Inventive blues roots, shone through any number of stylistic prisms, showing light, dark and a lot of promise. That’s the Mark Pontin Group.
Release date: 26th November 2021
Label: Lunaria Records
Format: CD / Digital
You could get to think we here at ATB like these guys, what with reviews of their recent single and the live show, and you wouldn’t be wrong. What, frankly, is not to like? Pontin and his band, veterans of the Swansea Tawe Delta scene, have been treading the boards for a fair few years now, this being their 3rd outing, following Days of Destiny (2013) and Textures (2015), the latter particularly well received in UK blues circles. Is this the one to break free into a wider acclaim, I wonder, seeing no reason to think not? For this is blues with a much wider brush stroke than many, encompassing the full gamut of styles and influences, rather than just concentrating on head down boogie and bluster. not that they aren’t capable of that also.
Pontin here retains, for most of this record, his established rhythm section of Callum Morgan-Jones and James Garvey, on bass and drums respectively. (Interestingly, it appears they have since been replaced, as our recent review reveals by two newer pairs of hands) The sound is then augmented and expanded with the varied keyboards of Owain Hughes, additional brass and strings then joining for further embellishment across a number of other tracks. This enables, alternately, tinges of soul and jazz to enter the fray, at times calling to mind echoes of the Average White Band and Steely Dan; Curtis Mayfield even, in the masterful strings of Everything (Today). And, for those who need to know, Pontin himself transcribed all the requisite parts.
The record makes itself known with a short and evocative intro, Sunrise, solo guitar, all tremolo and echo, a bit Hank and a bit Gilmour, as running rainwater cascades down. (This is Wales, after all.) The aforementioned Everything (Today) then hits the ground running, a gloriously uplifting anthem, Pontin’s voice soaring above the orchestral backing, before a brief sear of scorching guitar tears through the ensemble playing. This is one classy song, building all the way, with the backing vocals of Ayesha Pontin giving an extra dollop of soulful sashay.
Don’t Sleep starts with treated organ, redolent of passage through a leslie cabinet, the cadence of the song a slow meander, with the backing chopping back and forth, some equivalently leslie-d guitar adding a very Floydian ambience. The vocal again excel, Tim Hamill adding his to those of the bandleader, he also playing the bass parts on this song. The funky This Will Never Be A Hit is maybe tongue in cheek, or just a representation of the vagaries of a chart that would sooner fill itself with anodyne autotuned pap. Either which way, it wouldn’t be out of place on a Sly Stone period piece, not least as it sneakily worms its way into your synapses. The following track, Starmaker, is perhaps the closest to standard UK power blues, being the sole track to feature just the core trio. Pontin goes the full Paul Rodgers here, managing to simultaneously channel Mick Ralphs, as Morgan-Jones steadies the baseline ballast, allowing Garvey to clatter around the kit with balanced abandon. Indeed, as the soloing progresses, other names might come to mind, perhaps even that of of one James Marshall Hendrix.
Changing the vibe entirely, pizzicato strings and cello beckon in the big ballad of the piece, Roll Me Easy, the guitar cutting through and over in time honoured. Llanelli Walkaways anyone? Given the setting for the studios where all this was fashioned. I am not usually a lover of big productions like this. Usually being the operative word. The next pair of tracks return to a more frenetic pace, Hughes’ keyboard runs in Forever a particular joy, Pontin’s guitar turning in a succinct melodicism, and Hotel Diablo, an all too brief instrumental, which has Hughes and Pontin jousting, Hughes now on electric piano, adding an almost fusion feel. Which is briskly dispatched by the confident swagger of the chanted vocal of Hell’s Kitchen, a distant hybrid relation of I Am The Walrus and Subterranean Homesick Blues. Is this spoiling by variety? Not really, as there is sufficient a strand of connective invention as to bring all these disparate essences together.
All blues albums need a song to reference freeways, this being no exception, with Freeway Fantasy again referencing the Dan, if a less angsty and more relaxed iteration of that band. The choogly meter is decidedly of New Orleans, neatly, or nearly, avoiding another applicable reference. (N’awlins? Meter? Meters? Yes?) Ending on more guitar and piano interplay, the record is again providing a veritable gumbo of new sounds, that then taken a full step further with Waiting, which could almost be the Isleys, in their full 70s soul and guitar iteration.
You have already heard and read about the single, Everything (Tomorrow) here, to which I can add nothing other than wow. Another big stringed epic, Hamill’s bouncy bass notes are splendid counterpoint to the ache of the orchestra and vocals. The ambience is again of Motown, when groups like the Temptations were swapping suits and ties for tie-dye and trackmarks. With another coruscating guitar solo to end that track, only room now for the closing Phoenix, almost a bookend like Sunrise, with picked guitar, delayed backing and vocals then coming on board, a few steps ahead the full orchestra, who swoop over the whole band handsomely. The closing sections of the song have a massive full screen build that begs to be heard in a multiplex, credits rolling, before Pontin cuts it all, wrapping it all up with a reprise of the opening first bar or two.
Blues, then, but maybe not as you know it. The genesis is clearly within that genre, but is taken as a launching pad for forays back and forth the years, making the synopsis of styles sound entirely, and rightly, contemporary. Don’t leave it six years next time, Mark!
Here’s the closer, Phoenix: