The Orphan Brigade. Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. Proper Records

Two Americans and an Irishman walk into a haunted house… No, it’s not the opening line of a joke but the punch line for the story behind The Orphan Brigade. The three (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Ben Glover) have built an album around the tales and histories of characters from the Civil War period, notably Confederates housed in and around a plantation house named Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky, sixty miles north of Nashville. The Hall still stands, spared from immolation by the Northern troops, an antebellum reminder of the horrors of war and slavery and reputed to be the “most haunted house in America.” With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the trio set up shop in the haunted house to write and record the album with assistance from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, Heather Donegan, Dean Marold, Eamon McLoughlin, Dan Mitchell, Barry Walsh, Carey Ott, Brad Talley, Zach Bevill, Jim DeMain and Ryan Beach.

It’s a fine back story and the cast tell tales of spooky happenings during the recording, much of it captured on a documentary directed by Hubbard and Britt. However, entertaining as this all is it’s much more than an Americana version of American Horror Story, the good news being that the album stands up to scrutiny whether the listener knows the origins or not. It’s not a retelling of the era in the vein of White Mansions although there are songs that refer directly to the experiences of the historical protagonists. Rather it’s an impressionistic capture of the spirit (sorry) of the times delivered in a variety of styles that gather in musical influences but are rooted in modern music. One could imagine that The Band or a solo Robbie Robertson might have made the album.

The war does loom large on the wheezy accordion tooled I’ve Seen The Elephant, the delicate harmonies of Last June Light and the martial numbers, The story You Tell Yourself, decorated with slight mandolin and throbbing guitar and We Were Marching On Christmas Day which captures excellently the tribulations of the foot soldier in a wintry waste. On a more optimistic note The Good Old Flag points to the reconciliation required after a bitter war and is delivered as an excellent mid tempo ballad buoyed on some fine guitar flourishes and sublime harmonies.

There’s a wealth of styles here, a sea shanty on Cursed Be The Wanderer, an Irish Lament with Paddy’s Lamentation and some slide driven Southern grit on Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet). Whistling Walk appears at first to be an oddity, a whistled instrumental with a jazzy cornet and guitar it ambles into view with an unexpected jocularity but when one reads that it’s inspired by the fact that slaves carrying food from the kitchen to the table were ordered to whistle in order to prevent them eating any of the food then it falls into place.
As we said earlier, the album stands on its own two feet but there’s a wealth of information to be had for anyone wanting to delve, either into its making or the history it commemorates and is heartily recommended.

website

And just because it’s Halloween

Israel Nash – Reopening the Cosmic American Frontier

Fans of that old Hollywood hippie sound, the days of the blissed out David Crosby, tetchy Steve Stills and brooding Neil Young and the glorious nugget that is Gene Clark’s masterpiece, No Other, have recently had the opportunity to vicariously relive those days simply by purchasing a copy of Israel Nash’s latest album. Silver Season, released on Loose Records is a sun-blistered swathe of Topanga Canyon like songs, teased out on record, itching to be let loose live, the guitars crackling while pedal steel soars and swoops. Nash sings in a similar vein to a young Neil Young but it’s the music that is rooted in those bygone days, not a nostalgia trip but a feeling, espoused by Nash (who by the way is no relation to the fourth member of that supreme LA supergroup) that music can change, if not the world, then at least those who are listening to it. Recorded in his newly built home studio the album takes aim at gun crime (on Parlour Song) and delivers a wonderful hymn to the narcotic pull of Los Angeles on LA Lately and is a worthy follow up to Nash’s acclaimed 2013 release Rain Plains.

We caught up with Israel as he was heading to New York in the back of an RV. The phone line was tenuous to say the least but the following hopefully carries the gist of the talk which I opened by apologising in advance for the possibility of mentioning Neil Young et al ad nauseam. I asked him if he got fed up with the comparisons.

No, I’m alright with that. People like to talk about Neil Young anyway, he’s one of the big ones so go ahead.

