The Coal Porters. No. 6. Prima Records

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Only yesterday Sid Griffin, erstwhile founder of The Coal Porters was anointed a cult hero by The Guardian for his role in alt country pioneers The Long Ryders. Problem with cult heroes is that, by definition, they are relatively unknown, often long gone before cult status is bestowed on them. No such problem with Mr. Griffin as not only is he alive and kicking he’s barnstorming across the country with his “alt bluegrass” band The Coal Porters who are now in their 25th year, originally following the Ryders’ country rock path before entering the 21st century as an all acoustic band.

No. 6 is the sixth album from the acoustic Porters and it’s important to emphasise that while Griffin might be the “name” here the band are a truly democratic collective with song writing and singing duties shared between Griffin, guitarist Neil Robert Heard and Fiddler Kerenza Peacock. Produced by folk rock legend John Wood (who has worked with Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, John Martyn and Beth Orton) the ten songs here see the band working within their bluegrass base while including folk, country and even 80s’ type indie romanticism.

Herd’s Songs are muscular and earthy. Save Me From the Storm is a clever amalgamation of sea faring folk song and spiritual call and response with the Porters’ dynamic soloing mid song quite invigorating. Unhappy Anywhere ripples along finely with a Celtic lilt and morose lyrics, Herd in a Hibernian existentialist mood. Meanwhile The Old Style Prison Break is a keen examination of cowboy movie staples delivered with a shit kicking front porch jollity.

Ms. Peacock offers up the instrumental Chopping the Garlic, a showcase for her fiddle playing with the band not playing second fiddle, banjo player Paul Fitzgerald and bassist Andrew Stafford getting the chance to shine along with Griffin on mandolin and Herd on guitar. They certainly zip along and the coda is cool. She then sings on Play A Tune (apparently her first vocal performance) and it’s a much more mannered song than its siblings. Her high, almost breathless vocals and fiddle allusions to The Lark Ascending are miles from normal Porters fare but it’s a very personal song, a tribute to her mother and its wonderful performance reminiscent of acts like The Raincoats and Virginia Astley.

Your man Griffin turns in his usual high calibre efforts. He strolls effortlessly through the jaunty Salad Days, a witty quickstep recalling his brush with fame while Train No. 10-0-5 is classic story telling with Fitzgerald’s banjo well to the fore before Peacock goes all Scarlet Rivera. He tops this with the sublime The Blind Bartender, a song that’s loaded with Peckinpah border drama heightened by the soaring trumpet solo from Cuban Eikel Venegas which transports the song into a dusty cantina. Wonderful.

We need to mention the closing song. A fine Coal Porters reclamation of The Only Ones’ Another Girl Another Planet, bound to be a sing-along at their gigs and then there’s Griffin’s opening gambit, his bluegrass tribute to the Ramones on The Day The Last Ramone Died. No stranger to rock’n’roll history Griffin here takes the tragic fact that all four bros are gone and forges an excellent tribute to them. His memories of seeing the band, donning his leather jacket when he heard of Tommy going, his aside regarding the ubiquity of the tee shirt are delivered energetically and I’m pretty sure that when they play this live it will give the audiences one more chance to yell, “Gabba gabba hey.”

Currently touring the UK (dates here) the good news is that if you’re quick you can catch The Coal Porters in Glasgow tonight at Woodend Bowling Club

Jon Boden. Painted Lady. Navigator Records

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Blabber’n’Smoke were never too taken by Bellowhead. Too busy, too rabble rousing, perhaps (gulp) too popular. Only kidding there but as evidenced on their final live disc (reviewed here ) they and their audience did like a good old knees up resulting in the band becoming festival favourites, to my mind the music suffering as a result. While it’s not entirely accurate to call Bellowhead Jon Boden’s band as there was a wealth of talent in there it was when Boden announced he was leaving that the band decided to call it a day. Now, their never ending farewell tours actually having ended we await Boden’s next move. In the interim his first solo album, Painted Lady, from 2006, is being reissued with some extra songs tacked on. It’s a welcome return for the album and a fine reminder of the man’s talents.

