Paul McClure. Market Town. Clubhouse Records

a1605324111_16An old Blabber’n’Smoke favourite, The Rutland Troubadour, AKA Paul McClure, returns to the trenches with a third album which is chockfull of carefully considered and artfully delivered songs. There’s less of his old troubadour style and Americana leanings here, instead, as one listens to the album, artists which come to mind include Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe and even Paul McCartney. There’s a new producer (Joel Payne, who plays keyboards in McClure’s occasional band, Local Heroes and here plays keys, guitars and percussion) and a sense of maturity in several of the songs with McClure celebrating family life and domesticity  although there are still some more rambunctious moments and even some cod calypso on A Long, Long Time Ago.

The albums opens with possibly the strongest song on the collection, The Morning And My Love, with McClure pouring his heart out over a forlorn piano on a tremendous love song. It’s moving and perfectly arranged with speckles of electric guitar and a brief swell of vocal harmonies towards the end. McClure revisits this sombre mood on the delicate How Did You Know and the lengthy and powerful  Sing With Me, both love songs of a sort as McClure summons up the frailties, hopes and dreams of relationships.

Sing To The Stars is an earthy folk like and angry narrative which relates the tale of a wage slave who regrets missing his children growing up. Family life also features in the affecting Daddy Will You Hold My Hand, a McCartney like ditty (with some excellent slide guitar from Ally McErlaine of Texas) while the mild Caribbean lilt to A Long, Long Time Ago almost disguises McClure’s reminiscences of growing up and his present day domesticity. He also knocks off some more childhood memories on his solo rendition of Grandad’s Pants which closes the disc and he celebrates the wonders of ordinariness on the title song which is the most upbeat number on the album. Finally, the folky rocker, This must Be What They Mean (When They Sing About The Blues) is a grand loose-limbed jaunt with wheezy harmonica, bar room piano and Beach Boy/Beatles harmonies all thrown in.

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Charley Crockett + Jaime Wyatt, Broadcast, Glasgow, 5th September 2019

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Eight months after having heart surgery for a condition which threatened to derail him permanently, Charley Crockett seems fully recovered judging by the marathon set he played to a packed out Glasgow audience. Backed by the superb Blue Drifters, their name only the first of many Hank Williams’ nods throughout the night, Crockett took us on a roller coaster 90 minutes of country, blues, folk and soul;  his Texas and Louisiana roots guiding him all the way.

A brief instrumental intro led into a pistol packed flurry of songs with the band hardly taking breath until, after an explosive cover of The Race Is On, Crockett paused to say hello. By then we had seen and heard some of the variety of sounds Crockett and his Drifters can conjure with Charlie Mills, playing keyboards, trumpet and accordion adding to the colour. Next up was a real crowd favourite as they slinked into I Am Not Afraid, the audience singing along, while Crockett transformed the cellar space into a honky tonk with everyone clapping along to Borrowed Time. Introducing the title song from his forthcoming album, The Valley, Crockett spoke of his surgery and his need to lay down the song as, “I was maybe scheduled to die.” Having death knock on your door might not be the most pleasurable experience but it did inspire what is a great song with all the virtues of a classic.

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Given the very cramped stage space, the band managed to reshuffle their line up to stand around an old fashioned mic for a short “unplugged” song session to deliver an excellent brace of folky songs including Banjo Picking Man, A Stolen Jewel and Single Girl before Crockett did a couple of songs solo, Nine Pound Hammer being a bit of a barnstormer. The band crept back on to deliver an instrumental in a David Lynch lounge bar style before gearing up for the show’s lengthy finale which saw Crockett delving into blues and soul with some Texas sass. They ripped through L’il Girl’s Name and No Time To Lose while Ain’t Gonna Worry came across as if Bobby Bland was singing from the stage and the set closed with a rousing Going Back To Texas which recalled the late Doug Sahm’s many salutes to his home state.

There had to be an encore given the rapturous applause and Crocket reappeared giving us the driving narrative of 7 Come 11, another song from the new album. The band then reappeared as Crockett satisfied the numerous requests for Jamestown Ferry which had been thrown at him through the night. Another mass sing-along, it was an excellent end to what was a barnstorming performance.

