Carlos Johnson @ Bleu Note, Dublin 17/11/2006

Supported by an impressive set from our own local blues heroes The Business featuring Pat Farrell on some finely crafted blistering fretwork, John Quarney on Bass and Davey Gaynor on Drums playing some crowd favourites like Standing Out There in the Rain, Ain’t Superstitious, Poor Man’s Throne and Willie Dixon’s I’m Ready the atmosphere in the Bleu Note was on a high when one of Chicago’s finest blues guitarist’s Carlos Johnson arrived on stage.

The Bleu Note a very welcome new live music venue on Dublin’s Capel Street, put on three Chicago Blues nights featuring the electrifying Carlos Johnson supported by The Mary Stokes Band on Thursday, The Business on Friday, and The Conspirators on Saturday night.

Carlos Johnson is the real deal on stage a south paw playing with the heavy strings nearest the floor and a tone wailing on the right side of the feedback threshold, this thumb and finger style bluesman played scorching guitar breaks and high energy funky blues.Carlos Johnson knows exactly what he is doing on stage, drawing on his voraciously wide musical interests, with elements of funk, soul, jazz and classic Chicago blues, all bubbling away, is cooking away on the Bleu Note stage.

Born in Cook County back in 1948 Carlos started off being in awe of BB King but soon started adding other influences like Charlie Christian who pioneered the sound of single string guitar playing back in the late 1930’s and early 40’s moving on to make a living playing the blues behind Junior Well’s, Koko Taylor and Son Seals.

Playing his hollow bodied Gibson upside down with the knobs under his arm, Carlos goes for a stinging, biting tonal attack taking it for a stroll around the crowd when its really cooking. His band for these engagements were a Polish Blues Band called Blue Crow based in Castlebar and they were kept on their toes as Carlos play’s hard and fast, teasing the female audience members at every opportunity as to whether he should play hard or soft, clearly gifted in the art of the double entendre.

He mixed in classics like Jimmy Reed’s Bright Lights Big City and I’m A Man with inventive material of his own like Leaving On The Next Train and Blues Man and by the time he finally unplugged his faithful guitar the crowd was well and truly in a party mood.Carlos is especially hot on the slow soul jazz style guitar workouts with a terse and tasteful attack on the strings and like all left handed players who play the strings, strung high on top his unique approach is spellbinding to watch with the end result individual and divine.

His resulting popularity with the audience in the Bleu Note had them all in the palm of his hand in no time with all kinds of dance moves being witnessed at the front of the stage. His voice is full of funky urban tones with a wicked sense of humour repeatedly teasing the receptive audience with plenty of feedback from the equally humorous Dubs.

Carlos has earned his stripes touring internationally as far away as Japan and serves the tradition well when he demonstrates how easily he turns the blue groove into a soul party and left no one in any doubt that there was a Real Chicago Blues Man in Capel St steaming up the windows on a freezing cold November night in Dublin.

Al Stewart @ Vicar Street, Dublin. 4/11/2006

Scottish born singer songwriter Al Stewart came to Dublin on Saturday night. Best known for his 1976 hit Year of the Cat Al Stewart started off in the mid sixties playing in all night clubs with the likes of Cat Stevens, Paul Simon and Bert Jansh with over 17 albums and 175 songs to his credit.

There was a feast of acoustic guitars on the stage all playing incredible solos and fast chordal changes to the melodic arrangements with USA Singer Songwriter Dave Nachmanoff opening the performance with a selection of his own interesting material about family ancestry in the American Revolution and a lovely tune called Grateful before being joined on stage by Al Stewart to a rousing reception from the Vicar St audience. You know you are going to get fun and easy listening songs full of great guitar music that display’s Al’s ability to traverse broad musical landscapes and even more diverse subject matter in his imaginative lyrics.

Al not only writes wonderful epic historical story laden lyrics but talks at ease with the audience creating a warm relationship and much humour in the exchanges that preface each song on the set list, starting off with Flying Sorcery and In Brooklyn. He jokingly described the song as being off his 2nd Album back in 1928 and moved on to have a chat with the audience about Antarctica from Chronicles in 1969 which featured Richard Thompson on guitar using a pseudonym and not Jimmy Page who featured on one song but tends to get the credit in the urban myths that surface around those recordings.

He also revealed with facetious amusement that the song was not directly inspired by the famous adventurer Shackleton and the doomed Endurance but rather by a cold woman who wouldn’t sleep with him back in the days of free love and flower power. This also provided a surprise introduction for Mark on the flute popping up in the middle of the audience before making his way on to the stage and becoming not only a jack but master of all trades for the remainder of the show with Sax and Percussion chores a plenty.

On the Border was up next greeted by many singing their heads off to the familiar melody and this audience was having a ball and when Al talked about bad relationships and whether many of the audience had experience of such, one female voice shouted out “I’m in one” to uproar and laughter. It was one of those unplanned priceless moments which Al enjoyed clearly, wondering if this had come as news to a possible husband or partner sitting beside her.

A special treat on this 25 date tour was in store for us next when the amazing Laurence Juber joined Al on stage for one of a limited number of dates on the tour. Laurence produced the latest album and adds his guitar wizardry to the production and soon was ripping it up on stage to songs like Dark and Rolling Sea and the Djangoesque Munich, Gina and another huge crowd favourite Time Passages featured recently in an episode of the Sopranos which added nicely Al informed us to his bank balance.

Word has it that the show was being recorded by RTE for a radio broadcast on one the forthcoming Monday nights in November.After the break there were songs about odd sex on a slippery vinyl surface, good revolutions and bad revolutions in the Palace of Versailles and some excellent solo guitar by Laurence Juber on Paint by Numbers feeding his Acoustic into an effects unit that produced a superb electric guitar solo sound.

Then Al introduced us to the first time he heard Laurence Juber play Little Wing one of the greatest pieces of guitar music ever recorded back in the pioneering sixties by Jimi Hendrix and definitely in the upper half of my own top ten desert island discs, and left the stage to Laurence to dazzle us with his uplifting and moving version with its acoustic to-die for dynamics.The showmanship of this all star guitar gathering on stage is spot on as they shift effortlessly between styles as diverse as quirky virtuoso classical, acoustic folk, Django and Russian ragtime capturing the versatility of Al Stewart’s music in this live retrospective showcase.

The great warmth and spontaneity of the evening’s entertainment came to a wonderful climax in Year of the Cat when the music duly touched the full spectrum of Al’s style on an outstanding take on his mid 70’s classic with Marc appearing on the edge of the balcony for the Sax solo. There was a great sense of continuity in the performance with the sensitive acoustic musical approach giving the audience one of the most rewarding and musical performances I’ve witnessed in Vicar St.The guitar sound was pleasing and quite hypnotic with clear harmonics and smooth guitar histrionics achieving a very beautiful effect in the mix featuring a fretwork display of delicious lickery, absolute magic fluency and dexterity with classic melodies and riffs at every turn ensnaring the hearts of everyone in the audience.

The songs featured in the performance from Al’s new album “ A Beach full of Shells”, Katherine of Oregan, Gina in the Kings Road and The Immelman Turn prove that he is entirely capable of crafting catchy(no pun intended) commercial and distinctive melodies for many more years to come thankfully. The final touch of class was giving the fans a chance to meet and greet afterwards which took some time but was the icing on the cake, fair play to Al, Laurence, Dave & Marc, their families and the Vicar St Team because it turns a good night into a wonderful memory and makes all the difference.