Jeffrey Foucault Interview

Jeffrey Foucault has built up a solid reputation over the course of four solo albums with Uncut magazine describing his songs as “beat-up troubadour folk, whittled to dolorous perfection.” Along with his solo work he’s been involved in several collaborative efforts including Redbird (with his wife, Kris Delmhorst, and Peter Mulvey), Cold Satellite with Foucault setting poet Lisa Olstein’s lyrics to raucous rock music and an album of murder ballads with Mark Erelli. A firm live favourite he commences a UK tour this week in anticipation of his latest release, Salt As Wolves. Commencing in Perth on Thursday 29th January he then plays Glasgow’s Celtic Connections on Friday before heading south for several dates ending in London on February 8th. Before heading on his way he was kind enough to speak with Blabber’n’Smoke.

You’ve got a new album, Salt as Wolves in the pipeline and you’re coming to the UK for an eleven date tour later in January and February with Billy Conway accompanying you on “suitcase drums.” What can we expect to hear and see at these shows?

Billy plays a suitcase kit and I play electric and acoustic guitars. I handle the singing and talking, though occasionally he says something under his breath, or moans in the middle of a song. We’ll cover all the territory between country and blues and the music that came from those forms.

From the three songs I’ve heard Salt As Wolves has a blues feel, quite gritty with plenty of electric guitar. I read in an interview you did with Americana UK a few years back that you were listening to Rainer Ptacek quite a bit. Was this an influence on the album?

Rainer has been a deep and ongoing influence on me, though I came late to his work. It’s his approach and the feeling of complete openness and intention in his playing that I can’t shake. My song ‘Rico’, which is nominally about the bass player on my Ghost Repeater album, is also about Rainer, and all the real ones who die with nothing half of the time.

You and your rhythm section (Billy Conway and Jeremy Moses Curtis) teamed up with Bo Ramsey for the album. Was this the first time you’ve played with Bo since Ghost Repeater and what was it like playing with a basic four piece band? Was there a temptation to go all “Crazy Horse?”

I got the Crazy Horse out of my system on the Cold Satellite records, and anyway that’s not at all what Bo does. Bo is an economical player, and the older he gets the less he plays. There’s a lesson there. He creates a lot of negative space and the interplay between the players on this record was the whole point of the ensemble. It’s a blues record – lean, dark, and tough.

I’ve been wondering about the title, Salt As Wolves. It seems to be a quotation from Othello referring to animals in heat. Care to elucidate on this?

The next line, ‘hot as monkeys’ is a reference to animals in heat. ‘Salt As wolves’ is reference to boldness taken out of context for the music of the phrase, for a record that I wanted only to be bold and loose in the making. I came across it in a compendium of literary references to wolves in Barry Lopez’s fine book, Of Wolves and Men.

You seem to have been busy in the producers chair with albums from Hayward Williams, John Statz and Caitlin Canty under your belt. Is this something you plan to pursue and if so are there any other folk you’d like to produce?

I’m sure I’ll produce a record now and then, when I hear something that moves me or that I can contribute to. It’s a hard job and if you would do it well you can’t do it for the money. I’d like to produce a record for my wife Kris Delmhorst, but I don’t think she’ll let me.

What’s the situation regarding Cold Satellite? Cavalcade was a great rambunctious mess of Faces’ like rock and blues. Do you and Lisa Olstein have any plans for a further collaboration?

We don’t. I love that band and I love those records, and I was pleased to collaborate and expand my sonic footprint that way. We may resurrect the band to get out and tour again sometime, if someone has about 5k they don’t know what to do with, but I’m more interested in writing and recording my own songs for now. I have so many kinds of records I want to make and there’s never enough time.

Along with Cold Satellite you regularly appear as part of Redbird with your wife, Kris Delmhorst and Peter Mulvey and tour with a variety of folk. Do you ever take time out or are you always thinking about the next project or tour?

