Writing on the (assured) presumption that all those who frequent Blabber’n’Smokeland have a copy of Jim Dead’s tremendous Ten Fires to hand we direct you to the fiery guitar therein, much of it provided by local blues colossus, Craig Hughes. Much like his fellow blues traveller, Dave Arcari, (a guy who looks like he’s possessed by the devil while delivering his blues damnations), Hughes puts his all into a performance commanding the stage, growling for all he’s worth while turning out some awesome picking be it electric or acoustic. Fortunately he’s a dab hand at conjuring up this magic in the studio as well as he has demonstrated on the Jim Dead album, his recent forays as part of the uber heavy Dog Howl Moon or solo as on this, his latest EP.
His debut album, Pissed Off, Bitter and Willing to Share was considered by a Canadian publication to be the best UK blues album of 2009 while his shared platter with yet another local bluesman, Sleepy Eyes Nelson won plaudits galore. Now he unleashes Hard Times, Volume 1, a six song EP that runs the gamut from acoustic blues to rockabilly mayhem.
Promises, Promises sees Hughes running down the blues as he slides away on acoustic and growls his resolutions to give up drinking, fighting and lovin’. Straightforward and excellent and a fine opener. He Loved Her and Sent Her To Hell stomps along with drum assistance from Ally Tennick as Hughes delivers a cautionary tale that wouldn’t go amiss on a Nick Cave album. Hard Times Every Day is less pugnacious although as a diatribe against the recession it follows in the grand tradition of songs like Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime as Hughes captures a sense of futility and failure singing “It’s hard to keep your chin up when you’re face down in the dirt.” Tapes For My Walkman lightens the mood on a banjo driven send up of a guy sticking to obsolete technology (apart from the needle for his stereo, still a must folks). The slide guitar returns for Left To Crawl as Hughes displays his songwriting and playing skills to great effect as he whizzes around the fretboard with a fair degree of wizardry while his words capture a poignant memory of a relationship that foundered and as the woman goes on to have a family the protagonist draws into himself. This is a great song and it recalls the likes of Richard Thompson’s early solo work. For the finale Hughes puffs up his chest and goes into Cramps mode with Cave Full Of Woman Bones. Fuzz guitar fuzzes and drums stomp on this caveman rocker that good old Lux would have loved.
So, six songs, all crackers. Hughes acknowledges the modern world and as such he’s offered the disc for download on a pay what you will basis on his Bandcamp site. However if you care to have a real life artefact in your mitts then it’s yours for the measly sum of £4, the price of a pint almost. Whatever way you get it I’m sure you’ll dig it.
A few days ago we had no idea who Charlie Lankester was then, serendipitously, Glasgow Bluesmeister Dave Arcari alerted his Facebook fans that he was supporting the said Lankester and then this album plopped into sight. Strange days indeed compelling us to follow this particular Mojo magic. A quick search revealed that Lankester is an Australian who dropped out of medical school to follow his muse back in the seventies. Failing to hit the big time down under he busked around Europe eventually ending up in London where he trained as an osteopath and played the local circuits as a piano for hire. Last year he gathered some of his compadres on the circuit (Derek Mandel and Mark Hawkins ,guitars, Dave Cuthbert, bass, Daniel Howard, drums, Paul Silver saxophone, Gavin Broom, trumpet and Nick Mills, trombone ) and together they strode forward under the moniker of The Mojo Killers for what is his debut solo album. So far so good but as they were finishing off the album Lankester was diagnosed with a liver cancer, a blow which might have felled lesser men. Several months later however he’s well enough to tour in support of the eventual album release.
His particular Mojo must be working.
Mojo is the operative word here. With its magical and mystical hoodoo voodoo blues roots it’s as good a way to describe the music here. Lankester draws deep from the well of the masters of the genre. Tom Waits, Muddy Waters, Ben Sidran, Dr. John and dare I say it Richard Hawley. All of these and others are picked up and thrown into a gumbo stew that hubbles and bubbles with an intoxicating come on.
