Great singer, great venue, great musicians and great producer. What could possibly go wrong? In the event, nothing at all. The late and great Jeff Healey once said of Layla Zoe “She is wonderful” and since he died in 2008 she has had time to become even more wonderful – as this super CD recorded live in Belgium amply demonstrates. ‘Live at Spirit of 66’ is Layla Zoe’s finest disc to date.
To the uninitiated: ‘Spirit of 66’ is a little pub/club a short walk from the station in Vervier, Belgium. The town has seen better days when it was a centre for the wool and textile industry as it’s marble walled ‘Bahnhof’ boasts, but I doubt it ever saw better musicians than those who regularly come to play at this magical little venue.
It’s certainly an inspired choice to make a live recording in, and you can feel that inspiration in every metaphorical groove of the two silver discs that make up the new ‘Layla Zoe – Live at Spirit of 66’ release. Tastefully packaged as always by Cable Car Records it has a similarly tasteful running time of almost 94 minutes – which is just as well, because the music therein is so good that it seems almost over before it’s begun. Thankfully of course you can play it over again and again – and I’m pretty sure you will.
From the opening gutsy roar of ‘I’ve been down’ it’s clear that there is no warm up phase for Layla or her band. Continuing into the round robin wah-wah riff of ‘Pull yourself together’ which gives the first inklings of what’s to come in the guitar playing department. Hold onto your musical hats ladies and gentlemen: “I’m married to the blues, and I’ll give it everything I’ve got” isn’t just a hollow lyric from this band and the Firegirl fronting it. Strident chording takes us into ‘I choose you’ from Layla’s bleedingly autobiographical release ‘The Lily’. A riveting tale of where Layla learnt her music “Listening to Greeny” and first took the path that led her here to Vervier and this very live CD. Searching for an identity through the “Drugs and booze” as she freely admits, before choosing “Love and joy” and thankfully for us “Blues” too.
‘Green eyed lover’ is inspired by an unnamed guitar player in Canada. Is this why she loves to ‘torment’ her guitarists by running her hands over them whilst they play? It certainly doesn’t do Jan Laacks any harm though as the next track proves. The soloing on ‘Gemini Heart’ when Jan played the Bonn Harmonie last year was one of the best moments of my concert going time at that venue and here at Vervier he shines once again. I can well imagine that Billie Holliday would enjoy taking on this song and it would take the likes of such a legend to match Layla’s version.
This disc is largely a showcase for the ‘Lily’ studio album and that’s fitting because it finds Layla using her best and most personal songs. But if you bought ‘The Lily’ why buy this? I have to say that one of the best aspects here is Layla’s band. Fine guitarist though Henrik Freischlader is I find the raw sound of a live band rather than one man multi-tracked as bass, lead and drum is special. That’s not to say that Freischlader’s huge contribution isn’t evident in much of the material this evening – his sound and inspiration is clearly there, but the band, particularly Jan Laacks, really are on fire here. Listen to the back-beat behind Layla’s fierce social comment on ‘They Lie’ to hear what I mean.
Laacks wisely doesn’t mess with Freischlader’s catchy little hookline on ‘The Lily’ here. How many singers have tried to write their own obituary in a song? Somehow there’s an honesty in Layla Zoe’s performance that carries it off beautifully though. The sound live is somewhat heavier than on the studio version and here I have to say that if I were a musician of any worth I would ask Martin Meinschäfer to produce me – I love the thick drum sound and the warmth of his production. For my money, this guy is one of, if not the best, Blues & Rock producers around today.
‘Man’s World’ isn’t of course self-written by Layla but she makes the James Brown penned number her own, and whilst the band create a spellbinding dynamic to it this is a singers song and (in the absence of Etta James) Layla is THE singer born to sing it.
After so much personal soul-searching through tracks from ‘The Lily’ Layla heads down the more familiar territory of Lennon and McCartney for her closers, even if ‘Yer Blues’ is hardly something the ‘Mop-tops’ would have released in the days of ‘She Loves You’. It’s a rather dark song about death with about the heaviest riff you could hammer together pounded along by Gregor Sonnenberg, hammered into place forcefully by Hardy Fischötter, and with a Laacks solo so searing you need protective goggles to look at your speakers.
Layla fans will know she has a great love and a great voice for Gospel. Her lone take of ‘Let it Be’, with nothing but vocal chords and lungs to call on, is therefore a fitting closer for a fine disc. A disc that will be played fifty years from now wherever Layla Zoe’s musical future might take her. Wherever there are people who love music played and sung from the heart and who believe, like Layla herself, that ‘Where the music takes us is a spiritual place’. In the hands of Layla Zoe and her fine band it is indeed.