Quarter Mile Thunder Twist.

Chicago musician Ben Clarke’s latest offering under the name of Quarter Mile Thunder is a brooding and atmospheric slice of misty folk and ambient sounds and pulses. With synthesisers and banjo given equal weight the eight songs here merge almost into one piece and if it weren’t for Clarke’s vocals one wouldn’t be surprised if this was the result of a collaboration between Brian Eno and Daniel Lanois with some pieces very remiscent of Eno’s Apollo Soundtracks. Clarke’ roots the album however with his voice and lyrics which provide the folky element. Laid back in the mix (sometimes too laidback) he almost croons the songs over the sonic orbits that surround him, his wispy voice is as atmospheric as the music and at times recalling Bon Ivor.
I Am Hurting Too opens the album with a mild cacophony of electronic flotsam before voices and guitar ground the song as Clarke evokes the spirit of Will Oldham as he sings mournfully of a relationship where she “has sucked the venom from his wound.” It’s a fine song but here and elsewhere on the album the ambient noise distracts somewhat from what could be delivered much more simply. Clarke proves this on the next song, Absolute Beginner, where the atmospherics are more subdued allowing his voice and the guitar to shine. Throughout the album the songs are like nuggets of gold needing to be sieved to uncover their beauty, some shine brightly such as the slightly Stones’ sound of What’s It Like and the stately piano driven M Plates but the mother lode is found on the closing song It’s All The Same To You. Here Clarke balances the thrum and throb so that it pays service to the song creating a narcotic buzz that is not dissimilar from the latest Simone Felice and John Murry offerings. A great song and a fine close to an album that strains to be heard. It’s available via Bandcamp on a name your price offer.

Cahalen Morrison & Eli West Our Lady of the Tall Trees

When Morrison and West released their debut The Holy Coming of The Storm in early 2011 it received almost universal acclaim and ended up in many a top ten album list at the end of the year. Their unique blend of studied antiquity with their songwriting skills and superb picking and singing struck a chord with listeners and they topped it off with a triumphant Celtic Connections appearance.
18 months later and we have the follow up, Our Lady of the Tall Trees, an album that continues in much the same vein as its predecessor which is tantamount to saying that it’s essential listening. Morrison continues to write the bulk of the material here with one traditional song offered up. However this time around there are three contemporary cover versions included, the very familiar Townes Van Zandt’s Loretta, Norman Blake’s Church St. Blues and closing the album Garry Harrison’s Red prairie Dawn, a nice touch as it serves to pay tribute to Harrison, an Illinois fiddler and lover of old time music who sadly died earlier this year.
It’s a measure of how successful Morrison and West are in creating their sepia toned world that their version of Loretta jars the impression that we are listening to an archived recording from the dusty old days. Theirs is a fine reading but the familiarity of the song accords it an outsider status, a glitch in the matrix if you like, however the instrumental Red Prairie Dawn ends the album with a flourish, a beautiful tune lovingly picked and plucked on banjo and mandolin it captures the essence of old time country music.
As on the debut album however it’s Morrison’s songs that support any claim to greatness here. He has the ability to capture and recreate old time ballads, tales as strong as an Oak with language that seems to be hewn from ancient timber. It’s reminiscent of the best of the English folk rock revival of the seventies when tales of yore were married to a contemporary sound. Morrison and West however eschew drums and amplification creating their tapestries using guitar, banjo, mandolin and bouzouki. The words do hark back to the richness and poetry embodied in the King James Bible. When they sing

“Although starched your apron may now be, it’ll lose it’s shape in the water. But go swimmeth thee to the anchor most near, a lady does not often falter. Oh the winds they blow and the tide she swells, brings life into the beaches. Oh that seem between the Earth & Tide, from land that sea is not quite so wide”

one could be reading from that old good book. Morrison packs his songs with such lyrics on A Lady Does Not Often falter, All I Can Do and All For The Sake of Day. Meanwhile the front porch plucking on their instruments offers some fine moments of beauty with the mandolin solo on All For The Sake of Day especially standing out.
Ancient and modern, homespun and literate, it’s a standout album from a pair who astonish and exhilarate. Do give it a listen.


