Matt McGinn. The End of The Common Man. BinLid Records

mattmcginn4Irishman Matt McGinn might share his name with an infamous Glasgow singer and writer but he’s one of Ireland’s foremost artists. His 2013 album Latter Day Sinner was one of The Telegraph’s top ten folk releases of that year and he has played Nashville’s famous Bluebird Cafe and shared a stage with the likes of Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, Crowded House and Crosby Stills & Nash. Latter Day Sinner was an excellent collection of Celtic tinged songs which at times recalled Blue Rose Code’s similar forays into that hinterland but The End of The Common Man is a much more robust beast concerned as it is with many of the current woes of the world. There are still sweet moments of glistening folk but much of the content is informed by McGinn’s anger (and bewilderment) at the state of things – populist leaders, corporate greed and an increasing groundswell of warfare across the globe.

The album comes out punching from the bell with the horn laden title song, a powerful rant against big greed pointing out that it’s the common man who suffers as jobs and homes are lost while fat cats coin it in. With its pummelling percussion, brassy riffs and whiff of clangourous guitars the song recalls Blood Sweat & Tears and drives its message home with a slow burning anger. McGinn revisits this fuller band sound (with some twists) on several of the songs with Bells Of The Angelus sounding as if it were being played by some swampers from the South as an electric piano and sinewy slide guitar come to the fore while Out Sinner rings out with some Gospel fervour. The Right Name has one foot in a Springsteen like groove with the other planted in Van Morrison territory as it swings with a fine sense of street cool. However the full fire and fury of the band is kept in rein until the rude and raucous blues eruption of Trump, a no holds barred diatribe against the current incumbent of the White House. An easy target perhaps but the ramshackle and gritty blues riff along with McGinn’s spat out vocals and his clever adaptation of Nelly the Elephant’s chorus will certainly delight those who are not fans of the orange skinned buffoon.

Elsewhere McGinn advances the sounds he conjured up on Latter Day Sinner with more adventurous arrangements. There are aching love songs such as Somewhere To Run To, borne aloft with strings and rippling piano and The Overlanders with its mournful muted horns and softly throbbing rhythm. The pinnacle is achieved on McGinn’s grim tale of a father driven to crime to support his family and ultimately losing them on Marianne. Here the arrangement is delicate with dashes of acoustic guitar, pedal steel, a burbling bass line and weeping strings forming the skeleton of the song while a Theremin adds a lonesome eeriness to the mix. The album closes with another fine arrangement on The End Of Days with its sweeping strings and horns lending a sense of portent to McGinn’s bitter sweet ruminations as he despairs of information overload while sensing that there might be a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, although the song collapses at the end into a babble of voices snatched from the ether.

The End Of The Common Man is a brave and adventurous album. It growls and protests without pointing fingers (aside from the Trump song) while it still has enough balm to satisfy the soul. There was an album launch last week in Belfast and the good news is that McGinn is touring to promote the album with a show in Glasgow at The Admiral Bar, a Fallen Angels promotion, on Tuesday 20th March.



Hugh Christopher Brown. PACEM. Wolfe Island Records

pacem-cover-1-300x300Peace on earth or at least peace on Wolfe Island, the island musical community nestled between Canada and the USA close to the great lakes which Chris Brown calls home for much of the time. An acclaimed producer and multi instrumentalist, Brown has helmed several albums we’ve reviewed in the past including the mighty debuts from Suzanne Jarvie and David Corley. In addition he’s a dedicated believer in the rehabilitative powers of music having founded the Pros And Cons programme which runs music workshops for Canadian prisoners.  PACEM was recorded in his Wolfe Island studio set up, a former post office and it’s a beguiling mix of breezy songs couched in an almost Celtic soul vibe with dashes of Americana; fiddles, pedal steel and churchlike organ adding atmosphere to the album.

