John Murry’s 2012 album The Graceless Age has gathered an impressive pedigree since its initial release here in the UK. With staggered worldwide licensing and with a limited two disc version available it’s appeared in end of year top lists in the UK for two years in a trot. Recorded during Murry’s “lost years” when he was in the grip of an addiction it remains a startling and powerful listen, redemptive despite the harrowing tales it tells. Murry himself appears to have a love/hate relationship with the album with tales of emotionally wracked live renditions alternately confounding or amazing audiences.
Glasgow had a brief glimpse of the live experience last year when Murry and his band played at Celtic Connections. However the venue selection of Kelvingrove Art Gallery proved to be ill conceived as the cavernous galleries swallowed up the sound and regurgitated it with booming echoes making it almost impossible to listen to. Tonight was a different story. The cramped (and packed) basement bar allowed Murry and his accompanist Will Waghorn the intimacy to directly confront the audience with his psychodramas which proved to be emotionally wrenching, for him and the audience, with several of the songs from the album mesmerising. Murry’s voice ached and broke as he relived his traumas while his guitar playing and foot stamping added a sense of urgency to his need to confess. Waghorn on drums added colour with a delicacy that was very impressive and it’s clear that the pair have a bond that’s been forged on the road. While much of the show maintained Murry’s burning intensity he leavened the night with a wry sense of humour and a fine line in self deprecation that at times had the audience in fits of laughter. Playing to the gallery he regaled a tale of a lost passport then announced that he’d rather play some covers and asked the crowd to vote for their favourites from Neil Young, Neil Finn, John Prine or Bruce Springsteen. Arguing over the result, in the end he played a song by each of them. He also paid tribute with covers of songs to Mark Linkhouse of Sparklehorse and Tim Mooney, the late producer of The Graceless Age.
The set opened with a new song, co-written with Chuck Prophet, called Glass Slippers that continues in the vein of songs like Photograph with Murry totally enveloped in the delivery. Another new song, The Stars Are God’s Bullet Holes was a lyrical delight and was propelled by some fine propulsive percussion. The meat of the evening however were the songs at the core of The Graceless Age. Photograph featured some visceral guitar playing while Ballad of The Pajama Kid, stripped of its narcotic fuzz, blazed with Murry’s vocals ragged and powerful. California (introduced as a happy song compared to its predecessors and spelled out as KKKalifornia) built to a powerful climax as did Senor Malverde as Murry delved into his past mistakes and misadventures. Little Colored Balloons, the centre piece of the album and the most naked of his songs ended the show. With Will Waghorn managing percussive rolls while playing a restrained Euphonium Murry poured his all into this cathartic tale of his overdose and resuscitation. In its recorded state it’s an arresting song but live it seems almost as if the mournful horn is a funereal accompaniment to Murry’s death and rebirth as he wrenches the words out riveting the audience. Astonishing and electric in its delivery Murry conspires with the audience in his pain here and it might seem hyperbole to pronounce this as one of the best performances this writer has witnessed but then, you had to be there. Fortunately for us all he’s survived and while able to invite us into his world, his own personal Calvary, hopefully with the new songs he’s able to move on and news that he has an EP in the works will allow us to listen to a great songwriter who has turned his life around.
Glasgow’s premier Americana promoters, The Fallen Angels Club celebrate their tenth anniversary of bringing top class acts to the west of Scotland this year and they kicked off the celebrations with Sturgill Simpson, a star in the ascendant who’s riding high on the back of the UK release of his superb album High Top Mountain. Simpson, from Kentucky but now living in Nashville has been touted by all and sundry as “the next big thing” in country music here and in the States as High Top Mountain pumps a shot of adrenalin into the flat lifeless chest of Nashville music. Whether he makes it big remains to be seen but there’s no doubting that he can rip it up with the best of them and then add a George Jones like mournful ballad straight after.
Tonight it’s just him and his guitar and he’s drawn a sizeable crowd for a wintry Sunday night. Announcing that he’s going to play a bunch of songs he wrote and a bunch that he didn’t he proceeded to deliver several songs from High Top Mountain that, stripped of the country rock trappings, highlight his “hillbilly” leanings while his covers were for the most part a dip into classic country with selections from Lefty Frizzell, Carter Stanley, Willie Nelson, Charlie Moore and Bill Napier along with Steve Fromholz and Jimmy Martin. As Simpson said, he has hundreds of these songs in his head and currently he plucks them out at random. He may choose them at random but he proved to be well versed in their delivery with his voice capturing the slight nasal mountain style that goes hand in hand with Appalachian songs while his guitar playing is fluid, deftly picked and strummed with several of the songs featuring breaks that recalled bluegrass picking. Sad Songs and Waltzes Aren’t Selling This Year, I’d Have To be Crazy, I Never Go Round Mirrors, all plucked at the heartstrings the way they’re supposed to with Sturgill sounding as if he’s lived these songs all of his life.
