Martin Harley’s Roll With The Punches plays a good game of Chess, the Chicago blues record label that is, not the game with pawns, kings, and queens. And this is a slide guitar lover’s paradise recorded in “a remote chapel deep in the wilds of Pembrokeshire”.
Yeah, this is British roots rock blues that spins in the footsteps of Peter Green, Kim Simmons, Alvin Lee, John Mayall, and (the truly great) Tony T.S. McPhee.
But just so you know (to bring it back home), Mississippi Fred McDowell – no slouch on the slide himself – said, in “his rich country dialect” (as stated in the original Capitol liner notes), “I do not play no rock ‘n’ roll”, and “I just play straight ‘a’ natchel blue”, and he played with a “ground down beef bone”.
Now, that may be true – you know, about “no rock ‘n’ roll”, but Mississippi Fred is always “Shake ‘em down”, telling us all that he’s “been drinking muddy water, sleep’n a hollow log”, and of course, begging “baby please don’t go”. And, in his own way, Martin Harley pretty much does the very same thing—but, sure, he does fire up a full band rock ‘n’ roll vibe to amp up those “ground down beef bone” blues.
That said, ‘Roll With The Punches’ is a template tune. Martin’s vocals swagger amidst a tough guitar, bass, drums, and backing vocals that raise the dead with near gospel rapture. A smoky organ recalls the Paul Raymond’s sound of Savoy Brown, circa Street Corner Talking.
‘Marguerite’ gets on a more “mainline” (with or without Jesus!) and evokes the absolute funky roots rock memory of The Band’s ‘Ophelia’ while playing a magic carpet ride of that slide guitar. By the way, as (the great) Levon Helm asked, “Why do the best things always disappear?”
Good question. So, this music, thankfully, resurrects that deep tradition, a deep tradition with a few antique answers. ‘Hotel Lonely’ rocks with hot summer train track electric guitar vibrations. This is more “ground beef bone” blues that’s radio-friendly for hip air waves. ‘Brother’ slows the rotation of our gospel globe and wades in the musical warm waters of the River Jordan. And Martin’s slide guitar continues to sing with the fervor or any religion’s prayer service.
‘If Tears Were Plenty’ bubbles for a bit like simmering lava, and then it absolutely explodes into galvanic Stray Cats time capsule forever young joyous frenzy. And there’s a wonderous pause that only heightens the incendiary chorus. This tune conjures Chicago’s best Chess label “ground down beef bone” ribs ‘n’ roll. And, to quote yet another Mississippi Fred tune, ‘Glory Hallelujah’.
‘I’d Rather Be Lucky Than Rich’ sounds like a lost Rick Danko song. That’s a big complement. And, perhaps, it has the melodic quality of a Revival period John Fogerty song. That is, by the way, another big compliment.
Fans of Ry Cooder, Colin Linden, and James Hunter will find lots to love here.
‘Putting Down Roots’ has an acoustic percussive John Martyn pulse with the slaked taste of a favorite local brew. And, yes indeed, “May you never lose your temper if you get in a bar room fight” and “May you never lose your woman overnight”.
Odd: ‘Clarbeston Resonation’ is the brief slide guitar interlude, with a slight Eastern vibe. It slowly stretches the sunset. Odd (again!): The sound conjures the lonely erhu lullaby of a street musician I once heard in the dusky streets of Copenhagen. And (to quote Longfellow) “Listen my children and you shall hear” faint bird calls in the recording. Now, it’ s not quite the sax man Paul Winter purity who, when duetting with a whale, gives said whale lead vocal credit and songwriting royalties, but it’s still pretty cool.
And then the catchy stuff spins vinyl grooves once again. ‘Shanghai’ has a riverboat really decent piano-graced gambler’s flushed hand certainty. Martin’s slide plays a funhouse mirror melody. Again, The Band comes to mind. ‘The Time Is Now’ prays with revival rock ‘n’ roll tent salvation and really does dance with the power of forgiveness, another hallelujah here and there, a celestial organ, sublime pin-wheeled guitar work, hand claps, and adroit wisdom that will always admit the obvious: “You’ll never get to heaven on my advice”.
Let’s just leave it at that, and say this is a very (and wonderfully so ) human record, that may or may not be rock ‘n’ roll; but, to speak in that “rich country dialect”, it does, indeed, play songs that are “straight ‘a’ natchel blue”. And that’s a really (and always) nice thing to do.
Artist’s website: www.martinharley.com
‘Roll With The Punches’ – live: