Regular readers might know that we’re suckers for the darker side of Americana, the underbelly, the dank, dangerous deadlands where a switchblade might be as handy as a guitar. Be it under a blistering desert sun or on a spooky New Orleans backstreet, murder, mayhem and madness do brighten up the day’s listening. With this in mind Rachel Brooke’s latest album, A Killer’s Dream, was almost predestined to land here with its promotional tag line of American Gothic Roots music, a fairly good description. Looking as if butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth (aside from a prominent tattoo on her arm) Ms. Brooke appears to dwell in a twilight world of misty menace peopled with the ghosts of country past, R’n’B ghouls and faded jazz divas and the album is a collection of portentous songs filled with omens and foreboding.
With an extremely able backing band Brooke ranges from old time country, rockabilly, gutbucket blues and New Orleans jazz as easily as one changes a shirt. In addition to guitar and vocals she manages tympani, xylophone, vibraphone, bass drum and percussion while slide guitar, fiddle, musical saw and trumpet all feature over and above the bass and drums. The album kicks off in fine style with her lonesome voice on the 38 second Have It All before the band crashes in with the magnificently sloppy blues of Fox In A Henhouse where Brooke’s waiting for a love rival with a .38 in her hand. Late Night Lover is slinky, sexy and spooky while a cover of Fats Domino’s Every Night About this Time would sit well in the sleazy roadhouse in Twin Peaks. Away from the raucous rough and tumble of the opening songs Brooke tumbles into a country mode with Life sentence Blues, a spare cry from the heart while Old faded Memory, a duet with Lonesome Wyatt features an elderly pair reminiscing and regretting on a live spent together that they never had. The most delicate song on the album it’s the highlight here as Brooke sings clear as a mountain stream. It’s back to the louche side of life on the slippery trumpet driven Ashes To Ashes while The Black Bird hints at sinister goings on. The title song closes the album and weirdly enough is the most upbeat song here with a sound not too far removed from early sixties girl group offerings from the red Bird label. It’s sassy and almost tongue in cheek compared with its predecessors. A hidden track at the end closes the album on a sombre note.
It was a bit of a light relief to attend this show and to be thoroughly entertained (and at times laugh out loud) by the very dapper two piece Two Man Gentleman Band who are, interestingly enough, a two man band. The two members, Andy Bean (guitar and American four string banjo) and The Councilman (double bass, kazoo) sang about food and beverages, girls, guys and food and beverages with Bean wisecracking with a terrific comedic sense of timing while the Councilman was the perfect foil. The problem with being seen as a comedy act is that folk might end up more interested in the jokes than the music but The two Man gentleman band proved they were no one trick pony as they blitzed the audience with a dazzling display of virtuosity on their instruments and a great vocal rapport. The humour was merely the topping on a very tasty cake.
Working in the same vein as the late Slim Gaillard’s celebrated duo line ups there was little of Gaillard’s hipster slang ( although one song did celebrate reefer), rather it was as if two Connecticut Yankees had turned up at the Cotton Club as opposed to King Arthur’s court. And while most of their songs did refer to food and drink with Pork Chops getting some belly laughs from the audience we were invited to join in songs about President William Taft’s girth and were regaled with some fine mock trumpet on Bye Bye Blues. All in all a great set and a fine night.
Support was provided by another two piece, The Kilcawley Family from Tyneside. With autoharp, guitar and harmonica they delivered a fine set of old time American folk songs that portrayed their influences such as the Reverend Gary Davis and Doc Watson. Somewhat trepidatious at times they did win the audience over with renditions of 500 Miles, Railroad Boy and Dink’s Song. A particularly spirited Wildwood Flower showed them at their best while a self penned lament based on the reflections of an elderly Morecambe woman (they currently reside in the faded Lancashire resort) showed some promise with the intimations’ of mortality contained within showing that they have learned from their forebears.
