Downtown Mystic’s last album Standing Still had a gnarly vintage rock vibe about it, channelling the Stones and the Groovies among others creating a fine footstompin’ stew. 18 months down the line Robert Allen returns with pretty much the same crew (minus Lance Doss, replaced by J.J. Jordan) with an album that retains much of the grit and stomp of its predecessor and adds some West Coast country rock in the vein of early Eagles for what is a robust outing, fairly traditional overall but capable at times of reminding one why traditional can be gobsmackingly good. The best example here is the sinewy, snarled blues of No Exceptions and its tremendous harp wailing, guitar thrashing rush which builds into a fine frenzy. It’s a bit like the Allman Brothers doing an Exile on Main St song as the slide guitars lock in battle with the harp. That harp is played by a chap called “Nasty Ned” and he appears again on the bluesy funked out trip that is Everything, a song that sounds like a more upbeat Little Feat. Way To Know stretches back to seventies FM radio land with its airwave friendly hooks and some fine slide guitar that soars over the melody. Lost and Found is another potential rock radio staple charging along with the harmonies edging into Eagles territory and again some scintillating guitar runs. Along with the Eagles, the Doobies come to mind as DM toot down this highway.
The freewheeling west coast country rock sound we mentioned earlier is evident from the start with the album opener, In The Cold. A fast paced acoustic rocker it captures the likes of Poco and the Eagles as guitars and mandolin mesh over the rhythm section and the harmonies soar, it’s a sparkling and invigorating song and is destined to please anyone who hankers after the first Eagles album and wish they hadn’t ever checked into that damn hotel. That other California band, Poco, seem to be the template for Can’t Let Go, a finely picked number with acoustic slide lacing the excellent voices. As for a ballad Allen delivers Some Day, a song soaked in rippling mandolin and washes of acoustic guitar which again recalls bands of yesteryear. It might be somewhat unfair to name check so many forebears here but Downtown Mystic deliver a fine line in good old fashioned rock and sometimes it’s good to recharge the batteries.
A trip back in time in more ways than one to see the pre fab four inspired Bearpit Brothers launch their retro rock E.P. (unfortunately not on vinyl but you can’t have everything). The Bearpit Brothers consist of Jim Byrne, a musician who’s played for the past three decades in Glasgow but who continues to just bubble under the mainstream and the remaining members of rockabilly band The Creeping Charlies (Robert Ruthven and Larry Alexander), a band whose profile is so low it makes Byrne seem like a megastar, dogged as they were over the years by catastrophic problems. The Charlies were regulars on the gig circuit when Byrne was playing with his band Dexter Slim and The Pickups and recently Ruthven and Byrne decided to join forces and give birth to this band of brothers.
We reviewed the results here, only four songs so far but they’ve lovingly recreated a period when rock’s original wild men had been virtually neutered by the media and tin pan alley held sway. The period between Elvis going into the army, Jerry Lee shamed, Little Richard finding God and the worldwide domination of the Beatles is often thought of as barren but both within and out with the charts there was a host of good music produced. Spector, The Brill Building writers, early Motown, Roy Orbison, Bobby Vinton and others vied with light orchestras, syrupy strings and Frank Ifield and these days not many folk listen to old Frank.
The Bearpit Brothers capture this well produced, melodramatic style of 50/60s music almost as well as Richard Hawley, a man whose music speaks of Saturday nights at the ballroom under a glitter ball followed by a long walk home with a bag of chips in hand, the glamour of his evening enough to buoy him up during the working week. There wasn’t a glitter ball in sight tonight but there was an old standard lamp and a Dansette adorning the stage as Ruthven, Alexander and Byrne (accompanied by Lejoe Young on a single snare drum and Angus Ruthven on beat box) strolled on. It might have been nice to have them in matching tuxes and doing some Shadows type steps but I suppose you can only take a concept so far. As it was the quintet stepped up and delivered a fabulous recreation of the E.P. with some excellent vocals and outstanding guitar work from Alexander. His pitter patter raindrop intro to I’m At Sea was excellent and his warm and swooning guitar was ever present reaching new heights on Blue Boy. Ruthven’s physical presence belied his honeyed voice as he crooned away and he seemed humbled by the applause offered. With only four songs to promote this was a short set but they fleshed the show out with Byrne taking the lead on A Picture of You and a song called Lemon Crush which had some sparkling guitar from Alexander and was worked up into a clamorous climax. Called back for an encore the called up the time machine again for an old Dexter Slim & The Pickups song, Facial Scar. Admitting that remembering the lyrics might be a problem they battled through with some fine twangy guitar and by the end they were all word perfect. A fine ending to a fine set.
