Robyn Hitchcock has always been a singular artist, even back when he fronted The Sort Boys, a psychedelic post punk crew. While they could storm through the nihilistic rant of a song like I Wanna Destroy You he remained calm in the centre, his Home Counties voice cutting through the guitars. His lyrics inhabit a world that’s like a Magritte painting, the mundane juxtaposed with the incredible, peopled with crustaceans and statues with other worlds hidden behind mirrors. While he credits Dylan as his first influence he’s incorporated the psychedelic whimsy of Syd Barrett, the autumnal tones of Nick Drake and the jangled rock of the likes of REM into his work.
It’s a privilege really to see such an artist as Hitchcock in the cosy confines of Mono; close up and unplugged he commanded attention, the audience were rapt throughout, no chatter at the bar just a sense of respect and admiration. The stage was set by Australian Emma Swift who has recorded with Hitchcock and whose lachrymose country songs were well received. Her version of Gram Parsons’ Brass Buttons highlighted her aching bittersweet voice while the suicide note that is Rowland Howard’s Shiver was delivered with a fine mix of tenderness and defiance. Her own song, Seasons, marked her as a writer and singer who could be up there with the likes of Lucinda Williams, a sense reinforced by her recorded version of the song.
Robyn Hitchcock opened without fanfare with a cover of Dylan’s’ Not Dark Yet and it wasn’t until after a devastating delivery of My Wife And My Dead Wife that he spoke to the audience. Thereafter most of the songs were treated to a weird and wonderful prologue with Hitchcock reminiscing about past appearances in the area going back to the lunacy that was the Bungalow Bar in the eighties to the Renfrew Ferry. He recalled the era of the trolleybus, dedicated songs to the brass beer vats to the side of the stage and bamboozled the audience with time shifts and warps reminding us that he would be here at the same time yesterday if we arrive tomorrow or some such tomfoolery. Introductions to the songs were hijacked by flights of fancy, the transition from life to death likened to the difficulties of mastering an I phone.
The audience ate up Hitchcock’s raps which were at times hilarious. He was serious when talking about his forebears, introducing his sensitive version of Robin Williamson’s song, Nightfall as his second twilight song of the evening after the opening Dylan song. With I Got The Hots For You the one nod to the Soft Boys tonight Hitchcock played several songs from his latest album The Man Upstairs that showed he continues to be a most intriguing writer. With Ms. Swift on hand for some excellent harmonies San Francisco Patrol and I Used To Say I Loved You were magnificent before the pair launched into a shiveringly good Queen Elvis. Their rendition of Follow The Money, a Hitchcock song recorded by the pair for a record store day single was an exemplar of harmonised singing and they ended with a superb rendition of Townes Van Zandt’s Pancho and Lefty with Swift and Hitchcock swapping worlds with Emmylou Harris and Gram parsons for a nanosecond. Simply superb.
Latest addition to the ever impressive Clubhouse Records roster is North Californian Don Gallardo whose besuited dapper appearance on the cover of Hickory belies the rustic feel to much of the album. A resident of Nashville for the past eight years Gallardo has his own band How Far West who accompany him here along with guest appearances from Mickey Raphael, Rob Ickes, Randall Bramblett, Bobby Clarke, and Guthrie Trapp who between them can boast of playing with some of the cream of Americana.
Gallardo is yet another artist who is tapping into the seventies sound although at times he is tempted into leaving the hills and cruising the streets with his music dipping into FM territory, late night sax and Hammond organ or electric piano creating the atmosphere. Midnight Sounds epitomises this, starting off like a Wilco song before the saxophone comes in, a touch too silky for me. When The World Wakes Up is more successful with pedal steel replacing the sax and the song sounding not a million miles removed from the likes of the Wynntown Marshals. Back in the country air the loose limbed barrelhouse piano romp of Ophelia, We Cry (Ode To Levon Helm) is more surefooted ( and another song where Gallardo sounds like Jeff Tweedy singing) and the carefree ambience is revisited on Will We Ever Get It Right with the piano rolling and fiddle sawing away. However it’s the rarefied heights of clear country air that offers the best moments here. Down In The Valley is a mandolin rippled hymn to the simple life. Diamond & Gold is a sunlit romp with sparkling Dobro while Carousel benefits immensely from Raphael’s harmonica playing. The North Dakota Blues is a finely paced outlaw ballad in the vein of John Phillips’ Me And My Uncle with Gallardo painting a vivid picture and the band swaying and swaying away brilliantly. The album closes with what might be the best song here, Pearls. Drawing deep from the tradition of southern country soul with weeping pedal steel and solemn organ it recalls The Stones in the grip of Gram Parsons and Muscle Shoals, a magnificent song.
Another review that got lost when submitted to another publication. The album’s so good I reckoned it deserves an outing.
