The Stray Birds. Magic Fire. Yep Roc Records

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Over the next few weeks Blabber’n’Smoke will be looking at albums recently released by artists who will be appearing at the forthcoming Glasgow Americana Festival. The tenth anniversary of the festival this year’s line up is particularly strong and we believe tickets are going fast so have a look here if you don’t want to miss out.

First off is the latest album from Pennsylvania trio The Stray Birds, regular visitors to Glasgow. The past twelve months have seen a significant increase in their profile; signed to the highly regarded Yep Roc Records, proclaimed by many as the highlight of last year’s Cambridge Folk Festival and their song, Best Medicine (the title song from their previous album) named song of the year at The International Folk Music Awards. On record and in concert the trio ((Maya de Vitry -vocals, guitar, banjo, fiddle, Oliver Craven – vocals, guitar, fiddle and Charles Muench – vocals, double bass, banjo) epitomised the new wave of Appalachian influenced folk music, the three of them bunched around a single mic, their songs rooted in tradition but addressing current issues.  de Vitry’s spectacular voice in particular has the ability to simultaneously make the past come alive and cause time to stand still for the audience who are transfixed.

For a band who seem to be on the up escalator it’s a brave move then to mess with the winning formula that got them there in the first place, however that’s exactly what The Stray Birds have done with Magic Fire. There are several firsts for them here. While they engineered and produced their previous efforts this time they’ve invited Grammy award winning producer Larry Campbell to helm the record.  In tandem with this the trio invited percussionist Shane Leonard to join them for the album while broadening their own music palette bringing in keyboards and electric guitar.  By luck or intention these bold steps have paid off in gold. Leonard, really a multi instrumentalist and songwriter in his own right fits right in, his various styles suiting the new direction while Campbell, a veteran who has produced Dylan, Willie Nelson, Levon Helm and Paul Simon, captures their new found folk rock sound with some panache, adding polish without smoothing out the grit.

There’s a transitional feel to the album. Several songs cleave to their established style. The opening Shining In the Distance has de Vitry proclaiming over a strummed guitar before  percussion and accordion weigh in on a spiritual song, de Vrity as impassioned as Odetta while her fiddle solo reminds one of their earthier roots. Fossil aches with plaintive steel guitar as de Vrity launches her rich loamy voice as on Best Medicine, her yearning verses leading into an uplifting chorus while Mississippi Pearl is a wonderful evocation of a woman’s voyage of discovery heading to “the edge of the world.” Here the new line up works brilliantly, the halting acoustic instruments, creamy pedal steel, restrained guitar breaks and sensitive drums gelling, the harmonies heavenly. It’s a song that here recalls the cream of 70’s LA country rock (Linda Ronstadt would have killed for it) but one can imagine the unadorned trio still captivating an audience without the sublime added instrumentation.

As for heading in a new direction there’s a sense that the band are at a crossroads. They head off in one direction with a gritty country rock feel, telecasters and fiddle over a shuffling beat recalling artists such as Wildflowers era Tom Petty on the instantly likeable Third Day In A Row (with Craven’s voice uncannily like Petty’s). The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band come to mind on the very danceable Sabrina and the deft quick step of Sunday Morning while Hands Of Man slides along with skirling fiddle to the fore and reminds one of Classic Fairport Convention. There’s a fork to the left leading to classic country pop as Craven and de Vrity hold hands on the Everly’s styled Somehow, adding themselves to the list of classic country harmony duos but they head back to the mainline for a couple of songs that do raise eyebrows on first hearing.

Radio is a wonderfully loose limbed approximation of a cocaine addled Fleetwood Mac. A soft percussive shuffle softly propelling the beat, guitars loosely entwined (here very loose) as de Vrity channels Christine McVie on a song that is slippery and supple, the subject possibly a sly dig at the airwave ubiquity of The Mac back in the days. Not content to let de Vrity get away with this bassist Muench then offers up his Where You Come From, another song that harks back to FM radio FM (Fleetwood Mac) dominance. Again, Leonard is propulsive on percussion, the guitars sparkle, the song a perfect fit for playlists. Unlike other acts who have received attention for their rootsy efforts and then turned tiller in order to get more attention here The Stray Birds approach the perch and look down, grab a few seeds and then safely deliver their own version, organic as opposed to mass produced, and somewhat wonderful.

It will be interesting to see how the band manage this transition in a live setting. As we said they play Glasgow Americana on 9th October in the midst of a major UK tour, all dates here.

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The Handsome Family. Unseen. Loose Music.

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The Gomez and Morticia of Americana, Brett and Rennie Sparks AKA The Handsome Family have long delighted with their singular vision. Rennie able to spin words from weird dreams, bizarre history and extrapolated incidents, Brett voicing these in his monotone baritone, all wrapped up in a strangely comforting low key country styled exotica with ancient keyboards and autoharp nestling amid the guitar and banjo.

