Peter Bruntnell and Norrie McCulloch. Sounds In The Suburbs @ The Doublet, Glasgow. Wednesday 22nd March 2017

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At times, it seems like life is just one big shit storm, the past year a steady downpour of blows against the empire of anyone in their right senses. So any rays of sunshine are to be welcomed and one such was the welcome return of Peter Bruntnell (a cult hero according to The Guardian  to Glasgow just a few months after his last visit to the city. Back in September Bruntnell and his band tore the roof off as the guitars gyred and gymbled with some ferocity. As that Guardian article pointed out Bruntnell is not only a psychedelic guitar warrior but also a master of the perfectly crafted pop song. Tonight this side of his coinage was expected to be at the fore as he proffered the UK debut of The Peter Bruntnell Trio; Bruntnell on acoustic guitar, Scots string wizard Iain Sloan on pedal steel and veteran  Danny Williams (ex Black Grape and St Etienne)  on double bass.

The trio, packed into a corner of the tiny room with a capacity audience just inches away didn’t disappoint. The opening Clothes Of Winter was a winsome reminder that Bruntnell follows in the footsteps of writers such as Nick Drake, a sense reinforced by the following Sea Of Japan while Tin Streamer Song was suffused with memories of a lost way of life. The songs were delivered with a creamy melancholic air, Williams supple on bass, Sloan winding his way through the melodies and they turned in magnificent versions of Here Come The Swells and an awesome By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix. So far so sublime but the trio (despite this being their first time together) expanded their sound with Sloan picking up his telecaster and Williams proving to be quite adept at coaxing sounds from his bass with his bow with the first murmurings heard on John, a song that pays tribute to Mr. Cash that had some stormy guitar from Mr. Sloan. They ventured further into the hinterland with a stunning delivery of Cold Water Swimmer as Williams bowed a low droning backdrop before Bruntnell and Sloan added some fractured psychedelic haziness as the song slowly segued into the summery bliss of Domestico, tonight given a tougher approach than on the recorded version.

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Allowing his compadres a breather Bruntnell played End Of The World solo which was quite mesmerising, a quiet moment equal to the best of McCartney as on Blackbird. With the band back on St. Christopher flowed sweetly while Have You Seen That Girl Again dipped into power pop territory. The crowd were loving this but all too soon the curtain dropped allowing the one encore which surprisingly saw Bruntnell dipping into the catalogue of another English songwriting genius as he performed Roy Harper’s Another Day. A wonderful end to a fantastic show.

 

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The evening opened with Norrie McCulloch, Stirling based singer/songwriter who has recently released the excellent Bare Along The Branches. I saw Norrie play a very fine album release show a few weeks back but have to say that tonight topped that. Playing a 12 string acoustic for much of the show added resonance to his playing which was further aided by the electric guitar of Dave McGowan who came on stage for several numbers. The opening Calico Days (from second album These Mountain Blues) positively skipped with joy and celebration. It’s a song that increasingly reminds me of Fairport Convention’s Come All Ye, not sounding similar but a fellow jubilant hymn to comradeship. From the new album the languid Little Boat floated on McGowan’s liquid guitar fills, Frozen River rippled with a folky lilt and Around The Bend satisfied all with its down-home Neil Young like honeyslide harmonica intro. Best of all though was the closing song which was a tremendous performance from McCulloch and McGowan of Beggar’s Woods, a song soaked in memories and tonight glowing with McGowan’s silvery playing.

Son Of The Velvet Rat. Dorado. Fluff & Gravy Records

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The arrestingly titled Son Of The Velvet Rat are husband and wife duo Georg Altziebler and Heike Binder, both Austrian but now domiciled in Joshua Tree in the Californian desert. Like that other married duo, The Handsome Family, Son Of The Velvet Rat inhabit a somewhat gothic twilight zone, a crepuscular portrait of a sometimes dark and eerie landscape with their muted tones reminiscent of rituals and murky deeds. Producer Joe Henry evokes well the atmosphere in his liner notes which portray a motel, part Bates, part Lynch, all mystery.