A sense of community permeates the album with Brown collaborating with various singers who take centre place on several songs. There’s a spiritual dimension also, the album opening with an arrangement of a prayer by the 16th century Saint Ignatius sung in Latin by Sherry Zbrovsky which sets the scene for Brown’s meditations which seem to be those of a man cleaving to life and music while seeking some divine sign that he’s on the right path. However the overall feel is redemptive and joyous despite some of the songs begging the eternal question.

Love, The World is an excellent acoustic mumble of a song with some mild sonic interludes from wayward keyboards recalling the freak folk movement of a few years back while Keeper Of the Flame is an upbeat piano based song which swells into an lovely slice of pedal steel laced Americana as Brown breathlessly expresses his admiration for a soul mate, spiritually and musically, the song dancing with the same bright and light footsteps as some of Van Morrison’s work.  Several of the songs recall Morrison’s heyday with Margaret a song poem replete with burbling bass lines and glorious harmonies while To The Lighthouse roams wonderfully through some Celtic landscapes with the fiddle adding a sense of mystery.

The Yield is a brief keyboard instrumental which is rich in atmosphere with a touch of Debussy about it and it segues into the powerful and plaintive The Wave, a song about those tossed across the oceans seeking refuge, sung with great feeling by Kate Fenner. Brown gives space to another powerful voice on Moved By Hands To Shelter as David Corley’s gravelly vocals contrast with Brown’s lighter voice in a song which is delivered as if plucked from the King James Bible.  There’s a similar biblical feel to the magnificently structured The Great Unknowing which kicks off sounding like Will Oldham in a mischievousness mood with a wonderfully wooden timbre before ascending into an almost Brian Wilson like middle eight and then fizzing out resplendently. Brown closes the album with a song which harks back to those folk singers who had a metaphysical bent back in the sixties on Broken. Here he roams the highways and byways of love with a cobblestone back street romanticism lit by candlelight.

An album best heard in the late hours, preferably with a broken heart or a sense of ennui, PACEM is an excellent collection of songs on which to ponder.


Joan Baez. Whistle Down The Wind. Proper Records

joan-baez-coverWhat can one say about Joan Baez that hasn’t already been said? An icon of the folk and protest movement of the sixties, she moved into the seventies on a roll charting with The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and releasing what was perhaps her most accomplished album, Diamonds & Rust, while reuniting with her old buddy Bob on The Rolling Thunder tour. Since then she’s continued to record and continued to be an activist, garnering awards and accolades across the globe. Her last release, Day After Tomorrow, from 2008, showed that she still had her finger on the musical pulse produced as it was by Steve Earle and featuring songs written by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Earle himself.

Ten years later and Baez is bowing out (at the age of 77) with what she says will be her final album (accompanied by a lengthy farewell tour). Whistle Down The Wind, if it is her final release, sees her leaving on a definite high note as it is an incredibly accomplished piece of work. Baez’s once piercing soprano voice is now a finely burnished thing of beauty, still recognisably her but a little bit weathered and worn and perfectly suited for some of the songs here. In addition, producer Joe Henry captures Baez and her players with astonishing clarity and warmth while the musicians are truly inspired with some of the playing and arrangements just breathtaking.

In the current political climate it would be easy for Ms. Baez to return to her roots and turn in a collection of protest songs, it would certainly be understandable. Instead, the album is a mature and reflective document with Baez still denouncing war and injustice while acknowledging that it’s time to pass the baton on. Her handpicked songs do include some which address issues directly but elsewhere there’s a valedictory feel.

The sense of a long life and one lived well is evident in the two songs here written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Whistle Down The Wind maintains the hobo feel of Waits’ original while smoothing it out as the band play in slow waltz time with a wheezy organ and lonesome singing saw adding a fine patina. Last Leaf is given a stately old time delivery with Greg Leisz playing an antique Weissenborn and one wonders if Baez chose to sing this song just because it includes the lyrics, “I’ve been here since Eisenhower and I’ve outlived even he.” There are more reflections in the dappled version of Josh Ritter’s Be Of Good Heart and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s The Things That We are Made Of while her cover of Anthony & The Johnson’s Another World (with just Baez and her guitar with percussion from her son Gabriel) is a powerful performance.

