Malcolm Holcombe. Another Black Hole. Proper Records

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Hot on the heels of last year’s The RCA Sessions where Holcombe re recorded some of his lengthy back catalogue Another Black Hole is a very fine collection of ten new songs guaranteed to satisfy fans old and new. Holcombe certainly seems to be of the opinion that “it it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so there’s a familiarity to many of the songs here. Country and folk blues tunes, eminently foot tappable with his guitar picking to the fore, his voice still gruff and rough, gnarling the words, chewing them up and spitting them out. Of course the words are masterful; he’s an excellent story teller, able to open up worlds in the manner of Guy Clark and John Prine, vivid images and characters populating the songs.

Recorded in Nashville with his regular studio band, Jared Tyler (guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro), David Roe (bass) and Ken Coomer (drums) Holcombe does add some new meat to the stew in the shape of the legendary Tony Joe White who adds some stinging guitar to several of the songs while additional percussion is handled by “Futureman,” AKA Roy Wooten. Drea Merritt adds her voice to several of the selections, her vocals on Papermill Man recalling Merry Clayton on Gimme Shelter. Together they can whip up a fine storm as on the swampy Papermill Man and the muscular title song where White is particularly impressive on guitar, his slide snaking throughout the song over the robust acoustic picking. They’re equally able to sit back and let the song ride out, nimbly picking the melody on To Get By or allowing Holcombe the spotlight on the spare September, a sombre bowed double bass the only accompaniment to his guitar playing and voice.

Be it a snarling blues tune or a sunny folk like lilt Holcombe’s word’s light up the songs. He mentions McMurtry and Cormac, presumably Larry and McCarthy respectively, in his lyrics and there are arresting lines in all of the songs here. He spits out the words, “fuckin’ damn frackin’ and backroom stabbin’ knocks me down on my knees” on Don’t Play Around while on Another Black Hole he sings, “the past has a smell and a one way ticket to leave you standing still.” Leavin’ Anna opens with the fine couplet “The Florida sunshine baked my bones All my life I been cold. Bronchitis, Winston cigarettes, I layed in bed alone.”

So, another excellent collection and the good news is that Holcombe is touring the UK and Ireland in May to promote the album with a Glasgow show included. All dates are here.

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Blue Rose Code @Celtic Connections. Mitchell Theatre, Friday 29th January

Our last blast from this year’s Celtic Connections.

Blabber’n’Smoke is happy to stand on anyone’s coffee table in our scuffed boots to proclaim that Ross Wilson, AKA Blue Rose Code, is one of the most exciting acts to have emerged from the Scottish diaspora in the past few years. He simply is the best writer and performer about; having seen him in several guises (solo, small band, big band) he is a mesmerising performer while his songs are a continuation of all that was good about such luminaries as Van Morrison, John Martyn and Jackie Leven. Committed as we were to reviewing some Celtic Connection shows for Americana UK including this one we’re grateful to David Ferguson who sent us his review of what was a tremendous night.

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Blue Rose Code is the pseudonym of singer-songwriter, Ross Wilson, a native of Edinburgh and currently based in Bournemouth. 2015 was a particularly notable year for Blue Rose Code, including as it did a SAY Award nomination (Scottish Album of the Year) for The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, a series of successful tours, a number of sparkling performances on radio and television, lavish praise from celebrated broadcasters Ricky Ross, Roddy Hart and Edith Bowman, recognition from Ross Wilson’s beloved Hibernian Football Club and the acquisition of a celebrity fan in Ewan McGregor. The start of 2016 saw yet another ‘first’ for Blue Rose Code, in the shape of his first-ever headline gig at Celtic Connections, on 29th January in the elegant Mitchell Theatre. This special event had been arranged to enable Blue Rose Code to preview his forthcoming third album, …And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing and to give fans the only opportunity to buy copies of the eagerly-awaited album prior to its general release in March.

