The Wynntown Marshals. Bar Brel. West End festival. 25th June 2010

It’s a crazy idea to have a gig in a conservatory on one of the hottest nights of the year, however a chance to see The Marshals up close was too good to resist. Crammed on to a tiny stage the five piece band were almost in each other’s laps as they sweated over a fine set of songs picked mainly from their fine Westerner album. Despite the heat they turned in a set that ranged from the mellow country tones of “Nelly” to the ferocious blast that was “You Can Have My Heart”.
Singer Keith Benzie was in fine form and seemed to be enjoying the show as he explained the story behind the road trip from hell that is detailed in “48 Hours” and engaged in some banter with the audience. While “Ballad of Jayne” and “Snowflake” appeared early in the set the first highlight was a reading of “Thunder In the Valley,” one of the weightier songs from their album with some fine soloing from guitarist Iain Barbour. With Iain Sloan’s pedal steel playing somewhat buried in the mix the night belonged to the other Iain, whose guitar playing was a constant delight. Part of this may be that I was sitting two feet away from him but his mastery of the instrument, his picking and blistering solos just burned.

As the temperature in the hothouse rose the band appeared to be wanting to add to it as they approached the end of their set, the volume rose as they ended their set with the double whammy of “After All These Years” and “You Can have My heart.” A brave and rousing cover of Neil Young’s “Powderfinger” served as an encore which set the ears ringing.
Overall a great little night and proof, if needed, that The Marshals have some great songs and some mighty great chops with which to deliver them.

June Bugs

Old time American music continues today with countless proponents picking, strumming, fiddling and sometimes even yodelling, reaching back into the past and updating it with varying degrees of success. Here we have Western swing, Appalachian folk songs and bang up to date country rock.

The Quebe Sisters Band. Timeless

The Quebe Sisters Band are Texans who do like their Bob Wills and Spade Cooley. The three Quebe sisters all play fiddle and sing while Joey McKenzie strums and Drew Phelps’ upright bass provides the beat. The 14 songs here are all covers including “Across The Alley from the Alamo,” “Along The Navajo Trail” and “Tumbling Tumbleweeds,” familiar songs, perhaps too familiar at times. That said the album starts off with a cracking “So Long To The Red River Valley” and when they tackle Billy Strayhorn’s “Take The A train” the fiddle playing and guitar sounds like Django and Grappelli duelling. Perhaps the only complaint about the album is that with the vocals sounding at times like the Andrews sisters this is a bit too retro, a bit too safe especially if you like a little bit of grit in your music.
The Quebe Sisters Band appear in the UK for the first time in July for a bunch of dates including The Cambridge Folk Festival.

Jeni and Billy. Longing For Heaven

Jeni and Billy trade in the same homespun feel as the Quebes although it belongs on the back porch as opposed to bars and dance halls. Theirs is the sparse folk sound of the mountains and backwoods folk, god fearing, hardworking, scraping a living but finding joy in family and friends. The pair play guitar, banjo and mandolin while Jeni Hawkins carries the vocals with Billy Kemp adding counterpoint. Together they create a warm, honest sound as natural as flowers in a field. With a mixture of traditional and original songs they sing of drunkards, jilted lovers and ruined lives. Half of these songs could be turned into tear-stained movies, “The Ballad of Sally Kincaid” tells of a girl seduced by a thieving preacher who hangs himself leaving her to end her days in shame. “Father Will You meet Me In Heaven” is the story of Johnny cash’s brother, Jack’s tragic death seen as a redemptive moment for their father’s godless ways. A previous album, Jewell Ridge Coal, documented the lives of miners in south-west Virginia and here they sing a song for Cecil Roberts, the President of the United Mine Workers of America. It’s a reminder that even these days mining is dangerous, deadly even.
A pretty stunning album for anyone into old-time Americana. Jenni and Bily are currently touring in England.

Zoe Muth and The Lost High Rollers.