Earlier we were treated to some culture (as opposed to dirty rock’n’roll). Local writer Elaine Reid read a piece which captured the inquisitive and impressionable mind set of a child interjected with some black humour. Impressively delivered the piece could fit well within a Wes Anderson script. Poet , Aidan MacEoin, from County Clare but domiciled in Glasgow read several of his pieces accompanied on guitar by the spindly shock haired Craig Ralston who played some slow but dramatic bluesy runs as MacEoin’s wonderful brogue captured attention. His droll tales and wit reminded us of the Liverpool poets at times and we could have listened to him and Ralston for the best of the evening such a balm was he. Overall a fine night and the first time for us in the Glad Cafe, a beacon of sensibility in the South Side by all accounts.
Buoyed up on rave reviews for their latest album, Stay True, Danny & the Champions of the World (from here on in, the Champs) blew into Glasgow for an exhilarating display of country, rock and soul all wrapped up in the diminutive figure of Danny George Wilson and his blistering band. A six piece outfit this time around (including pedal steel and sax) the Champs tore through their set in fine style. While they retained the rootsy raucousness that was apparent on their previous release, Hearts & Arrow, stretching out on several numbers especially towards the end, the heart of the matter was contained in the soul sounds they captured on Stay True. Danny has surely been listening to Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey as he captured Morrison’s old Caledonia soul vibe down to a T but throughout the show the band conjured up the spirits of Muscle Shoals and Detroit while Wilson almost preached to the audience in the manner of soul greats such as Solomon Burke and Sam Cooke.
They opened with the autobiographical tale (Never Stop Building) That Old Space Rocket that kicks off Stay True and immediately the country rock shuffle of the band caressed by the warm pedal steel licks and Danny’s emotive voice showed that we were in for a treat. Cold Cold World followed in a similar vein with the sax more prominent and if anything it upped the ante sounding as it did like an old Brill Building hit with a tremendous chorus. Danny then crossed over into Motown territory for Let’s Grab This with Both Hands, a song that Smokey Robinson would kill for and one which the band nailed with the pedal steel snaking along throughout and the rhythm section solid and tight. All that was missing were the matching suits and choreography. Having introduced the audience to the vibe of the new album the band then grabbed them by the scruff of the neck with a vigorous rendition of the epic Colonel and the King with Paul Lush’s fluid guitar eventually building up into a Crazy Horse type meltfest that was , well, awesome. Darling Won’t You Come In From The Cold allowed a brief respite with its mixture of Blood On The Tracks era Dylan and Morrison’s stoned blissful and bluesy soul before Henry The Van allowed the audience their first opportunity to join in the chorus. By now the audience had closed in, there was dancing for the rest of the set and truth be told this writer was up there losing the ability to capture the rest of the set list although Restless Feet did feature somewhere in there. . It was hot and the band made it hotter before they eventually stumbled off. A great show and one that showcased how fine the new album is as well as how fine an outfit the current Champs are.
Support for the Champs on the night was provided by two local acts. Jim Dead produced a fine set of his parched cinematic meditations conjuring up a landscape of grim faced existential heroes battling against fate. Renditions of Steady Us, Gold and Silver, Head Full of Booze and the brooding Stealing A Mile were grim and packed full of dread while a new song, Keep Me In Mind bodes well for the future as Dead drew a picture of another outsider who awakes to the sound of birds singing his favourite hymn. Next up were Chris Devotion & The Expectations, billed as an acoustic set but they lied. Devotion, looking somewhat like John Grant in a suit ambled on to deliver Don’t Worry, We Can Still Be Friends all on his ownsome before his guitarist joined him for the next song. Pretty soon bass and drums followed for an exhilarating power pop/rock/country experience as they blasted through a set that reeked of The Lemonheads, The Ramones and the Replacements with some sixties Who thrown in for good measure. Throwing in a fine version of Tonight The Bottle let Me Down and an excellent hokey I Ain’t Got No Home (perhaps to please the country fans although it eventually turned into a fantastic thrash). A whirlwind performance and a band to watch out for.
Mermaids makes it three in a row of masterful wracked and raw country folk and rock from North Carolina’s Michael Rank. In the past two years he’s released the guitar splattered double album Kin and the more restrained and desolate In The Weeds . Mermaids completes this triumvirate and carries on from where In The Weeds left off with Rank accompanied by Emily Frantz and many of the same musicians who graced Weeds with what is a bona fide tortured country classic. High praise indeed but over the course of four discs Rank has proved that he and his compadres have the ability to conjure up a twisted, wrecked and broken world peopled by heartbroken folk, drifters and losers who are offered a sense of grace and dignity through Rank’s wonderful drawl.
