The Harris Brothers. Suitcase Blues.

Only the end of January and already an album that might end up as one of our favourite roots releases of the year. The Harris Brothers, Reggie and Ryan are from Lenoir, North Carolina and have been playing together for around 20 years. On the album Reggie plays guitar, sings and kicks and taps the titular suitcase for percussion while Ryan handles double bass and vocals. Live Reggie also tackles electric guitar, fiddle and banjo but their absence here doesn’t detract from what is a superbly played and extremely enjoyable set of blues, ragtime and country songs.
All ten songs here are cover versions of old tunes or traditional songs but there’s no denying the depth of experience and emotional contact that the brothers bring to these old chestnuts. Dig around the web and you can hear a snatch of audio where Reggie describes his extended musical family and influences and you realise that here we have the modern equivalent of those keepers of tradition who were recorded by the likes of Alan Lomax and John Hammond in the mid twentieth century. However The Harris Brothers are no museum pieces, instead sounding vital and delivering their versions in crystal clear audio that will delight anyone who digs the tradition.
It’s hard to pick out any highlights as all of the songs are simply superb. Clarence Greene’s Johnson City Blues which opens the album is eclipsed by the following Rag Mama Rag (by Blind Boy Fuller) where the guitar playing is exemplary. Knoxville Rag (by Etta Baker) continues with the instrumental delights. Roll & Tumble Blues just rolls and tumbles and anyone listening to this need never listen to any of those amplified versions so beloved of late sixties boogie and blues bands, this is the real deal. Reggie’s guitar here is splendid, scraping and sliding while the vocals capture the feel down to a T. The picking on Twelve Gates to the City recalls the late Pops Staples’ mastery as the brothers tackle Gospel blues, and again they do it right. Coming up to date they hit the Chicago sound with a cover of Muddy Waters’ Honey Bee with the guitar stinging in the right places while what appears to be a live cover of J. J. Cale’s If You’re Ever In Oklahoma takes Cale’s laid back version and jazzes it up with some blistering amplified guitar runs set to a Mose Allison shuffle. Even a song that for local audiences might be associated with skiffle like Elizabeth Cotton’s Freight Train is given new life as the listener is drawn to the guitar intricacies and the warm vocals.
So a fine, indeed a very fine album that will delight anyone who’s been listening to the likes of Pokey LaFarge or who digs the sounds of Catfish Keith, Taj Mahal or Ry Cooder, in fact if you like traditional American music you should listen to this.

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Rag Mama Rag

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Ruth Moody. The Garden

Another artist who’s appearing at Celtic Connections (2nd and 5th Feb as part of the Transatlantic Sessions shows at the Royal Concert Hall) Moody is probably best known as a member of the renowned Wailin’ Jennies. Here she steps out on her own with a debut solo (originally released Stateside in 2010 but now on sale here) that’s captivating in its wispy, almost ethereal tones. While not departing too far from the Jennies’ sound she has backing from Crooked Still among others who add a little bit of a rock bite to the mix, perhaps best experienced on Travellin’ Shoes, a superb creeper of a song that has scintillating guitar spreading throughout it. However the majority of the songs here are gossamer thin with Moody’s pure voice hovering over the delicate backings. Cold Outside has something of a Daniel Lanois quality to it while We Can Only Listen pairs her with Matt Peters on a duet that trots along with a fine banjo led propulsion. Her Wailin’ band mates, Heather Masse and Nicky Mehta do appear with backing vocals on a few songs with all three joining in on the last song, Closer Now. The highlight is the opening and title song where fiddle and banjo ripple like the wind on a song that celebrates nature and according to Moody is influenced by Voltaire’s Candide, a work that equates the garden as a Paradise. Fair enough as this album is a miniature paradise in itself. If you like the Wailin’ Jennies then you will like this, if not (and why not) it’s well worth digging into.

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Travellin’ shoes

The Dirty Beggars. Bite The Bullet

Blabber’n’Smoke first came across this young band from the Borders when they supported The Wilders back in May of last year. Since then they’ve been to the States and now unveil their debut album to coincide with their slots at Celtic Connections. Nailing their colours firmly to the mast Americana music is their thing with bluegrass and string band playing well to the fore. It’s to their credit however that they’ve populated the album with nine originals and not an American song in sight. The one cover is the title song which was written by the late Peebles artist Bryan Begg and it’s of note that this is the second release in the recent past we’ve come across which has been dedicated to his memory (the other being Old Dollar Bill’s Across The Tracks EP).
Much in the way of Old Dollar Bill The Dirty Beggars have drunk from the well of traditional American music to the extent that they can regurgitate songs that sound as if they were whittled out of experience and hard living in the Appalachians and frontier towns. They can deliver lighting fast string driven hoedowns and wearied ballads although they shine best on the latter. Tunnel Light in particular is a splendidly nimble and poignant song with some fine playing and wise words from such a young band. Nashville Wave Goodbye is a great cautionary tale of a would be musician’s life lost in the drinking dens of Music City. With a great chorus and splendid harmonies this could be a hit in that titular town if anyone would listen. Underneath The Sky captures the band playing at their best with all the elements coalescing into a classic song.
Of the faster songs Too Tired (To Work That Farm Today) has a charming country bumpkin lift to it while When The Cockerel Crows skitters along with zest. The band cap the album with a fine and tender rendition of the Beggs’ song Bite The Bullet, a sombre note perhaps but a fine end to what is an excellent introduction to this fine young band.
The Dirty Beggars play Celtic Connections today. There’s a fine interview with them here.

