Biography Vanessa Collier

Vanessa Collier’s time is now. For uninitiated listeners who have never experienced this fascinating artist, Meeting My Shadow will be a revelation. But to the long-time fans who have followed the Maryland singer, songwriter and saxophonist through the twists of her career, this is the classic album she’s promised from the start. “Meeting My Shadow is a meeting of the past, present and future,” notes Vanessa of this second release. “A tribute to the spirit of blues tradition, a reflection on our present culture and a hopeful wish for growth, understanding and inclusion as we move forward together. It’s also a story of perseverance and empowerment, meant to share strength and provide an uplifting message.”

As anyone at the sharp end of the music business will remind you, there’s no such thing as an overnight success. Vanessa was already brimming with potential during her early studies at Boston’s illustrious Berklee College Of Music. Yet it was her thrilling sets on tour with Grammy-winning blues titan Joe Louis Walker that achieved lift-off. “I love performing,” she says. “The energy of the people makes me come alive and allows me to find a part of myself that I really only share on that stage. I love that moment after a show, when people come up to meet me and I can see the emotion of being touched by one of my songs.”

Things began to move faster. When debut album Heart Soul & Saxophone landed in 2014 – announcing a songwriting palette touched by blues, funk, rock and soul – Vanessa found herself honoured as a Best Of 2014 Blues Breaker on Dan Aykroyd’s iconic House Of Blues radio show. Since then, she’s been a top-three finalist in the John Lennon Songwriting Competition, fought through to the 2016 International Blues Challenge in Memphis and shared bills with Annie Lennox, Willie Nelson and more. “Of course, there have been setbacks too,” she notes. “But what is a songwriter – or a person – with no setbacks? I learn about myself, and about people, and channel many of those setbacks into my songwriting.”

Now, Meeting My Shadow presents eleven songs that explore life’s triumphs and challenges. “This album is really a collection of experiences,” explains Vanessa, “which are as varied as the musical influences I draw from. I like to write about subjects that connect with audiences and that are universal to life, and I like each song to take you on a journey, both in the lyrics and in the music. This album has songs about shared struggles, empowerment, and perseverance that make you feel like you can overcome any obstacle.

“This album is then balanced out with witty, playful songs that make light of life,” she counters. “For instance, Poisoned The Well is about being let down and watching someone poison your surroundings, but there’s a strength in accepting that and always standing true to yourself. When It Don't Come Easy is about perseverance and finding your strength to keep moving regardless of any obstacles. Then, I have songs like Two Parts Sugar, One Part Lime and Meet Me Where I'm At, that are about finding the fun in life and celebrating each day.”

As bandleader and co-producer, Vanessa was the driving force behind last October’s sessions at the Music + Arts Studio in Memphis. Scan the inlay and you’ll find her credited for instruments from flute to organ, alongside her trademark soul-drenched vocals and searing sax. “The saxophone is very much an extension of my voice in each song,” she notes, “and you can really feel my attitude and emotion in the song through the way I play it. With my saxophone, I can wail, I can growl, I can cry. I can drive a song forward with a strong, edgy, unleashed attack. I can be subtle and beautiful. I can be strong and powerful.”

Meanwhile, Vanessa is quick to credit co-producer Kevin Houston and the crack-squad of studio musicians who brought grit and groove to her new material. “I got to laugh with T.K. Jackson (drums), find a sincere friendship with the very talented Laura Chavez (guitar) and feel my jaw drop with the slide guitar work of Josh Roberts. I was also deeply touched by Charles Hodges’ (keys) deep appreciation for my music and for my skills as a songwriter, and by Daniel McKee’s (bass) comparison of my music to that of Prince, in that my music appears simple and approachable by everyone, but has a surprising nuanced challenge that makes it really interesting as a musician. All of the musicians on my album were great to work with, and for me, these sessions were about bringing my music to life to share with people throughout the world. I'm super excited to do that in 2017.”

