Chuck Lemonds. The Rivers Call. Live In Trees Music.

An American artist domiciled in Austria, Chuck Lemonds is a new name to Blabber’n’Smoke although The Rivers Call is apparently his ninth album. Originally from St. Louis, Missouri, Lemonds has an interesting back history, detailed on his website, which anticipates a dyed in the wool old time feel to his music but instead he inhabits a world where poetry and lyricism marry fluid and supple instrumentation with a light, airy, almost Joni Mitchell feel. Billowing bass lines, rippling acoustic guitars with occasional electric solos, heavenly harmonies and meandering melodies feature throughout as Lemonds’ laid back and unhurried vocals brush against the microphone.
It’s all very reminiscent of an earlier and more innocent age when songwriters were planting the first seeds of post psychedelic American music, examining folk, blues, gospel and country and coming up with a modern indigenous music. So the likes of Neil Young, Ritchie Havens, Tim Buckley and Tim Hardin are all in here along with a smattering of Van Morrison’s sunkissed California days and given the prominence of acoustic double bass (played with some excellence throughout the album by Peter Herbert, veteran of Woody Shaw, Art Farmer and Paul Simon sessions) there’s a fair bet that Lemonds has listened to the numerous recordings featuring the doyen of double bass, Danny Thompson).

The gospel feel is apparent immediately on the opener, Let’s Go Down Stream, a song co written with his late father that oozes the blue eyed soul feel of the early seventies with Mary Gaines taking the place of Claudia Lennear. There’s a Ronnie Lane jaunt to Bringing Mary K Home with mandolin galore while To Bee or Not To Bee (poor pun mind you) features an awesome bowed bass solo introduction that is woody and organic and sets up the bucolic nature of this paean to the humble bumble bee. The title song has some sly lap guitar from Arkadiy Yushin along with some booming bass work and again it recalls the rustic Ronnie Lane skipping down country byways. The Joni Mitchell influence is apparent in The Letter Home, an adaptation of two poets, John Weir and Petra Schaller as the bass burbles and percussion splashes as Lemonds sings a song of regret for lives lost needlessly. There’s some more southern slinking with Gottfried Gferer on National steel guitar on Put A Good Word In For Me, another song that recalls early seventies excursions into swamp blues and a very fine instrumental featuring Lemonds on guitar with just bass and piano that recalls Ry Coder’s film work before Lemonds wraps it up with his solo rendition of Patty Griffin’s Top of the World. Top of the World is a song that has amassed a weight of interpretation through its authors’ and The Dixie Chicks renditions. Here Lemonds lays it down straight with just the right amount of pathos with no need for any other instrumental embroidery. A stark classic to end a fine album.


Listen here

Blabber’n’Smoke’s Top Ten for 2013

I succumbed to the idea of a top ten for the first time last year and if nothing else it’s been useful looking back at it over the past few days and comparing it to the list below. Was it a good year for music? I don’t know. Has there ever been a bad year? All I can say is that I’ve enjoyed listening to music this year as much as the last one and the year before that and so on. Many of last year’s list still get regular plays here so at least I liked them and the number one, John Murry’s Graceless Age has had a second wind with its eventual release Stateside. It may seem odd to have an artist with two entries in the list but both albums by Michael Rank & Stag are simply superb examples of what Blabber’n’Smoke would define as Americana; rooted in the country with a frontier outlook and a fierce regard for the common folk. And a happy coincidence to have two works from Howe Gelb mentioned also as he continues to plow his singular field. Both albums have striking images of Gelb threatening to turn him into an Americana icon, part Mt. Rushmore, part Dorothea Lange, for Blabber’n’Smoke, he’s a hero. Anyway, here’s what rocked our boat over the past twelve months.

1. Doc Feldman & the LD50. Sundowning At The Station. This Is American Music

Soiled songs and dusty ballads sounding like a wounded Crazy Horse. A triumph for label of the year, This Is American Music.

