The Ones To Watch In 2016

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The Blues profiles the six new bands you’re going to be hearing a lot more of in 2016…

SIMO

Bonamassa-endorsed Chicago prodigy who spent his formative years on the road

JD Simo relives his musical lightbulb moment: “I was three years old,” he tells The Blues. “I saw The Blues Brothers and Elvis ’68 Comeback Special and man, they blew me away. The Blues Brothers is such an amazing movie: you’ve got John Lee Hooker, Aretha Franklin, Ray Charles, James Brown, they’re all in their prime. And then with the Elvis special, he’s in his black leather suit singing his ass off. It was like he was from another planet. He totally mesmerised me and from that point on, I knew what I was going to do.”

Two years later, he was playing guitar.

“I remember learning how to play [Elvis’] Heartbreak Hotel, and the solo in particular, which most people get wrong, where with the last note Scotty Moore bends a semitone from E flat to E. It’s just so nasty.”

Aged 10, with the support of his parents, Simo was performing underage in bars in his native Chicago, and at 15 he was on the road, helming his own band and living out of the back of a van. “I just wanted to get out there and play,” he says, “but you can’t help but grow up quick when you’re thrust into the adult world so young.”

Then in 2010, aged 25 and based in Nashville, he formed Simo with bassist Frank Swart and drummer Adam Abrashoff. Their self-released, self-titled debut arrived in 2012 and by meshing influences spanning R&B, soul, psych and blues rock, it marked them out as musical freethinkers. Shortly after, Swart left the band to be replaced by Elad Shapiro. “Luckily though, the three of us clicked immediately,” Simo says.

The proof is in Let Love Show The Way, the group’s ace second album which, situated at the crossroads of 60s Brit Invasion blues and 70s southern rock, captures the group in thrall to rock’n’roll over 10 originals and two covers.

Issued on Provogue/Mascot Label Group, thanks to the endorsement of Joe Bonamassa – who described Simo as “one of the best out there right now” – it’s the first album to be recorded at Macon, Georgia’s Big House, the communal home of The Allman Brothers Band in the late 60s and early 70s.

“We’d completed a whole record, mixed and mastered it, and were in the process of setting up the release, then the label asked us to record a few bonus tracks. Long story short, we went to Macon to record the bonus tracks at the Big House for two days and ended up recording an entirely new record,” says Simo.

I’m proud to say the new album is how we sounded in the room that day – we live and die by the take

The three set up their gear in the entryway of the house. Drums were placed at the bottom of the stairs, with guitars in one side living room and bass in the other. The old kitchen was turned into the control room and the old music room into an echo chamber. Then, huddled in the stairwell, the three set the tapes rolling and recorded everything live.

“We cut three songs within the first hour, which left us a ton of time to run some new material, plus some stuff we hadn’t worked up,” says Simo.”

Two Timing Woman, which frames Simo’s raw holler in a frenetic blues, was put down in 15 minutes flat; Ain’t Doin’ Nothin’, a 14-minute improv, was the result of a jam. “It was the start of the second day of recording there and Adam and Elad started playing that groove. I walked in the room and picked up Duane Allman’s old Goldtop, and what you hear is what happened.”

Allman had used that 1957 Les Paul on the first two Allman Brothers’ albums and he also played the riff on Derek & The Dominoes’ Layla on it. “Man, playing that guitar was a dream come true, an honour,” Simo says. “Duane’s a big hero, and to play it in his old house was very special.”

Simo pays homage to another hero with the group’s cover of Elmore James’ Stranger Blues. “I liked opening the record with something that isn’t so brash. A lot of records open like that and I liked it creeping in and building dynamically, rather than bashing the listener right from the get-go. That was a song we’d never played and we just did when we had more time to record at the Big House. I love Elmore James and this is a tune I’ve dug for years. It just felt right and we got a good performance of it.”

There’s also reference made to beat poet Allen Ginsberg in the heavy rockin’ I Lied.