A truly solo album Painted Lady has Boden playing all instruments including electric guitar, fiddle, banjo, double bass, concertina, Indian harmonium, glockenspiel, piano, drum machine and Moog synthesiser. As you might surmise from that assortment it’s not a traditional folk album. It’s fair to say I think that Boden’s influences here include Tom Waits and Richard Thompson and while he never achieves parity with either he has a brave stab at it. It’s an uneven album and Boden’s voice at times struggles with the rockier songs but when it’s good it is very good. Get A Little Something opens the album in fine style, a Waits like banjo jamboree that woozily waltzes with fairground gaiety and slashes of guitar. The romantic side of Waits looms large on Josephine while his more experimental edge hovers over Pocketful of Mud, a muddy (indeed) mash up of sampled voices, waspish guitar and an electronic beat that forever seems about to burst into Tainted Love with a side dish of dub.

While Pocketful of Mud passes muster as a sonic adventure Drunken Princess comes across as a failed attempt to marry a sensitive ballad with electronics and a mismatched howl of a chorus. The closing song Drinking The Night Away is too stiff for a song that surely calls for a loose-limbed approach, here the one-man band approach does the song no favours while Boden’s voice is too mannered and strained. However he’s on surer ground on several songs that discard much of the exotic instrumentation, the shimmering Blue Dress, the robust Lemany (quite a wonderful love song actually) and the gentle strains of True Love all qualify for repeat listening. On his more familiar folkier ground Win Some Lose Some Sally approaches Fairport Convention territory with its skirled guitar and almost martial beat and the harmonium infused Ophelia and Broken Things are downbeat and evocative although the latter does recall Lionel Bart’s showbiz take on common folks’ music. But then again Boden has a background in music theatre and on the title song here he comes up with a song that could surely grace the West End, his voice, the minimal accompaniment and the images in the lyrics all conspiring towards a career in the limelight.

As for the bonus songs, All Hang Down is a lusty folk rock number while Old Brown’s Daughter finds Boden alone with his guitar and happily burrowing into a quintessential folk idiom as he sings about his unrequited love for the local shopkeeper’s daughter, a song that could easily sit on the soundtrack for the rebooted Poldark. Finally, there’s the bizarre mash up of Morris music and Whitney Houston as Boden tackles I Want to Dance With Somebody. Too weird to describe, you just need to hear it and make up your own mind.

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My Darling Clementine with Mark Billingham. The Other Half. CCA, Glasgow 8th September 2016

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The Other Half is a collaboration between star-crossed lovers’ country duet My Darling Clementine (Lou Dalgleish and Michael Weston King) and crime writer Mark Billingham that exists as an album and a stage show incorporating spoken word, forlorn country songs and, on stage, an evocative media presentation. King and Dalgleish as My Darling Clementine had already delivered two delicious albums of fretful and quarrelsome duets, a homage of sorts to the troubled lifestyles of several venerated country duets (the ghosts of George Jones and Tammy Wynette looming large) before a mutual friend suggested they work with the author. Already a fan of the band and of the genre (Billingham had given his cop antihero, Tom Thorne a “love of country music both alt and cheesy”) they crafted The Other Half.  The story line centres around a waitress in a dusty Memphis bar and the patrons she serves, their back stories illuminated by songs from My Darling Clementine’s albums along with two new bespoke songs. The album was extremely well received and the stage show has been performed on a regular basis over the past 18 months however, as Weston King admitted tonight, rarely in Scotland. An appearance at the Aye Write Festival and a sold out run of shows at last year’s Edinburgh Fringe being the only opportunities north of the border to soak up this tear stained slice of Memphis life before the announcement of two shows during this run (in Glasgow and Stirling), tonight’s show promoted by Sounds In The Suburbs.