And here’s the man himself

2. Michael Rank and Stag. Mermaids. Louds Hymn

Wracked and raw country folk and rock from North Carolina’s Michael Rank. In the space of two years he’s delivered three albums (one a double disc set) that in a fit of hyperbole we said it sounded as if Keef had left the Stones in ’69, joined The Band and recorded with Neil Young frying honeyslides in the kitchen. At the very least it comes close.

3. Israel Nash Gripka. Israel Nash’s Rain Plains. Loose Music

Guitars weave and wander with a ferocity and lyricism that defies description and he repeats this throughout the album and there’s a moment in the title song where the guitars fizz and burn just like the best firework you’ve ever seen.

4. Cam Penner. To Build A Fire. Independent

“Ukuleles, guitars, banjos were strummed. Floors were stomped. Kick drums were kicked. Feet stumbled. Thighs, knees, hands, slapped, clapped. Voices strained and bent. Fingers gripped, grabbed, picked. Arms and hands flung. Skin wrapped tight strained and stretched. Body and sound thrown against wood and metal.”

5. Michael Rank & Stag. In The Weeds. Louds Hymn
No apologies for the second appearance from this tall, stick thin North Carolina rock’n’roll ragamuffin. The sonic slurry he conjures up is nothing less than mesmerising.

6. Sam Baker. Say Grace. Independent

Baker’s wounded heart goes from strength to strength

7. Diana Jones. Museum of Appalachia Recordings. Proper Records.

She’s not well known but whenever we mention her there’s a flurry of activity from folk who recognise Jones’ ability to sound as old as the hills and bang up to date, the thinking man’s Gillian Welch?

8. Birds of Chicago. Birds of Chicago. Independent.

JT Nero makes an honest woman of Allison Russell as they formally pair up for a laid back celebration of harmony singing and some Tupelo honey.

9. Dead Flowers. Midnight at The Wheel Club Hee Haw Records

Dark and deep, vocally and lyrically, a trip through North America and the soul.

Dead Flowers – The Beach from deadflowers on Vimeo.

10. Wynntown Marshals. The Long Haul. Blue Rose.

Local heroes, The Wynntown Marshals survived some turbulent years with band members coming and going. With new crew on board they came up trumps with a bigger, more layered sound and another fine songwriter in the shape of bassist Murdoch McLeod who penned the amazing Tide. Topping off a great year for them the band were snapped up by the very discerning blue Rose label.

Honorable mentions

Howe Gelb. The Coincidentalist
Howe Gelb. Dust Bowl
Mark Collie & his Reckless Companions. Alive At Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
J. R. Shore. State Theatre.
The Coals A Happy Animal
Benjamin Folke Thomas. Too Close to Here
Slaid Cleaves. Still Fighting The War
Thriftstore Masterpiece presents Lee Hazlewood’s Trouble Is A Lonely Town.
The Quiet American. Wild Bill Jones
Amanda Pearcy. Royal street
Heidi Talbot. Angels Without Wings
Jim Dead I’m Not Lost
Rachel Brooke. A Killer’s dream
Great Peacock E. P.

The Jamie Freeman Agreement. 100 Miles From Town. Union Music Store.

