Despite the fact he’s from Scotland Mark Mulholland is a new name to Blabber’n’Smoke. Born in Glasgow he was involved in the Edinburgh scene in the eighties before becoming something of a globetrotter, residing for periods in Prague, Berlin, Paris, Haiti and currently Mali. On the course of his travels he became close to two other musicians in particular, James Finch and Rusty Miller, both of Jackpot, their shows sometimes colliding at festivals (in particular SXSW). Over the years the trio spoke about recording together and Finch worked with Mulholland on the latter’s 2011 solo album. Eventually the stars lined up and the trio recorded this album in California with Mulholland writing all songs (one a co write with the band), singing and playing guitar, bouzouki and banjo. Finch and Miller handled drums, bass, additional guitar and keyboards.
Collectively the trio have an eclectic CV as players having worked with the likes of Chuck Prophet, Jason Lytle, Nikki Sudden, Captain Sensible, dEUS and Tony Allen alongside their own work in Two Dollar Bash, Impure Thoughts, Jackpot and Nightgown. Admittedly the latter are hardly household names so it would be somewhat amiss to describe this collective as a super group but they have certainly paid their dues and there’s an undeniable sense of fun here as the three pals finally get to let loose in a studio.
Overall the album is a collection of songs that do recall the likes of Nikki Sudden, a loose limbed amalgamation of The Stones and The Byrds, Mulholland’s voice reedy but borne aloft by strong melodies and some fine playing. Guitars jangle, twang and erupt while there are faint echoes of Dylan, Big Star, garage rock and Paisley Underground here and there. Mulholland proves himself a dab hand at writing, his words perfectly attuned to the louche subterranean worlds of songsters such as Lou Reed and Kevin Ayers. Ayers in particular comes to mind on the late night ambience of Fucked Up Again, a cocktail jazz pastiche that discards the janglier rock’n’roll ambience of the album while Hoodathunkit, a fuzz driven scuzzy riff of a song with distorted vocals recalls Ayer’s own pastiche of the Velvet Underground on Stranger In Blue Suede Shoes from his excellent whatevershebringswesing album.
The album opens with the effervescent garage fuzz of Ebb and Flow before the wiry Give Me A Ride with a Dylan & The Hawks like mercurial slink flows into view. Dreaming Of Trains surely is somewhat ironic, the title and delivery recalling Robyn Hitchcock, another spangled guitar jangler, if it’s not deliberate then it’s fine evidence of Happenstance. Listening to it again right now visions of Green on Red also swim into view. Half the fun of the album is in figuring out what band each song reminds one of especially if like Mulholland the eighties were the touch paper. He hits the target time and time again with the slightly awesome Trams and Trains and Aeroplanes standing out, wasted elegance indeed with a shambolic rock’n’roll heart while there’s some tumbledown country melancholy on Floods Of Memory.
Since their formation in Charlottesville, Carolina around 19 years ago The Hackensaw Boys have gained a couple of reputations. One concerns the sheer number of musicians who have passed through their ranks over the years. Another more pertinent one is of being one of the most joyful and rambunctious live bands around, raucous and great fun, “head banging string band music” one reviewer said of their shows. This month sees the release of their latest album, Charismo (on Freedirt Records) which is named after their preferred percussion gizmo, a contraption composed of tin cans, hubcaps, car licence plates and other “junk”. A Heath Robinson like contrivance that’s like a steam punk washboard the Charismo has been an integral part of their set up since the first one was hammered together by one time band member Justin “Salvage” Neuhardt. Coinciding with the album release the band are setting out on a lengthy European jaunt which started in The Netherlands and includes four UK shows this week including a slot at Maverick Festival.
Charismo is their first full-length release in almost ten years and features the current line up of David Sickmen on guitar, Ferd Moyse, fiddle, Jimmy Stelling, banjo and Brian Gorby on Charismo and drums. Produced by Larry Campbell who has worked with Dylan and Levon Helm it has 11 songs (all written by Sickmen and Moyse) which can ripple and ring with an old time Appalachian swing, swerve into folk territory or just generally rip it up. Songs like Ol’ Nick and Limousin Lady are simply exhilarating while The Sweet is a folky number that could have been penned by Ewan MacColl. There are whoops and hollers aplenty but some reviewers have commented that the album is just that bit more mellow than they had come to expect from The Hackensaw Boys. Certainly C’Mon Baby Don’t Bet Against Me and Flora roll sweetly along, the former reminding me of The Nitty Gritty Dirt band in their heyday but even in mellow mood the Boys still have a fine rustic rawness.