Zoe Muth draws on classic country sounds with lashings of pedal steel and dobro and a voice that could have graced Nashville recordings anytime in the fifties to the present day. While the debt to tradition is there Muth and her band come across as an up to date Emmylou Harris and The Hot Band. Muth writes all of the songs with a worn and weary take on modern life, cosmopolitan as opposed to rural her lost souls are stuck in a neon lit nighttime dead end. The full band sound throbs and swings with some excellent playing, a rock solid rhythm section lay down a beat while steel guitar, dobro, banjo and mandolin hammer home the country roots. Over this Muth sings like a wounded angel, vulnerable yet tough and above all else she can write. All of the songs here have a hook that should have radio station playlisters drool. “Hard Luck Love” is a stone solid classic radio friendly song while “The Last Bus” is a superb portrait of a drifter drifting the lonely highways and bus stops, hungry and broke she can sing and play guitar but seems doomed to go on in ever decreasing circles. While this may be the highlight here Muth delivers again and again. “The Middle of Nowhere” is Loretta Lynn arriving in a big city while “Not You” is another Lynn type perky put down of a philandering partner. Overall this is a mighty fine album and Muth is definitely one to watch.

Listen here
The Quebe Sisters “So Long To The Red River Valley”

Jeni and Billy “I Saw A Man At the Close of Day”

Zoe Muth “Not You”

If Wen. Take A Look At the Sea.

I suppose it was too much to think that Scotland’s Fence Collective has a monopoly on slightly off beat, “nu folk” minstrels. If Wen is a Cornish troubadour who would be right at place in any gathering in Anstruther, singing of the wind and the sea, at one with nature and swapping banter with James Yorkston or Kenny Anderson as the haar rolls in.
Folkwit Records have re released this 2007 album (with a few extra songs) that gained some rave reviews first time around. Why the reissue I don’t know but an album this good deserves every chance it can get. Having composed the songs on a beach in Cornwall Wen then took himself off to a barn to record the basic tracks with ambient noise leaking into the sound. However the album is anything but bleak. Multitracked vocals, thumping percussion and lashings of acoustic guitar add up to a dramatic soundscape with Wen’s fractured vocals, at times strained, sometimes whispering creating a lush, melancholic feel.
While there are echoes of classic songwriters like Nick Drake and Elliott Smith here I was struck by the similarities to that strain of baroque English pop of the eighties (Momus, Paul Roland) best heard on the songs “Love Letters” and “Eclipse has Gone.” The latter is a highlight here, six minutes of climax after climax, over too soon indeed.
Delicate, awkward, endearingly intimate, this is an album to savour, to mull over. The original closing song, “One Day” just about sums it up, a lonesome soul, sitting drinking and dreaming of one day finding a soulmate but eventually realising it will probably never happen as the wind blows and the sun sets over him. A bedsit album for the modern age. You’ll find him at If Wen

Eclipse Has Gone

Susie Hug “Tucson Moonshine”

Over the past few years, Joey Burns and John Convertino of Calexico have been the hired guns of Americana. Need a rhythm section to enhance your dust-strewn ditties? They’re your men. It helps of course that Convertino is one of the best drummers around with a solid yet relaxed swing and that Burns has a direct line to south west cool. Here, transported to Tucson’s Wavelab studios and with a roster of local luminaries in tow we have Susie Hug, ex of UK indie band The Katydids, tapping into the Calexico lode in fine fashion. While her voice is as clear as ever the jangled pop sound of The Katydids is missing, instead we have a laid back set of songs that float and shimmer like a heat haze. There is nothing here that utilises the full blown Texarkana mariachi style that Calexico do so well but Hug uses the musicians to provide colour and atmosphere, the trumpet of Jacob Valenzuala wails mournfully on several songs while Convertino plays excellently throughout with tasty fills.
Hug’s clear voice has an anglo sensibility which at times is reminiscent of early eighties groups such as The Marine Girls. She is joined on the first song, “A Modern Lie” by Burns’ melancholic vocal. This is an excellent opener, accordion and Spanish guitar weave in and out while the pair duet magnificently. “A Modern Lie” and “Everybody Changes” are the songs that most evidently wear the Calexico imprint on their sleeve but “Cherry Blossom Hangs” has a delicate folk singer meets spaghetti western feel. “Flinch,” with dead pan vocals, sounds like The Raincoats in their latter days with some wonderful sonic rumblings from the band which are then revisited on the closer, “My Own Skeleton.”
One is reminded of the album that Convertino and Burns as OP8, along with Howe Gelb and Lisa Germano recorded some years ago although this is less dusty with more weight accorded to the singer. Hug’s songs are well up to par and the pairing with the Tucson crew is an inspired touch.

The album is released by a relatively new label, Vacilando '68 who appear to be becoming the main conduit for Tucson based music here in the UK. Hot on the heels of their release from Marianne Dissard, another Calexico sidekick, they are well worth keeping an eye on.

Website Susie Hug

Listen to A Modern Lie