Achieving an easy rapport with the audience Simpson explained the provenance of several of the covers and had us laughing as he described the “laundry list” conception of his collection of Nashville clichés that constitutes You Can have The Crown. He’d done his homework as well even venturing a joke about the local football rivalries but the highlights of the evening were the songs from High Top Mountain. You Can have The Crown was given its full title (King Turd of Shit Mountain) and the solo delivery allowed for the humour of the lyrics to stand out. However it was the songs that relate to those heartstrings and the sad tales that excelled with Water In A Well, Time After All and in particular the story of a mining community left high and dry in Old King Coal all getting fine deliveries. The Storm, a powerful brooding number on the album, was transformed into a reflective introspective piece while Life Ain’t Fair and The World Is Mean retained its jaundiced punch.
In the midst of this Simpson announced that he has a new album poised for release in a few months (High Top Mountain had a belated UK release) and offered us a peek with Living The Dream, a bittersweet reflection at the end of a career in music which bodes well for his next release. If its half as good as High Top Mountain then it will be well worth getting.
Simpson had some solid support on the night from local picker, Daniel Meade who regaled us with several songs that ranged from talking blues to ragtime to folky songs with a Guy Clark feel. Several songs from his album, As Good As Bad Can Be, Hard To Hear and If It’s Not Your Fault (I Guess It’s Mine) were all well above par. You can listen to the album (and buy it) here.
It was a sad day for Scots music when Perth based Southpaw called it a day a few years back. Their take on classic Americana was of the finest order with their album Buffalo Mansions one of the better UK country rock albums of recent years. So it was welcome news indeed that the nucleus of the band had regrouped under the moniker The New Madrids with a new singer/guitarist Ian Hutchison fronting the solid rhythm section of Calum Keith and Maurice McPherson while Donny McElligott and Owen Nicholson man the guitars with Hutchison and McElligott sharing lead vocal duties. With the new name comes a tougher sound and while at heart they remain a country rock band there’s a sinewy swagger to some of the songs here recalling the peacock strut of the Stones in the early seventies with hints of Free and Little Feat. Indeed on one song, Shake, they import horns and deliver a classic blue eyed soul song that drips with passion as it builds to its climax. McElligott rivals Frankie Miller in the vocal department, the guitar solo is an exemplar of understated Southern cool and the pedal steel swathes all in honeyed regret as the towering horns (by Bruce Michie) burst with a Stax like majesty. Very impressive.
The album opens with the free flowing country ripple of Wrapped Up which has Nicholson’s pedal steel curling throughout like a whippoorwill reminding one of the likes of Buddy Cage or even Jerry Garcia’s fluid work with the New Riders. You strides into syncopated blues rock territory with the band tight as hell, corkscrew guitars snarling across the beat in best Little Feat fashion although Hutchison’s vocals are just a wee bit too frenzied. Hey Christine is a fine twang fuelled ballad with lashings of pedal steel while Shine A Light revisits soul territory with Michie’s horns again employed to great effect as the band channel a Muscle Shoals country soul feel that recalls the likes of Donnie Fritts, sublime.
Big Fun does what it says on the tin. A loose limbed rocker calling out for more cowbell it swings with a youthful swagger as McElligott’s vocals capture the hoarse urgency of early Eagles songs, the harmonies swell on the chorus and the guitars become more turbo charged as the song progresses. Long Is The Way also recalls the seventies highpoints of country rock although here it’s the acoustic variety as guitars are strummed and the vocal harmonies shine. The addition of fiddle (Hannah Fisher) adds to the impression of Laurel Canyon hippies sitting around a campfire waiting for Asylum Records to sign them and again the New Madrids carry this off with aplomb on what currently is the highlight here. Mountain Of Trouble starts off promisingly but veers off into later Eagles boogiedom. Exhausted perhaps they turn in Alaska which is a beautifully restrained vocal duet with Brennen Leigh as the cold hearted protagonist who drives her lover to murder. Acoustic guitar and plaintive fiddle adorn this stark tale which surely will have audiences in rapt attention live.
As the band sign off with the gumbo rock of Need A Friend, another nod to the Little Feat school of slow burn shuffle with Hutchison’s voice showing that the band have two excellent soulful singers, it’s apparent that they’ve moved on from their previous incarnation, taken some vitamins and worked out. The result is a well toned and muscular crew who can burn with the best of them with McElligott and Hutchison well able to offer up songs that are inspired by the likes of the those whose LP covers adorn the album’s liner notes while stamping their own personality on the results.
