a fair system.

“We’re all cynical now. For me to say these things, it’s no big deal. Often the sentiment is ‘yeah, we all know that. Get over it. Stop talking about it’. But if we talk about it, we might be able to change it…

“We’ve got farmers committing suicide over here. Because they get bullied by these gas companies. They feel guilty too, because they’ve had these farms for generations.  This is the first time in hundreds of years that the farmers know how the elders feel. We had elders at these rallies, now holding hands with farmers, and they’ve never been buddies really. Now they’re in the same position. Now the farmers know what the indigenous people feel like, because they’re experiencing this second takeover.

“These dudes [Gas mining companies] are getting plucky. That’s the thing that really got me off my arse. Early on it would have been in some regional town, away from where people can see. But now they’ll try for the middle of Sydney and crazy stuff. They were trying to get licences for right in the middle of Sydney, right near the water supply.

“Here in the Northern Rivers area we actually had a win. We never thought we would, but we actually managed to keep them away. They’ve left – poor corporates, they’ve been paid to leave by the council – but at least they’re gone. So it can happen! Things can be done if people do try.

“A lot of people don’t even listen to lyrics. You want it to work on a musical level perfectly, without any compromise, and then still have a message.”

“You want it to work on a musical level perfectly, without any compromise, and then still have a message.”

When I ask Grunwald to describe his sound, he calls it “an original take, roughly in the region of the blues genre. So it’s modern blues. Sometimes it sounds like blues rock – but not always. Sometimes it sounds like delta blues. . . and sometimes it doesn’t sound anything like blues, but often it’s in that rough region – it’s just a different take on it. And it’s my hope – and it’s up to others to say whether I’ve achieved this or not – my aim is to bring a freshness to the genre. Looking at it afresh and taking it in different directions. Almost going backwards, to the early stuff, to bring it forwards past what people normally think of the blues.”

One way that Ash brings this freshness to the genre is to use less standard instruments. For example, his recent albums eschew the use of electric bass guitar, with  the most recent album, NOW, featuring Ian Perez from Wolfmother using synths to record bass parts, and the album before that featured Scott Owen from the Living End on the acoustic double bass. Grunwald also has a tradition of using weird and creative percussion instead of drums, in the vein of Tom Waits.

“My thoughts on bass is the same as my thoughts on the drum kit” he tells me. “I have conventional drums on those last two albums, but before that I hardly ever had a conventional, straight-down-the-line drum kit.

“Straight-down-the-line drums and normal bass… I’m not really that into. There’s got to be a really good player playing it, or there’s got to be some reason. And if you want to do rocky things, OK, use the kit, use the right tools for the right job. But I love Tom Waits albums where it’s all a little bit different, you know? I don’t think that there’s any point doing things just exactly the same as things we’ve seen a million times before.”

So in order to mix it up and escape from a generic sound, Grunwald tries new things.

“Way back in the day I was getting pots and pans and hitting car doors with a hammer, and just weird things, just anything to break up that same old kit. It’s the same with the bass. If I’d gone and done a psychedelic rock album with the same old drums and bass it would have been too normal. I want to do something that sounds different and bring something new to the table.”

“And as it worked out with that synth bass, moog synth – beautiful warm analogue – it’s way bassier than you can get with a bass guitar. And different attack. A finger on a string is an amazing kind of attack for a bass note, that’s fantastic. But a key from a keyboard is a different matter. So you can have things that go [hums a fast, concise bass line] and it’s really precise, and really, hugely fat. And the fatness isn’t affected by amps, and strings and magnetic pickups, and all those acoustic factors. But still, a warm analogue synth can be impossibly fast. That’s what I like about the synth bass.

“I did one album where I built a cheapie drum kit and detuned it all. And then I just started grabbing bits of metal. And spanners, and pots and pans, and chains… and I just gaffer taped them all to the kit. And when I was overdubbing I would play on this junkyard kit. It was pretty out there. But what I did for years was having a guy play a car door with a hammer. That was pretty out there too.

“The first influence was Tom Waits, who pioneered that kind of thing. After that I went deeper and I went back and listened to a whole lot of field hollers. You know, the black slaves in America working in chain gangs and the only percussion is their tools hitting the earth, or hitting the trees or whatever. It’s almost my favourite genre of music, those work songs. So that influence comes into a lot of my songs over the years. I don’t think I’ve done an album for a very long time where there wasn’t some sort of junk percussion on something.”

Despite having nine studio albums, and numerous awards, I’d hazard a guess that the name Ash Grunwald isn’t that familiar to most New Zealanders. But most of will us have heard his song, “Walking”. Grunwald laughs when I suggest that he may be best known on this side of the Tasman as “the guy from the New World ad”.

