Guy Littell. Whipping The Devil Back

Wonderful thing the internet. One moment you’re writing about Dan Stuart and Antonio Gramienteri and next you’re contacted by an Italian songwriter who’s supported these guys in concert and who wants to send you his album. Blabber’n’Smnoke are an obliging crew so pretty soon Gaetano Di Sarno AKA Guy Littell was spinning in the player and we’re glad we replied to his email.

Signore Di Sarno is from South Italy, near Naples and has been writing songs since his early teens. He recalls a Damascene moment when listening to Neil Young’s My My Hey Hey (Out Of The Blue) which led to him deciding to become a musician. After several years playing in various bands he stepped out on his own in 2009 with an EP release. Obviously in thrall to American culture he records under the name Guy Littell, a nod in the direction of Ward Littell, FBI man turned mob lawyer in Ellroy James’s Kennedy assassination novel, American Tabloid. The EP and following album, Later, created waves in the Italian music scene with Littell gaining prized support slots with visiting American acts including Steve Wynn, more of which later. However it’s a hardscrabble world and despite apparent acclaim (according to numerous Google translated reviews and interviews in the Italian music press) Littell has to take a night porter position to make ends meet and it was while doing this that he wrote much of Whipping The Devil Back.

The lonely life of a night porter, neon florescence, streaming videos on YouTube, informs a few of the songs on Whipping The Devil Back such as Lonely And Happy Night and Waiting For My shift To Start however the very starkness of the album provokes a sense of isolation and outsiderness. Littell’s high register invariably leads to comparison to Neil Young, one of his avowed heroes, and it’s Young’s fragile and cracked solo efforts of the mid seventies (Will To Love, Motion Pictures, Borrowed Tune) that loom large. With Littell playing guitar and “lonely piano” along with Fernando Farro on occasional electric guitar, synth and drums it’s a stripped down sound that occasionally effervesces with bursts of guitar or is warmed by keyboard support such as on the tender Deep Enough, one of the highlights here. While it’s not a lo fi album per se elements of Mark Linkhous and Will Oldham are present on some of the songs such as Cedar Forest where a lonesome guitar wails and piano drips aimlessly and on the closing song, You Disturb The Light, which is a wonderful wail of a song. Elsewhere Littell jumps headfirst into Neil Young territory with the excellent title song that lopes along in a fine manner with harmonica provided by none other than Steve Wynn.

Mark Eitzel. Broadcast, Glasgow. Saturday 16th August with Jim Dead and Ally Kerr.

P1020595
I’ve heard some folk call Mark Eitzel the best songwriter in the world today. While that might be moot there’s no doubting that over the course of thirty odd years he’s delivered some of the most powerful, stark and emotionally naked songs of his generation. The songs might be sweetened by his excellent warm honey toned voice (which has seen him covering classics from the American Songbook very successfully) and there was even a moment back in the early nineties when his band, American Music Club seemed about to breakthrough to the mainstream with the financial backing of Reprise and Virgin and their album Mercury. It was not to be however and AMC went into a hiatus with Eitzel setting off on his solo career which has seen him offering electronica, morbid folk songs and sweeping melodrama over the years. Tonight he’s solo and when he gangles onto the small stage looking quite limber for his 50 plus years he immediately is engaging with a wry, dark humour which is somewhat at odds with his awkward body language as he wrapped himself around his guitar. No matter as the moment he launches into I Love You But You’re Dead it’s apparent to all that we are in the hands of a bleak genius, Scott Walker meets Leonard Cohen, with the opening lines Let’s go toast the twilight at the old horror house setting the tone for much of the night although All My Love which followed allowed the audience a glimpse into the transcendent world of Eitzel with its dreamy delivery, his voice clear as a bell and his guitar work outstanding. A tortured rendition of I’ve Been A Mess was a fine example of Eitzel’s ability to transform his agonising into art, a genuinely pin drop moment as he transfixed the audience with his vocal contortions however his clown persona then surfaced as he noted that someone at his previous concert had tweeted that this was tuneless wailing before he went into a ribald story about pitching a song to Celine Dion’s handlers.