Nudging the years end this album probably does itself a disservice as it hasn’t enough time to bed itself in the memory of all of those top ten compilers who are right now beavering away at their lists (present company included). A pity as it’s a strong contender for inclusion with some sublime moments especially for those who like melodic Americana laced with powerful guitar playing and handsome harmony singing.
Freeman (on lead vocals, acoustic and electric guitars, mandolin, drums, organ and piano and brother of Hobbit actor, Martin, trivia fans, ) and the Agreement (Abigail Downs, backing vocals, Jessica Spengler, bass guitar, Jonathan Hirsch, electric guitar, banjo and Dobro and Joe Ellis on drums) are a tight unit, well able to conjure up a muscular melody as on Scrabble From Afghanistan which drives along with a powerful beat as the guitars chime gloriously. It’s Your Lucky Day is another guitar driven corker , this time adding a jangled haze to the mix while the venerable B.J. Cole guests on pedal steel for the soaring Steel Away which is a contender for song of the year. Joyful in its delivery despite its subject matter of a woman wanting out of a relationship it captures the spirit of pioneers in country rock such as Gene Clark and latter exponents like The Jayhawks. Swirling organ, chunky guitar and Cole’s ethereal steel playing coalesce as if under a California sun while Freeman is joined by co writer, the very fine Brandy Zdan (of Twilight Hotel) on vocals with the pair of them in perfect harmony, a superb song. Alas Zdan’s appearance here is her sole contribution to the album but Freeman is well served on the other cuts by Rachel Davies who adds some tremendous harmony and backing vocals throughout the album. Steel Away might be sublime Americana music but for much of the album Freeman steers a course between America and his homeland. The opening song, The Knight is graced by the presence of Larkin Poe sisters, Megan and Rebecca Lovell on lap steel and mandolin but the lyrics and driving mandolin are evidence of the influence of Richard Thompson. Even stranger, Key of Me harks back to the mysticism and power chords of Pete Townshend back when he was trying to capture the “vibrations” of music on his ill fated Lifehouse project. Nevertheless Key Of Me is a powerful song with some fine gospel like wailing from Davies. Elsewhere Freeman utilises English folk song with Message From Limbo a simple acoustic guitar led rendition of a poem by Amy Tudor (who also wrote Scrabble From Afghanistan) but there is a return to Americana sounds with Hey Mama sounding like an old Gospel song although it addresses a modern issue while I’ll Never Be The Same Again has some rippling mandolin along with the guitar chimes. So far Freeman has managed to straddle the Anglo/American divide but towards the end he dives in headfirst with the rockabilly strut of Two Sugar Baby which features some fine picking from Richard Smith and harmonies from The Good Lovelies and it will set your brothel creepers a tappin’. Annie Ran Away winds up the album with a windswept Ghost Riders in the Sky type pitch, heavenly harmonies included. Finally, and perhaps inspired by Zdan’s dark musings with Twilight Hotel, Freeman offers a blood soaked tale in Hey Hey Indianna! which is American Gothic in delivery and explains the album art.


Fox and The Bird

A short note to recommend that you watch the video for Fox and the Bird’s video for their song Wreck of the Fallible from their upcoming album Darkest Hours. Far as we can see they’re a pretty good old fashioned crew using banjos, accordions, ukuleles & fiddles as they delve into that old Americana sound. Hopefully we’ll get a chance to hear the album when it arrives but in the meantime here’s that video.