“Well I hope I do get that, in a way, because it gets the music out there. They had to use somebody’s track, and I’m glad they used mine. We all go shopping. That song has been so good to me, because it was in a Hollywood movie called Limitless, which was Bradly Cooper and Robert De Niro. Bradly Cooper took this drug which gave him limitless mental faculty. And I was mega-stoked, because when he took the drug they put ‘Walking’ on turned up really loud, and put it in a montage scene. It was mastered really loud, and featured quite a bit in the movie, which was epic! That’s probably why I got that New World ad.

“It was good. It got it out there. I know there’s purists, guys like Tom Waits who would never want his music used for any product. And I’d love to be that much of a purist, but I don’t feel like in the standing of music, that I’m in a position to not appreciate the publicity from it. People are hearing my song, and I do appreciate that.”

Grunwald has covered some Tom Waits songs, and one of his biggest hits was a cover of Gnarls Barkley’s ‘Crazy’. I ask him to explain his process for choosing songs to cover.

“It’s got to be something you love – it’s a no-brainer if it’s an old blues song. You can bring it to people who haven’t heard it before, and that’s all cool. And when you pick something like a Gnarls Barkley song – I picked ‘Crazy’ – it’s gotta be interesting, quirky.

“‘Crazy’ was funny because it’s huge – everybody knows the song. It was a motivation to think that here’s a huge song that everybody knows, but it’s very soulful and right down my alley. And there’s another song I did on Trouble’s Door called ‘Sail’ by this band AWOL Nation. They’re so different to what I do, but that particular song has crossovers with what I do. So I thought it would be great. It’s like the old-school – someone brings out an album, and somebody else covers it straight away. It’s something that’s not very much done anymore, but it used to be done. I think its good to put an interesting spin on it. Hard to know – usually done on a case-by-case basis.”

I ask Grunwald about his past collaborations, and which people he would like to team up with in the future.

“I’d love to jam with Gary Clark Jr. Never say never in this industry. Never say it will happen, because there every chance it won’t. But never say it won’t happen, because sometimes it does. I’m going to do a recording. We have high hopes – and apparently quite realistic hopes – of getting Tony Joe White and Taj Mahal on the next album, which would be absolutely phenomenal for me. Tony Joe White is actually a huge hero of mine, and Taj Mahal is probably one of the most respected names in blues and roots music these days.

“And that came absolutely out of the blue. that had absolutely nothing to do with me. A producer from America contacted me and said ‘Come over. I’ll get you a flight. Come do an album’. … So weird things do happen at times!”

Grunwald mentions that he gets the chance to meet a lot of these legends in passing at Bluesfest.

“I met Tony Joe White about ten years ago and I frothed. I lost my mind. I thought it was really cool.”

I ask about how he manages to keep his head when has such a busy touring schedule. Initially, for his NZ tour, Grunwald had three gigs planned in a two day space. Now he has tacked a Raglan show onto the following day.

“Is playing Raglan a surf-motivated decision? Well, it doesn’t not factor in. I’m looking forward for going for a wave there, that’s for sure. The gig last time in Raglan was sick anyway so it’s motivation to go back.

“I like being busy. I really have burnt the candle at both ends this year. Part of me wants to slow down, but what opportunity do you decide to miss? That’s a tough one. But you’re not here for a long time, so it may as well be a good time and fit in as much as you can.”

And that’s Ash Grunwald, looking back into the past for inspiration, and then combining that inspiration with creativity to forge a new and original path ahead of him. Whether it’s working with different artists, trying odd instruments or playing in new places, Ash Grunwald is working hard to keep the blues genre fresh and inventive.

 

Joseph James


 

ASH GRUNWALD NEW ZEALAND GIGS:

Friday 27 November
BackBeat – Auckland
www.facebook.com/backbeatnz
1/100 Karangahape Road, Auckland
Tickets $20+ bf:
http://www.undertheradar.co.nz/tour/4966/Ash-Grunwald.utr
Doors open 8pm

Saturday 28 November
Blenheim Brews, Blues and BBQ (afternoon) with Salmonella Dub Sound System, the Nudge plus many more
For info & ticketing info go to http://www.bluesbrewsbbqs.co.nz

Saturday 28 November
Meow
– Wellington (evening)
www.welovemeow.co.nz
9 Edward St, Te Aro, Wellington
Tickets $20 + bf:
http://www.undertheradar.co.nz/tour/4966/Ash-Grunwald.utr
Doors open 8pm