He then went on to dedicate the next song to the UK comedy character Mr. Humphries from Are You Being Served. Firefly was given full rein, powerful and dramatic with Eitzel straining at the leash but on the next song Eitzel, tied into his work, was thrown off course by the flash photography of an audience member to the extent that he stopped mid song and requested it stop. Full disclosure here that it was this reviewer who screwed up the momentum Eitzel had built up. He soon recovered and within a few songs was back on course but it did screw up my concentration to the extent that the rest of the night was a bit of a blur however I Spent The Last ten Years Trying To Waste a Half an Hour and a new song along with a crammed encore with a curfew in place again had the audience enthralled as Eitzel seemed to spill his soul out on stage. You can argue till the cows come home whether he’s the best but on this form he certainly is riveting.

Prior to Eitzel the show commenced with a short set from local hero Jim Dead who delivered his dry and dusty ballads with sombre guitar and bleak words, bleached and burned like a Peckinpah movie left out in the sun. Ally Kerr provided some Al Stewart like folk songs with a tender touch and fine accompaniment from violinist Caroline Evans.

Kris Delmhorst. Blood Test/Anders Parker. There’s A Bluebird In My Heart.

Regular listeners to Iain Anderson’s Radio Scotland show might be familiar with Kris Delmhorst as Iain has played her songs regularly over the years. I was surprised to discover that Blood Test is her first album since 2008’s Shotgun Singer. Since then she’s encountered motherhood but thankfully she’s now back with this excellent slice of simmering songs that are in turns tender and fiery. She’s very ably supported in this endeavour by two crack musicians in the shape of Mark Spencer and Anders Parker with Parker on guitars and bass and Spencer also on guitars, bass, pedal steel, vibraphone and keyboards. Konrad Meissner supplies percussion throughout. Together they create a hermetic world that occasionally pulses with menacing electronics in the shape of the guitars and brooding organ but otherwise glides along with acoustic murmurings as Delmhorst’s fine voice rings clear.

The album opens with the title song, a simple strummed acoustic guitar supports Delmhorst initially before the pedal steel swoons in and the band settle into a country lope much in a Neil young vein. Homeless is similarly stripped back with Delmhorst’s voice much to the fore and the music restrained with gentle piano chords and rippling guitar. The lyrics muse on the temporary human condition reminding us that in a sense we are all “homeless,” merely passing through, meandering through life and to reinforce this there’s a wonderfully meandering guitar solo from Parker that recalls Ollie Halsall’s work with Kevin Ayers. 92nd St. revisits Delmhorst’s childhood N.Y. stomping grounds and it’s a grittier affair here despite the tenderness of the opening verses as Delmhorst paints a wonderfully vivid picture of a wintry New York as (presumably) a boyfriend spends his time listening to Monk and ‘Trane. The lyrics recall the likes of Janis Ian or Paul Simon and as the song builds up steam with bass and drums piling in it moves into Patti Smith territory before Parker rips out on guitar. Saw It All glowers balefully at the rape of the environment as it oozes menacingly from the speakers, a slow burning blues with fervid organ and biting guitar breaks it has a sense of a sixties psychedelia around it. Bees continues the environmental bent, a hymn to our striped little friends while We Deliver praises the cycle of rain and the sun on another sixties sounding anthem. Delmhorst dips into confessional mode for Little Frame which allows her voice the opportunity to shine while the band lay down a fine shuffle behind her before they launch into the almost folk rock Byrds/Fairport mold that is Bright Green World while the early seventies country rock sound appears to be the template for the very brief Temporary Sun where Mark Spencer lets loose on some fine guitar. Delmhorst comes back to earth with the simple city song of Hushabye with Spencer adding some fine piano and the nostalgic bent continues in the yearning My Ohio which shimmers with restrained pedal steel. Finally, Delmhorst revisits Mother Nature with the closing song, Lighthouse, with the drums laying down a firm beat as organ swirls around like waves swishing around rocks.

Blood Test is a great album that has a maturity in the lyrics while the band players are all excellent, perfect for a late night listen.