Ross Wilson’s versatility is such that he is equally at home performing intimate solo gigs, as a trio or with a small band but, with up to eleven musicians on stage at any one time, this special gig was most definitely a case of “Blue Rose Code – max”. The line-up varied throughout the show, according to the arrangements and dynamics of each song. Ross Wilson revelled in the role of band leader, bringing the best out of the accompanying musicians and drawing great inspiration from them in return.

Ross’s customary beard was reduced, on this occasion, to a rather splendid pair of mutton-chop sideburns, all the better for the audience to witness his ever-widening smile as they roared their appreciation at the end of every single song. There was a richness and variety to the ten songs which make up the new album, yet they fitted together beautifully as a coherent whole. The set opened with an abridged version of the awe-inspiring gospel song, Grateful, featuring a quietly impassioned vocal from Ross Wilson, embellished by Angus Lyon’s elegant piano and feathery counterpoint vocals from Eliza Wren Payne. The majestic My Heart, The Sun featured pulsating rhythms, smoothly rippling trumpet and an anthemic chorus. The carefree swagger of Rebecca, a gentle country blues, gave way to one of the most achingly beautiful, tender and gracious break-up songs you will ever hear in Pokesdown Waltz, whose gently-whispered closing line surely brought a tear to the eye of most everyone in the room (”…the only regret that presides is that I do wish I’d kissed you goodbye…”). Ross Wilson then quipped that the next song, Glasgow Rain, would bring an end to “divorce corner” for the evening! This song was cinematic in scope, bringing a deeply soulful vocal from Ross (“…the rain fell like dominoes along Great Western Road….”) and a masterclass in cool and sweet jazz from the formidable combined talents of Colin Steele (trumpet), Nico Bruce (double bass), John Lowrie (drums) and Angus Lyon (piano).

In The Morning, Parts 1 and 2 was an extended tour de force, which started with the breezy country soul of part one and segued dreamily into the mesmerising ebb and flow of part two. The fragile beauty of Love, a perennial fans’ favourite which has finally made it onto an album, was notable for Ross’s ethereal vocal and delicate washes of cello, violin and trumpet. The free-flowing Favourite Boy was performed solo by Ross, with the rhythms provided by playful piano chords and foot-taps. In The Morning, Part 3 saw Ross’s vocals build gradually from pastoral lilt to passionate exhortation and featured an exquisite violin solo from Lauren MacColl and stunning ensemble playing from the full “caledonian soul orchestra”. At various points in the show, added musical textures and colours were provided by Graham Coe’s expressive cello and Signy Jakobsdottir’s bewildering array of percussion instruments and effects.

The main set came full circle to finish with an extended and intensified take on Grateful, with uplifting gospel choruses courtesy of Eliza Wren Payne and Emily Kelly, quicksilver blues guitar licks from “Wild” Lyle Watt and a series of beautifully-constructed and increasingly fiery trumpet solos from Colin Steele. There was still time to run through a couple of older favourites, including Edina, Ross Wilson’s affectionate and bittersweet tribute to his native city, which included another gorgeous violin solo. Sandaig was a quietly stirring and poetic evocation of the landscapes enjoyed by Ross during a memorable weekend spent in the Knoydart peninsula. As a final treat, and as this gig coincided with the seventh anniversary of John Martyn’s death, Ross Wilson paid a touching tribute to one of his musical heroes with a beautifully-judged cover of Fine Lines.

It was a sheer delight to hear the songs on the new Blue Rose Code album played in sequence, underlining the cohesion and uniform brilliance of this collection of songs. Having successfully come through several challenging periods in his life, Ross Wilson has attained a serenity which is reflected in the mellowness, elegance and grace of his songs and the warmth, assurance, charisma and inspiration which characterise his live performances. Ross Wilson’s instantly-recognisable brand of Caledonian Soul has reached a new level with this outstanding third album, which promises to elevate him to his rightful place among the elite of British singer-songwriters.