More directly, Baez sings producer Joe Henry’s Civil War, a song which spans the ages and acknowledges those at home as well as those on the front while Eliza Gilkyson’s The Great Correction harks back to the grand tradition of the likes of Phil Ochs. Another Ritter song, Silver Blade, finds Baez visiting old time ballads as she sings of a maiden ravaged and taking her revenge, a nod perhaps to the current clime of #metoo and the closing song, I Wish All The Wars Were All Over, is another folk ballad with Celtic roots, which, aside from its excellent delivery, is a fitting farewell from this champion of the oppressed and downtrodden.

We can’t ignore the one song here which stabs to the heart and which nails Baez to her sixties civil rights roots while acting as a bit of a slap to the present POTUS. The President Sang Amazing Grace, written by Zoe Mulford, is a straightforward account of the shooting by a white supremacist of nine people in a church in Charleston and of Obama’s moving eulogy thereafter. Baez sings as if in a church, the band swelling behind her with an incredibly moving arrangement, the only pity here being that she still has to sing of events such as this fifty years after she first started to.

Whistle Down The Wind, aside from the legend, is a powerful and moving album, as topical as today’s weather and it bodes well for the singer’s farewell tour. Do give it a listen.


Blabber’n’Smoke Signals : Guy Littell, Keegan McInroe, Rebecca Loebe & Findlay Napier

Guy Littell. One Of Those Fine Days

one-of-those-fine-daysWe first encountered Italian Guy Littell back on 2014 with his laid back release, Whipping The Devil Back. One Of Those Fine Days is a thrashier affair with more guitars (including a guest slot from Kevin Salem) than its predecessor giving the album a ragged jangled sound, at times recalling Rich Hopkins’ work. Littell’s fragile voice sometimes strains over the music but on songs such as his teenage reverie, New Records & Clothes, No More Nights and Song From A Dream (which features some fine guitar rumbles) he’s well able to put over his version of American rock informed by the likes of Steve Wynn and Neil Young. A couple of stripped back numbers recall the starker moments in Whipping The Devil with Better For Me a fine lonesome love song.  Don’t Hide starts with just Littell and his acoustic guitar before the band chug in briefly then depart leaving Littell and guitar alone again. It’s a grand song with some of Neil Young’s early poignancy in its veins. Meanwhile, Kevin Salem adds some very sweet guitar to the closing song, Old Soul. Website

Keegan McInroe A Good Old Fashioned Protest

a3328870291_16Texan Keegan McInroe has had enough and he lets us know on his aptly titled album with nine songs delivered the way Woody Guthrie, Pete Seeger and even Bob Dylan used to do it. Talking blues, gritty political protest and even some humour rub shoulders here as McInroe takes the world to task. He goes us back to the trenches of 1914 with a splendid narrative on the famous Christmas truce on Christmas 1914 while Bombing For Peace points out its evident contradiction with as much fervour and profanity as The Fugs, indeed the spoken word Nietzsche Wore Boots could have been ranted by Ed Sanders back in the days. Big Old River casts a cold eye on the current state of affairs accompanied by a gritty and gloomy organ groove and, presumably with a view to irony, McInroe uses a Kristofferson melody to cast his story of a young Egyptian radicalised on The Ballad Of Timmy Johnson’s Living Brother as a Western ballad.  The opening Talking Talking Head Blues is a superb stab at the media prophesising catastrophe and setting up bogeymen while feeding us with celebrity trivia and there’s a very brief return to this format on the one minute long Bastards & Bitches. McInroe does end the album on a defiant note with the upbeat anthem, Keegan’s Beautiful Dream, his very own We Shall Overcome. Old fashioned but incredibly topical the album is a tremendous listen and you can get it on a pay what you like basis from his website.