They kick off with Greed, a dramatic Tijuana flexed workout that sounds as if Jacques Brel came from Mexico, the trumpet is the sleazy underbelly of Mexico, think of Orson Welles’ Touch of Evil, monochrome and bad. Drink My Blues Away slinks along with an early Tom Waits vibe while Brixton Road recalls Waits’ latter work. The Spinning Of The Wheel is the masterstroke here. The horns amplify a grim tale of street life, almost like a Scorsese movie as the guitars squeal and bend and Lankester turns the old Blood Sweat and Tears song upside down. The clattering and skeletal blues of In My Time Of Time Of Dying is another highlight while the title song pins the Hawley connection. A pining love song beautifully dramatised by a bluesy trumpet it swaggers and sways in a magnificent woozy fashion.
Suffice to say that this is a cracking slice of modern rythym’n’blues, the grooves crackle and burn and the band are superb. Coupled with Arcari their gig at the O2 ABC Glasgow it looks like it should be a blinder. It’s on Sunday 9th December, be there or be square, it’s the only Scottish date, the others are on the
Klak Tik is the brainchild of Danish musician Søren Bonke. Based in London, Bonke and fellow band members Matthew Mitchieson and Jonathan Beyer released their debut album, We Must Find A Winner in 2010 to some fine reviews. Compared to the likes of Sufjan Stevens and Grizzly Bear they could be neatly filed under dreamlike orchestral folk music, much beloved of telly advertisers these days.
For their forthcoming second album they did the time honoured thing of getting it together in the country, in this case heading off to Penrhos, Wales where they even ventured into an abandoned copper mine in order to record some vocals in the reverberating cavern. The results will be available when the album, The Servants (named after the sixties band Bonke’s father played in) is released early next year. As a taster the single Reborn comes out on November 26th. Its pastoral lyrics are driven by a thumping rhythm while a mournful brass section tugs at its sleeve.
You can read about Bonke’s sojourn in Wales here
Much as Blabber’n’Smoke digs all sorts of Americana related music there’s a special corner reserved for those artists who , mindless of fashions or tends, have a connection to the mother lode, the feel , the spirit and the essence of what has been called old weird Americana. Essentially cult artists they may be lone pickers or surround themselves with all sorts of stringed and banged instruments but their one common factor is generally their invisibility, at least to the general public. The mavericks, the misfits, hiding under a stone, it’s a joy to discover yet another one. I’m sure that this hidden status is not their preferred choice (at least for some, others will scurry away from the spotlight) and a few more dollars in their pockets wouldn’t go amiss so it’s almost a public service announcement to try and wise up folk to the likes of Michael Hurley, Peter Stampfel, Baby Gramps and others we’ve mentioned on Blabber’n’Smoke.
Tom House strikes us as mining the same vein as the above trio. Despite being championed by the likes of Greil Marcus he has flown under our radar until Winding Down The Road opened our eyes and ears. A sixty something Nashville musician House’s first recordings were on a Bloodshot Records compilation called “Nashville, The other Side of the Alley Insurgent Country Vol. 3” (which actually resides on the Blabber’n’Smoke shelves) released back in 1996 before releasing seven albums of what Marcus has called “folk music made for ordinary people by devils, a cruel recasting of country music as an extraordinary collection of warnings and threats.” However, as a creative force he has been going at it since the seventies, composing songs and writing poetry while holding down a day job and apparently fighting his battles with the bottle.
Somehow, House has fallen in with the good folk at Mud Records, in particular Brock Zeman who produces and plays all over the album along with a very simpatico band providing an authentic sounding dirt trodden and at times spooky backdrop for House’s song poems which he delivers in a gnarled and wizened voice. The band can be spare and old timey minstrel sounding or deliver a stone solid groove but ultimately Zeman has set up a magnificent canvas for House to paint his words on. And what words. His battle with the booze and his poetic past might lead to comparisons with the likes of Bukowksi and strangely enough some of this album recalls Tom Russell’s album Hotwalker which paid tribute in part to the old postman. Another lost soul recalled is Vic Chesnutt particularly in the gloriously unhinged title song which closes the album, a wracked solo delivery eventually metamorphoses into a brief guitar laden epiphany. It’s not all doom and gloom as House occasionally comes across like Roger Miller’s sly contributions to the Disney cartoon of Robin Hood. However even when he deceptively commences a song with Miller’s laid back country scat as on the jaunty Pappy Closed the Book the content is bloody as a psychopathic cop shrugs off the death of his squeeze. Throughout the album House casts a spotlight on a dark and dank underbelly, forensically and poetically examining the state of the nation. The spoken word Paradox With Suitcase is elliptic and sounds fantastic. Willie MacBroom crackles like a pre-war song as House tells the tale of a drifter who casually kills but for the most part House eschews stories and paints impressionistic pictures of folk lost, seeking a meaning to life, salvation. Jericho touches on the religious wars being waged currently and could be seen as a plea from the damaged men and women with post traumatic stress disorder retuning from foreign field, nevertheless it’s a tour de force, like an ancient blues holler it shivers with dread and gloom as Zeman recreates the past perfectly. All of the songs here are worth hearing and hearing again and House stakes his claim to be considered a worthy portal to the essence of American folklore.