Released in 2017 on Ruf Records, Meeting My Shadow is the sound of a rising talent reaching unstoppable momentum. “I am unrelenting and passionate about what I do,” says Vanessa. “I’m made to perform and, for me, I don’t see any other option. I’m all in. Let’s go!”

Biography Si Cranstoun

A good record is the cure for a bad day. You might be down on your luck, up the creek or on the skids – but it’s clinically impossible to stay depressed when Si Cranstoun’s Old School plays. In a monochrome world, this album is a spring-heeled burst of technicolor soul, scattering your worries and shaking your feet. “I felt it was time to rip it up, have some all-out retro fun and inject a high-octane dose of energy for the vintage dancefloors,” says the London-born soul man. “I recommend you listen to this album early in the morning to get yourself together – then real late at night to forget yourself!”
Si has already been dubbed “the king of vintage” by The Express and enjoyed rave endorsements from influential DJs like Terry Wogan and Chris Evans (“How good is Si Cranstoun?”). Now, released in 2016 on Ruf Records, Old School ups the ante, with Si setting the controls for the golden era and tipping his hat to formative influences like Jackie Wilson, Sam Cooke and Big Joe Turner. “When it comes to taste,” he says, “it’s ’40s, ’50s, ’60s all the way.”  
While Old School’s stylings are unashamedly retro, this album’s time is unmistakably now, driven by the original songcraft and acclaimed vocals of a bandleader who’s given the vintage scene fresh impetus. “It’s true to who I am and the rocking rhythm ‘n’ blues that stirs my soul,” says Si. “But all the songs have a quirky slant and they all originate from my colourful mind.”
Indeed, Si’s vision for Old School was so clear that in addition to supplying those golden vocals and multi-instrumentation, he also produced a mix that turns back the clock. “Because I’ve been so hands-on with the recording of these songs,” he remembers, “they’ve all been a giant learning experience into the art of capturing the spirit of that ‘yesterday’ sound.”
Old School defies you not to dance. You’ll be pulled onto the floor by the plinking piano and parping brass of the title track. You’ll stay there for Vegas Baby, which bottles all the sticky thrills of a night on the Sin City Strip, complete with Reet Petite-style rolled syllables. Si nods: “That’s me having melodic and lyrical fun with the blues.”  
A cascade of harmony vocals powers the irrepressible Right Girl, while the bluesy bounce and cockney asides of Thames River Song are sure to spark a rave-up on the international vintage circuit, from Viva Las Vegas to Summer Jamboree and Rhythm Riot. “I’m proud of these songs,” says Si, “and I’d be more than willing to put my money where my mouth is and wander out onto any stage after or before whoever and sing them.”
To truly get under the skin of Si Cranstoun, though, try Commoner To King, and the lyric that references “lonely days of scrimping and scraping”. It’s certainly a subject to which Si can relate. As the London-born son of a ska promoter, his formative years were spent busking with his brother in The Dualers. “It’ll always hold a magic for me,” he remembers. “But the not-so-great things were bad weather, competition, the drunks…”
In the post-millennium, Si looked set for a mainstream breakout when he self-released a single – and watched it climb to UK#21 – but when the hit proved a false start, he went through a period of soul-searching. “I’d given up my hopes of the big-time,” he admits, “but I continued to perform my music.”
Thankfully, a mojo-restoring fresh song recorded with his new solo band – Dynamo – pulled Si out of the rut and back into contention, pinging him to the head of the vintage pack and setting him up for 2014’s acclaimed Modern Life (which straddled the iTunes blues chart for months after release).
Now comes Old School. Bottling his irrepressible showmanship and spitting out the best songs of his career, it’s the album that promises to take Si Cranstoun from cult hero to kingpin, and spread the joy across the planet. “I’d just love Old School to be heard by as many people as possible,” says the bandleader. “And when we take this album out on the road, we’ll all be out to bring the house down…”

