Southern White stories. A chat with Martha Fields.

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Last October Blabber’n’Smoke was intrigued to receive a bona fide album of Texan tunes that was recorded in France. The album, Long Way From Home was billed as recorded by Texas Martha & The House of Twang and some investigating (well, reading the liner notes) revealed that while Texas Martha AKA Martha Fields was indeed from the Lone Star State the House Of Twang were all Frenchmen who appeared to have been steeped in the whys and wherefores of Americana.  Now Martha has her second album, Southern White Lies ready for release (we reviewed it here), again recorded with her expert Gallic pickers (Manu Bertrand -Dobro, banjo, mandolin, Serge Samyn -double bass, Olivier Leclerc -violin, Urbain Lambertguitar and Denis Bielsadrums). Southern White Lies reverses the urge to go West as Fields heads northeast to the Kentucky foothills of the Appalachians, her mother’s homeland. Martha’s playing all over Europe to tie in with the album release and she and her band are making their first Scottish appearance this weekend at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. She took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the new album. First off however we asked her how a Texan musician comes to be living and recording in Bordeaux, France.

I’ve been coming over to Europe and to France in particular for the past four years after I was invited to play some festivals.  I have some friends who live around Bordeaux so I was invited to play here and I thought, “Wow, they like this kind of music over here” so I started to come over in the summer to escape the Texas heat and found that I really like the lifestyle. So just staying here and playing shows, I happened to meet some amazing players and eventually formed the band.

Your band are all French I believe.

They’re all French but they’ve been playing this kind of music since they were little bitty kids and they love it. They know more about the history and the trivia than I do. They live it and they are super players, they’ve played all over the world with some very well know French stars, Johnny Hallyday, Dick Rivers, stars for another generation but big names over here.

I’ve heard of Johnny Hallyday but not Dick Rivers.

Oh, he’s kind of like the French Elvis. He’s older now but he cut an album last year that I really like, he’s good.

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Was Long way From Home your first album?

It’s my first solo album but I’ve played with other bands and in various collaborations back in the States. I’ve been writing songs since I was six or seven years old but I had another career. I was a professor in Texas, teaching but I was always playing my music, weekends and such. But now I’ve taken a hiatus from that to concentrate on the music for the meantime. I can always go back to that when I’m 80 or so. In the meanwhile I’m having a great time and it’s working really well.

Long Way From Home got some fabulous reviews

I was really pleased. We got a lot of radio play all over the place. I was very happy with the album, it was Texas boogie most of the way but as you know I love folk music, that Appalachian thing as well and in my live show I do both and people seem to appreciate that variety. I was really pleased with the way Long Way From Home turned out but for this one I really wanted to show that other folkier side. Some folk might prefer the honky tonk songs, some the folkier ones but I want to express both aspects, who knows, it might help me gain a new audience because of this slightly different approach but overall this is me.

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Southern White Lies is quite different, the music’s acoustic, it draws from the Kentucky and Virginia Appalachian traditions with the cover art reflecting your memories of family playing on the front porch. Where did you get the inspiration for the songs you wrote for the album?

I usually always take it from real life, reflecting on things that have happened to my, my friends, my family, things that are happening politically. That’s how I’ve always dealt with things that I find joy in or sometimes pain, I set them to music.

There’s a thread going though the album, a sense of social justice. You see Southerners as being used and abused over the years, especially by politicians.

It’s happened to my family! Right now, there’s a lot of conflict going on, not just in the states, politically it’s a very difficult moment. I wrote two songs, American Hologram  and Southern White Lies maybe 12 to 18 months ago but I didn’t realise things were going to get this challenging. I’ve got family on both sides of the political spectrum and it can get really difficult to talk about these things over the kitchen table. I don’t think that people realise that we are all fodder for all these games that politicians play but we’re living it. I try to stay positive and one of the ways that I’m able to address it is through my music. I wrote a line in the title song that says, “pandering politicians, we need more musicians”. We need artists to really address what’s happening. If you think back to the sixties, there were a lot more artists singing about issues but there’s less of that these days, maybe because of the way the industry is these days. We don’t have much of a voice now and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in.

