Rob Lutes and Rob MacDonald and Little Birdie – Live and Unplugged

There’s some who love live albums and some who hate them. Blabber’n’Smoke are in the former camp believing that a well recorded honest to goodness document of a show can capture elements that don’t always show up in the studio. It’s even better when the recording strips away embellishments, see for instance the fine Unplugged shows from Neil Young and Nirvana. Anyway, the reason we were pondering on this was the arrival of two live albums that deserve a listen.

First off are the Canadian duo of Rob Lutes and Rob MacDonald. Lutes has several albums under his belt and has played with MacDonald over the past decade. While Lutes strums and sings, MacDonald adds some fine finger wizardry on resophonic guitar on a collection that showcases Lutes’ writing with a brace of covers thrown in. Basically a songwriter in the grand tradition Lutes delivers snatches of life lived with a fine degree of imagery and imagination, the lyrics intriguing and evocative. Several of the songs are top notch with I Know a Girl and Throw Me From This Train worthy of entering the canon. The former is a wistful look at unrealised dreams that recalls the deadpan Zen viewpoint of Howe Gelb while the latter is a mournful plea from a dying man. Pulling in influences from the blues, songwriters such as Townes Van Zandt and the late Chris Whitley the 14 songs on show here capture a duo (and occasional back up singers) at the top of their form. The recording is warm and imitate and even if you never get the chance to see them live the disc is well recommended as a worthy snapshot of a fine talent.

Throw me From The train

Our second live album is a completely different kettle of fish. Little Birdie is the name adopted by Canadian singer songwriter Orit Shimoni who with guitarist Andre Kirchhoff has produced two fine albums which at times recall the dulcet tones of Neko case delving into folk blues and gospel. Shimoni’s vocals have always been quite striking while her writing is informed and impressive.
Over the past year or so Shimoni has lived in Berlin, a city that has excited numerous artists due to its ever challenging musical scene and its position as a fulcrum in the tides of history over the past sixty years or so. In particular Shimoni by dint of her Judaism has had to deal with the personal ghosts raised by the events of the past and she addresses this on the song Old Synagogue.
Rather than a live presentation of songs from her albums Shimoni presents a set of songs written during her sojourn in Berlin. Backed by musicians she met while there this is a fairly raw fly on the wall (or as she describes it, “warts and all”) recording with applause, on stage whispers and MC announcement all included. Songs inspired by folk she met (Old Woman and Walls) are the most obvious results of her stay but the centrepiece is the song Old Synagogue where Shimoni tackles the dichotomy between Rabbinical teachings and the reality of history. She delivers this in a reverential tone with sympathetic backing from Nick Redell on violin and it’s the empathy between Shimoni and her pick up musicians that perhaps best reflects what she found in Berlin. Interestingly the opening song No Finer Place is reminiscent of Robyn Archer, a singer who explored pre war German cabaret and the likes of Brecht and Weill.
While Shimoni continues to sing powerfully and her writing is well up to par especially on the closing title song (which approaches Leonard Cohen territory) it will be interesting to see what her next release, also recorded in Berlin will be like. In the interim Sadder Music works well as a document of her progress.


No Finer Place

Luz de Vida

Light of Life I think it says. When Blabber’n’Smoke met Howe Gelb back in January of this year it had only been a few days since the crazy and tragic shooting incident in Tucson which targeted their representative Garbrielle Giffords (who survived ) and killed six others. Now some Tucson musicians have gathered together to record an album whose proceeds will go towards helping those affected. Here’s the Giant Sand song that appears on it and the link to buy it if you so wish.
Recovery Mission