Blabber’n’Smoke had the opportunity to speak with original band member David Sickmen while he was in Pittsburgh in between shows. David was happy to talk about the meandering history of the band along with some discussion about the current parlous state of politics (which I’ve left out here, suffice to say we both dislike blonde buffoons peddling lies and fear) but first of all I asked him about the album and those comments on the band mellowing somewhat.
Well we had this batch of songs we took into the studio and that’s different from playing live. In the studio there’s the temptation to shine every diamond but really we just tried to make every song sound great and with Larry Campbell producing it was just a very natural and easy process. As for the songs however I’d be lying if I were to say that I’m not getting older and maybe a bit more mellow so a lot of what I think about writing about is on the softer side of things, more ballady if you like. But the live shows are definitely energetic and we want folk to come out and party and leave all the bad shit, the Donald Trump’s and that behind and come out for a couple of hours and dance and party and drink beer.
Larry Campbell’s probably best known for being Dylan’s guitarist for several years on The Never Ending Tour and for producing Levon Helm’s last albums. How did you hook up with him?
Through mutual friends. We reached out to a friend who got some demos we had recorded in Amsterdam to Larry. He thought they were great and he agreed to produce the album.
This is your first full-length album in around ten years, why so long?
Well we’ve had EPs and such but yes, this is the first album in about ten years. Why? Well, life, poor management, people leaving the band and then we were spending so much time on the live circuits that we just didn’t have the time. But I think it’s been worth the wait because we’re more mature now.
The band’s always been something of a shape shifter, people coming and going and then some coming back again. You were one of the original members then you left and then came back again. There’s four Hackensaw Boys right now, is that right?
Yes but we’ll have a fifth member when we get over to Europe, we’re currently looking for an accordion player. I helped start the band in 1999 and then in 2005, well, I guess the pleasant way to say it is I couldn’t think straight anymore so I had to step out for about five years and then some of the other guys had to leave and I came back in, by then I was a lot healthier.
I read that at one point you had about 12 people on stage.
Well we started off as just four guys but within a week or so a friend of ours jumped in on harmonica and then we started doing thses shows in Charlottesville, in a place called the Blue Moon Diner, another guy would come up and say, “I play banjo can I come on up” and we’d say sure and it just kept on growing. We embraced anyone who wanted to play, we just said come on. So yeah, at one point we had 12 guys playing. We did our first tour in a 1964 GMC motor coach, an ex Greyhound bus. 12 of us on the road and we did that for about a year, then people would fall away over time. Some would act up too much, we did fire some people, one of the guys passed away, so yeah, we have a kind of wild history with the line up but I don’t shy away from that, it’s part of the beauty of it all. The thing that’s kind of risen to the top is that the spirit of what we try to do musically has always been there no matter who’s playing in the band.
That’s the spirit of the band but how would you describe the sound of the band?
It’s not truly old time music. If it’s old time at all it’s in the spirit of encouraging people to dance, to come out to the barn if you will and have some fun. It’s maybe our interpretation of what guys in the 1920s might have been like, you know, travelling around, going to different places in like a three county area doing barn dances. Obviously it’s folk music but a lot of us grew up on rock’n’roll and punk and that is filtered into it but really, even after all these years I still don’t know what to call it to be honest. Maybe just say it’s hard rock and folk music that rolls. Some songs rock hard, some are quieter and some just roll along. I mean what do you call it?
Well we talk about old time music, string bands, bluegrass and folk but with a lot of bands it’s all mixed into one. I’m trying to avoid the word Americana here.
Yeah, we get the bluegrass moniker and that’s mainly based on the instrumentation but honestly I don’t think we’re a bluegrass band, traditional bluegrass might share the same instruments but it sounds different from us. We don’t sound like the Stanley Brothers where there’s no percussion, there’s certainly no “badam badam badam!”, the drive is different. When we started out we were listening to traditional music. Our original banjo and fiddle player was into old time music, he was taught by a guy in Harrisonburg called Two Gun Terry. Tom (Peloso) was coming from a background where he listened to Tommy Makem and The Clancy Brothers, his grandfather was an old Irish guy who listened to that stuff, he can probably to this day sing you every one of the Clancy Brothers songs. Me, I grew up around my uncle and he had a lot of records of gospel bluegrass so I heard a lot of that. In addition, my mother was from the coalfields of West Virginia and when we went there to visit family I would hear the Baptists singing in the church. Of the original four of us Robert Bullington, well, his great-great uncle played in a jug band that actually recorded back in the twenties, they were called the Roanoke Jug Band out of Roanoke Virginia and Rob still had his uncle’s original mandolin. So we all had this background but then we were all also into punk and rock’n’roll so that’s really the origins of the band. Another original member was Robert St. Ours who was good friends with Ketch Secor and Critter from the Old Crow Medicine Show, they were in a band together in Harrisonburg called the Route 11 Boys before he joined up with us. We had a guitar, a mandolin, a banjo and fiddle and an upright bass and we learned some old songs like John Hardy and that but we were also all songwriters and we wrote in that direction. It wasn’t fake or contrived, we were trying to honour our perception of Uncle Dave Macon, Doc Boggs, Roscoe Holcomb or Tommy Jarrell and of course the Blues guys, Howlin’ Wolf and such. We were into all of that and we all loved Bob Dylan and we all knew about folk music.
