Sheesham & Lotus & ‘Son. 78rpm.

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Regular visitors to Blabber’n’Smoke will know that we’re partial to old timey sounding American music, a habit we’d date back to first hearing The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band’s album, Uncle Charlie & His Dog Teddy, which had a scratchy rendition of Chicken Reel on it (40 years on and any album with a chicken scratch rhythm on it gets automatic approval here). Anyway, while the reissue industry has made much of the genuine article available, over the years we’ve been privileged to have heard and seen several bands who seem to breathe the same air as The Carter Family, The Skillet Lickers, Uncle Dave Macon and Bascon Lamar Lunsford, all of them entertaining and often leading to frenzied Googling in order to hear the originals. Imagine the frisson then when the latest from Canadian trio, Sheesham & Lotus & ‘Son dropped in the post; a trio well versed (one could say immersed) in this very music, they’ve not only produced another fine collection of sepia stained rag time, blues and country, they’ve gone the whole hog and recorded their songs direct to 78rpm lacquer.

The project has come about via the auspices of Tyneside based Lathe Revival, an organisation dedicated to vintage recording techniques and in possession of a 1937 Presto recording lathe, the self same machine that was lugged about by Alan Lomax for his field recordings. In the summer of 2015 the band travelled to Skegness (yes, a wee bit away from Appalachia although I’ve heard tell it’s bracing) for seven days of recording, all captured by this steampunk technology with each song singly carved into lacquer as it happened. Unfortunately the logistics of offering a 21 disc collection of the songs is somewhat beyond their reach but this CD is an accurate representation of what went down and stands up as a very fine listen.

The trio, banjo, parping horns, fiddle and hollering voices, are delivered faithfully as if they were in a hot and dusty hotel room back in the thirties. The sound is thick, sometimes muddied, the limitations of the recording process apparent (the last tune, Up The Wooden Hills, suffering the most and probably only there as the CD process allowed an extra number). However the majority of the songs transcend (or benefit from) the patina bestowed upon them from the opening jollity of Down In Your Pockets to the rousing 1929 and the vaudevillity of Sister Maude Mule. The mannered grandeur of All Dressed Waltz is evocative to the nth degree, stately but slightly infirm it could have been the backbone of any number of “authentic” Western movies from McCabe and Mrs. Miller to Cold Mountain. The album is a somewhat audacious concept but for fans of the band and aficionados of old time Americana I’d suggest that this is essential listening.

For more information on the Lathe Revival see here

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Austin Lucas. Between The Moon and The Midwest. At The Helm/Last Chance Records

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After the country rock rumble of  Stay Restless Austin Lucas has stumbled further down that path to come up with the glistening jewel that is Between The Moon and The Midwest. I say glistening but shimmering would do just as well as there are moments here when the music does just that, it shimmers. Sure enough it’s laden with pedal steel and ringing telecasters, the ghost of George Jones is in the mix and there are some glorious duets with Lydia Loveless but Lucas, in tandem with Glossary’s Joey Kneiser has swathed the album in a sixties like sheen. Elements of Gram Parsons’ Cosmic American Music, Glen Campbell and Jimmy Webb’s Wichita Lineman and even Brian Wilson’s teenage symphonies are all recalled while there’s a nod to the more recent metaphysical musings of Sturgill Simpson. There’s even, if you dig into the lyrics, a concept of sorts, several characters appearing in several of the songs.

The album opens with a welter of sounds as if the band were tuning up like an orchestra before Unbroken Hearts hits its sweet country stride. Riding the range here like Waylon Jennings,  Lucas lays his cards on the table from the start singing, “I’ve been told to walk away nearly every time I make an album. I hear there’s no good men left, everyone in Nashville’s deaf, sad songs are a thing of the past.” Thankfully over the ten songs here he proves conclusively that those deaf guys are in the wrong. Unbroken Hearts itself proves the point, its muscular Jennings chug leavened by some gliding pedal steel and chiming guitar especially at the end of the song as they spiral away. Lucas digs into the muscle and sinews of country rock throughout the album. Ain’t We Free rips away like Doug Sahm rocking the Armadillo back in the seventies, the curling guitars going apeshit while The Flame is introduced with a tremendous thick stringed grungy guitar strum that propels the song into a cosmic honky tonk heaven with a stinging pedal steel solo that recalls the fuzz fuelled efforts of Buddy Cage and Sneaky Pete back in the days. Wrong Side Of The Dream ripples along like The Burritos backing Gram and Emmylou with Lydia Loveless trading lines with Lucas in fine fashion before Lucas dips into George Jones territory for the piano led tear stained heartache of Pray For Rain.

