To The RiverIt might be blues but it’s happy music. Sometimes my wife’s initial reactions to an album are perfectly insightful and To The River, the latest waxing by John Cee Stannard & Blues Horizon, certainly has more in common with the string bands of the 1930s than the urban howl of Chicago. The first of the two covers, Jelly Roll Morton’s ‘Winin’ Boy Blues’, is a perfect example. With John Cee are his regular sidesmen, guitarist Mike Baker and Howard Birchmore on harmonica with Julian Bown on drums and Andy Crowdy on bass and among the guests he has one of our local community choirs adding sweetness to the quasi-gospel title track.

John Cee wrote most of the songs and he really understands the music he’s working with. Occasionally he drops in one of those floating lines that turn up all the time but that just adds to the authenticity of some really original lyrics. The first song that grabbed me was ‘Separation-2’ which takes a series of women’s names and almost-rhymes for the verses. It’s very simple but clever in way the old blues singers were. ‘The Good Lord Didn’t Tell Me’ is another gospel style song with slide guitar and the choir and Julia Titus on backing vocals.

The second non-original is ‘House Of The Rising Sun’, a title that can really turn into a dirge and usually sends a shudder down my spine when I see it in a track-list. Although John Cee starts at a funereal pace he quickly picks up speed and with the harmonica snarling alongside him the song really rocks. ‘The Wretch’ is more guitar driven and ‘Let The Train Whistle Blow’ is – well, you know don’t you? – an old-fashioned train blues with Julia Titus sharing lead vocals and Simon Mayor’s fiddle adding a new texture to the mix.

Finally we have an exposition of the philosophy that “if you don’t ask, you don’t get” in the up-tempo ‘Nothin’ Is What You Get’ with fiddle, harmonica and piano driving the song along and more clever word-play from John Cee. To The River is a fun album but it also has depth and character and that will take it a long way.

Dai Jeffries

‘Nothin’ Is What You Get’ – live:

SINGLES BAR 15 – Merry Christmas Everybody

A round-up of festive EPs and singles

Singles Bar 15It’s been a busy few months for THE CHANGING ROOM, aka Cornish duo Sam Kelly and Tanya Brittain. Having released both their Names On A Wall EP for Armistice Day and the Picking Up The Pieces album, featuring mandolin and accordion, they now return for Christmas special, The Magic Of Christmas. Two of the three tracks are sung in Cornish by Kelly, opening with a lovely snowflake waltzing version of The Pretenders’ 1994 festive hit, ‘2000 Miles’ and closing with a chiming frosty air arrangement of the traditional carol ‘Silent Night’. There’s also a snatch of its melody on ‘There’s Magic In Christmas Eve’, which, sandwiched in-between, is penned by Brittain, who, singing in English, accompanies herself on piano as the song swells midway on drums and strings before a gentle fade.

its-christmas-timeIf you’re more a “Bah Humbug” sort of person JOHN CEE STANNARD’s EP, It’s Christmas Time, should be just up your street. Of course, Christmas can be a sad and lonely time for a lot of people and we shouldn’t take that lightly but the blues does seem to lend itself to the season. Black Ace’s ‘Beggin’ Santa Claus’, first recorded in 1937, is the perfect example of how low things can get while Shifty Henry’s ‘Let Me Go Home – It’s Christmas’ is a plea to whiskey to allow a barfly to get home while he still can. The other three songs are by Stannard and, starting with the title track, they get progressively happier and the closing ‘Winter Love’ is almost soppy. We reckon John’s an old softie really.

god-rest‘God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen’ is a more traditional Christmas single from JOSHUA BURNELL. That said, we’re told that it’s a 15th century protest song – the protest being against the Latin dirges of the church. Joshua gives it an appropriate folk-rock vibe – he usually performs in a trio or a seven-piece band in which Hammond organ features heavily. The second track is ‘The Official Brawle’, a 16th century French dance tune taken at a tasty lick. The tune was, as you all know, co-opted by the church as ‘Ding-Dong Merrily On High’ but Joshua returns it to its original form. Good stuff.

