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The UK’s blue-eyed, soul scene has been in resurgence recently, thanks to artists like Adele, Sam Smith and Joss Stone. But wouldn’t you like to hear a voice with a more lived-in quality?
Hugh Kelly leaps out of the speakers with a tone that growls with the gravitas of life experience, reminiscent of Leonard Cohen or the late Joe Cocker. If we believe what Harry Chapin told us, back in the 70s, maybe it’s the drinking he did on his last big gig that make his voice go low?
That’s not far off the mark. Hugh puts the strength of his voice down to time spent in pubs and bars, but as a singer, not a drinker. That, together with busking unamped in the streets of his native Edinburgh, built the power in his vocals so he could be heard above the crowd. Take a listen and I guess you’ll be as amazed as I was to find that Hugh isn’t some long-standing musician with a back catalogue stretching through generations of music making. No, he is a 21-year-old newcomer, doing it all by himself (with help from dad, Tom) and already receiving accolades from local music press and radio.
Hugh’s debut EP Give Me All Your Love opens with a menacing quality to the title track. No cheesy love song, this is a story with a gritty undercurrent of black smoke and despair, rising to a heartfelt cry for help ‘I’m putting up with the pain, hold me up so I can breathe and give me all of your love‘. As the stripped-back guitar and hand-clap percussion give way to intensely dissonant arrangements and ghostly backing harmonies, Hugh rises to the challenge with a fervent insistence that dominates right through to the final chord.
With such a strong opening track, track two always has a tough job to do. “Spill My Blood” hits the mark, opening with a blues vibe that fully supports a title which, let’s face it, isn’t going to be about anything pretty. This is a song of struggle, steep climbs, getting knocked down and burning bridges, ultimately worked into a sado-masochistic ode to unrequited love ‘Claim my life…Break my bones..I don’t care what you do…Spill my blood!‘ Not for the fainthearted, this is ’50 Shades of Blues’ and more.
Opening with melodically forceful piano, “Knocked Out” exercises Hugh’s vocal chops with an epic soul-ballad, deeply personal and pleadingly beautiful.‘Please don’t hurt my pride, I’ve got nothing left inside’. This is not a relaxing listen, but possibly the perfect musical companion on those nights when things aren’t going well and we all need someone to sing it like we feel it.
Just when you thought you could categorise Hugh as a masculine torch-singer, he closes the collection with a fun, honky-tonk-imbued ditty “Keep Me Warm”. At last! He’s found someone to enjoy life with! ‘I know we won’t get back to sleep til morning light, so baby keep me warm tonight’. It’s a testament to the quality of Hugh’s song-writing that, just four tracks into his repertoire, listeners will care whether he makes a go of it with this new love interest. Lets hope so, if only to provide plenty of experience for new material.
Supported by producer David Whitmey, Hugh Kelly has created songs on Give Me All Your Love that deserve a place in the record collection of any alt-blues/soul fan. Currently recording in the USA, Hugh promises to release a new collection later this year, which has to be worth listening out for. I’d love to hear Hugh fronting a full-on rock band, or his treatment of the Great American Songbook, complete with Big Band – his voice has the potential to take him wherever he wants to go. Meanwhile, catch him on tour in his native Scotland, Newcastle and London through June – check out the dates here. And if you are making your way to the Edinburgh Fringe this August, be sure to find him there too.
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