UK solo gigs, unless stated otherwise
NEW ALBUM OUT NOW! - If You Want Loyalty Buy a Dog
The new Little Axe album If You Want Loyalty Buy A Dog is out now on Adrian Sherwood's On-U Sound label.
If You Want Loyalty Buy A Dog is the culmination of a 25 year long musical partnership between producer Adrian Sherwood and musician, Skip 'Little Axe' McDonald.
Skip's roots lie in the blues, first taught to him by his father while growing up in Dayton, Ohio. Adrian is considered one of the world's most versatile and prolific dub producers and a sonic visionary. The new album features the legendary drummer, Style Scott, playing with both Dub Syndicate and Roots Radics, drawing on both classic and new On-U Rhythms.
From start to finish this is a dynamic and un-compromising meeting of both forms of Roots music. Immaculately played and defined as never before, If You Want Loyalty Buy A Dog is, in the eyes of McDonald and Sherwood, their finest work to date.
Everyone gets the blues, says Skip McDonald, who should know. The legendary guitarist gets them – like, really gets them – more than most. “The blues are a fact of life,” he adds in a Dayton, Ohio twang undiminished by two decades of UK living.
“It doesn’t matter where you are. The blues have no boundaries.” An old school bluesman in the tradition of everyone from, say, Howling Wolf and Leadbelly to Blind Willie Johnson, McDonald channels the past into the future through his internationally regarded project, Little Axe.
A project that is more than just a band: “We’re a collective of different people who, at certain periods, come together to create great work.” Founded in the early 1990s, with five acclaimed albums to their credit, Little Axe are redefining the blues for the current generation.
Their melting pot is large, and bubbling. Here are addictive rhythms. Soulful vocals. Pinches of dub and funk, reggae and gospel. Oh-so-subtle samples and innovative electronics. And underpinning it all, McDonald’s shimmering blues guitar licks, conjuring a space where the dirt roads of the Deep South meet the shiny lanes of the Information Superhighway.
“We take the tones and feelings of the old blues and put today’s stamp on it,” says McDonald from his north London base, a home/studio that doubles as Little Axe headquarters. “We make music you can feel, taste and touch.”
Little Axe, then, are in constant motion. After a series of studio-based, effects-laden albums - and that’s albums, not records (“I like to play tunes that connect, tell a story”) – they have returned to their roots on Bought For a Dollar, Sold For a Dime.
For the first time in 17 years the original crew met, pressed flesh and played live. “It’s old school thinking,” muses the diminutive McDonald. “Back in the day when Stax and Atlantic were doing albums everyone would pile into the studio and played together. That was the ‘60s, the boom time for live music. That was my era: it wasn’t enough to look good. You had to know how to play.”
A host of musical titans assembled in the Big Room at Real World for this rare and privileged session, with all but the London-based McDonald and his co-producer, British dub maestro Adrian Sherwood, flying in from across the USA.
Titans such as soul singer Bernard Fowler, whose voice has graced sets by The Rolling Stones, Sly and Robbie and other names too numerous to mention. “Bernard’s voice has got everything. It’s emotional, changeable and incredibly powerful. We call blues singers like him elephants, ‘cause they sure know how to trumpet.”
There, too, was drummer Keith LeBlanc, a percussionist with a similarly impressive solo CV. Bassist Doug Wimbish, erstwhile axeman for rock outfit Living Colour and session player extraordinaire. All of whom made up the seminal British outfit, Tackhead (1987 – 1991 CK), a band whose futuristic beat was once likened to a thousand iron doors shutting at once - and whose pioneering devices are now integral aspects of rap and pop. LeBlanc, Wimbish and McDonald had previously blazed a trail as The Sugarhill House Band of the famed early ‘80s rap label Sugar Hill Records; they were, quite probably, the most important rhythm section on the planet.
“I’ve worked with a helluva lot of different people over the years,” says McDonald, who learned blues guitar from his father, Willie, a steel mill worker who would lull his son to sleep with bedtime songs instead of stories.
Young Skip made his live debut in a jazz band aged 10; aged 12 he was playing with a gospel quartet and an R&B band soon after. “Everyone has their own skills, their own way of doing things,” he continues. “Seeing things done from all these angles has been like breadcrumbs to me. So I like to take something old, something new and put a little bit of me in there. Oh yeah – and then I like to have a good time.”
And it’s blues that offers the best time of all. Such vibrancy is deftly captured on Bought For a Dollar, Sold For A Dime, buoyed by the almost psychic connection of all involved. “We played as if we were doing a gig with an audience. The colours, the feeling, the rhythm - everything matched.”