The Hello Strangers are two sisters, Brechyn Chace and Larissa Chace Smith and their self-titled debut album is the result of them winning an Airplay Direct competition allowing them to record the album with producer Steve Ivey in Tennessee. With roots in Austin and Pennsylvania, the pair have been performing since 2006 and they’ve certainly brought this experience to bear on the album. Their harmonies are without fault, another example of how singing siblings can seem almost telepathic while their songs, whether contemporary in style or more rooted in classic country, are all above par.
Runaway is a fine opener that recalls the Roches (although without their quirkiness) as the pair’s strong vocals cut through atmospheric guitar rumblings while next up is the rambunctious country stomp of What It Takes To Break A Heart which swings with a sassiness that is very alluring with a hint of danger in the lyrics. While the album sashays between different styles such as the honky tonk of Ruined, the dark murder ballad, Conococheague and the Carter Family country righteousness of The World Knows Far Better the sisters keep a firm hand on the rudder steering the album into four star status with Oh He’ll Drown standing out with its twanging guitar and widescreen Western storyboard. There are two cover songs on the album. A version of Que Sera Sera, recorded in tribute to their Grandfather who sang with Doris Day obviously appealed to the sisters but it does stick out like a sore thumb here. However Jim Lauderdale and John Leventhal’s What You Don’t Know is given an excellent reading, brooding and atmospheric it recalls Roseanne Cash’s recent album, The River And The Thread, and Lauderdale turns up to add his voice to the sisters’ very fine delivery. Highly recommended.
Veterans of the Canadian alt country scene courtesy of their joint membership in the band Nathan, husband and wife duo Devin and Keri Latimer have branched out to produce Lucky Stars, an album that covers the spectrum from breezy country influenced pop to dreamlike swoons. With Devin happy on bass to provide a solid rhythm section along with drummer Gary Craig, Keri’s gossamer voice and her occasional use of Theremin are the hooks here. She floats across the songs reminding one at times of Hope Sandoval although she’s perfectly capable of coming back to earth and sounding like a young Dolly Parton on the spritely Gravity And A Ladder Of Gold. The pair are perfectly served by their choice of producer, Steve Dawson, who has worked with Jim Byrnes, Kelly Joe Phelps, Old Man Luedecke, The Sojourners, and The Deep Dark Woods in addition to having a very healthy back catalogue of his own albums under his belt. Aside from his production duties Lawson plays all of the additional instrumentation here, acoustic and electric with some wicked guitar licks and sweet pedal steel throughout the album.
Of the 12 songs here there’s an eclectism apparent with some rootsy playing on the Dobro adorned April and the aforementioned Gravity And A Ladder Of Gold while Virtual Machine is more dreamlike, floating like a dream of flying and not dissimilar to Julee Cruise’s work for David Lynch. The twangful thrust of Agent Of The Night and the night creep of Healing Feeling point to another forebear, the much missed Detroit duo Blanche and there’s a doff of the cap the Handsome Family with a cover of Don’t Be Scared. To cap it all they close the album with a very fine cover of Bowie’s The Man Who Sold The World with Keri’s Theremin adding the spookiness to Dawson’s spidery guitar. Very nice.
Rapids live studio recording of their song, "Healing Feeling"</a> from <a href=”https://vimeo.com/leafrapidsmusic”>Leaf
Rapids</a> on <a href=”https://vimeo.com”>Vimeo</a>
Based in Santa Rosa California, Rory McNamara has a lengthy pedigree stretching back to the sixties. There’s a full account on his website but he was playing in the London folk scene with Dick Gaughan and Mick Softley and travelling Europe before moving to the States in 1974. Recording for Kicking Mule Records and playing with the likes of Mike Wilhelm he eventually formed a band called The Mild Colonial Boys who were the focus of a San Francisco Irish scene. Along the way he was involved with the late Billy Marlowe whose album we reviewed here and Dangerous Business features four songs from Marlowe, two co written with McNamara.
Dangerous Business is a warm and laid back stroll of an album with McNamara’s voice conveying his years, not dissimilar to Chip Taylor or David Olney (whose Walk Downtown is covered here), it’s worn but worn well. With fine support from The Ring Of Truth Trio (Henry Nagle on guitar and some sublime pedal steel, Roxanne Oliva, accordion and LH Jones on bass) there’s a Texas feel to the album, dusty ballads in a Guy Clark style while Oliva’s instrumental Blue Box Waltz is a particular delight. On the sublime Marlowe song I Bet You Still Get Blue one is reminded of Mike Nesmith’s seventies heyday and Leon Payne’s Things Have Gone To Pieces is given a tremendous outing. The opening title song, again written by Marlowe, is a strong and moving meditation that recalls Townes Van Zandt without his frailty and Townes is again brought to mind on the gentle country skip of Jim Ringer’s Rachel with Peter Lacques’ harmonica a highlight here.