Rebecca Loebe & Findlay Napier. Filthy Jokes

a1311702386_16Hot on the heels of his Glasgow album Findlay Napier has teamed up with American songwriter Rebecca Loebe for this six song EP, released to coincide with their current UK tour. They met at a song writing retreat back in 2016 and just clicked and it shows here. All the songs are co-written and both take a turn on lead vocals while their harmonies are spot on. Four of the songs seem to concern romance whether failed or hopeful.  Napier offers some Glasgow based locations on the rueful Bad Medicine while Option To Buy, a delightfully woozy ramble, has him reluctant to tie the knot. Loebe meanwhile gives us the achingly beautiful Kilimanjaro which is somewhat opaque but to this listener seems like a settled couple having their youthful aspirations realised via their daughter’s use of Photoshop. Filthy Jokes is another attention grabber as Loebe sings of her wonder at a relative (or friend), a bit of a slob it seems whose sole talent was for telling filthy jokes (including that one about the aristocrats), finally getting hitched. An excellent strum-along it has brilliant ending with Ms. Loebe almost chuckling before a banjo plinks the song out. The EP is topped and tailed with two versions of a New Year song, Joy To The World, I Guess, the pair wrote with Loebe singing the opening version and Napier the latter. A bit late right now but this is a song to flag up once the festive season comes around again (and surely that’s the mark of a great festive song).  Loebe’s version is lightly sparkling, a Prosecco dappled version with the guitars bright and the harmonies sweet while Napier’s is more desolate with a true wintry feel. Both end in a brief rendition of Auld Lang Syne and both are wonderful in their own ways.  It’s definitely a temptation to see this pair on their brief dates this week on the basis of this EP. Meanwhile it’s available free (or for the price of a coffee) here.

Dean Owens. Southern Wind. At The Helm Records

sw-front-coverLaunched at a fabulous live gig at the tail end of Celtic Connections and officially released last week, Southern Wind is the latest instalment in Dean Owens steady rise towards the top echelons of Scots musicians. As with 2015’s Into The Sea, Owens offers up a robust and perfectly formed album, the songs memorable and excellently played, the mix of punchy rock numbers and more introspective ballads over the course of its length finely balanced. And again, as on Into The Sea, Owens delves into his memories and his family for several of the songs while elsewhere he celebrates the joy of rock’n’roll and, significantly, mines the rich seam of Southern music from the States.

Recorded in the same Nashville studio as Into The Sea with the same team on board (Neilson Hubbard, producer and percussion plus bass, piano and “various bits & pieces, Will Kimbrough, guitars banjo, mandolin and Evan Hutchings, drums along with Dean Marold on bass) there’s one change from Owens’ usual habits in that several of the songs are co-written with Kimbrough and, as Owens recently told Blabber’n’Smoke, “I’d said to Neilson Hubbard, the producer, “I really want to make a swampy sounding record,” and that’s what he does really well. He’s from Mississippi and Will’s from Alabama as is Evan so they have that sound in their veins.” It’s recognisably a Dean Owens album but that Mississippi mud can’t help but seep into several of the numbers here.

The album opens with Owens’ clarion call to some musical heroes including Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagen, B. B. King and The Waterboys on The Last Song.  Given a delirious folk stomp and sounding like The Faces playing a particularly raucous pub gig it’s a delicious opener and acts almost as a bridge from the last album to the present one. There’s a further reflection of the previous album on Madeira Street, written (as was Evergreen) for Owens’ late sister, another example of how he can vividly cast his memories into song and, going further back, he finally offers his mother her own song, a counterpoint to his salute to his dad on Man From Leith, with Mother, a song co-written with Danny Wilson (from Danny & The Champs) and given a lilting, almost calypso beat along with an early sixties teen crooner charm, a rare ray of light in an album that at times is densely populated with loss and regret. Famous Last Words for example is a love song about the end of love while When The Whisky’s Not Enough is a fine addition to the canon of songs about being in your cups but still feeling pain, a real downer, it’s enlivened with zinging slide work from Kimbrough. Bad News is a slow burner with creeping organ and ominous guitars as Owens warns a woman not to go back to an abusive husband.

