LIVE AT THE HANGING TREE – Johnny Casino (Off the Hip)
From the second Johnny asks the engineer if the tape's rolling, you feel like you're right inside this album. It's live in every sense – slammed down to tape by Johnny and his Spanish band, on a day off between dates on a hit-and-run Aussie tour in August, 2012. It's presented as it was recorded with minimal polish – you can hear the grill of Johnny's quad box rattling to those big, meaty tones, if not feel the air it's pushing – and bristles with electricity.
There are just two newies here among a set of Casino staples but don't let the thought that he's going over old ground deter you. These are live arrangements, probably partly worked out on the fly, so even if you have the studio albums, you'll find something to love here.
Johnny's guitar partner, Aitor Ochoa, conspires with him to kick up a helluva storm. Cop an earful of "Nothing Left To Hide" when they lock in on the target with unerring accuracy. Importantly, the Spanish engine room of Julian Marco (bass) and Isidro Ochoa, is nothing if not formidable. Home grown stalwart Jeremy Craib adds the necessary lighter touches on keyboards.
You might be surprised by the (half) cover of "Galveston". Yes, that one. Jimmy Webb-via-Glenn-Campbell and it's a warm-up sans full band that sets the tone. Things get serious as a monstrous take on "Take me Down To The River" rumbles along next and there's no doubt in the world about anyone's commitment levels.
The good-time ode to love, "Brother Grahame Says", sounds sunny as a clear November day with its chirpy background vocals. Ya gotta give Johnny his due as a singer - for a guy who seemed reluctant to think of himself as more than competent when he started this solo band stuff, he sounds totally in control.
Of the newer ones, "This Christmas Time" sounds faltering and a worthy work in progress, while "You Still Got Nothing To Say" (aired on a double 7" vinyl single) is withering in its delivery.
Ten tracks, all worthy your investment of time and money. - The Barman
LIVE ON 3PBS - Johnny Casino & The Secrets (Off the Hip)
Excuse this brief piece of parochialism but Melbourne has the best radio in Australia, no argument. Community radio. It's funded through public subscription and sponsorships and is the beating heart of a thriving local live scene. It's not restricted by rigid playlists and its connection to what's going on around town is un-stymied by the need to be all things to all people (a la national broadcaster Triple Jay.) So what better way to showcase a band like Johnny Casino & The Secrets than a live-to-air broadcast on much-loved Melbourne station 3PBS?
3PBS broadcasts a week of live-to-airs every December, in which each of its 79 announcers seeks out an act they like and invites them into the studio. Phil MacDougall, who hosts the "Sunglasses After Dark" program, chased down the Secrets. Johnny's label was so chuffed with the result that they offered to put it out as a CD. It was perfect timing for a forthcoming European tour and a way of showing off the Melbourne version of the band (Casino maintains three line-ups in different cities) in their most familiar environment i.e. live.
The songs will be familiar to anyone who's bought into the Johnny Casino & The Secrets story via the albums and/or live. These versions are naturally less polished than their studio cousins, but pulse with a dynamism that can't be denied.
Drummer Cris Wilson and bassist Michael Evans have a nice loose-tightness in their combination that makes the band roll with its rock. Casino's guitar interplay with James Saunders works a treat. This line-up's done serious road-time and it shows, even in a relatively sterile atmosphere like a radio station studio.
Two covers that have served the Sydney band well, "Stop And Think It Over" (Mary Weiss) and "Ballad Of A Thin Man" (Dylan), stand up equally well at the hands of this line-up. They also nail the resignation that's the essence of the Kuepper-Bailey penned "Messin' With The Kid" without overdoing it.
While "Take Me Down To Your River" doesn't build the same sonic fury as the studio version that doesn't mean this version loses anything in comparison, and nor does "Can't Find My Way Through The Door" fail for lack of poignancy.
Live albums might be holding patterns for most bands and this one's arguably such, but it'll do for now. Lap it up. - The Barman
I AM WHO AM, AND NOT WHO YOU WANT ME TO BE – Johnny Casino & The Secrets (Off the Hip)
Sometimes you have to go with the flow and not be too cerebral about an album and this is one of those moments.
This CD is a big body-shot aimed squarely at the heart, not the head. Lyrics aside (and they’re intelligent and heartfelt enough – not just throwaways) this is an album that needs to be heard – felt - in its whole without being over-analysed or filed away into a genre or classification. So let’s call it Rock and Roll and observe that it works.