Rain Plains and Silver Seasons seem to be much of a kin but Seasons is somewhat denser with a more psychedelic shimmer to it, would that be a fair enough description?

Well it wasn’t a major goal as such as it just developed that way. After Rain Plains we were playing the album live and it just got us into the way of looking at the album and taking it to another level so it’s like a transition. I look at the album and the music as a presentation. I think that I tried to blend myself as a listener and a writer with all the things I’ve been influenced by and that I’ve tried to grab the listener with everything I can – the artwork, the songs, the whole opportunity you have to suck a listener into this place for an hour.

It’s a huge sound, stratospheric one could say. I really dig the way the pedal steel plays around the electric guitars gliding here and there while the songs shimmer with a sort of heat haze.

That’s a big aspect of what we were working on, the balance between the melodic instruments, they just dance together throughout the record. Gram Parsons had this idea of cosmic American music and I guess the pilot’s just got a little more cosmic.

Parlour Song in particular reminds me of a couple of early Neil Young moments, the orchestrated Expecting To Fly from back in Buffalo Springfield days and towards the end the anger that was evident on Ohio with you shouting out. It’s quite visceral.

Yes, I think that over my years as a musician the songs have become more than just songs, I want to create a space that not only lets you listen to them but makes you go whoa! The beginning of that song is supposed to mimic a funeral precession and it’s really trying to get people in there and see what’s going on in their minds and what they feel like.

I was going to ask you about the introduction, it’s got a cinematic feel, like something from Morricone.

Well it’s inspired by The Godfather II. There’s a scene in it with young Vito in Sicily at his father’s funeral and Copolla does this cool shot with the sound of crickets and in the distance this rag tag band meandering through the hills. Those hills reminded me of the Hill Country in Texas and so I wanted to do something like that. So we recorded the crickets and then we tried to mimic the movie’s panned shot, we tried a bi aural set up, we put two microphones outside and played the track through speakers we carried as we marched about.

LA Lately is simply stunning and again there’s a short introductory passage which sets the scene.

That’s trying to introduce the emotional impact of leaving Texas and going to LA. It’s like, “where did all the hope go?” It’s trying to represent that feeling, a kind of brooding about getting ready to go out there but also the excitement of going away. And then LA represents that unease and unpredictability, again it’s an emotional journey. The song’s about our experience in LA. We played our first headline show there and we had a moment. It’s always exciting that I get to play music but I was overwhelmed that we had such a great show there. LA just has this thing, this history, like Steve Stills and Neil Young meeting on the freeway.

At the end of the album, on Rag and Bone you slip into a chorus of We Shall Overcome. Can I ask you why?

Well the rag and bone man, that’s a real British thing I read about. They seem to be like the least of us in society and to treat people like that, well for me there are a lot of themes across the album and one of them is the idea that there are so many things, man made conventions that we assume are important to society but which are actually not important at all in the grand scheme of things. Like money is made up, time is made up, all these things, they’re restraints that we’ve put on ourselves. The rag and bone men, well we just put them down but we should just change this with a little love, take a step back and make it a little simpler. It might seem like this is a hippie ideal but the older I get the more adamant I am about it, it’s not youthful foolish thinking because I’ve lived it. I’ve seen live shows with people around me catch this contagious atmosphere and as for the closing of the song the idea is that we can have a singalong at the end. I mean what’s wrong with a roomful of people singing we should love one another. It’s just another element of what I feel about music – it’s not just another guitar solo or some badass thing, it’s way bigger than that, it’s way bigger than just rock’n’roll, it’s relationships and it’s people

You recorded the album in your own home studio. Can you tell us about that?

Well we’ve got about 15 acres at Dripping Spring so that was always the plan to build a studio and it finally happened. I got a Quonset hut which is a metal building which has 20 arches and is held together by 3,500 bolts. The plan is to record my own music and produce other people’s records, a place where I can walk from my house straight to the studio to work on material.

That and your story of walking outside recording Parlour Song reminds me of Graham Nash’s story of Neil Young listening to the playback of Harvest using his house and his barn as speakers and yelling out More barn!