There’s a long list of past and present members of the band on your Facebook page, some 25 folk I think. How do you keep the essence of what it is to be a Hackensaw Boy?
Well the psyche and the story of the band are all these different souls coming in and out of it and while we used to shy away from it somewhat, I mean it was like well who’s in this band, well, the world. It’s a world band.
I sometimes think that if we discovered America today and found all these guys playing banjos and fiddles we’d find it exotic and file it under world music.
Deep down we’re all human beings, genetically we’re all the same but through time and history we’ve all developed different characteristics and I kind of see what we’re doing as similar to that, it’s all one style of music but played in so many different ways. We’re a multi dimensional band, musically, spiritually, even politically, I mean I’m more political than some of the other band members but ultimately you can get trapped by words and descriptions. In many ways we’re still trying to figure out who we are. I’ve found that in my writing sometimes. I’ve written something and I start to think, “is this a Hackensaw Boys song?” and that’s a really stifling, limiting feeling. It’s anti music in a way because it’s all about growth and I feel that this band, 19 years and 25 members later, well, we’re still trying to see who we are. I mean we’ve played everywhere from The Ryman to the shittiest bar in America, we’ve done it all but we’re still searching and I think that’s why we’re still a good band.
The album’s named after the band’s unique percussion instrument, the Charismo which was originally built by Justin Neuhardt who hammered together some tin cans and hubcaps which he then beat with wire-brush sticks.
Yeah, again back in the early days when we were playing in the diner Justin joined in and he was playing spoons and when we were about to go on that tour I mentioned earlier he was like, “I don’t want to play spoons for six weeks”. He’s an artist and sculptor so he showed up a couple of days later and said “check this out”, this contraption and so that was the first one. It’s great, it has the qualities of a washboard but so much more and so we called it the Charismo because it had so much charisma. It really fit in with our sound, pretty soon the audiences in the diner grew until there were folk queuing up outside who couldn’t get in.
I hear that it’s been rebuilt, hammered together, taken apart over the years.
Well I believe that he’s actually built about a hundred of them by now. A lot of them are actually on Justin’s wall back in LA where he’s a full time sculptor.
By the time this is published you’ll be in the early stages of a lengthy European tour.
We’re doing the lot, Belgium, Germany, Netherlands, Czech Republic, Italy, Switzerland, France and The UK. We’ve been over several times and I really like playing to the European audiences, they seem to get really excited about the music. Sometimes in the States we play and people just stand around but in Europe maybe we seem more… exotic, perhaps that’s the word. There’s a festival over here, Floyd Fest in Virginia, which was originally a world music type festival and I went to the first one, 10 or 12 years ago and there were these African musicians and I just stood there in awe because I’d never seen or heard anything like that, so maybe that’s how some folk in Europe see us. We go down really well in Germany and Spain; in the UK we’re not as well known. When we play a place like the Cluny in Newcastle it’s packed but in London the crowds are smaller. We’d really like to crack the festival circuit there. We played Clonakilty in Ireland and it was crowded but in Dublin there was only a couple of dozen there. It’s hard, I mean it’s not hard like a Syrian refugee’s life is hard or how life can be hard in the real world but to keep on doing this and be creative is a struggle. Maybe the UK are still mad about the revolutionary war!
It amazes and also dismays me that bands like yourselves, unless it’s part of some big festival or there’s been some kind of hi-res publicity like a TV show, can play to audiences of less than a hundred over here.
That happens to us in the States as well but we’ll play to small crowds and then big crowds, we’re still slugging it out. We play the exact same show no matter how many people are there, if it’s a really small crowd we might just forget the mics and stage set up and just come down and play on the floor. That’s usually a part of our show anyway. We’ll come off the stage and just break it down to its rawest form and people really like that. It all boils down to making a living and we’ll have some merchandise at the shows, Tee shirts, records. Charismo is out on vinyl and we’ve got a 7″ single we recorded in Amsterdam which is two of the demos from the album. It’s our first foray into vinyl and we’ve actually been selling as many of those as we do CDs.