Second album from London based singer/songwriter Alexander Wolfe finds him delving deeper into the influences apparent on his fine debut, Morning Brings A Flood. Again Wolfe plays most of the instruments himself and recorded the album over a weekend while strings and horns, courtesy of the “Wolfettes” were added later. Wolfe describes the genesis of the album as arising from a period of insomnia with brief episodes of sleep disturbed by disturbing dreams resulting in the blood and bone themes that recur throughout the songs. With an admitted interest in psychotherapy Wolfe believes this was his subconscious mind foretelling him of the imminent breakup of the relationship he was in allowing us to consider the album as a Freudian equivalent of Blood On The Tracks perhaps. However while Dylan veiled his songs in allusion and smoke and mirrors and Freud sucked his thumb in his cerebral womb dreaming up sexual metaphors Wolfe addresses his loss directly when he sings in the title song “she whispers softly that “I don’t need anyone”” and on Fangs “you took your love away, too soon.” However rather than begin a case study here it might be more useful to address the question of “what does it sound like?” The answer to that is a measured, “excellent.”
The basic skeleton of the songs, Wolfe’s voice and guitar or piano, adheres to a template laid down in the late sixties and early seventies. Confessional songs, best listened to alone, perhaps in a bedsit. Cosseted and comforted by the ambient additions and the sensitive string arrangements Wolfe ventures into territory previously explored by the likes of Roy Harper on the delicate yet disturbing In Broad Daylight while Mayflowers ventures further as Wolfe evokes the vocal excursions of Tim Buckley, Scott Walker and John Martyn over a discordant scraping of strings. There’s a stroke of genius here as this challenging listen segues into the pulsating drive of Horses, a song whose title recalls The Doors and Patti Smith and while it doesn’t sound at all like either of them is the album’s one stab at a grand rock feel. A psychodrama indeed it swells and crashes immaculately. Milk Teeth sums up the album with Wolfe’s voice to the fore sounding like an extra wounded Mark Eitzel while the backing plucks at the heartstrings but the album is somewhat let down by the closing songs. A cover of Neil Young’s Don’t Let It bring You Down is a bit of a turbulent sore thumb, elsewhere it would be fine but here it does stick out. The closing Separated By A Smile has wistful and mysterious lyrics delivered in a smoky film noire style but the musical trappings including a muted trumpet take this conceit a step too far.
Currently touring the UK to promote this, his Red House Records debut, Michigan based Drew Nelson makes a bold bid to be considered in the same league as the likes of Springsteen, Mellencamp and Earle. Bold indeed and some might think farfetched but several of the songs on Tilt-A-Whirl come very close to the standard one expects from that triumvirate of blue-collar rockers while Nelson has form with his 2005 song, Wal-Mart V2.0 a magnificent Dylanesque clattering rant against the conglomerations changing the American landscape.
Flying the flag for the working class (singing “welcome to the world of the working poor” on Promised Land) and capturing life like stories (Danny and Maria’s soapbox romance) Nelson muscles into view with a rousing rock based sound but the spirits of Springsteen and Mellencamp hover too close for comfort here leading one to think that what we have is a mere copyist. Unfair however as from here on in Nelson delivers a set of perfectly pitched songs that might doff their hats to Bruce and John et al but resolutely stake their claim to walk along side them. The bluster of the opening songs is replaced by some superb and delicate playing with sweet guitar breaks, atmospheric keyboards and sweet pedal steel and Dobro. Dust is an almost perfect song with all the parts combining to create a fantastic whole. Nelson rails against the bankers who can destroy lives with a stroke of a pen over a superb backdrop. St. Jude is an historical supplication to the patron saint of fools, the last resort for those forced up against the wall and the reverential treatment here is sublime. This cracked forlornness is repeated on 5th Of September and What She Does with slightly swelling organ and fine harmonies from Jen Sygit caressing the songs and Nelson’s vocals. Some of the songs have a jauntiness about them with Hallelujah Morning the most optimistic song here and Here To There skipping above its string arrangement while Nelson waxes poetic.