Crazy Horse. At Crooked Lake

Everyone reading this will know of Crazy Horse. Neil Young’s very own bone crunching band whom he wheels out when he needs to let his hair down. There’s no denying that they’ve been involved in some of Young’s most memorable moments and with their partnership going back over 40 years they are invariably caught up in Shakey’s story. Plucked from an LA band called the Rockets, Billy Talbot, Ralph Molina and Danny Whitton became Crazy Horse for Young’s Everyone Knows This Is Nowhere before adding Nils Lofgren and Jack Nitzsche to produce their own album, one of the finest debuts ever. And for most folk that’s the end of the Crazy Horse story apart from their regular gig with the man.
Lofgren and Nitzche went their separate ways and Whitton OD’d and was written into musical history via Young’s Tonight’s The Night. With Young zooming towards fame with Harvest Talbot and Molina scrabbled together a new line up releasing Loose, an album that soon cluttered up cut out bins in record stores with Robert Christgau calling it “the most disappointing follow-up in memory.” Undeterred the Horse again regrouped adding brothers Rick (vocals, rhythm guitar, banjo) and Michael Curtis (vocals, piano, organ, guitar and mandolin) and Greg Leroy (vocals, lead guitar, bottleneck guitar) and recording At Crooked Lake which was released on Epic Records in 1972 to general indifference. Normally they shoot horses past their best but this one was pardoned when Talbot, Molina and new guitarist Frank Sampedro were recruited by Young for his Zuma album. Rejuvenated they even produced a cracker of an album, Crazy Moon with Young playing guitar all over it. Again it sank like a stone but is well worth checking out.
Anyway, this is all a fairly long winded way to say that At Crooked Lake is being reissued by Retroworld allowing folk who want to delve into the Horse to avoid exorbitant prices for previous out of print copies. “Is it any good?” we ask. Well our answer is a qualified yes. Anyone looking for the Whitton/Nitzsche brilliance of the first album will be disappointed and there’s none of the pile driving thunder demanded of Young. In fact apart from the presence of the Talbot and Molina rhythm section it’s probably best to ignore the brand name and approach this as an opportunity to hear another unearthed example of early seventies west coast rock. With the majority of the songs written by either the Curtis brothers or Leroy ( all of whom faded into history although Rick Curtis dallied with the fledgling Fleetwood Mac LA version) there’s a definite sense of the pot pourri music of the time as they dip their toes into country rock, FM friendly rock boogie and CSNY like harmonies. It has to be said that if you crank this up it does transport the listener to the early seventies with the band coming across as a blend of Poco and Grin. The opener, Rock and Roll Band, nails their colours to the mast with fine harmonies and guitar duelling, the type of music the fictitious Stillwater played in Cameron Crowe’s Almost Famous movie. It’s an invigorating start. Love Is Gone dapples acoustically with some fine acoustic slide while We Ride channels Steve Stills and Dave Crosby to a tee. There’s a couple of gurney country romps present with Outside Looking In sounding like a rough and ready Ringo Starr while 85 El Paso’s floats away on a boozy country vibe. Don’t Keep Me Burning unfortunately falls into generic boogie territory while Lady Soul is packed with clichés that don’t really hold sway these days. Don’t Look Back is a tub thumper of a song (although again the lyrics show their age) with some savage guitar licks but the overall beauty here is the simple acoustic ballad, Your Song which is graced by the pedal steel of Sneaky Pete Kleinow.
Overall a minor entry in the seventies soft rock canon but a welcome opportunity to grab a small piece of the Neil Young jigsaw for those inclined.

Stevie Agnew. Wreckin’ Yard.

Dunfermline, a Scots town in Fife has a small claim to fame in rock circles with Nazareth and Big Country springing from its loins while Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was born there. Stevie Agnew, son of Pete Agnew, bassist for Nazareth, now stakes his own claim to fame with this excellent collection of blue collar tinged tales that , like another son of Dunfermline, Andrew Carnegie, looks to the new world for inspiration. Agnew might have grown up with a bona fide seventies rock star dad but there’s no pretension or nepotism on show here as he eschews the hard rock path and instead explores the highways and byways of American songwriters with particular nods to Springsteen and Dylan while the likes of Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, Tom Russell and Johnny Dowds all seep in.
Although Wreckin’ Yard is his debut album Agnew has knocked around a bit playing for several years on the local circuit. The catalyst for the album was his meeting with producer, drummer and co-writer of the album, Chris Smith. Together they’ve forged as good an Americana album to come out of Scotland in the past few years that burns with a respect for the working man, be it a squaddie or muck encrusted labourer and marries this with some memorable and at times very commercial sounds.
Wrecking Yard opens (and closes in an extended version) the album, a very smooth and polished medium paced rocker with sweet guitar tones that recall Mark Knopfler it’s tailor made for radio as the tale of a cuckolded labourer whose wife has left him for his boss dreams of vengeance. It’s an impressive song but more impressive is Agnew and Smith’s decision not to clone this airbrushed radio rock with the remainder of the album more dependent on acoustic instruments allowing Agnew’s very fine husk of a voice space to tell their tales. Pretend That You Love Me Tonight is Dylanesque (circa Blood on The Tracks) as Agnew seeks solace from a hooker while All That I Can See pairs Agnew with singer Kirsten Adamson (daughter of the late Stuart) on a country jaunt with Adamson sounding for all the world like a young Dolly Parton while Agnew sounds much older than his years. With banjo, Dobro, pedal steel and harmonica creating a fine backdrop it’s hard to imagine that this song originated in the Kingdom of Fife. Winter Rain is a wordy and spare backed narrative that recalls Steve Earle with Adamson again adding some sweet vocal harmonies on a grim and cold tale of a widower consoling himself with booze as he recalls his wife’s dying days, taking her to hospital and then taking her home with “her hair falling out into her hands and poison in her bones” and waiting for her to die. It’s a spectacular song that captures the protagonist’s pain without falling into sentimentality and its delivery is just as spectacular with the chorus reaching out to the listener. Agnew has another duet on Paid My Dues (Loving You) later on with Beth Malcolm replacing Adamson and again it’s a wonderful tale as two young lovers recall what went wrong.
The Pugilist is another narrative, this time about a battered and bruised fighter reduced to vagrancy. Again it’s delivered well and is reminiscent with its Celtic tinge of Ron Kavana. The one caveat here is that the melody is very reminiscent of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero. Sub Prime however struts out on its own two feet with sleek Dobro and slide guitar driving this finger pointing song against the bankers along and Agnew continues to deliver the goods for the remainder of the album in much the same vein although he does deliver a mean and dirty blues stomp on the vicious Sixteen Years which you can imagine his dad’s band might have had some fun with. Mention should be made of the stark Heavy Duty. Dedicated to a soldier friend killed in Afghanistan it avoids finger pointing but does point out that “the old wage wars for the young to die in” and is a reminder of the situation where many young men might see a career in the forces as the way out of unemployment with little thought of the possible outcome.