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Nashville wave Goodbye

Rebecca Pronsky. Viewfinder.

It’s Celtic Connections time again folks. We’ve already reviewed New Country Rehab who are playing two gigs. Now it’s the chance of Rebecca Pronsky whose appearance on 30th January chimes in nicely with the release this month of her fine album Viewfinder. Pronsky is a Brooklyn girl who in interviews comes across as feisty and entertaining as one might expect from an inhabitant of that borough. An example from a recent interview with Americana UK
“I’m about to marry my guitar player. That’s pretty significant. I never thought I’d meet a guitar player who wasn’t a cocky SOB and not only did I meet one who is kind and lovely, he is super talented, plays so tastefully, and has been behind me 100% in this crazy biz.”
That guitar player is Rich Bennett who provides much of the rich texture that adorns this album. He has a firm grasp on that sinuous slinky reverbed guitar sound that Chris Issac and Richard Hawley are so fond of and his playing throughout is a delight. Allied (or married) to the tremendous guitar playing are Pronsky’s lyrics which relate oblique slideshows and snapshots of relationships and memories, mostly forlorn despite the upbeat backing. On top of this Pronsky has a fantastic voice which harks back to classic country singers with a hint of sadness and held back sobs but with a purity that is reminiscent of Neko Case. Pronsky writes all but one of the songs here. The exception is Lucy Wainright Roche’s Mercury News which fits into the overall picture like a bespoke glove.
From the twang filled opener Hard Times to the reverb drenched minimalist closer Good Life (lyrics: I’ve Been Given a Good Life/I Was Born at the Right Time) this is a corker from start to finish.

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Mercury News

Joshua

Confronted by the anonymous spectral faces framed on the sleeve of this CD it was comforting to read that JǒŞhǔA is a side project of the great Joe Cassady and the West End Sound. Featuring Cassady himself and his superb guitar player Shu Nakamura we were ready for another dose of literate and wry observations delivered with aplomb in a country folk style as in last year’s The Chymical Vegas Wedding“ However the PR blurb stating they had “got a bit bored by what they were doing and did something else” should have alerted me. JǒŞhǔA don’t deliver hummable melodies or toe tapping tunes, instead they delve into the dark recesses of the soul with a piledriver percussive sound and distorted voices that reek of danger and doom. Think of Krautrock, Tom Waits, Johnny Dowd, Harry Partch, add in some Lee Hazelwood, Beat poetry, Tibetan bells and top it off with a dusting of Joujukan master musicians and you’re in the territory this pair inhabit. In fact they say it better themselves describing their influences as “garbage cans, screaming children, half-empty bottles, half-full bottles, deer antlers, tambourines, mortal flesh, pots, pans, vocal chords, squeaky chairs, sheets of paper, the words on the paper, bells, whistles, the whole bag of chips, etc.”
With such a smorgasbord of sounds it’s a tribute to the pair of them that the album is a bit of a triumph. See-sawing between spoken word poems accompanied by a jangled cacophony and more intimate and tender spooky ballads all is weird in here. In Thee O Lord which opens the album is a trance like invocation that recalls the opiate nightmares of William Burroughs, Unstarted Symphony is a whirling percussive dervish and Dear Words throbs like a heart beating to burst. By comparison Don’t Let them Hurt You sounds almost tender despite the surreal sci-fi imagery. It’s a genuine surprise to find a Christmas song towards the end of the album. Christmas Eve 2012 is jaunty with a faux country feel but listen to the lyrics and you soon release that you’re still in JǒŞhǔA land.

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In Thee O Lord

Straylings


Not often we get asked to mention a Bahraini/Austrian/Londonian duo but stranger things have happened. Straylings are Dane Zeera (the Bahraini/Austrian half) and Guitarist Oliver Drake (from London indeed) and they have come up with a fine sound that harks back to the old Lee Hazelwood and Nancy Sinatra days with a scuzzy Mazzy Star feel. They’re playing London’s Barfly this Saturday 14th. No sign of any Scottish gigs so far but have a listen to the single, Carver’s Kicks and enjoy.

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Carver’s Kicks