Finally, can I ask a dumb question? Where does the band name come from?
It started almost as a joke. When we started playing at the Blue Moon Diner the guy who ran it took us on as our manager for a while and we didn’t have a name and he wanted to know what to call us. And then Bobby and Tom said well we’re kind of like hacking and sawing away here, hacking on the guitar, sawing on the fiddle and I think it was Tom who said Hackensaw and then Boys was just a sort of traditional moniker for a lot of Appalachian bands. So that was that but I sometime wish we had left the Boys bit out.
Tuesday June 28 Boston Music Arms London
Wednesday June 29 The Moon Club Cardiff
Thursday June 30 The Cluny Newcastle
Friday Juyl 1 Maverick Festival Easton
Back in May of 2014 Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Seattle band Massy Ferguson‘s album Victory and Ruins giving it a big thumbs up while noting elements of The Drive By Truckers, Son Volt, The Jayhawks and Bottle Rockets in the mix. We said it was a great album to have on you when someone asked you what American roots rock sounded like and having revisited it this week we stand by that. Two years later and here’s the follow up, Run It Right into The Wall. It’s no huge departure from their hard driving blue collar rock template but it does find the band slimmed down to a trio (Ethan Anderson, bass & vocals, Adam Monda, guitar and Dave Goedde on drums) following the departure of keyboard player Tony Mann. In addition, there’s none of the pedal steel that graced several of the songs on Victory and Ruins, instead there’s an emphasis on the guitars and a big boost for the drum sound. They haven’t, thank God, turned into a blunderbuss power trio; there’s still plenty of light and shade here. Instead they’ve set their sights on classic guitar bands of the 80’s, REM, The Replacements and such for this set of songs all written by Anderson. In addition, there’s a healthy dose of slightly older classic American rock informing the set.
There’s certainly an REM like jangle to the opening Gallipoli while Anderson’s vocals aren’t a million miles removed from early Jay Farrar here. It’s a ferocious scramble of guitars and driving percussion with a brief and inventive spiralling guitar break midway through. The following Santa Fe then recalls their previous work opening as if Crazy Horse were about to take off before settling into a hard bitten and hard driving road tale which takes the band into Drive By Truckers territory with Monda’s guitar squalling away. While comparisons might abound as the songs unfold it’s important to say that the band in the main transcend their influences. Perhaps the best example here is on Firewater which ripples with translucent guitars giving it a Byrds like feel as it flows along, Anderson’s vocal gruff yet melodic as he sings of a loser whose only friend is the bottle.
The band continue to walk along the ragged highway of American music with the Southern rock strut of For A While and there’s a Creedence Clearwater guitar vibe on the steady rolling Dogbone where the band stretch out allowing Monda space to set off some guitar fireworks. Away From The Devil is another memorable match of classic hardscrabble living lyrics and stone cold American rootsy rock drive, the rhythm section solid as a levy while guitars squirrel and swarm. Anderson comes into his own with the introduction to Front Page News, his voice stained with emotion and hurt before the band swoop in and he lets loose over a powerful E Street type melodrama with an organ added for extra heft.
Heading for the end zone there’s a ferocious run through on Special Meds with Anderson ranting about pills and sanity before the sonically adventurous Into The Wall. Again Anderson is impressive on vocals as a scrubbed guitar and synth drums gently propel his words which portray a character beaten into submission by everyday obstacles and at the end of his tether. As the tension builds the band weigh in with crashing guitar but a mandolin also appears tethering the song and avoiding bombast. They close with the impressive Into The Sun, a pulverising drum beat and furiously scrubbed guitars opening and Anderson’s voice soaring on the choruses before the song ends in a welter of sound.
While it’s not as immediate as its predecessor Run It Right into The Wall is a solid slice of gritty roots rock music which deserves a listen. The band have a fine live reputation and if you’re down south you can check this out as they’re currently playing several dates in England including a slot at next week’s Maverick Festival on the Saturday. There’s an official album launch in London at Zigfrid Von Underbelly at Hoxton Square on Thursday 30th June with fellow At The Helm artists Daniel Meade, Society and Stevie Ray Latham also appearing, a line up well worth catching and at a price you won’t believe (£6 if you ask. Other dates here.