Real World’s state-of-the-art facilities opened its arms to other collective regulars: impassioned vocalists Saranella Bell and Kevin Gibbs, harmonica player Alan Glen and brass ensemble, The Crispy Horns. Deep-throated guest vocalist Ken Booth recorded his parts – for the affecting Can’t Sleep At Night and the measured, spacious Temptation – in Jamaica. Guest drummer, the Paris-based Cyril Atef, uploaded his contributions to the mixing studio, where McDonald and Sherwood put their final touches to tracks both new and reworked. The result is a live album, Little Axe-style.
“Adrian comes from an era of doing it one way,” says McDonald of Sherwood, the lap-top-leaning mixologist behind the ongoing dub/roots/sound system project, On-U Sound. “And I come from an era of doing it another. That whole exchange and mix and match and push and pull is what makes us good together.”
Sherwood’s cut-and-paste aesthetic extends to lyric writing. Tracks co-written with McDonald (under the names B Alexander and A Maxwell) mix original words with new phrases as they variously blend vintage blues with electronic triggers and the haunting dynamism of the Little Axe crew. ‘A man has to go back to the crossroads to find himself,’ intones Fowler on the dramatic, harmonica-laden Soul of A Man (“That’s about realising that life’s right in front of you”); Can’t Stop Walking, reconstructed from a 1930s blues track, is flecked with McDonald’s deft, intuitive chord changes. Can’t Sleep At Night borrows from a song by redoubtable Depression-era singer, Big Mama Thornton. And Come Back Home? “Cause you’ve been gone too long,” offers McDonald, mercurially.
Bought For a Dollar, Sold For a Dime boasts not one but two Tackhead covers. Take A Stroll – itself a cover of a 1930s blues track – is a rhythmic gumbo of dub-reggae and blues that “let us go back to our roots and rediscover ourselves.” The rousing, cinematic Hammerhead, a reworked chain gang song refreshed with gutsy horns, big blues voices and compelling female harmonies.
“It’s all part of a body of music that I know can be confusing to some people,” says McDonald of his collective’s various side projects (Bernard Fowler’s Bad Dog, Mark Stewart and the Mafia and a reformed Tackhead among them). “It’s music as a lifestyle rather than music as a career.”
Another Friend is an uplifting, gospel-flavoured number with a clap-happy choir, a sample of the old hymn How Great Thou Art and always, McDonald’s blues guitar: “It’s for all my friends who have passed away,” he says. “It’s for all those fallen angels.” 2 Late, with its admonishing lyrics (‘Are you a sheep or a man?’) and ambient yet urgent blues vibe, is an environmental call-to-arms: “Everyone knows about global warming, but they should be stepping in to fight. We’re saying do something now, while you still can.” Then there’s Temptation, which insists that people take their own advice instead of doling it out to others.
McDonald has. “I always say there are only two kinds of music. The music you like and the music you don’t like. I only make music I love.” Before starting work on Bought For a Dollar… he listened to a lot of his favourites. “I always do my research. I go through everyone from Beethoven, Skip James and Charlie Parker to Janis Joplin, Howling Wolf and Son House. In terms of feeling and emotion there’s nothing that’s said now that hasn’t been said before.” He pauses, smiles. “A lot of times I think people try and create the wheel again when you just have to do enough research. It’s better to work hard than wait for divine inspiration.”
Bought For a Dollar, Sold For a Dime hints at God-given greatness, nonetheless. McDonald might not have sold his soul at the crossroads, but he’s looked both ways – down the road of the old blues, up the highway of the future – before proceeding.
“I see myself as a time traveller,” he says. “I started out live and went into studio culture. I’ve gone all the way back and come full circle, though this time I’ve got the advantage of technology as well. Hey, I’m even doing covers of my own songs. It’s all part of the same puzzle.”
“I understand the blues better now that I’m older,” he continues. “But doing this album…” He flashes a grin. “This album has made me feel young again.”
Little Axe's first two albums, the critically exclaimed 'The Wolf that House Built' and 'Slow Fuse', are re-issued with loads of additional bonus material. Both releases will be only available as digital download.
A track by Skip 'Little Axe' McDonald is featured on this excellent compilation album - with Loretta Heywood and loads of other artists and producers – including Bomb The Bass, Daz-I-Kue, Afronaut, Andy Mitchell and more...
"'If You Want Loyalty Buy A Dog' is a textbook Little Axe album, stuffed with dub-blues grooves that manage to be simultaneously soothing yet unsettling."
"Skip 'Little Axe' McDonald comes full circle."
"If only Skip McDonald had a pound for every time someone said his use of old blues samples in contemporary world-dub settings reminded them of Moby's million seller 'Play'."
"It's a set that sounds both effortless and adventurous."
"Blues for modern times."
"If you have lost touch with Little Axe, this is the album to get you hooked back up with them again."