Owens has written songs inspired by his friends before but probably none as successful as Elvis Was My Brother where he takes on the words from a friend’s letter which explained that his transient childhood only had one true touchstone which was the Memphis Flash. Here, Owens and the band really excel, the song a wonderfully upbeat slice of rootsy pop with curling guitars and a rhythmic groove which recalls the splendid John Hiatt album, Bring The Family.  Owens was in Amarillo when he heard the news that Muhammad Ali had died. A hero of his since boyhood, he wrote Louisville Lip that night hunkered in his hotel room. The barest song here, just guitar and a mournful trumpet,  it pulls together Owens’ memories of watching Ali on the telly as a kid, an experience which led him to pulling on the gloves in his teens. Sentimental but the sentiment is heartfelt,  here Owens avoids any schmaltz with the song quite tugging actually.

Finally, there’s the Southern issue. The album is replete with swampy keyboards and Kimbrough’s snakelike guitar but Owens really dives into the Kudzu ridden culture on three songs here. Love Prevails, which closes the album, is loosely aligned with Rodney Crowell’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, as Owens summons up a Waltons’ in reverse, a family who fight and squabble but who are held together by their common bond – a universal theme perhaps but dignified by Kimbrough’s guitar licks and the mournful organ – the end result almost hymnal. His deepest delve into the South finds Owens accompanied by the powerful voice of Kira Small whose magnificent wailing elevates two songs here. The title song opens in a portentous manner with Owens evoking nature over interweaving guitars before thunderous tribal drums approach and Kimbrough unleashes his evil guitar sound. The song thrashes on with the guitar like a twister destroying all in its path until Owens, Small (and The Worry Dolls who were passing by) indulge in an orgy of shamanistic wailing. No Way Round It is prefaced by a very brief snatch of slide guitar and moaning (recalling Ry Cooder’s work in Performance) before its strident riff gets into its stride, pulsing like a heart about to burst as it progresses from a banjo driven skip to full throated guitar solo with Owens a lone soul wailing against nature’s barriers aided and abetted by Small’s magnificent voice which plays a similar role to that of Merry Clayton on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter. It’s an absolute belter of a song with Kimbrough’s guitar solo frenzied and outrageous while the dynamics of the song, the shifts from the banjo motif to squalls of sound are just superb. And, having seen Owens play this live with his Whisky Hearts band, we can confirm that it’s just as thrilling if not more so in a live setting.

Southern Wind finds Owens still proud of his roots in Leith but becoming more adventurous in his exploration of American music. That he can tie both ends of this transatlantic bridge with such confidence and, at times, swagger, is testament to his skill and to his ongoing relationship with his extremely talented American friends. We do look forward to the next instalment.


Matthews Southern Comfort. Like A Radio.

matthewssoutherncomfort_likearadio_300px72dpiThe name certainly transports us back to 1970 when Matthews Southern Comfort hit the number one spot in the charts with their cover of Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, perhaps the first record featuring pedal steel that Blabber’n’Smoke bought. A rare moment in the spotlight for singer/songwriter Iain Matthews, Woodstock is merely the tip of the iceberg when it comes to his illustrious career. A founder member of Fairport Convention, he released three albums under the Southern Comfort band name before going solo and releasing a magnificent series of solo albums commencing with If You Saw Thro’ My Eyes including a collaboration with Mike Nesmith on Valley Hi. Alongside this he was a member of Plainsong who released one of the best “forgotten” albums of the seventies, In Search Of Amelia Earhart, (do search it out) but as time progressed changing fashions and record label shenanigans led to him take more of a back seat in the industry. Moving to The Netherlands in the early noughties Matthews has been involved in various reincarnations of his past bands over the past decade and this album finds him working with guitar wizard B.J. Baartmans along with Bart de Win on keyboards and guitarist Eric Devries.