buy the album

Hillfolk Noir Skinny Mammy’s Revenge

Tradition has always been important in Americana music whether it be listening to primitive recordings from the early 20th Century, still vital all these years later or reclaiming and updating the past. Think of The Band who opened up a wide American vista for the Woodstock generation or The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s seminal “Will The Circle be Unbroken” which introduced a host of country pioneers to a new audience. This drive to celebrate the past and indeed to achieve a degree of authenticity continues to this day with several fine artists we’ve reviewed here digging deep into the backwaters of American traditional music and bringing it bang up to date.
Hillfolk Noir, a four piece band from Boise, Idaho are a particularly fine example of how to go about this. With a string band set up they’ve sat around one microphone in an old street market to record this album. The 20 songs are all written by guitarist and main man Travis ward but the majority of them are updates on classic songs, tunes and themes that anyone familiar with the genre will recognise.
There’s no spit and polish here. The songs tumble out unadorned, raw and at times rowdy although the album takes some to warm up. The opening slide driven blues of Red Eyed Crow sounds somewhat weedy, a bit like a skiffle band warming up while the following Dying Bed Blues stumbles somewhat. Blessed be then the opening chords of Run Mollie Run where they suddenly seem to be much more self assured, from here on in the remainder of the album is a delight. Washboard Blues channels Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee while Do It Again vamps splendidly with musical saw adding another dimension. With ragtime picking and call and response songs the album as a whole is a bit like listening to a Smithsonian Institute archive. The highlight is The Love I Thought I’d Never Know, a ballad of unrequited love that fails to surmount class barriers.
Hillfolk Noir manage to capture the essence of American music in spades. They also have one of the best press quotes We’ve seen in a long time, namely “Much better than the crap on the radio”(Amy Garrett, Boise Weekly)which just about sums up this review. Skinny Mammy’s Revenge is one part of two releases, both “on-location field recordings, ” the other being “Live at the Old Idaho Penitentiary” with the band performing live in an old prison block at the historical Old Idaho Penitentiary and an album I’m off to search out.



Carrie Rodriguez and Ben Kyle We still Love our Country.

Carrie Rodriguez has slowly carved out a name for herself over the past few years in the Americana field. Originally teaming up with veteran Chip Taylor her voice and fiddle made their four albums together a delight before launching a solo career. Here she returns to a duet format in tandem with Ben Kyle from the mid west band Romantica on an album that basically does what it says on the tin, proclaiming their love of country. Kyle’s youthful vocals replace Taylor’s sepia toned veteran’s voice and the pair of them sing wonderfully together on a selection of six covers and two originals. With a fine band in the shape of Luke Jacobs on pedal steel, Hans Holzen, guitars, Kyle Kegerreis, bass and Ricky Fataar on drums the playing is sweet and tender and always sympathetic.
Kyle’s Your Lonely Heart opens the album and immediately recalls classic vocal duos such as Tammy and George or Dolly and Porter on a humbucking country jaunt with exuberant fiddle guitar and pedal steel. A fine start. The other original song, Fire Alarm, penned by Rodriguez and Kyle is a rollicking rendition of a bickering couple who find their faults but stick together. The meat of the album however is in the covers which are in the main ballads, delivered with an intensity that raises the album well above that of a covers collection. Townes Van Zandt’s If I Needed You is given a reverential treatment with a shuffling rhythm and delicate fiddle playing. Kyle’s vocals come into focus here. He’s got a fine voice, slightly worn, wispy, vulnerable, perfectly matched to Rodriguez’s voice. They repeat this feat on their version of John Prine’s lachrymose Unwed Fathers but the gem here is Chip Taylor’s Big Kiss where their voices melt into each other with an ebb and flow that is spinetingling.
Squirrelling away throughout the album is the memory of what some might call the supreme male/female team of alt country, Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris. It’s reinforced with the inclusion of You’re Still On My Mind, a song Parsons sang with the Byrds and which Emmylou has covered. Rodriguez and Kyle grab the bull by the horns on the last song, their version of Love Hurts, a song covered by many but within the Americana idiom owned by Emmylou and Gram via their version on Grievous Angel. Kyle acknowledges this saying “ Gram and Emmy were a deep inspiration for this project and so you can say we chose this song as an acknowledgement or a sort of homage to them.” Suffice to say that the shivers sent up the spine on listening to this proves that they can carry this off.
A short album, only 30 minutes long, it’s a miniature gem and well worth grabbing a hold of.
Rodriguez is touring the UK later this month with a date at Edinburgh’s Cabaret Voltaire on Thursday 27th October.
Carrie Rodriguez website
Ben Kyle wbsite