Yeah, that’s a cool Neil story.

I believe there are plans to come back over to Europe soon.

We’re going to go out, playing the album front to back, that’s what we have in store for Europe, playing the album as one full piece of music and we’re doing a London show early next year. Hopefully we’ll be back in the UK again after that.

Isreal Nash will be playing a set of European dates commencing in January 2016 with a London show on 15th February, all dates are here. Silver Season will be available on vinyl in November. You can read my review of the album here

Israel Nash website

Loose Music website

Texas Martha and the House of Twang. Long Way From Home

Texas Martha AKA Marty Fields Galloway is certainly a long way from home on this album which is probably the first honky tonk album to be recorded in Bordeaux, France. Sure enough, she’s Texan through and through but she has a hankering for France and spends much of her time there and, much like a country music magnet, she’s attracted a hot shot bunch of continental players who together make up The House of Twang. These are guys who’ve done their homework, the rhythm section of Serge Samyn and Hervé Chiquet stoke the beat solidly while Lionel Duhaupas bends and twists and twangs his guitars and plays a mean pedal steel. Together they’re a formidable outfit with Galloway belting out her roadhouse songs but able also to rein it in and deliver some soulful country.

The album gets off to a great start with the rip snorting Born To Boogie, Galloway’s powerful voice galvanised by the curling pedal steel and twang fuelled guitar bursts over a pile driving rhythm; even her transition into French lyrics midway through, initially a surprise, works. Take You Down is in a similar vein, again the music is punchy and defiant as Galloway hymns the South but there’s a change in gear on the following title song which takes us away from the honky tonk and onto the freeway. There’s a brisk acoustic thrust to the song with harmonica (from Christophe Dupue) threading throughout while the pedal steel hums like a train coming along the tracks, altogether the sense is of the wide open road. A Lover’s Lane is more countrified, the pedal steel keening away as Galloway sings of the tribulations of a young girl suckered into a tryst and then judged. It’s a great song but the vocals are just a mite too powerful for the tender playing and the song could be better if there was a sense of hurt instead of defiance in her voice.

No problems however with Johanna, another sad luck song which is boosted by the organ playing of Vincent Samyn while Strike is a sinewy blues number with Martha ballsy as hell while the guitars snarl. The album closes with another foot to the pedal barrel house boogie on Gotta Move but before that there’s a brief excursion into Southern Gothic territory on the tremendous Do As You Are Told which comes across like the Violent Femmes backing Bobbie Gentry in a story penned by Flannery O’Connor.

Hopefully with Texas Martha berthed just across the channel we can hope to see her and her crack musicians in the UK at some point, Blabber’n’Smoke will keep you posted.

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Barbara Nesbitt. Almost Home

A native of Georgia who ran away from home aged 15 to join a band, Barbara Nesbitt is now firmly planted in Austin, Texas where she spends her time playing in two bands, The Whiskey Sisters, and Tim Flannery & The Lunatic Fringe in addition to her solo work. Almost Home, her third album, is a finely assembled collection of country songs replete with pedal steel, banjo and Dobro with one song, Like A Good Girl Should sneaking into the city for some low down blues. Originally released stateside in 2013 the album is getting a push here as Ms. Nesbitt this weekend commenced a UK tour taking in several Scottish dates.

There’s a grand sweep to the opening moments of the title song which kicks off the album in a classic manner. Nesbitt and drummer Bill Coomes are the star crossed couple desperate for their reunion on an achingly sweet and sad song that features fine pedal steel as the pair harmonise wonderfully. Coomes is featured vocally again on the Everly styled country lament of Graceless, written by Kasey Chambers and here the pair recall classic country duos such as George and Tammy. Nesbitt herself is a fine singer, able to be natural and clear, almost like Emmylou on Don’t Think Much, a fine Dobro driven lament while she can be forceful and dynamic as on the slow burning blues of Like A Good Girl Should. With the front porch knees up Never Been In Love complete with spritely fiddle and the tender country rock of All The Way adding to the quality the album is a fine listen.