The album isn’t all political. I redid my song about my aunt (Do As You Are Told) because when I wrote it I really had in mind more of a bluegrass feel although I suppose it is a political song in a way just because of her own life. But there are love songs, bluegrass, Gospel and there’s a good old drinking song.

The Janis Joplin cover (What Good Will Drinking Do You)?

Yes, you’ve got to have at least one drinking song. It’s life. We cry, we drink, we go to church, we do all these things so it’s really just a part of everyday life.

So are you bringing the whole band over to your appearances at Southern Fried?

Yes. The only one who’s not coming over is Oliver, the violin player. He’d already been booked for something else by the time we arranged to come over but the rest of us will be there. We are playing two shows, one on Friday evening and then late on the Saturday night. I’m really looking forward to it, it’s my first trip to Scotland and the festival line up looks amazing.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I look forward to seeing you in Perth.

As Martha says, she is playing two shows at Southern Fried with the Friday show on the free outdoor stage, an incredible opportunity to see an artist who in a short time has leapt to the forefront of rootsy American music. You can check her show times here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Mike + Ruthy Band. The Glad Cafe. Glasgow Sunday 24th July 2016

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This was Mike + Ruthy’s second appearance in Glasgow this year, the first being a spirited and well received show at Celtic Connections back in January in the Old Fruitmarket. Tonight was a not to be missed opportunity to see them at closer quarters and they did not disappoint making few , if any, concessions to the intimate setting, a far cry from their appearance at Newcastle’s Summertyne Festival last Friday and their forthcoming shows at The Cambridge Folk Festival. A five-piece band with folk roots they can rock as well; at one point Mike Merenda almost apologised for a song being somewhat loud before going on to say “that’s because it is loud.”

This Glasgow show was one of four gigs squeezed in between the two festival appearances (there’s one to go on Wednesday 27th at The Birnam Arts Centre in Perthshire) and the band were obviously out to have some fun. They treated the audience to a two hour set plus encores, the core being their main show but allowing them an opportunity to drag out some old songs and to road test a couple of new ones. There was no horn section tonight (unless you count Merenda’s occasional harmonica) but  the infectious, joyous and robust playing of the rhythm section (Jacob Silver, bass and Konrad Meissner, drums) along with Rob Stein, superlative on pedal steel, hummed and roared with the front pair (playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and banjo-uke) sparring  and bantering and delivering some deadly songs.

They slipped into the set with the beguiling simplicity of Simple & Sober with Ruth Ungar in fine voice on a song that is rooted in American folk music as popularised by Pete Seeger. With some fine three part harmonies wafting the song along and a sweet liquid pedal steel solo this was a hypnotic opening but then they pumped up the volume for the rousing folk rock strains of Bright As You Can, Ungar transformed into a powerful belter while the band just rocked out.  Almost as if they were setting out their stall they then launched into a magnificently slow lumbering rendition of sixties’ peacenik Len Chandler’s civil rights song, I’m Going To Get My Baby out of Jail before wafting into their rendition of an unfinished Woody Guthrie song, My New York City.  With these four songs they had established their credentials, rooted in protest era folk of the fifties and sixties and fuelled with the bite of later folk rock acts, a true embodiment of the spirit that inhabits the Catskills and Woodstock to this day.

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While Ruth Ungar was to the front for the opening songs Mike Merenda stood up for the excellent Word On The Street as Ungar skirled away on fiddle with Stein skirting around her bowing. Thereafter we were treated to a cornucopia of delights, delightful folky numbers such as Freckled Ocean and the ominous Cigarette, their fine and full bodied tribute to The Band on The Ghost Of Richard Manuel. The pulsating Golden Eye,  a song that Ungar described back in January as “country disco” allowed the band to riff magnificently while there was some soulful wailing on the powerful Rock On Little Jane and  Merenda’s banjo had a fine outing on The Farmer which was Appalachian in its rippling country flavours and hi lonesome harmonies.  There were some new songs, one, from Ruth called Old Days another nod to Greenwich Village times and they closed the set with an invitation to the audience to sing along on the rousing On My Way Home, the pair duelling on their respective strings and the band all offered a short solo that was somewhat invigorating. Time up but space for an encore and here they really called in the audience for an affecting rendition of The Water Is Wide, the audience reciprocating in fine voice. Thereafter there was a rip snorting Cajun like instrumental, again with solos from all band members that just about raised the roof. A fantastic show from a very versatile band, loud, soft, folk, blues, country? All of these and more. They should slay Cambridge.