I only tour about 1/3 of the year, and while the rest of time I have some work to get done, I spend time fishing and reading and doing chores, just trying to live as normal and human a life as is possible in this country and century.

Finally you’ve mentioned on your website that you’ve crammed for the UK tour by reading all twenty of Patrick O’Brian’s Aubrey/Maturin novels in order to be primed to discuss the British Navy’s role in the Napoleonic wars. Is this something that often comes up in conversation in the UK or are you just taking the mickey?

Well, I am taking the mickey, as you say, though I did just re-read all those O’Brian novels in sequence. Historical fiction doesn’t get much better. But I doubt the topic will come up.

SALT AS WOLVES, Foucault’s fifth collection of original songs featuring his longtime rhythm section Billy Conway (Morphine) on drums and Jeremy Moses Curtis (Booker T) on bass and legendary electric guitar player Bo Ramsey (Lucinda Williams, Greg Brown), will be released later in the year.

Tour dates

01.29.15,Perth Inchyra Arts Club

01.30.15 Glasgow Tron Theatre Celtic Connections Festival

01.31.15 Bedford The Ent Shed

02.01.15 Nottingham The Maze

02.02.15 Cropredy The Brasenose Arms

02.03.15 Sheffield Greystones

02.04.15 Bristol The King’s Arms

02.05.15 Topsham The Bridge

02.06.15 Torquay Crown and Sceptre

02.07.15 Lewes Union Music @ Con Club

02.08.15 London The Green Note

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RICO from Jeffrey Foucault on Vimeo.

Bob Collum & The welfare Mothers. Little Rock. Harbour Song Records

If you’re in Basildon and happen across a chap who looks like an accountant carrying a guitar case then our advice is to follow him and see where he’s playing. Odds are that this suited and bespectacled character is Bob Collum, an Oklahoman who for several years has lived in Essex. Long enough it seems for the sound of South London and the Thames Delta to percolate into his fibre and in particular that mix of country, rock, blues and R’n’B that informed the likes of The Kursaal Flyers, Eddie and The Hotrods, Roogalator and eventually flowered in the mature work of Elvis Costello and Nick Lowe.

Like Roogalator’s Danny Adler Collum has the advantage of actually being an American and one supposes this gives him a bit of a head start when it comes to conjuring up visions of the country in song. In fact Collum states that the album is in some ways a look back at what he remembers of America, an angle that is uppermost in some of the songs. Of these Johnny Held Them Down is the most obvious as Collum goes into Costello and the Attractions angry mode to stamp on the Confederate flag while Locust Grove abandons any attempts to sound Essex bound as Collum delivers an excellent, stark and haunting ballad that recounts a murder that occurred in Tulsa in 1977. Elsewhere there’s a fine acapella introduction to Seven Kinds Of Sorrow before the song swings into country rock territory as practiced by the likes of Poco back in the days, Poco being an apt comparison as the fabulous pedal steel work by Allan Kelly is up there with Rusty Young. Kelly is key to the album’s overall sound with his fat and sweet playing while Marianne Hyatt (another US ex pat) is a fine vocal foil to Collum throughout. It’s a pity that her showcase, Superdome, is slightly overwrought as opposed to the loose freewheelin’ style enjoyed by the rest of the songs. Her duet with Collum on the wonderfully dippy honky tonk duet Good Thing We’re In Love more than makes up for this as her sassy ripostes in the chorus bear comparison with Tammy and Dolly and the more recent efforts of Lou Dalgleish of My Darling Clementine. Like My Darling Clementine’s tales of marital disharmony it’s excellently delivered with a deep twangy solo from Martin Belmont who recently performed a similar role on Hank Wangford’s dissection of country waltzes.

Elsewhere the chunky rhythm section of Paul Quarry and Gareth Davis along with Collum’s gutsy guitar are joined by Peter Holsapple on organ for the sweeping title song while Wasted Wonderland is a fine example of what Danny Adler called “gusha gusha” music, laden with hooks and a fine sinewy backbone as Kelly’s pedal steel punctuates the song throughout, a sound that is captured throughout making this a very fine offering indeed.