It was well worth the wait. Reading reviews of previous shows one kind of knew what to expect, a short set from My Darling Clementine before the disc was reprised, Billingham reading his vignettes, the band playing the songs in between, as on the album. However those reviews hadn’t prepared one for the classy interaction, the verve with which the songs and stories interacted, Billingham’s animated and playful reading, his southern accents at the very least interesting, the dark humour accentuated, the characters given life. As he spoke Dalgleish and Weston King sat stage right in the half light of a sorry standard lampshade, sipping from a bottle of bourbon (or perhaps weak tea) and, as expected, strode forward at their cue points to perform. However there were moments within the monologues when guitar was strummed or keyboard stroked behind Billingham’s podium adding colour to the dramatic effect. Behind the trio monochrome images set the scene recalling the world of Robert Frank’s America while a glitter ball was used to excellent effect as Marcia, the waitress recalled her glory days as a Vegas showgirl.

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As for the songs. Well, Dalgleish and Weston King have honed their act over the years, she in polyester and clutching a plastic purse, he besuited in ill matched jacket and trousers, squabbling and making up over the course of some excellent songs which accurately capture the sob stories so beloved by the record buying American salt of the earth folk back in the days. Skilfully woven into the narrative they illustrate Marcia’s customers’ stories, her memories and imaginations but they also stand alone, a nice example tonight on the tear jerkin waltz of No Heart In This Heartache with Weston King  pleading  an off mic “no” followed by a rueful shake of the head from Dalgleish,  playing the part so well. For those who know the album there were no surprises, the narrative and songs all in place but the conjunction of Donna’s story and the song No Matter What Tammy Said was a powerful indictment of domestic abuse. And while we’re not giving away the end here there was a fine upward curve with Going Back To Memphis a joyous beacon amongst the misery and loneliness while As Precious As The Flame cemented the joys of growing old together.

Sad stories and sad songs but a jubilant celebration of the genre all wrapped up in a tear stained package topped and tailed by some songs outwith the album. My Darling Clementine opened with three songs including a new one, Since I Fell For You and closed with a selection of songs they imagined would have played on the jukebox in Marcia’s bar. Cue Hank Williams and George Jones numbers (Good Year For The Roses, That’s All It Took and Your Cheatin’ Heart), all brilliantly delivered before Billingham came back onstage, guitar in hand for the closing rendition of Ray Price’s Heartaches By The Number.

There’s one more chance to catch this show in Stirling tonight while My Darling Clementine play Aberdeen on Sunday. All dates here

 

 

 

 

 

Billy Bragg & Joe Henry. Shine A Light: Field Recordings From The Great American Railroad. Cooking Vinyl.

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The Iron Horse, star of many a Western and a staple of American frontier culture, forging ever westward leaving in its wake communities enriched or split asunder. In cinema able to be the source of ribald humour as in Blazing Saddles or a carriage for depression era desperation as portrayed in Preston Sturges’  wonderful Sullivan’s Travels. Kerouac rode the rails, a brakeman for a time and Jimmie Rodgers was the singing brakeman. The Grateful Dead tooted along with Casey Jones, a far remove from the kiddie TV series starring Alan Hale, a series that was still being shown in the UK well into the late sixties. Did Billy Bragg watch this as a toddler? That we don’t know but Bragg certainly has the railroad bug, his love of Woody Guthrie, Leadbelly and Lonnie Donegan setting the points for this railroad Odyssey on which he is accompanied by his celebrated fellow hobo, Joe Henry.

Bragg and Henry, both keen to explore the tradition of railroad songs decided the best course for them was to hop on a train, guitars (and recording equipment) in tow and see where it took them. In this case they embarked in Chicago for a 2,728 mile ride to Los Angeles, a 65 hour long trip stopping at St. Louis, Fort Worth, San Antonio, Alpine, El Paso and Tucson. At the stops they hopped off, set up and sang, on platforms, waiting rooms and concourses, then hopped back on. A great idea and one that is faithfully captured here, ambient sounds and all. Bragg and Henry both sound great and they work well together, in harmony or in support of one another, even Bragg’s yodelling on Waiting For A Train passes muster. The 13 songs, all plucked from an Americana railroad gazetteer (if such a thing can be said to exist) roam from pining ballads to raucous skiffle like numbers, from the familiar to the obscure. Rock Island Line and Midnight Special rub shoulders with Railroad Bill and Waiting For A Train. There are songs a century old and newer ones such as Gordon Lightfoot’s Early Morning Rain, the latter the last song recorded as the disembarked in LA at 4:30 am with the dawn chorus heard chittering in the background.

