The Westies/Michael McDermott

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The Westies, a Chicago based outfit fronted by husband and wife Michael McDermott and Heather Horton are named after an Irish affiliated New York gang of the ’60s and 70’s whose home turf was Hell’s Kitchen. Their debut album, released last year was a powerful package of bruised and gritty urban tales which recalled the likes of Springsteen and Willie Niles. Six On The Out very much continues in this vein with McDermott saying, “I was focused on the story, a second instalment. What happens next to these characters?” What happens next is more tales of urban struggle, the outsider trying to fit in, damaged characters with traumatic pasts, physically and emotionally wounded, McDermott gives voice to them all with a grim authority that is partly drawn from his own back story.

As in a Peckinpah movie there is violence galore here but it’s delivered with panache, the blood and guts offered an artistic out, in this case the craftsmanship and, at times, the sheer beauty of the lyrics and music. For the most part there’s a muscular drive to  the songs which vary from pained country styled ballads to blue collar rock, Horton’s fiddle as much to the fore as guest Will Kimbrough’s guitar. The opener If I Had A Gun is a fine scene setter, the protagonist just released from jail straight back into the scene’s that sent him there in the first place.  A sinister piece with lashes of guitar over a slow beat as McDermott huskily narrates it’s dramatic and somewhat unnerving and he repeats this on several other songs on the album with the closing song Sirens  a raw tale of childhood violence, drugs and jail and car wrecks, as dark as the darkest hardboiled American authors.

While the lyrical content is not much lighter the band offer up the Irish influenced The Gang’s All Here, head into Bruce territory on the driving Santa Fe and retell the tale of Billy The Kid on Henry McCarty  (the Kid’s real name). Horton gets to sing lead on Like You Used To Do, a wonderful broken down country waltz, her voice so evocative as she sings about a relationship shattered by her man’s drinking, her voice echoed by a hurting guitar solo. Is it fair to ask that McDermott and Horton consider doing more of this as an album of hurt Heather Horton songs could be a winner.

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In the meantime it’s McDermott who has released a solo album, Willow Springs. Apparently it’s his tenth effort after being signed to a major label back in the early nineties. His bio is refreshingly honest in that, alongside the initial hype of the times, he screwed up, succumbing to booze and drugs,  eventually kind of limping along until he achieved sobriety. A couple of years clean now and with a wife and baby daughter egging him on he is on a roll with two albums from The Westies (along with his wife Heather Horton) under his belt and now this solo album. In fact many of the names on The Westies’ album reappear including Horton, Will Kimbrough and Lex Price and the difference between the albums is at times paper thin. McDermott still reminds one of Springsteen although in this case it’s the Springsteen who reminded folk of Dylan way back in the seventies. Lyrically the albums do differ, Willow Springs still contains its fair share of stories but they’re more opaque than the blood spattered city street tales of Six On The Out and one gets the sense that the romantic losers and redeemed rebels sung about here are McDermott’s way of making sense of his own journey.

While Getaway Car and Half Empty Kinda Guy press the pedal on the E Street highway a little too enthusiastically the opening title song points the finger at Dylan as McDermott fires out the alliterative lyrics with machine gun rapidity as he travels down his own desolation row. The venom at the beginning of the song is eventually supplanted by a sense of hope and the album follows suit almost with its closing songs portraying a man more comfortable in his own skin and able to manage his emotions. In between there is confusion on the brisk These Last few Days, a rebel without a cause on Getaway Car and on the haunting Soldiers Of The Same War casualties build up as folk try to run from their past.

They say before you can get up you have to hit bottom and on Butterfly McDermott paints a grim picture of addiction before seeing a light at the end of the tunnel on Half Empty Kind Of Guy and trepidatiously allowing himself to feel again on One Minus One. On the self mocking Folksinger McDermott is in control and able to poke some fun at the thought of him and Bono sitting on top of their millions and there’s a genuine sense of joy and relief in the sweet and soulful Let A Little Light In, a song that recalls Danny and The Champs country soul with its backing horn section. In the notes for the album McDermott says that in his turbulent years he also had to endure the death of his father and Shadow In The Window is an affectionate tribute to the man who raised him. Switching generations Willie Rain is a delightful ditty dedicated to his daughter (which opens with her saying “I love you daddy”) and it’s delivered with a jaunty country lope. McDermott closes the album with the grand sweep of What Dreams May Come, a powerful and emotive song of hope and dreams that again centres on his father but which also looks to the future. Sung and played with a dignified restraint the song avoids mawkishness and is a fine closing statement on what is a very fine album.

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Petunia & The Vipers. Dead Bird On the Highway.

