Right from her big US breakthrough in 2011, Samantha Fish has been one of those artists who could often be relied upon for a quality product. Carving out a niche in dirty blues rock on her earlier albums, the guitarist/vocalist often sounds more interesting than the plagiaristic Joe Bonamassa and more charismatic than many blues performers. Moving forward, she branched out into R&B (2017’s ‘Chills & Fever’ and 2019’s ‘Kill Or Be Kind’) and even a bit of country (2017’s Belle of The West’). At her very best, her work sounds like a homage to the bluesiest side Bonnie Raitt colliding with early ZZ Top – a fiery concoction that allows for some brilliantly impassioned vocals and hefty slide playing. Even at her worst, occasionally phoning in blues rockers with more balls than brains, her sense of presence and a strong vocal style is enough to maintain interest.

This live release from 2022 will certainly please fans who’ve not been quite so enamoured with Sam’s softer side and musical curveballs in the few years leading up to its release. A seven song set recorded without an audience, the prosaically titled ‘Live’ presents seven tracks from ‘Kill Or Be Kind’ in a very natural state. The lack of overdubs allows the material to breathe, and the one-take recordings more than show Fish’s vocal talents at their absolute sharpest.

This is especially the case on lead single ‘Bulletproof’, a tough tour-de-force that isn’t shy in pushing the guitars to the fore. From the outset, the marriage of chunky slide guitar work and bass drum stomp drips with attitude, and stepping to the mic, Fish’s voice comes loaded with a bluesy cry and almost sexual power. Hitting the chorus, the volume increases about five fold, and a layer of distortion gives the vocal a real sense of attitude. It’s after dropping into the second verse, though, that Sam and her band really start to come alive. The tightness in the unit is without question, and the way her chunky guitar sound challenges a pumping bass for dominance gives an even stronger impression of a band about to kick off. And sure enough, when the instrumental section inevitably hits, Fish melts her fretboard with some severely angry slide, in a no-frills and all fire display of classic blues rock fire. In comparison, the studio cut sounds sedate – stifled, even. There’s clearly a superb performance waiting to cut loose without quite managing it. This, finally, gives fans the experience to hear it in a loud and unrestrained fashion, and it really doesn’t disappoint.

Likewise, versions of ‘Watch It Die’ and ‘Love Letters’ come with a very welcome extra punch, the former very much favouring some dirty guitar work dominating a hard working band and the latter making a better use of the contrast between the number’s Joan Osborne-esque soulful and disquieting verse, and the classic Samantha Fish fuzzed up blues driving a classic sounding chorus. In lots of ways, this version of ‘Love Letters’ best presents Fish’s crossover potential at this time. There are plenty of moments where her huge, crying voice compliments some tastefully applied horns, but there’s time enough for an especially angry lead break too – something that’ll certainly please those who’ve followed Fish’s career from the very start.

Stretching out, ‘She Don’t Live Around Here’ is pulled across seven minutes – longer than its studio equivalent – but there’s never any feeling of a band playing for time. More time is allotted to a fantastic Booker T,-esque organ solo, and some of Fish’s guitar work is afforded a grubbier send off, but in the main, the song itself doesn’t suffer for any extra embellishment. It always was a highlight of ‘Kill Or Be Killed’ but during the moments where Fish’s guitar rises up, this definitely sounds much fuller. Despite Sam’s playing often being a highlight, in this case, its quickly outshone by an absolutely jaw-dropping vocal. As with the studio take, the bulk of the track features a very emotive delivery, which like the rest of this recording, sounds so much better without the applied studio sheen. However, approaching the mid point where everything ramps up in both volume and intensity, Fish’s vocals exceed expectations, especially when reaching for some massive, crying notes at the climax. If there were any doubt previously, this makes it very clear: forget Beth Hart (whose work all too often favours volume over finesse), Fish is one of the greatest vocalists blues-rock has seen in a long time.

With its stripped down approach favouring an almost singer-songwriter tone underscored by a light bluesy lilt, ‘Dream Girl’ provides a great contrast with the noisier stuff, but by unleashing more of her Bonnie Raitt-esque influence, it really shows off the other side of Fish’s voice with ease, leading to the kind of track that can be revisited often without any fear of it losing its spark, and ‘Fair-Weather’ reworks a great studio cut into an even better live staple by allowing for a broader and more natural vocal throughout. A couple of tonal wobbles and an unexpected bum note from the band midway comes as a surprise on first listen but, if nothing else, it proves that unlike some of the great “live” albums of the past, this is absolutely, genuinely the real deal.

A definite highlight along with ‘Bulletproof’, the take of ‘Kill Or Be Killed’ sounds similarly natural, but thankfully doesn’t forgo any of its soulful elements in place of a little extra volume. Throughout the performance, the electric piano dances in a very natural style above a dominant bass, and a classy horn section fills the chorus much in the same way as the studio take. The band are great, but its quickly obvious that Fish is the one true star as she latches on to a broad, curling vocal performance that’d put Joss Stone in the shade. It’s a vocal that, expectedly, attacks in a way that the studio recording never really allowed, and when the guitars briefly break through, there’s an extra reminder that this live and undubbed session really favours Fish’s dirtier guitar work. This is absolutely perfect. Melodic yet punchy; both soulful and angry. A must-hear.

In taking some of Samantha Fish’s material and presenting it in its most basic form, ‘Live’ is certainly a release that’ll please both fans and the curious alike. The material has really been brought to life, and the lack of audience allows for a much closer listen to the band than a more traditional live recording from a crowd filled venue. Whichever way you approach it, this is a stunning recording – a release that’s honestly one of 2022’s very best. Absolutely unmissable.

Buy the album here: Samantha Fish – Live

July 2022