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Starry Eyed And Laughing. Forever Young. Aurora.

It seems to be general wisdom that in 1974 rock was heading for the doldrums, caught in a downward spiral that was only ended when punk exploded in 1976. Some folk will have that all that was available was pompous prog rock or the ragged tail end of glam and that music listeners were a sorry lot of loon panted hippies wishing the sixties had never ended. Mick Farren’s infamous diatribe in the NME in ’76, The Titanic Sails At Dawn catches the mood of the time. I remember those years before punk as exciting times, albums I bought in ’74 included Grievous Angel, It’s Too Late To Stop Now, On The Beach, Pretzel Logic, Natty Dread, No Other and Veedon Fleece. All have stood the test of time. I’d read about most of the music I bought back then via Zigzag magazine and it was thanks to them that I heard about an English band who sounded like The Byrds and who were named after a line in a Dylan song. For someone grabbed by then by country rock (another album I bought that year was the superb Burritos compilation, Close Up The Honky Tonks) Starry Eyed And Laughing seemed like a no brainer and there was even an opportunity to see them live one night at the Queen Margaret Union in Glasgow. Their debut album was a stormer, seesawing between Byrds jangle and CSN&Y harmonies and seeing them live and up close (as opposed to Mr Young at the Apollo) was sheer heaven, one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. Unfortunately after a second album, Thought Talk in 1975, the band disappeared, consigned to the dustbin of history although I’ve continually listened to them particularly their debut which still thrills.

Forever Young, a collection of studio and radio sessions (14 of the 18 previously unreleased) is something of a treasure trove for anyone who has happy memories of Starry Eyed And Laughing. It also serves as a fascinating nugget for anyone interested in the evolution of country rock in the UK, a form that did go into hiding for a while but eventually re emerged with folk such as Elvis Costello, Robyn Hitchcock and Nick Lowe admitting to a fondness for some twang and jangling guitars. It captures early attempts by producer Dan Loggins to have the band perform covers of songs by Roger McGuinn, Steve Stills and Mike Nesmith and others, a plan that was nixed when the band demanded their album would be all their own work. In addition there are previously unheard originals along with radio sessions (sadly some of these only came to light following the death of their first manager).

The cover versions are an intriguing lot. There’s a Byrds’ type cover of Dylan’s Forever Young, a new song back then but delivered as if it were a 1965 follow up to Mr. Tambourine Man. The chiming guitars and McGuinn like vocals are spot on and a delight to listen to. McGuinn’s own I’m So Restless (from his solo debut) is more cosmic country than the original which had a folk base, here it sounds like The Byrds circa the Dr. Byrds and Mr Hyde album with a wee bit of cosmic rocking going on, similarly Steve Stills’ 4+20 has a psychedelic sheen to it. Listening to their version of Mike Nesmith’s Propinquity has the ability to transport the listener into an alternative reality where McGuinn and gang take over the Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s mantle of champions of Papa Nez as the twelve string corkscrews thorough this magnificent song.

If the cover versions were all that’s here then it might be safe to relegate the album into the curio cabinet. However the band’s own songs, while undoubtedly indebted to The Byrds sound and in particular the 12 string eclectic guitar jangle, stand proud after all these years and one can see the time line from them to the likes of The Long Ryders, carrying a banner for sure but no mere copyists. With three writers on board (Tony Poole, Ross McGeeney and Iain Whitmore) they offered up some treasures of their own. Miles Away is a yearning dreamlike swoon, more Gene Clark than McGuinn here. Giving You The Blues visits another Byrd’s territory, this time David Crosby with its hypnotic scales and time changes, superbly sung it’s spine tingling. Jet Plane Rider has obvious links to Eight Miles High but it’s an exhilarating listen in its own right; it’s almost spooky mind you at how well the band were able to channel their influences. Their blossoming into their own right is portrayed on the barnstorming (Just Like) A Weepy Movie, the keening ballad So Tired, adorned by marvellous harmonies and well able to pass muster with contemporary songs by the likes of Poco and even the Eagles. Finally, the alternative version of In The Madness, a song on their first album, shows that by then they had transcended their influences and were able to mark their territory with a song that soared high on vinyl way back then.

