Thursday, 16 January 2014

5 Live Albums you should own....

Since we're busy working on a live record to put out, we've had them on the brain of late. Here's the official .44 pistol list of 5 live records you really should own...

5. Grateful Dead - History of the Grateful Dead, Vol 1 (Bear's Choice)

Live Dead may be more typical of the group, but this is, in my opinion the better record.  Pleasant acoustic versions of Lightnin Hopkin's Katie-Mae and The Everly Brother's Wake Up Little Susie intersperse their more usual material in first part of the record, before it really kicks up a notch with a version of Smokestack Lightnin thats drags the elegant one-chord-bash into 17 minutes and 59 seconds of psychedelic improvisation and closes with a surprisingly gentle version of Otis Reddings Hard to Handle.

4. The Rolling Stones - Get Yer Ya-Yas Out.

Kicking off with tour manager Sam Cutler's immortal line "Ladies and Gentlemen the greatest rock and roll band in the world, the Rolling Stones" layered one on top of another from all recorded gigs on the tour, before bursting into Jumping Jack Flash, this is the Stones as they should be.  Midnight Rambler slows down & then builds up into sinister blues jam extravagance; Sympathy for the Devil rocks along, stripped of all the latin percussion from the studio version; Love in Vain proves they can do acoustic, sort of; & Honky Tonk Women gains an extra verse that plays up its sexual ambiguities.

3. Johnny Cash - Johnny Cash at San Quentin

His studio output always sounds tame in comparison to this roller coaster of chugging train beat drums and pounding alternating bass.  When he plays the specially written San Quentin ("San Quentin may you rot and burn in hell, may your walls fall and may I live to tell") and then launches straight into it again after a standing ovation he proves you don't need rock and roll to be a rebel.  

2. Lynyrd Skynyrd - One more from the Road

Free Bird and Sweet Home Alabama may have been worn into tired clichés by endless bar band covers, but the sheer raw energy on display here demonstrates very much what a live record is for - this is their studio output made harder, louder & longer.  Aside from the definitive 'piano solo' version of Free Bird highlights include a sleazy funk version of Jimmy Rodgers' 1927 country hit T For Texas; a not-so-laid-back  rock through J.J. Cale's Call Me The Breeze along with the pleasing twangy-guitars-up-to-eleven bash through their hits.

1. R.L. Burnside - Burnside on Burnside

I've written much about my love of R.L. in other posts on this blog, so suffice it to say that this is, in my opinion, not just the best live record ever, but simply the best record ever put out.  His set list of Hill Country standards and originals hadn't really changed since George Mitchell made the first field recording of him in 1968, but by the time this was recorded in 2001 he'd plugged in his electric guitar and added the driving drums of his grandson Cedric & the sublime slide playing of Kenny Brown to the stage.  I can't nominate highlights, because with the possible exception of the awful attempts at jokes, every last second is worth hearing. 

The near misses: Randy Newman Live; Muddy "Mississippi" Waters Live; Mississippi Fred McDowell - I Do Not Play No Rock and Roll; The Allman Brothers - At Fillmore East.

Live at the Vaults by .44 Pistol is released on 1st March 2014.  

Saturday, 18 May 2013

The state of music journalism...

A curious side effect of my picking up the centenary issue of The New Statesman on a whim a couple of weeks ago is that I find myself deeply depressed at the quality of writing in music magazines.  I suddenly find myself wondering why, if magazines of witty, well-versed, high-minded political commentary exist, where all the witty, well-versed, high-minded writing about music is?

Frank Zappa famously said that rock journalism was "people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read". A depressingly cynical view of the whole enterprise that I would have been loathed to agree with until now, but what struck me was how even the music rags such as Uncut or Mojo which profess to be targeted at the more intelligent reader, are not even close in the calibre of their writing to great journalism on other subjects.

I suspect this is down to the fact there's not a great amount of money to be made from writing about music these days (and how thoroughly depressing - people are more willing to pay for politics than music!). The last year has seen Blues in Britain shift to an entirely volunteer based enterprise, after the last member of paid staff departed. And, whilst I applaud the efforts of these volunteers because I definitely consider the world to better with a monthly British blues magazine than without one, I think that this enthusiastic amateurism can be sometimes be apparent in the quality of the writing in this, and other similar publications.

Then it may well be the case that my idea of good journalism, and those of your average music magazine reader are wildly disparate. If the large numbers of poorly educated, but nonetheless brilliant blues musicians from Albert King to T-Model Ford, show us anything it's that a passion for music is not dependant upon being well read, or even on being literate.  There's no reason to assume the average reader of a blues magazine isn't the kind of person who believes the Daily Express to be a high quality newspaper, and that including lengthy thoughtful pieces of the kind a political journal like the Statesman specialises in isn't exactly the kind of thing to reduce an already small readership even further.