Not a polished album but all the better for that with the recordings clear as a bell, audio verite if you like and a fine salute to those pioneers in song and ultimately the spike drivers and others who built these iron roads.

The  website has an interactive map that discusses the songs recorded at each station along the way.

 

Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival 2016

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Blabber’n’Smoke had a very pleasant afternoon at the official launch for this years Scottish Mental Health Arts & Film Festival (SMHAFF) which takes place from 10th until the 31st October. It’s the tenth anniversary of this ground breaking festival which uses various artistic platforms (including theatre, film, spoken word, dance and music) to promote the importance of mental health issues for all in the community while drawing attention to the struggles and successes of people living with mental ill heath. With over 300 events across Scotland this year’s festival is the biggest yet with submissions for the International Film Competition reaching over 1,600 entries with the winners to be announced at the awards ceremony on 11th October at Glasgow’s CCA.

In terms of music the big news from this years festival is actually a play, the first commissioned by the festival, written by award winning playwright Alan Bissett. One Thinks Of It All Is A Dream is an account of Syd Barrett’s brief tenure in Pink Floyd before he was ousted due to his erratic behaviour. A brief preview I attended some month’s back had a scene with Barrett being taken by his band chums for a consultation with RD Laing, a plan scuppered by Syd refusing to leave their car. The play looks at the then attitudes to mental health and Barrett’s reputation thereafter. Was he a “casualty,” a victim of drug use, a sane man in an insane world? The play will be performed in Glasgow, Edinburgh and Aberdeen throughout the festival while there is a 70th birthday tribute to Barrett hosted by music journalist Nicola Meighan which will feature the writer Alan Bisset, broadcaster and Barrett historian John Cavanagh and Barrett’s nephew Ian Barrett. A multimedia event it will feature discussion and insight into Barrett’s work along with video and artwork from Barrett.

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One Thinks Of It All As A Dream

Elsewhere Rick Redbeard and Admiral Fallow are appearing while there are various events across the country featuring local music groups and a showcase at Glasgow’s Barrowland in conjunction with Music On Prescription and Nordoff Robbins Scotland for unsigned bands.

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As for the launch itself, aside from introductions to various strands of the festival, the attendees were entertained with a couple of songs from Rick Redbeard and were greatly amused by the excellent performance poet Harry Giles.

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You can see a list of all festival events here

Website

A renaissance man? AJ Meadows talks about art, music and the colour of feeling.

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Back in June Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed an EP,  Got Me Singing The Blues,  from a band called Starship Nicola and we were able to catch them live at the release show a few weeks later. Information about the band was fairly limited, a collaborative effort between Glasgow band Harry & The Hendersons and a chap called AJ Meadows, an American apparently. We were impressed enough to pursue the enigmatic Meadows in order to find out some more about the man who wrote the startling Ella, a song we likened to Dave Crosby singing with The Incredible String Band. Turns out he’s a polymath; an artist, sculptor, musician and writer and he is from The States and is a bit of a globetrotter. Back in Glasgow for a few weeks Meadows took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about his work, the band and his future plans. We started off by asking him to tell us about his background, his art training and how he got involved in making music.

I was born in Michigan, USA but grew up in the south, travelling back and forth between Mississippi and North Carolina completing a course of study at Mississippi State University, graduating with a BFA in sculpture in 2009.  I first came to Glasgow in 2011 after just finishing a year of study at the University of North Carolina in order to study on the Masters of Fine Art course at the Glasgow School of Art.  Since completing the Masters course at GSA I have been quite lucky to be able to continue making my work.  I’ve recently been in several exhibitions across Italy and currently have a large-scale sculpture on display at Franconia Sculpture Park back in the States.  When did I first get involved with music? I remember I was 12 years old, and I was getting ready for school and just heading out the door to catch the bus, when my father stopped me….told me I wasn’t going to school that day.  In a mixed state of confusion and sheer pleasure, we hopped in his red Chevy pick-up and drove an hour into the nearest town. We pulled into the parking lot of an old pawnshop, and before we went in he said that I could pick any guitar I wanted. We came home that day with an old Yamaha 6 string.