Critically acclaimed and with a devoted following The Handsome Family burst out of the niche world of Americana when their song Far From Any Road (from way back in 2003) was chosen as the theme music for the hit TV series True Detective. Online at least they were stars, downloads and viewings of the song hitting millions, a gratifying tale indeed and hopefully some of the moolah has found its way to them. Certainly when Blabber’n’Smoke last saw them they seemed somewhat gratified by the episode but, comfortable within their unique universe, their first album release since the brouhaha, Unseen, carries on as usual with no hint of cashing in with only one song approaching the lush desert storm of Far From Any Road.  A case of Stay Calm and Stay Weird.

They open with that trademark sound on the glorious Gold, a border tale suffused with imagery, “Got a tattoo of a snake/And a ski mask on my face/But I woke up in a ditch/Behind the Stop-N-Go/Lying in the weeds with a bullet in my gut/Watching dollar bills go fly away in the dust.” An image sparked when a dollar bill blowin’ in the wind smacked Brett in the face in a car park, fine fodder for Rennie’s imagination. Indeed the album title came from another episode when Rennie, sitting in an airport seat was then sat upon by a businessman who failed to see her. Contemplating her invisibility, she writes as a detached, unseen observer, dreams, occurrences and false memories feeding her fantasies.

The Silver Light is a woozy neon lit country waltz which describes fly blown bar flies addicted to slot machines seeking nirvana in the reflected glow of the tumbling wheels hoping that their angels will line up. This netherworld, a reflection of hopes dashed appears again in The Red Door, a Hitchcock like admonition not to open the door under the stairs and on King Of Dust where the protagonist, hung upside down in his truck after a collision sees himself flying over the desert. Rather than going to a heaven all he sees is barren parched lands, bones bleached in the sand, an Icarus of despair.

Elsewhere they bemoan a lost innocence on Back In My Day and visit a funway in dashed expectations of seeing the world’s tiniest horse, the mournful fairground gaiety of Tiny Tina recalling a baleful clown’s sadness, a painted face hiding his pain. Gentlemen  is true gothic, a song swaddled in the bizarre psychedelia of Farewell Aldebaran as Brett sings of  a 19th century medium who hoped to vacuum up spirits like so much dust, inventing a machine to do just that.  They close with the yearning romanticism of Green Willow Valley which comes across like a wraith tempting his love to cross over into his world, a mirror version of The Green Leaves Of Summer, a love song that graced the John Wayne movie The Alamo. Here it’s a skeletal Wayne beckoning from beyond the grave.

 

An album begging for epithets such as crepuscular and spooky it transcends these. In short it’s another trip into the odd and extremely attractive world of Brett and Rennie Sparks. The duo are lining up UK dates for early 2017 and in the meantime you can get Unseen on a limited edition transparent green vinyl LP here.

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Phil Ochs. Live Again. Floating World Records

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A contemporary of Dylan, a protest singer who carried on protesting when Dylan decided to give up on “finger pointing songs,” Phil Ochs never achieved the fame accorded to his rival. Consider that just one year before Bob and The Band set out across The States for their Before The Flood tour, opening to 18,000 folk, Ochs was playing this show in an old stable in Michigan, three years later, he took his own life. His early demise and his reluctance to drop his political stance and move further into pop/rock have left Ochs firmly in limbo when it comes to general recognition, indeed he doesn’t even seem to have achieved “cult status”. Instead, aside from some devoted fans including Sean Penn, he is noted as a respected artist in the folk and protest movement with his later and more expansive work rarely mentioned. As a result there haven’t been any grand retrospectives or box sets of his work but recently there’s been a trickle of live recordings uncovered and Live Again is one that’s highly recommended.

Recorded in 1973 with Ochs sounding in fine spirit he performs alone with his guitar, the songs spanning his 10 year career. It’s a recording very much of its time with Richard Nixon firmly in his sights (the disgraced Tricky Dicky resigned one year later) but his preamble to Here’s To The State of Richard Nixon is alarmingly relevant to these days of clownish presidential hopefuls. Elsewhere he rails against CIA involvement in South America (of which he had personal experience, arrested in Argentina after a visit to Allende’s Chile) on Santa Domingo and hones in on the American art of assassination on the immensely powerful Crucifixion. There But For Fortune, Changes, Outside A Small Circle Of Friends and I Ain’t Marching Anymore retain their appeal revealing why Ochs was once considered an equal of Dylan back in the Greenwich Village days. In addition  several of the songs offer evidence that Ochs should stand shoulder to shoulder with his fellow sixties troubadours such as Buckley, Neil and Hardin with The Bells, Flower Lady, Changes and Pleasures Of The Harbour all wonderfully delivered.

With the shit storm that is the Middle East and the potential ramifications of the current presidential election Ochs sounds as relevant today as he did back then. Live Again is a must for fans of his music and works well as an introduction for newbies.

Here he is in 1969.

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.