Mermaids features 11 songs that stagger wonderfully with excellent musicianship that is able to seemingly teeter on the brink of collapse echoing the lyrical despair in the words. It’s a fragile beauty with John Teer’s fiddle, Alex Inglehort’s guitar and Nathan Golub’s pedal steel all part of the glue that sticks it together and over the course of the album they coalesce until the sound flows like molasses, slow, hesitant, finding a course and dripping little by little. The end result is an almost narcotic trawl through stark country meanderings, a blissed out band of despair. Imagine if you will Keef leaving the Stones in ’69 and joining The Band and recording with Neil Young frying honeyslides in the kitchen…………well, OK, it’s not that good but at Blabber’n’Smoke we’re in love with all three of Rank’s releases.
Rank, Frantz and a tin can guitar waltz wearily through the opening Stray as a star crossed couple who return throughout the album trading love lines, sometimes together, sometimes estranged. Shot of Gold opens with “Well I hear you got a man, well I guess he holds your hand, like I wanna,” as the band evoke a very laid back Stray Gator sound with the pedal steel fat and sinuous while a mandolin strums away. Bound To Me is another duet, a tender and affectionate love song with Frantz stealing the show and some very evocative fiddle from Teer. They top this however with their next duet on Totem, a heartache in words and music which pulls at the heartstrings as Teer again adds his plaintive fiddle and the band pluck tenderly around the words. Sublime is a good enough word to describe Totem and Rank and his buddies come close to matching this on all of the songs here. A few move into a faster pace such as Coming Hard which is a spritely hillbilly romp with muscular guitar and mandolin while Teer gives his fiddle a raspy country sound but it’s the still, deep waters of the slow moving songs that draw one in. Words of The Pilot, Devil I Know, Skin and the title song all deserve a paragraph of their own but by now you’ll either want to hear the album or have switched off. You can listen to and buy the album from Rank’s Bandcamp page and if you have ears and something in between you’ll surely pony up and maybe someday he’ll pay us a visit in the UK. There’s an interview with Rank discussing the album here
Borders’ band The Dirty Beggars have been busy honing their skills with gigs a plenty including several festivals since we mentioned their superb debut album Bite The Bullet back in January 2012. A very talented bunch indeed they came across as a local version of Old Crow Medicine Show and importantly had the writing chops to back up this claim without a traditional song in sight. Well they’ve been back in the studio and the first fruit is this excellent E. P. of three songs all written by vocalist Kieran Begbie. From the opening bars of Bury The Past it’s clear that the Beggars are on fine form as they skittle their way through this uplifting number. With banjo and fiddle well to the fore and some fine harmony singing the song is driven by well scrubbed guitars while Begbie’s voice has a well worn quality to it. It’s an assured, jaunty number with a fine hook in the chorus while the lyrics capture the sense of an elder offering advice to the young. A damn fine start. Unforgiven begins with a burial as the singer regrets his hell raising days and tries to get on with his new life as a farmer. It’s a powerful song with wonderful hints of penance and redemption on what is an almost cinematic tale. From the baleful opening the harmonies rise and momentum builds up as the band pile in. The fiddle playing here is particularly fine resonating with a lonesome howl. Come Away With Me closes the disc with Begbie inhabiting a younger soul looking to make a future for himself away from a dead end life. Again the Beggars nail it with a sound that’s as old as the hills and a fine sense of a rural America that’s slowly dying as its young are forced to look for work away from their small town existence looking for a paradise just a few States away. A melancholic desperate air pervades the song despite the optimistic goal with fiddle soaring as the guitars and banjo drive on and Begbie sings with an authenticity that beggars belief.
All in all this is a collection that builds on their debut with the band portraying an uncanny ability to capture a sound and feel that one can only imagine they’ve picked up from some dedicated listening. We look forward to hearing what they do next.
The E.P will be available from the 29th November and The Dirty Beggars have a launch gig at The Classic Grand that day.
Strange that one of the better releases of the year is a “lost” album recorded in 2000 and buried under corporate mergers as independent labels were swallowed up. Patty Griffin’s Silver Bell was shelved when A&M merged with Universal even though her last recording Flaming Red had been a minor hit. Griffin soldiered on eventually winning a Grammy as she built up a reputation similar to that of Lucinda Williams while The Dixie Chicks plucked Truth #2 and Top of the World from a bootleg of the album and recorded them for their best selling album Home.
Now, 13 years later we can hear the album although it’s not exactly the artifact that would have hit the shelves back then. Two songs, Making Pies and Standing were recorded on later albums and disappear here. In addition Griffin has tried to remove any vestiges of turn of the century studio affectations by having famed producer Glynn Johns remix the tapes. The result is an opportunity to hear Griffin in a period of transition from the rousing rock of Flaming Red towards a more measured song writing style although several of the songs end up somewhat in between. The opening song Little God bodes well with its hypnotic trance like introduction leading into a trippy cadence with biting and ferocious guitar licks weaving in and out. Griffin sings lustily over the arabesque music which interestingly enough predates her current beau, Robert Plant’s own adventures in that direction with his Band of Joy. Whatever it’s a tremendous song and it’s a pity that there’s little else on the album to compare to it. Griffin does delve into various genres with Perfect White Girls‘ fuzz bass and clamorous guitar and drums bringing to mind PJ Harvey, Sorry and Sad lurching unsteadily into power pop territory and the title song’s pell mell thrash seemingly missing out on John’s deconstruction as Griffin wails away.