 

Martha Fields. Southern White Lies

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Martha Fields sprang to our attention last year under the guise of Texas Martha who, along with her band, The House Of Twang, released Long Way From Home, a terrific album of pedal steel driven twangy Texan honky tonk songs. Fields is indeed a Texan but she recorded the album in France with French musicians with only the very occasional lyric sung in French signalling that Ms. Fields was more likely to be sipping a Bordeaux rather than quaffing a bottle of Lone Star.  While the album was chockfull of barrelhouse road songs Fields reined it in on a couple of songs, most notably on Do As You Are Told, a song which verged on Southern Gothic. Tellingly this song reappears on Southern White Lies, an album which finds Fields reaching out to another aspect of her heritage, her mother’s Appalachian roots which lie deep in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Still based in France and still with her hotshot French pickers Fields forsakes the twang-fuelled telecasters and barrelling pedal steel for an acoustic set of numbers, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and Dobro fuelling the numbers. She refers to memories of back porch picking on her regular visits to her mother’s kinfolk but the music here is more muscular with bluegrass, blues and country all imbued with a Southern defiance, a sense of social justice, some God fearin’ good sense and a love of a good time. Fields has a gutsy voice that allows her to cover Janis Joplin’s What Good Can Drinkin’ Do You with  some aplomb as you reckon she might be able to match Pearl drink for drink. The traditional Lonesome Road Blues and Jimmy Rodgers’ California Blues allow Fields and band to show that they can still summon up the lure of the road unplugged with both songs ripping along finely, the solos as acute here as they were on the chrome plated Texas numbers of the previous albums.

The western dream of sun kissed bliss that’s invoked in California Blues, a bluesy hobo’s dream of escape to the coast reminds the listener of the hardscrabble times that have hit the poor denizens of the rural south time and time again. Fields allows for that other form of escape via The Good Lord on her cover of the spiritual What Are They Doing In Heaven but elsewhere she’s fired up at the way common folk are treated.  Over the course of seven songs she covers emotions ranging from despair (on the opening Soul On The Move) to a burning sense of anger on the title song. Do As You Are Told, Fields’ song about her aunt, retold from the previous album still packs a punch as it’s relayed this time as a frontier song, all rolling guitars, snake like Dobro and skirling fiddle. The closing song, American Hologram is perhaps the crowning achievement here as Fields and the band adopt a slight Texicana lilt, a cantina like tune that belies the anger behind the words. Here Fields spits out her diatribe against shock jocks who paint her people as poor white trash and politicians who use them as cannon fodder in foreign wars.

Southern White Lies is a brave album. One that packs a social message or as we used to say, protest songs but it’s no mere finger pointing. Fields has the sense to deliver her powerful words clothed in an incredibly attractive suit of rootsy finger picking. She’s not immune to the lure of the heart as heard in the fine and lilting Where Do We Go Now but overall she manages to combine the anthems of Woody Guthrie and the Southern documentation of Bobbie Gentry.

Good news is that Martha Fields makes her Scottish debut this weekend at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival.

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The Lowest Pair. Fern Girl & Iceman. Team Love Records

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Some records just capture the essence of an old America, rooted in the hills and woods and the songs and tunes that early immigrants brought with them to the new world, sounds that informed the pioneers of what we now call country music. Generally it’s relatively unadorned, strings and a few other things, voices raw and elemental, spooky or life affirming, summoning up deep dark woods or back porch pickin’ and grinnin’. Blabber’n’Smoke has reviewed several artists who brilliantly  evoke this old time essence, Cahalen Morrison & Eli West, Pharis & Jason Romero and Anna & Elizabeth come to mind. Time then to add the duo of Kendl Winter and Palmer T. Lee, AKA The Lowest Pair to this club as Fern Girl & Iceman just oozes with that rarefied mountain air.