Saturday, 11 May 2013

The Diddley Bow

I've posted this elsewhere on the internet, but I thought my blog readers would be interested in my recent project to build a diddley bow making, as I'm sure it will, a refreshing change from me ranting about about what's wrong with the music business....

I built the whole thing from stuff I had kicking around anyhow, so my total investment was £1.59 which was the price of a jack socket.

Here's the ingredients, some scrap wood, some large nails, a tin can, some old guitar strings and the original pickup that had been swapped out on an old guitar.  The only thing purchased specially was the jack socket,.

Instead of working out the scale properly I just pencilled a rough idea across from my acoustic with the marks for the key frets - I figure it's supposed to be a folk instrument and therefore doesn't have to be too accurate....

The third & 5th 'frets'.

I filed in a groove for the tin can sound box to rest in

A nail at each end with a guitar string stretched between them, wedge in the tin can, and a block of wood for the nut, and that's the acoustic instrument ready to play. 

The pickup is mounted on two blocks of wood with a hole drilled through to mount the jack socket on the underside.  I realised that I didn't have nails or screws long enough to fix them without splitting them so I resorted to a little glue and a lot of duct tape.  I also added a couple of nails to keep the tin can in place as the groove I'd filed in wasn't enough to stop it moving when I started playing.  
And if you're wondering how it sounds, here it is acoustic:

and here it is electric:

These were very rough demos recorded in a single take after only a few hours practice on my new instrument just to give people an idea of the sound, so please don't judge them too harshly!

Sunday, 9 December 2012

Karaoke Factor

It happened to me again the other day. "You should go on X-factor mate". It's so hard to respond gracefully when somebody throws you a twisted compliment like that.  I normally go with "I don't think I'm the kind of thing they're looking for" in preference to a lengthy verbal attack on what is probably someone's favourite television programme in the whole world, but this is the internet, and people don't have feelings here, so I can tell you all unreservedly that I think that awful programme epitomises everything that is wrong with the big business music industry.

These may seem like harsh words coming from someone who has never actually seen an entire episode from start to finish, but the whole operation drips with such cynicism that seeing ten minutes is enough to get my stomach turning and make me turn off the television to go and do something productive. After I've had a shower to stop me feeling so dirty. And taken the plug off the TV. And torn my TV license into angry little pieces to post back to the licensing people in bitter disgust.

is this man actually Satan?
Just take the opening rounds. "But what's wrong with getting a few cheap laughs at the expense of someone with mental health problems?", I hear you all cry.  Well, just put yourselves in their shoes. However misguided their beliefs in their own abilities, these people have invested a massive amount of their self-worth in their singing careers. If the couple of people I've crossed paths with who have auditioned are anything to go by, then it has been the ray of hope in a bleak time of their lives as they've kicked a drug habit, or recovered from a breakdown. And you're not just taking that one desperate ray of hope away from them, but doing it by giving them a thorough and comprehensive humiliation on national television. The kind of people who enjoy this stuff must be the sort of people who's idea of entertainment is to steal a child's sweets and grind them to dust on the pavement in front of them.

Then there's the people who do get through. Identikit, permatanned bright young things who are just doing it for their dying grandma, whose one wish before she goes is to see her progeny writhing in a skimpy outfit to a computer generated R & B ballad. It could be any one of us picked off the street and flung to stardom, as long as we have ten years music industry experience, and ink on a contract with Simon Cowell before we put our entry in.  That said, hiding the years of hard work behind every 'overnight' success is a long standing music industry tradition. My real issue with them is the way they all sound identical, chosen for their easy fit with some pre-recorded album, the marketing executive's pathetically bland idea of what music should sound like.  No musician of note from the last fifty years would ever have got past the first round because they all had musical ideas that were somehow challenging to the status quo.  Bob Dylan would have been slung off with the crazies in the auditions and mocked for his nasal voice.  Mick Jagger might have made it as far as being voted off in the first round after a tabloid outcry about his weirdly sexual rubber-faced stage antics, especially since it was always so open that he was doing it for the groupies and cocaine and not for the approval of anyone, not even his dying grandmother.  Frank Zappa? Kurt Cobain? Lou Reed? They wouldn't have got the time of day.

Then there's the manipulation of the Christmas singles chart. Once upon a time it was the home of dreadful novelty acts and Sir Cliff Richard.  Now, the odd internet campaign to reclaim it aside, with four months of prime time TV advertising it's almost guaranteed to go to the X factor winner. And the thing about the novelty acts is, as bad as they often were, they were at least novel and not the horror of music-by-committee inoffensiveness that we're now subjected to year on year. So that's why you won't see me on the X factor. I have better things to do than feed this monster that has been determinedly squeezing the music industry into a plastic lifeless conformity.