Coincidentally Anders Parker has just released his latest album, There’s A Bluebird In My Heart. As you can hear on Delmhorst’s album, he’s a very fine guitarist. Under the name Varnaline he’s released a slew of albums while we reviewed his collaboration with Kendall Meade here. There’s A Bluebird In my Heart is being considered a return to Parker’s earlier work with Varnaline with a rockier sound harking back to mid nineties alternative rock and it’s true that his guitar work drips all over the album, riffing and rippling while he proves he can write some fine love songs as well as tackling bigger issues. The album opens with the epic eight minutes plus of The Road, a song that has as many byways and turn offs as the A9. A sly guitar leads into a mild mannered intro that again harks back to simpler times before the song picks up speed and piledrives to a Crazy Horse type ending. Animals is a down and dirty blues song that reminded me for some reason of the grand old days when The Groundhogs could get into the charts with supersonic amped up blues guitar riffs, it’s powerful stuff. Don’t Let The Darkness In is surprisibly sunny although Parker again plays around with tempos while Unspoken is an ethereal acoustic guitar laced ballad. The down-home feel is maintained in the ukulele tune Silver Yonder. Feel It is an impressive and joyous song with guitar sparkling throughout and reminiscent of Rich Hopkins’ churning and gurning guitar epics. The wonderfully named Jackbooted Thugs (Have All The best Drugs) returns to the expansiveness of the opening song and repeats its portmanteau style as Parker weaves various melodies into a powerful whole with his curling guitar lines creating an air of menace. After this sonic maelstrom, he ends the album with another ukulele ditty, See You On The Other Side, which is short and acts as a postscript to the album and sums up his philosophy. A challenging but ultimately rewarding listen.

Anders Parker “There’s A Blue Bird In My Heart” album promo. from Anders Parker on Vimeo.

Danny & The Champions Of The World. Live Champs! Loose Music.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen such a buzz around a forthcoming release as surrounds this live recording of the magnificent Danny & The Champions Of The World. Ever since it was announced social networks and actual people (remember them) have been following every utterance and pronouncement on Facebook and Twitter along with some early reviews. It’s testament to The Champs’ current status as perhaps the best live band in the UK right now as they’ve relentlessly toured on the back of their last album “Stay True” which won accolades right left and centre while they were voted best band in the Americana UK readers poll for 2013.

I’ve been fortunate enough to see the band twice this year and can honestly say that both nights were the highlights of the year so far. Danny George Wilson grabs the attention as the front man, passionate and on fire, barking out the lyrics and acting as ringmaster to the hugely talented band he has grouped around him. An excellent songwriter (as evidenced on the albums going back to Grand Drive days) Wilson has supplied his Champs with prime musical DNA which on stage leads to extended workouts allowing the band to stretch out as Danny pumps the audience like an old time revue MC. Tight and disciplined they never descend into jam land, the solos are all in service to the song and as a unit they can hunker down allowing Danny full rein as chorus leader, cajoling the crowd. In addition they can switch from country to soul to rock’n’roll almost at the drop of a hat with the show as a whole offering a variety of styles recalling the likes of Van Morrison, Bruce Springsteen and Otis Redding.

It almost goes without saying that anyone who has seen The Champs recently should be champing at the bit for this opportunity to relive the experience in the comfort of their own armchair. For the others I’d suggest that their album is almost on a par with that doyen of live albums, Van Morrison’s Its Too Late To Stop Now. Not in the sense that it sounds similar (although The Champs certainly have more than a whiff of Morrison’s Caledonia Soul about them) but that it’s a perfect capture of an artist at the height of his powers as the songs tumble out, each one a gem. (Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket, an autobiographical tale, opens the album and immediately the sinewy suppleness of The Champs grabs you. A Southern backbeat befitting The Band drives the song while pedal steel glides. Sax and gutsy guitar solos burn for a while before the steel hovers back into view on a song that stirs up a powerful emotional pull. Cold Cold World is, simply put, an excellent slice of country styled Motown dance stance that shows off the band’s tight playing along with Wilson’s way with a catchy riff. There’s more Motown mischief with the Miracles styled Let’s Grab This World With Both Hands which oozes soul before the lengthy Colonel And The King lets the band off of the leash, ripping into the song with Paul Lush on guitar firing off rapid volleys as the rhythm section batter on like an express train. A fiery solo from Lush eventually gives way to a master class in pedal steel from Henry Senior as the tempo slows and Free Jazz Geoff Widdowson lets fly on sax. The elements all converge from here on in as the band whip into a frenzied state before winding to the end, an astonishing performance which is as powerful as anything The Allman Brothers laid down at the Fillmore. Darlin’ Won’t You Come In From The Cold and Stop Thief are soulful entries and disc one ends with the crowd favourite Henry The Van which engenders a fantastic crowd sing-along.

