Glasgow singer/songwriter Jim Byrne’s last album, Every Day is Sunshine gathered some fine reviews with comparisons to Tom Waits and Johnny Cash among others. Perhaps it’s down to his smooth baritone but fine praise indeed. Two years down the line and Byrne has his third album in the trap and Blabber’n’Smoke went along to hear the unveiling.
The launch gig was held in Brel in Ashton lane, a place I’ve always found difficult to enjoy due to its layout and the intrusive noise at times from the bar. However a pretty full crowd crammed into the narrow conservatory to see and hear Byrne and his band The Blackwoods and to a man (and woman) they were not disappointed. The Blackwoods (brother Peter Byrne, occasional bass, percussion including cajon, and freedom boot, Graham Mackintosh, banjo and guitar, Elanor Gunn, violin and Dinny, guitar, bass, autoharp and vocals) proved to be an excellent troupe swapping instruments and styles with ease and managing an occasional set list confusion with good humour that fitted the down home and family type feel of the evening. Byrne himself was a perfect host with an engaging manner that connected well with the crowd.
Launching into the new album, The Innocent, they opened with the first song from the disc, Fancy Wooden Box, a death row ballad that would have sat very comfortably with Mr. Cash himself. This was a great performance with the violin, banjo and freedom boot giving it a stomping good delivery. Three songs in the band proved their worth with a fine performance of Down By the Wildwood, a song from his second album that fused some scintillating gypsy guitar duetting and fine fiddle playing with a flamenco hint of mystery and menace. This was our favourite of the night and one would have relished more of the same. However Byrne’s muse appears to favour a home spun folky idiom that flavoured the rest of the evening with covers of I’m Thinking Tonight of my Blue Eyes, Satisfied Mind and a cracking version of Make Me a Pallet on the Floor, all of which were as comfortable as sitting in front of a fine log fire. Best of all was a rollicking boozy rendition of There Stands the Glass which Byrne nailed with a fine looselimbed performance. Mention must be made of Ms. Gunn’s playing, she has a fine tone and at times was exquisite. Bar the lack of a moustache I was reminded of Bobby Valentino who used to play with Hank Wangford.
Songs from the album that were aired included Two Empty Chairs, its jaunty air masking a tale of betrayal that came across as a mixture of Leonard Cohen and the Harry Lime theme. Sand in Your Shoes and Sweeter Than a Rose were sleepy waltzes that recalled the likes of Hoagy Carmichael and Bob Wills, a fine tincture for what was outside a cold and wet night. Also from The Innocent was a very touching and emotive cover of Big Star’s supreme tale of teenage longing Thirteen which had some fine guitar from Graham Mackintosh. Byrne commented on the laid back content of the album several times as he introduced yet another ballad but at the end they encored with a superb delivery of Daddy’s Car from his first album On these Dark Nights. A singalong song very much in the style of Loudon Wainwright or Woody Guthrie’s kiddies songs it was a grand way to end a fine little gig.
The opening act was a short performance by one of The Blackwoods, Dinny herself who proved to be a fine singer and who delivered an all too short set which was folky but at times had the louche torch song approach of kd lang.
Troubadour time as North Carolina resident Dave Desmelik pours out his emotions on this spare but elegantly played disc. Desmelik plays most of the instruments himself, guitars, piano, banjo, pump organ, snare drum and “heartbeat.” Some very sweet lap steel guitar by Josh Gibbs embroiders several of the songs while Andy Gibbon supplies bass but in the main it’s a one-man show. At times its pared to the bone as on the title song which features just voice, piano and that heartbeat with some ambient noise towards the end. The song itself, Deep Down The Definition is a superb existentialist lament that benefits from Desmelik’s wearied vocal. Throughout the album he portrays an outsider’s viewpoint of life and the trials and tribulations it throws up with little in the way of empathy. As he sings on the excellent Burn It All Away “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, there are no more roadmaps, you finish and then begin.” Sung over a simple strummed guitar with melancholic lap steel keening in the background this is a great song that begs to be listened to over and over again, mesmerising and at times reminiscent of Richmond Fontaine’s better moments.