On multiple levels; at times poignantly, at others forcefully, it’s a newsreel of big, bold and brassy sounds with Casino’s sometimes vulnerable, occasionally bitter and always engaging voice at the centre.
Johnny Casino and his Secrets (a rotating cast of collaborators whose ranks are determined by which city the bandleader finds himself in) are fighting the good fight on multiple fronts yet are still maintaining a consistency of sound. Theirs is a club whose membership is based on mutual respect. You could mix and match the players and still come out with a coherent whole. They know their rock and roll.
None less so than bandleader Casino who, as the album title infers, defies pigeonholing and dances to no-one’s beat but his own.
At times, “I Am…” sounds like the “Prehistoric Sounds” Saints or Louis Tillett and the Aspersion Caste with a big, swampy wall of brass, bar-room piano and bristling guitars pushing relentlessly through like a truck through marshland. At others, there’s a delicacy and variation of tone that borrows from country-rock or Chicago blues, passing through the inner-western Sydney Delta.
Mo of Sydney glam rockers the Hell City Glamours likened Johnny's vocal on "Can't Find My Way Through The Door" as "channelling Rick Danko" and even as someone who's not a massive fan of The Band sans Dylan, that'll do me as a description.
Variety abounds. There's a surreal Velvets-style builder ("Someday You'll Go") tinged with didgeridoo, a rocking pop classic ("Brother Grahame Says"), a Chuck Berry-meets-the-Groovies arse-klicker ("Can't Be Who You Want Me To Be"), a summery romancer ("The Road To Ithaca") and a disarmingly heartland-styled rail ("The Deaf Leading the Blind") that's contrastingly savage in its demolition of music industry commodification. All perfectly tracked to work as an album, not just a collection of songs.
The guests - Hoodoo Guru Brad Shepherd, The Boobytraps' Carrie Phillis and Kendall James and The Eastern Dark's Billy Gibson most prominent - are significant seamlessly integrated. Pianist/organist Jeremy Craib seems so integral to the sound that it'd be great to see him playing live full-time.
Casino's guitar playing is up to its usual greatness but it's a key element here, not the main object. He's proud of his vocal and rightly so. Above all, this is an album that's about the songs. All of which are original except for the opener, a fairly obscure Real Kids song "Who Needs Ya" that came out as a B-side on a Dog Meat Australian single 100 years ago. A canny choice.
I alluded to lyrics at the start. Don't ignore them; they're part of the whole, and about fleeting or re-kindled love, individualism and the emptiness of an industry that Johnny Casino is only too happy to sit on the edge of, looking in.
Well-kept Secrets he and his band might be, but while they and others like them keep making music this good - no, great - we can all live in hope.
Album of The Year.- The Barman
TAKE ME DOWN TO YOUR RIVER - Johnny Casino (Off the Hip)
This is a taster to the forthcoming long-player. Memo to Mickster at Off The Hip: Please bring it on.
Australian guitarist-singer Johnny Casino's been around in various incarnations since Christ was contracted on big dollars by Arko to play fullback for Manly. Or at least since they won their previous premiership. The Big Fella (and J.C. is Johnny Casino in this case - not the bloke with the beard) has really only stepped out of the shadows of his other bands in the last few years.
Since it's now his name on the shingle hanging above the door, Casino's available to take the wraps and the raspberries. Even a cursory listen to his recent efforts (a full length album and this, his second EP - and first under the solo moniker) tells you he's not likely to be copping brickbats.
The ease in which he finds his way around the studio is evident and so is the comfort level with his other players. Johnny picks bands depending on which city he's playing in and what the songs feel like. The tunes are timeless and expansive (more often in a rootsy American way) and limited only to whatever influence he pulls out of his past.
For example, "Take Me Down To Your River" has a Saints/Laughing Clowns flavour with trombone, sax and organ rumbling away. "Sunken Treasure" is an acoustic cut, just Johnny on guitars and studio wiz Mike Burnham on percussion - and builds to some gorgeous, darkly-burnished lead-playing.
As in the past, the EP format lends itself to some fun covers. "Outcast" is fairly true to the Animals' original while Glenn Campbell's "Try a Little Kindness" gets the horns treatment (and works a treat.) Boobytraps vocalist Carrie Phillis helps out on back-ups.
"Spicks and Specks"? Yes, the pre-falsetto Bee Gees classic - and in these hands you will believe.
Be tempted by the taster. Most of the songs won't appear on the long-player. - The Barman
COWBOYS AND INDIANS EP - Johnny Casino & The Secrets (Off the Hip)
A follow-up to the "New Clothes Old Shoes" album and it's up there with the long-player, no risk. This is a logical add-on for fans of the album and an ideal vehicle with which Johnny and his Secrets will conquer Spain in November 2007.