As we said, the joint was jumping and packed to the gills and there was even a surprising number of folk gathered at the start of the evening for the support act, southern California’s Jaime Wyatt whose mini album, Felony Blues made a splash around two years ago. That disc basically recounted her time as a convicted felon in California penitentiaries – (she robbed her drug dealer and did time for it) – and here she was live, dedicating songs to the LA County jail and describing her time there as like being in a resort, “They gave me three square meals a day, did my laundry and even gave me free rides to the court.

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It was a short set with several songs drawn from Felony Blues, kicking off with the high country sounds of Wishing You Well and then the tough Waylon Jennings’ like Stone Hotel. Giving Back The Best Of Me glided along to start with before the band (her regular UK based backing guys) kicked in giving the song more muscle than the recorded version. Away from the album, Wyatt announced, “Here’s a song about whisky and blow,” as they launched into the badass Ain’t Enough Whiskey, another ornery and mean country rocker while she dedicated By Your Side to the late Neal Casal who laid down guitar when she recorded the song. Hurt So Bad, another new song, was like a raunchy Dolly Parton number, but it was the closing number, Wasco, with a lengthy preamble regarding Wyatt’s cell mate’s jail romance which crowned her set. This was real punchy outlaw country and we could have listened to Ms. Wyatt for twice as long had she not had to curtail it there. An excellent match for the headliner, Wyatt complemented Crockett’s set perfectly and it was cool to see her merch line matching his at the end of the night. These two plus hours of modern, hard hitting, country music perhaps bode well for the genre and we haven’t even mentioned the classy, sharp pressed western suits and impressive hats worn by Wyatt and Crockett. We’ll leave that to the fashion pages.

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Ana Egge. Is It The Kiss. StorySound Records

is-it-the-kiss-coverIs It The Kiss could be the album which finally lifts Ana Egge, a Brooklyn based songwriter of Norwegian descent, into what counts for the Americana big time. Followers will know that her previous albums are all excellent but she excels here, especially in the song arrangements which drape her wonderfully relaxed and warm singing. At times she reminds one of Joni Mitchell’s first forays into expanding her sound, folk songs becoming populated with jazz and blues influences.

The album starts off quite conventionally with Egge’s tribute to that great wave of singer songwriters who bounced out of Texas in the 70s. Cocaine Cowboys even sounds like a Willie Nelson song (and he really should cover it) as Egge sings, “They raise your spirits up and I hope they do, they make you feel less lonely if you’re feeling blue. cocaine cowboys turning rhinestones into diamonds with a song, cocaine cowboys keep you dancing and drinking all night long.”  Midway through, this simple song then grows wings as a string section burbles in, a harbinger of things to come. What Could Be is simply sublime as it kicks off on a slow soul shuffle with Egge sounding like Lucinda Williams before a chorus which sounds so much like early Mitchell comes in. There’s also a middle eight featuring a muted horn section, reminiscent of some of Court & Spark, and those spare and inventive horns adorn some of the best songs here. Oh My My adds some achingly sweet pedal steel to the mix although one’s ear is drawn to the walking bass which guides the song  as Egge’s feather light vocals are quite spectacular.

In the midst of this sonic bravado, Egge clings firmly to her storytelling skills. Teacake And Janey is essentially a murder ballad couched in mystery while James, a song adorned by odd bustles of percussion and strings, is an elegy for a gifted yet strange child. Chasing Rabbits In The Sun meanwhile is an oblique portent of violence delivered with an awesomely delicate balance of guitar, pedal steel and mournful horns which picks up menace when a heavy drumbeat is introduced. In a more conventional manner Egge offers up the laidback chug of Hurt A Little and the odd mix of baroque and Dixieland on Stay The Night while she gets quite rootsy on the fiddle laced country cover of Diana Jones’ Ballad Of The Poor Kid  on which she is joined on vocals by none other than Iris Dement.

Is It The Kiss is a perfectly formed album with Egge’s undoubted talents bolstered by the inventive and intriguing arrangements and is well worth investigation.

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Beth Bombara. Evergreen.

a2227776830_16Reading that this album was composed in the main in a secluded log cabin in the Canadian Rockies, we were expecting a soul searching acoustic laced forlorn collection of laments. Instead of that we find that Beth Bombara, after a lengthy bout of touring, took the time out to recharge her batteries and having done that, headed to the studio and plugged into the mains. Sharing the voltage with Bombara is her excellent road tested band along with co-producer John Calvin Abney on keyboards. They’re a versatile bunch and add a lot of oomph to Bombara’s fine songs with some of the songs delivered with the finesse of bands such as Little Feat or even The Band while Bombara  recalls the likes of Kathleen Edwards or Aimee Mann.