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Joy indeed to have the third album from the oddly named and even odder sounding Canadian outfit Petunia & The Vipers as Blabber’n’Smoke was somewhat enamoured of the two previous releases which we reviewed here and here. Dead Bird On The Highway sees Petunia continuing to wander into the more esoteric byways of popular music while still retaining the core mixture of Western Swing, Blues and Rockabilly which are the foundations of his sound. Although there is yodelling to be found there are songs by Otis Blackwell, Ike Turner and a stunning version of Little Willie John’s I’m Shakin’ along with several numbers that have African roots. All in all a very eclectic mix but if you’ve been following Petunia’s career this should come as no surprise.

Petunia’s reedy vocals in themselves are a joy to listen to as he croons, scats and yodels with a zest that is at times exhausting while The Vipers can lay down a vampish beat, rock like hell and kick the gong around as easily as you switch car gears. At times they do this within the space of a song as on Gonna Put On My Suit where they switch from a bluesy opening into tom tom fuelled guitar blizzards and then tumble into a jazzy Slim and Slam interlude which is then interrupted by pedal steel coming down the tracks. On paper, this seems like a train wreck but it’s an exhilarating ride, the twists and turns coming so fast that by the end the listener is dizzy but satisfied.

The opening song, Blue Yodel Blues, a tremendous mash up of western swing and Jimmy Rogers doesn’t prepare the listener for what’s to come as it’s one of the most straightforward numbers here, straightforward that is for Petunia. As they proved when they played here back in 2013 The Vipers are a deadly force when it comes to delivering hi octane rock, rhythm and blues and they do so here on several occasions. Oh What A Wonderful Time, an Otis Blackwell number finds the band in a viperish mood, all Cotton Club and Cab Calloway swing as Petunia comes across all lascivious, My heart Cries Out For You skitters along like a mutant Buddy Holly number while Bloom, Bloom, Bloom is like Tav Falco with a nervous tic. Throughout the album Petunia takes on familiar styles and mutates them, Chained is a frantic dash that resembles a Merrie Melodies cartoon soundtrack that marries Eastern melodies and hard boiled gangster film noir grit and Put Yourself On The Market (AKA Why Don’t You Do Right or Weed Smoker’s Dream) out Waits Tom Waits with its junkyard jackhammer blues.  We reach the outer limits on the surf guitar fuelled  Asaw Fofor, a  cover of a Ghanaian song from the sixties by Ignace de Souza which finds Petunia switching between English and Swahili over a tremendous groove and on the crowning achievement here, the spooky netherworld of Death Himself. Shimmers of guitar and a rain slicked noirish sheen glower over a slow beat that breathes menace, a shadow in the dark stalking the living. Petunia casts himself as a torch singer, lapsing into French in a danse macabre although he can’t help himself from comparing the man with the scythe to a lumberjack, the Canadian in him coming out I suppose. In any case it’s shivering in its cold beauty.

While it’s not your normal country folk rock blues fodder Dead Bird On The Highway is firmly rooted in supremely listenable roots music as it challenges and provokes the listener to delve and explore but best of all it’s huge fun.

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BJ Barham. Rockingham. At The Helm Records

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Sometimes an album comes along that just packs a punch, a visceral jolt to the emotions. One such is Rockingham, the first solo outing from American Aquarium’s front man BJ Barham. A carousing alt country rock band American Aquarium gained plaudits for their last release Wolves as Barham, reported at one point as a heavy drinker, was by then sober and married, settling down as he approached his 30s. Apparently he had been mulling over doing some solo songs but it was back in November last year when, marooned in Holland in the panic following the Paris terrorist attacks, he began scribbling the songs that ended up on the album, songs that reach back to his formative years.

Barham grew up in Reidsville in Rockingham County, North Carolina, a tobacco town that prospered until the American Tobacco Company shut up shop in the mid nineties. On Rockingham he delivers eight songs which he describes as “fictional narrative in a very real place,” You might consider it to be a hardscrabble equivalent to Lake Woebegone, the latter’s small town whimsy replaced by fly on the wall reportage of hard times. He forsakes the alt country rock of his band for a stripped back approach that only on occasion approaches a full band sound. Instead, his dirt stained voice is backed by his acoustic guitar, accordion, banjo, Dobro and spare keyboards and percussion, his narratives akin to those of Kris Kristofferson or John Prine.