Can I ask where or why you got the name Starship Nicola for the band?

There is a bit of a back-story to its origin.  I forget offhand the events that led up to that day, but on the 19th of November 2014 I flew into Dublin to meet an amazing woman who had a 50 ft long wooden vessel that was in need of repair.  The boat was docked in West Cork and in exchange for lodging on board and several hot meals a day it was agreed that I would utilise what carpentry skills I had and provide four hours maintenance every day.  She and her partner also had a house in Dublin that I agreed to paint.  So I would visit on the weekends and the train into town would announce the stops in Irish, one of them sounding like “Starship Nicola”.  I couldn’t shake it. Anyway, Anne, the woman with the boat, had a sister who was romantically involved with a producer, by the name of Billy who had a little recording studio above his garage up in Donegal.  Anne mentioned Billy in passing, and her willingness to put me in contact with him to say thank you for the work I was doing.  I didn’t hesitate, something felt very right.  I phoned him and he agreed to have me in the studio for 3 days.

And is that where the EP was recorded?

Yes. I think it’s important to say that at this point I was already planning to record some material that I had been sitting on.  The Starship Nicola EP itself wasn’t entirely pre-meditated, my original plan was to visit Billy on my own and record a very simple album with a similar to feel to Nebraska. One song I knew I wanted to record was Ella, but I was listening back to recorded versions and something was missing and that’s when I contacted Harry (of the Hendersons).  I asked him if he and the guys would be interested in coming over to Donegal in 2 weeks time to perform on the album.   I had first met Harry &The Hendersons at Stereo sometime back in 2013.  I was in a three piece folk outfit and we were their support act.  I actually met Vincent, one the singers for H&TH’s, at the Art School just weeks before that gig.  I was just finishing the Masters course and he was just coming in as an undergraduate and I was assisting a course that was intended to help prepare the student portfolios for review.  We talked about all kinds of whatnots, music came up, he mentioned the gig and not having support and I cheekily said I would do it. Anyway, they were onboard for coming to Donegal and then I phoned my friend Mark Gilbert who I had busked and played several shows with in the previous year, and he also agreed.  I then phoned Billy to tell him that seven more members were coming to his studio garage.  He laughed and said ok.

It all seems like a fortunate example of happenstance. The line up really gels on the EP and at the live show there was a great sense of camaraderie but I get the sense that this is but one phase of the Starship’s evolution, that you and The Hendersons are not the only incarnation you envisage.

Whether or not the line up is finalised? I think the answer lies somewhere in the unknown, tucked somewhere between a no and a resounding yes. I don’t think we ever really meant to become a band.  It was something very special and spontaneous, and perhaps it is best to continue to approach it as such.

On the EP you do a version of Wildwood Flower, do you listen to much old time Americana? What artists/music do you listen to and what have been your influences?

I go through exclusive stages with music.  What I mean by that…when I come across an album that affects me in some way I tend to give it my full attention, almost obsessively.  Take for instance my iTunes library, Paul Simons’  album “Graceland” has 120 listens, The Bad Seeds “Abattoir Blues” and Radiohead’s “Hail to the Thief” are both in their 53rd rotation, and “24 Postcards in Full Colour” by Max Richter is on its 86th play.  There is a wonderful compilation of Ethiopian music called “The Very Best of Ethiopiques” that I am listening to at the moment. As a child I was of course introduced to the rock classics, but more importantly the likes of Willie Nelson, Emmylou Harris, and the more playful Ricky Skaggs, Cajun Moon to this day is one of my favourite songs.  But it wasn’t until after high school that I began to appreciate and understand the importance of earlier Americana. When I was 19 I was gifted the Anthology of American Folk Music, a compilation of 80 or so folk and blues tracks from the 1920’s and 30’s. It was an easy introduction to the roots of a genre of music I loved but my knowledge of which at the time didn’t expand past The Carter Family.

