Darren Watson – Introducing Darren Watson

Introducing Darren WatsonFull disclosure – I don’t really know a lot about the blues. While it’s a style of music that clearly pervades so much of what I choose to listen to, I’ve rarely dug into the genre proper beyond a few of, I guess, “the classics”. And that’s despite having played in a blues band for a number of years in my late teens.

That was when I first met Darren Watson, one of New Zealand’s blues greats. Though he really was just a few years older than us, his exemplary talent and relative success with Smokeshop was an inspiration, and he was always available as a mentor, with encouragement, and slinging a few support gigs our way here and there.

Watson’s never gone away, always working, producing an album every few years, each better than the last (2010’s Saint Hilda’s Faithless Boy was one of my favourite albums of that year, a real highlight of Watson’s career up to that point). But you’d likely be hard pressed to find that many people who were aware of or had heard his music; especially outside of Wellington. A living musical treasure who, for the most part, never troubled the average Kiwi.

Until ‘Planet Key’. Watson’s never been politically silent; he’s a passionate lefty, and the last six years of this National government have seen him more and more outspoken on issues he cares about. So, in the lead up to this year’s election he released ‘Planet Key’, a satirical song poking fun at the Prime Minister, accompanied by a scything video.

Suddenly, Watson’s name was back in the media, on the radio and television. Comment, discussion, a “quite professionally done” review from John Key himself. Then a complaint to the Electoral Commission, a decision that the song was an election advertisement that required a promoter statement, a subsequent ban on airplay, leading to even more discussion and debate. Until eventually a day in court. “I fought the law… and the judge reserved their decision”, as Watson himself says.

All the while Watson was putting the finishing touches on his latest album, the crowd-funded, home-recorded, Introducing Darren Watson. The title itself a little joke, surely. A welcome to all the people who’ve either forgotten about Watson or never heard of him at all over the three decades he’s been slinging his guitar and singing the blues until ‘Planet Key’ thrust his name, face and voice back into their awareness.

But the title also fits, because if you’ve never heard Watson’s brand of versatile, grooving blues then Introducing… is a damn fine place to start. Because on this latest album Watson’s continued his growth as a musician and songwriter to produce what is surely his best album yet.

It almost goes without saying that Watson’s an excellent guitar player, whether locking down a slow blues jam on an acoustic, or bending the notes with a sexy shimmer while soloing on the electric. Yet on Introducing… he’s slinging that axe better than ever, accompanied by a sympathetic, not-too-clean production that lets you hear the bends, the pick hitting the strings, the rattle and hum on the frets; intimate nuanced, exciting, and very bluesy.

Even more than the guitar playing, however, is the singing. Watson’s voice is finer than I’ve ever heard it before, across this album’s ten songs. Age continues to mellow and roughen his voice, a sultry timbre slinking into tenor voice, adding a soulful turn to the little tremolos and lifts that mark the singing of a fine blues vocalist.

And the songs – ten of them, eight self-penned by Watson with two more from the great Bill Lake. Funny and smart, with a lot of sexy sass – ‘Slow Cooker’, in particular, does that sultry thing of taking a song about food and making it just shy of being obscenely, hilariously filthy – “oh, please, baby spread the salt on the fish, you know I like to taste that thing.” But also, happy; apart from the two gorgeous, slower Lake songs (‘Thought I’d Seen It All’ and ‘I Wanna Be With You’) the songs on Introducing Darren Watson are mostly sweet, fun and uplifting. I suspect Darren’s in love, and it’s showing…

His band on the album is great too; just as much as Watson’s guitar it feels impossible to imagine this album sounding so superb without the rambunctious piano playing or soulful Hammond of Alan Norman. Or, perhaps even more so, the shuffle and groove bought along by Richard Te One’s drumming – a particular stylistic flourish of Watson is a blues grove that shuffles and almost stumbles, drawing your body with the beat until you’re dancing almost unconsciously, and that just wouldn’t happen without the drummer finding a groove to lock it all in and move the beat forwards while the song sways above.