“Glad you caught it!” he laughs. “I spliced some of his letter, Why Is God Love, Jack? in that song. There are certain phrases I love from that letter that fit the subject of the song – ‘Because I get scared’ being the most stark – with I Lied being about my inability to be truthful when I should be about my inner being or wellbeing to others who inquire. Ginsberg, like Kerouac, Tom Robbins, Timothy Leary and Ken Kesey, are all big influences on me. I’m a fan of the beat poet-inspired surrealism and writings of the 50s and 60s. The writings are sublime. I love Ginsberg’s stark style. He’s extremely direct, bordering on making his reader uncomfortable with how direct he’s being. That’s real, man.”

As is Simo’s approach to music-making: “There are a million ways to cheat these days,” he says. “And I don’t want to cheat, whether myself or the audience. I’m proud to say this album is how we sounded in the room that day. We live and die by the take. For me, the music that always resonates most is when a performance is captured. That’s what I love, and that’s what we go for.”

Let Love Show The Way is out on January 29 via Mascot/Provogue. See simo.fm for more details

EDDY SMITH AND THE 507

Oi, Cowell, leave our blues heroes alone!

“I’ve been approached a couple of times by The X Factor to audition and both times I’ve politely turned them down,” Eddy Smith, leader of Eddy Smith And The 507, tells The Blues.

This news comes as no surprise, as songs such as Easy Times and The Joke’s On Me would sit nicely played in front of a packed arena, a panel of gurning judges and several million TV viewers.

But that’s just one side to Smith. With the 507 – completed by Will Franden (bass), Josh Davies (drums) and Tom Flint, Ashley Webb and Ricky O’Donnell (all on guitar) – Eddy has matured into a well-rounded songwriter with tunes that would be every bit as at home in a smokey jazz or blues bar as they would an enormodome. One such track is Strangers (Since I’ve Been Loving You), which is on this month’s Blues cover disc. The song was a typically free-flowing songwriting effort from Eddy and co.

“I just sat at my piano and the band was having a beer break. I started playing those first notes and the band said, ‘What’s that? Keep playing!’ They put the beers down and all of a sudden it came together. It wrote itself. We started playing it at gigs and of every song, it always goes down the best. We went into the studio and recorded it exactly how we play it live.”

The track was recorded at Eddy’s home studio, a facility he has been putting together piece by piece ever since he was old enough to earn his own cash. It’s a fitting choice for a band that met while studying the ins and outs of music at university.

“We’ve all studied music production so we’ve got the knowledge to produce a half-decent demo. We’d love to go into a real up-class studio at some point, but at the minute we’re happy in our own space. It sounds more authentic and raw this way.”

That DIY approach brings us just about as far away from Smith’s brush with The X Factor as you can possibly get. He’s chipping away bit by bit on his own terms, and he’s more than happy to do so.

“It’s so much more rewarding doing it that way. I think people will respond to you better if you’re DIY compared to if you go the X Factor route. You get some phenomenal singers on The X Factor but I don’t think it resonates too well with an audience if you come from a TV show. If you come from a background where you have to work for it, that will resonate better with a crowd, no matter what genre you’re in.”

The band go into 2016 in triumphant mood thanks to recently picking up the Critics’ Choice honour at the Unsigned Music Awards, and they’re champing at the bit to stock their arsenal with A-grade, knockout tunes.

“We’re going to just keep on writing so if a big opportunity that isn’t The X Factor does come up, we’ll have the material ready. There’d be nothing worse than someone asking us to send them 10 of our best songs when we’ve only got five, so we’re going to take some time to write some really good stuff.”

See www.eddysmithmusic.com for more information

SUPERSONIC BLUES MACHINE

Powered by stardust from Billy Gibbons, Walter Trout, Warren Haynes and more, the LA supergroup starts its engine in February…

Holy shit, Fabrizio Grossi can talk. Ask anyone in rock‘n’roll and they’ll tell you, with great affection, that the Italian-born producer/bassist is effusive at the best of times. When it comes to the subject of Supersonic Blues Machine, donkeys may fear for their hind legs. “We’ve waited all our lives,” Grossi tells us, “to get here and make this record. It’s a whole different thing.”

It takes a man with Grossi’s megawatt energy to pull off a project as ambitious as Supersonic Blues Machine. The seeds were planted five years ago, when the acclaimed producer formed a jazz-fusion rainy day band with session drummer Kenny Aronoff. Next, in 2012, Grossi was struck by how easily he wrote three songs with Texan troubadour Lance Lopez. “So we’re the rhythm machine,” he says of that core line-up. “Kenny, Lance and I.”