Singer and songwriter with I See Hawks In L.A., the seventies infused country rock band from, well, L.A., Waller has taken some time out to record his solo debut and it’s a mixed bag indeed. First off, it’s a collection of cover versions, always a tough nut to crack as it inevitably begs comparisons to the originals. Secondly, Waller’s selection of songs to cover is somewhat eclectic, from The Doors and The Kinks to Willie Nelson and Daniel Johnston which does add some variety to the album but hardly makes for a cohesive listen. It’s truly a curate’s egg of an album, parts of it are exceedingly good while others not so.
Waller’s fine baritone voice is a mainstay throughout, no real surprise there and his players (including members of I See Hawks) are all on fine form and he opens the album with an excellent performance on his cover of Utah Phillips’ Walking through Your Town In The Snow. Waller gives this hobo’s lament a fine and sweet countrified facelift with Nora Germain excelling on her violin solo while producer Marc Doten’s piano recalls Floyd Cramer. It’s a grand opening statement and the standout number here; an album of songs such as this would be tasty indeed. Instead Waller wanders around with the album becoming something of a pic’n’mix selection.
On the plus side Mike Stinson’s Counting My Lucky Stars approaches the excellence of the opening number while the cover of Robert Ahlert’s Don’t You Pay Them No Mind, a song associated with Nina Simone is similarly transformed into a country styled tear jerker. It’s clear that Waller is comfortable with this style and the songs are comfortable in their mild country rock settings. When he tackles a real country song as on Willie Nelson’s Me and Paul he does so with an outlaw gusto that’s pretty good but then halfway through a synthesiser lights up and then buzzes around like a confused bee for the remainder of the song. Quirky.
The pic’n’mix approach is more pronounced on the more familiar songs. Neil Young’s Albuquerque is hefty but lacks the raw emotion of the original. The Kinks’ Waterloo Sunset ambles along finely with a nice saloon bar piano ambience and Daniel Johnston’s Don’t Let The Sun Go Down On Your Grievances is pumped up as the band come across like NRBQ. Less successful are the versions of Dylan’s She Belongs To Me which has little of the sinuous curves of the original, The Doors Crystal Ship, a song that really should have been best left alone while Albert Hammond’s The Air That I Breathe is cluttered and overblown and not a patch on Phil Everly’s rendition or even that of The Hollies. The title song of the album meanwhile is a cover of an Oak Ridge Boys song which to my mind wasn’t particularly interesting to start with but here it’s performed as a faux calypso number reminiscent of Jimmy Buffet.
It’s 50/50 here as to whether the album is a keeper. However, I’m sure that fans of I See Hawks In L.A. will be keen to check it out and I’ll be programming the better songs for repeat listenings as they are very good indeed. Waller himself talks about the song selections here along with memories of his late mother to whom the album is dedicated.
Ever the maverick, Howe Gelb returned to Glasgow to perform what was billed as a solo piano show, reports of the demise of his long-standing moveable feast of a band, Giant Sand trailing behind him. Gelb’s no stranger to performing solo and has been known in the past to drop his regular show if there’s a piano sharing the stage with him while scattered within his dauntingly large back catalogue are four albums of piano music (Lull Some Piano, Ogle Some Piano, Spun Some Piano and Snarl Some Piano should you wish to pursue them). In almost any other case these discs would stand out as oddities or vanity projects, in the weird happenstance world of Gelb they are simply another outlet for his restless quest in search of another note, another way to capture the sounds around him, molecules of music I believe he once described them.
Anyhow, as Howe aficionados will know, the night was up for grabs, no one sure what to expect. This has caused frustration in the past, audiences puzzled by his somewhat gnomic utterances, his lack of a set list and detours which have seen him singing along to Kylie Minogue records. Tonight the first impression on entering the venue was somewhat surprising, the cellar venue, grungy to say the least and usually home to hot and sweaty shows with plastic beer glasses spilled due to jostles had seating set out with the front rows set out cabaret style, tables with candles lit. Sure enough there was a solitary upright piano up there, stage left, a chair also which led to the initial pantomime acted out by Gelb as he appeared on stage, sat down and unimpressed left the stage to look for another perch. He soon reappeared with another chair, a very similar chair in fact and spent some time clowning around trying to set up his seating. One had the feeling that at this point “serious rock fans” would be muttering and complaining but tonight it seemed that the audience were attuned to the man and his antics drew serious laughter, a phenomenon that continued through the night as Gelb turned in a show that recalled memories of Victor Borge, the Danish keyboard prodigy who turned classical music into a comedy routine.