The songs slouch forward for the most part with Georg’s voice a haunting half sung threnody (which recalls Chip Taylor’s recent efforts) while the music floats on drifts of organ, accordion and splintered guitar with occasional decoration from pedal steel and violin.  A couple of the songs have a pulse beat beyond moribund with Blood Red Shoes a fine upholstered ride along a dark highway with additional vocals from the much missed Victoria Williams while Surfer Joe is like Springsteen taking time out to hang with some Repo Men with an alien in the trunk of their car. Starlight Motel opens with an evocative Spanish guitar trill and spooky harmonica but gradually picks up speed as the gears shift up with Georg on the run from a mystery crime. Part gangster story, part metaphysics, it glows with an evil neon malice, guitars shimmering in the reflection.

The meat of the album is in the slow procession of darkness exemplified by the opening Carry On, a funereal number with weeping violin. Copper Hill is suffused with mournful horns as the song slowly advances again like a funeral but here with a New Orleans like dignity. Love’s The Devil’s Foe rests upon a plaintive organ note before an impassioned plea from Georg to his succubus has the band evoking the elements with splashes of piano and percussion  and Shadow Song creeps along with a sinister bass line with occasional flurries of violin, spooky indeed. Sweet Angela is a love song with a twist as the singer sits in the glow of a TV, his remote control out of reach but deciding that an anonymous woman on the screen would be the perfect replacement for “that bitch in Berlin”. The album closes with the claustrophobic existentialism of Franklin Avenue with Georg reimagining an encounter as the band achieve a perfect sense of bathos, a dreamlike evocation.

Dorado is a dark trip into the American psyche and should delight those who admire The Handsome Family and The Walkabouts, a band who infused a dark European feel into their lonesome laments.

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Starry Eyed & Laughing. To Try For The Sun. Aurora Records

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Back in January  2015 Blabber’n’Smoke indulged in a bout of reminiscence courtesy of Starry Eyed & Laughing when Forever Young, a fantastic scrapbook of previously unreleased songs and radio sessions compiled by the band’s guitarist and singer Tony Poole was released. Rather than repeat their story you can read the review here. Poole had previously gathered together the band’s two albums and single releases on That Was Then, This Is Now (also on Aurora Records) and that was that, the two releases a comprehensive history of a great band who flamed and burned for a few short years in the seventies. But Poole has continued to delve into the archives and amazingly enough has come up with another album’s worth of songs, 20 to be precise, 14 alternate recordings of songs we know and six previously unreleased. More to the point there’s no sense here of barrels being scraped as the album more than holds its own in comparison to the previous releases. It’s apparent from the glorious Byrds’ like opening song, a cover of Donovan’s To Try For The Sun which does for the Maryhill pixie what McGuinn did for Dylan.

Bearing in mind that the band were in thrall to the American West Coast sound (The Byrds and Dylan, Buffalo Springfield, Moby Grape, CSN&Y) the album is replete with reflections of their forebears and the transition from cover versions to their own songs mirrors that of Forever Young. Thus we get the aforementioned jangle fest of the title song, a lively take on Jackie DeShannon’s When You Walk In The Room as done by The Searchers and a moody For What It’s Worth, performed in a live session with some scorching guitar recalling Clarence White’s work on the live sides of The Byrds’ Untitled album. There’s a nice surprise as they cast their sights on Al Stewart, back then a UK bedsit folkie (way before Year Of The Cat), and subject his Old Compton Street Blues with its Jacques Brel like romanticism to a full on Byrds jingle jangle treatment, Brel replaced by the romanticism of Gene Clark. Clark himself is covered as the band abandon the 1967 string arrangements of Echoes transforming it with an Eastern styled psychedelic fuzz as if Clark was still on board for Younger Than Yesterday and Crosby was in charge of the droning guitars. It’s a fabulous version and proof that Starry Eyed & Laughing were deep into their influences as back then Clark was barely on the horizon and copies of his sixties albums were as rare as hen’s teeth.

