The Danberrys. Shine

ezgif.com-resize__7_Husband and wife duo, Dorothy Daniel and Ben DeBerry (Danberry, get it?) beef up their familiar back porch sound on SHINE, their third album, gathering a full band clan including gutbucket electric guitar, pump organ, trombone and tuba. This allows them to deliver some raucous songs such as the Tom Waits’ like junkyard stomp The Road along with the opening title song which reeks of southern menace. It’s quite a shift in gear and not all of this revamp is as striking as the two songs mentioned as the duo wander into AOR territory.

Songs such as Never Gone and The Mountain are glossy but unremarkable while Love Conquers War is somewhat clichéd. They do hit the mark on the meandering The River Is Wide which is by turn, spiritual and invigorating as it weaves its way. Undertow, mostly, maintains this standard with its glistening guitars and emotive vocals from Daniel. It’s perhaps appropriate here to comment on the lack of lead vocals from DeBerry throughout the album. In the past he has sung on several songs but here he’s limited to harmonies, a pity really. The album might win them new followers but as it signs off with Rain, it reminds us of how great a vocal harmony pair they are especially in stripped back mode.

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The Danberrys · Shine

Norma MacDonald. Old Future

a3487093927_16This fifth album from Nova Scotia’s Norma MacDonald maintains the high standards set by her previous releases. Here she’s drawn to the sound of classic early seventies singer songwriters – that Laurel canyon vibe, captured well on the mournful Golden Age with some lovely pedal steel garlands, played by Dale Murray (who also co-produced).

Temperamental Year and Trick Of The Light kick off the album. Likeable enough songs but pretty run of the mill in comparison to the better songs yet to come. A percussive susurration and gentle strings softly propel One Man Band, allowing MacDonald’s voice to shine. Slow Down Marie again features strings, in this case a cello, adding some timbre to this fine song with its hints of Leonard Cohen. Meanwhile I Already Have A Shadow could be a Dolly Parton deep cut while Lover Of Unreason cuts along finely recalling Emmylou Harris. There’s a brief nod to country on the sardonic Your Wedding Day, a song which takes some of the tropes of classic lost love Nashville misery and delivers them in fine fashion. Wrapping it up with the Patsy Cline like weepy, Some Days, MacDonald might not have perfectly caught that California feeling but she’s certainly staked a claim to be considered a very fine singer/songwriter.

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Blue Rose Code live from home. Saturday 9th May 2020.

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Is this the “new normal”? Hunched over a screen watching a musician (and generally it’s one unless your favoured act is a commune or a happily domiciled live in couple), at all hours of the day and – depending on bandwidth – buffering, freezing, disappearing altogether? Since the lockdown has robbed all musicians of the ability to play live (and earn their living) there has been a tsunami of live streaming shows, many of them excellent it has to be said, although there have been a few clunkers. Generally these shows have been free to watch and hosted on social media with a virtual tip jar available in the hope that some folk will bung in a couple of quid.

With many of these shows lasting a short time and available for anyone to watch long after the live action has ended, there hasn’t been much point in reviewing them. However, Blue Rose Code’s live show on Saturday night was a horse of a different colour. A private ticketed event, privy only to those who stumped up and not to be streamed or shown elsewhere. This encouraged a sense of occasion. None of that, “I’ll just watch it later” attitude which is tempting, especially if it’s an American act live streaming at 3 am on Facebook which you can watch whenever you fancy the next day.

Ross Wilson chose to launch his first live stream via Zoom, the video conferencing app which has been one of the few beneficiaries of Covid 19. Many reading this will probably have used Zoom by now and will wonder how in hell you could watch a show without everyone and their uncle chatting away, it would be worse than the bar area at Oran Mor. However, Wilson, assisted by Gavin Hastie on tech and host duty, had done their homework and by and large it worked. It was an experiment, no doubt. Wilson is unhappy with the concept of playing for tips and wanted to see if a paying model would work and after the show Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to him about that.

Anyhow, on with the show. A Zoom invite got you a front row seat for this solo performance by Blue Rose Code. The doors opened at 7:30 with an 8pm start time. As folk logged in you could see them on video getting settled in before their video and audio options were muted. Hastie spun some discs and welcomed folk as they joined in, some participating from as far afield as Canada, Italy and the States. At eight, Ross Wilson came on, the sole screen to be seen as all others had been taken down. Screening from his Merseyside home, Wilson played guitar and piano over two 45-minute sets with a short break.