Her future direction is indicated in the country stylings of Truth #2 (where she’s accompanied by Emmylou Harris) and a brace of wonderful ballads which are dreamy and allow her succulent voice full rein. What You Are is an atmospheric swoon not too dissimilar from Harris’ efforts on Wrecking Ball ( Griffin recorded the album in Daniel Lanois’ studio although he doesn’t appear to have been involved in the recording). She continues in this vein on Fragile and Top of The World while So Long and Mother of God are stripped down to the bare essentials allowing Griffin’s voice to shine.
We mentioned Cincinnati band The Tillers a week ago and this reminded us of another Tri State crew, Magnolia Mountain and the fact that we’ve been sitting on their latest release for far too long so time to unearth and examine it. In fact this exhumation from the pending pile unearthed two albums, Magnolia Mountain’s Beloved and a solo effort by the band’s front man Mark Utley, Four Chords and a Lie. Both albums were released simultaneously back in late summer and one might be surprised by Utley’s work rate if you didn’t know that his last two Magnolia Mountain albums were effectively doubles with 2012’s Town and Country released on a good old fashioned two disc vinyl edition.
We reviewed Town and Country calling it a smorgasbord of delights gathering together as it did “fiddle-laced romps, slide-driven rockers and devilish blues moans.” It’s diversity was a strength but Utley appears to have opted here for a leaner approach with the country side represented by his solo effort allowing the band to slink down south and simmer in a southern stew.
Beloved comes across as very much in the Muscle shoals vein with Utley sharing and at times delegating vocal duties to his co- singers Melissa English and Renee Frye. Their harmonies and duets recall the likes of Delaney and Bonnie or Kristofferson and Coolidge while the band serve up a funky and muscular beat that reminded us of Sal Valentino’s Stoneground with a hint of the Allmans’ thrown in for good measure. While Utley and guitarist Jeff Vanover play some fine licks and occasional gutsy solos its keyboard player Dusty Bryant who flows through the album whether on electric piano or funky organ. Altogether the sound is pretty much rooted in a seventies groove while the predominant theme is of break up and heart break. The peak is achieved on the tearjerker Ain’t Enough of Anything, a slow southern blues with achingly good guitar solos and a stellar female vocal singing “‘cos I can’t find a thing to help with the pain, no whisky or weed, pills or cocaine.” Lonesome Train is another downer of a song this time with Utley bemoaning his fate as his sirens call behind him and the band slinks along buoyed some great organ playing. Going Out of My Mind is more up-tempo but again the band strike a fine groove with the keyboard sparkling as the harmonies fly. With a memorable hook and a loose arrangement this one sounds like it could become a stage favourite with plenty of room for stretching out.
There’s a couple of rockers here as well which suffer in comparison to the more soulful numbers but the opener Midnight Man with its crunchy guitar pretty much sets out the agenda as Utley sings “I like to go out drinking, I like to go downtown, I like those pretty women, I like to turn their heads around” as the band limber up and begin to growl. Toss in a Bo Diddley beat on Not That Much which celebrates a love them and lose them philosophy (from a female point of view) and you have pretty much a set which begs to be heard live in a hot and crowded bar or club.
Speaking of bars the opening bars of Utley’s solo album, Four chords and a Lie, set the listener squarely in a honky tonk dive as twangy guitar, barrelhouse piano and pedal steel try to sweep the cobwebs away. Although billed as a solo album there’s a good degree of miscegenation with Magnolia Mountain here as Renee Frye and Jeff Vanover appear on all of the songs. The album is just about 50/50 between stripped down efforts with Ricky Nye adding keyboards to the Mountain trio and the full blown honky tonk experience delivered by his country band Bulletville featuring Jim Gaines on pedal steel. The “solo” songs range from the sinister Little Black Dress where Utley is on the prowl for a bad bad woman to share his lust, delivered with just the right amount of sleaze and menace to Blackbird On the Wire which unfortunately has a strained and unfinished feel to it. He redeems this with the final song Say A Prayer For Me which could easily have been written and delivered by Bobby Whitlock on the Derek & the Dominos album. The Bulletville songs are all excellent with alcohol and bars featuring well to the fore. Waiting On Ruby Raye has Utley salivating over a favourite saloon singer while Not All Right Together is an almost perfect tale of a drunken love tryst. Gaines’ pedal steel shines here as it does on the tearful, beerful lament that is Nothing But Time, a classic country tune that had it been released in the sixties would have had the nation crying in their beers.