Wednesday 31 October 2012

Otis Grand: Blues '65

Otis Grand
Blues '65

Following the heavier content of this week's other two CDs, Blues '65 is an altogether lighter affair. It's an unashamed celebration of the sounds of 1965, a time when everything was radio-friendly and catchy. These are the sounds that influenced Otis Grand during his teenage years.

Guitarist Magazine voted Otis ''one of the top 50 greatest Blues guitarists who ever walked the earth'' and B.B. King is quoted as saying, ''Otis plays the guitar like I did when I was young.''

No fewer than 13 musicians are credited on Blues '65. Sugar Ray Norcia provides the majority of the vocals and the whole thing is given a blistering kick courtesy of the five-piece horn section.

Classics from the era rub shoulders with new songs, all sharing the common mission statement: ''If it's not danceable it's not recordable.''

The opener - Pretend - is a well-known favourite, familiar to listeners of various eras, whether in the form of the Nat King Cole, Carl Mann or Alvin Stardust versions. It's lively and energetic and it sets the scene very well for what is to follow.

But don't take my word for it - have a listen for yourself:


The liner notes offer a list of highlights of 1965 to set the music in context. An average house in the UK cost £3,660; Elvis was Crying in the Chapel and Trigger (the horse) died.

Blues '65 is an energetic and triumphant exercise in nostalgia.

Track List

Who Will The Next Fool Be
Bad News Blues On TV
Rumba Conga Twist
Do You Remember (When)
I Washed My Hand In Muddy Water
Midnight Blues
Please Don't Leave
In Your Backyard
The Shag Shuffle
Warning Blues
Those Days Are Gone
Baby Please (Don't Tease)

Stand out tracks: Pretend, Midnight Blues, Those Days Are Gone.

Head for Otis Grand's official website and the GFI Promotions site for further details.

Tuesday 30 October 2012

Skinny Molly: Haywire Riot

Skinny Molly
Haywire Riot

Skinny Molly's new CD falls into the genre of Southern hard rock; indeed, the hard edges take it virtually into metal territory. No surprise, then, to see the roots showing (musically and nomenclature-wise);  Mike Estes (formerly of Lynard Skynyrd) and Dave Hlubeck (formerly of Molly Hatchet) are key members of the band.

Haywire Riot explodes as it means to go on, with three and half minutes of guitar-heavy rock. The pace only slows as we move into the second half of the track list, with Lie To Me, which has more of a blues feel to it than the rest. Shut Up And Rock immediately follows to prove that the slackening of pace isn't going to become a habit.

Stand out tracks for me are If You Don't Care and After You.

Track List

If You Don't Care
Devil In The Bottle
Two Good Wheels
Too Bad To Be True
Judge Parker
Bitin' The Dog
Lie To Me
Shut Up And Rock
After You
None Of Me No More
Dodgin' Bullets

Heavy and uncompromising, Haywire Riot is due out on 12 November, with a full UK running from 22 November to 8 December.

See Skinny Molly's official website and the Ruf Records site for further details.

Further Reading

The latest issue of CHESS (November 2012) includes the first part of my 'Best Chess Books of 2012' review article.

The featured books are:

Aron Nimzowitsch: On the Road to Chess Mastery by Per Skjoldager and Jorn Erik Nielsen (McFarland)

Paul Morphy by Geza Maroczy (Caissa Editions)

Bobby Fischer Comes Home by Helgi Olafsson (New in Chess)

The Stress of Chess...and its Infinite Finesse by Walter Browne (New in Chess)

Head to the London Chess Centre for ordering details.

Monday 29 October 2012

Bob Broznan: Fire in the Mind

Bob Broznan
Fire in the Mind
Bob Broznan's new CD is released today. His own notes promised ''a collection of mood stories, told in rhythm and timbre'' on which ''there is passionate playing on a variety of new and old stringed instruments, including instruments not normally used for blues.''

An ambitious task, but one which is achieved over the course of 11 challenging and genre-fusing tracks. Bob Broznan's musical virtuosity cannot be questioned; the list of instruments he plays on Fire on Mind includes at least six different types of guitar, cello-banjo, ukulele, baglama (small Greek bouzouki) and various items of percussion. He is accompanied throughout by Jim Norris on drums, plus occasional contributions from Daniel Shane Thomas on triangle, accordion and backing vocals.

It's impossible to pigeonhole the running theme; diversity is the key. There are a couple of more traditional blues numbers, namely Memory Blues and Lonesome Blues, but elsewhere there's a general pushing of the musical boundaries, moving away from the traditional scene.

''I have expanded this concept geographically to include music from faraway places and music far from the traditional Delta blues that first inspired me.''

The intricate arrangements augment the experimental journey. Four tracks are instrumental, including the uplifting miniature Ow! My Uke's On Fire!

Lyrically, the material is tinged by death and darkness (blues staples) with the occasional positive coda; for example, Memory Blues advocates keeping the good memories and to ''let the bad ones fade away.''

Indeed, Memory Blues is one of the stand out tracks but I prefer the instrumentals - especially Breathing the Blues and Cannibal Stomp - to the songs. For me, Fire in the Mind works best when the images are in the mind.

© Ali Madjdi

Track List

Breathing the Blues
Cannibal Stomp
American House Fire Blues
Rhythm is the Thing
Strange Mind Blues
Blue Mars Over Sorrento
Bamn Kalou Bamn
Ow! My Uke's on Fire!
Nightmares and Dreams
Memory Blues
Lonesome Blues

© Ali Madjdi
Bob Broznan is currently touring Europe. Keep up to date with the latest dates and all other news on his official website and this page on the Ruf Records site.

Sunday 28 October 2012

Amateur to IM - Available Now!


The debut book from Jonathan Hawkins, in which he reveals some of the training methods which propelled him to the title of International Master, is now available for purchase.

Head to the Mongoose Press website for further details.

Saturday 27 October 2012

Great Expectations at the Darlington Civic Theatre

Great Expectations
Darlington Civic Theatre

The Dickens bicentenary is drawing to a close. Over the last 11 months I have attended Dickens exhibitions at the British Library and the Museum of London and enjoyed two related performances by the inimitable Simon Callow (A Christmas Carol and his talk on Charles Dickens and the Great Theatre of the World).

Next week I am off to see Oliver! for the second time but before that I had the great pleasure of seeing my favourite Dickens adventure brought to glorious life on stage at the Darlington Civic.

Great Expectations was really where my love of Dickens began. The 1981 TV series introduced me to a wonderful world of extraordinary and highly eccentric characters. Over the weeks, they baffled, bemused, amused and enlightened me. The twists in the plot, coupled with the motivation and circumstances of the amazing characters, slowly revealed to the audience over many weeks, as the onion-like layers were peeled away, fuelled my imagination and made me hungry for more of the same.

Stratford Johns and Joan Hickson were my first Magwitch and Miss Havisham respectively. There would be many others.

In short, the series instilled in me a fascination of Dickens and his works that has stayed with me until the present day.

I was intrigued when I first heard the play was touring. How could the key scenes (Magwitch on the marshes, Joe Gargery's visit to Pip in London and Miss Havisham in flames to name but three) possibly be transferred to the stage?

As we took our seats, the curtains were already open and the magnificent set of Miss Havisham's room was on display. It was good to be able to spend time absorbing the fantastic detail before the start of the play. Holes in the wall and cobwebs galore had reduced the once-great room to a broken ruin. Light, streaming through the holes, picked out endless amounts of swirling and rising dust.

The opening moments of the play revealed the framing device. An adult Pip (Paul Nivison) appeared with Estella (Grace Rowe) and despite their very apparent fears they resolved to ''Open the doors and let in the light.'' As soon as they did so, characters from their former lives scurried about the room before vanishing silently and mysteriously (some of them into giant mouse holes in the wainscoting).

The story of the past gradually unfolded through the eyes of Pip. Young Pip (Taylor Jay-Davis) started his incredible journey with his scary meeting with Magwitch  (Chris Ellison) and it became clear how the key scenes would be recreated: through very clever lighting and the judicious application of dry ice. Adult Pip shadowed Young Pip's actions, sometimes even silently mouthing the words of his younger self as he kept in the background.

Thereafter, a plethora of astonishing characters took their turns in the thick of the action: Miss Havisham (Paula Wilcox), Joe Gargery (Steve North), Jaggers (Jack Ellis) and the most grotesque of all - a wonderfully over the top Wopsle (James Vaughan).

I doubt I need to run through the whole story; you surely know it well enough. Suffice to say that everyone was on top form and the production delivered some unexpected touches, such as the flames signalling Miss Havisham's denouement and the special effects that surprisingly inhabited the large mirror during the latter phases.

Being a later Dickens, Great Expectations is - despite comic touches - a dark offering, leaving ''All of us bent and broken.''

Jo Clifford should be congratulated on adapting such a busy novel into two wonderfully effective halves.

Great Expectations is heading for the West End after its nationwide tour. Don't hesitate to seize tickets for this marvellous play if the opportunity comes your way.

Keep an eye on the official website for tour dates and previews.

Friday 26 October 2012

New CDs: Reviews Coming Soon

New CDs have arrived at Marsh Towers!

Reviews will follow over the next week or so and here's what to expect...

Bob Broznan: Fire in the Mind

Skinny Molly: Haywire Riot

Otis Grand: Blues 65

Thursday 25 October 2012

Chess Reviews: 200

Chess Puzzles for Kids
By GM Murray Chandler
128 pages
This book is a continuation of Gambit's best selling series of instructional books aimed at junior players. The previous volumes are Chess for Children, How to Beat Your Dad at Chess and Chess Tactics for Kids, all of which were covered in my first review column, back in 2005. 

There are lots of books for juniors on the market. So, what does this one bring to the table?

''This chess puzzle super-challenge contains 100 fun positions to solve, ranging from encouragingly easy to mind-numbingly hard. Using an innovative format, every puzzle is preceded by an instructive example, illustrating an important pattern.''

The 100 positions are arranged by theme, such as Attack on the Castled King and Back-Rank Combinations. Each numbered lesson is presented on a single page. The clarity of the presentation makes the book very easy to navigate and makes it an excellent volume for chess coaches to use with their students.

The first position on each page serves as a relatively simple sample and the second position is a tougher example on the same theme.

Here's a sample, from lesson 27 (''Winning the Exchange'').

Kramnik - Svidler
This one is fairly straightforward: 1 Ne7+ Kh8 2 Ng6+!

Pikula - Ivanisevic
The second position is more difficult. The key move is 1 ...Qa6! and Black goes on to win the exchange 2 ...Ng3+ It's unusual, because the white Rook turns out to embarrassed after 1 ...Qa6!

Despite the title, I think this book has a potentially wider audience than just youngsters and the blurb agrees with me:

''Each puzzle has been graded to suit a wide range of chess abilities. Beginners or younger readers will enjoy reading the basic warm-up exercises. The more experienced can wrestle with some classic puzzles, whilst at the same time learning of typical themes and killer concepts.''

Club players may find some of the positions of use too, as quick warm up exercises just before a game.

The book concludes with two series of tests (60 puzzles in all) which should enhance the reader's understanding of the tactics in question.

It's a very enjoyable book, enhanced by quirky illustrations by Cindy McCluskey (look out for ''Arabian Mate'' and ''The Rook Lift'' and bound in a sturdy hardback cover (durability is an important quality in the classroom environment).

Before you go, dear reader, why not try these two puzzles? They shouldn't give you too much trouble, as they are just for kids...

Hort - Portisch
White to play and win

Babujian - Ter-Sahakian
Black to play and win

Wednesday 24 October 2012

Chess Reviews: 199

ChessBase Magazine 150

The new issue of ChessBase Magazine is packed with enough material to keep even the greediest of chess students feel that there hunger has been satiated for some time to come.

The tournament coverage includes comprehensive reports from Biel and Dortmund. Indeed, in the case of the former there are numerous videos featuring post-mortem analysis by the players themselves (running at 1 hour and 40 minutes)!

There are plenty of eye catching moments along the way as the players share their spontaneous thoughts about the games. For example, Magnus Carlsen provides some interesting analysis about a possible variation in one of his games.

Carlsen - Wang Hao (variation)

Carlsen played 17 Bf4 and won ((1-0, 35), but over the board he considered the sacrificial 17 Bxh6 gxh6 18 Rhg1+ Kh8 19 Qd2 Rf7 20 Qxh6+ Nh7 21 Re6 Ne5 (not a forced move, but a mistake which if played would have allowed a very nice finish) 22 Bxh7 Rxh7 

Carlsen - Wang Hao (variation)
Well, can you see what Carlsen had planned to force a win from this position?

Elsewhere, there are examples of missed opportunities which could have been played for real. A couple of stand out examples involved former World Champion Vladimir Kramnik.

Kramnik - Leko
Dortmund 2012
37 Nd3? missing 37 R1xb6! which would have netted two pawns and the full point. After the move played in the game, Leko was able to put up a stubborn resistance and the game was drawn after 134 moves. A remarkable double miss.

Kramnik's position was under great pressure in the next game.

Caruana - Kramnik
Dortmund 2012
The winner has annotated the game for the magazine and he comments here: ''Kramnik tries a last desperate shot...which nearly works!''

35 ...Rxf2!? 36 Kxf2? Nxe4+ 37 Kg2 Nc5 ''Now I realized, to my great disappointment, that the b3-square is controlled by Black's knight, so there's no way to switch to the b1-h7 diagonal.'' 38 Ra8 
So is Black more or less OK now? Maybe - but Kramnik blunders...

Caruana - Kramnik
Dortmund 2012
38 ...Nxe6?? ''A very surprising blunder. Black was close to the draw, but after this greedy capture I can weave a deadly net around his king.'' 39 Bd3+ Kh6 40 h4 g6 41 Rh8+ Rh7 42 Rg8 ''Now everything is clear. Black must sacrifice the exchange.'' 42 ...Rg7 43 Bxg7+ and 1-0 (53).

Opening articles remain an essential part of ChessBase Magazine and there are lots of them here, in addition to all the other standard features.

Opening Surveys:

Trompowsky Attack 3 h4
Kovacevic Variation 2 Nf3 g6 3 e3 c5 4 dxc5
Benoni Snake Variation
Dutch Leningrad 7 ...c6
Caro-Kann Main Variation
Sicilian Accelerated Dragon 8 ...a5
French Winawer 4 exd5 exd5 5 Bd3
French Advance 3 ...c5 4 Nf3
Slav Main Variation
Semi-Slav 4 Qc2
Semi-Slav Moscow Variation
Nimzo-Indian 4 Qc2 0-0
King's Indian 4 Bg5

Openings with videos:

Grunfeld Fianchetto
Sicilian Rossolimo 3 ...g6
Henning-Schara Gambit

No other chess product offers as much instruction and entertainment as ChessBase Magazine.

For further details on all ChessBase products, please visit their official website.

Tuesday 23 October 2012

Wilko Johnson at The Sage

Wilko Johnson
The Sage, Gateshead

This was my third Wilko Johnson gig in a relatively short period of time; the previous two occasions took place at the Shildon Civic Hall and at The Arc respectively. This time they were ready to rock the intimate surroundings of The Sage's Hall 2.

Once again the support act was Virgil and The Accelerators, who left not a single dry ear in the house with their loud and heavy delivery.

Soon enough it was time for Wilko Johnson to take to the stage, accompanied by Blockhead Norman Watt-Roy (bass) and former Blockhead Dylan Howe (drums).

80 minutes of bullet-paced rock, rhythm and blues followed, as Wilko uncorked one crowd-pleasing number after another. We were treated to lengthy solos at various points by all three of the group as they hurtled their way through a whole host of Dr Feelgood classics plus one or two other classics, such as the (very) extended version of Bye Bye Johnny.

Chat between the songs was virtually non-existent; nothing was allowed to get in the way of the music. Wilko's trademark guitar machine-gunning of the audience was as entertaining as ever and the whole provided an uplifting experience.

Set List

All Through The City
If You Want Me You've Got Me
The More I Give
Going Back Home
Dr Dupree
You Shouldn't Call a Doctor
Sneaking Suspicion
Keep on Loving You
When I'm Gone
Wooly Bully
Don't Let Your Daddy Know
Back in the Night
She Does it Right


Bye Bye Johnny

Head to the official website for all things Wilko Johnson, including forthcoming tour dates.

Here's a few more captured moments to conclude with.




Monday 22 October 2012

Katie Melua at The Sage

Katie Melua
The Sage, Gateshead

It's not easy getting tickets to see Katie Melua! When she is scheduled to appear at The Sage, they habitually print their 'forthcoming events' booklets with a 'sold out' banner next to her name. Fortunately, I managed to secure some tickets when they first went on sale, about 10 months ago.

Katie emerged from behind the curtains and started the show with a solo, acoustic rendition of Piece of Piece. Her voice was strong and the delivery spellbinding. The Secret String Quartet came out to accompany her for the next three songs before the tempo of the evening shifted again as the curtains parted to reveal the full band.

The set list covered musical ground from all five of her albums, with a slight overall bias in favour of Secret Symphony. Everything about the show was thoroughly professional, with the lighting changing for each song to augment the mood.

The encore brought the show full circle, with the curtains down and Katie alone on stage with just her acoustic guitar for company. She called for requests and delivered perfect renditions before bidding us all goodnight.

I'd definitely go and see her again; she has a very special talent and thoroughly deserves her extremely high reputation.

Set List

Piece By Piece
If You Were a Sailboat
I'd Love to Kill You
The Closest Thing to Crazy
Mary Pickford
The Flood
A Moment of Madness
Gasoline Alley
Somewhere in the Same Hotel
Shy Boy
If the Lights Go Out
The Walls of the World
Secret Symphony
The Bit That I Don't Get
Forgetting All My Troubles
The Night I Dreamed I Was Awake
Call Off the Search
Two Bare Feet


Nine Million Bicycles
Better Than a Dream
I Cried for You

For the latest news and tour dates, keep an eye on the official Katie Melua website.

Here's a few more photos from a very memorable evening.