By Mark Ede.
Incredible as it seems (for me it seemed like only yesterday) but 2021 marks the 10th anniversary of the release of “Live At Hideaway” by Jo Harman and Company, the now long sold-out/discontinued first release from Jo, recorded as it was a good two years or more before the release of her much feted, critically acclaimed and commercially successful official studio debut, “Dirt On My Tongue”.
The backstory to “Live At Hideaway” is largely one of happy accident. Unlike most artists who have to work the 'toilet tours' and pubs before establishing themselves on the circuit, Jo had the good fortune to play the first-ever gig under her own name at London's prestigious 606 Club. The owner of that venue happened to recommend Jo to the owner of newly opened Hideaway Jazz Club in Streatham. Consequently, Jo found herself fast-tracked onto the London scene and being offered regular shows at one of London's more prestigious venues. Despite the fact that Jo Harman and Company had, by that time, only played a handful of shows in total, with an interchangeable line-up and without any attempt at the concept of rehearsal, a record was released (albeit in a low-key way) if only, as Jo remembers it, “as a showcase to get us more gigs and to have something to sell at the merch stand.”
Because of the ad hoc nature of the performance, and (largely, but not entirely) cover material, Jo all but subsequently disowned “Live At Hideaway” being, as it was, something of a bridge between her role as lead singer with Soul Reality Collective and her forging a career as an original artist. As she explains: “I always had a very firm vision of who I wanted to be as an original artist, but I didn't have too many songs of my own at that time - I was literally just starting out - and so I covered a lot of 'classic material', not least because we were required to do two hour sets at the various club dates that booked me. People have been very kind about it but the reality is that Hideaway is actually nothing but a jam and you can hear me, inexperienced as I was, calling off the cues throughout the songs.”
Despite Jo's personal reservations, it's considered by many good judges to be one of the most exciting live blues-rock albums ever made in the UK. So much so that, on two separate occasions, two noted labels offered licensing deals for “Live At Hideaway” and twice, Jo turned them down; albeit she did licence 'Better Woman' to Warners, France but that's another story.
One of the reasons for the album's popularity is the quality of the band. Because of her connections to Soul Reality, Jo not only found herself launched at some of London's most sought-after clubs but also with some of London's most sought-after musicians as her band members. Her main musical partner in crime Michael Davies may have been as inexperienced as Jo at that time, but it was obvious to all that he was a phenomenal talent. Mike subsequently proved this by going on to become the guitar player of choice for some of the biggest artists in the world including Jessie J, Emeli Sande and Rita Ora.
Then there was the hugely experienced John Michael McKenzie-Bassist (RIP) who, having seen Jo perform at the 606 Club, had offered himself as bassist to the wholly unknown young singer. No stranger to the business, John's CV at that time already listed David Bowie, Bob Dylan, Dr John, Tina Turner and dozens of other household-name artists.
If that's not enough, keyboard player Stevie Watts and drummer Martin Johnson arguably stole the show somewhat on this record with their incendiary playing, with Johnson holding the whole cavalry charge together with his incredibly assured, but wholly exciting playing, which was all the more impressive as it was his first gig with the band and there were no rehearsals! And after the “Live At Hideaway” gig, Stevie's reputation as probably the most exciting Hammond player in the country was confirmed. Anyone who doubts this should listen to the gear changes throughout their impromptu take on the Joplin Classic “Move Over” (listen out for those cues!)
Of course, front and centre of it all is Jo herself. At that stage, she is perhaps not yet the sophisticated, melisma-perfect singer she is today (“Britain's finest” according to Echoes Editor Chris Wells) but a voice of rare power, passion, grit and raw tone that prompted the Daily Mirror to christen her “Britain's finest female blues-soul voice.”
As ever, something was lost and something gained in the transition from the raw energy of “Live At Hideaway” to the knowing, lick-driven musicality of the singer on “People We Become”.
So, whether or not the singer represented on “Live At Hideaway” is the singer Jo herself want to be most identified with, there is little doubt that her identity and standing in the industry is now more than sufficiently secure for her to be comfortable with the recording being reissued on its 10-year anniversary and being available for the first time ever on vinyl.
Coinciding with the album release, the collective of musicians known as The Company have now been reformed to be the BiGiAM Agency live band. As such, they will be supporting other great singers in the BiGiAM family (as well as some great US touring artists such as Grammy winner Mike Farris).
The 10-year anniversary edition of “Live At Hideaway” comes out this summer in two-CD format (including a disc of never before released tracks) and, for the first time ever, the original sequenced tracks will be available as a 12-inch vinyl LP.