Huddie Leadbetter, better known as Lead Belly is perhaps more remembered than listened to these days. His reputation as a mean man (he served two sentences for manslaughter with the story going that he sang his way out of doing his full time so impressed were the governors with his music) preceded him and was often used as a hook to draw audiences in when he played. “Sweet Singer of the Swamplands Here to Do a Few Tunes Between Homicides” was one headline in the New York press. Since his death in 1949 and especially following the folk blues revival of the sixties his music managed to escape the shadow of the penitentiaries and many of his songs found their way into the popular canon. Dig through any half decent music collection and there are bound to be Lead Belly songs in there, he’s been covered by Lonnie Donegan, Ry Cooder, Tom Jones, Creedence Clearwater Revival, Pete Seeger, Led Zeppelin and Nirvana among others while songs such as Irene Goodnight, Midnight Special, Black Betty and Rock Island Line are pretty much standards.
As is often the case with vintage blues there are numerous Lead Belly albums on CD available and it’s a bit of a hit or miss regarding the quality of some of these. Good news then that Smithsonian Folkway have decided to follow up their definitive Woody Guthrie Centennial box set with this Lead Belly Collection that includes 108 songs (16 previously unreleased) on five discs and a 140-page book. It’s a comprehensive document that includes rare live radio recordings with Lead Belly an engaging raconteur as he ranges from folk to blues to Tin Pan Alley songs. Remastered for the collection the sound is for the most part excellent and while many of the songs will be familiar there’s a wealth of material that will be unknown to any but the most rabid collector. The accompanying book is a treasure trove in itself with essays that cover his life and his legacy. The full story of his release from prison, his troubled relationship with Alan Lomax and his friendship with Woody Guthrie are all covered and there are extensive notes for all of the songs.
Hop on over to the Smithsonian Folkway’s website where you can watch a watch a video of the actual contents.
Back in October 2001 acclaimed Irish singer/songwriter Paul Brady managed the amazing feat of selling out a full month of shows in the one venue, Dublin’s Vicar Street. Designed to showcase his career and back catalogue Brady opened up his “little telephone book” and invited some of his showbiz pals to join him with the aim to have at least one guest per night, unbilled. A mark of his standing in the music community the guests included Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Bonnie Raitt, Gavin Friday, Sinead O’Connor and a host of others.
14 years later and we have a selection of songs recorded during this auspicious venture with promises of further volumes to come. Volume 1 comprises of 13 songs recorded on various nights, nine of them featuring guest spots. While it was Brady’s show several of the guests perform their own songs with Brady and band backing them while others cover the man’s songs. In such exalted company Brady acquits himself well with the opening I Want You To Want Me expertly performed and a fine example of his song writing which some folk place on a par with Richard Thompson and John Martyn. He closes the album with a fine rendition of Dylan’s Forever Young sharing the vocals with Mary Black, Moya Brennan and Maura O’Connell and eventually the full hall who join in the refrain with the recording actually carrying some of the passion of the night.
As for the guests, Van Morrison, whose announcement is greeted heartily by the audience, sings Irish Heartbeat trading vocals with Brady with the song beefed up by a horn arrangement and ending with some fine scatting from Morrison. Mark Knopfler gets all J J Cale on his slinky and sinister Baloney Again and Bonnie Raitt is on fine form vocally on two Brady songs, Not The Only One and The World Is What You Make It with her slide guitar kicking the band into Little Feat territory on the latter. Curtis Stigers blows into view on his song Don’t Go Far (co-written with Beth Neilsen Chapman) while Ronan Keating (of Irish boy band Boyzone!) appears on The Long Goodbye which fits into the overall sense of capturing the occasion but despite repeated listening it’s a song I could live without, coming across as somewhat bloated in comparison to its surroundings.
There are some intimate moments. Sinead O’Connor’s In This Heart is delivered a cappella with Brady singing along, her reedy warble supported by his slight brogue. It’s the most traditional sounding song on the album reminding us that Brady was once in the forefront of Irish folk music. Similarly stripped back is Eleanor McEvoy’s tale of a missing girl, Last Seen October 9th, with Brady on piano and backing vocals, a chilling song. Top of the class however are Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer who transform Brady’s Nobody Knows into a twilight zone inhabited by Lou Reed and Nick Cave.
Brady sold around 17 thousand tickets for his month long sojourn and it’s a fair bet that this belated release (and others to come) will be snatched up by a good many of those who attended. With a great live sound the album is engaging throughout and well worth a punt for those who admire Brady or have an interest in the Irish music scene. We’ll certainly be looking out to see what gems are unveiled on Volume 2.
Radio 2’s annual folk awards came around again last week, the 16th year this event has taken place. By now the winners are known and it was particularly gratifying to see that Loudon Wainwright was given a Lifetime Achievement Award along with Yusuf Islam (previously known as Cat Stevens). Equally gratifying was the quality and the broad spectrum of the nominees, proof again that folk has been undergoing one of its periodic reawakenings over the past few years.
Blabber’n’Smoke has dipped its toes into the folk world on occasion but we’re grateful for the snapshot provided by Proper Records on this two disc collection of nominees. Well kent names such as Wainwright, Julie Fowlis, Cara Dillon, Peggy Seeger, Kathryn Tickell and Martin and Eliza Carthy are all present and are reason enough to give the set a listen. Dillon opens the album with a hop and a skip on the delightful Moorlough Mary while Loudon’s song God and Nature, from his latest album Haven’t Got The Blues (Yet) shows that he continues to go from strength to strength. Peggy Seeger belies her age with the Titanic tale of Swim To The Star and Julie Fowlis chills to the bone with the Gaelic lament Do Chalum. However it’s the Carthy’s who stand out here with the powerful and earthy Waking Dreams (Awake Awake) that once heard, should open doors into the folk world for anyone whose experience is limited to having heard a few Sandy Denny songs.
While the above names will be familiar to those with a fair-weather acquaintance of the folk world there’s a host of folk (sorry) here that are certainly new to us but who are capable of equalling the songs already mentioned. We have mentioned Josienne Clarke & Ben Walker before and their song It Would Not Be A Rose is a satisfyingly haunting combination of Clarke’s magnificent voice and Walker’s guitar skills. In a similar vein Chris While & Julie Matthews, The Furrow Collective, Naomi Bedford and O’Hooley & Tidow all offer fine compositions that are not traditional folk per se but nevertheless satisfy the ear. More traditional fare is delivered through the Celtic mists of Cruinn’s Manus Mo Ruin and 9Bach’s Pa le? while the work song tradition is upheld on Jez Lowe’s The Pitman Poets and Nancy Kerr’s Never Ever Lay Them Down. The future of folk (perhaps) is featured on Martin Green’s I Saw The Dead where he collaborates with Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Becky Unthank to produce an atmospheric ghost story while the past in the shape of The Great War is the inspiration for Sam Sweeney and Rob Harbron’s Rose Howard taken from the album Made In The Great War.
The second disc ends with four live songs from Radio 2’s Young Folk Award Nominees (Talisk, Wildwood Kin, Roseanne Reid and Cup O’Joe) which all bode well for the future. Overall the album is a fine gateway into the sometimes daunting world of folk music and a fine way to while away a late night with a fine wee drink. No need to stick your finger in your ear here.
The winners and other information about the Radio 2 Folk Awards is here
Mishka Shubaly seems too good to be true. A fantastical biography paints him almost as a child prodigy, a brilliant writer receiving a Dean’s Fellowship, the largest merit-based scholarship offered by Columbia University’s School of the Arts. Having achieved his degree he quit writing, survived a shipwreck, became a musician, an alcoholic and drug addict. He then got clean and started to get his highs from distance running while reviving his writing career going on to become a successful author with a series of candid autobiographical novellas released on the burgeoning Kindle market. More to the point he revisited the songs he was writing when his main occupation was waiting for the man and has been releasing them on a series of albums the latest of which is Coward’s Path.
The first thing to say here is that hopefully his writing continues to sell because it’s unlikely there will be queues of folk lining up to buy this. Shubaly doesn’t hold back when he describes the desperation, the degradation, the self loathing and bleakness of the addict. Expletives are common (with one song called Fuck Self Control) while his voice is of the non singing variety, a rough untutored vehicle that often seems out of control and about to crash, think of a collision between Ed Sanders (of The Fugs) and Barry McGuire (Eve Of Destruction) and you’re halfway there. The songs for the most part are ramshackle folky singer songwriter events thrashed out with occasional slide guitar, organ, percussion and fiddle adorning the bare boned acoustic guitar rhythms. All in all a recipe for a mess one might think.