It’s a mellow affair, the band affecting a late night vibe for the most part aside from the clumsy opener, The Thought Police, a diatribe against the sort of Big Brother situation we are in these days but lyrically kind of stuck in an early seventies agit rock rant, Edgar Broughton could probably punk it up well but here it kind of sticks out. The title song follows and it’s more successful although it still cleaves to an earlier age, its jazz cool and slight LA funk reminding one of Ben Sidran while de Win’s piano playing adds a touch of class. While there are some asides to folk and jangled pop scattered throughout the disc Like A Radio sets the template for much of the album. It’s well played and thoughtful music with Matthews in fine voice but several of the songs fail to quicken the pulse.

There’s some fine stuff here mind you. Bits & Pieces is an excellent band performance,  Been Down So Long (a nod to Richard Farina) tackles oppression from a historical viewpoint and manages to raise some sparks while Phoenix Rising benefits from Baartman’s sinewy guitar lines while Matthews’ vocals recapture some of his seventies recordings. He actually revisits the original Matthews Southern Comfort albums with a new version of Darcy Farrow (recorded on Second Spring) which is delivered with a sparse arrangement allowing his voice to shine while Carole King’s To Love is given a sparkling new arrangement with Baartman throwing out some slinky guitar solos. Our review copy has three bonus songs with James Taylor’s Something In The Way She Moves (again recorded on Second Spring) just sublime, Matthews’ voice as clear and unsullied as all those years ago while the band play it beautifully.

It’s nice to hear Mr. Matthews again and while the album doesn’t break new ground it’s a grand late night listen and a fine opportunity for folk to catch up with him.


Yellow Feather. And Gold

yellow-feather-and-goldThe first thing folk might notice about this band (and this album) is the name, Casey Kristofferson, nestled in the band line up. Yes, she’s the daughter of Kris and Rita and she’s one third of this unassuming trio from North Carolina. She sings and writes several of the songs along with Hunter Begley who also sings and plays guitar while lap steel player Charlie Willis completes the band. It’s Begley who is at the helm, his voice the lead on many of the songs and he takes the trio down some dusty roads, his tired and weary take on life’s hiccups somewhat splendid while the overall sound is laid back with a winning lack of polish. Willis’ lap steel gives the album a sweet curl, sounding almost like Leon McAuliffe (of The Texas Playboys) while a slew of guest players (especially fiddler Lindsay Pruett and pianist Matthew Rowland) allow them to gently rock out on a couple of the songs with the rhythm section of Herschel VanDyke and Robert Parks unobtrusively pushing the songs along.

If You Ain’t Cheatin’ opens the album on a high note although it’s a very low key song opening with the lines, “It was a shitty little shack but it was where they did their stuff,” as Begley sings about an engaged girl caught romping with another man. With lyrics which could have come from Mary Gauthier and a fine old fiddle driven country stumble pace it gives notice that the following 40 minutes might be extremely gratifying. There’s more downbeat wallowing in Sarah Accidentally, a mesmerising mix of hypnotic guitar (courtesy of Brian Wright) and some deadpan rhythm as Begley leads the band down a Richmond Fontaine byway while Pirate’s Love Song is a dreamlike evocation of what is possibly a fantasy love life. Blood And Bones ups the tempo as a true blooded country song but its finely nuanced sloppy jauntiness carries a tale of loss and emptiness.

There’s a fine mix throughout the album with Swallow You Down and Key Of C both resembling the slack rock’n’roll of The Felice Brothers while Couch Farm romps along finely with an Appalachian air as Begley sings about the daily drudge of working in a furniture chain store. Lucille, a fine and mildly rollicking bar room ballad recalls the laid back excellence of The Deslondes.  Kristofferson, who in the main sings harmony, steps up to the mic for Fences, a song written by another country scion, Amy Nelson (who is in a band, Folk Uke, with Cathie Guthrie, yip, Arlo’s kid) and it’s given a mild Western swing treatment while her song, Dirty Feet, featuring Aaron Lee Tasjan on guitar, is a bit of an anomaly here as it glides more into a singer/songwriter introspective direction. The closing Lost All Direction meanwhile finds the band dipping into a swampy jangled puddle; guitars and a banjo (there’s none listed in the credits but it sure sounds like one) along with a wheezy harmonica congeal perfectly into a fitting farewell to an extremely fine album.