Simone Felice unveils first song from his forthcoming album

Taken from the forthcoming new album Strangers, set for release through Team Love Records in the UK on March 24th, Simone Felice returns with the record’s opening single, Molly-O! Draped in the additional vocal talents of Wesley Schultz & Jeremiah Fraites of The Lumineers, the song is described by Felice as “a song where we get to go off the rails a bit”. Of the single and album he says;

“Isn’t it wild how, when it comes to matters of the heart, we can start out so fanatical, so certain, only to end up as strangers in the end? Remote even to ourselves over time, strangers in the mirror…
Molly-O! is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek salute/requiem to the itinerant panhandler I was as a kid, an exercise in not taking one’s early sins or one’s current self too seriously. In the studio we had the core band as well as my brother James on accordion and harmonies, and were lucky to have a friend Zach Alford (Bowie, Springsteen) on the kit (I play drums on most of the album but sometimes you just have to give up the seat), as well as a drunken horn section. I want it to be a song where we get to go off the rails a bit, as we all seem to posses the need to lose ourselves from time to time by whichever vehicle: Love, pills, technology, booze, lust, music… pick your poison.”

Listen to Molly-O! here:

Dan Stuart. Arizona: 1993-95. Cadiz Music.

Dan Stuart bounced back into view two years ago with his excellent recording, The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings. Long missing from action (apart from some sorties with revived Green On Red and Danny and Dusty line ups) he resurfaced in Oaxaca, Mexico with a tale to tell of suicidal leanings and incarceration in a mental hospital. Since then he’s issued forth from his Mexican bolthole on a few occasions (appearing with Robyn Hitchcock in Norway for example) but otherwise he seems to be living a Lowry like existence down Mexico way.
While the world (or a few of us at least) wait patiently for further musings from Mr. Billings (and Dan promises a “false” memoir in book form sometime soon) Cadiz Records have done us the grand favour of unearthing the two albums Stuart made in his wilderness years following the implosion of Green On Red and compiling them (along with three unreleased songs) into a handsome double pack with liner notes from Stuart and his compadre Al Perry.
Perry co wrote the songs and got equal billing on the first of these albums, Retronuevo, released in 1993. A Tucson musicians’ musician Perry seems to have been landlocked in what Wikipedia insists is “The Old Pueblo” although he’s recorded with scores of Arizona musicians including Rich Hopkins, Giant Sand and the legendary Fish Karma. On Retronuevo he picks up where Chuck Prophet left off as he and Stuart deliver an album that is not a million miles removed from the last couple of GoR albums, Scapegoats and Too Much Fun. Stuart, released from the confines and expectations of Green On Red ( “I was the guy paid to throw up in his shoes” he notes) appears to relax and engage in what he calls the “Tucson tempo, ” as they wallow in a very fine set of songs that are based in the blues and country sounds that permeate the south west. There’s a loose and lazy groove running throughout whether they’re mainlining some grungy blues notes on Daddy’s Girl or Mamacita or sweeping skywards on the sweet pedal steel of Neil Harry on Better Than I Did while Eyes Of A Fool is a brisk return to the early Green on Red garage sound and Little Slant Six is early Beach Boys in the desert instead of on a beach. Stuart and Perry reminisce on the making of the album in the new liner notes recalling that they were both in the throes of trying to save their respective marriages and that drugs were still an item. Despite this the pair managed to record an album that Perry refers to as “not a masterpiece or anything but it’s a lovely snapshot of that time a sense it’s a perfect album because we expressed exactly what was going on in our lives at the time.” Well put and it says it better than anything we could come up with.