David Ferguson

Jenny Ritter Band/Sarah Hayes @ Celtic Connections. Mitchell Theatre 22/1/16

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It’s somewhat telling of the immense amount of talent that descends on Glasgow for Celtic Connections that tonight’s show featured a full account of a 40 minute thematic song cycle from a “pop star” as the support feature. Sarah Hayes, best known for her work with indie band Admiral Fallow, is a classically trained musician and well regarded in folk circles. Her piece, Woven, was originally commissioned for Celtic Connections’ New Voices series in 2014 with Hayes releasing a CD of the work in late 2015, tonight essentially it’s its second debut if you will. With Hayes on keyboard and flute accompanied by fiddle, accordion, guitar, double bass, drummer and percussionist, she explained to the audience that they would perform the piece without a break, the way she intended it to be heard.

What followed was an intriguing, at times hypnotic and always interesting blend of songs and airs cloaked in tradition, some old, some new, interwoven with instrumental passages and a recurring motif most often played by Holmes on keys and then echoed by one of other of the instrumentalists. Unfamiliar with the piece it was easy enough to sit back and luxuriate in the musicianship, enjoy Hayes’ voice as she harked into the traditional songbook and roll with the flow and eddies as the piece lurched from accordion led melodies to flute interludes and some powerful percussive moments. It was a bold move, at times recalling those tense moments at a classical concert when the audience is unsure whether to applaud and indeed some audience members did suffer premature applaudication as the piece moved from one movement to the next. Nevertheless, there was no sense that this was a wish for the piece to end, merely a lack of bearings within the overall scheme. Having had a chance since to listen to the album and read about Hayes’ theme, weaving family, history, her Northumbrian roots and the weaving industry into one, we would contend that this is a classic piece, one that will grow in stature and going by the number of discs flying from the merch table after the show that growth starts from now.

After a short break headliner Jenny Ritter and her band had it all to do, a sense acknowledged by Ritter (who had watched the Hayes set from the front stalls) saying that she thought she should be the support act. False modesty however as evinced by the sheer delights she and her compadres unleashed for the next hour or so. With a new disc under her belt, the magnificent Raised By Wolves, simultaneously glacial, chunky, folk and country, an album that is both confessional and steeped in the wilderness of British Columbia, she proved up to the task. With fellow Vancouverians Adam Iredale-Gray and Ryan Boeur on fiddle and guitar (both from Fish & Bird) and New Yorker Nate Sabat on double bass Ritter handled banjo and guitar as she took us on a tour of the album.

From the opening Museum Song it was clear that Ritter is a fine songsmith, the words poetic, her voice light as her banjo rippled through the melody. Effervescent throughout the show Ritter spoke briefly about her upbringing in a log cabin before singing the excellent Wolf Wife, a song she described as being about seeing the world through different eyes. It’s a song that takes the listener into Ritter’s world of wonder where “there are things I do in dreams I would never do in life.” Perfectly borne aloft by Iredale-Gray’s pizzicato fiddle playing and Bouer’s tender electric guitar caresses it flowed sweetly by. Ritter remained in her inner hinterland for You Are Also Them, a more down home fiddle led number where she sang, “If I am a light in the dark and I am a road through the hills…I also know how to kill,” bowed double bass adding to the woody sound here.

Reminiscent at times of fellow Canadian Joni Mitchell in her invocation of nature Ritter was more upbeat on the “spaghetti western” twang of Turn Your Thoughts and on a duet with Iredale-Gray, an old song from their days in The Gruffs, Sharing Smokes. She revisited her first album, Bright Mainland, for a song written about her early days in Vancouver, Five Nights, the words evocative of the loneliness one can feel despite being surrounded by people but the highlights of the night were two powerful performances of the closing songs on Raised By Wolves. Remember The Life crept along with a crepuscular feel, Ritter’s voice carried to the night stars as Bouer’s guitar added some sinister sparks. Lost and Found was even better, an epic opening guitar sweep leading into this elegiac number, Ritter sounding forlorn yet hopeful as she sang, “I’m slowly sifting through some old debris and I’m throwing out what’s troubling me.” As on the album the song ended with the vivid portrait of an old piano laid to rest, notes turned into firewood even as the performance was chilling in its delivery.