That was just the start. “We wanted to keep it fresh,” explains Grossi. “And every night, you’re gonna have a bunch of different buddies. With the collection of friends we’ve made throughout the years, we were able to just place a few calls. And everyone was like, ‘Hell yeah!’”

The credits for the band’s debut album West Of Flushing, South Of Frisco read like the rock’n’roll equivalent of Sylvester Stallone’s beefcake-stuffed Expendables series of films. Here’s Billy Gibbons on Running Whiskey (“Billy’s a friend,” grins Grossi. “I pull his beard when he says shit”). There’s Warren Haynes on Remedy. Robben Ford and Eric Gales drop in for Let’s Call It A Day and Nightmares And Dreams respectively.

Perhaps the standout cameo, though, comes from Walter Trout on Can’t Take It No More. “In this town, tales of Walter’s escapades are something else,” laughs Grossi. “He was getting back in shape after his problems and I thought, ‘I’ll ask him.’ His wife answered and I said, ‘Marie, I don’t want to bug Walter…’ Five minutes later, I get a call from Walter: ‘Are you fucking shitting me? Next time, call me, you motherfucker!’

“He showed up, we had an incredible day at the studio. That song is almost like an Allman Brothers jam from the 70s, and of course, Walter’s vocals are so heartfelt. Somebody said that we all danced with our demons on this record, that it’s a redemption record. And it’s actually true.”

The album’s lyrics, meanwhile, tend towards the hug-thy-neighbour sentiments of the late 60s. “It’s about forgiveness,” says Grossi. “It’s about universal love. We live in hard times. In Paris, 130 people get killed. In the States, a teenager gets shot by the police. What the fuck is wrong with people? If you listen to someone before you start yelling at them, maybe you’ll find a couple of points of understanding. It’s about finding common ground.”

The best place to do that is the stage. Will Supersonic Blues Machine be touring in 2016?

“Pardon my English,” says Grossi, “but abso-fucking-lutely. We’re hoping to hit Europe in the spring. We’re keeping our eyes open for summer festivals, and the North American tour is going to happen in the fall. Having these guys on board, it’s a bit of a schedule hell. We can’t guarantee who will be in the line-up, but that’s the spirit. We want to do it like those bands in the late 60s and early 70s. They’d go out, bring a bunch of good friends, just see what happens…”

West Of Flushing, South Of Frisco is out on February 26 via Mascot/Provogue. See supersonicblues.com

DIRTY THRILLS

Thrills and spills from a band with a great pedigree and a bright future

You know your band’s got something special to offer when a rock legend with 100 million album sales under his belt gives you the thumbs-up – and this is exactly what happened to London blues-rockers Dirty Thrills.

“We played alongside Status Quo earlier this year,” recalls Thrills singer Louis James, “and Rick Parfitt told us afterwards, ‘You’re a fucking good band, lads!’ Then Joey Tempest of Europe saw one of our songs on YouTube, liked it and personally invited us on tour. You couldn’t make it up, I swear…”

These are just the latest plaudits laid at Dirty Thrills’ door. It’s been a frankly insane three years for James and his band, who only formed in late 2012 and whose career has ascended fast. “We’re playing Planet Rockstock [festival in Wales] soon alongside FM, Rival Sons and The Darkness, which is going to be exciting,” says James with admirable restraint. “It’s funny – when we started out, we jammed a few ideas just for fun, nothing too serious. It took a while before we realised we really had something cooking!”

Dirty Thrills – whose line-up is James plus guitarist Jack Fawdry, bassist Aaron Plows and drummer Steve Corrigan – are already an album and two EPs into a career that’s set to accelerate even more in 2016. After the Growing Young EP in 2013, a self-titled debut album a year later and the Sweetheart Of The Slums EP earlier this year, James reckons his band have finally hit their groove.

“We’re still in the early stages,” he points out. “We’re still a young band, but we’re progressing at a steady pace – and we’re happy with that. We had a fair few decent blues and rock tracks on our debut album, but it wasn’t until we sat down and discussed our songwriting for the new EP that we really hit our direction. Writing choruses is key, because the choruses are the memorable part. Once you get that chorus – like on our song Feelin’, which has an almost football chant element to it at the end – people love it.”