Basically a duellin’ banjo duet Winter and Lee are rooted in the Clinch Mountain musical style, one of the backbones of Appalachian music and listening to the album is somewhat akin to being near the clear mountain streams and wooded glens of Georgia. Recall if you will the early outdoors celebration of the river in Deliverance, the grand beauty of a wilderness and the music that grew out of it. The pair capture this perfectly with banjos strummed and picked, occasionally extended into virtuoso breaks, the vocals, Lee a rough-hewn tenor and Winter a little girl lost, her voice recalling Victoria Williams at times. In fact listening to her one can imagine that this is what Sissy Spacek would have sounded like if she had made a rootsy mountain album back in the seventies. Swapping lead vocals and harmonising excellently together the pair add guitar, tambourine and harmonica to their banjo playing while a spare backdrop of bass, drums, lap steel and fiddle offer occasional embroidery.

There are 11 songs here and all are of the highest quality. There’s the halting Stranger with its skeletal string picking, the old time waltz of Trick Candlelight with its delightful lap steel adornment and the driving ballad Sweet Breath which sounds like it came from the Child ballads. Waiting For The Taker is proof positive that a pair of banjos can summon up a storm of emotion as they flail together in a modal fashion which again recalls old time ballads of dread and doom. It’s chilling in its icy beauty with a tremendous instrumental break which recalls Indian sitar scales. The best is left to the end with the closing song How Can I Roll a perfect summation of the album, a frail cry into the wilderness with tentative picking, aching harmonies and ominous fiddle all folding into a plaintive lament. Overall Fern Girl & Iceman is an album that is fresh and timeless and they get extra points for naming themselves after an obscure John Hartford word poem. Check it out.

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iMTV: Rob Ellen’s independence Music TV

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How best to support your favourite acts and artists? I’m sure that Blabber’n’Smoke readers do more than their fair share, buying records, going to gigs, funding Kickstarters and such.  Now music promoter Rob Ellen, who is based in the Highlands, has a new concept which he announced on July 4th, Independence Day of course for those in The States.

To call Rob a music promoter is to sell him short. His Medicine Show umbrella covers all sorts of activity. He promotes artists, organises tours and house concerts, has a syndicated radio show and an online webzine carrying album and live concert reviews. In addition, he is one-half of The Slim Panatellas playing tea chest bass with cigar box guitar genius Don Jack. Now Rob has set out on perhaps his most ambitious project, iMTV, an innovative attempt to showcase music, offer folk an opportunity to become a patron and hopefully put some money into the pockets of the featured artists. It’s fully explained on his website but essentially Rob is setting up a music video channel which will carry music content such as tour documentaries, streamed concerts and the like, all unique and filmed and recorded by Rob. To facilitate this he has vowed to spend the next year touring the UK converted Hymer Mercedes motor home which is now a mobile TV studio, The Medicine Music Moose Mobile.

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It’s early days. The 4th July declaration was the curtain raiser for a fund raising drive asking for a minimum £10 donation for a year’s subscription to iMTV once it’s up and running. In addition musicians will have a members page on the iMTV site and will receive 50% of  subsequent subscriptions made through their page. The initial fund raising page is here. It’s a bold venture so Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to Rob about the idea, his hopes and expectations and we started by asking him why he was doing this.

It’s a couple of things. I got frustrated sending out my artists’ CDs to DJ’s and writers. Many of them are good enough to play some songs or write about the music but it’s getting harder and harder to establish an artist, it’s the same worthy crew who play the songs. There’s a lot of resources thrown into trying to get on the radio and I thought, well why not set up a TV station?  If we can attract people to that it will be a whole lot better than just one or two radio shows playing the music. And I also wanted to come up with a plan that can reward the artists themselves, affiliated artists will get 50% of any profits that come in.

Why do you think a TV concept will be more effective than a radio play?

I think that if you offer music in a video in these days of instant interaction then people will be more likely to remember it. I want to capture a moment and then share it with people on the video channel and also via social media.

You’ve got a mobile TV studio which you’ll be using to record shows and events.

Yes, I’m out on the road right now, I’ll be doing this for the next year, collecting content, spreading awareness and trying to raise the funds we need. So the Moose mobile will touring the country, filming and recording and we’ll be trying out the results initially on the House Concert TV channel.