Tour dates

Tuesday, Oct 27th – Quarter Folk club @ The Bully Inn, Quarter (near Hamilton)
Wednesday, Oct 28th – Backstage at The Green Hotel, 2 The Muirs, Kinross
Friday, Oct 30th – Aikmann’s Bar, Bell Street, St Andrews KY 16 9UX 9:30 – midnight Free entry
Saturday Oct 31st – Craigrossie Hotel, 1 High St, Auchterarder, Gleneagles Perthshire, Scotland
Sunday, Nov 1st – Rose And Crown in South Shields, Hill Street, South Shields
Monday, Nov 2nd – String Theory, Heart of Hawick, Tower Mill, Kirkstile
Tuesday, Nov 3rd – The Tap in Hull, St. Johns 10 Queens Road, Hull
Wednesday, Nov 4th, The Bedford, 77 Bedford Hill, Balham, London Free entry
Friday, Nov 6th – The Betsey, 56 Farringdon Rd, London Opening: Simon-Stanley-Ward

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Phil Cook. Southland Mission. Thirty Tigers/Middle West Records

Who’s Phil Cook you may ask. Well, Blabber’n’Smoke saw him play to a packed ABC O2 this week in support of The Tallest Man On Earth. Dwarfed by the stage Cook and his electric guitar delivered a short but very sweet set of songs, his guitar playing reminiscent of Ry Cooder and even Pops Staples, riding and sliding a rural blues groove with ease. Turns out that Cook has been a busy guy over the past decade, a close colleague of Bon Ivor in Wisconsin before relocating to North Carolina playing in Megafaun and becoming a studio producer and session man for Hiss Golden Messenger, Matthew E White, The Blind Boys of Alabama and Alice Gerrard.

Southland Mission is touted as Cook’s debut album although apparently he released an album of solo songs a few years back. It is however a magnificent collection of blues soul and gospel grooves that packs a thump, swamp ridden, riddled with joy and despair. His guitar playing is a joy, warm and supple with added zest when required whether he’s picking or playing slide and throughout there’s a Southern feel be it the Allman’s on the slide guitar of Gone or the back porch picking of Belong.

The album opens with the breezy Ain’t It Sweet which recalls classic Little Feat, chugging guitar and bar room piano leading into the harmonies (added by Justin Vernon) before Cook delivers a stinging slide solo. 1992 is a cover of a Charlie Parr song that clucks and picks, again Cook’s guitar is sublime, adding layers within the song and sounding as if it’s been transported from the Depression era as the band whip up a mighty country blues thump. There’s a slide guitar intro into Great Tide, another song that reeks of Lowell George and there’s no finer compliment than that. The song clatters and burns, guitars glowering, voices hollered over a vital heartbeat from bass and drums reaching a crescendo before slowing down and massing for a final aural assault. It’s really quite magnificent.

Next up there’s a dip into acoustic country blues with Mandolin Orange’s Andrew Marlin and fiddler Bobby Britt expertly leading Cook down a dappled path on Belong before the Cooder like Sitting On A Fence weaves its way into view. A sinewy Gospel tinged country blues with some great female harmonies it shifts its shape with a sly sinuosity as the guitars snake and buzz. There’s more guitar excellence on the field holler Gospel of Lowly Road with Cook achieving a fine sense of thrum and throb on the strings; turn the volume up here and the song just reverberates, ably assisted by the vocal harmonies which are somewhat bewitching. Time To Wake is like a funky Daniel Lanois production, ambient but with some earth thrown in and Cook closes the album with his melodic duet with Frazey Ford on Anybody Else along with the grand Southern rock chug of Gone which, as mentioned earlier recalls The Allman Brothers Band in their heyday.

So lesson ended and by now you should be itching to hear some of Mr. Cook. You won’t be disappointed.