Biography Honey Island Swamp Band

Take a late-night stroll through downtown New Orleans and you’ll hear a thousand flavours of music spill from the clubs. Spin the new album by the Crescent City’s new favourite sons, meanwhile, and you’ll hear a band who embody that eclectic spirit. “There are songs here for every mood, occasion or playlist,” explains Honey Island Swamp Band’s Aaron Wilkinson of Demolition Day, “so hopefully it will appeal to a lot of musical tastes. Just make sure you turn it up loud…”
    Released in 2016 on Ruf Records, Demolition Day is the band’s fourth full-length studio release and marks a milestone in their career. The album title cuts deep. It’s just over a decade since Hurricane Katrina tore along the Gulf Coast, plunging New Orleans into devastation, but throwing together four Big Easy evacuees who found themselves marooned in San Francisco.
Aaron Wilkinson (acoustic guitar/mandolin/vocals), Chris Mulé (electric guitar/vocals), Sam Price (bass/vocals) and Garland Paul (drums/vocals) were already on nodding terms from their hometown circuit, but when the four men joined forces for a weekly residency at San Francisco’s Boom Boom Room, the chemistry was undeniable. By 2009, the lineup had released award-winning debut Wishing Well, enlisted Hammond B-3 wizard Trevor Brooks and placed one foot onto the podium of New Orleans greats.     
    Ten years and a thousand gigs down the line, that same battle-hardened lineup took just four days to track Demolition Day at The Parlor Recording Studio in New Orleans with famed producer Luther Dickinson (also leader of the North Mississippi Allstars and ex-Black Crowes guitarist). “We had a very tight window to record,” Wilkinson recalls, “so we had to minimalise in places and really pack a lot of emotion into each take. Luther calls it ‘the freedom of limitation’ and it really served us well on this album.”
    As did the no-frills production ethos. “We’ve always wanted to record to two-inch tape, to get that old analogue sound,” say the band, “and this was our first opportunity to make it happen. Luther was the perfect producer to help us nail that old-school, authentic sound. He was great at keeping us focused on the spirit of each performance, not getting bogged down in details and perfectionism. That’s what we were looking for and what we needed.”
    After all, polish isn’t necessary when you’re working with songs this strong. Across its eleven cuts, Demolition Day tips a hat to most of the great American genres, while adding the Honey Island Swamp Band’s inimitable thumbprint. There’s the spring-heeled slide-blues of “Ain’t No Fun”, the upbeat funk of “Head High Water Blues”, the cat-house piano and country-fried guitars of “How Do You Feel”. But then, on the emotional flipside, there’s also the reflective wah-guitar lilt of “Say It Isn’t True”, the mournful funeral-jazz slow-burn of “No Easy Way” and the heart-in-mouth acoustic confessional of “Katie”. “We’re diverse and complex people,” Wilkinson says, “and our audiences are as well. So we try to let our music reflect that.”
    Just as eclectic are the lyrical themes. “They really are all over the map,” Wilkinson says of the topics explored on Demolition Day. “Some are rooted in reality and personal experience. ‘Head High Water Blues’ is a look back at the Hurricane Katrina experience now that ten years has passed. Much has been rebuilt, but much has not and never will be – and the song is more about the emotional scars that can never be fully erased. Others are just fiction and storytelling. We had the music for ‘Through Another Day’, and it sounded sort of old and epic and Southern, and that inspired this Civil War-era storyline that became the lyrics. Others are just sort of playful nonsense about life and relationships, like ‘Watch And Chain’.”
Demolition Day is just the start. You might experience these eleven tracks for the first time on your stereo or smartphone, but as Honey Island Swamp Band tour across the States and beyond in 2016, you can expect them to take on a life of their own. “These songs will continue to progress, develop and blossom,” Wilkinson says. “A record is a snapshot in time, a picture of where a song is at a particular moment. But we’ve never been the type of band to stick to one way of playing a song, so we’ll continue to let the music evolve. That’s what keeps it fresh and exciting for us – and we want to share that with our audiences.”