Introducing Darren Watson is a great album, a fun, fantastically produced and performed blues album that will provide a great summer accompaniment, for listening to in the ‘Southern Sunshine’, as Watson himself celebrates on one of the album’s most upbeat tracks.

And it’s available now, from Watson’s bandcamp page. Get it. And head there now to check out how it sounds – normally at this point I’d embed a video; but so far none have come out for any of the songs on Introducing…, so I’ll leave it up to your own ears.

Beer Match: A groovy, fun blues album needs a fun, easy-drinking beer; something to enjoy on the deck on a summer’s afternoon as it pumps out of the stereo. And something local, too – a Wellington beer for a Wellington musician. I’d take this album out on the deck with a glass of ParrotDog’s ‘FlaxenFeather’, a smooth, easy-drinking, 4.7% golden ale, with just enough fruity hop flavours to keep the taste buds tingling while you put your feet up and soak in the blues with a smile.

Epic ‘Imp’

Epic Imp

Session beers have certainly become ‘a thing’. Indeed, in the year since professional wrestling connoisseur, incorrigible Tory and future Beer Writer of the Year Neil Miller predicted that “balance and sessionability could well be the new black” the supermarket shelves and craft beer taps of Wellington have seen appearances from an increasing number of sub-5% abv flavoursome beers.

The first push came last summer with a number of hoppy golden ales making their mark, and since then lower-alcohol yet fragrantly hopped session IPAs and pale ales have surged onto the market – often in four or six packs, making them great accompaniments for the upcoming summer of barbecues.

And, into that fray surges Luke Nicholas of Epic Brewing Company. Being the brewer who broke open New Zealand taste buds with his highly-hopped, high-alcohol ‘Armageddon IPA’, ‘Mayhem’, and the infamous ‘Hop Zombie’, one wouldn’t necessarily have expected he’d feel the need to play in the session IPA field that’s been populated by the likes of Liberty’s ‘Oh Brother’ or Panhead’s ‘Quickchange’.

Yet into the field he’s charged, with the ‘Imp’ session IPA. As the tagline on the bottle says, “careful what you wish for”. And, with the Imp, Luke Nicholas has, to use the vernacular, “nailed it.”

The Imp pours a gorgeous burnished bronze colour; clear and sparkling, catching the light adorably. From the top of the glass lifts a invigorating aroma of grapefruit and creamy peach, underlined with a sweet toffee scent.

With the first sip I’m struck by how “soft” it feels; gentle and full, before the carbonation releases wonderfully in the mouth leaving a fizzy, full and creamy sensation.

Imp is a very fruity flavoured beer; the hops playing superbly off the gentle malt to provide a rounded, balanced, sweet and easy-drinking mouthful. Flavours of sweet lemon curd and mature stone fruit predominate at first, but a warm, bitter sensation floods the mouth as I swallow, leaving a lingering, lip-smacking grapefruit flavour.

Very fruity, very tasty.

And all that beautifully balanced fruity sweetness, lingering bitterness and easy-drinking joy comes it at a very sessionable 4.7%! “Small and Mischievous”, as it says on the label, “causing trouble, but in a playful way”. Now, that could be about the beer or about Luke ‘The Beer Imp’ Nicholas himself. But, either way, it’s an apt description. Fun to drink, fun to be around, won’t necessarily get you in trouble. Maybe.

Imp’s not quite a perfect as a session beer, however. While the flavours and sensations of the beer itself are excellent, at the moment I’ve only found this beer (with its eye-catching peacock-blue label) in 500ml bottles, and at a moderately high price point. This is a beer I’d love to see in four- or six-packs of 330ml bottles (like Epic’s Lager or Pale Ale); that’d really put this beer into place as one of my go-to sessionable beers for a summer afternoon.

But, in the meantime, it’s good to see Epic giving the lower alcohol, highly-flavoured IPA a go. Even better to see the end result being so delicious. More, please!