The story of Dark Green Tree is one of serendipity. Chance meetings and a decade of collaborations lie behind this album which was recorded in 2014 and since then the original duo have become a trio. You could actually claim that there’s four folk behind Secret Lives as producer Boo Hewerdine co-writes several of the songs here along with added guitar duties noting that his involvement with Dark Green Tree’s Ross Cockburn began ten years ago at a workshop in a “drafty hotel in Perthshire.” Cockburn found the voice for his songs in Jay Brown and with Hewerdine they set about recording along with some gifted musicians including fiddler John McCusker. Looking for a female voice they happened upon Cera Impala at a house concert in Edinburgh and apparently she is now a fully-fledged member of the band. A somewhat tangled tale perhaps but in essence this quartet of star crossed strangers have conspired to deliver an album that is somewhat akin to the musical meanderings of Mazzy Star or the nocturnal ramblings of Lullaby For The Working Class.
The album opens with the ringing guitar jangle of Yearn For Love, a song soaked in a whisky tinged Americana that swells with keyboards adding a fine soulful feel but Brown’s vocals appear strained and slightly uncomfortable here. A teething problem only however as for the remainder of the album the band head into a darker hinterland allowing Brown’s breathy husk to grow. The brisk Rolling Wind, fiddle and banjo driven with sweet guitar interludes, is more suited to Brown and the addition of the close harmonies from Impala is the icing on the cake. From here on in the album is tremendous. Skin and Bone is a shiver of a song, dread and dark with the insistent pulse of a cello at odds with the fatalism of the lyrics. Lay Me Down rumbles morbidly with fiddle and slide guitar adding a sinister touch while Heart Of Winter is appropriately frosty.
The intimate vocal pairing of Brown and Impala is superb on the limpid slow waltz of Secret Life while the countrified Sarah, a tale of a Bonnie & Clyde type pair that goes awry saws away wonderfully with McCusker’s fiddle playing excellent. However the highlight of the album is their cover of Ryan Adams’ When The stars Go Blue which bursts into view with a spectacular and sparkling guitar intro before Brown and Impala croon away.
With a full release date next week and lots of radio play locally hopefully we’ll be hearing more of Dark Green Tree. They’re’ appearing at this weekend’s Americana Cavalcade at Perth Racecourse at 2 pm so if you’re going get there early.
The Railsplitters The Faster It Goes
The Railsplitters are a five-piece string driven crew from Colorado and are yet another band who use traditional instruments but who are bang up to date regarding their song writing. While there’s one traditional song here (Salt, Salt Sea) it’s an ocean away from the gloom of its forebear (The House Carpenter) with a contemporary feel. At times here and elsewhere on the album there’s the impression that we’re listening to musings and notes from singer Lauren Stovell’s diary as she sings about upstart Romeos trying to impress her (You) and a year of romance (Seasons). This is impressive as the majority of the songs are written by the male members of the band, Dusty Rider and Peter Sharpe, both managing well to inhabit the female psyche. Best is Rider’s tale of a young mother clinging to the hope that her husband will return on Met That Day with Stovell at her most plaintive. Currently The Railsplitters are playing their debut UK and Ireland datesand the album is released on July 6th
The Honeycutters. Me Oh My
From Asheville, North Carolina, The Honeycutters are based around the strong vocals and fine song writing of Amanda Platt. The basic line up of mandolin, pedal steel, guitar, Dobro, bass and drums is enhanced in the studio with keyboards, electric guitar and trumpet leading to a warm wallow in some intricate and finely sketched playing. This is immediately apparent on the lengthy and rather glorious All You Ever which blossoms from its tentative opening with a drumbeat underpinning Platt’s wearied vocal into a full blown pedal steel mandolin and keyboard borne country rock affair. Platt dips into country soul territory on what is the antitheses of Stand By Your Man on the powerful title song as she sings “some girls marry and some girls wait, some girls worry ’bout judgement day, some do better without that ball and chain” while Little Bird is a song that could have been penned by Mary Gauthier and is delivered with the same wearied feel that Gauthier does so well. While Platt stands up for downtrodden women elsewhere (Not That Simple) there are some upbeat moments here with the opening Jukebox a fine slice of honky tonk philosophy while Ain’t It The Truth is a punchy slice of Loretta Lynn styled fight back against all of those rotten men. There’s 14 songs here and everyone is a winner with Platt and the band coming across as ones to watch out for.
Ballad Of Crows
Back to the UK (and Germany) for this eponymous album featuring Steve Crawford and Pete Coutts along with Sascha “Salossi” Loss. With a sound that fuses classic west coast harmonies with a traditional Scottish feel there’s a temptation to recall the likes of Gallagher & Lyle all those years ago but BOC are rootsier. Crawford and Coutts handle guitar, mandolin, and vocals with Loss adding additional guitar, vocals, bass, fiddle and Sansula (kalimba). With additional texture from guests on fiddle, accordion, cello and slide guitar the album is a well measured collection of rustic notes that certainly grows on the listener with repeated plays; a sweet late night pleasure that might summon up another duo from the seventies, Crosby & Nash. A cover of Tim O’Brien’s Brother Wind begs the comparison but overall the songs, in the main written by Davy Cattanach along with Crawford and Coutts hark back to halcyon seventies days.