Influences for writing music go far beyond the actual music I listen to though it is an integral part of the songwriting process.  I tend to document in detailed writing the happenings and goings-on of my immediate surroundings and encounters with real people.  These writings are almost always the source for the lyrical composition of my songs.  When the time is right to compose a song I don’t sit down with a pen and paper.  I sit down with the dozens of journals I have kept over the years and I read them using lines taken directly from the pages and allowing the song to develop in an intuitive manner.  I don’t try to force a meaning.  The meaning behind the song is secondary.  The colour is important.  Colour is feeling.

Can you talk us through Ella? It’s a captivating song with some tremendous harmonies but it twists and turns quite a bit before the choral ending.

Thank you Paul.  Ella is actually the first track off the EP.  Sometimes a song, an object, or even a smell can become fixed to a memory. I had Ella Fitzgerald’s “You Got Me Singing the Blues” on repeat for about a year. I would make dinner, put the record on, and it never failed.  No matter what was happening around me and in my life, she was still singing the blues. My song Ella tells a story, with the first four verses speaking of loss, and the dangers of living life to someone else’s standards.  The very end of the song, where we build the voices into a wall of sound is the manifestation of memory…a heartfelt version of Ella’s classic song.  When I showed Ella to the guys for the first time it was the night before we were meant to be recording and though we had shared the same bill, we had never actually played music together. And I think this is why the song works so well, how it is able to maintain this sort of honesty and rawness.

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Got Me Singing The Blues EP artwork

What about future plans for recording or playing live?

There are actually several recordings currently in the works.  Alongside a handful of demos we’ve started as Starship Nicola, Mark and I are going forward with a short concept album.  At its root are seven songs written during my stay in Glasgow all revolving around and questioning this idea of “home”. Mark is an incredibly talented musician and has supplemented the tracks with layered violin harmonies as well as gentle synthesizer.  Various recorded sound samples can also be heard throughout. It’s currently 22 minutes in length, and has the potential to continue to grow.  We are hoping to finish and release it in the next month or so.

At the moment I am working with Chris Blackmore of Holy Smokes Records to line up a small Scottish tour, a handful of shows that would potentially start here in Glasgow in October.  Future live shows, for now, would logistically be few and far between simply because of visa regulations but I don’t think this is going to stop us. There is already talk of playing across Europe next summer and bringing Starship Nicola to America in 2018.

You’ve got a blog called Temporary lovers which is populated with fairly gnomic thoughts and memories. Have you any thoughts about publishing any writing, short stories or such?

The blog loosely chronicles the development of Starship Nicola and highlights each of the members.  It takes its name from the idea I mentioned earlier about the accidental nature of the band and it being special and spontaneous, but goes beyond the scope of the music.  It is stark social commentary. I’m actually waiting to release the final post for Temporary Lovers.   I intend to publish the writings in small quantity just as a record of our time together.

Outwith Temporary Lovers, I am collaborating with a good friend of mine.  His illustrations are amazing, quite unsettling.  It’s my hope to put out a short illustrated novella, a playful mix of fiction and personal memoir.  It is nearly complete, so I anticipate this coming to fruition quite soon.

So there we go, a sneak peek into the world of AJ Meadows and Blabber’n’Smoke will try to keep track of those future plans. In the meantime you can catch up on Starship Nicola goings on here and read Temporary Lovers here.

Harry & The Hendersons in the meanwhile are fundraising for their debut album and are playing a show this Sunday at Broadcast in Glasgow, details here

Peter Bruntnell/The Wynntown Marshals. @Soundsin TheSuburbs. 13th Note. Glasgow. Friday 2nd September.