Other Days opens disc two with more soul styled pleadings from Wilson as the band weave pedal steel and sax into a fantastic sounding amalgam of soul and country Every Beat Of My Heart is a rip roaring E Street Band type number as is You Don’t Know (My Heart Is In The Right Place) with the band in rip roaring form, parping sax, crunchy guitar and tight solos delivering a killer punch. Restless Feet, a song from Streets Of Our Time is graced by the presence of Trevor Moss and Hannah Lou who sang on the original. Its Dylanish heritage gets a hefty Muscle Shoals makeover with pedal steel snaking throughout the song while Lush rips out an audacious solo guitar burst. After this we’re into the encores on the night with Been There Before a slick streamed stroll that has Wilson growling and scatting as the band vamp magnificently. Finally These Days ( where Wilson initially forgets the words!) has a Stax pumping beat that leads straight to the feet, live or on disc you can’t help but jive to this. Chris Clarke on bass drives the song on as the band lock tight into a mighty groove.

Danny & The Champs are definitely on a roll and this album caps what has been a tremendous year for them. They’re slated to appear at Jack White’s Third Man Records stage at the next Americana Music Festival in Nashville while they will be swinging back through the UK in October including a date in Glasgow. The album is released on 29th September and you can order it here.

Tour dates

website

Robbie Fulks. The Admiral Bar, Glasgow. Friday 8th August, 2014

P1020576

A packed crowd attended this show from North Carolina born, Chicago based Robbie Fulks on this his first visit to Glasgow in around seven years and it’s a fair bet that a good percentage of them were at his last concert given the familiarity with his songs on evidence tonight. Taking time out from a UK tour with The Mekons to appear here while his companions headed up to Inverness prior to their show at Belladrum, Fulks elected not to have a night off citing his affection for promoters The Fallen Angels Club and recalling that he played their first ever Glasgow Americana festival all those years ago.

A tall guy, Fulks just about had headroom in this cellar bar but his main concern was the lack of air conditioning as the place was like an oven even before he came on. He didn’t complain mind you, instead it became part of his comic patter which throughout the show threatened to outshine his performance of his excellent songs. Hugely funny at times he gave us a great impression of Jonathon Richman as if he were a mixture of Spock and Napoleon Dynamite, imagined his pals, The Mekons, watching Tom Jones at Belladrum that night ( throwing in some Tom Jones’ hip shakes) while towards the end he freewheeled some improvised comic lyrics comparing Glasgow and Edinburgh and referencing Monty Python. If he weren’t such a great writer and performer he’d make a fine stand up comedian.

However we were here for the songs and Fulks rewarded us in spades. Opening with Georgia Hard his fine tenor voice had the audience spellbound while his guitar break was a fine reminder that he is a top notch picker. Rockbottom Population One followed before Fulks introduced a song from his latest album, Gone Away Backwards, explaining that the album was an opportunity to return to his roots with an acoustic bluegrass sound. Sometimes The Grass Is Always Greener certainly bore that out with his fine guitar work and lonesome voice sounding like a one man bluegrass band. Classic songs tumbled out of Fulks including I Push Right Over and, a highlight of the night and another song from Gone Away Backwards, I’ll Trade You Money For Wine where he placed a capo high on his guitar neck to produce a claw hammer effect and for a short time transported the bar to the Appalachians. This was shiveringly good.