Well, think again. Coward’s Path is wayward, bleak, rough and not easy listening but ultimately it uses these qualities to its advantage. Like some of the fabled cult albums of the sixties on the ESP label it has a mesmerising quality, a weird attraction as Shubaly draws the listener into his twilight world. The roughness becomes a faux naiveté, the arrangements begin to spark and repeated listens reveal melodies and a raw beauty in some of the songs. To cap this the lyrics are the diamonds in the mine with Shubaly challenging Bukowski for the title of sodden poet laureate. At his best he comes close to Cohen or Cave singing “that nightstand I built for you Is it lonely for me alone in your bedroom? Does it cry out at night or does it understand As you tremble underneath your new man’s hands?” on I Can’t Remember When You Were Mine. Your Stupid Dreams treads the same territory as Richard Thompson’s End Of The Rainbow with Shubaly warning an infant that life is shit “There You lay in your diaper, just as cute as could be Propped up on your elbows and smiling at me. I drove in for your birthday, your mother drove me away. But that woman taught you to crawl And that’ll come in handy some day.” “If my heart was a horse they would shoot it” he wails over a clattering percussive collection of ironmongery on Frankenstein Heart driving home the self disgust that permeates the disc but again it’s compulsive listening as the song lurches along and the lyrics become ever more visceral.
While Fuck Self-Control is a vitriolic and deluded salute to determined self-destruction there are some tender moments to be found with Depravity’s Rainbow a mock baroque folk song that resembles some of Tom Waits earlier work while New Jersey Valentine’s Day Orphan Blues is almost Latin in its rhythms. The best is kept to the last with the wonderful dirge that is Your Plus One at My Funeral as Shubaly reaches from beyond to ask “who’s going to walk you home when I’m rotting down below?” Again the song structure is simple, repetitive guitar strums throughout but producer Erik Nickerson adds a tremendous guitar solo that sounds as if it’s reaching for the sky along with percussive effects that again recall weird folk experiments of the sixties. Simply brilliant. Earlier however Shubaly actually emerges from his ditch to offer up a song that is fully formed and with any luck should be weaving its way through discerning radio playlists on I Can’t Remember When You Were Mine, a fine pop song fuelled by self despair.
In essence Coward’s Path is a vicarious, at times voyeuristic voyage into the life of an addict portrayed through a series of musical vignettes that burrow under the skin. It might be destined for cult status; at the very least it begs to be heard at least once, it might turn into a habit.
Ags Connolly, from Oxford, released one of the finest country albums of last year with How About Now. Recorded outside of Edinburgh with producer Dean Owens and a fine cast of Scottish musicians (Stuart Nisbett, Kev McGuire, Jim McDermott, Andy May and Roddy Neilson) who sounded as if they were straight off the bus from Austin Texas, the album led to one reviewer calling Connolly “England’s Willie Nelson.” Connolly made his debut appearance in Glasgow last week and was kind enough to meet with Blabber’n’Smoke for a pre show beer and a chat. We started off by asking him about his recent trip to the Ameripolitan Awards in Austin.
Yeah I went out there. I spent ten days in Austin, three days in Albuquerque and I was supposed to spend five days in Nashville but because the weather was so bad flights were delayed so I missed two of the five days I was supposed to be in Nashville and that included the gig I was due to play at the Five Spot. There were loads of people supposed to come down. Will Kimbrough, Luke Bell, Pokey LaFarge and Ryan Koenig. It was a real shame. Flights were cancelled and delayed so it just didn’t happen.
The Ameripolitan Awards in Austin were great; I wrote a review of it for Country Music People. It was a great experience. I’m a recognised Ameripolitan artist but I wasn’t nominated or anything but it was just great to meet people. They didn’t know who I was at first, just the British guy hanging around but by the end of it they did saying “oh, I listened to your music” or whatever. I mean it just gives you sort of extra exposure, you know that networking thing that I’m never really good at but in that environment it was easy to do. I played a gig at the Rattle Inn and James Hand came in to watch the show just after he’d finished playing up the street at The Hole In The Wall. I’d just finished playing my song I Saw James Hand so I had to apologise to the audience and started playing it again. We caught up with each other after the show and we’re looking at ways of getting James over here to do a tour with me.
As for Nashville, well I’ve been to Austin loads of times but never Nashville so I did as much of the touristy bit as I could in the three days I had left, The Ryman Auditorium, The Cash Museum. And I saw the good and the bad side of Broadway, a lot of fairly rubbish covers bands but there are places that still have good traditional stuff and I met some really good people, just a shame I didn’t get to play the gig there.
Did you play in Albuquerque?
I was seeing family I have there, It’s a nice place, somewhat isolated and of course where they filmed Breaking Bad. I didn’t do the official Breaking Bad tour but my brother took me to a few of the places, actually better than the official tour which doesn’t go everywhere. It was pretty cool seeing the actual places but a lot of them are people’s houses so you can’t really hang around. I did one show there with Wildewood, a local band who’ve toured with The Handsome Family. It was a great little gig, held in a place that only opened for the show, opened at 8, closed at 11, but a great night.
And how has the album been doing?
It’s done well, been really well reviewed but as always it could do some more exposure. We’re going to release How About Now as a single in May to see if we can give it another push. It’s been out for about a year now so the next thing is to think about the second album and I’d like to do it up here again at Castlesound in Pentcaitland, the place was so good and all the musicians were so great.
There was a vinyl edition released
Yeah and I’ve got some with me tonight, I don’t always remember to bring them but it’s good to have them at shows because you never know who’s going to turn up and buy one. But it’s a great thing to have, it’s one of the things I’m most proud of, that record. It’s all my own thing and there’s a big picture of me on it, beautiful. My mum and dad threw out their record player years ago but my mum bought a record player because I had the vinyl out. It’s a lovely thing to have and that’s why we did it, a lot of people were asking if there was a vinyl edition so we printed up 500 of them.
What got you into country music?
I don’t really know. My dad’s not into country music, I listened to rock as a kid then I got into singer songwriters and that eventually led me to country. Bands like CSNY and the Byrds, I mean I like their albums and I listen to them but they’re not like core influences for me. I preferred writers like Leonard Cohen and Loudon Wainwright III, he’s my favourite songwriter. Some people think Gram Parsons is the essence but for me he’s the beginning, you should branch out and see why he did what he did. I’ve always had this thing where if someone references an artist or covers a song I’ve got to go and check them out. I bought a Hank Williams album before I had a clue what country music was as so many people talked about him as an influence. I loved it, not because it was country but because I really liked simple songwriting, again, like Loudon Wainwright or Ron Sexsmith, people like that and I thought there must be more of this simple songwriting and I found it in country music. It’s the home of it. I don’t mean stuff that’s really easy to write, in fact it’s really difficult to write it and make it sound really simple, that’s the genius of it.
Yeah, Hank Wangford says that when he was a rock’n’roll doctor in the late sixties he treated Gram Parsons who came into his surgery with a George Jones and Tammy Wynette album under his arm. Intrigued Hank listened to Jones and it turned his life around.
Yeah. Funny, I was talking to Hank a few weeks ago, he’s touring small villages, and I was talking to him. I gave him a copy of my album so it’s gone full circle for him from Gram to George to having an Ags Connolly record!
What are your plans for the future?
I’ll be touring with Jack Grelle in September in the UK and I’m really looking forward to that and then we’re hoping then to tour together in the States next year, that will be really cool. Jack tours around all over the States and for someone like me that would be a great experience. We’re also looking at maybe playing some dates in Italy and Croatia if we can set them up.
There seems to be an audience for Americana type music in Italy and Croatia and the like.
Yeah, Dale Watson has played a couple of festivals over there and I’ve got a couple of fans in Croatia actually, I think the internet makes it a lot easier for them to hear things.
Ags tour dates are here including some shows he’s doing with Cale Tyson on 23rd April and 9th May.
Over the past few years The Wynntown Marshals have gone from strength to strength. Their 2013 album, The Long Haul, was generally accepted as one of the finest examples of UK Americana music of the past decade and led to the band being signed to Blue Rose Records, a label whose roster shows that they are not easily impressed. Terrific as it was The Long Haul was conceived during some turbulent times for the band with drummer Kenny McCabe joining just before recording began and keyboard player Ritchie Noble climbing on board after the album was finished. The End Of The Golden Age follows two years consolidation for the current line up including a hefty slew of live shows (which get better and better each time Blabber’n’Smoke sees them). While The Long Haul portrayed a band triumphant in the face of adversity here they’re riding a wave of popular acclaim and success.
Fans of The Marshals will be gratified to find that there’s no major change in direction or sound here, instead there’s a sense that the band have shifted up a gear. Their roots are still to be found in the melancholic songs of Wilco and the fiery guitar bursts of Neil Young while singer Keith Benzie continues to mine a rich narrative seam that embodies classic American landscapes and his own experiences. Noble adds a subtle richness to the mix with his keyboard skills (on Hammond, piano, Rhodes, Wurlitzer, synth and glockenspiel) fully embedded, a sound explored by The Marshals on The Long haul but fully realised here. It’s perhaps best noted on the pale fire of Idaho where his piano is stately and measured as Iain Sloan’s pedal steel keens away with the song itself sounding as if Neil Young had discovered an outtake from Déjà Vu. Elsewhere some judicious horn additions from Bruce Michie add to the sonic palette.