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It’s been some time since Peter Bruntnell ventured north of the border with a band and news of this gig had veteran supporters salivating at the prospect. Bruntnell, hailed by The Guardian recently as an “alt country genius” in their cult heroes column is a superb performer solo, his songs, described in that same Guardian article as “classically constructed, melodically rich, lyrically ingenious and emotionally, intellectually affecting…,” delivered by his gentle voice and guitar playing always win over audiences. The prospect of a band show and in the sweaty and confined cellar of The 13th Note however was a dream come true for several of the audience as Bruntnell and his band line ups have been known to achieve heights  that recall the best of the crunchier power pop rockers and even Neil Young’s psychedelic guitar work outs. Tonight he and his band did not disappoint. The four piece (Bruntnell on guitar, David Little, guitar, Peter Noone, bass and Mick Clews on drums) stormed through a set that showcased several songs from the excellent Nos Da Comrade and cherry picked several highlights from the back catalogue. The intimacy of the small venue (a shame really as Bruntnell truly deserves a larger audience) allowed the crowd an experience that was at times transcendental, a rock’n’roll nirvana.

With the guitars cranked up they launched into the chunky rhythm of Ghost Dog with Little already burning on his solos before a wall of sound was launched from the stage on the perfect power pop of  Fishing The Floodplain, gears shifting smoothly leading up to a glorious chiming conclusion. London Clay, a song that was only briefly available via the ‘net continued in a similar vein, glorious harmonies and sun dappled pop with chiming guitars recalling the likes of The Lemonheads at their best but this was topped by the guitar refrains of Long Way Down From A Cloud which recalled The Byrds’ reappropriation of Bach.  All glorious so far  but the band were well able to swerve into darker territory with Where The Snakes Hang Out a powerful slow groove and the brooding epic of Yuri Gargarin a slow burning extravaganza of guitar workouts and pedal effects that was hypnotic in its burnished twists and turns, Bruntnells’ whispy vocals floating over the mesh of amplified strings and the propulsive rhythm section.

While well able to channel the guitar carnage of Neil Young and Crazy Horse Bruntnell is a master of melodic rock displayed tonight on the brisk delivery of City Star  and on two  songs which are perhaps his best known, songs which probably are responsible for his inclusion in that  alt country label mentioned by that Guardian article. Here Come The Swells and By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix are superior examples of UK Americana and tonight this was amplified by the inclusion of Iain Sloan (from support band The Wynntown Marshals) on pedal steel adding another dimension to the band. Hearing Sloan step into the shoes of Eric Heywood was a bonus, his pedal steel woven into the golden tapestry of both songs as Bruntnell took the opportunity to offer some pithy comments on Swells while Phoenix was just majestic, the guitars racked up for an astonishing finish. Coming to a conclusion there was a fine display of sonic wizardry (replacing the studio sitar effects) in the run up to Cold Water Swimmer which metamorphed into a shimmering white noise barrage before the punk infused thrash of Peak Operational Condition saw the band exit on a high.

The conditions were right, the band was right and the audience were rightly rewarded for their recognition of one of our “unknown heroes.” Do spread the word.

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There was a fine bonus tonight in the shape of the supporting act, a two man version of The Wynntown Marshals featuring that man Iain Sloan on pedal steel and acoustic guitar with singer Keith Benzie, also on guitar. While the full Marshals line up is a clamorous vision of high end rock and country tonight the pair stripped back some of their songs, sieving the nuggets from their usual melodic mayhem, allowing Benzie full accord as an excellent singer and lyricist. Moby Doll carried a sense of ennui heightened by the pedal steel stylings while Low Country Comedown was a creamy country laden ballad and The Submariner was given a fine country lope. Curtain Call saw Sloan switch to acoustic guitar for this poignant tale and its deadly denouement, deliciously delivered by the pair. Their rendition of Red Clay Hill really allowed the lyrics to shine as it came across like an earthbound version of Jimmy Dale Gilmore’s Did you ever see Dallas from a DC-9 at night? while their closing song The End Of The Golden Age was just sublime, Benzie in fine vocal form with Sloan harmonising excellently on a song that is on a par with the Jayhawks.

More pictures from the show here

Red Dirt Skinners. Behind The Wheel.

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Husband and wife team Rob and Sarah Skinner have an enviable reputation to trade on, feted by country and blues audiences with awards for their albums and Sarah’s saxophone playing. Their bluesy side was to the fore on their last release, the warts and all Live At The Blue Lamp but on Behind The Wheel they seem to have settled on a more bucolic, almost folksy approach.