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Woody Pines. Woody Pines. Muddy Roots Music Recordings

The spine of this CD has printed on it Country Blues – Rag Time – Viper Jazz and Woody Pines latest album pretty much does what it says on the cover. Pines honed his act initially as a street performer often in the company of Gil Landry and he has a sneaking affection for veteran folkies such as Baby Gramps and Peter Stampfel, guys who injected a healthy dose of sixties freakdom into folk music. He’s got a healthy run of albums under his belt including Counting Alligators which Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed here while his EP You Gotta Roll (reviewed here) is a regular favourite in the hacienda. Comparisons abound with that other arbiter of old time American music, Pokey LaFarge but Pines is altogether more laid back although it’s true that they drink from the same trough.

This latest self titled album is Pines’ best effort so far, a no frills collection of songs that are redolent of pre war hillbilly music and fifties hillbilly boogie tempered with some lyrics that slyly evoke more modern times. This is evident from the start with Anything For Love, a toe tappin’ dose of western swing with Woody declaring that he’d pinch Mike Tyson’s cheek if it got his gal’s attention before he goes on to seek advice from his Miles Davis and John Coltrane records. It’s a zippy start to the album and it recalls the dapper days of Dan Hicks and his Hot Licks with some hot fiddle playing from Billy Contreras. Contreras pops up again on fiddle on the Reinhart/Grappelli jive of Walking Stick but the bulk of the album is Pines along with Skip Frontz Jr on upright bass and Brad Tucker on guitar, a bare boned approach perhaps but the three of them do conjure up a fine stew.

There’s some scintillating syncopation on show here, the double bass snapping on Black Rat Swing and New Nashville Boogie while Tucker’s guitar humbucks and growls especially on the blues ridden Delta Bound. With covers of The Mississippi Sheiks’ Make It To The Woods, a skillet licking blues groove and Memphis Minnie’s Black Rat Swing Pines pays tribute to his forebears while his rendition of the old chestnut Junco Partner is an easy rolling gait with some fine country picking from Tucker. Finally Pines offers some tender moments, his sweetly delivered Little Stella Blue a breath away from Satisfied and Tickled Too but a beautiful moment. He closes the album with his salute to one of his heroes on Worth The Game, a Dylan like piece that bridges the gap between old time, sixties revival and present time. The song goes on.

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Pokey LaFarge. Glasgow Art School. Friday 9th October 2015

pokey

Blabber’n’Smoke first encountered Pokey LaFarge in 2009 playing solo in a small church hall during the Edinburgh Festival. Armed only with his guitar, a plastic kazoo and his stentorian voice he was a revelation with dynamite songs that harked back to pre WWII America and a fantastic stage presence. Pretty soon Pokey was back on these shores only this time with his comrades The South City Three, a striking combo who fleshed out the songs, all master musicians themselves with Ryan Koenig soon becoming a crowd favourite with his amazing harp solos and washboard routines. It was somewhat gratifying to watch their elevation from small clubs to larger crowds, both here and in the States, their hard work and sheer entertainment value reaping its rewards.

As the crowds grew so did Pokey’s vision and three years ago he added a two-person horn section to the mix. Now, on the back of his debut album for Rounder Records, Something In The Water, the band have a drummer in tow, Matt Meyer, a man schooled in jazz and old time country music. He adds a mighty sense of swing to the now seven-piece band with the result that tonight was the raunchiest set we’ve so far seen from LaFarge.

As is usual these days the hall was packed as Pokey and the band powered their way through the set. From Dixieland jazz to jungle voodoo rhythms they delivered several songs from the new album with Underground a highlight, Meyer’s drums pushing the beat. Something In The Water was vampish and Goodbye Barcelona with its Latin melody turned into a sing along with the audience. There was space aplenty for old favourites such as La La Blues and Koenig still has his chance to show off his harp playing, his solos still getting the biggest cheers of the night.

While Pokey was on fire, hollering away and animated throughout, racing around the stage as his players soloed he also displayed his sensitive side; a tender cover of Warren Zevon’s Carmelita a nice surprise. His solo delivery of Far Away, again from the new album, as the first encore was superb and a fine reminder that he is as capable of writing ballads as he is at recreating the atmosphere of a Kansas City speakeasy.