Ritter ended with a fine chunky folk rock delivery of Neil Young’s Heart Of Gold and returned to lead the audience on We Must Sing, her tribute to the power of song. All in all a great performance.

Mike + Ruthy Band/The Karrnnel Sawitsky Trio @ Celtic Connections. Old Fruitmarket 17/1/2016

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Bright As You Can, last year’s debut release from The Mike + Ruthy Band was described by Blabber’n’Smoke as a “full blown folk rock album,” somewhat akin to the sound of Fairport Convention in their mid seventies incarnation with Jerry Donahue on guitar. Mike Merenda and Ruthy Ungar certainly have a folky past with Pete Seeger being one of their champions but with a rock solid rhythm section (and horns on occasion), they certainly rocked on the album. Tonight’s Celtic Connection show was their first and sole appearance in the UK for the time being and it’s fair to say that they rocked the house.

Fiddle, acoustic guitar and banjos may have been front and centre but the powerful bass and drums (from Jacob Silver and Konrad Meissner respectively) was the bedrock here allowing Ungar in particular to showcase her excellent voice on a thrilling and seductive Golden Eye, described by Ungar as “country disco” and the first time I’ve ever considered banjo playing as “sexy,” Ungar wielding it low slung on her hip like an Appalachian rock star. Adding some bite and some country soothing was pedal steel player Rob Stein whose licks were somewhat superb removing the need for any Telecaster twang. An unexpected bonus was the scratch horn section called upon to replicate the brass boom of the album on several songs, a job they handled well especially as it turned out they were from local band The Amphetameanies and had scant rehearsal time with the  Catskill New Yorkers. Their contribution to the soulful Rock On Little Jane was colossal, sheets of sound surrounding Ungar’s vocals which were impressive in their own right while the parps on Golden Eye were just perfect. Not to be outshone Merenda sang on a blistering take of What Are We Waiting For, a country rock soul bonanza.

Chasing Gold, sung by Mike, was a fine slice of chunky country rock, Ruthy’s amplified fiddle sawing through the beat and the song that most reminded one of Fairport Convention although their rendition of The Ghost Of Richard Manuel ran it a close second, the fiddle and pedal steel weaving wonderfully. There were rootsier moments, a sing-along on Simple and Sober and a fine lilting rendition of Ashoken Farewell (written by Ungar’s father for Ken Burns’ Civil War series and which she said paid her way through college). They covered Richard Thompson’s 1952 Vincent Black Lightning with some gusto and as an encore invited the horns and the support act back on stage for some infectious Louisiana laced gumbo. An excellent show.

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Karrnnel Sawitsky is one half of the duo Fiddle & Banjo who released the excellent Tunes From The North Songs From The South album last year. He was the fiddle; banjo was Daniel Koulak who was also present tonight along with guitarist and fiddler Trent Freeman. The ebullient Sawitsky was a fine host taking time to introduce the songs and tunes which flowed freely from their fingertips.

Again there were Celtic Connections galore, Koulak living close to Selkirk in Manitoba. Jigs and reels and old time waltzes were the order of the day here including two portions of a “rodent suite” dedicated to the woodchuck and the groundhog from the North/South album. Again from the album The Old French Set had Sawitsky and Freeman adding percussive footstamping with the audience clapping along, Rubin and Sally In The Garden were hauntingly delivered and Freeman offered one of his tunes dedicated to his newborn niece. At times sounding like ghosts from the past, at others the best barn dance band you could want the trio were a powerful reminder of musical tradition and great entertainment.