The first sessions for the first album offer up a sparkling Going Down, still a rush after all these years, a brisk 50/50 Better Stop Now and a very fine version of Money Is No Friend Of Mine. To my mind this tops the version that ended up on the album, it’s less jaunty and more akin to the spirit of Woody Guthrie’s Do Re Mi with some fine twang guitar thrown in. Alternate takes or radio sessions of songs such as Closer To You Now, Nobody Home,  Down The Street and Oh What are welcome additions to the canon and the album closes with the previously unheard Sea Comes At Its Edges, an elegiac sweep of spangled guitars, folk song and modern technology which captures the visions of McGuinn and Crosby perfectly.

On a sad note, as Tony Poole was readying this album for release it was announced that Starry Eyed & Laughing drummer Michael Wackford had died and the album is dedicated to his memory.

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Ned Roberts. Outside My Mind. Aveline Records

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Outside My Mind is the second album from London based singer/songwriter Ned Roberts. Recorded in LA in old fashioned style (direct to tape, an attempt to capture the spontaneity of the band in the studio) with producer Luther Russell on drums, electric guitar and piano there’s a spare and intimate feel to the album allowing Roberts’ songs plenty of space to impress. And impressive it is as Roberts turns in a set that is warm and mellow recalling Greenwich Village folkies and their UK counterparts’ bucolic ramblings. Roberts’ voice is closely miked with his slightly nasal delivery reminiscent of James Taylor at times, his acoustic guitar playing ripples like a rustic stream and his harmonica wheezes just like Dylan’s did. While the album does evoke hazy memories of sixties troubadours Roberts manages to capture the timeless aspect of the best of that oeuvre with Outside My Mind a contemporary album built on solid foundations. In this respect Roberts marks himself as an artist on a par with the excellent (and sorely missed) Hobotalk along with current artists such as Norrie McCulloch and Blue Rose Code.

It’s apparent from the opening song that Roberts is plucking from the branches of the fruitful sixties as Drifting Down tumbles slowly (and wonderfully) along lines set down by the likes of Bert Jansch and early Fairport Convention with Russell’s curled guitar in particular recalling very early Richard Thompson. Through The Arches rolls along in a similar vein with Russell’s piano and skittering drums evoking the jazzy folk feel that was Joe Boyd’s trademark. The title song (which closes the album) revisits this sound with Jason Hiller’s bass playing here rumbling throughout the song in a manner that I’m sure Danny Thompson would approve of. Elsewhere Roberts mirrors the genius that was Tim Hardin on Letter Home with its doomed romanticism and delicate string arrangement while Lights On The River is borne aloft on a soulful organ groove with Roberts here sounding like Dylan circa Self Portrait and the band sounding like, well, The Band.

Lyrically the album is a collection of love songs which, in the main, are melancholic, wistful recollections, hopeful murmurings with nature often invoked. Rivers and rushing waters, snow and rain, coats held tightly against a breeze the backdrop for Roberts’ musings. The whole is a wonderful collection of late night listening delight as the vocals and arrangements wash over a tired but soon to be satisfied mind.

Prior to his album launch on 29th March Ned Roberts is playing a few gigs in the UK including one at the Fallen Angels Club on Tuesday 21st March at The Admiral Bar and an Edinburgh show the following night at The Leith Depot.

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Mark Eitzel with Fernando @ The Fallen Angels Club. The Admiral Bar, Glasgow. Sunday 12th March 2017

 

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Hailed by The Guardian some years ago as “America’s greatest living lyricist” Mark Eitzel has toiled at the coalface for around 30 years gathering a fiercely loyal following but steadfastly remaining under the radar of mainstream acceptance. There have been brushes with fame (when his band American Music Club almost charted in the early 90’s) and a brush with death when he suffered a major heart attack seven years ago.  Throughout all this Eitzel has released a series of albums that, aside from occasional forays into electronica, portray him as a poet of the streets with a mellifluous voice, an amalgam of Scott Walker and Jean Genet sometimes surrounded by an almost middle of the road musical swell. His latest album Hey Mr. Ferryman, produced by Bernard Butler, has been acclaimed as one of his best, a return to form although it’s a fair bet that the majority of the packed crowd tonight would argue that Eitzel has never lost his form.