Joey Tempest of Europe saw us on YouTube and invited us on tour. You couldn’t make it up, I swear

So why are we recommending this band when there are so many around to choose from? Go and see Dirty Thrills live and you’ll get it. “It’s all about crowd interaction for us, as you’ll see when you watch us live,” says James. “It’s all about the shows, which are pretty energetic and in-your-face. We get the crowd singing the lines back to us – they love it!”

Not only that, but the range of influences that goes into the Thrills’ creative engine room is wider than most. Their sound, a killer amalgam of blues and heavy rock, comes from a combination of classic sources, says the singer. “I’ve been a musician all my life: I started playing the drums when I was nine. After that I progressed onto guitar, and then I started singing when I was 18 or 19. I had a very musical background: my dad, Nicky James, was the original singer of the Moody Blues.”

That’s serious heritage. “It really is,” he says, “but we all have different influences. Our guitarist, Jack, comes from a metal background, and he’s really worked on his slide guitar blues. We have a song called Sigh which has a lot of his slide playing on. We’re all into classic rock, though, and we’re obviously trying to mix in a contemporary style because we want to appeal to a wide range of people and age groups. We want younger people to appreciate the blues: that’s the key for us.”

Classic influences or not, Dirty Thrills are all about writing music with unusual range and depth, covering subjects that other blues bands rarely do. “Our lyrics range from love songs, to songs about going out and having a laugh, to break-up songs,” explains James. “On top of that, we also write about subjects like mental health and politics. We like to use a lot of double meanings too, so people can relate to the songs in their own personal way. Some of it comes from the bad times we’ve been through as well: when my dad passed away in 2007, that was pretty heavy, and a lot of the way I dealt with that was through songwriting.”

Audiences have flocked to see Dirty Thrills deliver their message, and that’s set to increase next year thanks to a 30-date European tour which has just been booked and for which dates will be announced shortly. Three years of hard work is paying off, says James.

“A lot of good bands don’t succeed,” he ponders. “I think perseverance is a huge factor. People will say, ‘Why are you doing this? It’s really hard.’ But you have to persevere. Patience is hugely important too, when you’re trying to succeed in the music business, although for us everything has progressed pretty quickly. I’m really grateful to you guys and Classic Rock – you’ve really helped us out!”

Oh, and did we mention that a new Dirty Thrills album is on the way in 2016? There’s no title yet, and the band are still deciding which record company is going to release it. “It’s still in talks,” says James. “We have the luxury of being able to pick and choose record companies. Whoever takes me out for three lobster dinners rather than only two, they’ve got us! As long as the booze is flowing as well…”

A&R executives, you’d be well advised to book Dirty Thrills at a posh restaurant now, before it’s too late. This band is going places, fast.

The Sweetheart Of The Slums EP is out now (self-released). See www.dirty-thrills.com for more information

THE FREDDY JAMES BAND

A British star in the making, who was called to the blues aged five…

I’ve dedicated my whole life to music,” says Freddy James, the 37-year-old singer and guitarist from Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. And he really has. Surrounded by his parents’ record collections – “My dad was really into Duane Eddy, rock’n’roll; my mum was more into The Rolling Stones, Jimi Hendrix, Cream” – he ventured into the back garden aged just five and, building a makeshift stage out of some abandoned boards, started playing imaginary guitar. “I don’t remember who I was trying to be,” he says, “but I just always wanted to be a musician.”

Three years later his parents bought him a guitar and over the ensuing decades he’s survived, for the most part, as a jobbing musician, laying down signature guitar licks to everything from out-and- out blues rockers to drum’n’bass and hip-hop. The experience, while not always as satisfying as fronting his own band, has expanded his mind.

“It’s not enough for me just to play a blues scale,” he says. “I want to make it more interesting, mess it up a bit, really put my own mark on it.”

James is a proud student of the blues, discovering the music partly by tracing the lineage back from his parents’ records, but also through the help of a neighbour. “He was a roadie in the 60s. He had everything on vinyl and he let me borrow anything I liked. I’d take it home and really get to know it, know its importance and relevance. These days it’s all too easy – musicians are spoiled for choice with YouTube. They can find a song and learn it and play it 100 times, but they’re like robots – it’s just learning through repetition. There’s no real understanding of the song, or real feeling or context.”