The album opens with the sly country picking of American Tobacco Company, an encapsulation of the dead end drudgery of the factory worker, his hopes and dreams crushed by the 9-5, a theme pursued on the following title song with plaintive banjo and harmonica to the fore. Madeline hits an emotional chord as the protagonist cradles his newborn daughter and lists his advice for her future years. The song itself is cradled in a fine, almost spiritual, collision of guitar picking, stately piano and muted organ swells as his homegrown wisdom conjures up nuggets such as “never trust a man who does hard drugs in his thirties.” This intimacy is reversed on Unfortunate Kind where Barham strips it all back to voice and guitar as he inhabits the persona of a bereaved man holding onto memories of his 39 years of marriage, his courtship, life together and a descent into illness and death.

O’Lover is one of the fuller arrangements here as Barham recounts the tale of a farmer driven to robbery while Road To Nowhere almost skips along, its jauntiness at odds with the romantic desertion sung about. Here Barham hits the heights on a song that bears true comparison with the best of the troubadours, Guy Clark included, as he delivers a perfectly formed marriage of words and music, a song that will dwell in your mind. Reidsville is a fine capture of small town living, teenage cars, early marriage and married doldrums all wound around wheezy accordion and slinky Dobro. The album ends with the cracked and dusty Water In The Well, a rural equivalent of the opening blue collar worker’s dilemma as a farmer contemplates suicide while seeking an answer from his bible for a way out of his woes. Again Barham delivers this with an emotional punch, his voice straining with desperation, devoid of hope as the music haltingly shadows his dilemma.

Time will tell as to whether Rockingham will be considered in the same vein as an album such as Guy Clark’s Old No. 1 but in the meantime it’s probably the best of its kind this year.

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Dean Owens and the Celtabilly Allstars – Settin’ the Woods On Fire (Songs of Hank Williams). Southern Fried Festival. Perth. Sunday 31st July 2016

 

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Dean Owens is a regular feature at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival where, in addition to hosting the late night Songwriter Sessions, he is a star attraction in his own right. Last year Owens and his band, The Whisky Hearts played a blinder of a show that drew heavily from his album Into The Sea, a finely crafted blend of Celtic Americana which received rave reviews across the board. This year Owens doffed his hat to one of his heroes, Hank Williams with a show that featured him in a trio setting, The Celtabilly Allstars along with guitar whizz Stuart Nesbit and his former Felsons’ band mate Kevin McGuire on double bass. As on a previous venture, his tribute to the man in black, Cashback, Owens and his compadres selected a bunch of Hank written and Hank related songs to perform along with a self penned number, Celebrate The Life that hymned Williams’ life and works.

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Despite the tears and tragedy of Williams’ words and life this was a joyous show. Stuart Nisbet’s lap steel playing along with McGuire’s dextrous bass work giving a fine hillbilly feel to the proceedings while Nesbit was in fine vocal form on the Gospel song Calling You. They opened with the excellent country lope and swagger of Setting The Woods on Fire which contrasted with the beer fuelled melancholy of You Were On My Mind, the music still at a fair clip but the youthful exuberance of Setting The Woods on Fire replaced by bitter experience. The show continued to alternate the exuberant side of Williams with his darker side. Hey Good Looking saw Nisbet switch from lap steel to his Gibson for a raucous ramble which was followed by a stellar version of Why Don’t You Love Me while My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It was a light humoured delight.

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Owens reminisced about his first encounter with Williams courtesy of a friend who owned a record shop back in the day who played him Ramblin’ Man, Owens’ version today quite excellent, his voice capturing Williams’ hi and lonesome vocal break on the line endings. He also recalled his attempt to write in Williams’ style when back in The Felsons on a song called Dave, a warning to a friend about a treacherous woman.  There were fine deliveries of Lost Highway and Your Cheatin’ Heart, the melancholia seeping through, Nisbet’s lap steel a mournful wail, before Owens sang his song, Celebrate The Life, a number delivered in the style of I Saw The Light with the audience joining in on the chorus as Owens entreated us to remember the “hillbilly Shakespeare” with his “songs of love and heartache, liquor, beer and tears“. The show ended with Owens alone on stage to deliver a spellbinding I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, a reminder not just of William’s genius but also that Owens has matured into a masterful performer, his voice rich and emotive along with a whistling solo that was just superb.

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Dean Owens has several other shows lined up over the coming weeks (see here) but currently there are only two further outings for this Celtabilly Allstars show. One is tonight at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe and then in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on Wednesday 24th August. Aside from being a tremendous show these will be the only opportunity to buy a limited edition CD that The Celtabilly Allstars have recorded of Hank’s songs, Settin’ The Woods on Fire (Songs I Learned From Hank) which features most of the songs from the show including Celebrate The Life. It’s a fine listen that enlivened our journey back from Perth.