Gelb’s target tonight was not the Minute Waltz but what we can consider The Great American Songbook and in particular those which are considered piano based jazz standards. Announcing that the night was to be devoted to his next recording, Future Standards, his foray into that weird world where serious jazz musicians rub shoulders with cocktail classics he proceeded to play an immensely impressive Cry Me A River. His croon was more than a match for Julie London’s torch singing, his playing displaying the occasional nod to the angular twists and dissonant chords of Thelonious Monk. Like Borge, Gelb was into explaining the music saying that almost any song can be turned into a cocktail standard before performing his own song Shiver with occasional ragtime and bop keyboard interludes. Well into his stride he then performed several songs from the forthcoming album, some sounding like Jack Kerouac performing with Steve Allen, others more cocktail jazz with Gelb asking the barmaid at the back if she knew how to mix a Martini. On Terribly So he stopped, explained that the song really needed a bass and drum rhythm before hauling out his Smartphone, dialling it to the studio recording therein and proceeded to duet with the phone held to the mic as he sang along and tinkled some ivory. Classic Gelb here.
Aside from Victor Borge Gelb also summoned up the ghost of Chico Marx with his keyboard mannerisms but it was Chico’s brother Harpo who loomed large as Gelb stood up and removed the piano’s lid and front exposing the strings. Harpo famously wrecked a piano in the movie A Day At The Races, eventually pulling the strings from the piano carcass and using it as a harp. Gelb didn’t go so far as that but his plucking of the strings added to the occasional dissonance of his playing, his version of John Cage’s prepared piano.
He started with a cover and ended the set with another. This time Leonard Cohen’s A Thousand Kisses Deep with his very fine croon a suitable match for Cohen’s voice and a fine ending to a show that, aside from the comedy and verbal musings, allowed Gelb’s undisputed talent to shine. Show almost over Gelb did strap on his guitar for a fine rendition of Paradise Here Abouts (from the Sno Angel Like You album) before finishing with the wonderful Wind Blown Waltz, an opportunity to show that he can be as idiosyncratic on guitar as on piano but again a reminder that he is a supremely gifted songwriter.
Erika Wennerstrom, singer with Cincinatti band The Heartless Bastards, opened the show. A diminutive figure she has a big voice and she played several songs from her band including Marathon. Here she didn’t need the band accompaniment, her guitar shimmering and trebly as she intoned the lyrics. She struggled with the sound at times, her guitar almost booming and threatening to feedback but as she said to the audience this was a first time solo outing and she was still finding her feet. I Could Be So Happy was a fine performance, her voice recalling the primal tones of Patti Smith.
There’s time to catch more Gelb at the piano here.
Had to make some space to mention that Lilly Hiatt and Hannah Aldridge are swinging through Scotland this week with appearances in Edinburgh, Glasgow and Aberdeen. Over the past 10 days they’ve been trekking around England to rave reviews, Three Chords and The Truth saying that the pair of them “play music of the soul in a way that captivates a tuned-in audience leaving a trail of awe, satisfaction and belief that straight from the gut music is full of intense appeal”. That straight from the gut comment apparently comes from Aldridge’s description of her music and anyone who has heard her album, Razor Wire will know that she can deliver tough and bluesy rock songs as well as laid back acoustic numbers.
Aldridge is the daughter of famed country writer Walt Aldridge and her companion on this tour is another scion of a notable musician, in this case John Hiatt. This tour is Lilly Hiatt’s first time over here and she has a new album which was released at the beginning of this month. Like Aldridge Hiatt is no stranger to rock music although in her case on Royal Blue she tends more towards the indie side of things, one description of the album saying it’s ” a glorious tumble of influences – surf rock, Smiths vibes, Laurel Canyon twang and jangle, Sonic Youth flatline and Britpop flourishes”. A fair enough description although it doesn’t really tell you what the album sounds like. It doesn’t mention for example the excellent pedal steel on Jesus Would’ve Let Me Pick The Restaurant with its sly references to Lynyrd Skynyrd. From the low rumble of the opening song Far Away to the closing title song Hiatt does ramble across various genres but her fine voice and sharp writing steers her her firmly along American highways and byways. Off Track’s guitars buzz like a swarm of angry wasps, Too Bad veers towards Southern Gothic and Heart Attack is wrapped up in a new wave keyboard bubble.
The Scottish shows are as follows. Check the links for tickets.