Midway through Fulks asked for audience requests which were then thrown thick and fast at him and he obliged almost al. Cigarette State ( he congratulated the audience for laughing each time he repeated the line Alabama’s grand, the State not the band) featured another incredible guitar break which would give Richard Thompson a run for his money while Scrapple occasioned a great story on how he was offered a prime slot at a Scrapple convention before he enlightened the organisers on the lyrical content. The Buck starts Here was given a tremendous outing, again with an absurdly funny Owens story to go with it before closing requests with I Like The Bangle Girl. Let’s Kill Saturday Night ended the show before Fulks returned with his sublime doggerel and finely an upstanding She Took A Lot Of Pills And Died which had the crowd on their feet as he left the stage and walked around them.
P1020581

Soaked to the skin almost Fulks finished and headed straight to the merch table where he gracefully spoke to just about everyone in the room as they filed by. He was still there when we left humming several of his songs and wondering how long before he comes back. One of the best shows of the year so far.

Steve Earle/Monica Queen. Glasgow Kelvingrove Bandstand. Thursday 7th August.

P1020566

First opportunity to attend a show at the refurbished bandstand in Kelvingrove Park and what a change. Not so much in the venue but actually having a ticketed place to sit while the arena was enclosed by a battery of drink and food stands, OK if you dig cider and seemingly many of the audience did with a constant trail of imbibers climbing to and from their places for much of the evening and consequently ensuring that the inadequate toilet facilities had huge queues so that to spend a penny one missed several songs from the show. Anyway, gripe over, bar the fact that Kelvin Walkway was closed southward so that when the show was over the throng had to squeeze through a small park gate and in pitch black find their way to Sauchiehall Street, a potential disaster I thought.

On the bright side it was a bright day. Sunshine through the day had dimmed somewhat by evening although it remained warm and dry and once the sun had set and the arena lights came on it was a magical sight, adding to the warmth from the crowd to the man they had come to see. It was still daylight when Earle came on stage, solo, guitar, harp and mandolin to hand. This current tour is just him, his equipment and a suitcase, a minstrel zigzagging through Europe for around two months. His first show on the tour was at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival two weeks ago and while the show was fine there was a lack of spark, not something one generally expects from an Earle show. Tonight, with a similar set list (and the same anecdotes) Earle was revitalised, perhaps well warmed up after several shows, perhaps the venue (and Glasgow, there does seem to be a special relationship here), perhaps the audience reaction, singing along by the third song, going bananas for Galway Girl and crowding to stand in front of the stage like moths to a flame, dancing and generally, as we say here, giving it laldly. Whatever it was Earle fed on it with the end result a truly magnificent show.

P1020532

With such a back catalogue to choose from Earle could have played twice as long and still not satisfied everyone however the show followed a trajectory that allowed Earle to warm the crowd up before some breakup songs (he’s in the throes of yet another divorce it seems), songs that documented or were written when he was in the grip of his addiction before homing in with the expected crowd pleasers to finish. Having said that he opened the show with an unfamiliar song (Girl On The Mountain?) but swiftly followed up with My Old Friend The Blues and I Ain’t Never Satisfied, the latter with the audience joining in on the chorus. Taneytown was followed by the heartbreak songs Now She’s Gone and Goodbye with Earle quipping “same girl, different harmonica” in between. Sparkle and Shine showed his romantic bent while for Valentine’s day he delivered the first of his stories relating how he had to write the song as he couldn’t drive to buy flowers on Feb 13th as he didn’t have a licence before going on to berate the 14th as a ploy to sell cards. Romance done with Earle launched into a ferocious delivery of I Feel Alright which lifted the show up several notches, from her on in he could do no wrong. A heckler was shut up with Earle telling him he “didn’t have a fuckin’ say in what I play up here, this is my job man,” although later after he baited another shout out asking if he was on probation and had to get home early before his bracelet blew up, he did add that the request would come later.
South Nashville Blues was powerful with Earle demonstrating that armed only with a guitar he can transform misery into magic. At the end he said that the song made his addiction sound much more fun than it actually was before stating “welcome to my nightmare” and delivering a stark and equally powerful CCKMP. His announcement that he would be celebrating his twentieth year of recovery in September was greeted with applause. Earle then played tribute to the late Townes Van Zandt with a story and a rendition of Rex’s Blues followed by a mesmerising Fort Worth Blues. By now it was dark and a portion of the audience had started to drift towards the stage in a similar manner to the insects you could see swirling around the spotlights. A cheer erupted as Earle strapped on a mandolin and sure enough (after a slight sound hiccup) Dixieland, The Galway Girl and Tom Ames’ Prayer started the party portion of the gig. Dancing erupted, front stage and elsewhere as the Celtic elements of the songs ratified Earle’s hold on the Glasgow folk. A terrific tale about Earle’s then errant son Justin and a missing revolver led into the very spirited The devil’s Right Hand before Copperhead Road plunged some of the crowd into a frenzy. Earle returned for one song, prefaced by a lengthy introduction. He told us he was travelling to play in Tel Aviv in a few days time, an announcement that seemed to draw a gasp from some of the audience. Explaining that he was teaming up with a friend, David Broza, an Israeli peace activist who proposed to play a sunrise show at the ancient fortress of Masada on Sunday despite the show being cancelled by the authorities, Earle compared the pessimism of those who think of the Palestinian cause as a lost cause with his own past and recalled passing bomb detectors to check into hotels in Belfast back in the eighties, another lost cause back then that proves things can get better. This was soaked up by the crowd as Earle ended the night with Jerusalem, a demonstration not only of his artistic skill but also a reminder of his mighty heart.

