The Harris Brothers. Suitcase Blues.

Only the end of January and already an album that might end up as one of our favourite roots releases of the year. The Harris Brothers, Reggie and Ryan are from Lenoir, North Carolina and have been playing together for around 20 years. On the album Reggie plays guitar, sings and kicks and taps the titular suitcase for percussion while Ryan handles double bass and vocals. Live Reggie also tackles electric guitar, fiddle and banjo but their absence here doesn’t detract from what is a superbly played and extremely enjoyable set of blues, ragtime and country songs.
All ten songs here are cover versions of old tunes or traditional songs but there’s no denying the depth of experience and emotional contact that the brothers bring to these old chestnuts. Dig around the web and you can hear a snatch of audio where Reggie describes his extended musical family and influences and you realise that here we have the modern equivalent of those keepers of tradition who were recorded by the likes of Alan Lomax and John Hammond in the mid twentieth century. However The Harris Brothers are no museum pieces, instead sounding vital and delivering their versions in crystal clear audio that will delight anyone who digs the tradition.
It’s hard to pick out any highlights as all of the songs are simply superb. Clarence Greene’s Johnson City Blues which opens the album is eclipsed by the following Rag Mama Rag (by Blind Boy Fuller) where the guitar playing is exemplary. Knoxville Rag (by Etta Baker) continues with the instrumental delights. Roll & Tumble Blues just rolls and tumbles and anyone listening to this need never listen to any of those amplified versions so beloved of late sixties boogie and blues bands, this is the real deal. Reggie’s guitar here is splendid, scraping and sliding while the vocals capture the feel down to a T. The picking on Twelve Gates to the City recalls the late Pops Staples’ mastery as the brothers tackle Gospel blues, and again they do it right. Coming up to date they hit the Chicago sound with a cover of Muddy Waters’ Honey Bee with the guitar stinging in the right places while what appears to be a live cover of J. J. Cale’s If You’re Ever In Oklahoma takes Cale’s laid back version and jazzes it up with some blistering amplified guitar runs set to a Mose Allison shuffle. Even a song that for local audiences might be associated with skiffle like Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train is given new life as the listener is drawn to the guitar intricacies and the warm vocals.
So a fine, indeed a very fine album that will delight anyone who’s been listening to the likes of Pokey LaFarge or who digs the sounds of Catfish Keith, Taj Mahal or Ry Cooder, in fact if you like traditional American music you should listen to this.

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Rag Mama Rag

Wiser Time, Jeff Talmadge and Cam Penner

Three fine albums here, take your pick…..

Wiser Time. Beggars and Thieves.

First up are New Jersey band Wiser Time with their third release, Beggars and Thieves. Starting off with a rumbling guitar that smacks of Keith Richards’ exiled in the south of France the opening song Love and Devotion fails to live up to the wasted elegance that comprised Exile on Main Street but nonetheless is a fine slice of slide and piano driven boogie that ultimately recalls Little Feat. Main man Carmen Sclafani is obviously in thrall to the early seventies sound of such bands however this is not a retread of tired boogiedom and some of the better moments occur when the band ease back and rock gently with Sclafani dipping into a more mellow mood. Take Me back Home for example has some elements of Steve Stills’ solo work but with a sweet fiddle and mandolin backdrop and some fine guitar work this is a tremendous song. The B3 organ that comes in at the end adds a fine organic feeling and at times this sounds like an American roots version of a Steve Winwood ballad. The following song It’s Hard Letting You Go maintains this quality, a piano based ballad with Lowell George like slide guitar from Jimmy Somma it would fit perfectly on the soundtrack to “Almost Famous.” The album closes with a superb cover of the Bad Company song, Seagull which in our mind is an improvement on the original, less dramatic and enhanced by some very sympathetic percussion and mandolin, basically an encapsulation of the whole album, an affectionate nod to those far away days.
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Take Me back Home

Jeff Talmadge. Kind of Everything.