An album composed of the above would already be well worth listening to but Lucas and Kneiser up the ante with a brace of songs that, as we said above, positively shimmer. Next To You is at heart a country ballad but it’s dressed up in a sumptuous confection of guitar and pedal steel that is like a heat haze conjuring up Dave Crosby and Israel Nash’s psychedelic country visions. Call The Doctor is like Jackson Browne or the Eagles on speed, the band whipping up a frenzied beat like a Koyaanisqatsi fast motion version of California freeway driving as Lucas thrashes around envisioning his own death. Death and dying are writ large on the closing song, Midnight (the album was recorded as Lucas was recovering from a period of depression) and here he just excels. A return to the mix of Parsons’ cosmic aspirations and old fashioned country writing that opened the album, here Lucas sounds like Willie Nelson sleepwalking with Santos and Johnny over a fluorescent nightscape, Steve Daly’s pedal steel lighting the way. It’s impossible really to convey just how good this song is, you really need to hear it. Aside from the perfect delivery the lyrics are somewhat amazing as Lucas sings

Let the devil have his horns and heathen souls.
Midnight, I’m too young to feel this old.
Only two ways this can end,
I’ve got to die or find Jesus, don’t know which one is worse.
I might die cursed, at least it’s an end
And if I’m born again I’ll live with a hole where my heart should have been.

If you’re somewhat restless waiting for that next Sturgill Simpson album to drop then grab this, it will not only tide you over, it might even be better.

The album’s released on 19th February and Lucas is playing some UK dates to tie in with that. Dates here

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Malcolm Holcombe. Another Black Hole. Proper Records

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Hot on the heels of last year’s The RCA Sessions where Holcombe re recorded some of his lengthy back catalogue Another Black Hole is a very fine collection of ten new songs guaranteed to satisfy fans old and new. Holcombe certainly seems to be of the opinion that “it it ain’t broke, don’t fix it,” so there’s a familiarity to many of the songs here. Country and folk blues tunes, eminently foot tappable with his guitar picking to the fore, his voice still gruff and rough, gnarling the words, chewing them up and spitting them out. Of course the words are masterful; he’s an excellent story teller, able to open up worlds in the manner of Guy Clark and John Prine, vivid images and characters populating the songs.

Recorded in Nashville with his regular studio band, Jared Tyler (guitar, mandolin, banjo, dobro), David Roe (bass) and Ken Coomer (drums) Holcombe does add some new meat to the stew in the shape of the legendary Tony Joe White who adds some stinging guitar to several of the songs while additional percussion is handled by “Futureman,” AKA Roy Wooten. Drea Merritt adds her voice to several of the selections, her vocals on Papermill Man recalling Merry Clayton on Gimme Shelter. Together they can whip up a fine storm as on the swampy Papermill Man and the muscular title song where White is particularly impressive on guitar, his slide snaking throughout the song over the robust acoustic picking. They’re equally able to sit back and let the song ride out, nimbly picking the melody on To Get By or allowing Holcombe the spotlight on the spare September, a sombre bowed double bass the only accompaniment to his guitar playing and voice.

Be it a snarling blues tune or a sunny folk like lilt Holcombe’s word’s light up the songs. He mentions McMurtry and Cormac, presumably Larry and McCarthy respectively, in his lyrics and there are arresting lines in all of the songs here. He spits out the words, “fuckin’ damn frackin’ and backroom stabbin’ knocks me down on my knees” on Don’t Play Around while on Another Black Hole he sings, “the past has a smell and a one way ticket to leave you standing still.” Leavin’ Anna opens with the fine couplet “The Florida sunshine baked my bones All my life I been cold. Bronchitis, Winston cigarettes, I layed in bed alone.”

So, another excellent collection and the good news is that Holcombe is touring the UK and Ireland in May to promote the album with a Glasgow show included. All dates are here.

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Blue Rose Code @Celtic Connections. Mitchell Theatre, Friday 29th January

Our last blast from this year’s Celtic Connections.

Blabber’n’Smoke is happy to stand on anyone’s coffee table in our scuffed boots to proclaim that Ross Wilson, AKA Blue Rose Code, is one of the most exciting acts to have emerged from the Scottish diaspora in the past few years. He simply is the best writer and performer about; having seen him in several guises (solo, small band, big band) he is a mesmerising performer while his songs are a continuation of all that was good about such luminaries as Van Morrison, John Martyn and Jackie Leven. Committed as we were to reviewing some Celtic Connection shows for Americana UK including this one we’re grateful to David Ferguson who sent us his review of what was a tremendous night.