Desmelik reinforces the idea of the individual over the collective on Howard Roark where he pays tribute to the protagonist of Ayn Rand’s novel The Fountainhead. However the following song Success highlights the emptiness of such successes as achieved by the likes of Roark although the melange of styles employed within the song indicates a degree of internal confusion. This is compounded by the stark love song Picture in a Frame where he sings of a lost, perhaps dead companion who saw him “at my best and in my darkest place, you were the only one I’d allow into this space.”
In case this gives the impression that the album is a miserablilst collection of dour misanthropic gripes one has to state that several of the songs are upbeat, at least in their delivery. Pulling For You is a frisky love letter, Well and Smooth has a glorious vamp to it despite the pessimism in the lyrics while Standing Still has some fine rumbling electric guitar. In addition Desmelik arranges the spare instrumentation with a velvet touch which at times is sublime. The bare boned He Gave All He Had is devastating in its dark beauty while Cemetery is a portrait of a man bereft of emotion but is delivered in a fascinating mix of low key country and John Fahey type guitar wizardry.
Almost a song cycle of life and death and the little that matters in between this is a great album that recalls the likes of Richard Thompson and Richmond Fontaine in its downbeat and occasionally bitter sense.
In the dying days of Celtic Connections we heard that good friends of Blabber’n’Smoke, Old Dollar Bill were venturing west to support Mairi Orr at an Open Stage gig. The Open stage is a free daily show featuring several artists who have the opportunity to play to a very appreciative audience. It’s one of Celtic Connections’ finer aspects and was inspired by the late and great Danny Kyle.
Anyway, Mairi, originally from Morar in the west Highlands but now living in Edinburgh, appeared with her “borrowed band,” and delivered a fine set featuring songs from her sparkling debut disc, The Gathering Crows that went down a treat. Intrigued we sought a copy and for the past two weeks have been very impressed.
The Gathering Crows is a five song collection with all titles written by Orr and featuring support from Stephen Clark and Ed Henry of Old Dollar Bill among others. It positively bursts at the seams with a vibrant quality and the maturity of the writing and playing is unexpected from someone just stepping onto the stage.
Orr’s voice has a magnificent presence. Strong and melodic she could fit well into that pantheon that includes Sandy Denny, Linda Thompson, Jacqui McShee and in particular the enigma that is Shelagh McDonald. The latter is particularly recalled on two songs here, the title song and the opening For Gold. Both songs are baleful tales, chilling in their delivery with some superb backing, the Dobro in For Gold snakes menacingly throughout while on The gathering Crows the guitar, mandolin, bass and percussion thrash together in a propulsive audio equivalent of a murder of crows. A third song, Will You is delivered very much in a folk style that does recall early Denny and it features some exquisite fiddle by Amy Geddes. The two remaining songs display a more American influence. Sweet One has an urgency that owes a debt to bluegrass while Two Different States of Mind features just Orr and banjo from Mark Woods on a tantalising murder ballad.
A great debut and a mention must be made of the excellent supportive players, Stephen Clark, Ed Henry, Hugh Kelly, Mark Woods and Amy Geddes who all add a very authentic and well played backdrop to Ms. Orr’s very talented delivery.
Seed of a Pine is a fine collaborative effort from Arizona musicians Dave McGraw and Mandy Fer (previously known as Mandy Ferranini under which she’s released some solo stuff). Both names are new to us however a glance at some of the musicians who assisted on this recording was certainly inviting. J.T. Nero and Allison Russell who together recorded one of our favourite albums of last year, Mountains/Forests are present as is the relatively unknown but ever excellent Peter Mulvey. Together they have crafted an album that positively brims with excellent songs, fine playing and exquisite vocals. Although they write separately (with Fer contributing five songs to McGraw’s six) the pair are perfectly matched in terms of style and the vocal harmonies, shared throughout by combinations of the pair along with Nero, Russell and Mulvey provide a cohesive mellow sound.