The title track is a strident mid-tempo rocker, bright and melodic and as good as anything that made the album. It could have come out of the West Coast circa 1968. The Secrets on this one are Johnny's Perth band; Ken "Killer" Watt and Mr Casino's guitars are a joy.
The alt.mix of countrified ballad "The Country Mile" isn't harmed by some additional guitar and percussion, while the take on The Box Tops' brief but sweet classic "The Letter" sears with Kent Steedman on guitar. I was privy to a demo which was great, but this mastered version is worth the price of admission on its own.
The country-rock "Drunk and Tired" I'm guessing from its cedit to be a James McCann tune, and it sways and swaggers like it should with a name like that. There's a massed, messy chorus ("I'm drunk and tired/And I fucked my shit up") to bring things home. Guru Brad Shepherd sits in with the Sydney Secrets (engine room of Ben Fox and Mark Horne) plus rollicking backing vocalists.
"New Clothes Old Shoes" is where the album took its title and it's a solo urban blues, just the Casino man and his acoustic. A nice closer that shows how Johnny has come on as a vocalist.
Makes you wonder why the album wasn't a double but also thankful that these tunes made it into the open air. - The Barman
NEW CLOTHES OLD SHOES - Johnny Casino & The Secrets (Off the Hip)
Those shoes cover a lot of stylistic ground on this debut long-player for Sydney guitarist-singer Johnny Casino but the walk never gets tiring. So let's get the hyperbole out of the way early and say this is nigh on the best Aussie release of 2007, at the year's halfway point. It has a confident, cocksure swagger (to continue the footwear/walking analogy) and, even with more guests than a Jet industry showcase at the Metro, manages to tie together so well, it's scary.
You should know Johnny Casino so let's leave the history lesson aside. It's all here if you're not sure. He's the common thread with his soulful if sometimes a little unassuming vocals, clever songs and confident, fiery guitarwork. While Johnny's churned out a sizeable and impressive body of recorded work, this is his most assured and accomplished.
Recorded over two-plus years with a couple of core bands and a host of other players, "New Clothes Old Shoes" covers bases from swampy blues to soulful hard rock to Midwestern heartland country in a way records just don't, these days. The tunes recall Dylan, the Flamin' Groovies (a Casino constant), Louis Tillett and The Aspersion Caste and Dylan/The Band. It's powered by strong, heartfelt songwriting and a liberal dose of personality. They still rock, and in a supremely satisfying way.
Parts of this will sit you on your arse. Case-in-point is the opener, "Everybody Loves Me". It cranks up with some rusty, quasi-Morricone chordage before the undertow of the Ben Fox/Mark Horne engine room rumbles in, dragging an in-your-face horn section with them. Casino and Mick Poole blaze away in the mid section and the combined effect is like a musical steamroller.
Next up, handclaps and a steady backbeat summon up "How Could I Ever Love You?" and its warm chorus and vamping Jeremy Craib Hammond recall Levon Hall and The Band. In a fair and just world this would be all over your radio. Fuck the person who invented syndicated playlists.
Third song is "If You Want It", which might have been the song best suited to an Asteroid B612 set list. Doesn't matter, it's a moot point with them on a break. There's a simple ascending chord pattern, a driving feel and some wonderful Brad Shepherd harmonica to fuel a Casino vocal, based around bacon fat lyrics that would do dirty old Andre Williams proud.
"Trying To Be a Man" is one of those plaintive, country-tinged pop songs that would have 'em crying in the aisles at the Grand Old Opry, with rollicking piano from Jeremy Craib and uplifting backing vocals from Billy Gibson and Grahame Spittles. Johnny really nails the vocal here, and the mood is engagingly rocking and unforced.
I could go on track-by-track but you can do that yourself. Then you can discover curve balls like the menacing, violin-laced (shades of Dylan's "Desire") "I Should Have Killed You When I Had The Chance", where guest vocalist Megan Bowden takes centre stage, or the bluesy, brassy bombast of "Nothing Left To Hide".
These might be Johnny Casino's songs but he's not too precious to turn a few over to someone else to sing, when it's right to do so. Carl Ekkman (The Hunchbacks, King Felix) shares the mic on the lament, "You Got Me Walkin'", while ex-The Eastern Dark bassist Bill Gibson takes the helm for "The Country Mile", a (Brad Shepherd) banjo-driven tune that'll probably shock longtime Asteroids fans for its levity and breezy feel.