Can O’ Worms followed in 1995 and was Stuart’s first solo album although there is a great deal of collaboration with JD Foster who co wrote several songs and plays guitar. Can O’ Worms is a darker affair than Retronuevo with Stuart writing some pretty naked sleeve notes relating to his marital troubles at the time, troubles that seem to have been subsequently resolved but which reappeared and eventually rent his relationship asunder 15 years later leading to his breakdown and eventual emergence as Billings. Indeed he claims that Can O’ Worms and The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings are essentially the same album with the same woman driving him to a dark space which he can only express in his music. Here the template remains the latter Green On Red albums but there’s a bite and bitterness that was lacking in their twilight years along with a decidedly Spanish flavour to several of the pieces. Foster and fellow guitar player John Dee Graham excel throughout and the production by Foster is superb with What A Day in particular standing out as a wearied vocal from Stuart is buttressed by some tender guitar and very fine percussion by Daren Hess. This is a song you can wallow in for a long time and never feel sated, it has a Lou Reed feel to it but with a clear desert air, not the grime of New York. As Stuart says, this is a break up album and we all know that makes for great art (Blood On The Tracks, exhibit one) or so they say. “I was living in Arizona after a very bad time in Madrid, we had been married five years when she ran off with a carpet salesman from Santa Barbera.” This bathetic description of Stuart’s situation at the time drives the album. There are recollections of Spain on La Pasionaria, a deceptively attractive cancion that relates a drug deal carried out in muggling heat while In Madrid appears to be a requiem for the fallen of the Spanish Civil War. Stuart bemoans his lost love on a brace of songs that form the heart of the album. Home After Dark shimmers like a heat haze as he sings “You can call me a liar, go ahead say it to my face. You can set my soul on fire, feel free, put me in my place. Twist the knife in a little deeper, I’m only flesh and bone.” It’s always been an outstanding song but Stuart’s revelations add an insight to the hurt he was feeling at the time adding to the song’s intensity. Who Needs More is surprisingly enough a celebration of love given a fine loose limbed bluesy feel but What A Day returns to the confessional with Stuart sounding weary and broken proclaiming “If I’d known what today would bring, what would I change?…only everything.” He’s pleading here for a return to the happy go lucky feel of Who Needs More but instead he tumbles into the nightmare neon flashing twilight world of Expat Blues with gutbucket guitar and leery saxophone. Filipina Stripper is another trip into the underbelly with Stuart finding succour and danger in New Orleans as the band flail around in Tom Waits style. Going back to the liner notes Stuart describes his ex wife as leaving a lot to be desired but he celebrates her as a muse and her inspiration certainly fills two of the best songs here. Waterfall returns to the chugging majesty of Green On Red at their best while Can’t Get Through is a dreamlike wisp of a song with sweet lap steel and harmonica as Stuart sings in his tenderest voice as he tries to communicate with his lost love. At the end, despite his stories of desperation and despair, Stuart rallies himself on The Greatest where he cites Mohammed Ali and his comebacks as inspiration for his own comeback.