The opening song So Comes The Day stumbles somewhat despite a promising opening and an intriguing similarity to Calexico’s dusty ballads. It’s a fine song but its meandering signatures makes for an odd opening. Thereafter however it’s plain sailing as the flowing chords of Golden Grey introduce us to the simple joy of a song well played and well sung with rippling guitar and a great vocal from Fer. The galloping Serotiny which follows adds some muscle in the shape of Fer’s rumbling guitar with the title (a term relating to the release of seeds in some plants such as pine cones in response to a trigger) pointing to one of the primary themes on display here which is the relationship of man to nature. The songs are full of references to clouds, wind, mountains and sky. Both writers have an abundance of nature in their lyrics, light, dark, dusk and night crop up time and time again with a woody cello adding a cold yet comforting feel to many of them. Grow and Forget The Diamonds are perhaps the best examples of this. Grow is a mysterious tale of star crossed lovers who lie in the grass counting stars in the summer wind that comes across as if Thomas Hardy were to write a contemporary love song. Fer’s voice burrs beautifully on this with McGraw supporting manfully. The spare arrangement with a basic guitar melody and plaintive violin is superb. Forget The Diamonds is a snappier arrangement with Christopher Merrill’s upright bass sturdy as an oak and the violin cello and piano recalling a Nick Drake moment. The lyrics here are almost metaphysical in their opaqueness and the vocals by Fer and Nero are simply superb. The title song, written by McGraw is a more traditional snapshot of a life lived and remembered, the music is sparse to begin with but swells as it progresses with some fine guitar and bass playing that recalls the jazzy folk of Pentangle. Throughout the album the playing is exemplary, capturing moods,indeed impressionistic. The voices melt and merge with a sublime degree of resignation although there is always a sense that there is a rebirth just around the corner.
Lincoln Durham The Shovel vs. The Howling Bones
If you’re a fan of crunchy old fashioned country blues thrashing as delivered recently by the likes of Seasick Steve and even Jack White, chances are you’ll be a sucker for Texan Lincoln Durham’s debut album. Produced by veteran Ray Wylie Hubbard and studio veteran George Reiff the album is stuffed full of portentous blues slinks driven by Lincoln’s guitar accompanied by the fine drums of Rick Richards. While they provide the backbone the music is occasionally fleshed out with additional guitar by Derek O’Brien, Reiff and Hubbard himself. Mandolin, accordion and fiddle make their brief appearances and Lincoln’s gruff impassioned vocals have occasional backup.
More importantly however is the fact that although Durham is steeped in the idioms and tradition of the blues and utilises well known tropes and allusions his writing is fresh. While he conjures up a land where religion, superstition, death and tradition hold sway there are no twelve bar or boogie blues on display here. The impression of bygone days is reinforced by Lincoln’s note that the album was “Recorded using early to mid-century Gibsons, Kays, Silvertones, Voxs, Bell & Howells, guitars found in potted plants, cardboard boxes, bird feeders, oil pans, hacksaws, feet and anything else that would make a noise.”
From the opening suicide letter that is Drifting Wood with its acoustic guitar maelstrom to the closing Trucker’s Love Song which approaches the majesty of The Band in their heyday all of these songs are excellent. While there are some low down dirty blues moans such as Living This Hard and Mud Puddles, Durham is able to pen a love letter from a dead man to his lover visiting his grave in Clementine that, aside from revisiting the well known Long Black Veil, is a catchy and hummable tune. With nods to Muddy Waters and Fred McDowell in the lyrics its apparent that Durham knows where his roots lie and its to his credit that he’s able to gather them all up and create something new here.