The album opens wonderfully with a blissful guitar intro that actually recalls the bucolic Canterbury rock of Caravan on There Was A Time before Benzie’s hoarsened voice leads the band into a corkscrewed country rock song with organ swells and skirling guitars that betray their Celtic roots. Dead Sunflowers is a sinewy number that recalls Canada from the previous album. A fulsome tenor sax introduces the starry-skied regretful love song Being Lazy with Benzie sounding like Jeff Tweedy at his most laidback while the production captures each and every squeak of the acoustic guitars. With lyrics by bass player Murdoch Macleod, Being Lazy captures the band at their best; Benzie inhabits the song, the keyboards cosset the melody as the guitars strum along with an occasional whiff of pedal steel, a wonderful song. Red Clay Hill is a fiery burst of outright Americana rock with tough guitars and swirling organ as Benzie sings “Last night I dreamt that I took a walk in an Ansel Adams picture” before being joined on vocals by Hannah Eton-Wall (The Redlands Palomino Co). The song soars wonderfully and there’s a magnificent guitar mash in the middle firing in all directions. The Girl On The Hill inhabits the same territory as Being Lazy. A winsome dappled brook of a song, sparkling guitars and pampered keyboards lift it aloft belying the possibility that it’s actually a murder ballad, the lyrics pointing in that direction but somewhat coy regarding what actually happened.
Over the years The Marshals’ have generally provided a would be epic on their albums and here it might be the mysterious tale of a man’s involvement with a killer whale on Moby Doll. As usual it builds from a slow narrative into a propulsive thriller and hopefully it will be a killer live. The album ends with the celebratory (and joyous) title song, a brief memorandum from Benzie regarding a past relationship which celebrates joy and sadness buoyed by an uplifting jangle fest of guitars, a fine curtain closer.
The End Of The Golden Age is released in May and there’s talk of a vinyl edition as well. In the meantime they’re touring Germany before the album launch at The Voodoo Rooms in Edinburgh on 12th June.
Listening to Oxfordshire’s Ags Connolly’s debut album, How About Now, you would swear that he was born and raised in some US Southern State. On his first visit to Glasgow this notion was dispelled the moment he spoke and his chipper English accent was there for all to hear. A curious duality perhaps but rather than sing his excellent tales with his own voice (and if so in danger of coming across like a serious Adge Cutler) Connolly has immersed himself in country music, in particular the burgeoning Ameripolitan movement, and with his adoption of the genre’s musical style he’s seen fit to adopt the vocal mannerism’s of his heroes. It’s certainly a winning decision as borne out by the rave reviews the album and his live shows have gathered with Country Music People magazine declaring “Connolly is the closest we’ve ever come to an English Willie Nelson.”
An imposing figure with a natty Nashville shirt, Connolly delivered his songs of loss and woe, shaped and comforted by the demon drink, with a fine emotional thump and such conviction that the audience were transported to Nashville’s Music Row. A Good Memory For Pain was an instantly memorable number that recalled George Jones, a thought that was reinforced by the tear jerking That’s The Last Time. On record That’s The Last Time is perfectly played by the band assembled by Edinburgh’s Dean Owens who produced the album. Live, Connolly dredged all the emotional depths of the album version with his heartworn voice and simple guitar accompaniment. Even more heartrending was his masterful rendition of She Doesn’t Need Anyone Anymore, a real tears in your beer moment but the emotional highpoint (or low point perhaps) came towards the end of the set when Connolly sang the powerful Get Out Of My Mind, his voice as rich as Charlie Rich’s was.
Elsewhere Connolly name checked his influences on the sturdy manifesto that is When Country Was Proud before describing his recent visit to Nashville where he met one of his heroes, the subject of his song, I Saw James Hand. Hand apparently arrived just as Connolly had sang the song leading him to confuse the audience by promptly singing it again. Of course Connolly played the song tonight and followed it with a fine rendition of Hand’s song, Over There, That’s Frank, a magnificently boozy honky tonk lament. Scattered through the set covers of Johnny Paycheck’s Slide Off Your Satin Sheets and Shel Silverstein’s Jennifer Johnson And Me demonstrated Connolly’s mining of country’s rich seams and with several new songs unveiled that match the quality of those he’s already recorded it seems that Connolly might just be the UK’s best country act about today.