The album kicks off with the punchy I Only Cry When I’m Alone which is girdled with some excellent sinewy guitars and a pulverising beat as Bombara admits to her insecurities. Upside Down follows in a similar manner although the guitars are crunchier and the solos somewhat snarlier while Anymore opens with Bombara’s plaintive guitar stutterings before swelling into a wonderful example of that good old cosmic American music with guitars growling and gliding  as her voice soars. She then dives into the most country sounding song on the album on Tenderhearted which in style recalls Courtney Marie Andrews although Bombara comes across as made of tougher stuff as she recounts the rough edges of her tender hearted lover while the band dig into a muscular country rock groove. Talking of the band, they really take flight on Does It Echo. Opening with ominous percussion, guitars and electric piano, Bombara then weighs in with her portents of doom before a wonderful instrumental coda, which is quite blissful in the manner of David Crosby’s If I Could Only Remember My Name, closes the proceedings.

Invoking the Stones on the ballsy Good News and getting real sleazy on Criminal Tongue, Bombara and the band show they can rock out but the title song shows that there’s a power pop pulse also beating within. The album closes with Bombara accompanied only by piano and strings on a proper log cabin song at last. However, instead of an introspective breast beating exercise, she seizes here an opportunity to deliver a quietly understated comment on the current political climate in the USA. One leaves the album with the thought that it’s people such as Bombara who have the power to  make America great again and that there’s an army out there. Hopefully they will start to tune in.

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3hattrio. Live At Zion. Okehdokee Records

3hattrioThis live album from the premier purveyors of American Desert Music is not officially released until November. However, with 3hattrio commencing a UK tour this week, they have brought the first run of discs with them allowing those who attend their shows to be the first on the block to own this excellent recording.

Over the course of four albums 3hattrio (Hal Cannon, Greg Istock and Eli Wrankle) have emerged with not only a unique sound but as keepers of the traditions and history of Zion National Park with particular reference to Utah’s desert lands. Inspired by the arid landscape and influenced by the numerous settlers over the ages including Southern Paiute Native Americans, the trio have an almost magical ability to transport the listener into what, at times, seems an alien world.

As evocative as the albums are, they don’t really prepare you for the emotional impact of experiencing the band live. With just a guitar, banjo, fiddle, double bass and rudimentary percussion they conjure some fabulous sounds, at times eerie and shamanistic, elsewhere evoking frontier sounds carried from the old world and bearing the trails through Appalachia as played around desert campfires. When your reviewer was fortunate enough to experience them live we reported that there was a circularity to the songs on the night, one all enveloping aural experience, and so it is on Live At Zion which the band describe as, “A single piece of music, a desert symphony rising out of our home in Zion Canyon.”

Recorded in a pre civil war church in their hometown of Virgin, Utah, Live At Zion finds the band playing to friends and neighbours and expertly captures the live experience. With a mixture of songs from the albums along with new pieces, it’s a magnificent listen from start to finish. Hal Cannon’s evocation of the mighty winds which have carved the shape of much of the desert landscape sets the scene before Istock’s impressionistic Thelma & Louise creeps into view. Propelled by his driving double bass as Wrankle’s fiddle twists and turns, the song is powerfully evocative as Istock scats and mumbles before the trio soar off into uncharted territory and then return to the primary riff. It’s desert music with a whiff of Coltrane’s extrapolations thrown in and is just astounding. Cannon grounds the band with his salute to their homeland on Zion Song and much of the album repeats this trick as the trio alternate between atavistic sound explorations and down home folklore. At the centre of the album is a number, called here Desert Triptych, which is an amalgam of three songs (Rose, Night Sky and Lord Of the Desert) which is just astounding. Ranging from the spacey opening (which would surely astonish any prog rock fan) to Cannon’s invocation which is reminiscent of a stoned cold and immaculate Jim Morrison tripping in the desert, it has to be heard to be believed.

The trio continue to paint vivid sound portraits on the wailings, slick banjo and sonic fiddle exploration (and closing humour) of Texas Traveller, while the percussive intricacy of Crippled Up Blues and then Cannon’s banjo led riparian song, Flight, showcase the trio’s magnificent interplay. Throughout the album Wrankle’s playing astounds while Istock’s mastery of his bass and percussion remains a mystery as it seems impossible for any human being to do what he does here.