Biography Jane Lee Hooker

How do you like your rock ‘n’ roll? If the answer is safe, sterile, sexless and spat out by the corporate machine, then move along. But if your wish-list takes in soul, swagger and smack-in-the-mouth stagecraft, then Jane Lee Hooker is the band you’ve been gasping for.
Tearing out of their native New York in 2016 with white-knuckle debut album No B!, these five rockers fuse the sticky thrills of golden-era punk and blues with a healthy slug of modern attitude. “Not a lot of bands can capture the excitement, sweat and charisma of the ’70s bands we grew up listening to,” they say. “But we can and we do.”
Released in April on Ruf Records, No B! might be a debut album, but don’t mistake Jane Lee Hooker for a pack of overnight newcomers. Between them, Dana ‘Danger’ Athens (vocals), Melissa ‘Cool Whip’ Houston (drums), High Top (guitar), Tina ‘T Bone’ Gorin (guitar) and Hail Mary Z (bass) boast sprawling collective pedigree, having dodged the bottles and put miles on the clock in bands like Nashville Pussy, the Wives, and Bad Wizard. Yet it was their fateful 2013 hook-up as JLH that brought fresh momentum. “We’re a gang, a family,” says the lineup. “We love playing with, to and for each other.”
Ten of these tracks find the band digging back into the blues songbook, exhuming a fistful of standards including Muddy Waters’ “Champagne And Reefer”, Willie Dixon’s “Shake For Me” and Albert King’s “The Hunter”. In each case, Jane Lee Hooker claims ownership, pouring on the rocket fuel until even the dustiest standard becomes a stinging punk-blues thrill-ride, driven by jackhammer rhythms, twin lead guitars and Dana’s scorched-earth vocals.
“We basically play songs we like, and they end up turning into something that has our own take on it,” says the band of their respectful-yet-rebellious approach. “Like Mean Town Blues: it’s such an amazing song, and our version pays tribute to that. We feel the spirit of Johnny Winter is with us on the ride.”

Meanwhile, it’s testament to the band’s own songwriting skills that original tune “In The Valley” stands shoulder-to-shoulder with the celebrated moments on the tracklisting. “We’ve been having a blast taking the spirit of these amazing classics we’ve been playing and developing a style to write our own original songs,” says the band. “There are thousands of masterpieces out there that so many people don’t even know about. And at the same time, there are enough shitty songs in the world – we’re not interested in adding to them.”
When it came to tracking No B! last year in Brooklyn, the five-piece were equally clear on their mission statement. “We told our producer, Matt Chiaravalle, that we wanted it to sound exactly like the album Hard Again that Muddy Waters and Johnny Winter did in 1977,” recalls High Top (who coincidentally chose her nickname after Mud’s shout-outs to Pinetop Perkins on that record). “It’s the album that both Tina and myself played along to when we were kids, to learn how to solo. I still think it’s one of the greatest albums ever recorded and some of the finest from Muddy and Johnny.”
In the era of cut-and-paste, computer-driven recordings, No B!’s production was as minimalist, and the results explode out of the speakers. “We played live,” continues High Top, “and we used no effects. We all played in the same room at the same time. Most songs were done on a first take. I don’t think we played anything more than twice!”
Make no mistake: Jane Lee Hooker is moving fast. In the three years since their formation, the band have already torn it up on some of the US circuit’s most prestigious stages, from New York’s Irving Plaza to Antone’s Record Shop in Austin, Texas. Now, with live shows booked through 2016 and No B! at the heart of their setlist, this five-headed punk-blues juggernaut is coming for your hearts and eardrums. “We play with the same passion to twenty people as we do to a thousand,” says High Top. “The secret is we’re having a ball playing together. We are doing it all for us, and we are happy anyone wants to come along. It’s like we are driving up to your house in a Camaro and throwing open the door — we hope you climb in, but if you don’t, we’re still going.”

Biography Andy Frasco & the U.N.