Talmadge was a Texas lawyer who packed it in to become an itinerant musician working very much in the Texan vein with clear routes back to Jerry Jeff Walker and Guy Clark. While he hasn’t produced anything to match the best of either of these two he does provide a winning take on the genre on this, his seventh album. Armed with an attractive vocal delivery, warm but experienced, he spins tales of Texas folk buttressed by a superb line up of musicians that include Pat McInerney on percussion, Fats Kaplin, fiddle and steel guitar Freddy Holm, Dobro, Ray Bonneville, harmonica, Lloyd Maines, pedal steel and Tim O’Brien on mandolin. In fact anyone who likes acoustic albums laced with Dobro, steel guitar, mandolin and fiddle need read no more, just buy this.
While there are some upbeat songs including the opening If It wasn’t For the Wind, a David Olney cover and the jaunty Sometimes You Choose Love the meat of the album is in the moodier, darker moments with several that raise the album well above the average. One Spectacular Moon has a romantic yearning to it and features some fine fiddle playing from Kaplin. It’ll Sure be Cold Tonight is a stark tale of homelessness that raises goosepimples. Molly showcases Tim O’Brien’s mandolin on a tale that is straight out of the Townes Van Zandt stylebook. Summer Road is a classic of its sort, elegiac, wide screen nostalgia, this is dusty and vital. Finally He’ll Give Her Back This Town Tonight is a break up song that is delivered in a heartbreaking style with the band excelling on the oh so sympathetic backing, a song that could be destined for late night radio programmers everywhere.
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He’ll Give Her back This Town Tonight

Cam Penner Gypsy Summer.

Canadian Cam Penner has released several albums that can be considered “confessional.” Tender, despite his occasionally gruff voice his last release Trouble and Mercy was a stripped down affair. Here, despite recording the album in a cabin near the Rockies, he achieves a plush, warm, occasionally funky sound that is dynamic and engaging. Guitars and bass throb and thrum, strings (violin and viola) add to the drama at times and the percussion drives several songs with an almost J. J. Cale like shuffle. The title song unwinds slowly building to a crescendo that is spooky and evil sounding, as most songs with Gypsy in the title seem to do. Ghost Car has a strong pulse beat that drives the song which has a neon lit highway feel to it while the clash and clatter of My Lover & I is the sort of R’n’B shuffle that Ry Cooder has been fond of in the past, there’s a decidedly southern feel to this. The highlight of the album is the opening song Driftwood which starts off with a classic guitar /harmonica part so beloved of Neil Young. Perhaps it’s the title of the song but we find some of The Band’s influence here also as Penner delivers a downbeat tale of a relationship that’s taking some work to keep together. Here Penner and his band deliver a perfectly nuanced folk rock song. An instrumental reprise of the song towards the end of the album supports its claim to be a superior piece of music.
The closing song Come As You Are reverts to Penner’s stripped down style with just guitar, piano and voice and is reminiscent of Bill Callaghan’s work in Smog. A fine end to a fine album.
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Driftwood

Sean Taylor “Walk With Me “

It’s a bit like looking for crabs in rock pools, you find tiny little ones scuttling for cover and after a while you don’t bother to put them in your bucket. If you’re lucky however a large rock, pulled back, uncovers a magnificent specimen, large, fierce, a trophy to show to others. And so it is with this gig, lots of albums, often self released, nice, fair to middling, and then occasionally a trophy, something to shout about, this is one such specimen.
Sean Taylor resides in Kilburn but you wouldn’t guess that from his music. His voice is a strained, astringent murmur that is seductive and at times approaches the cool burr of J. J. Cale. His previous albums have been in the main singular affairs with Taylor playing all the instruments, here he handles the guitars and keyboards and is assisted by a stellar cast of musicians including B. J. Cole on pedal steel and Trevor Hutchinson on bass. Together they produce an album that is as comforting as a cup of Horlicks, warm, soporific, something to wallow in. There are love songs, ranging from the hushed “For You” with its tender saxophone evoking lonely rainy nights to the opening spare ballad “Perfect Candlelight” where voice and piano create an almost perfect tenderness.
Elsewhere Taylor evokes the lasciviousness of latter day Tim Buckley on “So High” and takes on a Shakespearean sonnet, “Love Hate On” which he turns into a lazy stroll with a beautiful string accompaniment. Likewise he takes the traditional “She Moves Through the Fair” and turns it into a sinister, doom-laden lament.
Best of all is “Hold On,” a sultry, sweaty and sexy longing that bundles all of Taylor’s influences into one of the best songs I’ve heard in a while. Worth buying for this alone.
Here’s Hold On
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