Sons Of Bill from Charlottesville, Virginia made a bit of a splash back in 2012 with their third release, Sirens. Produced by Cracker’s David Lowery it showed the band growing into their skin as worthy successors to the likes of Son Volt and the Drive By Truckers. In the midst of recording the follow-up, this time produced by Ken Coomer (Uncle Tupelo, Wilco) they’re taking a break to swing through a lengthy European tour which includes several UK dates including two in Scotland where they will be supported by their new Blue Rose label mates, our very own Wynntown Marshals.
Obviously it’s useful to have some new product on hand when you’re sloshing through six countries (Germany, Austria, the Netherlands, Belgium, England, and Scotland!, five if you’re a no voter!) so the Sons and Blue Rose have delivered a seven song E.P. to accompany the tour. Only available via the Blue Rose website or at their gigs The Gears EP offers a sneak preview of three songs from the forthcoming album (to be called Love & Logic) along with acoustic versions of two songs from Sirens and two live cuts.
Of the three new songs Brand New Paradigm finds the band swerving from the sound of Sirens with the vocal harmonies more polished and a mild nod to classic Mercury Rev. It’s a sumptuous confection of sound with chiming guitars and soaring vocals. Road To Canaan is primarily acoustic with finger picked guitar and a female singer duetting with James Wilson. Mallets softly propel the song with occasional percussive flurries adding dramatic effect while atmospheric guitar gimmickry evokes the wintry road from Nebraska, a beautiful song. Bad Dancer however rips it up in fine fashion as the guitars slash and burn and Wilson celebrates the cool kids who hang apart, who don’t dance but know what’s hip as they slouch in corners at parties.
The acoustic version (with steel guitar) of Santa Anna Winds (the opening song from Sirens) strips away the rock trappings and allows the song’s nihilism to ring clear and is much improved for that while Radio Can’t Rewind is another stripped down version of a song from Sirens which in this version is a heart-warming Dobro infused doldrum and again it unveils a greater heart than the previously issued version. As for the live cuts, Turn It Up was the centrepiece of Sirens and here it translates into a fine example of turbo charged country rock with guitars centre stage while the cover of Neil Young’s Unknown Legend adds a bit of fire in the engine room compared to Shakey’s version.
The EP is a great introduction to the band and it might be prudent if you wish to see them (and given the likelihood that Marshalls fans will pack the venues) to book tickets now. Sons of Bill and The Wynntown Marshals appear at Stereo, Glasgow on Sunday 9th March and then the Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on Monday 10th March. The other dates are on their website . If you need any further evidence of the live power of Sons of Bill there’s a free download only live album available here.
A fine addition to the Loose Records roster, Sturgill Simpson’s story so far could almost be the first reel of a Hollywood movie about a country singer. Born in Kentucky, raised in a music loving family and tutored in country classics by his grandfather, young Sturgill grows up wanting to be a musician. It ain’t easy however and he takes work where he can get it spending four years with the Union Pacific Railroad and even suffers a spell in the navy. He ends up in Nashville where he leads a band called Sunday Valley who eventually become Sturgill Simpson and the High Top Mountain Boys. In 2012 he’s quoted as saying “I am attempting to make what I believe to be the purest, most uncompromising Hard Country album anyone has heard in 30 years.” Well, Hollywood isn’t real but the story is and while High Top Mountain might not attain the heights predicted by its creator there’s no doubt that Simpson’s album is a classic reclamation of country music from the big hat brigade delivered with the muscle and grit that fired Waylon Jennings on Lonesome, On’ry & Mean leavened with his Kentucky heritage as he cites Ricky Skaggs and Keith Whitley as influences. The album title proclaims his home territory “High Top Mountain is located near the Kentucky River on Stray Branch in Breathitt County, Kentucky and is home to High Top Cemetery, the final resting place of many past generations of my family.”
Recorded in Nashville and featuring country legends Hargus “Pig” Robbins on piano and steel guitarist Robby Turner, Simpson turns in 12 songs that in turn barrel at you with a truck driving force or tug at the heartstrings. The telecaster/steel/piano interplay is invigorating and hell raising and one wonders just how good this would be in a live setting as sparks fly throughout the album. Simpson’s voice carries just the right weight required while his writing is top notch. Top of the ladder here is The Storm which lopes along like a classic Jennings song, muscular and lithe it stealthily builds to a climatic guitar and pedal steel exchange as the lyrics invoke elemental nature and yoke it to the protagonists’ heartbreak. A mellotron adds a sweeping vista to the song and there are moments when it recalls The Grateful Dead’s jaunts into country.