I’ve given myself a year to see if we can get fully funded to see if we can do it properly. There’s a fundraising page which has started off really well but I need to keep up the momentum. So far it’s mostly folk I know that have contributed but I’m hoping that word will spread. I hope that people will see it as an investment of sorts, it’s only £10 I’m looking for and for that tenner anyone who contributes might eventually make some money if it all works out.

So what’s the current state of play with you on the road?

Right now I’m on the road with Chuck Hawthorne who’s on his first tour of the UK. He’s playing gigs, house concerts and festivals and I’m recording and filming all of it. I’m also going to try some live streams directly from the Moose mobile which will go on to Facebook, we’ll call it Chuck in the truck! It’s great to be starting off with Chuck as he’s got such an interesting back-story and hopefully we’ll get some footage of him recounting it and it will all go up on the Moose Mobile Facebook page. At the end of the tour I’m hoping to edit what we’ve got into a documentary. I think that Chuck is as important an artist as I’ve worked with for a long while and also it will be nice to get a capture of the current UK Americana scene as seen through his eyes.

Will you plan to do more documentaries once iMTV is up and running?

I think it will be more live streams, bang, bang, as it happens, captured warts and all allowing you to interact with the artist as it happens and then archived so that you can revisit it, share it and such. As the project progresses I’m hoping to install cameras in a couple of our regular concert spaces which will allow us to edit some concerts afterwards for a really professional showpiece which will be available to watch time and again.

So at the moment we are trying it out, getting to know the equipment and seeing what we can with it so that when iMTV is good to go we will be up and running from day one.  It’s a steep learning curve but I’ve got a team of folk back home helping me set it up.  This time next year we hope to have enough money to man it all and to entertain a target of 60,000 subscribers.

So if you want to get in on the ground floor you can send in your tenner to Rob’s Go Fund Me page. In addition it would be a tremendous help if folk can share this using the links we’ve included or by just sharing and mentioning this page. It’s a vision we can all participate in after all.

 

 

Doug Sahm and The Sir Douglas Quintet. Hell of A Spell/Nuevo Wave Live/Texas Hero. Floating World Records

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The late Doug Sahm has been woefully let down by the record industry in the years following his death. Aside from a  couple of decent compilations there hasn’t been (as far as I know) any attempt at a comprehensive retrospective or even a reasonable reissue programme of his major albums, solo, with The Sir Douglas Quintet or The Texas Tornados. Mind you, he recorded for a number of labels so the legal hurdles might just be too much to bear. In the meantime reissues are often slapdash, albums renamed, information scant, hidden away on back pages on Amazon.

This two disc CD (comprising three albums) is guilty on some counts. There’s little information on the musicians involved although there is an informative essay in the liner notes (written by Alan Robinson who also recounts a very brief encounter with the man).  On the plus side it’s reasonably priced and it does contain one bona fide gem from the Texan Groover.

Hell Of A Spell, originally released in 1980 finds Sahm paying tribute to Texas bluesmen (the album is dedicated to Guitar Slim) and although it wasn’t his swansong it’s perhaps his last major release before he formed the Texas Tornados (along with two decades of a variety of line ups playing the Sir Douglas Quintet hits).   With a fine horn section in tow Sahm offers up his “San Antonio blues album” covering Brook Benton, Junior Parker and, of course, Guitar Slim along with several of his own numbers. Produced by Dan Healy, The Grateful Dead’s soundman, it’s an excellent album, Sahm whoopin’ it up, his vocals fired, the band loose but not sloppy. There’s jump and jive and slow burning barrelhouse blues here. If you’re a Sahm fan and haven’t got this album then you can stop reading here and just go and buy it.

Nuevo Wave Live is credited to The Sir Douglas Quintet and it appears to be the same recording issued previously as Live Texas Tornado, an album recorded at the Whiskey-a-Go-Go in Hollywood and the Club Foot in Austin, Texas sometime in the early ’80’s. With the likes of  Joe ‘King’ Carrasco on the scene the Quintet’s parping Farfisa Tex-Mex sound was popular again and here the band give it their all on pumping versions of Wooly Bully, Who Were You Thinkin’ Of, Mendocino and the almighty She’s About A Mover. It’s short but sweet, a crisp live recording with Sahm’s rendition of Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues an interesting diversion.