As live streamed gigs go this was pretty much par for the course in the sense that we were being treated to an intimate set of songs with no fancy effects. Fans had the chance earlier to send in song requests and to comment as the show progressed allowing Wilson the opportunity to answer some questions (example – what is your favourite John Martyn song) and to play some songs which are rarely played these days. He kicked off with the newly released single, Starlit, from the forthcoming album, a glorious song etched with aching and love. Red Kites followed before Wilson switched to piano for the first request of the night, My Heart, The Sun and then took some time to say hello to several of the folk signed in. Digging into his past there was an excellent rendition of Skin & Bones and, following a request, he sang Love Is…, a song he says he rarely performs these days which was followed by a powerful and joyful rendition of Ebb & Flow.

As the first set ended, our host Gavin Hastie unmuted all to allow a round of applause and shouts. This was an opportunity to be part of the crowd but it was interesting to see who was making the most noise as the Zoom app hoisted up the names of those closest to their gadget’s microphone. In such a close-knit community, we recognised several of the names.

As odd as it might be for the audience, it must be odder still for the musician to get into a groove, sitting as they are at home, trying to play, watch the messages coming in and respond to them without interrupting their flow. Wilson was certainly getting into the flow in the second half of the night particularly when he played and sang In The Morning and then Sandaig, ten minutes of bliss really as he became evermore animated with his guitar playing here just excellent. Then there was one of the most moving moments of the night with his rendition of Over The Fields, dedicated to his late friend, mentor and sponsor, John Wetton while Pokesdown Waltz (the most requested song of the night), was, as always, a tearjerker.

Prior to this there was an unexpected appearance from Wilson’s Liverpudlian chum, Robert Vincent who sang The Ending from his latest album, In This Town Your Owned, before having a chat with Wilson about how to earn a crust in these virtual gigging days.

By now well fired up, Wilson offered us another peek into the new album on the upbeat London City Lights and then travelled north for the wonderful Edina. The closing song, Grateful (what else) was dedicated to NHS staff and many others, the nameless and pitifully underpaid shop workers, drivers and all who, overnight, suddenly discovered they were “key workers.”

Loud applause from all the virtual attendees at the end and then, video enabled, we could see the faces of all present at this event, a moment captured by Hastie on a screenshot.

And that’s how it happened folks. It was a Saturday night in. Laptop wired to giant TV, Bluetooth speaker for the sound, some wine and nuts, two hours of Blue Rose Code, live, in our living room. An occasion. We really enjoyed it as did all of the other 120 ticket holders (most likely around 250 viewers given that couples were watching). It’s not the same as going to a sweaty live gig but as that’s not likely to happen for a while, this was perhaps the closest one can get these days.

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Ross Wilson is a professional musician. That’s how he makes his living and right now, he has no paid work. Like all of us he’s seen Facebook explode with streamed shows, the tip jar dangled in front of us and he’s not happy with that. After the show, Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to him about his misgivings and about the model he’s proposing.

I’m an independent artist, this is my only means of making a living and I’m fiercely protective of that and I feel that there’s an awful lot of moaning going on but not much action. People rightly talk about the lack of proper remunerations from streaming but at the same time are happy to offer up lots of live shows on Facebook and asking for tips. That whole notion of tipping seems like a begging bowl and for me; if I’m not going to value what I’m doing then why should anyone else. I think there’s a responsibility on us to preserve the notion of paying for performances for the young musicians of today and tomorrow.

I’m lucky to have a fan base who support a lot of artists, buy albums and go to shows because they love live music, and they can’t do that right now. They’re sitting at home and from my experience, they are happy to pay for an event. So if you can create an experience for them which otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get during this time of lockdown, why shouldn’t you quantify its value? I’ve said it on Facebook, “It’s not just about the money but it’s also about the money”. I can’t understand how people can take issue with Spotify and then give it all away on Facebook. I can tweet all day complaining that I only get 000.1 of a penny for a stream but I think it’s better to do something about it.

Where I can maybe make a difference is by showing that it is possible to make money by putting on a “virtual concert.” There’s a whole bunch of people out there fed up watching Netflix and I showed that I can get 120 people to pay £12 a head to watch me. All of my work, my income, has been cancelled up to September and even then it might not start again. So the money I made through this show will let me pay my rent. The audience got to see me play and the show won’t be available online so it was a unique event. It won’t replace the real thing, the magic of being in a room with other people watching live music but I think we did a good job last night of interacting, I took requests, I answered questions, we had a song from Robbie Vincent and a chat with him. It worked well and I’ve got a few ideas as to how to make it better next time. It took me a while to work out how to do this model but I think I’ve shown that it can work. As a maiden voyage, it was no Titanic.