Dust settled, we know now that Stuart and his muse made up and he disappeared from view for a decade and a half until a final separation lead to Marlowe Billings. However, tucked at the end of the Can O’ Worms disc are three songs, previously unreleased, recorded in 1995. With JD Foster back in the producers chair and on guitar along with Daren Hess again on drums these sessions included Joey Burns, Nick Luca, Craig Shumacher and Jud Newcombe. Loosely produced, these songs tumble out rubbing their eyes in the daylight but all three are excellent and for firm fans well worth the price of admission here. South of The Pyrenees recounts again Stuart’s time in Spain and his meeting with his wife while the band hit a loose groove around his vocals. What’s The Use? is as fine a song as Stuart has ever delivered as he ponders on his relationship with his vocals again recalling Lou Reed. The jewel here is the backing with the band coming across like the Rolling Stones in their Fool To Cry period, the Wurlitzer and coiled guitars funky as hell as they slink around Stuart’s extended rap like a New York Van Morrison. Your Arab Friend is a pointed barb at that “carpet salesman” and Stuarts adopts his vintage sneer for a fine put down song while massed guitars ripple behind him and then improvise like a boozy countrified Grateful Dead.

While Can O’ Worms and Retronuevo are not exactly “lost” albums it’s a fair bet that they slipped under the radar of most folk. This package is an excellent opportunity to grab these documents of Dan Stuart’s first curtain call while we wait for his next missive.

Dan Stuart

Cadiz Music

Gene Clark. The Byrd Who Flew Alone. DVD

It’s been gratifying over the past few years to see the rise of the “rockumentary” detailing the life’s and music of numerous musicians with more and more vintage footage unearthed. BBC4 may have staked its claim to be the natural home of these although honourable mentions must be given to the likes of Alan Yentob’s Imagine series. Once the province of occasional late night cultural backwaters such as Omnibus these days you can spend just about every Friday night reliving rock history. Unfortunately for every gem there’s a shed load of cheap and nasty shock docs peopled by a pool of talking heads who turn up spouting their opinions on just about anything even if their closest acquaintance with the subject was when their agent called to ask if they were interested in appearing. That said there have been some superb examples over the years. Aside from the fly on the wall type (Don’t Look Back, Cracked Actor, Dig!) there’s the historical document (No Direction Home, MC5: A True Testimonial, Oil City Confidential).

The Byrd Who Flew Alone is in the second camp, a two hour trip through time looking at the career of Gene Clark. Clark was the primary songwriter in the first incarnation of The Byrds and by all accounts was expected to be a massive solo star following his departure from them. The film documents his failure to achieve that fame as his ex bandmate David Crosby was the one who soared while his pioneering efforts in country rock were overshadowed by Gram Parsons who made the ultimate “career move” in dying young at the top of his powers.
Produced and co-directed by Paul Kendall, ex ZigZag writer, the film takes us from Clark’s humble rural beginnings in Tipton, Missouri to his untimely death at the age of 46. While there’s live footage of his brief stint with the New Christy Minstrels and The Byrds (of course) there’s a gap until the early eighties when there was a brief reunion with McGuinn and Hillman. Footage of Clark with Carla Olson however confirms that he remained a compelling performer and despite the lack of live action it’s great to have what little footage remains gathered together. While Clark is heard being interviewed there is no visual footage of him talking.

McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman are all interviewed with Hillman especially providing insights into their tumultuous relationship over the years. Taj Mahal, Carla Olson, Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) offer their recollections while Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan and standard bearer for the Clark legend, Sid Griffin, offer their explanations for the bad luck that dogged Clark as each time he was poised to leap ahead of the game he faltered. Clark is recalled almost as a Jekyll and Hyde character, a country boy with a sunny disposition when away from the bright lights of L.A. but prone to alcohol and drug abuse with a temper to match when in Sin City, a temper that proved disastrous when he tried to punch out David Geffen following Geffen’s displeasure with the No Other album. A more intimate picture of Clark is painted by interviews with family (Mendocino buddies, his brother, sister, sons and widow, Carlie) which offer us a glimpse of the man behind the rock star and a sense of the personal hurt they suffered as Clark indulged in his demons.