That's understandable, but they should be revived by the smelling salts of "Keep On Keepin' On", a brutal aural storm where Casino's ragged vocal and horns duel with guitars in a set piece battle that'd do the "High Time" MC5 proud. Props will also come from the straight rocking brigade for "Only a Fool" where Kent Steedman lends some licks to an organ-fuelled, muscle car-driving song.
There's one cover, the live showstopper "Ballad Of a Thin Man", and whether there's irony in the big fella making this one his own is kinda immaterial, Mr Jones. Something sure is happening. It's one of Dylan's best putdowns, hands down, and if there was a way to direct just a small portion of its scorn at those in the mainstream music industry who will never hear this album because it's not on a major label, let's make it a done deal.- The Barman
GET SOME - Johnny Casino & The Secrets (Off the Hip)
Ostensibly a two-song sampler for the new album with 11 more tunes appended, this becomes a fine career retrospective for Johnny Casino, the omniprescent bandleader/guitarist-turned-singer on the Sydney rock and roll scene. A lot's been put into the forthcoming CD and on the strength of just this, it's going to be quite something.
Johnny Casino's paid his own dues and a few other people's too. As lead guitarist for Asteroid B612, he saw his band hover on the strength of a worldwide deal for a while before more or less sliding into inactivity. Strong but aurally flawed albums remain a legacy, with them more or less in hiatus. John's been working with the floating cast of Johnny Casino's Easy Action (and pick-up bands) to rock (and tattoo) his way around the world. but more recently his Sydney-based combo, Johnny Casino & The Secrets, has been taking his time.
I've been lucky enough to have been given a taste of the work-in-progress long-player by The Secrets and it's killer, even in its rough mix form. Augmented by some guests, it's been assembled when the band wasn't sharpening its act live.
"Trying To Be Your Man" is the loping opener on this sampler, building on an acoustic with swelling guitars and rolling piano filling things out behind Johnny's plaintive vocal. Bill Gibson's backing vox are the cream on top.
Blustering harp and blistering guitar from guest Brad Shepherd ignites the second unveiled Secrets song, "If You Want It", a stand-out feature of the live set and a little more measured, but no less magnificent, in its studio form. Cue some great sustained lead guitar.
The A side from Johnny's hard-to-find solo single "Nothing Left To Hide" is one of the bonus inclusions. Two songs apiece from the two Easy Action albums ("I Gotta Woman" being one of the better cuts on that recent one) swell the ranks, with the balance from Asteroid B612's formidable back catalogue.
If Off the Hip's intention is to build momentum until the release of the new album, they've pulled it off. You've been warned that both it and this sampler are pretty close to essential purchases. - The Barman
I PAID FOR AFFECTION. NOT THE HOUSE OF CORRECTION - Johnny Casino's Easy Action (Off the Hip)
Johnny Casino's Easy Action swept through Australia, Europe and selected parts of the USA in 2005 like an enema through an infirm nursing home patient on a licourice binge. Part-roughhouse brawlers, part-traveling musical medicine show, they put on a show chockfull of attitude and good times. Pity that low-key production and the occasional ill-chosen moment drag their second long player down a peg.
To be fair, it was always going to be hard matching "We've Forgotten More Than You'll Ever Know" which managed to grab a wheelbarrow load of rock's roots, chop them into small pieces and use them as tinder to build a fire hot enough to thaw a bank manager's heart. It was rough and raw and that suited the songs fine. This time around, the production's a problem; there's a lack of bottom end and the guitars could also do with more muscle.
No complaints with the stand-out track and opener, "Jack of Diamonds", where snaking psychedelic guitar (possibly from guest player Kent Steedman) add some sting, or the Groovies-ish "Gotta Get Back" which to me is quintessinal Easy Action. But the treatment of "I Gotta Woman" (a John Spittles original) sounds a bit thin and it's questionable whether we needed another version of Asteroid B612's signature "Straight Back to You" that doesn't detour much from the original.
There are some rocking moments but Easy Action's take on The Band's "Shape I'm In" isn't one of them. The original song by The Band is a dud anyway but co-vocalist Grahame Deluxe is making a fair first of it when The Cosmic Commander pipes in with his back-ups, sounding just like Popeye crashing a spinach party. The song's writer, Robbie Robertson, might shuffle off this mortal coil and join Rick Danko in the afterlife if he cops an earful. Come to think of it, I might post him a copy to pay him back for giving the world "The Weight".