On a personal level it’s been a joy to listen to this album. If you’re not familiar with the band but enjoy The Byrds, McGuinn, Crosby, Poco or early seventies country rock in general then you really should check it out.

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Annie Keating. Make Believing. Proper Records

Over the course of five albums Annie Keating has crept up on the inside to come level with peers such as Patty Griffin, Gretchen Peters and Suzy Boguss and Make Believing is perhaps her most accomplished album to date. At first listening it’s more upbeat than its predecessors with a sunny disposition contained in many of the songs thanks to the well tempered playing, in particular the wonderful harmonica playing of Trina Hamlin which summons up memories of sun dappled days listening to country rock such as The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. Keating continues to sing wonderfully, her voice occasionally a wounded flutter (Blabber’n’Smoke even likened her to Melanie here) but for the most part she’s a seemingly effortless, almost sultry delight.

Recorded live for the most part over one weekend there’s a cohesiveness to the playing, a fine organic rooting through country and even soul on the organ drenched Still Broken. The opening song, Coney Island sets the scene with harmonica, rippling guitars and mandolin evoking carefree times as Keating conjures up the sense of dizziness experienced by young lovers on a day out in funland, a perfect aural equivalent to the faded Kodachrome snapshot of the big wheel that adorns the album cover. Sunny Dirt Road waltzes in with a country fiddle flourish and again Keating seems to be reminiscing about young love, this time in a honeysuckled south, but from here on in this youthful sense of optimism is lost as Keating moves into a more introspective mode more akin to her earlier albums. While Foxes, Know How To Fall and One Good Morning are all delivered with a skip in the step the lyrics are darker with the latter a forlorn yearning for one day with no bad news. Sink Or Swim is a gutsy riposte to bad news with a damned if we do, damned if we don’t attitude and a breezy delivery while Just Up Ahead is a sublime swoon of a song laden with plaintive guitar as Keating hunkers down and decries the futility of optimism. The arc of youthful joy to adult acceptance is completed in the Peter Pan like Lost Girls, a fantasy attempt to recapture lost innocence and again a wonderful performance with harmonica huffing away over a tremendous glistening sheen of guitar. Towards the end there’s the aforementioned gospel tones of Still Broken which is almost a confessional, an admission of failure as Keating sings “they say that time heals all but I’m still broken today, my guitar’s in the corner, I don’t want to play, my throat is so dry, I can’t seem to sing anyway.” Reminiscent of Satisfied Mind with organ swirls and a slow building climax and sounding as if were recorded in Muscle Shoals Still Broken is a minor masterpiece.

Whether this is a concept album that goes around like the wheel on the cover we don’t know but it’s certainly a powerful jolt of an album that should assure Ms. Keating’s ascendancy to the top ranks of Americana singer songwriters.

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Jo Bartlett. 9 x 7. Strike Back Records

Jo Bartlett was a co founder of The Green Man Festival (held in Wales) back in 2003 and with partner Danny Hagan has released four albums as It’s Jo and Danny along with fronting a “psychedelic” instrumental band, The Yellow Moon Band. 9 x7 is her second solo album, deriving its title from the nine songs performed by seven musicians contained therein. With her past music described as “folktronica” in the press release it was somewhat disappointing to hear the opening song here, Dying Kiss, washed as it is under swathes of electronic keyboards with programmed percussion pinging and popping as if the eighties never went away. A pity, as the song and Bartlett’s voice are actually quite fine. Fortunately over the course of the album Bartlett relegates the synth like noises to the background allowing her songs some room to breathe although they never quite go away.