Sunday 29 November       
Yot Club  – Raglan
9 Bow St, Raglan
Tickets $10 from http://www.undertheradar.co.nz/ticket/4994/Ash-Grunwald.utr
Doors open 8pm

ASH GRUNWALD LINKS:
www.ashgrunwald.com
www.facebook.com/AshGrunwald
twitter.com/AshGrunwald
www.youtube.com/ashgrunwald
ashgrunwald.bandcamp.com

Album Review: Gary Clark Jr – The Story of Sonny Boy Slim

Gary Clark Jr The Story of Sonny Boy Slim cover art
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I’ve seen Clark play on both his visits to NZ. The first time he opened for the Red Hot Chili Peppers at Vector Arena in 2013. It was only a four-song set, but it was enough to blow me away. When he came back to our shores earlier this year he proved once again that he is a musical force to be reckoned with.

There was never a question of whether The Story of Sonny Boy Slim was going to be good. Gary Clark Jr has the midas touch of the guitaring world. The question was whether he would be able to capture his sensational live energy on his sophomore studio full-length.

The problem was that his Black and Blu album wasn’t comparable to his stage sound. The dirty rawness got lost in the production. The songs were good, but didn’t allow the true brilliance to shine through.

Before I discuss the music, I must note that this album is visually stunning. I bought the 2LP gatefold vinyl and the art is great, with a contrasting colour scheme of red, yellow and black. The best aspect is side D, which features the scene from inside the gatefold laser-etched onto the disc.

Side D, with laser etchings of the picture from inside the gatefold

Side D, with laser etchings of the picture from inside the gatefold

Clark has taken more control over this second album. No co-writers are credited this time round. He also dominates with the instrumentation, playing bass, keyboards and drums as well as the expected vocals and guitar. This would suggest that the record could sound more clinical, having been recorded in so many separate takes. But it doesn’t. And kudos to Clark for having the ability to pull off the work that usually requires a full band. He roped in some mates to help out at times, including saxophone, horns, organ, piano, and flute to flesh out the sound.

The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is also a bit of a family affair. Clark’s fiance Nicole Trunfio and son Zion feature in the intro of ‘Hold On’, and his sisters Shawn and Savannah provide backing vocals on a three tracks.

Speaking of intros, the start of first track ‘The Healing’ has an odd little pre-amble that sounds like something Son House would sing. It’s not a strong introduction to the album, but it does foreshadow that this album is more of a nod to older styled blues.

‘Grinder’ is the designated crowd pleaser – the rock number with the obligatory guitar solos the whole way through. But The Story of Sonny Boy Slim is not an rock record (surprising, considering that the release date coincides with the commencement of a tour supporting rock titans Foo Fighters). Instead most of the songs sit back in the groove. This is the album that requires being in the moment. There’s no hurry. There doesn’t need to be.

Take, for example, ‘Star’. It has skanking guitar and falsetto singing riding upon a delicious bassline. It stays strong and steady the whole way through.

Some of the stand out tracks include ‘Hold On’ – a more ballsy song that features a horn mantra and squealing guitars; ‘Wings’ -which showcases Tameca Jones as the amazing guest vocalist who sings above the infectious syncopated snare patterns; and ‘Can’t Sleep’ – with more squealing guitars and a bouncing beat.

We hear nod’s to the inspirations from the past in the Motown-sounding ‘BYOB’, and the ho-down that is ‘Shake’ goes full-vintage with prominent slide guitar. Harmonica and organs and brass instruments all feature heavily throughout the album, too, giving a New Orleans flavour.

Final track ‘Down to Ride’ is like ‘You Saved Me’ version 2: the longer hazy extended jam. It takes me back to when I saw Clark play last, drinking in the soulful tunes in a hazy, dimly lit venue.

Clark is no longer the promising young guitarist from Austin who needs to impress and make a name for himself. He has proven himself already, so now he can sit back and play music for his own satisfaction. And taking a more personal approach may have reduced the sell-ability of the album, but it also lifted the overall quality and cohesiveness. He doesn’t need the co-writers, the producers or show-off songs. His songwriting is strong enough that he can let the music sell itself. This is an album designed as a whole, rather than a collection of singles.

Listen to ‘Church’ (featured above), a track that Clark previewed at his Wellington show earlier in the year. It’s nothing flashy. Hell, it’s straight up basic. But there’s something that I can’t quite pick that makes it utterly electrifying.

If you’re after the next Hendrix, then this album will disappoint. But if you are happy to settle for some stunning blues, saturated in a relaxed vibe and some thrilling instrumentation, then this will suffice. And of course the guitar playing is still brilliant.

Clark is Sonny Boy Slim. This is his autobiography. And it’s well worth a listen.

Joseph James