Sunday, 2 December 2012

The Bar Stool Problem

A stool is a stool, right? You can find one at the bar in any pub? Until recently I certainly thought so, but in yet another example of the hardships sent to test the working musician, I've realised the facilities provided by most public houses and venues just aren't quite up to the job of being sat upon whilst playing.

The first problem is arms. Great for preventing you slipping to the floor when you've had one too many pints, but they get in the way of the honest guitar player, forcing him to adopt a position that wouldn't be considered comfortable by a contortionist in order to actually reach his instrument.

Disaster waiting to happen.
Shiny padding and nowhere to put your feet...
The next is cushions, perfect for stopping the gradual numbing of the nether regions in an ordinary drinking context, but alas, try and play in a trendy bar where the stools are clad with an inch and a half of padding and white leather upholstery and you'll be lucky to get half way through a song before sliding off and making an inelegant face first lurch towards the crowd.

Height has been another stumbling block. Too short and there's a risk of your knee colliding with the guitar neck every time you tap your foot. Too tall and reaching the stomp box at all can be an issue.

The spindles are there to brace the legs and strengthen the stool right? Well maybe, but more importantly it's the place you put your foot to elevate your knee and prevent the guitar sliding off your lap. Imagine my horror to be offered a steel legged stool without any at all at a recent gig!  There simply isn't enough friction generated between the polished surface of a guitar and the front panel of a polyester-viscose mix trouser to prevent disaster...

So if anyone does know where I can get an armless, cushion-less,  not too tall, not too short, easily transportable folding bar stool, with good solid spindles to rest your foot on, I'd be extremely grateful if you could get in touch.  Otherwise I may have to actually learn to play standing up.

Sunday, 25 November 2012

Photo shoots

I've taken delivery of some fantastic solo promo shots by Tom Wojtulewicz ( and, as good as they are, this got me wondering about the conventions of musician photos and press kits, and more broadly the need for a musician to cultivate an image.

I would really be happiest using live shots for a press kit, given that they obviously portray what I actually look like whilst playing music, however the advice is usually not to so I found myself standing around Stafford town centre in the October cold with Tom and feeling remarkably self-conscious as the Friday afternoon shoppers leered at me whilst walking past.  The clichés are abundant in band photography, which gives you such a long list of things to avoid it's ridiculous: brick walls, train tracks, scrapyards & bars have all been done to death, which makes it tricky to do something fresh, but Tom had some great ideas about how to light shots that made what would otherwise have been pretty ordinary poses look amazing, and I convinced him to get a fisheye lens out, after remarking how much I liked the cover of Captain Beefheart's Safe As Milk.

I'm hardly a natural when it comes to modelling, - yet another example of the many jobs you need to get your head around as a musician. You expect sex and drugs and you get tax returns and standing around in the cold being told off for smiling.  But for all that I love the photos - I'm pretty sure I can only spot the beer gut because I know it's there, and despite my protestations that the cold was making my nipples show through my shirt, that seems to have been fixed in the editing ;)

I think I'm finally coming to terms with the need for an image as a musician.  I've always been broadly opposed to anything I considered too artificial in the past, being desperate to avoid the pork-pie-hat-and-sunglasses school of blues music, but I now find I'm asking myself again and again what I can do to be more memorable.  I think I'm finally at peace with the fact that doing things to make yourself more marketable isn't 'selling out' unless your music itself is lacking substance, and consequently I've smartened myself up on stage when playing solo.  Moving away from the jeans and converse I've always worn with .44 pistol also gives my solo career a bit of an identity of its' own which helps me in my efforts to keep them both going in parallel.

Sunday, 18 November 2012


I suppose I knew my policy of saying yes to any solo stuff that came my way was bound to lead to some weirdness eventually.  Sure enough, on Friday night, I was down in Birmingham about to play when the soundman informed me that a stripper would be arriving for one of the regulars' birthday surprise during my set.  So I got the signal, finished my song, and a lady came in and took her clothes off.

Now, whilst I'm pretty confident of holding my own in a line up of musicians these days, competing for the interest of a crowd of burly brummie blokes with the promise of soon-to-appear naked flesh is a new one on me.  I didn't think I performed too badly under the circumstances, but I definitely felt it was a room who tolerated me while they waited for the good stuff rather than one I was ever going to win over.

I realised I'm not entirely comfortable with such things either and found the tidying up of leads to be much more fascinating than usual in that at least it gave me somewhere to look.  My wife, meanwhile, speculated on the process of waxing certain body parts and complained that the number of people videoing on their mobile phones made it seedy. Personally, I'm not convinced it wouldn't have been seedy, even without the mobile phones...