The second disc is a collection of early Sahm recordings delving back to 1958 many of which have been previously reissued on a variety of mongrel compilations. As far as I can see this is the most comprehensive collection so far with 25 songs gathered together.  The road to Hell Of A Spell is already mapped out on The Pharaohs’ bluesy I Can’t Believe You Want Me To Leave and Why, Why, Why, recorded with The Markays in 1060, Sahm, just leaving his teens, already a Texas bluesman. The first ten songs are all vintage rock and blues before Sahm delves into early Tex-Mex land and this is where it gets murky. There are four instrumentals credited to him but no evidence of his presence. Following this are sets of songs from Freddy Fender, Ernest Tubb and T Bone Walker, all fine but tangential to Mr. Sahm’s story. Apart from that it’s a fine disc of rudimentary rock, blues and country.

A quick cost benefit analysis might determine whether this release is destined for your shelves but overall it’s a fine opportunity to catch up on the man who once said, “You just can’t live in Texas if you don’t have a lot of soul”.

Buy the album here

Cheap Wine. Mary and The Fairy.

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Blabber’n’Smoke has occasionally ventured into the world of American influenced Italian rock music with bands like Sacri Cuori and Lowlands proving that there’s a genuine feel for the sound in the boot heeled peninsula. Some time ago we spoke to Edward Abbiatti of Lowlands about this and he recommended a band, Cheap Wine and weirdly enough the very same crew recently reached out and sent us a copy of their latest album. A live affair, recorded in Pesaro, Italy it portrays the five piece band as a very accomplished bunch of rockers who inhabit that world frequented by the likes of Tom Waits and Nick Cave although they don’t have the gruffness of the former nor the grimness of the latter. In addition the band (named after an old Green On Red Song) have a definite touch of Steve Wynn’s Dream syndicate about them (Mr. Wynn has enjoyed playing live with them in the past) and there is a hint of E Street balladry, Velvet Underground streetsmarts and Waterboys’ epic sweep on some of the songs while their European heritage flickers into life here and there, a cafe come cabaret loucheness stalking them.

Mary and The Fairy (the title derived from two of the songs on the disc) features eight songs from the band’s back catalogue that they thought deserved to be captured for posterity, songs that in concert stretch out beyond the studio versions allowing the instruments space to shine. It’s a great recording, the sound crisp with only occasional audience applause to remind one that this is live music. The majority of the songs sit astride piano driven melodies with Marco Diamantini’s vocals well to the fore, the lyrics all in English, his accent only just noticeable, his voice slightly wearied. As the band stretch out there’s acres of fluid and fierce guitar soloing that adds fire to the songs making for some invigorating listening.

Three of the songs exceed the ten minute mark, all mini epics. Behind The Bars is a showcase for the excellent piano skills of Alesso Raffaelli with the song opening like a Springsteen jailhouse opera. The guitars flail away but the piano solo midway through is mesmerising. Mary opens with Diamantini describing the titular “queen of drop out street” as if he were Kevin Ayers or Lou Reed as the band creep around him creating an atmospheric milieu until a guttural guitar solo weighs in seven minutes into the song shredding away until the end. The Fairy Has Your Wings (for Valeria)  is another seesaw of intimate lyrics and gentle instrumentation interspersed with thunderous bursts of guitar fury with some excellent calm in the centre of the storm in the shape of another fine piano solo from Raffaelli.

Away from the Sturm und Drang of these longer numbers the band offer the effortless stroll of Based On Lies, the autumnal ballad of Dried Leaves and the nocturnal delights of the noirish waltz that is La Buveuse. The oddly named I Like Your Smell (you need to listen to the lyrics here) is a minor masterpiece with the addition of an accordion allowing the band to sound like an Italian version of The Felice Brothers.

For a live album this is a mighty fine listen even for anyone who isn’t aware of the original versions and for this reviewer a sweet invitation to delve into the band’s back catalogue.

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