Dropkick Time Cuts the Ties

Scotland’s other great power pop band, Dropkick released this, their tenth album a few months ago. Hi ho, it’s never too late to summon up a few words of praise for what should really be essential listening for anyone out there with the slightest interest in Scots rock and pop.
Over the years Dropkick have delivered well-crafted collections of sunshine pop seasoned with a whiff of Neil Young type drama. On their last release, “Abelay Hotel” they seemed to have just about honed their craft to perfection but Time Cuts the Ties trumps it and is certainly their best release so far. Interestingly it follows the departure of bassist Scot Tobin and guitarist Roy Taylor who were replaced by original Dropkicker Ian Grier and its as a trio that they recorded this album. Whether they felt they had something to prove or that the original line up reinvigorated them, who’s to know. What we do have are 13 songs that take the blueprint and add some punch to it. The vocals remain wispy but sound more confident, the song structures may recall the Beatles at times and when they get down and dirty on Everything Changes they do mine some Neil Young guitar heroics however one is never in any doubt that this is a Dropkick album. Home compresses much of this into a single song of epic proportions. Solid guitar, stellar vocals, walrus strings all add up to an incredibly strong centrepiece.
With a brace of simpler acoustic songs surrounding the heavy weights there is plenty of variety on show here. Nowhere Land can be singled out for having an element of the band’s homeland embedded within it with its apparent nod to the late Gerry Rafferty’s early style. Despite the plethora of influences mentioned here Dropkick can be proud of an album that draws from the best and distils it into a potent homemade brew.


Everything Changes

The Sunshine Delay. Keep It Together

Coming some seven years after their debut, Outrageous Expectations, one can be excused for forgetting about The Sunshine Delay. Edinburgh based they raised a lot of expectations back then, gigged around and supported (and at times backed) numerous touring Americana artists. Apart from their ringing renditions of sturdy and infectious country influenced rock their ace in the hole was the presence of guitarist Iain Barbour, described by Jason Ringenberg as Scotland’s answer to James Burton or Albert Lee.
While The Sunshine Delay appeared to go into hibernation for a while Barbour became the guitar player to hire and has graced several fine albums. In addition he was for some time the twangmaster with the Wynntown Marshals.
Regrouping with Paula and David McKee and with Brendan O’Brien on drums Barbour continues to shine on this release. While his guitar burns and burrs throughout however he never showboats and the album is very much a collective effort. The eleven songs build on and continue the feel of their first release. Catchy pop hooks and muscular playing mark them as a band who could ride the airwaves easily and at times there are whiffs of bands such as REM, The Jayhawks and Lone Justice. The opening song Last Generation To Die sets the bar. Power chords, glorious harmonies and sublime guitar interludes all feature in a jangled power pop song that proclaims “we’re back!” There are several other potential crowd pleasing anthems here with the standout being the country scorcher styled ramble of Leaving Song which has a great middle eight with mandolin played by guest George Stott and some Burton styled burning guitar from Barbour at the end. Tremendous stuff! Elsewhere another guest musician, Ali Petrie of the great Hobotalk adds swirling keyboards to the crunchy and driving song Band of Rain. All in all a worthy successor to their debut all those years ago.
There’s an album release gig (with Stott and Petrie appearing) this Friday at the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh. Beyond that the band have several gigs lined up including a Glasgow one in the Bon Accord on Saturday 26th November Based on this the live show should be spectacular.


Trailer Star “Black River”

As the world goes wonky with financial instability and summer temperatures in October (apart from Scotland where the heavens opened) Blabber’n’Smoke hunkered down in the bunker and set to listening to an album that’s been sitting on the hard drive for some time. Black River is purportedly the final album from Trailer Star, the last in a line of intriguing releases swathed in a mythology summoned from the mind of the man behind it all, Shaun Belcher, Originally Trailer Star was meant to be a legendary Berkshire bluesman who met an untimely end. As his executor Belcher was able to release a series of cassettes and CDs of his music. This culminated in a well received tribute album Moon Over the Downs where Belcher was able to corral a bunch of artists to cover his songs. Now he’s decided to draw to a close this episode with Black River stating

“This is Trailer Star’s final and exhaustive round up. All tracks recorded between 2005-2010. These are all the late great Trailer’s recorded tracks and signals the final volume in the three CD Trailer Archive series from Tstar records.”

Mythology apart the album sounds primitive, home made and home grown. The sound recalls the ambience Neil Young created with Campaigner, stripped down but chockfull of emotion. It’s intimate and ultimately very personal with songs relating to the death of Belcher’s father dominating the latter part. Much is said about the redemptive power of music and one hopes that these stark and dark tales ultimately did some good for the author.
For the listener it’s hard going at times but glory can come from misery. The canon is stuffed full of songs from disenfranchised black bluesmen, poor sharecroppers, troubled minds. Trailer Star mines the same seam as the late Skip Spence on some of the songs here. The fragility and the feeling of being on the edge of toppling over is balanced by the skeletal beauty of the songs.
The album is available in several ways, in fact the whole story of Trailer star can be read on the website where the various albums can be listened to and even on occasion downloaded. Head over there to look at the whole impressive saga.


Black River