Is this a viable way ahead, allowing fans to experience a live show while guaranteeing a fee to the musician? It certainly seemed to work in this instance and, according to Wilson, the technical side of using Zoom was relatively easy to mange. It will be interesting to see if others begin to use this model to create a sense of an event rather than just the random selection of another Facebook video. If anyone reading this wants to know more about playing a concert via Zoom, Ross Wilson is happy to answer any questions you may have. Contact him at rossbluerosecode@gmail.com.

Blue Rose Code website

 

 

The Lowest Pair. The Perfect Plan. Thirty Tigers.

the-perfect-plan-vinyl-black-borderFor an acoustic duo, The Lowest Pair electrified audiences when they toured the UK in 2018, their clinch mountain banjo sound exemplifying the spookier aspects of weird old Americana. Kendl Winter’s songs sounded as ancient as the hills while her chemistry with Palmer T. Lee was obvious in their playing and their harmonies. On record, they recorded as a banjo and guitar playing duo but they expanded their sound slightly on their last album, Fern Girl & Iceman which had a subdued rhythm section supported several of the songs. The Perfect Plan builds on this with several of the songs featuring a full band set up and there’s even a mellotron heard at one point. At times, the album reminds one of the early forays into country rock by the likes of Mike Nesmith, The Dillards and The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band but the arrangements here, for the most part, complement the duo’s essential core. Their banjos and guitar still carry most of the weight while Winter’s delicate wisp of a voice remains intriguing and is bolstered by Lee’s more robust vocals.

The opening song, How Far I Would Go, is classic Lowest Pair fare as their guitars and voices entwine on a delicate love song with wonderful imagery. This blends into the second number as a flurry of banjo and guitar introduces It’s Too Late Babe with its driving percussion taking the duo into much rockier territory – imagine Karen Dalton fronting Fleetwood Mac with John Hartford soloing on banjo – it’s invigorating and still recognisably The Lowest Pair. However, the atavistic Wild Animals with its cluttered instrumentation, skittering banjo and doom laden organ, along with its mantra of, “Breathe in, breathe out” loses the duo’s essential simplicity.

The remainder of the album is much more successful as the pair deliver some sublime slices of, for want of a better word, cosmic country, as on the quintessential Shot Down The Sky, the balm which is Morning Light and the longing Take What You Can, all benefitting from the addition of pedal steel. There are also several numbers more akin to earlier recordings such as the wonderful duetting on the acoustic Cast Away and the strident We Are Bleeding with its time changes and banjo and guitar jamming. The disc ends with the title song which is perhaps the best instance here of the band presence enhancing the duo’s roots with organ and ambient guitar sounds gently nudging the banjos and voices forward while Winter sings wonderfully on a song suffused with regret but lifted by hope.

All in all, The Lowest Pair’s foray into a fuller sound here is a winner with several of the songs quite sublime. Producer, Mike Mogis (Bright Eyes) is to be congratulated for his sympathetic handling of the project.

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Daniel Meade. Bullets And Bones EP

500x500bbAlthough Glasgow’s Daniel Meade has recorded with the cream of Nashville, he’s no stranger to home recording so it’s somewhat apt that in these lockdown times he’s come out fighting. Bullets And Bones is a three-song release, download only and for a ridiculously low price, with Meade really playing to his strengths.

Break Me Down To Pieces is a glorious slice of honky tonk styled rockabilly with Meade’s piano setting the pace along with creamy guitar licks. With an insouciant swagger in his voice (while the multi tracked choruses sound for all the world like the Everly’s), Meade rocks and rolls here quite magnificently as the song vamps into an excellent guitar led outro. Bullets And Bones finds Meade transporting outlaw country to his Glaswegian domain, the prodigal son returning having failed to make it over there. Its sweaty country chunk delivery with whiplash guitar recalls Waylon Jennings back he was orn’ry and mean. Closer in style to his last full album release, Meade then offers up Through The Dirt, a pumping organ fuelled blast of peacock pop strutting. With echoes of The Beatles, Jeff Lynne and Elvis Costello coursing in its veins it seals the deal as Meade romps brilliantly through the song.

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Available fromthe Itunes store

 

 

 

Borrowed Books. Shorting Out And Longing

a2495436425_16Borrowed Books are a new Edinburgh based band who can count among their members two luminaries. There’s Cam Fraser, ex of The Cateran, a Scottish band who more then held their own against the likes of Husker Du and even the mighty Nirvana back in the days. Alongside Fraser is Ray Neal, guitarist with Miracle Legion and now resident in the Athens of the north. The whys and wherefores of how these two teamed up are not explained but suffice to say that their album (with a line up completed by Aly Barr on bass, Chris archer on drums and Colin sands, piano) is an excellent listen with its heritage sound of REM like jangled glistening pop.