Don't get me wrong. This isn't a a bad album. We might even become convivial mates over repeated listenings and a chat over the back fence. But "I Paid for Affection..." is boxing to the Queensberry Rules when it should have come out of its corner, foaming at the mouth and flinging off the gloves to fight bare-knuckle style, before tearing off my head and shitting down my neck. It's too damn well-mannered for its own good.- The Barman
WE'VE FORGOTTEN MORE THAN YOU'LL EVER KNOW - Johnny Casino's Easy Action (Steel Cage)
Now there's no valid excuse for not owning a copy of one of the best rockers of 2005. If you're a Yank whose been timid about parting with hard-earned for overseas imports, the good news is that Philadelphian label Steel Cage has issued a slightly re-worked version of this meisterwork in the USA. On the other hand, if you already bought a copy of the Off the Hip version (scroll down), a couple of substituted tunes ("Ain't That a Lot of Love" and "Treatin' Me Kind") gives you just cause for doubling up.
Steel Cage was a natural to pick this up, as the City of Brotherly Etc. Etc. is the American home for Johnny Casino's Easy Action. The two newer tunes are recent recordings, put down on tape by the Australian version of the band while taking a breather while on their recent Antipodean tour. Local member Grahame Deluxe take applies his vocal stupendously well (my initial mis-reading of the slick had someone else behind the mic - I should have just listedned harder). Ex-Melting Skyscraper Pete Patterson sings back-ups (on his holidays he also mixes it with members of this crew as part of the Philadelphia-based Chrome Horse Diplomats). The band brings a formidable player straight off the bench in Celibate Rifle Kent Steedman.
Not much more to say except this re-tracked and different looking version of the album is every bit as excellent as the Aussie version. The same comments and rating apply. Buy one (or both) of these or forever be consigned to the ranks of the terminally stupid. - The Barman
WE'VE FORGOTTEN MORE THAN YOU'LL EVER KNOW - Johnny Casino's Easy Action (Off the Hip)
The cocky statement inherent in the title might just be true. There's a righteousness and a streak of brash "we don't give a fuck" running through this disc that makes you want to turn the radio off for the rest of the week and immerse yourself in the Easy Action's sound. God forbid that a radio programmer could ever be enlightened enough to play THIS shit, so I might give the wireless the flick, although it doesn't usually take much...
Johnny Casino's Easy Action are the Spittles brothers from Asteroid B612 (Johnny, guitar) and Grahame, vocals, respectively) and a contingent of Philadelphians (The Cosmic Commander on vocals, Stylin' Steve McCarthy on bass, Jumpin' Joe Delucca on occasional keyboards, Johnny Ilisco on drums and Kevin McCarthy on vocals). Apparently the common links that bond Narrabeen and Philly are tattooing, wrestling and rock 'n' roll, so more power to both. Whatever the connection that unites this combo, their output is worth the trans-Pacific airfares.
JC's EA give The Easybeats' "Sorry" a throttling it'll never forget to open the disc and it's a signal of things to come. The Cosmic Commander's growl imparts a mood Little Stevie could never muster in his teen idol days and apologies are the last thing to spring to mind. If "Roy the Boy" isn't a tribjute to Mr Loney it should be and proves to be a handy reference point as well, as the Easy Action sit somewhere on the same shelf as the early, pre-Beatles fixated Groovies. Check the borrowed Asteroid B612 song ("Danny's Sister") for more nods to a precursor (Chuck Berry, in case you were wondering). As they might readily admit, anything the Easy Action have forgotten was learned from the best.
If most of these songs are roughly-administered doses of Rock Action, there are two exceptions to the rule: "Expressway To Your Heart" benefits from an organ groove to push it into soul territory before duetting vocalists (The Commander and Grahame?) pull it back, while the Johnny Casino-penned "Somedays" summons up the smell of hay and the sound of a clean country lick.
"Katrina Katrina" combines a singalong chorus with a bed of organ and a hammered riff, while "She's a Deceiver" clears to decks with some of the elder Spittles' best guitarwork (and a superb vocal, to boot). "Midnight to Six" gets the working over it fully deserves. The younger Spittles applies one of his best vocals to a playful, yet undeniable and ultimately frenzied, "Black to Comm", whose status as a highlight of Asteroid B612 sets is undiminished with this band in studio recorded form. Thus closes the disc.
The exciting new is that Philadelphia's occasional local band is a touring outfit, with runs through Australia and Europe planned for 2005. All in all, this album is venerable and essential shit. Miss it at your peril.– The Barman
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