Songs of Separation. Navigator Records

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Aside from being an excellent platform for a multitude of musicians to descend on Glasgow in the dark winter nights Celtic Connections has a reputation for commissioning or being a focal point for unique events; collaborations, celebrations, tributes, meetings of minds and songs. This year has seen the “Celtic” appropriation of Joni Mitchell’s Hejira and tribute is paid to the late Bert Jansch. The plight of Britain’s lost children is commemorated with The Ballads of Child Migration concert and Roaming Roots continues its multifaceted memories of songwriters and troubadours.

Today we’re paying attention to an album released in tandem with the Scottish premier of its live setting on Sunday 24th January at The Mitchell Theatre. Songs of Separation is a magnificent collaborative effort from ten of the UK’s leading female folk artists who gathered together on the Isle of Eigg in the Inner Hebrides last year. Separation was the theme and the stroke of genius was to offer it to a female cast as throughout history it has been women who have carried the burden of carrying on as children and men folk have left them, off to war, to sea, seeking fortune or fame or into the grave. The memories carved into song by the womenfolk who stoically carry on. The original idea was conceived by Jenny Hill as the turbulent waters of the Scottish Independence Referendum washed over the land. A travelling musician, she saw the differing views offered north to south, the idea of separation welcomed or decried hence her wish to investigate the concept.

The ten (Eliza Carthy, Karine Polwart, Mary Macmaster, Rowan Rheingans, Hazel Askew, Hannah James, Kate Young, Hannah Read, Jenn Butterworth and Jen Hill) have certainly risen to the occasion. The 12 songs here, traditional and new, sung in English or Gaelic, don’t fly any political flag and indeed, concept put aside, the album is, at base, a gorgeous collection of traditional sounding folk songs that is somewhat sublime. From the opening croak of the titular endangered bird on Echo Mocks The Corncrake (with Polwart taking the vocal here) to the closing birdsong on Road Less Travelled there’s a sense that the album was conceived in communion with nature. Indeed several of the pieces are “field recordings,” the ensemble gathering in Eigg’s Cathedral Cave for acapella renditions of Sad The Climbing and the Unst Boat Song, both haunting. Gathering songs and stories from Scotland and Yorkshire along with songs inspired by Danish and American poetry they relive the legend of the Pictish “big women of Eigg” on Soil and Soul, tell the tale of a mermaid unable to return to her land family on Sea King and recall a clan massacre on Sad The Climbing. London Lights sees Hazel Askew bemoaning the fate of single mothers with an almost music hall arrangement that recalls the warning songs of Victorian times, the sentimentality tempered by the sheer brilliance of the voices and arrangement. Eliza Carthy’s Cleaning The Stones visits similar territory musically while its lyrics are opaque and reminiscent of vintage Richard Thompson. Over The Border delves into traditional songs (including Flowers of The Forest) with Polwart pointing out the contemporary issue of refugees hindered here and there by borders that fail to see their desperate need.

It’s a wonderful album, soaked in history and tradition but bang up to date as we repeat the mistakes of the past. The singers and players excel themselves and it’s almost impossible to have a casual listen as the songs (along with a fine website) demand further investigation.

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Cam Penner & Jon Wood with Rayna Gellart @ Celtic Connections Saturday 16th January 2016

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Cam Penner and his sonic wizard sidekick Jon Wood transformed the Tron theatre  into a magical space for an evening, Wood setting up a constant thrum and throb with his array of tape loops and sound effects. Akin to the background ambience found in nature, birdsong, wind rustles, trees creaking, the eternal hum of Mother Nature, the effects underpinned the music played and framed the pair’s perambulations across the stage as they chose their  instruments with Penner offering lengthy, wise and humorous introductions to several of the songs.

For music carved in a home built wood shed there’s a great deal of technical wizardry involved but at its heart is Penner’s voice which can change from a tender whisper to a threatening holler and Wood’s lap steel and jagged electric guitar playing. Rudimentary percussion is banged and kicked, Penner plucks a tiny guitar and the loops of sound loop on. The opening song, I’m Calling Out (from the new Sex & Politics album), evoked nothing less than the sweet soft country sound of Neil Young back in the days before it segued into the frenzied alarum of I Believe, Penner summoning ghosts of secular and sacred music hollers, Wood ripping notes from his guitar. Continuing with the new album Broke Down had Penner in a fragile state, his voice a croaked plea while Wood sprinkled the song with slight burbles of sound, almost like faint raindrops. Again the pair then shook up the atmosphere with anther howl of a song, the chain gang like wail of Hey You (Lovers of Music).