Measure Of the Storm has some proper strings and rippling guitars to guide it as Bartlett sets out on a folk rock voyage which has some of the urgency and dynamics of seventies folk rock about it. She repeats this on the breathless Rising To The Bait which has some rich guitar undercurrents churning under the lyrics. There’s a return to the rubber band percussion pops and synth strikes on Driven Away and again there’s a sense that unadorned this would pass muster, a feeling reinforced by the following ballad, Highway Found, which is delivered almost as if Sandy Denny were singing it and Jerry Donahue playing the guitar solo. A triumph then for this song and Bartlett follows it up with the superb instrumental Olympic which is an acrobatic tumult of strings and guitars that would not be out of place on an old Pentangle album. What Do You Say To That is a bold experiment with Bartlett’s voice echoed over gnarly guitar and insistent percussion that has its roots in John Martyn’s echoplex ruminations but it just doesn’t take flight. Advent is more successful as Bartlett revisits early Fairport territory when the Fairport’s were trying to be the UK equivalent of Jefferson Airplane or The Byrds. There’s a shimmer to the guitars, some sproinks and oinks from the electronic gizmos and a great throbbing bass line. To cap it all the album ends with the airy and billowing Suitable Drama which again bears comparison to the late Denny. Overall 9 x 7 is indicative of a fine singer and songwriter who has to decide which side of the fence she is on.

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Gretchen Peters. Blackbirds. Proper Records

It’s surprising that Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t featured Gretchen Peters before now. Recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame Peters has steadily built up her reputation as a writer for other singers and a solid performer in her own right. A frequent visitor to these shores Ms. Peters returns in spring and on the strength of Blackbirds she’s well worth seeing. The album is billed in the promotional literature as being about loss and ageing following a bleak period two years ago when she attended three memorial services in short order. However Blackbirds isn’t a morbid listen, instead it’s a defiant and at times uplifting experience. This is partly down to the music here as Peters and her players (who include Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimborough, Kim Richey, Suzy Boguss and Jerry Douglas) offer some sterling country rock romps with When All You Got Is A Hammer, a song about a war veteran’s fragile state, ripping away with electric guitar and Dobro zipping about over a mandolin driven rhythm. Black Ribbons has a folkier feel with accordion added to the mandolin although there’s a bubbling undercurrent of churning guitars which add a sense of danger. This sense of danger is apparent from the opening title song which has a chunky guitar bite that recalls Neil Young’s Harvest era as Peters unfolds a grim murderous tale, one she repeats at the close of the album (on an uncredited extra track) however on this occasion it’s much starker with an acoustic accompaniment that reflects the back cover of the album which is like an alt country version of Hitchcock’s Birds.

Peters says that when writing this album she spent time listening to 70’s singer songwriters and this is apparent on the Joni Mitchell influenced Pretty Things which opens like an outtake from Ladies Of The Canyon with Peters singing “I knew a girl who said that beauty kills, dulled the pain with wine and pills, took that slow ride down the hill to nowhere.” A female chorus and reverential keyboards drape the song but the Mitchell influence remains strong throughout and this is repeated on Everything Falls Away although here the template is Blue. Again Peters embroiders what might have been a stark offering from Mitchell with swathes of chords and strings to come up with her own triumphant song. It would be unfair to say that Peters is simply channelling Mitchell and her contemporaries and this is made apparent on the magnificent The House On Auburn Street, a song that captures in words a perfect picture of a past event that left a mark. Peters sings evocatively while the musicians weave a delicate sound tapestry with brushed drums and rippling strings that recalls the groundbreaking work of Fairport Convention on A Sailor’s Life.
In a simpler vein there’s a fine duet with Jimmy LaFave on the yearning When You Coming Home while the stark piano and strings of Jubilee is akin to the best of Jackson Browne in its mesmerising simplicity and awe. The closing song, The Cure For The Pain is another simple unadorned song, perfectly executed and the most sombre note here as Peters defiantly cocks a snoot at whatever life throws at us.