A few months ago I reviewed an album for Americana UK by DH Lawrence & The Vaudeville Skiffle Show, a band portraying themselves as a skiffle unit from Nottingham. I didn’t really buy into the skiffle schtick finding them somewhat more sophisticated, another fine example of home grown bands who are really grabbing the Americana folk roots nettle. This is obvious on their latest endeavour, a new song that’s accompanied by a very fine video that uses the imagery of Korean/Australian artist Eugenie Lee. Lee is a multi media artist who “constructs imaginative psychodramas around the unquantifiable and irrational nature of pain” and the band contacted her for permission to use some of her images and films to illustrate Black Rain, their latest song which uses the title as a metaphor for pain. The result is an imaginative and visually striking film, polymorphous fluids, barbed wire punishment machines (shades of Kafka here) and dramatic tableaux, all from Lee’s oeuvre are scored to a song that’s evidence of this “skiffle” band’s progression.
The song itself opens with spooky singing saw and ominous vocals before the band kick in with a low-slung groove, the bass rumbling and fiddle skirling. There’s a menacing instrumental towards the end where chaos threatens, the guitars meandering, the fiddle and saw squalling and squealing before they settle back into the chorus. It’s a fine performance and will surely please folk who like The Handsome Family or Hillfolk Noir.
You can see the video below and the good news is that DH Lawrence & The Vaudeville Show are bringing their show to Glasgow on 6th July at Nice & Sleazy for what promises to be a fine night.
A documentary about the late, enigmatic Mark Linkous aka Sparklehorse will make its U.K debut at The Union Chapel, Islington on Friday the 25th of June. A cult and hugely influential figure in the alternative music scene, the critically acclaimed Linkous had a dramatic life that saw him battle with drug and alcohol addiction, paralysis, and debilitating mental illness that resulted in his eventual suicide. Sparklehorse’s music was heralded by his peers and critics; a mix of delicate pop, discordant punk and melodic odyssey. It has been described as “defiantly surrealist… with all manner of references to smiling babies, organ music, birds, and celestial bodies.” His collaborators included PJ Harvey, Tom Waits, The Flaming Lips, Danger Mouse, David Lynch, Thom Yorke (Radiohead), and Nina Persson (The Cardigans) to name but a few.
After Linkous’ suicide in 2010, U.K. based filmmakers Alex Crowton and Bobby Dass decided to create a film about Mark’s life and music, having previously worked with the singer to make a promo film. They invited Linkous’ friend and collaborator, Angela Faye Martin to invoke a narrative about the artist’s darkly powerful oeuvre and with an eye for the poignancy of his brief life of 47 years, they embarked on a portrayal of the life and work of a creative genius at odds with his world, the anti-creative forces Linkous metaphorically referred to as, ‘witches of white noise’.
The film features interviews with Linkous himself as well as; Jonathan Donahue & Grasshopper (Mercury Rev), Jason Lytle (Grandaddy), David Lowery (Camper Van Beethoven), Emily Haines (Metric), Adrian Utley (Portishead), John Parish (PJ Harvey), Matthew Wright, Ed Harcourt, Gemma Hayes and others. The Union Chapel showing will include a Q& A with writer & Co-Producer/ Directors (Alex Crowton & Bobby Dass) plus performances from Gemma Hayes, Adrian Utley, Happyness & Angela Faye Martin.
Currently this London premier is the only planned UK showing of the film although it is expected that further showings throughout the UK will be arranged. The producers have also mentioned plans for eventual DVD release. In the meantime, here are the trailers and a couple of clips from the film. you can get more information regarding the film from this website and tickets for the London showing can be got here.
Why Dan Michaelson is not a name that’s bandied about more often in musical circles is a mystery to me. Memory is the third episode of a trilogy which commenced with 2013’s Blindspot and continued with Distance the following year. Both those albums were sublime experiences with Michaelson’s deep baritone voice well to the fore, the music glacial in its progress, the songs wearied. Indeed, it wasn’t until I read the press release for Memory that I realised that Michaelson was responsible, along with Johnny Flynn, for the musical score to the superb BBC series The Detectorists. Flynn appears here (playing violin and flugelhorn) along with another of Michaelson’s old friends, Romeo Stodart of The Magic Numbers (on bass) and The Coastguards (Henry Spenner on drums, Laurie Earle, guitar and piano and Horse on guitar) are also swelled by double bass, cello, baritone and alto sax and trombone. Together they create a richer sound than on the previous albums (although that’s relative, this is still stripped back raw emotion), the horns creating at times a muted brass band sense of melancholy. The songs still creep along at a pace that makes Leonard Cohen seem like EDM but therein lies the beauty and wonder of Michaelson, his unhurried gravitas and funereal delivery allowing the album time to germinate in the listening.