Simpson can parlay sad songs with some excellence, Old King Coal laments the loss of the mining industry while Water In A Well weeps wonderfully. Hero celebrates the grandfather who guided the young Simpson in his musical education. It’s the type of song that can easily become somewhat maudlin but the passion involved in the vocals and the splendid pedal steel lift the song above platitude. However the highlights here are the no shit tough talking romps and Simpson punches well above his weight with some excellent choices. Life Ain’t Fair and The World Is Mean opens the album with an autobiographical bent as he sings of being coached in writing outlaw songs as steel guitar curls around the meaty beat. Railroad Of Sin hammers along with the steel imitating a bullet train as the band go into overdrive. You Can have The Crown is on the face of it just another pell mell fast paced country rocker but the band are really shit hot here with fireworks erupting from the guitars while Simpson draws a picture of a feckless dreamer who spends his time on the internet waiting for God to throw him a bone. He ends the album with two covers. Poor Rambler races like a greyhound as Simpson yells the lyrics over rushed acoustic strumming before guitar and piano dart in and out with some inspired and ferocious soloing. I’d Have To be Crazy lowers the tempo as Simpson visits that other country outlaw, Willie Nelson. A lovely come down following its frenetic predecessor it allows the band to shine as an organ offers a spiritual pillow as Simpson delves into southern soul.
High Top Mountain might not be the purest, most uncompromising Hard Country album anyone has heard in 30 years or it might. Time will tell. In the meantime it’s sufficient to say that it is country music of the highest calibre, avoiding false patriotism and studio schmaltz and if you dig Waylon or Willie or Cash or Hank then you should investigate this. Simpson is appearing in Glasgow at the Admiral bar on Sunday 23rd February and it may be a unique chance to see him in such an intimate setting.
Oh dear. Eddi Reader is in danger of becoming a national treasure. With appearances on Question Time and the Terry Wogan radio show and her album of Robert Burns’ songs the favoured selection of a good percentage of Scots each January she’s matured into becoming one of the pillars of Scottish music and in the meantime picking up an MBE. Vagabond follows a four year gap since her last album and again it’s recorded in Glasgow with some top class local musicians including John McCusker, Donald Shaw, Phil Cunningham and her partner, John Douglas. As always her long time collaborator Boo Hewerdine is present. There’s no doubt that this is a classy recording, its warm, at times wonderful, some of the playing is heaven sent but at heart it seems confused as Reader attempts to gather her life, her influences, her family together. Perhaps that’s apt as life is confusing and we get hi- jacked by unexpected circumstances, who among us have followed whatever plan we had when we were young? So Reader sings of her grandmother’s fireside tales of old Ireland, her great uncle’s musical heritage, her own youthful busking in Paris and pays tribute to Amy Winehouse and Michael Marra but uses contrasting styles throughout the album with varying degrees of success.
Sadly it’s her own self penned songs that are most problematic as they tend to slide into MOR territory with the primary culprit being the would be festive song Here Come The Bells but her song about her grandmother, Back The Dogs (Dancing Down Rock) suffers from an intrusive string section while Edinah is a schmaltzy affair. Her French adventures are delivered La Variete style, lightweight but accordion heavy.
At the heart of the album however Reader stuns with a selection of songs, traditional and covers, which embrace Scots tradition. Sung in English, Scots and Gaelic and with the musicians cleaving to a more traditional sound Reader’s impeccable voice captivates. Married To The Sea by Declan O’Rourke is given a dreamlike swoon with burbling vocals and an atmospheric background that flows and ebbs with throbbing guitar and melancholic accordion. Listening to this one is reminded of the breakthrough Fairport Convention song, A Sailor’s Life. Macushla (My Darling) is a heartfelt tribute to the late Michael Marra and recalls the early adventures of Richard and Linda Thompson. Buain Na Rainich (Fairy Love Song) was rescued from Reader’s uncle’s collection of musical manuscripts and it sounds wonderful here as Karen Matheson joins in on harmonies while the traditional setting weeps and aches. In Ma Ain Country follows and while Reader relates it to another memory of visiting France it harks back to Scotland and fulfils the tradition of the exile yearning for his homeland. Delivered in a Scots vernacular and with John McCusker’s whistle and Donald Shaw’s harmonium setting the scene this is another fabulous delivery.
So a bit of a mixed bag. Reader sings excellently throughout but the album lacks cohesion with the traditional bag totally outshining her contemporary writings. These might pass muster on daytime radio but it would be a shame if Reader followed that path as she has the opportunity to become a real national treasure by excavating more of the heritage and sprinkling it with her own vocal fairy dust.