Theirs is a nuanced take on what some might call power pop. Opening number, Mountains In Oceans kicks off with a jangled guitar strum before the band weigh in with a sturdy beat. There’s a sense of melancholy to the song, heightened by a brief and tender middle eight. Gather is altogether more upbeat with piano and sparkling guitars allowing it a grand flourish while Selfish Act opens with a huge bass throb before lashing out in all directions creating a swell of guitars over its powerful propulsion.

That sense of melancholia glimpsed in the first song is amplified on Northerly with its majestic piano and pained vocals while Wooden Arm’s longing rumble with its ebbs and flows, and the crunching guitar attack of Kind Of Mean have a touch of Neil Young’s epic forays. Many of the songs share the dynamics on show here as the band sway rhythmically and then erupt into brief crescendos with This House Will Hold and Harbour Wall (both featuring accordion by Reuben Taylor) fine examples. Stripped back however, they can be equally potent. Altona is a breezy love song of sorts and the closing Things Put Away is a wonderfully realised confessional with exceptional piano from Sands while Neal’s guitar is pearlescent.

Aside from the lustre of the songs and playing, there’s much joy to be had from the lyrics throughout the album which, at times, approach the likes of Randy Newman, especially on Things Put Away. Shorting Out And longing is an album to savour and digest slowly. It’s well worth the effort.

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Mr. Alec Bowman. I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot

a0146832945_16If you’re the type of person who finds the BBC series, The Detectorists, a soothing balm, or for whom a home counties blend of Leonard Cohen, Momus and Seamus Forgarty might seem attractive, then Mr. Alec Bowman is the man for you. I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot is a remarkable album, lyrically bleak with an extraordinary bustle of background activity, delivered in the main by producer Josienne Clarke, which delicately supports Bowman’s simple guitar melodies and world weary voice.

With assistance from Paul Mosley on various keyboards, Clarke’s guitars, harmonium, brass and woodwind and ambient sounds offer the album a wonderfully off kilter bucolic feeling which is emphasised by the soft focus capture of Bowman in a field of flowers on the cover. The album would have been a perfect release for harvest Records back in the seventies, sharing a catalogue with Shirley Collins, Roy Harper and Kevin Ayers but we’re in darker days now and Bowman is perfectly suited for these times.

Despite the comparisons, Bowman really transcends these as he stamps his own personality across the album. We don’t know the genesis of these songs but there are hints that they are drawn from personal experience. The sleeve notes mention that they are for, “Confused and misled people who think that not being alive anymore would be a wonderful present that they could give themselves but were too cowardly to act on it – staying alive is its own kind of bravery.” Death hovers across the album and indeed, the album opens with a reverie of sorts as Bowman floats serenely, musing on catastrophic air crashes, on Physics & Form. Next up, A Ditch Worth Dying For is certainly more grounded with its whiff of miserablism, Cohen meets Brel with spectral percussion on bowed cymbals adding to its angst.

Dark indeed but by now Bowman has the listener hooked and the washes of bleached guitar on Safe Mode, a song for modern times and isolation, along with the delicate pastoral sounds of Leaves, with its beguiling wind arrangements, maintain this lure. Long Goodbyes signs off the first half of the album as Bowman, accompanied by a forlorn electric piano, ponders on the pointless power of words.

There’s a short intermission, an organ rendition of The Old Rugged Cross, before Bowman weighs in again on the bleak Patience which refers to Cohen’s famous line about there always being a crack of light which gets in although here Bowman urges those who can’t see that light to persevere despite their hopelessness. From here on in however the album is more optimistic, a reflection perhaps of Bowman’s journey as he gleefully lists a number of grisly ways to die (including we think, a reference to the sad circumstances of Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchison) on Hand In Hand while Event Horizon Of You, an odd combination of physics and Lewis Carroll’s The Walrus & The Carpenter, is quite sublime. My Kind Of Chaos is another gentle whiff of pastoral whimsy as Bowman finds a kindred soul and the album ends with a song which reflects the message from the liner notes quoted above. Never The End Of The World urges anyone at the end of their tether to hold on and be strong as Bowman sings, “Take a leaf from my story, don’t disappear till it’s time… but don’t take it from me, wait and you’ll see, life is much larger than you.”

I Used To Be Sad & Then I Forgot is a brave album. It’s dark, but then without dark we wouldn’t have any light. And beyond the darkness, the songs, arrangements and performance are quite superb.

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