They kick off with the rousing title track which offers Sarah opportunity to display her Dixieland like soprano sax on a song which woozily wanders along at a fair clop as they sing about the joys of life on the road. A fine opener the one complaint here is that it fades out far too soon, just as Sarah is letting loose on the sax. It’s one of two up tempo numbers here, the remainder a collection of contemplative songs that are complemented by Rob’s guitar skills as ripples of strings float throughout, at times gilded by the floating sax solos, a style used to best effect on the dreamy Home Sweet Home. The Other Half is a boudoir piece, the couple swapping verses in an intimate fashion but Eleanor Joan is very much a showcase for Rob, his psychedelic guitar buzzing away behind his acoustic picking as he sings this render song, Sarah’s voice closely harmonising. The Inspiration is a stark piece, piercing harmonica and stinging guitar reflecting a hopelessness that’s contained within the lyrics despite the allowance that the experiences might become, as the title says, an inspiration.

A pity then that the mood that’s built up so far is somewhat spoiled by the horn driven Bad Apple, a song that probably works well live and is surely an opportunity for Sarah to wig out (as she does here) but in comparison to the other songs it doesn’t really carry any heft. Hurrah then for the almost medieval Thoughts Of the Past which is an ode to the past glories of a woman who’s life is now counted by the glasses of wine she can get hold of. Daybreak and a reprise of Eleanor Joan close the album, the former a lengthy narrative that switches courses as it twists and turns in its capture of various predawn happenstances before launching into an extended display of guitar dexterity and saxophony.

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Tim Easton. American Fork. At The Helm Records.

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Sadly Blabber’n’Smoke is not familiar with Tim Easton’s previous output so we weren’t sure what to expect from this release. The title apparently is a nod to Easton’s wish to “prod a fork in the somewhat predictable Americana format,” whether he succeeds is essentially down to the listener but over the eight songs here he certainly offers a tasty selection of various dishes. What became clear from our research prior to writing this review is that Easton has a wealth of experience behind him. Aside from an impressive back catalogue on various labels he spent seven years way back in the nineties busking around Europe, taking advantage of the fall of the USSR to visit countries which were no longer blocked by the iron curtain. He recently completed a project to play 100 songs in 100 days, the fruits of which can be found on YouTube and he’s an entertaining (and engaging writer) with his blog well worth reading while he his account of watching the Rolling Stones’ gig in Cuba this year is excellent, his experience of present day Cuba given more space than the concert. All told he seems like a real nice guy.

Happily, American Fork does not dispel this notion. While Easton easily inhabits several skins here, the opening song Right Before Your Eyes a slinky rock’n’soul gumbo with Little Feat roots that eases one into the album, he lays out a manifesto of sorts on the excellent follow up, Killing Time. A cool country styled call to arms with Easton proclaiming, “I say Rock & Roll can still change the world, so don’t let your life be wasted on you. Don’t hang there like a broken door. Find out what you’re living for. There has to be something more than just killing time,” the song paves the way for what is to follow as he asks is there more to life than “Just to get up and go to work and eat your American Pie with your American Fork?” It’s a wonderful song, Easton vocally reminiscent of Nick Lowe while the female harmonies summon up Leonard Cohen’s oeuvre while the guitars are as creamy as a Nashville cat.

Having set out his manifesto Easton gleefully swings into blues territory on Elmore James, a rousing salute to old-fashioned “fun and games songs” and their seductive effect before Gatekeeper’s sinister flick knife slide guitar glissandos hover into view. Burning Star is a burnished night time revelry beautifully played and arranged with Easton’s voice acrobatic and intense. The bouncy power pop of Alaskan Bars Part 1 again recalls Nick Lowe when he was hefting bass with Cooder and Hiatt in the ill-fated Little Village although it’s more akin with that trio’s work on Hiatt’s Bring The Family album. Easton tones it down for the remaining songs. Now Vs. Now a slowly swelling capture of memories, dreams and wishes, the organ washes offering the song a Band like majesty while the closing On My Way is a pared back offering to his daughter, its gentle shuffle replete with keening pedal steel.

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