I remember, in what seems like a previous lifetime but was in fact only 2009, Oli Brown putting the pedal to the metal at the end of a Harmonie Blues Caravan gig and delivering a boisterous version of ‘Black Betty’. On the new live offering it would qualify as the discs ballad. The cover has him looking like John Sykes, the man who put the metal into late Thin Lizzy, and on the disc? Maybe there should be a sticker saying ‘Play it Loud’ on his new live release Songs From The Road. There’s no messin’ with the kid anymore, that’s for sure.
First a curious note on the packaging: The latest release by Savoy Brown is also called ‘Songs from the Road’. It has a black & White cover with identical lettering to the new Oli Brown release of the same name. Has someone got confused at the design table and pulled out the ‘Brown’ cover twice by accident? Strange indeed.
Okay, I’ll admit it, my rant about the cover is maybe a way of putting off getting down to discuss what’s actually inside it. The discussion actually started last year when Oli hard rocked through a set in support of Dana Fuchs at the Bonn Harmonie. It seemed like a change of style. Oli’s answer then was that he needed to make an immediate impact with his set, so he put pedal to metal from the outset. The opening ‘whoosh’ as the new CD hurtles into ‘Speechless’ left me in no doubt though that even without the devastating Miss Fuchs to follow, he was continuing the trend on his solo shows. True, there’s a smooth passage mid-song showcasing the jazzy finger picking lead style that I love, but it quickly dives back into a heavy riff. ‘Thinking about her’ also continues the heavy swagger and grinding riff, as does ‘Manic Bloom’ and ‘Next Girl’ could easily be a heavy metal band the way it thunders in. Strangely though I have to admit that I’m actually enjoying the CD more than I did last years concert.
Wayne Proctor has done an excellent job of balancing the harder sound with clarity. I found last years show had something of a wall of sound at times where the nuances got totally lost. Here on silver platter though Proctor has managed to ensure that the vocals still come through – and a good thing too because Oli actually does a fine job on vocals, especially on my favourite track ‘Mr Wilson’ which may well be his finest vocal literally on record thus far.
It’s all a world away from the fresh faced and shaven youngster that I first saw enchanting the ladies on the Blues Caravan what seems like a hundred years ago. The boy every mother would like her daughter to meet. Is it just the heavier sound, or were the songs really always so world weary but the fresh face made me miss it before? Heavy doses of loves flip side abound in the lyrics. Dark and brooding themes abound – tracks like ‘Next Girl’, ‘Evil Soul’ and ‘You Can Only Blame Yourself’ with their tales of disillusionment are hardly the stuff of happy romance.
If I’m honest, I came to this CD expecting to find a lot to dislike. Oli Brown’s strength for me was his mix of Blues and Jazz Pop. A light touch that particularly shone on the first two studio CD’s. I remember a couple of years back his keenly recommending that I give Jazz Man Chris Cain a listen and I still do rather miss that Oli Brown. Just compare the live take of ‘Stone Cold’ to it’s original on the 2009 release ‘Open Road’. 2013’s outing hits the speakers in a frenetic Dr Feelgood style. I can almost see him brandishing the Telecaster like a tommy-gun ala Wilko. Yet watching the video of this show that Telecaster actually seems a perfect match for Oli Browns style.
Hat off then to Producer Wayne Proctor for delivering a solid but clear sound both on drums and on mixing desk. This may not be a power trio of the golden age when Cream and Taste ruled the rock blues roost but Proctor and Scott Barnes deliver a meaty rhythm section behind the main man yet pull back with excellent self-control on the occasions when Brown takes things down to bare bones note playing.
As briefly mentioned, there’s a special version of the CD that includes a DVD of the show which has a couple of extra tracks on it. I’m surprised RUF didn’t release the DVD separately and make a double killing in the pockets of OB fans. Respect that they didn’t though, and whilst it’s fair to say that Norwich Waterfront doesn’t have the clout of ‘Live at Hammersmith’ or ‘CBGB’S’ the atmosphere is good and it’s an excellent record of where Oli Brown was in 2012. On the one hand I rather like the swaying cymbal that appears from time to time on wide-angle shots of Wayne Proctor, on the other I feel as irritated as Oli is by the long hair that he constantly and unsuccessfully tries to blow from his face throughout.
So there you have it. This is actually a rather enjoyable live outing that won’t be to the liking of Blues Purists but then Oli Brown was never purely a Blues player. It’s been on my ipod for a while and I’m still playing it, which is really the decisive test in this day and age. To my way of thinking there is a ‘coming of age’ air about the whole affair – The Boy becomes a Man if you like, and if you take a listen to the vocals and lyrics there are indeed some excellent songs well sung on offer. I described this as ‘where Oli Brown was in 2012’ because he has been taking time out abroad in recent months, playing support for Joe Satriani. If there is some way of mixing the new maturity with the old youthful enthusiasm then the next release should be a classic. The ‘Road’ that this discs music comes from is certainly a busy Highway and Oli Brown is clearly enjoying his journey on it. As long as it’s not the first step on a road to Metal Hell I look forward to the next studio effort.
coda: Thanks to Oli’s Father Graham Brown for pointing out that the CD is actually very good value indeed as although the tracklisting is similar on DVD and CD, Oli recorded at several venues so the versions are not the same.
ALSO NOTE: You can get a taste of the new CD from Oli Brown in Person. He is supporting Joe Satriani at Cologne E-Werk on 26 June