Jakob – Sines (2014)

12 Jacket (Gatefold - Two Pocket) [GD30OB2-N]

It’s been a long laborious journey, a tale of failed record labels, broken equipment and broken hands but finally, Hawkes Bay post-rock band Jakob have returned with their fourth full-length album, Sines.

And it’s a return I welcome. Their three prior albums are amongst my favourite albums, both post-rock and of New Zealand artists, but not having heard anything from them for so long had me wondering if this band had quietly faded away, like some of their epic soundscapes can fade away with a shimmer of echoing guitar.

But no, they’re back. Rumours began to swirl mid-year, early copies of the album were released to some media and influencers, and the day the album went onto pre-sale I ordered my copy. Then, a few weeks ago, it arrived in the letterbox, and since then I’ve been listening to it frequently, letting it seep in, letting it reveal its full beauty.

Because this is a beautiful album; full of the emotional intensity, tension and release that has marked the sound of this trio over the last decade or so. The songs build from subtle beginnings, washes of trebly guitar accompanied by rolling drums and looming bass, before exploding into layers of distortion and noise.

The album’s opening track, ‘Blind Them With Science’, sits well within the style that Jakob most commonly inhabit, and from within which they produce some of the best music of their genre. Building slowly with Jeff Boyle’s layered, swooping guitars before Jason Johnston’s drums and and Maurice Beckett’s bass lurch in, like a looming behemoth lumbering in through the mist. Then, Boyle’s guitar opens up, digital delay drenching a percussive, trebly sound, rising from under the rhythm until it expands and soars. The guitar flying free as Johnston starts to bring the cymbals into the mix.

But from as early as the album’s second track, ‘Emergent’, it becomes apparent that on Sines Jakob are spreading their musical wings, finding new musical words to express their post-rock language. Here gorgeous strings arranged by Rhian Sheehan provide the core. Boyle’s guitar and Beckett’s bass simply circle around a repetitive, hypnotic motif, as the strings creep in, gently at first, then swelling, soaring, letting the musical landscape bask as if under a rising sun.

The strings also make a heart-wrenching reappearance on ‘Harmonia’, the song concluding with their aching sadness where, in the past, Jakob would’ve let the guitar spiral down to bring the song to a fade. It’s a maturing of their sound, a grasping of other colours within the sonic palate that allow them to paint their musical soundscapes with colours both brighter and darker than ever before.

Still, I can’t quite grasp the album with as much adoration as some others have. It’s great; and a great ‘next-step’ for this band that’s been a long time coming. However, I somehow get a sense that it could’ve perhaps been even more. Hearing about the equipment failures that occurred during recording at Roundhouse, and the insufficient time allowed for both the initial recording and mixing makes me wonder if this album is really all that it could be.

Or perhaps that’s just the lingering feeling I’m left with after the album ends with the title track, a five-minute drone of guitar swoops and swoons that feels formless, unshaped. While it’s moving, and moody, it makes me wonder if the song ‘Sines’ – and the album itself – could’ve been even more.

And that leaves me with hope. I’m not frustrated that Sines leaves me wanting more; rather I’m excited. I hope that this album’s long-awaited release indicates that we will both see and hear more from Jakob in the near future. Boyle’s indicated he wants to get back into the studio soon, and with with what Sines has shown Jakob are now pointing themselves towards I’m going to be very eager to here what they do next.

But, in the meantime, if Sines may not be the finest album Jakob have yet done (for me, that’s still 2008’s Solace), with ‘Resolve’ they’ve presented what may be their finest nine minutes of music ever. Because, after three minutes of build this song explodes into a massive wall of sound with Boyle’s guitar hitting a percussive, sharp tone he’s never achieved before. And as his guitar clatters along, lurching drunkenly, prettily above the rumbling drums and bass, I throw my head back, bask in the sound. Vast; massive; the beauty of the sound of open spaces and darkness complete.

Beer match: I’d pair this album with the ‘Freyja’, a “California Common” or “Steam Ale” from Christchurch’s Valkyrie Brewing. This beer is rich, deeply dark, but with a generous hop profile that arrives in the mouth with a crisp snap, before leaving a long, lingering, beautiful aftertaste. It matches the build; the release and fade of Jakob’s instrumental songs well.