P1020557

Pity poor Monica Queen who opened for Earle with partner Johnnie Smillie on guitar. The usual issues for opening acts were amplified with the grounds less than half full, folk queuing for their ciders and meeting, greeting and seating themselves down. In addition their amplification was barely adequate to carry to the back. Despite this Queen captured those folk at the front and the others paying attention with a fine set of songs. By the time they played an excellent cover of Wrecking Ball more folk were listening and the hometown road trip of The 260 allowed Queen’s yearning crystal clear voice full rein. With a switch to electric guitar for the last number, The Holiest Night, they created a small cathedral of sound despite the hubbub coming from the carnival of cider tents at the back.

P1020468

Ags Connolly. How About Now. Drumfire Records

They say you can’t judge a book by its cover, perhaps the same is true for an album but West Oxfordshire’s Ags Connolly certainly lays out his stall on the cover of How About Now. Connolly is pictured, solitary, in a bar with a lonesome bottle of Lone Star beer in front of him as he stares at a woman leaving. The bar is decorated with posters of honky tonk heroes including Waylon and Willie along with Hank Snow, Johnny Paycheck and Davis Allan Coe. Unsurprisingly when you get to the music it’s a fine collection of beer and tear stained songs with a nice big dollop of twang to go with it.

Connolly describes himself as an “Ameripolitan” musician, a term coined we think by Dale Watson who felt that “country music” has been co-opted and irreversibly corrupted by Music Row in Nashville. There’s now an Ameripolitan Awards scheme which sets out its mission quite firmly here . Suffice to say that Connolly sings country music that is firmly rooted in the old tradition with no trace of big hats, AOR rock or autotune in his voice. From the start of the album he again sets out that old stall of his with the mighty proclamation, When Country Was Proud, which celebrates Johnny Paycheck’s The Little Darlin’ Years and name checks many of the outlaws pictured on the album cover. It’s a cracking song with curling pedal steel, saloon piano and big thick creamy guitars while Connolly’s voice bears comparison with the likes of Jennings.

Connolly racks up winner after winner on the songs that follow with several hard edged rockabilly and honky tonk numbers including I saw James Hand (another nod to one of his heroes) and The Dim and Distant Past where the band whip up a real humbuckin’ storm with some great piano on the outro. He’s equally at home on the sad sack laments of She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore and That’s The Last Time wringing out the emotion for all it’s worth. He’s ably supported throughout the album (which he recorded in Edinburgh with Dean Owens in the producer’s chair) by Kev McGuire on double bass , Jim McDermott, drums and Andy May on keyboards while Stuart Nisbet is superb on electric and pedal steel guitars. Connolly was excellent when he appeared recently at Perth’s Southern fried Festival and he returns to Scotland for a shows in Edinburgh and Aberdeen in October.

website