Live At Zion captures this unique band in full flight and bodes well for the upcoming UK shows.

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Carly Dow. Comet

cd_cover_concepts_presentation_final28129Carly Dow is a Canadian banjo player who first came to attention internationally in 2015 with her debut album, Ingrained.  On Comet, her second album, the banjo remains her primary instrument while she adds acoustic and electric guitar, along with piano, to her musical arsenal. More to the point, a fine array of musicians flesh the sound out, the songs here approaching soft rock at times although for the most part they are probably best described as folk rock.

Affairs kick off in a fine manner with an excellent brace of songs opening the album. Brightest Time Of Year has Dow’s clawhammer banjo picking surrounded by eastern sounding strings and evocative percussion adding an exotic air while pedal steel and electric guitar float throughout. The overall sense is evocative of Joni Mitchell and early Fairport Convention. Next, there’s the slight country thump of Sunlight Remembers with some Dobro snaking throughout while the title song is a pulsating radio friendly number with bass and drums gently driving the song along. Tiger’s Eye finds Dow back on banjo for the rootsiest track so far on a song which seems to be about finding a wild inner self. With shovelling percussion and Matt Filopoulos adding some magnificently skewed bursts of guitar, this is quite fiery and reminiscent of some of the work from that esteemed quartet of female banjo players, Our Native Daughters.

Next up there’s a trio of songs which sound somewhat diluted in comparison to those above. Dreaming Of You and the following Like Coyotes veer dangerously close to the radio friendly rock of Fleetwood Mac. They are excellently played and sung and there’s a sublime guitar solo on the latter.  Meanwhile, on Something Lost, the banjo and strings seems ill suited to each other. However, the album coasts to a fine end beginning with the breezy accordion laced lilt of Cut & Run which gives way to the moody Too Bright with its reverberating guitars and heady electric solo. Throughout the album, Dow uses allusions and metaphor to describe various relationships and the closing Constellations is no different. Her lonesome banjo picks out the opening before a sweet pedal steel creeps in as Dow faces her fears and eventually ends up howling at the moon and stars.

Overall, Comet is an album which sounds excellent, the playing and production well above par. In addition, and although they don’t sound alike, it’s an album which fans of mid 70s Joni Mitchell might find quite intriguing.

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Old Man Luedecke. Easy Money. True North Records

1b4e24aa191bd5f5b454cb5257d8488fThis latest album from Canada’s banjo playing folkster Old Man Luedecke is a deceptively sunny listen. Written mainly at a songwriter residency in the mountain resort of Banff in Alberta, the album, perversely, has a Caribbean feel to it with several songs using calypso rythyms while some of it slides down with the ease of a Pina Colada sipped to the strains of a Jimmy Buffet “yacht rock” classic. With a crack band behind him (including Fats Kaplan and Tim O’Brien),  Luedecke pilots a skilful course through his tropical sounds recalling similar ventures from the likes of Ry Cooder and Taj Mahal.

Skipping through some light hearted songs such as his ode to sardines and the mock piratical shanty song Money Pit, Luedecke addresses issues such as leaving his family behind as he goes on the road to earn a buck. Indeed, the album opens with his daughters asking him why he has to go away before he launches into the wishful rhapsody, Easy Money. This is followed by Dad Jokes, a delightful ditty on the perils of middle age which is delivered somewhat like Michael Hurley delving into the kiddie rap of 3 Is A magic Number while How Do I Deserve Your Love is  a bustling shuffle of banjo and  skiffle like rythym section. Lonely County and I Wanna Go meanwhile are more straightforward  bluegrass like numbers with a hint of The Carter Family and latter country rock in the grooves.

Dipping into tradition, Luedecke offers us a fine old seafaring ballad on The Mermaid which reeks of Greenwich Village earnestness and then launches into a French lyric version of Dylan’s Hard Rain, called here Le Ciel Est Noir which was a hit for Nana Mouskouri back in the seventies. Towering over the other songs however is one which Luedecke has written following the death of his father. Death Of Truth, in comparison to the rest of the album, is sombre, with a martial drum beat and mournful organ, Luedecke  sounding like Leonard Cohen at times as he says farewell to a man who would have been appalled by the current state of affairs and in particular, the spread of fake news.

Easy Money is an album you could play to entertain your guests as you fire up a barbeque but on closer listening it’s a finely crafted and intriguing listen.

Old Man Luedecke is currently touring the UK and Europe, all dates here.