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Blue Rose Code is the pseudonym of singer-songwriter, Ross Wilson, a native of Edinburgh and currently based in Bournemouth. 2015 was a particularly notable year for Blue Rose Code, including as it did a SAY Award nomination (Scottish Album of the Year) for The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, a series of successful tours, a number of sparkling performances on radio and television, lavish praise from celebrated broadcasters Ricky Ross, Roddy Hart and Edith Bowman, recognition from Ross Wilson’s beloved Hibernian Football Club and the acquisition of a celebrity fan in Ewan McGregor. The start of 2016 saw yet another ‘first’ for Blue Rose Code, in the shape of his first-ever headline gig at Celtic Connections, on 29th January in the elegant Mitchell Theatre. This special event had been arranged to enable Blue Rose Code to preview his forthcoming third album, …And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing and to give fans the only opportunity to buy copies of the eagerly-awaited album prior to its general release in March.

Ross Wilson’s versatility is such that he is equally at home performing intimate solo gigs, as a trio or with a small band but, with up to eleven musicians on stage at any one time, this special gig was most definitely a case of “Blue Rose Code – max”. The line-up varied throughout the show, according to the arrangements and dynamics of each song. Ross Wilson revelled in the role of band leader, bringing the best out of the accompanying musicians and drawing great inspiration from them in return.

Ross’s customary beard was reduced, on this occasion, to a rather splendid pair of mutton-chop sideburns, all the better for the audience to witness his ever-widening smile as they roared their appreciation at the end of every single song. There was a richness and variety to the ten songs which make up the new album, yet they fitted together beautifully as a coherent whole. The set opened with an abridged version of the awe-inspiring gospel song, Grateful, featuring a quietly impassioned vocal from Ross Wilson, embellished by Angus Lyon’s elegant piano and feathery counterpoint vocals from Eliza Wren Payne. The majestic My Heart, The Sun featured pulsating rhythms, smoothly rippling trumpet and an anthemic chorus. The carefree swagger of Rebecca, a gentle country blues, gave way to one of the most achingly beautiful, tender and gracious break-up songs you will ever hear in Pokesdown Waltz, whose gently-whispered closing line surely brought a tear to the eye of most everyone in the room (”…the only regret that presides is that I do wish I’d kissed you goodbye…”). Ross Wilson then quipped that the next song, Glasgow Rain, would bring an end to “divorce corner” for the evening! This song was cinematic in scope, bringing a deeply soulful vocal from Ross (“…the rain fell like dominoes along Great Western Road….”) and a masterclass in cool and sweet jazz from the formidable combined talents of Colin Steele (trumpet), Nico Bruce (double bass), John Lowrie (drums) and Angus Lyon (piano).

In The Morning, Parts 1 and 2 was an extended tour de force, which started with the breezy country soul of part one and segued dreamily into the mesmerising ebb and flow of part two. The fragile beauty of Love, a perennial fans’ favourite which has finally made it onto an album, was notable for Ross’s ethereal vocal and delicate washes of cello, violin and trumpet. The free-flowing Favourite Boy was performed solo by Ross, with the rhythms provided by playful piano chords and foot-taps. In The Morning, Part 3 saw Ross’s vocals build gradually from pastoral lilt to passionate exhortation and featured an exquisite violin solo from Lauren MacColl and stunning ensemble playing from the full “caledonian soul orchestra”. At various points in the show, added musical textures and colours were provided by Graham Coe’s expressive cello and Signy Jakobsdottir’s bewildering array of percussion instruments and effects.

The main set came full circle to finish with an extended and intensified take on Grateful, with uplifting gospel choruses courtesy of Eliza Wren Payne and Emily Kelly, quicksilver blues guitar licks from “Wild” Lyle Watt and a series of beautifully-constructed and increasingly fiery trumpet solos from Colin Steele. There was still time to run through a couple of older favourites, including Edina, Ross Wilson’s affectionate and bittersweet tribute to his native city, which included another gorgeous violin solo. Sandaig was a quietly stirring and poetic evocation of the landscapes enjoyed by Ross during a memorable weekend spent in the Knoydart peninsula. As a final treat, and as this gig coincided with the seventh anniversary of John Martyn’s death, Ross Wilson paid a touching tribute to one of his musical heroes with a beautifully-judged cover of Fine Lines.

It was a sheer delight to hear the songs on the new Blue Rose Code album played in sequence, underlining the cohesion and uniform brilliance of this collection of songs. Having successfully come through several challenging periods in his life, Ross Wilson has attained a serenity which is reflected in the mellowness, elegance and grace of his songs and the warmth, assurance, charisma and inspiration which characterise his live performances. Ross Wilson’s instantly-recognisable brand of Caledonian Soul has reached a new level with this outstanding third album, which promises to elevate him to his rightful place among the elite of British singer-songwriters.

David Ferguson