Celtic Connections uses a variety of venues spread over Glasgow and the prospect of a show in this venerable Victorian pile was tantalising. Unfortunately, the reality was that as a venue for live rock music it failed dismally. The seating arrangement for anyone in the back half of the hall meant that the view was of some upper torsos of the artists. Worse was the sound, lost in the echoing galleries it was muddy and indistinct, similar to what I imagine the sound in a swimming pool might be like. Nevertheless the prospect of seeing John Murry, high on the acclaim of his debut solo album, The Graceless Age was indeed a tantalising prospect and despite the sound problems he put on a fantastic show. Backed by a three piece band (Sean Coleman, guitar, Michael Mullen, keyboards and Will Waghorn, drums and horn) Murry played several songs from the album and engaged in some lively banter with the audience (or at least the front rows who could hear him). He cut a clumsy and uncoordinated figure in between songs, fiddling with his pedals, at one point unable to choose which guitar to play, but when he played he did so with a passion that burned through the muddy sound and reminded the audience that he has lived the majority of the songs he played. The graceful and well produced elements of the Graceless Age were ditched in favour of a raw naked power with the guitar solos and feedback on Southern Sky raising hairs. At one point he asked if we wanted to hear a thin Lizzy guitar song and blasted into a frenzy of Neil Young like guitar thrashing which morphed into Penny Nails before climaxing with a Thin Lizzy type duel guitar workout. This was tremendous stuff. Murry paid tribute to the late Mark Linkous of Sparklehorse with a tender version of Maria’s Little Elbows but none of the songs had prepared the audience for his final piece. Introducing it as “a true fucking story”, he put down his guitar and sang Little Colored Balloons, a song which documents his near death from a drugs overdose. Without his stringed breastplate he seemed uncomfortable and unsure as to what to do with his hands. However his delivery of this harrowing and beautiful song was spine tingling as, voice wracked with emotion, he seemed to be reliving the trauma. This was raw, close to the edge drama, powerful and unsettling and when Murry abruptly left the stage leaving the band to close the song there was a small niggle at the back of one’s mind wondering if the emotional effort on show was just too much, too close to home. As a performance this was riveting and made one think of Neil Young’s stark Tonight’s The Night tour, teetering between brilliance and disaster. Oh to have seen this in a proper venue.
After the psychodrama of John Murry The Cowboy Junkies were like a juggernaut that ploughed on despite ongoing sound problems. The lengthy blues soaked Working On A Building, all crashing guitars and cymbals, was the template for much of the night with Shining Moon featuring a harmonica solo that seemed to last forever. While there was plenty of Sturm und Drang, supplied by guitar, electric mandolin and drums throughout the set with Sweet Jane introduced by a thunderous rumble and clatter the best moments were when they eased up and laid back a little. With the middle section of the set dedicated to a brace of songs from their recent Wilderness collection two Vic Chesnutt covers, See You Around and Square Room were delivered with an appropriate delicate touch. Damaged From The Start benefited as a mainly acoustic piece and when Margo Timmins, brother Michael and Jeff Bird on mandolin delivered Townes Van Zandt’s Lungs and their own Remnin Park as a trio the instruments sparked as Timmons sang beautifully. Back to a full band they gave a fine rendition of Blue Moon Revisited while the encores, Misguided Angel and Neil Young’s Don’t Let It Bring You Down showed that by then they had got to grips with the sound and had the audience enthralled. A very static band compared to Murry’s hyperactivity The Junkies surely pleased their fans and Margo Timmins was a commanding and gracious presence. However on the way out most folk I overheard were talking about Murry and his astonishing performance.
Guy meets girl, girl sings on his solo albums, guy and girl record album of duets. Well that pretty much sums up Wild chorus, the first proper collaboration between Anders Parker (ex Varnaline, New Multitudes with Jay Farrar, Jim James and Will Johnson) and Kendall Meade(Mascott, backing singer occasionally for Sparklehorse and Lloyd Cole among others). Meade has featured on all of Parker’s solo efforts but when the opportunity arose to record an album as equals they grasped it and the result is a fine collection of songs that range from the pop feel of Across The Years to the muted thrash of Getting Ready. There are lashings of echoing guitar on the album giving it a spacey, almost sixties vibe which is reinforced by some of the arrangements which hark back to the Everley Brothers in places. Elsewhere Parker’s cracked voice and the keyboard arrangement on Play It summons up Eels’ warped pop sensibility while Let’s Get Lost rumbles along with a rockabilly Bo Diddley beat.