Polly and The Billets Doux. Hold Fast E.P. and Ticket Competition


Bristol/Winchester based quartet Polly and The Billet Doux are fast making a name for themselves as an act to watch out for. On the back of their debut album and recent EP along with appearances at Glastonbury, The Big Chill and the Cambridge Folk Festival their star is indeed in the ascendancy. No wonder as a listen to their Hold Fast EP released earlier this year confirms their talent. While Polly Perry’s attractive smoky vocals are the band’s focal point the four songs here allow them to display their versatility. Hold Fast is a nautical song that sounds as if they were tooling down a highway instead of hoisting main sails. With sinewy guitar and a driving beat it’s a cracking little song. Factory Whistle continues in this upbeat fashion with a faux Bo Diddley rhythm married to jazzy guitar runs. Hymn Song applies the brakes as the band hunker down and break out the acoustic guitars. As the song progresses a string section and electric guitar sneak in while the mallet work of drummer Ben Perry recalls folk rock of yore. This folk rock jazz interface comes to the fore on the closing Fortune Of War that is reminiscent of Pentangle in their most incandescent moments. Light and airy with high harmonies and scintillating guitar arpeggios it reeks of the sixties and ends far too soon.
With a short UK tour commencing in November we’re able to offer two tickets to one of the shows for a lucky reader. Simply email us at paulk.blabbernsmoke at gmail.com with Polly and The Billet Doux as the subject and the show you wish to attend by Sunday 28th October. Winner will be selected from a virtual hat.
Tour details below and here’s a taster of what you might see.

09-Nov PERTH Twa Tams
10-Nov THURSO Newmarket Bar
11-Nov INVERNESS Hootananny
12-Nov LEEDS Oporto
13-Nov BIRMINGHAM Kitchen Garden Café
14-Nov LONDON The Wheelbarrow
15-Nov NORWICH Waterfront
16-Nov YORK The Basement
17-Nov BRISTOL Thekla
18-Nov CARDIFF 10 Feet Tall
24-Nov OXFORD The Cellar
09-Dec WINCHESTER The Railway

Random Canyon Growlers. Dickey Ain’t Got All Day.

Regular visitors to Blabber’n’Smoke will know that we’re suckers for energetic bluegrass/old timey country music with bands like The Hot Seats, The Foghorn Stringband and Hillfolk Noire regularly getting mentions here. Ignited many years ago when we first heard the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s triumphant triple album Will The Circle be Unbroken we quickly fell under the spell of the first two Holy Modal Rounder albums, old time music with a weird twist. The Rounders became weirder over the years but one song that has always stuck with us is Peter Stampfel’s Random Canyon, a sweet, innocent and nostalgic almost kiddie type song that hammers Puff The Magic Dragon into the ground. So it was with a sense of anticipation that we stuck the Random Canyon Growlers onto the hi-fi in case there was some element of Stampfel’s druggy nursery rhyme here. Sadly this was not to be the case however we did get to hear a great album of vibrant and energetic bluegrass songs that positively brims with confidence.
Hailing from mountainous Wyoming the Random Canyon Growlers are a young band with what appears to be a revolving line-up. Here they are a five piece with mainstays Jamie Drysdale and David McMeekin on guitar and banjo respectively. Their sound captures the classic air of bluegrass and old time country perfectly and although they attack the faster songs with a breathtaking energy they are equally at home with the more lachrymose ballad including a grand version of the Louvin brothers’ Dark as The Night. The the ensemble playing is tremendous and the solo virtuosity on display is at times breathtaking, the string bass snap on Doghouse assaults the ears with its ferocity. While they cover the likes of the Louvins and Bill Monroe the majority of the songs are written by Drysdale and McMeekin however a blind listen would fail to differentiate between the covers and the originals as they have immersed themselves in the tradition and updated it with brio. The songs leap into life with fiddle, guitar, mandolin and banjo duelling away in magnificent style while Drysdale and McMeekin throw their heart and soul into the vocals. They definitely stake their claim to be one of the best of the current young bluegrass bands.
Harking back to the Holy Modal Rounders at the end of the album a bunch of hidden tracks capture the band goofing around with one segment very reminiscent of the interludes on the Rounders psychedelic masterpiece Indian War Whoop. Intriguing.
Anyhow and more to the point the band are currently touring the UK commencing yesterday. Dates below. If they can carry off this level of achievement live then they’re a must.