Ms. Peters is bringing a band over for the first time in the UK. Tour dates here

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Roddy Hart on The Roaming Roots Revue at Celtic Connections

Celtic Connections is a beacon of light in the dark days of January in what is generally a cold and damp Glasgow. The festival started in 1994 in an attempt to fill scheduling gaps in the city’s Royal Concert Hall. Since then it has grown to the point that this year there will be 2,100 artists (at 300 events in 20 venues) with major artists from Folk and World music appearing. There’s always been a strong Americana presence at Celtic Connections over the years and this year is no exception with Jeff Tweedy, Calexico and Lambchop appearing along with a host of others. One of the delights of Celtic Connections is the connection element as it draws together numerous roots traditions and styles, matching and pairing unlikely combinations for some astonishing “mash ups” while musicians will tell you that the late night Festival Club and the local hotels are fertile breeding grounds for jams that can see Scots’ fiddlers and African tin whistlers cosying up to Zydeco musicians or Appalachian foot stompers.

Roaming Roots is a relatively new addition to the Festival growing out of a 70th birthday tribute to Bob Dylan four years ago. Now firmly established as a highlight it’s a musical revue hosted by Scots musician Roddy Hart and his band The Lonesome Fire as a variety of guests join them in a celebration of music with each year having a different theme. Last year’s tribute to the music of Laurel Canyon was a blast and with that in mind Blabber’n’Smoke contacted Roddy and asked him about the concept and what to expect this year.

As far as I can see, the prototype for The Roaming Roots Revue was the 2011 70th birthday celebration for Bob Dylan while 2012 saw a tribute to the late Gerry Rafferty. The format has been yourself and The Lonesome Fire acting as the house band for various artists to interpret the songs. Roaming Roots itself came about in 2012 with a concert in memory of Levon Helm. How did the Dylan venture come about in the first place and whose idea was it to continue with the format?

Musically, I was at a real crossroads back in 2010. I had released three solo records in almost as many years, but I was finding it hard to get noticed as an independent artist and was becoming a little despondent. The band as it is now (The Lonesome Fire) was in its early stages of forming, and one thing I had absolute confidence in was just how musically talented these players were. In a way, I wanted to show them off! I’m a lifelong Dylan fan, and had noticed that he was approaching his 70th Birthday in 2011, but that no one was mooting any sort of celebration for it. That felt wrong to me. A few years earlier I had been involved in a Leonard Cohen tribute in Canada, which used a house band to anchor the show and back the diverse array of artists taking part. That format struck me as perfect because logistically these shows can be a nightmare – the artists are almost certain to be arriving only a day or two before the show and so rehearsal time is limited. It’s also really expensive to fly a whole band in. So it struck me as a good thing to do for the band: we could invite artists over as a solo act or a duo and – with proper organisation and rehearsal – learn up the Dylan songs they felt like tackling. I pitched that show to Donald Shaw at Celtic Connections and he told me that if I could get some artists interested in doing it then we had a show. I got lucky straight away: I had opened for Rosanne Cash the previous year and so chanced my arm by sending her an email to ask if she was interested. She said yes immediately and the whole thing just took off. Other artists came on board, and the event sold out really quickly: we were really fortunate that people just connected with the idea straight away.
The Rafferty night in 2012 was different in that it was organised by Gerry’s friend Rab Noakes – who had been a guest, and one of the highlights, at our Dylan show – and he kindly asked us back as house band. That proved a really useful show in the end, because other musicians were added to the mix and it was a really complicated set to navigate both musically and logistically. I learned a lot from both of those shows.
As a result, I talked with the band and we decided that we wanted to create a new show that would be about more than just paying tribute to music of the past. Part of the show would still have artists covering songs that you might not get to see or hear elsewhere, but we felt particularly strongly that their own songs should be in there too – it felt a bit of a shame not to celebrate the incredible music that so many of them make. We also thought there should be an emphasis on making the show about lesser known younger emerging artists who might not get the opportunity to play these kind of concerts every day.