It’s a sold out show and as we said, packed. Eitzel is playing with his band and Glasgow hasn’t seen that for some time now. The only problem tonight is that with such a full house and no stage as such the only folk who are able to see the band are those who arrived sharp and got to the front. A minor quibble however as there’s an intimacy to the show, an almost palpable sense of connection to the man who rewards the audience with a wonderful balancing act, his edgy, sometimes angst ridden songs leavened by a deliciously dark and at times ribald commentary. The band (Gareth Huw Davies, Patrick Nicholson and Stephen Hiscock) are well attuned to the tunes after six weeks of touring, tonight the last show of their European trek. They capture the sonic swells and dips of his music, his smoky croons and nervy rock squalls all perfectly delivered. Eitzel himself apologises for his perceived vocal limitations believing his voice shot after so many shows but to our mind he was still in fine voice as he closed the show with Jesus’ Hands (accompanied by the audience) and the threnody of Western Sky.

There was the LA smog ridden Mission Rock Resort and the cymbal splashed torch song of What Holds The World Together (introduced by Eitzel as “a song that doesn’t make sense, even to me”). A triumphant I Love You But You’re Dead showcased Eitzel’s mordant way with words as it slouched slowly from the band while a song from the new album, In My Role As A Professional Singer and Ham shimmered and burned with a visceral force. From the old days Firefly fired up the crowd and from the new album, The Last Ten Years was a defiant declaration that Eitzel can deliver soaring melodic rock.

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Opening the evening was the Portland Oregon based songwriter Fernando. Since overcoming a chronic illness two years ago Fernando has been touring like fury and this was his second visit to the city in just over a year. On record he is supported by friends such as Peter Buck and Paul Brainard dishing up rootsy rock not dissimilar to that of Alejandro Escovido. His melancholic opening number, White Trees set the scene for much of his 40 minute slot, his tender guitar and clear voice floating through the audience. The Devil’s In The Sky was another plaintive number showcasing Fernando’s talent for capturing emotions and setting them within a dark Western vista. Como Sueno, sung in Spanish, was a tribute to his union organiser aunt who defied Argentinian authorities in dangerous days while The Dogs was a blasted heath story worthy of Cormac McCarthy. His late colleague Jimmy Boyer was celebrated with a fine delivery of Three Sheets To The Wind, a slowly loping country song before Fernando returned to his own catalogue for the lonesome strains of Watchtower and a poignant Kingdom Come before closing with Fade Out, a song dedicated tonight to his grandfather and played with a quiet dignity. Altogether a wonderful opening set.

 

 

 

 

Alison Krauss. Windy City.

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It kind of takes your breath away when the first thing you read in the PR blurb for an album is that the artist is the recipient of 27 Grammy Awards. Apparently that’s the case with Alison Krauss and it ties her with Quincy Jones as second most winner (Conductor George Solti is at the top with 31). Krauss of course has won most of these in the Bluegrass category, her work with her band Union Station considered to have been a major force in the recent resurgence of Bluegrass especially via her contributions to the soundtracks of Oh Brother, Where Art Thou? and Cold Mountain. Originally it was her fiddle playing that made people stand to attention but increasingly she has concentrated on singing with her album recorded with Robert Plant, Raising Sand, a major success.

Windy City is her first solo album in 17 years and it marks another signpost in her career. In tandem with her producer, the Nashville veteran Buddy Cannon, Krauss has selected ten songs that sing to her for various reasons, the majority of them recorded before she was born. The result places Krauss in pole position if we ever need a replacement for Dolly Parton, a singer with significant country chops but who is able to offer up radio friendly fodder without descending into mindless pop. A couple of the songs here are delivered in a mainstream ballad style (both of them  associated with Brenda Lee, Losing You and All Alone Am I) that are just a wee bit too stage musical for comfort and  Roger Miller’s River In The Rain  taxes her voice at times but elsewhere Krauss and Cannon deliver the goods.