Mon Oct 15: Sarratt, The Cock Inn
Tue 16: London, King’s Cross
Thu 18: Barnacre, The Kenlis Arms
Fri 19: Newport, The Bargeman’s Rest
Sun 21: Birmingham, Kitchen Garden Café
Tue 23: Horsham, The Tanners Arms
Wed 24: Lewes, The Snowdrop Inn
Thu 25: Bristol, The Canteen
Fri 26: Cardiff, The Moon Club
Sat 27: Sowerby Bridge, Puzzle Hall Inn
Sun 28: Stranraer, The Grapes
Mon 29: Cookstown, The Red Room
Tue 30: Omagh, The Weigh Inn
Wed 31: Listowel, St John’s Theatre
Thu Nov 1: Wexford, The Sky & The Ground
Fri 2: Belfast, The Belfast Barge
Sun 4: Arklow, The Fifty Six Bar


Furnace Mountain. The Road To Berryville

This album from Appalachian whizzkids Furnace Mountain has been kicking around for several months now and the only excuse we have for not reviewing it earlier is that it’s been in the automobile CD changer almost since arrival and has lightened many trips. Now rescued from the buggy we can confidently say that it sounds as good when stationary and sipping a fine brew.
The follow up to their 2009 album Fields of Fescue which was universally praised The Road To Berryville captures the band (David Deventer, fiddle, Aimee Curl, bass and vocals, Morgan Morrison, bouzouki, guitar and vocals and Danny Knicely, mandolin and fiddle) playing live in the studio and was funded via Kickstarter. Playing to a small audience the band stretch out on several of the songs here allowing them to demonstrate their undoubted instrumental prowess while the choice of songs and instrumentals, traditional and contemporary is top notch. Deventer and Knicely excel on fiddle and mandolin and at times the soloing and ensemble playing is intense and best heard here on the awesome Millwood Boyce. The live setting allows the numbers to flow from one to another and is particularly apt as at times their sound flows like mountain streams while the husky voice of Curl and the harmonies recall that high lonesome sound.
Barney opens the album and immediately the feet are tapping as this up-tempo murder ballad with Curl and Morrison trading verses while mandolin and fiddle dart about nails their trademark sound, old time Carter family type homilies zapped into the modern age. Fol De Rol takes W. B. Yeats by the collar and yanks him to Virginia with some intricate vocal interplay. The following medley of Virginia Girls/Sandy Boys marries their mountain vocals and fiddling with an instrumental coda which perhaps demonstrates one of the reasons why they were such a big hit at Celtic Connections two years ago as it sounds like a miniature fiddlers rally. The medley idea is repeated several times throughout the album as a song is coupled with an instrumental , at times fast and furious (The Nightshift Lullaby/Kookybird), elsewhere more contemplative and measured (The Crow On The Cradle/The Road To Berryville).
Of the more contemporary songs Thrown By The Bull (by Old Man Ludecke) is simply superb sounding as if the band are in the room with you as Curl’s wearied vocal gets close and intimate and the mandolin, fiddle and guitar build a delicate web around it. Who Could Blame Them (by Nathan Moore) is a tremendous heart tug of a song with stark instrumental scaffolding. The band also zip through a sprightly cover of Dylan’s I Want You which almost captures the ebullience of the original and a fine swing time version of Bonaparte’s Retreat.
The live studio setting is a neat idea as it allows the band to capture their show in hi fidelity sound and show off their chops. A stunning outfit the fiddle and mandolin breaks are a delight while the vocals and song choice are the icing on the cake. Very much recommended if string band music excites your listening buds.


Pokey Lafarge and the South City Three. Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra

Seems like every time we mention Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three here they’ve added another feather to their cap. Pokey recently had a song featured on the American TV series Empire Boardwalk, a rendition of Lovesick Blues (and there’s a great story behind this involving Jiminy Cricket, see here). In addition the band have been supporting jack White to huge audiences in the states including the famous Red Rocks Amphitheatre and Radio City Music Hall. It’s great to see that they are gracing our shores again over the next few weeks and even better to hear their latest release Live In Holland that captures their rip roaring act perfectly.
Recorded at the Paradiso in Amsterdam the 14 cuts will be familiar to anyone who’s seen the band recently. Culled from the band’s two albums and singles and Pokey’s solo releases Marmalade and Beat Move and Shake along with a cracking version of Bob Wills’ Devil ain’t Lazy the live setting allows the band to cut loose and Pokey to holler and play the audience, wisecracking and adlibbing. It all adds up to a rollickingly good listen with the band seemingly enjoying themselves as much as the audience. It’s almost impossible to pick out highlights as throughout the album Ryan Koenig blitzes the crowd with his harmonica wizardry while Adam Hoskins’ guitar zips and slides splendidly. Joey Glynn on bass gets his moments to shine also especially on the raucous In The Graveyard. While Pokey, the ringmaster, ushers in the solos and is in fine booming voice the band deliver great harmonies and vocal asides that add to the vaudevillian element they create. Almost a perfect document of one of the most exciting bands around right now if this doesn’t move you then you should call a doctor


