Norrie McCulloch’s Old Lovers Junkyard was one of Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite home grown albums of 2014. Its honeyed country stylings coupled with McCulloch’s warm rasp of a voice and his fine song writing all added up to a winner, an album that’s been receiving ongoing radio plays and gathering new followers; certainly anyone we’ve recommended it too has been quite effusive in their praise. Friday was our first opportunity to see McCulloch in action as part of a trio of acts appearing at the Seven Song Club in one of Glasgow’s hidden treasures, The Victorian Bar at The Tron Theatre. All warm and woody it was a perfect setting for his heartfelt songs. An added attraction was that McCulloch was appearing accompanied by Iain Sloan of The Wynntown Marshals playing pedal steel guitar, an instrument he uses not only for the Marshalls’ jangled rock but also as the current dreamweaver for progressive rock band Abel Ganz. An intriguing set up we thought. Old Lovers Junkyard wallows at times in the pedal steel yearnings of Dave McGowan but a two man show, acoustic and pedal steel only remains a rare beast. Willie Vlautin and Richard Buckner have appeared thus in live situations but on record we can only recall the magisterial And The Hits Keep On Coming, Michael Nesmith’s 1972 album recorded with just him and Red Rhodes on board. While there’s a recording of Nesmith and Rhodes playing live live on The Amazing Zigzag Concert box set this set up is not one that you would generally come across. It intrigues in two ways; pedal steel is apparently difficult to master and naked might miss a tight rhythm section to bolster it. However, with its ability to change pitch and harmonics it’s almost unique in its ability to accompany human voice, to echo, support and cosset the singer.
Anyhow, waffle aside, McCulloch and Sloan fitted together like bread and butter. Seven songs, as advertised, wafted around the room, McCulloch assured, warm throated and ebullient, Sloan caressing the songs, creating wafts of billowing buttered sounds and occasionally soloing with a deftness and warmth that demonstrated the emotional capabilities of the instrument that Danny Wilson (of Danny & The champions Of The World) describes as the ironing board of love. Indeed as McCulloch sang Sloan appeared to be almost caressing his instrument, coaxing it into life, a winning combination indeed. As for the songs there was a fine mix of old and new, four from Old Lovers Junkyard and three from McCulloch’s current recording sessions. Old Lovers Junkyard itself was given a desolate and yearning feel with Sloan’s pedal steel weeping along to the forlorn lyrics while Too far Gone had some heart breaking pedal steel glissandos on this bitter sweet tale. Call Me Home was a lesson in frailty, the pedal steel keening away, McCulloch’s voice halting, reminiscent of seventies singer songwriter neurosis, questioning and wondering and adorned with an excellent steel led outro. Still Looking For You , the closing song on Old Lovers Junkyard and the closing song tonight had a warm, laid back country feel to it. Of the new songs New Joke was a hard luck tale written while travelling home from Bridge Of Allan had a harsher edge to the vocals with the pedal steel adding some bite. McCulloch was inspired to write These Mountain Blues on a road trip to see Townes van Zandt’s grave in Texas and the song does indeed inhabit TVZ territory as he sang about an oak tree next to the grave, achingly evocative it offered an opportunity for Iain Sloan to deliver his finest solo playing of the night. The other new song of the night bridged whatever gap there is between Ayrshire and Texas as McCulloch went solo and off mic to sing a song inspired by his grandfather’s toils in the mines, Black Dust. A powerful piece, this was the folkiest moment of the night as he sang, “he didn’t know he was digging his own grave” with guitar and harmonica and gusty vocals in the working class folk tradition.
A short set perhaps but throughout the show the audience appeared mesmerised, the combination of the songs and performance transfixing, McCulloch affable and commanding on stage in between songs. The queue for his album afterwards testament to the quality on show.
A mea culpa here regarding the other acts, both new to Blabber’n’Smoke but Howie Reeve was very impressive as he delivered a set of fairly challenging aural assaults, played on an acoustic bass which he banged, clattered, tweeked and plucked at times with some ferocity, at others a surprising tenderness. With lyrics that recalled the absurdities of Ivor Cutler or the surrealism of Robert Wyatt he was incredibly engaging, a cross between R M Hubbert and Eugene Chadbourne and he deserves some delving into his catalogue. Michael Anguish closed the night with a full band set that portrayed him as a fine performer who strays into Avett Brothers company at times. Loose limbed Americana styled songs flowed from the band with one in particular reminding us of the long lost Granfalloon Bus while there was also an element of 1970’s folk weirdness in the mix on the closing song.