Above all there’s the music and the generous running time allows space for fuller discussions of his groundbreaking efforts. The first post Byrds album with the Gosdin Brothers, the pioneering country rock of the Dillard and Clark albums, The Byrds reunion, the pieced together and excellent Roadmaster, the template for the singer/songwriter era that was the “White Light” album and the pinnacle, the exotic and almost triumphant No Other are all detailed along with his last major label release, Two Sides to Every Story, released on Robert Stigwood’s label RSO (with Clark of course eventually insulting Stigwood) which featured a bearded avuncular hippie Clark on the cover just as punk was taking off. Olson, John York and Pat Robinson take us into Clark’s latter years although there’s little or no mention of their recorded output which Clarkophiles will argue was as good as the earlier work. The DVD also includes over an hour of special features with extended interviews, two complete performances and a directors’ commentary. We can’t comment on these at present as the review copy was of the film alone, one reason why Santa will be bringing a fully fledged Byrd related package come the day.
Gene Clark fans have been salivating ever since this film was mentioned however even if you have never heard Clark before it’s an important document in the development of Americana type music and best of all you will be amazed by the quality of his music. His voice, his writing haunts and will continue to do so.

Buy it here

Dave Van Ronk. Down In Washington Square. Smithsonian Folkways.

Dave Van Ronk is perhaps a man more mentioned than listened to these days as the Greenwich Village folkies who preceded Dylan slowly fade into history. However Van Ronk’s profile has probably never been higher than in the past few months following the release of the Coen Brothers latest movie, Inside Llewyn Davis which is very loosely based on Van Ronk’s early career. Tying in with the film release Smithsonian Folkways have collaborated with Van Ronk’s widow, Andrea Vuocolo to produce this very handsome triple disc selection of his Folkway recordings commencing in 1958 until 1963 along with a brace of live recordings (some from the Harry Smith Anthology of American Folk Music reissue launch in 1997) ending with five studio recordings made in 2001 shortly before his death. Altogether there are 16 previously unreleased songs on the set.
A strapping figure of a man Van Ronk became a mentor to several notable figures on the folk scene (Dylan, Ochs, Paxton) and was a faithful proponent of old blues songs, folk ballads and ragtime tunes. The majority of the songs here are staples of the old American songbook with version of John Henry, Willie The Weeper, Please See That My Grave is Kept Clean, Hesitation Blues and Stackalee all present and correct. He might have been too authentic for the general Peter Paul and Mary audience back in the sixties but these days his rough hewn voice and singular guitar style would earn him a place alongside the likes of Charlie Parr and Otis Gibbs no problem. As it is the two discs of mainly vintage recordings here are as fine a primer to American folk, blues, shanties and spirituals as one could wish for with his rendition of Ya-Ya-Yas a particular delight. Included of course is Van Ronks’ rendition of House Of The Rising Sun which caused some friction with Dylan and eventually the Animals as to who first came up with this arrangement. Van Ronk’s version is unique however with his voice pushed up some octaves and almost sounding like Nina Simone.
Disc three continues with early recordings for the first five songs including a fine version of Hoochie Coochie Man and previously unreleased live recordings ending up with God Bless The Child which Van Ronk delivers with style, almost scatting at times. Thereafter we come up to the eighties and beyond with some Van Ronk penned tunes that stick to old themes although they’re updated for the times with Losers referencing John Wayne and cats with guitars. By now Van Ronk sounds gruffer (and somewhat similar to Shel Silverstein) but these live recordings show that he was a masterful performer with drama and pathos aplenty alongside being (yet again) a mentor for a later generation of performers. His final recordings portray him in a frailer manner, the voice, still dramatic but aging but again he retains the fire and belief he had back in 1958. Of the five songs four are covers of fairly old songs but a small treasure is unveiled with his arrangement of Dylan’s Buckets Of Rain. Fragile and venerable Van Ronk does sound in his twilight year but it’s a beautiful version of a wonderful song.
A handy compendium of Van Ronk then although it lacks his middle period where he tackled the likes of Brecht and recorded in a folk rock style. With informative liner notes on all of the selections and with the previously unreleased recordings it’s well worth seeking out as is Van Ronk’s own memoir of the period, The Mayor of MacDougal Street.

Smithsonian Folkways website