Newcastle band, Rob Heron and the Tea Pad Orchestra are supporting Pokey and his gang on the upcoming UK tour just in time to promote their debut album Money isn’t Everything. While Newcastle isn’t St. Louis musically the tea pads inhabit much the same territory as the south city three, old time blues, ragtime and jazz with some Cajun riffs thrown in. While Heron tends to croon and scat rather than holler the syncopated rhythms and jazzy vamps are all there and executed with finesse, Ben Fitzgerald on guitar in particular plays some scintillating Django type runs. With three songs rerecorded from their EP including the mini epic Great Fire of Byker (about a huge conflagration on Tyneside) there’s a dramatic improvement in the sound and they come across as much more confidant and assured. Heron writes most of the songs although it’s hard to believe that they’ve not been dredged up from some archive of old time Americana. A version of Bob Miller’s Bank Failures from the 1930s nestles comfortably with Heron’s songs particularly the title track, in fact the album could have been called Songs For the New Depression and one wouldn’t have been surprised to find Buddy Can You Spare a Dime here, maybe they’ll do it live. With songs of escapism (the sousaphone led thump of Rich man Blues), booze (Hangover Blues) and exotica (the south American styled Biarro Alto) there’s a definite retro feel here that harks back to the dichotomy of the jazz age when the bright young things partied and the working class worked. A great debut and on the strength of this a great double bill on the forthcoming tour.


Blame Sally. Live At KVIE Studios.

Gearing up for their first UK tour San Franciscan four piece Blame Sally have released this live recording of a benefit gig they did for a local radio station in Sacramento. Consisting of Pam Delgado (drums, percussion & vocals), Renée Harcourt (guitar, mandolin, banjo & vocals), Jeri Jones (guitar & vocals) and Monica Pasqual (keyboards, accordion & vocals) they’re assisted here by Rob Strom on bass on what is a classy set of full blown rock numbers replete with driving organ and gutsy guitar soloing leavened somewhat by a few folkier numbers. Having formed the band some 12 years ago when they were all in their late 30’s and early 40’s its fair to say that they probably grew up with Fleetwood Mac spewing from the airwaves and it’s the likes of the Mac along with the Cowboy Junkies that seem to inform their sound, they even throw in a fine cover of Lindsay Buckingham’s Never Going Back Again. The folky Pajaros Sin Alas and Orange allow an opportunity to hear what they might sound like unplugged as it were but it’s on the tremendous Bird In Hand, a wide open sky twang guitar country opus that impresses most.

The band comes to Glasgow on Thursday 25 playing at the Woodend Bowling and Tennis Club. The other tour dates are on the website.

Sleepy Driver, Arlan Feiles & The Broken Hearted, The Mystix

Sleepy Driver. In A Low dark Light.

Back in 2010 we liked Sleepy Driver’s debut album, Steady Now, mentioning the surge of guitar and organ that propelled the songs and likening them to the old “Paisley underground” bands. Two years on and they’ve maintained their thrust with a strong selection of songs that veer away from the slight country sounds on the debut moving somewhat into the mainstream. Having garnered numerous awards in their native Canada including single and album of the year it appears that they’re determined to repeat these feats with the result that In A Low Dark Light is a smoother, shinier beast than its predecessor. While some of the country elements remain particularly on Silverback Dog and Long Time Coming Home which features the fine pedal steel playing of guest Dave Palmer the primary deal here is a big punchy sound, melodic with occasional Neil Young/Crazy Horse chunks thrown in. While Peter Hicks writes and sings all of the songs the star of the show is guitarist Ethan Young-Lai who towers throughout the album with biting, piercing, squalling and corkscrewing solos that may at times hark back to the seventies but pack a tremendous punch.


Arlan Feiles & The Broken Hearted. Weeds Kill The Wild Flowers.