Trucker’s Love Song
Matt Anderson Coal Mining Blues
From country blues to a smoother, more soul influenced blues style, Matt Anderson is a young Canadian whose fourth album finds him produced by the great Colin Linden (Blackie and the Rodeo Kings) who adds some scintillating guitar to most of the cuts here and co-wrote several of the songs. Recorded at Levon Helm’s studios there’s another Band connection with Garth Hudson contributing accordion on Home Sweet Home. Anderson and band conjure up a fine soulful sound with horns and organ beefing up the sound while he and Linden duel on guitar with Anderson proving himself no slouch on his own solos. He sings well with his performance on the superb Otis Redding like Baby I’ll Be outstanding. This is the highlight of the album with a beautiful and tender guitar solo that is just so good it begs to be listened to again and again. Anderson excels on the title song and She Comes Down which are in the grand tradition of southern soul but he can also rip loose on the swaggering Fired Up and Heartbreaker. The rural side of the blues is visited in Home Sweet Home and Willie’s Diamond Joe where mandolin and accordion replace the horns and keyboards and while not as immediate as the rest both are fine songs.
Anderson has gained some rave reviews on his previous tours over here and he’s returning in late February and March although we don’t see and Scottish gigs listed. Nevertheless a fine album that grows in stature with repeated listening.
Baby I’ll Be
Long time coming this review. I was lucky enough to get a digital download of Maker’s album months ago but as an old time hands on product type of guy it got lost within the myriad folders that populate my desktop. It was a chance re listening of Maker’s album New Moon Hand which reminded me that that there was some more gold awaiting to be mined. New Moon Hand was a tremendous mixture of Bonnie Prince Billy and Tom Waits (in a nutshell) that gained additional weight from the backstory of Maker having to retire from music making for some time after being poisoned by industrial effluent in his hometown. Listening to AGAPAO however gives no indication that this man is a victim. Instead he builds on the previous album’s comparisons and adds a scintillating Herculean holler worthy of Captain Beefheart.
Maker plays most of the instruments here himself, delving into swampy blues, twisted backporch sermons and gravelled voiced prophets. He summons up ghosts, old and new, Howling Wolf and John Fahey could sit comfortably in these grooves. His howling voice on the mandolin laced opener Changlin’ sets the scene and culminates in the pulverising Gulf of Mexico. I am I is a blistering boogie that Canned Heat would have proud of. Revival shreds the likes of the White Stripes with its sloppy guitar and wheezy harmonica. All through the album Maker inhabits the character of the downtrodden, and he plays downtrodden music but there is a sure sense of righteousness in the fire and brimstone delivery,. An Alabama apostle to be sure but in the end a one man band that buzzes and burns.
I am I
Once you get beyond the (fine) artwork on the sleeve that might lead some to presume this is a long lost prog rock classic there’s a little gem concealed within with a sultry and slow Americana burn. Pardekooper is so laid back as to be almost horizontal, J.J. Cale comes to mind here although there is little similarity in their music. A more appropriate comparison might be to the laid back country blues of Ramsay Midwood coupled with the sinewy and sultry sound of Lucinda Williams. No surprise then to find out that the album is produced by Williams’ occasional collaborator, Bo Ramsay. Ramsay indeed provides some scintillating and spine tingling guitar throughout.
Pardekoopers’ songs have apparently been picked up by the likes of the True Blood TV series and he does provide that occasional sense of menace but overall this is a handsome set of well delivered and well written southern gothic sounds steeped in sin and redemption, low lit neon dives and cold light of day regrets. Pardekooper delivers the lyrics with a husk in his voice, half spoken, half sung while the band slowly burn. Several of the songs are immediately impressive, the opening Where I Come From sets the bar pretty high as Pardekooper croons over such a sweet guitar lick with a fine sense of ennui. The sloppy blues of the title song burrows its way into the listeners ear while Walk Away is a perfect example of cryptic story telling with sublime guitar and a grand resigned air. A great album and recommended for those who dig the likes of Jim White and the deep American south.