The delightful honky tonk drive of It’s Goodbye And So Long To You with its curling pedal steel and rinky dink piano offer Krauss an opportunity to dive in with an unalloyed joy before she delves into the classic tear stained Windy City. Dream Of Me is a fine slice of Nashville pop with the band expertly delivering some twang guitar, sweet pedal steel and nifty piano as Krauss croons the lyrics. Apparently this was a song she chose not knowing that it was written by producer Cannon and once decided on Cannon and his daughter Melanie sing the background vocals. Whatever, it’s a perfect vehicle for Krauss as is Poison Love, another pedal steel fuelled swoon of a song with some added exotica in the Mexican stylings of the guitar solos. While the majority of these covers might be considered somewhat obscure Krauss breaks out two that will be familiar to most. John Hartford’s Gentle On My Mind is given a fine run through with the arrangement more in tune with Hartford’s original as opposed to Glen Campbell’s version and Krauss manages it with flying colours. Willie Nelson’s I Never Cared For You is given an appropriately dramatic arrangement, the vocals soaring over this darkly romantic song. Closing the album Krauss revisits the ballad treatment we dismissed earlier on but on You Don’t Know Me (recorded by Eddy Arnold and Ray Charles), she dips into Patsy Cline territory as she swoons and croons and the band lay down a tearful country backdrop.

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Adriana Spina. Let Out The Dark. Ragged Road Records

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It’s hard to believe that it was back in 2005 when Blabber’n’Smoke first heard Adriana Spina when her debut EP, A Thousand Lives was released. Since then the Scots singer/songwriter has been on the road gradually working her way up the ladder to the point where she has landed prestigious support slots for the likes of Joan Armatrading, Eddi Reader, Dar Williams and Sheryl Crow. On the recording front, she released her debut album in 2011 and now, after a successful crowd funding campaign, she unveils its follow-up, the highly accomplished Let Out The Dark with its lead single, Sparkle named as a single of the week by Radio Scotland’s Janice Forsyth.

Spina sits comfortably within the sphere of artists such as Mary Chapin Carpenter, her songs are modern folk tales set within arrangements that can be subtle or rock out with some finesse as on the radio friendly Disappear which appears towards the end of Let Out the Dark. With its surging guitars and Spina’s dynamic voice which manages the twists and turns of the song excellently it’s perfect for spinning on the road on a sunlit day. Hear It From You is another rocker that just fails to capture the heights of Disappear but it belts along with some vigour while there’s an REM glimmer to the guitars on Spina’s ode to refugees on See Another Day. There’s a similar brooding guitar delivery on the love gone cold tale of The Same Drum, a song that matches the best of many of her US contemporaries.

There are more introspective moments and the album opens with perhaps the best one, the slow toll beat of Home with Spina pondering on a relationship that’s perhaps damaged beyond repair. Her voice here is a delight, multitracked to provide her own harmonies while the band (Stuart MacLeod and Ross McFarlane) with Spina on acoustic guitar spin a delicate web that recalls some of Richard Thompson’s darker work reminding one of the album Shoot Out The Lights. Two Steps has a cold Northern feel to the music which is amplified by some of the images in the lyrics with Spina again reflecting on love lost and while one might initially think that Don’t Recognise Me, a delightfully simple rendition with only Spina and her guitar on show, is yet another ode to lost love the lyrics seem to allude to childhood and adolescent years with a family member.

Sparkle is a miniature gem, a Christmas song of sorts but one that finds Spina forlorn as the strains of Band Aid on the radio signal another year over and she ponders on whether she should surrender to the myths and jollity of the season. Throughout the album there’s a thread of abandonment and the closing song Where You Are  is a bare boned bedsit wallow with Spina turning the blame for a failed romance on herself as she echoes early Joni Mitchell in some of her phrasing. A lovely end to a very fine album.

To celebrate the release of the album Adriana Spina has a launch party at Glasgow’s The Flying Duck on March 24th before embarking on a brief tour around the UK. All dates here.

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