The album opens with the quietly majestic Tides. A frustrated love song, the object of affection continually washed out of reach, tidal crashes of horns and percussion overwhelming the sonorous piano led verses, it’s like Brian Wilson on Quaaludes. It’s followed by the title song where Michaelson ponders on the vicissitudes of memory recalling moments that one would imagine would be the highlights of a relationship only to then mournfully state “memory, look what you’re doing to me, you left me undone and you show what I don’t want to see”. This sense of frustration permeates the album while the sensation of ever shifting sands creating a fragile grip on life, the singer subject to the whims of the tides continues on Missing Piece, the arrangements here recalling David Bedford’s work with Kevin Ayers.
Michaelson continues on his bruised Odyssey with the Cohen like Lost Piece, his voice here slowed to a crawl, the horns solemn on a song that commences with, “I was walking you home when the clouds above broke and the rain streaked your face like you’d been crying”. His attempt to convey his feelings are frustrated, “I felt the words of a thousand lost birds trip from my tongue before falling, each feather that lay in the mud and the rain was just seconds from meeting their calling” he sings/talks, desolate in the rain. Undo ups the tempo somewhat, the heart beat here suggesting resuscitation might be appropriate but again Michaelson is quietly raving against past decisions wishing to undo the past but powerless to do so. While comparisons abound to the likes of Cohen, Bill Callahan and Lee Hazlewood due to Michaelson’s vocal delivery on No Other Way we’d like to add Lou Reed to the roster as the song and the vocals here bring to mind the reflective Reed of Perfect Day. It’s a song to simply wallow in, sumptuous, the playing perfect.
“Epic minimalism” is a description someone came up with when referring to Michaelson. I’d just say that epic miserabilism might be more to the point but add that there’s a wonderfully realised beauty contained within.
Oxford’s Dreaming Spires are well known for their jangled take on classic sixties California bands with their last album Searching For The Supertruth one of the nominees for the inaugural UK Americana Awards. For their debut release on At The Helm Records they’ve come up with a concept of sorts, another nod to the past for sure, Paisley Overground being an obvious tribute to the 80’s Paisley Underground, the LA based combustion of ex punks and garage bands who dug The Byrds as much as the Sex Pistols. There’s the album (or mini album, eight songs and under 30 minutes) which is released on plum coloured vinyl and which features four songs from the Spires and an additional four from friends who share their passions and there was even a mini package tour which took in four dates down south last week to coincide with the release.
Side one (and it’s really nice to write that) features The Spires and three of the four songs here were recorded in the legendary Ardent studios in Memphis which they visited when they played Americana Fest last year. They open with the title track, a glorious smorgasbord of 12 stringed chiming guitars, soaring organ and harmonies galore as Robin Bennett waxes in autobiographical mode as he sings about finding a new kind of sound and his love of Paisley shirts and 12 string guitars. Harberton Mead hymns an Oxford street with a Stax like propulsive beat coloured by sitar like guitar breaks and a brief organ led freakout at the end. The Road Less Travelled eases up on the clutch as it glides into sight. A ballad that’s imbued with the spirit of Big Star, stately piano, keening pedal steel and soaring vocals remind one that Chris Bell was as integral to Big Star as Alex Chilton and the band here are just magnificent. Silverlake Sky, the final part of their four piece jigsaw is the one song recorded in Oxford but it fits perfectly with The Road Less Travelled as it again recalls Big Star.
Side two cements the Paisley Overground concept by the clever trick of having one of the Paisley underground movers and shakers, Sid Griffin opening. Griffin here teams up with Tony Poole from the 70’s UK band Starry Eyed and Laughing (a living link between the 60’s jangle and the later revivals) for Tell Her All The Time, a song that recalls the earlier and folkier Byrds. The remaining three songs are from friends of The Spires. Co-Pilgrim have a shimmery sixties feel on the languid Save The Queen Blazer, The Hanging Stars have a Topanga canyon easy feeling vibe on their free flowing Crippled Shining Blues, twin guitars offering memories of Manassas. Finally The Raving Beauties, a band that grew out of a fictional account of a sixties Byrds inspired band offer up Arrows, a song that reminds one that the jingle jangle pop sound wasn’t confined to LA as they summon up memories of Merseybeat and The Searchers.
The album arrived just too late for our recent spell of Mediterranean weather but when the sun comes back out this would be the perfect accompaniment to a lazy sun speckled afternoon. In the meantime you can dig out the sun lamp and pretend, the songs will transport you.
There’s a fine interview with Joe Bennett on the disc here and you can buy it here. The Dreaming Spires will be coming to Scotland for a show at Southern Fried Festival at Perth on the Sunday Outdoor Stage.