Last year was a celebration of the spirit of Laurel Canyon. Was this an attempt to widen the net somewhat as opposed to focussing on one artist and why was Laurel Canyon chosen?

Definitely. We adored doing the Dylan concert and, as a fan, I loved pulling it all together and coming up with a set list. But there are certain limitations to using the songs of only one artist for a whole show: there’s only one Bob Dylan, and only a handful of artists who can match that songbook. Our first Roaming Roots was the exception because Levon Helm had recently passed away, and that felt like such an important thing to pay tribute to. His daughter Amy wanted to be there for it, and so that pretty much set the tone for our inaugural show. Because it was a new type of gig no one really knew it was going on – we didn’t even sell out the downstairs part of the Concert Hall – but it was one of the most special shows we’ve ever played as band. Beth Orton, Low Anthem, LAU and many others playing and singing their own music and doffing their cap to Levon’s music with The Band really provided the blueprint for the event and proved to me that the odd combination of original music and something from a themed songbook could work together. That was something I worried wouldn’t compute with audiences, but the opposite was true: they completely got the link between the music of the past and the music of the future, and just how important it is to celebrate both.
We chose Laurel Canyon to try and widen the net, and because we were conscious that we’d played two tribute shows in two years that had marked the death of a musician. That can be a difficult and emotionally charged thing to be a part of, and so it felt right to settle on a songbook that wasn’t about one artist. Laurel Canyon was so emblematic of that feeling of unique collaboration and togetherness that Roaming Roots is trying to create that it seemed perfect and we all had our own favourite artists from that era so I knew we wouldn’t struggle for songs. Happily, the show connected with the audience too.

Presumably, the preparation for the shows is complicated with upwards of a dozen other acts involved. Who’s involved in the planning and do you wait to see who’s playing the festival and then start to plan or do you have a wish list of folk you want to invite? I know that Dawes came over specifically for four songs at last year’s show.

It’s very complicated! Essentially, I “curate” the show. So, I’ll do the initial ground work: deciding on artists who I think might work for the concert, enquiring about their availability, talking with the confirmed acts about song choices, pulling together a set list that I think has a good dynamic and would work on the night. There’s always a wish list of artists – ranging from the sublime to the ridiculous – and Donald Shaw and the Celtic Connections team are always totally brilliant at trying to make that list happen (within reason). Even if the artists are interested in the theme, there can be a million reasons actually confirming them might be complicated – scheduling, money, or management/agent difficulties understanding what the format of the show actually is, for example – but quite often it’s solved by simply speaking to them directly. Once we have our artists confirmed it then moves to the band rehearsal stage. Although I’m involved in the hosting and all the admin for the event, it’s no understatement to say that when it comes down to it it’s all about the boys in the band: I couldn’t do it without their innate skill and ability to tackle such a diverse and constantly changing set of songs.

How much opportunity do you have to rehearse the show? I guess some folk are just off the ‘plane or have their own gig to worry about.

We score up music charts together as a band and after I get word from the artists as to the songs they’re happy to perform and the keys they’ll be singing them in, then we have a few tentative rehearsals in December before work begins in earnest in January. Christmas is always a difficult time to get people together, so it’s pretty much a write-off. I try to get the Scottish artists on the bill in for rehearsals in good time in January, because it’s always completely mental when the overseas artists arrive. If we’re lucky we get them all for an hour the day before the show, and then for a brief sound check on the day (maybe 20 minutes) and then it’sshowtime! It’s stressful and tiring, but completely worth it in the end.
Any particularly scary moments when it looked as something might not happen as planned?
We’ve had plenty of near-misses with artists we really wanted to take part but couldn’t quite confirm in the end for whatever reason. That’s always frustrating, because you can spend a lot of time chasing ghosts, but you can’t get too hung up on it. We’ll get them for a show in the end I hope! Ben Knox Miller from the Low Anthem was one of the highlights of our first Roaming Roots, but he almost didn’t make it due to a mix up with the offer. Beth Orton told us the wrong key for a couple of songs she was due to perform and we only had an hour to relearn them in the new key (which has happened quite a few times!). But for all the stress and worry, it always seems to come together on the night, and it adds a certain excitement to the whole thing. Last year was a voyage into the unknown with Dawes simply because we’ve never had another full band on the show – logistically it’s pretty difficult. But I really wanted them there to represent what’s happening in Laurel Canyon in a modern context, and so we went for it with a two-band set up on stage: turning round to see two drummers (Dawes’ Griffin and The Lonesome Fire’s Scott) playing on the finale alongside nearly 30 other musicians was pretty special made up for the pre-show headache.