Perhaps the most striking thing about the album given the contrast between Parker’s occasionally gruff voice and Meade’s strong alto is that they’ve avoided the well-trodden Lee Hazlewood/Nancy Sinatra path. Instead the songs feature a variety of styles allowing both singers the opportunity to sing together, in counterpoint or to answer one another. Their voices do work well together on what is basically a collection of love songs although at times (Let’s Get Lost and Across The Years)it just gets a bit too busy particularly on the latter song. However when it works the couple manage to produce work that stands up well to previous standard-bearers for star-crossed male/female duets. The opening song We’re On Fire is a fine guitar soaked love song where the memory of Parsons and Harris is evoked as the vocals smoke and keyboard adds a slow Southern groove. City Of Greats lightens the mood with acoustic strumming, stratospheric keyboards and an airy feel to the singing while Sleepwalking showcases Meade on a dreamlike swoon of a song. Can You Forgive Me is a barbed wire bite of a song with a percussive snap that opens with a dramatic scene and is suffused with regret thereafter. Oh Love is the most retro fuelled song here with an almost Chet Atkins’ Nashville and they end the album with The Sun Will Shine Again Someday which recalls Neil Young’s mid seventies work and as throughout the album features an excellent arrangement and fine playing from the band.
Another Blabber’n’Smoke favourite who’s appearing at Celtic Connections is Heidi Talbot. Irish born she was a member of America’s Cherish The Ladies before returning to the UK and hooking up (professionally and personally) with John McCusker. With a new album, Angels Without Wings, set for release she plays the Old Fruitmarket on 27th January, sharing the bill with Paul Brady. We haven’t heard all of the album yet but the four songs on display below show that she’s building on her fine 2010 debut , The Last Star which found her finding her own songwriting skills.
Angels Without Wings was recorded in the Gorbals Sound Studios with her regular team of Ian Carr (guitars), Phil Cunningham (Accordion), Michael McGoldrick (flutes/whistles) James Mackintosh (percussion), Boo Hewerdine (acoustic guitar) and Ewan Vernal (bass). It features guest spots from Mark Knopfler, King Creosote and Karine Polwart.
When we reviewed The Last Star we thought that there was a similarity in the sound and feel to Richard and Linda Thompson’s early recordings and the title song of the new album confirms this as the accordion and brass would sit easily within Hokey Pokey. When The Roses Come Again meanwhile has that heartaching quality that Linda Thompson was so good at conveying.
Proper Records have autographed copies of the album for sale at http://www.propermusic.com/product-details/Heidi-Talbot-Angels-Without-Wings-Ltd-Autographed-Edition-146125
Annie Lou is the vehicle for Canadian Anne Louise Genest and a brace of the Dominion’s finest string band players and together they deliver an album that is chockfull of wonderful old time country songs. Having spent over twenty years of her life in the Yukon woods Genest has had plenty of time to inhale good old country air and presumably to listen to much of the music made by those who lived in similar fashion down south. Flanked by clawhammer banjo, fiddle and mandolin her homely voice effortlessly captures the innocence of pre war recordings although she does so with a sense of style that is bang up to date as she writes with a sly sense of humour and wit in her observations of country life. The opening song Plaid Parade demonstrates all that is good about the album as Genest inhabits a little girl’s life and reports on the comings and goings around her. The harmonies are superb as the banjo ripples and fiddle weaves in and out, a fine start indeed. On The Main Drag maintains the quality as Genest looks back ruefully on time spent with a wastrel while looking forward to her new life playing with some boys in a bluegrass band. Take Your Leg Off Mine is the plea of a woman wed to a long legged man who takes up too much room in the bed and is sung to the tune of Take a whiff Off Me, rollicking stuff! The band are allowed to showcase their skills on several fine instrumentals but when all’s said and done it’s Genest’s voice and writing which are the stars here and the title song is perhaps the best of the bunch on display. A cautionary tale on the dangers of the demon drink addressed to the fairer sex it bumps along in fine fashion while Genest and vocalists, Kim Barlow and Kristin Cavoukian evoke the spirit of the first McGarrigle Sisters album.
It seems somewhat fitting that in the wake of last year’s rediscovery of the likes of Sixto Rodriguez and Bill Faye that Blabber’n’Smoke was sent this album of songs recorded (and only briefly released) in the eighties by an unknown musician. Were Billy Marlowe still on this earth it’s a fair bet that there would be a demand to see and hear him play these songs and catch up on the acclaim that’s been missing for so long. Unfortunately, unlike Rodriguez, Marlowe is gone, dead at the age of 53 after what appears to have been a troubled life although his sister’s description of him as an eternal optimist seems apt given the life affirming sentiments contained in these astonishing songs.
Having left home in the sixties Marlowe lived an itinerant lifestyle eventually going to Canada to escape the Vietnam draft. However on returning to the States he was jailed for two years. In 1983 he pitched up in response to a small ad in the Village Voice placed by Steve Satterwhite who was looking for an artist to test run his new recording studio and over the space of a year this album was built, released briefly on vinyl it soon disappeared.