Four songs in before Penner addressed the audience who were by now desperate for a breather after this impressive opening. His beguiling tales of dick shaped missiles, his love for RL Burnside and Public Enemy and how he came to be featured on the BBC series Stonemouth punctuated the remainder of the set, his beaming grin and obvious joy at being on stage endearing him to the audience. A brace of songs from To Build A Fire were delights, House of Liars the aforementioned song from the telly and No Consequence a spooky wail dredged from the swamp. A rousing Bring Forth The Healing had the emotional heft and strength of ancient spirituals, Penner showing why some folk have described his music as shamanistic.

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Support act, Rayna Gellert was a delight. Playing fiddle and guitar along with her partner Jeff Keith on guitar she epitomised the connection between Celtic music and the new world as she spoke of the Scottish settlers in North Carolina. Playing her own tunes and songs from Uncle Dave Macon and Washington Phillips she reminded one of John Hartford at times, her fiddle jigs and waltzes soaked in old time charm while her rendition of Black Eyed Susie, a favourite from her days in Uncle Earl (and arranged by her father Dan Gellert) was rousing. Singing more these days Gellert was joined on stage for several numbers by Scots singer Siobhan Miller who added some excellent harmonies to Phillips’ Take Your Burden To The Lord and a striking In The Ocean from her album Old Light.

Gretchen Peters. The Essential Gretchen Peters. Proper Records

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Gretchen Peters‘ career has been an interesting intersection of her song writing skills and her own performances. Initially she was successful as a writer, her songs providing hits and awards for country stars such as George Strait, Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. As a performer she found the going tougher, her early albums struggling to get recognition. Gritting her teeth she ploughed on and in part due to her frequent visits to these shores she gained momentum here, Bob Harris an early champion, and then in the States, eventually being inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Her last album Blackbirds (reviewed here) is the pinnacle of her career so far, lauded far and wide. Now, on the eve of yet another UK tour she releases this handpicked two-disc overview of her work so far, not a “best of” but an intriguing collection of familiar songs, rarities and demos.

Disc one contains a selection of songs from her albums going back to 1996’s The Secret Of Life. It opens with the tremendous murder ballad Blackbirds, a bold move but the twelve songs that follow aren’t shadowed by it, indeed they cast light on the excellence of her work throughout her career along with her versatility. There is one previously unheard song here, a collaboration with Bryan Adams on When You Love Someone, an achingly tender duet in classic boy/girl country style, pedal steel weeping away. Elsewhere there’s no doubting the majesty of songs like Hello Cruel World and Sunday Morning (Up And Down My Street), the simple truth of If Heaven and the hypnotic pull of The Matador.

A fine selection but for any avid Peters’ fan the lure here is the second disc, the demos and live songs, many of which are unveiled for the first time. Here one can hear her own versions of The Chill Of An Early Fall (a hit for George Strait) and Independence Day (Martina McBride) while an early recording of Blackbirds with vocals shared by the co-writer, Ben Glover, is stunning. There’s a live recording of The Stone’s Wild Horses from the Wine Women and Song set up (Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg) with heavenly harmonies while Peters also covers John Lennon’s Love (from his Plastic Ono Band album) and sings a dreamlike When You Wish Upon A Star, originally recorded for a charity album some years ago. Best of all is the stark The Cruel Mother, a song that was included as a bonus track on some versions of Blackbirds. It’s a song soaked in tradition, Celtic and Americana, lilting and mournful and just wonderful.

Ms. Peters will be appearing at Celtic Connections on the 30th and 31st January as part of an extensive UK tour. Dates here