This is a fine album which wears its heart on its sleeve and sets Nelson up to be considered as a force to be reckoned with. As mentioned, he’s in the UK right now so catch him if you can.
Fri 16: Rothesay, Argyll Arms
Sat 17: Abington, The Abington Hotel
Sun 18: Kirton in Lindsey, Diamond Jubilee Town Hall
Tue 20: Bury St Edmunds, Private House Concert
Wed 21: Hempstead, The Bluebell Inn
Thu 22: Scunthorpe, The Plowright Theatre
Fri 23: Livepool, Leaf
Sat 24: Kendal, Brewery Arts Centre
Sun 25: Exeter, Phoenix Arts Centre
Tue 27: Battle, The Senlac Inn
Wed 28: Kelvedon, Private House Concert
Thu 29: Dedham, The Sun Inn
Fri 30: Launceston, No.8 Café
Sat Dec 1: London, The Borderline
When it comes to faithful recreations of old time string band music you’re hard pressed to find anyone doing it better than The Foghorn Stringband. Their latest offering, Outshine The Sun crams 21 songs and tunes into its 57 minutes contained in the craftily well-designed sleeve and each and every one of them is a delight. When we reviewed a trimmed down version of the band, The Foghorn Trio, last year we said that “they are astonishingly good at capturing the earnestness and innocence that is a quintessential ingredient in the pleasure one gets from listening to pre war country music” and that remains the case despite line up changes. Recorded sitting around a wood stove using one microphone in mandolin player Caleb Klauder’s Portland, Oregon home this sounds as if it could have been taped in the forties were it not for the lack of crackles and static. Klauder(who also plays fiddle and guitar), Stephen Lind (fiddle, banjo, guitar), Nadine Landry (double bass, guitar) and Rebecca Willms (guitar) are all excellent players and all add vocals that fit the songs and the sense of old timeyness perfectly either singly or in the excellent harmonies.
We can’t pick out any favourites or outstanding tracks here as each one is as good as the next. Whether it’s the rousing Be Kind To A Man When he’s Down, the jaunty By the River, the Cajun waltz of Tit’s Yeux Bleus or the tear jerking ode to a dead mother on Sweeter than All The Flowers, the playing captivates and the listener hits the repeat button in order to savour the lyrics. Half the fun here is in reading who inspired the band arrangements and while familiar names crop up in the album notes (The Carter Family, The Stanley Brothers and Charlie Poole for example) a musical quest beckons to find out who exactly were Da Costa Woltze’s Southern Broadcasters (see here). Definitely the best string band album this year, check out the website which carries a great and up to date blog of their ongoing adventures.
As luck would have it when reading The Foghorn Stringband’s blog we noticed that they played a gig with The Cactus Blossoms reminding us that we’ve shamefully neglected their debut release which has been sitting here with pleading eyes for several months. Minnesota based brothers, Jack Torrey and Page Burkum (you figure the surnames) are two fresh faced handsome cowboy types who have obviously steeped themselves in the old Nashville sound of Bill Monroe, Ernest Tubbs and Hank Williams with a dash of the Everly Brothers and Woody Guthrie thrown in. Aided and abetted by the fine playing of Mike Russell (fiddle), Liz Draper (double bass) and Randy Broughten (steel guitar, Dobro) they’ve penned most of the songs here but manage to capture the post war Grand Ole Opry sound perfectly. Stately and respectful songs of regret and lost love are played and sung in a manner that captures a lost world of innocence, full of gingham and manners, songs your mum and dad would love. Nevertheless if the likes of hank Williams rocks your boat then you’ll love this. Cold Foot Boogie stomps along with some fine steel guitar sonic adventures and jazzy fiddling while Adios Maria is sublime with some excellent Dobro frills.