With a sound that recalls a soulful Dylan or a metropolitan Butch Hancock Marlowe recorded these songs with a select few NY musicians (who have gone on to work with numerous artists including Dylan, Rod Stewart, Leonard Cohen). They provide some superb backing with inspirational fiddle licks and gliding steel guitar decorating the songs. In addition a freshly arrived in New York Shawn Colvin sings on several of the cuts. At the heart of it all however is Marlowe himself. It’s as if having struggled for years he has been let off the leash and grasps the opportunity wholeheartedly. His songs are bittersweet poems and he delivers them in a voice that can resemble Dylan’s at times although he carries a truckload of emotion compared with Dylan. In addition several of the songs are so sure of themselves, so perfectly formed that it’s hard to believe that they emanate from a man who had spent most of his life stumbling from one obstacle to another. Born Again (take that, Dylan fans) is a major work, a song that is almost perfect with a stately arrangement as Marlowe sings of being “ragged, tattered and torn, wishin’ I was born again.” There are several other songs that approach this summit. Mama Was Right tugs at the heartstrings as the violin soars into the blue. You Got My Heart is a simply sung simple love song that should be ringing out from radio stations galore. Finally the vibrant and driving Salvation Railroad is four minutes of soar away bliss where the steel guitar shimmers, Marlowe sings with a magnificent wearied abandon and the female voices flutter around him.
All in all an astoundingly good album that’s been unfairly buried for so long and which captures a lost innocence that was buried under so many wasted lives in the seventies and eighties. Read more about Marlowe including a fine testimony from his sister here
It’s coming up for Celtic Connections time again and as usual there’s a hefty wallop of Americana music on show. Blabber’n’Smoke aficionados will already be familiar with some of the acts appearing. John Murry whose album, The Graceless Age, was our No. 1 release of last year appears along with the Cowboy Junkies at Kelvingrove art gallery while another of our top ten faves Petunia & The Vipers hit the Old Fruitmarket accompanied by Woody Pines. A Blabber’n’Smoke night to savour we think. Others we’ve previously mentioned here include the Heritage Blues Orchestra at the Royal Concert Hall, The Lost Brothers(supporting Glen Hansard), again at the Old Fruitmarket and finally a show that promises to be a doozie, Otis Gibbs at the Glasgow Art Club. Gibbs’ Hard As Hammered Hell was another album in our top ten releases of 2012.
This list only scratches the surface of course and it’s serendipitous that all of the above were mentioned here last year. We thought we’d take some time to mention a few others whose albums have fallen into our lap recently and who are also appearing.
The curiously named Leon Hunt n-Tet will be the must go gig for any music loving mathematicians as the n-tet suffix denotes a number that is liable to change (in layman terms they can be a duo, trio, quartet etc) and it’s likely that only boffins will get this. If so the boffins will be rubbing shoulders with bluegrass fans as Mr. Hunt is reckoned to be the UK’s premier 5-string banjo player and can be heard on numerous collaborations with a stellar array of transatlantic musicians. Here he’s promoting his tribute to the late Earl Scruggs. Farewell Blues (Remembering Earl Scruggs) sees him teamed up with three other UK exponents of the high lonesome sound (Jason Titley, Guitar, Ben Somers, Double Bass and Joe Hymas, Mandolin) and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from such experienced hands. The playing is impeccable, vibrant and joyous as they wheel through 12 cuts which range from the whirlwind Foggy Mountain Special to the ragamuffin roll that is Deep River Blues. It’s a joy from start to finish and in a blindfold test you’d swear these guys were raised on a porch on momma’s moonshine liquor. They play St. Andrews In the Square on 26th January supporting Sarah Jarosz
The Two Man Gentleman Band are a different kettle of fish although they also base their sound on a vintage American sound, in this case the very cool, hip and voutereeniest man ever, Slim Gaillard. Gaillard was a blast in the past, hobnobbing with Hollywood royalty and recording some of the daftest and deftest music ever. Most popular in a twin setting (as Slim and Slam then Slim and Bam, perhaps the chaps should rename themselves for Celtic Connections as Slim and Tam) he appeared in movies and was as popular as Louis Jordan. Playing guitar accompanied by double bass Gaillard scatted and jived about food, drinking and at times just nonsense in his invented language, vout. The Two Man Gentleman Band don’t share his language but they do sing about food (Pork Chops, Tikka Masala, Cheese and Crackers) and drinking (Chocolate Milk, Wine, Oh Wine!, Please Don’t Water It Down). What they do manage is the sense of fun, the joy of goofing off on a riff and the almost absurd (think Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny) worldview that on record is engaging but should go down a storm live. They’re at the Glasgow Piping Centre on 26th January.