Arlan Feiles has a colourful back-story of near brushes with fame and encounters with the likes of Levon Helm, Tom Dowds, Chris Blackwell and Dave Grohl. His 2007 album, Come Sunday Morning, found him in a New York state of mind with a set of songs played solo that recalled the spirit of Springsteen with a dash of Phil Ochs and was rightly hailed as a breakthrough. He returns here, tooled up with his band The Broken Hearted, with a grittier, hard edged sound that complements his somewhat sardonic take on life. In fact the album sounds what one might imagine Steely Dan might have sounded like if they had forgone the jazz sheen and remained funky. Feiles’ keyboards lead the songs but Joel Schantz’s guitar provides the muscle especially on the impressive Hard Line. Although Feiles has a tendency to lapse into a generic piano ballad style on a few songs elsewhere he produces the goods. Katie Truly is a misleadingly jaunty soul inspired hop camouflaging a burnt out guy who has “been taking down minutes and minutes of bullshit.” The ensemble playing here is spectacular as the band lock down into a groove and there’s even a weird Beatles feel to some of the instrumentation and the backing vocals. Viola, a revisit of a song from Come Sunday Morning and inspired by Viola Gregg Liuzzo, a sixties civil rights activist shot dead by Klansmen captures some of the spirit of the late Levon Helm. Feiles throws in a curve ball with the closing song Mix Tape, a bizarre talking blues that tells of how Bono from U2 saved a relationship. Odd but affecting.


The Mystix. Mighty Tone.

The Mystix are a grizzled bunch of veterans who between them have played with a galaxy of musicians including Mary J. Blige, Jerry Lee Lewis, Gary Burton, Duke Robillard, John Hammond, Edgar Winter, Duke Robillard, Susan Tedeschi and Peter Wolf. As can be surmised their chops are together and much of the fun to be had on this, their fourth album, is simply listening to a great bunch of musicians locking into a groove and bouncing off of each other. The other delight is in front man Jo Lily’s vocals which accommodate Chicago style blues and Opry styled country effortlessly.
The album is described as a journey into “the past of Americana music, from the minstrel era to the white & black blues of the 20’s, to the powerful spiritual songbook,” and features covers of Jimmie Rogers, Ernest Tubbs, Pop Staples and Willie Dixon along with two traditional songs and three originals. While they have a great time with the self penned country gospel of Mighty Tone which features some fine fiddling and turn in a rollicking rag time Jelly Roll their heart (and soul) is in the blues. Mean Woman Blues and Keep On Walking are embellished primarily with acoustic instruments including Dobro and lap steel and recall the likes of J.J. Cale. However the band are at their best when they limber up and adopt the classic Chicago blues sound. Assisting them in this task is Jerry Portnoy on harmonica who played with Muddy Waters and it’s Muddy’s classic 50’s sides that provide the touchstone here. With slow burning electric guitar which occasionally flashes like a switchblade, biting harp and piano flourishes they transport the listener to the glory days of Chess records. Mighty Love is a spellbinding fix as the band simmer and burn. Wave My Hand struts proudly as Portnoy’s harp squeals while Just To Be With You shows the band at their almost telepathic best. Guitar, harmonica, vocals and piano combine to create a fantastic time machine that transports the listener to a sweaty juke joint on the south side of Chicago circa 1960. Oddly enough it also reminds this listener of Bob Dylan circa Time Out of Mind. Plus ca change.

Kelly Joe Phelps. Brother Sinner & The Whale

Kelly Joe Phelps is one of the premier acoustic blues guitarists of the last decade or so with a brace of albums featuring his lap steel playing and refreshing the traditions of the Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and even John Fahey. His latest album Brother Sinner & the Whale sees him continue in this fashion however here he plays bottleneck acoustic guitar and the songs stem from what appears to be have been a period of spiritual reawakening for him. Whatever crisis has caused him to reflect and embrace a Christian approach is neither here nor there but it’s led him to record these 12 songs which are steeped in the gospel blues tradition and in the main relate to the biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale. The tale of a prophet, Jonah, who initially spurns god and is thrown into the sea only to be saved inside the belly of a whale and then goes about god’s business may be a metaphor for Phelps’ own journey, certainly he appears to have wholly embraced the concept with several pages on his website detailing the lyrics to this album and the biblical quotations corresponding to each song. That’s not to say that this is an album to be relegated to the “spiritual” section of record stores. Phelps is indeed carrying on the tradition of incorporating religion into his music, a tradition as old and as wide as the Mississippi and as such the music can be enjoyed and appreciated in a secular sense much as one would listen to old spirituals, the Staple Singers or even Mr. Dylan’s born again albums.
As for the music Phelps is a wizard guitar player and the album is chock-full of delicate picking and bottleneck slide and concludes with a fine instrumental, Brother Pilgrim, that recalls the majesty of John Fahey. His voice is a smooth huskied croon which allows him to sound comfortable in his skin and the combination of voice and guitar makes for a stimulating listen with several of the songs outstanding. Pilgrim’s Reach is a fine flowing flourish of fingerpicking guitar while Spit Me Outta the Whale is a masterclass in bottleneck playing. If you want to listen to an old time gospel blues album without the sonic imperfections of shellac then go dig this. Wonderful.