8 Wired Brewing Company – ReWired Unchained

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The good old brown ale. It’s a deeply unfashionable style these days, it seems. It’s a style that doesn’t bring with it a swathe of bitter citrus fruit-flavoured hops, nor does it drown with the deep toffee-and-boozy fruit flavours of a strong dark ale. It’s not sparkling and golden, nor black and enigmatic.

No, brown ale is just a plain old brown. With a mild, slightly sweet nutty based and a little bit of fresh and fruity hoppiness. Easy drinking; not knocking any socks off, but delightful to sit with in the sunshine or at a table at the local.

But the brown ale is a style it’s near impossible to find on the shelves or on the taps of Wellington, New Zealand’s “craft beer capital.” Which is a shame, because I’d love to see more of it. Which would require more of it to be brewed, I guess.

Nonetheless, 8 Wired’s ‘ReWired’ brown ale has been a relatively frequent visitor to this side of Cook Straight, and while it may not be a ‘traditional’ brown ale, whatever that means, it’s certainly one of my favourite beers. A layer of roasted malty flavours underlie a robust hop flavour, a very soothing and fulfilling easy-to-drink ale, that doesn’t kill your taste buds or make you feel like weighed down like some dark ales can.

More recently, 8 Wired’s Søren Eriksen has been playing with the ReWired, producing what is called the ‘ReWired Unchained’. I first encountered this at Beervana ’14, and was quite blown away by the surprising range of flavours that were produced by barrel ageing this brown ale with a dose of Brettanomyces.

Now, it would be tempting to say that infecting the ReWired with Brett has made this ale funkier than a pair of brown flared cords, but that wouldn’t be true. Because, perhaps surprisingly, the combination ageing and infection has taken the beer not towards the funk and tartness of a saison or farmhouse style, but somewhere quite different.

Back at Beervana in August, I noted that the beer had developed a full flavour of caramel sharpened with aromas of cut grass and summer fruit. I was fortunate to find again late last month on tap in Golding’s Free Dive, and with a good measure in a tulip-shaped glass I was really able to embrace the full and complex flavours that the ReWired Unchained unleashed.

The initial aroma was of a cool, dry wash of a soft red wine washing over the nose and tongue, with a little hint of salt-and-vinegar lurking around the edges, speaking of the tartness the Brett was bringing to the mix.

In the mouth the red wine flavours came through even stronger; long, lingering, sliding sweetly down, leaving a taste of fruity plum and bubble gum flavours. Then, as the stronger tart wine-like flavours faded, the mouth was left with a residual warm sweetness, soft and fruity, resolving eventually to a taste I swear resembled a lemon sorbet.

Remarkable.

I enjoyed this complex and fascinating ale while perched at the Golding’s after a trip back from Christchurch, with a couple of travel bags at my feet and a bowl of pork crackling nearby. Ah, pork crackling; basically concentrated fat and salt. Not something you want to snack on too often, but when accompanied by a glass of something nice and refreshing, it’s one of the most life-affirming snacks I know. Very little is wrong with the world when you can relax with a good beer and a bowl of salted and double-cooked pig fat.

The salty, lip-smacking snack worked wonders with the ReWired Unchained. The wine-and-vinegar flavours of the beer cut through the fat-and-salt perfectly, and the mouthfeel as the sweet finish to the beer meet with the next morsel of pig skin was a sheer delight. When I ordered the snack I remarked that I really should’ve got the pork crackling with an IPA rather than the ReWired Unchained, but I was glad to be proved wrong.

Unlooked for, it became a taste combination delight. The beer stood up to the snack better than almost any other I’ve paired pork crackling with, and in turn the beer added a sweetness to the salty snack that it almost didn’t deserve.

Give the combination a try; if you can. And if you haven’t yet, get out there are track down some of 8 Wired’s original ReWired. If you have any preconceptions of what a brown ale might be cast them aside and give it a go; you’ll surely love it. And that beer needs more love.