We were intrigued when a few months back an email popped in from Melissa Ruth inviting us to listen to her brand of what she called “doo-wop twang.” Intrigued enough to enquire more and eventually track down a copy of her album Ain’t No Whiskey and glad we are of that. Ain’t No Whiskey sees Canadian Ruth, now living in Eugene, Oregon, setting up stall with her husband Johnny Leal and brother in law, Jimmy Leal in tow (on lead, slide and bass guitar and drums respectively) as she plays a fine set of songs that were kick-started by her purchase of a 1958 Guild Freshman guitar and some time spent delving through old jazz and blues albums. The trio play with a great sense of intimacy and a simplicity that affords Ruth’s writing and her sultry voice plenty of space to impress. Johnny Leal’s spare playing complements Ruth’s choppy rhythm guitar whether they are laying down some late night vibes or channelling the Tennessee Three (on Dusty Boxcar) and the end result is somewhat akin to early Cowboy Junkies colliding with Mary Gauthier.
While she sings superbly Ruth also writes a mean song with the title piece standing out as a blues lament from a woman who can’t find solace in the bottle. This sad state of affairs continues in No One Said Nothin ‘Bout Dancin, a lazy drink laced waltz that woozily meanders along with a similar feeling to that old chestnut Tennessee Waltz. Willing To Fall completes a triumvirate of drink fuelled misery and lost love with Ruth’s voice melting while Leals’ guitar waxes lyrically.
It’s not all downbeat however as Dusty Boxcar jaunts along in an autobiographical vein while Write Me A Love Song breezes along at a pell mell rate. However they are at their best when investigating the downbeat side of life and Cinco De Mayo is a fine impressionistic account of a young man’s longing for a Mexican girl who may or might not be unattainable. Wonderful stuff although we remain somewhat nonplussed by the lack of doo-wop.
J.T. Nero’s (AKA Jeremy Lyndsay) 2011 release, Mountains/Forests made it into our top ten of 2011 albums with its honeyed capturing of a sun dappled laid back soulful past. Blabber’n’Smoke compared it to early seventies Laurel canyon songsters with a touch of Van Morrison around the time of Tupelo Honey thrown in for good measure. Po’ Girl singer, Allison Russell featured heavily on Mountains/Forests harmonising beautifully with Nero and the vocals were indeed the highpoint of the album. Now Nero and Russell have taken the plunge and come up as a fully fledged pairing under the moniker Birds Of Chicago and huddled within their nest are the majority of musicians (garnered from Po’ Girl and Nero’s band The Clouds) who contributed to the very fine musical backdrop of Mountains/Forests. In essence (aside from the change of name) Birds Of Chicago is Mountains/Forests part two and apart from Russell writing two songs and taking lead vocals on several of the offerings there’s little to distinguish between them, indeed both stand as fine examples of fine song writing and singing.
Having said that there’s a broader palette at play here with some forays into Louisiana territory and a more rustic feel to some of the songs that at times recalls the late Ronnie Lane’s freewheeling celebration of travelling folk best captured on Cannonball where Nero sounds uncannily like Lane. The burbling bass line of Russell’s Sans Souci does recall vintage van Morrison but overall the sound is less reliant on past times as they stamp their own personality on some superb songs.
Trampoline kicks off the album in fine style with both singers swapping verses as the band kick up a funky dust and the vocals coalesce in the chorus. Russell’s Before She Goes is an eulogy for a departed one and introduces the Humboldt crows, perhaps the eponymous birds of Chicago who watch and wait. The crows reappear on the song Humboldt Crows which again appears to be an eulogy this time for Chicago itself. Nero does wax poetically in his writing with the best example, lyrically and performance wise to be heard in the amazing Moonglow Tapeworm that is part savvy street poetry, part surrealism. However the best is saved to last with the closing The Wide Sea where both singers unite with Nero’s cracked delivery perfectly balanced by Russell’s purity as the band surges with the unstoppable strength of a tide coming in.
Nero and Russell will be touring in the UK in April although as far as we can see there are no Scottish dates as yet.
And some video here of some of the songs.
Birds Of Chicago | Audiotree.