Then, in 2013, James started writing his own songs. She Don’t Like Rock’n’Roll, his band’s debut single (on this issue’s cover CD) was among the first batch of tracks. “With She Don’t Like Rock’n’Roll I wanted to create a classic blues rock song,” says James. “You know, guitar riff, verse, guitar riff, verse, guitar riff – very straightforward but powerful stuff.”

Backed by drummer Neil Cox, with James also taking on bass duties, it’s immediate, thrilling and raw. “The rawness is the thing,” he affirms. “I really wanted to capture that feel in the studio and thanks to producer Alan Bleay, we managed to do that.”

Live, James and Cox are joined by bassist Jim Harrison, although James operates an open-door policy in the studio. “Everyone is welcome, and it’s all about whoever and whatever is right for that particular party,” he says. “If a person or an idea works on a song, we go with it – it’s all about surrounding yourself with really good musicians.”

Gig offers were bountiful from the off, with a support slot with Ocean Colour Scene guitarist Steve Cradock providing “a particularly special and memorable night”.

As for the future, James says: “It’s all about getting out there and getting heard for us in 2016, because it really doesn’t matter how good you are at writing songs and singing songs, or how good you are on your instrument – if people don’t get to hear your music, they don’t know you’re there, so they can’t fall in love with you.”

See www.facebook.com/freddyjamesband for more details

PAVES

Channelling the Stones and calling for revolution, these London rockers will leave you “physically and emotionally exhausted”…

You know you’re becoming a bona fide rock star when you find yourself drunk on the set of your first music video. “We turned up at this beautiful country house at 10 in the morning,” recalls Luke Shield of the shoot for debut single Dancing ’Til The End Of Time. “The first thing they shot was us all sat at this dining table. The others were driving, so they kept asking me to drink this wine, and as soon as the glass went down, they’d fill it back up. After about four, I was saying to Mike [Whitaker, guitar], ‘You’ve got to help me, man.’ We went to the pub afterwards anyway…”

As recent undergraduates, you’d expect Paves to have better alcohol tolerance. “We met at Queen Mary University in East London,” says Shield, who was studying English literature. “I’ve played in bands before, but there’s never been the same level of energy. When we all played together, it was just something else. I don’t think that will ever go away.”

The four-piece line-up of Shield, Whitaker, Tom Triggs (drums) and Perry Read (bass) also have a good line in blues-tinged retro songwriting, pulling together strands of 60s culture and politics. “I’m a massive Stones fan,” says Shield. “I’m really into the Small Faces, The Kinks, all the beat generation stuff…”

Whitaker: “A lot of riff-based stuff, like Jimi Hendrix and Cream.”

Shield: “… and our name comes from the May ’68 riots in Paris. Street Fighting Man was written about that too. There were all these strikes by the students in Paris. They’d rip the pavements up and throw them at the police. The idea was that they were ripping up the foundation of society. We liked the idea of that.”

Only a year ago, Paves were playing to indifferent barflies in the capital’s various shitholes. “We had a pub gig once where there was a fire alarm going off through our whole set,” laughs Whitaker.

“London is a good place to be, but some places take the piss,” picks up Shield. “They’ll charge seven quid on the door and then it’s £4.50 for a pint – and the bands don’t get paid anything.”

Now Paves are building anticipation with early tracks like Marianne, making plans for a debut EP and playing hectic live gigs. “How do I want the audience to feel by the time we’re finished?” considers Shield. “Exhausted. Physically and emotionally. I think that’s the best thing, when they feel like they’ve been part of something and they’ve not just been a spectator.”

Though they remain unsigned, Paves insist there’s no turning back. “I’d be scared to lose that energy,” says Shield. “But I don’t think it’ll happen, because it’s something that just occurs when the four of us get into the rehearsal space. I just want to do something I enjoy. I don’t want to get caught up in the process people go through where you have to get a job and you have to please people and everything. At the end of the day, you’re dead much longer than you’re alive. So live while you’re alive.”

See www.facebook.com/PavesBand for more information