Celtic Connections has always been a very broad church and from the start has embraced artists from all over the world. The Revue has featured local artists such as Edi Reader, Rab Noakes, James Grant, Trash Can Sinatras, Siobhan Wilson, Kris Drever and Lau along with US acts including Roseanne Cash, Jerry Douglas, Thea Gilmore, Cory Chisel and Dawes. As curator do you have in mind a particular balance, thoughts of interesting pairings? What input do the artists have in the song selection and who they will be playing with?

The bottom line is I don’t want the artists to have to sing anything they’re not comfortable with, so there is always an open dialogue with them right from the start. But I also have to think about the dynamic of the night and have a responsibility to the audience to create a show that has moments of both discovery and familiarity. They need to be able to respond to the show as a whole. When we decided on Laurel Canyon as a theme in 2014 that meant we could go for the obscure stuff like Judee Sill, but I also knew that we had to tackle some of the big songs like the Eagles’ Hotel California. I had to convince Cory Chisel that it was a good idea, because he was the only one with the range to sing it, and I’m glad he agreed –ubiquitous as that song may be, he nailed it and it was a complete thrill to play on the night. We all had huge grins on our faces for that one. This year we have a couple of collaborations taking place, but because of the theme most of the artists are already established acts

This year’s theme is harmony, as in singing and we’re promised selections from the Everlys, Simon & Garfunkel, The Beach Boys, The Beatles, Big Star and Teenage Fanclub. Is there any particular reason this theme was chosen, does it guide you to ask certain acts such as The Lost Brothers to participate?

There were a few ideas in the pot (some that we may return to in future if we do it again!), but after the death of Phil Everly this year we talked a lot about the magic of close harmony singing and just how special it can be. It’s a dark art. I thought it would be interesting to investigate the idea of a kind of history of close harmony. So, instead of being about a specific time and place, this would be more about a style of music. It excites me that as well as hearing some of the artists sing classic songs from Simon and Garfunkel or The Beatles, you may also get to hear them taking on something more recent like Teenage Fanclub. I think it’s an interesting road to go down, but we’re also well aware that it’s a challenge and so it definitely dictated the type of artist we approached to be involved. I was mindful of making sure we booked artists already well versed in the art of singing harmony together, because things can go spectacularly wrong if you team up artists that look good on paper but don’t work so well when they finally meet to rehearse the day before the show.
So far the line up includes Grant-Lee Phillips, Howe Gelb, Rachel Sermanni, Colin MacLeod, The Pierces, The Lost Brothers, Ruth Moody. Dawn Landes and Tiny Ruins. It’s a tantalising prospect. Will there be more names to come and, without spoiling any surprises for those attending, is there anything in particular that you are looking forward to on the night?
I’m really pleased with the line-up so far, and we’ve just confirmed The Rails who are a great male/female harmony group from England fresh from being named as MOJO’s folk album of the year. There may be a few more names to come, but it’s still a little uncertain and dependent on a few different factors. We certainly have some of my favourite artists of recent years with us, so it’s shaping up to be an exciting show. I’m currently working my way through the set list to make sure the balance is right – although it’s always liable to change right up until the day of the show – but as with any Roaming Roots Revue anything can happen and I’m just looking forward to that post-show beer!

Roaming Roots Revue is at The Glasgow Royal Concert Hall on Sunday 18th January.

Here’s a snapshot of last year’s Roaming Roots Revue