marys-boy-child‘Mary’s Boy Child’ was originally written as a calypso so ANDREW JOHN & LISSA decided to record the backing tracks in Trinidad, adding the vocals back home in Denmark while Jime Hoke recorded his flute part in Nashville. It’s very pretty but I can’t help but I do think that an opportunity to do something really original has been missed. Turn up the steel drums and add a Caribbean choir and think on what it could be.

the-starEMILY MAE WINTERS’ single ‘The Star’ was inspired by lines from John Keats and having a star named after her as a birthday present. It doesn’t actually mention Christmas but it has a nicely seasonal feel. It’s a big, piano-driven song awash with strings. It is available only as a digital download at the moment but it will appear on Emily Mae’s debut album next spring.

John Cee Stannard releases Christmas EP

john cee stannard

This EP started life in the run up to Christmas 2014 when John Cee Stannard wrote the song ‘Christmas On My Own’, for a gig he and Blues Horizon were doing at the time. Then in the run up to Christmas 2015, he wrote ‘Winter Love’, which may not be strictly Christmas, but it’s the right time of year. This made him think it would be a great idea to put together a Christmas EP, simply a five track EP celebrating Christmas. John wanted part of the EP to include an old time, almost jamming feel, and was thrilled that he achieved that with the first two tracks. The first track is ‘It’s Christmas Time’ written specifically for this EP. The track features the great sound of guest vocalist Julia Titus and the wonderful guitar playing of Jason Manners, as well as John’s Blues Horizon buddy Howard Birchmore on harmonica. The second track is entitled ‘Beggin’ Santa Clause’ and was written by BK Turner and first recorded in February 1937, the track originally titled ‘Christmas Time Blues (Beggin’ Santa Claus)’. Jason Manners guests again on this track and the interplay between his guitar and John’s other Blues Horizon buddy Mike Baker is exactly the feel he was trying to create. Track three came about when John found a Snooks Englin track called ‘Let Me Go Home Whisky’ which he thought would fit the EP perfectly. With a degree in music, and an accomplished multi-instrumentalist Shifty Henry wrote this in the early 1950’s. John then re-wrote it with the Christmas slant and is pleased with the way it worked out, again recorded with the additional voice of Julia Titus. Julia also joins John on the afore mentioned track Christmas On My Own, a little more upbeat, and fun. Final track is Winter Love, more of an old crooner song than blues, but works well as a closing track. This features guest musician Simon Mayor adding a great violin part. All the tracks include bass and drums by Andy Crowdy and Julian Bown.

Artist’s website:

JOHN CEE STANNARD & BLUE HORIZON – Bus Depot Blues (Cast Iron CIRCD 024)

Bus Depot BluesFrom the Thames delta area of Reading comes the debut album by John Cee Stannard & Blue Horizon; a set of original blues songs with one standard – Arthur Crudup’s ‘That’s Alright’. Alongside John in the band are guitarist Mike Baker and Howard Birchmore on harmonica and they are joined on the album by a group of sidespersons including drummer Julian Bown who is a major part of their sound.

John Cee is a fifty year veteran and readers with long memories may remember him as a founder member of folk band Tudor Lodge back in 1968. He’s done a lot since then, finally arriving at this particularly English take on the blues. This isn’t straight 12-bar, in fact there is as much skiffle underlying the songs – I swear there’s a washboard in there – and most of the songs are taken at a cracking pace. The themes are traditional enough and expressed in titles like ‘Solitary Vacation With The Blues’ and ‘Bad Luck Rain’, but often with a twist: ‘Hard Times – 83’ is clearly rooted in modern financial fraud and heartless bureaucracy. ‘Flood Water’ immediately contradicts everything I’ve said by being a heavy, grungy 12-bar in the classic style.

That aside, this is the happiest blues record I’ve heard in a long time. ‘I’ll Take Care Of Mine’ is a defiant message to the world to back off and leave the man be, a new take on ‘Nobody’s Business But My Own’ and ‘When You Need Them Most’ is almost comical in its portrayal of misery. The playing has a fluidity that comes with experience and the band conjures plenty of variety from a few simple ingredients – and sometimes simple is best.

Dai Jeffries

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Artist’s website:

‘Not Until It’s Gone’ – the final track from Bus Depot Blues: