Album Review: Jim Riley’s Blues Foundation – ‘A Very British Blues Explosion’

Jim Riley - A Very British Blues Explosion

In March 2017 a little bit of London became an extension of Medway when a bunch of bands from the area took over the 100 Club for a couple of nights. Theatre Royal were there. So were Graham Day and the Forefathers. See also Bob Collins and the Full Nelson and The Len Price 3.

And headlining the Friday was The Claim.

The Claim were key players in Medway’s musical life in the late-80s and early 90s, anticipating much of what was to come from the Britpop explosion just a few years later. Rather wonderfully they have reformed for a few gigs in recent years, the 100 Club performance being a particularly fine example.

And then, in the midst of all the indie classics – all your ‘God, Cliffe and Me’s, your ‘Mrs Shepherd’s and your ‘Losers Corner’s – up popped a chap called Jim Riley.

Armed with a harmonica, he turned the band behind him into an R’n’B sensation: what we now know to be Jim Riley’s Blues Foundation.

Riley is a legend around Medway – and far beyond. If you have an album by a band from the area it’s more likely than not that it was recorded at his Ranscombe Studios in Rochester.

But while he’s most regularly found sitting at the mixing desk, watching musicians through the studio window, he does have a impressive history as a musician himself.

It started with the Rhythm and Blues outfit Wipeout in the late 70s (a notable gig within the unsuspecting surrounds of the utilitarian Pentagon Shopping centre being at least partially responsible for inspiring The Prisoners to form). It continued through to acts like The Herbs and The Gurus of the New Millennium.

And now he’s at it again, fronting Jim Riley’s Blues Foundation.

Behind his studio console, Riley is affability personified, gently purring approval as he listens to the bands on the other side of the glass, offering suggestions or pointing out interesting bits he has spotted on what he’s just recorded.

It’s a different story when he takes to the microphone – as the album A Very British Blues Explosion testifies. Every inch the bluesman, he lets rip with a pitch perfect soulful delivery on every song.

It’s a mixture of covers and originals. As for the former, Riley has chosen a rich collection of blues standards: Lightnin’ Hopkins’ ‘Baby, Please Don’t Go’, Sam Cooke’s ‘A Change is Gonna Come’ and John Mayall & The Bluesbreakers’ ‘Crocodile Walk’ get treated to a reverential raucousness, the latter especially getting a particularly impressive new lick of paint.

There’s also a slowed down version of Finnish rock ‘n’ rollers The Hurriganes’ song ‘Talkin’ ‘Bout You’ that far exceeds the quality of the original. And there’s also a local reference with a cover of ‘Come Love’ by Thee Headcoats, one of Billy Childish’s many bands.

But amidst all of this, there are four Riley originals to knock your socks off.

The album starts with ‘Running Out of Time’, thundering along at a spectacular pace. It’s everything you could want from a track one, side one: bursting with energy, urgent vocals and blistering harmonica solos, all set against lyrics filled with lovelorn desperation (“I treated you wrong and now I can’t get back to you/I’m running out of time”).

By contrast, ‘She Can Fight for Herself’ is a celebration of being in love, rather than out of it, the object of affection being a fiercely independent woman (“My baby stands on her own two feet/she can fight for herself when others lie and cheat”).  It is here, perhaps more than anywhere else that you can tell it’s The Claim hiding behind the Blues Foundation. The syncopated guitars beneath Riley’s vocal are tell-tale giveaway.

Later, ‘Can’t Find a Job’ is a swaggering beast of a tune, bemoaning a lack of career opportunities. Out comes the harmonica again for some scorching solos matching the vitriol of the vocals pound for pound.

And then, after the Buddy Guy, Hurriganes and John Mayall covers comes the finale, the tenderest of fireside ballads: ‘Under Canvas’ recalling a “mist horizon on the blood red sky” where “we heard the morning come”. But for all the beauty of the moment, there’s an inner turmoil: “Under canvas I thought of what I’d done/I lay beside her and thought of you, my love”.

It’s a delicate, yet multi-textured end to an album full of depth and delights that demands repeated listens.

This could be the start of something rather wonderful.

A Very British Blues Explosion is available on the spectacularly named Trouserphonic Records via the Groovy Uncle website

Find out more about Jim Riley, The Claim and plenty of other bands and artists in Do It Yourself: a History of Music in Medway,
published by Cultured Llama.

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