This isn’t a show. It’s a street party. You join us on Day 142 of Andy Frasco & The U.N.’s 2016 world tour, and in the sleepy German town of Bamberg, all hell is breaking loose. Fans invade the stage. Tubas are set on fire. And at the eye of the storm, there’s the frontman himself: a wild-haired whirling dervish who spends opening song C Boogie bucking his hips, hammering on his piano keys and dancing in the front row. “We’re recording a live album in your town,” Frasco announces to the crowd. “It’s gonna be awesome…”

That album is Songs From The Road: a new CD/DVD set from Ruf Records that captures all the full-throttle mayhem. There is, quite simply, nothing like an Andy Frasco & The U.N. show. While other bands trudge through the setlist, these renegades rocket-fuel the songs from their four studio albums – including 2016’s breakthrough Happy Bastards – and leave fans with mile-wide grins. “Basically, we’re trying to freak people out,” explains Frasco. “I want people to be spiritually uplifted and happy – and also make them think a little bit.”

Live bands don’t get this good overnight. Frasco’s own story goes back to the suburbs of post-millennial Los Angeles, where at the tender age of 13, he used his industrial-strength charm to blag a job as a record label executive, fitting maths classes around business calls. Aged just 16, he was touring the States with one of his signings. “I grew up too quick,” he reflects. “I fell in love with the road and I just kept going. Failure was not an option for me.”

In his early years as a hype man, Frasco always had charisma in spades, but he’ll admit that he “bullshitted my way til I finally learned how to sing and play piano”. In 2007, he pulled together The U.N. from the cream of the international scene and set out on a world tour that has never really ended. “This band is a group of gypsies,” he says. “We’ve been living in a van for ten years straight, doing 250 shows a year. That’s really not the norm. We’re basically blue-collar musicians, on the road every day, making a living. We might be sleeping on guitar cases, guitar amps, someone’s floor – but we’re happy. We’re fulfilling our dream.

“The Van Morrisons and The Bands of this world,” he continues, “in the early years, they’d play in every coffee shop and grungy bar, y’know, getting pink eye from a dirty couch. But you’re gonna have to deal with all that for the bigger purpose. And the bigger purpose is about trying to make people happy, as much as you can.”

Since the release of 2016’s Happy Bastards, everyone wants a piece of them. With material that took in funk, soul, rock, roots and the band’s self-styled “party blues”, this was an album that you knew would sound amazing live. Sure enough, as The U.N. take the stage in Bamberg, songs like the funky Tie You Up and the stomp singalong of Mature As Fuck have never sounded better. “That song is basically about doing stuff for yourself and not worrying what other people think of you,” explains Frasco, “because you’re a grown-ass man.”

You’ll also find highlights from The U.N.’s back catalogue, with Frasco revisiting his acclaimed 2014 album Half A Man for songs like Sunny Day Soldier and Stop Fucking Around. “I don’t have a setlist,” he says. “I like to see who the audience is. Big influences of mine as a frontman are the Frank Sinatras and the James Browns, and how they controlled the show.”

And Frasco certainly does that. As night falls in Bamberg, his megawatt energy only seems to crank up, whether he’s leaping onto the monitors, bringing local kids onstage to dance or directing the crowd to either side of the town square (“Left! Right!”). At last, just when it seems the performance can’t get any more anarchic, the band pulls out a bristling cover of Rage Against The Machine’s classic Killing In The Name, with Frasco encouraging the crowd to raise their middle fingers in defiance. “Be whoever you want to be,” he tells them as a parting shot. “Now let’s get the fuck out of here…”

If you haven’t seen Andy Frasco & The U.N. on the stage yet, you’re missing one of the great live bands of our times. But with Songs From The Road, you get a front-row seat. “I try to make our live shows a celebration,” says Frasco. “We’re just trying to get people out of their heads for a couple hours and live in the moment. I feel like Songs From The Road emulates what our band really is, better than any recording we've done to date.”

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