The Fretless. Bird’s Nest.

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Round about this time last year we were quite impressed by an album from a duo called Fiddle & Banjo. Their album, Tunes From The North, Songs From the South  was an impressive sepia toned investigation into old time music by the duo of Karrnnel Sawitsky (fiddle) and Daniel Koulack (banjo) and when they came to Celtic Connections in January of 2016 we described them as “ghosts from the past,” their renditions of traditional tunes at times chilling.

The Fretless is another Sawitsky project, a string quartet which again has its roots in traditional music and then adds a more formal discipline to the tunes in the manner of a classical quartet. Sawitsky plays fiddle and viola as does Trent Freeman (who also appeared at the Celtic Connections gig) and Ivonne Hernandez while Eric Wright adds cello. It’s a measure of the band’s excellence that over the past four years they have swept the boards of various Canadian music awards named as ensemble of the year and best instrumental group while their two previous albums have won Best Instrumental Album of their respective years from the Western Canadian Music Awards. Bird’s Nest looks set to follow in that tradition as the band continue to straddle the folk and classical worlds, the debut performance of the album taking place in Cologne’s Philharmonic Orchestra Hall in October.

It may seem a daunting prospect, an instrumental album of fiddles, viola and cello. However for folk followers there is a seam of traditional lures throughout the album with a definite Celtic air lingering here and there. Most of the tunes are originals but there are traditional tunes also with The Kylebrack Rambler an energetic closer to Freeman’s Jig Of The Blue Moon while a flighty Maids Of Castlebar is conjoined with Sawitsky’s Le Reel de Samuel. There’s toe tapping aplenty and even some jigs so it’s not the sort of polite string quartet you’ll hear while browsing in a quaint old bookshop. Indeed there’s a sharply dynamic quality to the album, the thrust of the fiddlers combined quite thrilling at times while the woody timbre of the cello is perfectly captured. Wonderfully textured it’s warm and engaging and it should thrill the socks off of anyone who is even slightly interested in folk fiddle playing. A bold, brave and ultimately satisfying adventure.

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Two Cow Garage. Brand New Flag. At The Helm Records

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Based in Columbus, Ohio, Two Cow Garage are commonly referred to as one of the hardest working bands in the States. Certainly their name crops up repeatedly on several lists Blabber’n’Smoke subscribes to and they have a fiercely devoted following over there; when their tour bus broke down a few years ago an unsolicited fan based fundraiser quickly had them back on the road again. Despite this they remain somewhat under the popular radar especially on this side of the pond, a shame really as they are one of the best proponents of that mash up of country, punk and melodic rock that was born from the No Depression movement of the nineties. In addition they are firmly on the side of the righteous. That is they sing about the human condition, injustice, the daily struggle against the powerful and it’s ironic that Brand New Flag is unleashed just as Americans (and others) shift uneasily awaiting the new order that’s just been given the keys to The White House.

Brand New Flag is a raw album. It blasts from the speakers for most of the time. Churning melodies and amped up guitars hammer through many of the songs at times with the urgency of a Springsteen fist clencher, the clincher being Continental Distance which even has a Roy Bittan like piano break. This Little Light is a noirish account of a mugging and not a million miles away from Drive By Truckers territory while History Now could become an anthem for the Occupy movement as could the title song where they rail against the establishment singing, “I don’t believe in anything”. In addition they plant their feet firmly on the side of diversity with the life line described in the words of Let The Boys Be Girls, a defiant and proud refutation of “fitting in” as they dismiss God, schooling and military service with the defiant cry of, “we don’t need old white rich men to tell us who we can kiss goodnight”.

It’s all stirring stuff but they do let off on the throttle on a few songs. The opening song Movies is a dry as dirt “alt-country” stumble with all four band members singing about their childhood dreams while A Lullaby Of Sorts is a marvellous dissection of teenage neurosis with the narrator alarmed by a gun bearing customer at a roadside stop and pondering on the obscenity of wearing an $800 leather jacket. There’s fear and loathing on the dirge like guitar squall of I Promise which is like an internal dialogue fuelled by self doubt and harried by schizophrenic like other voices. The tune itself eventually collapses into mayhem, a deranged horn section recalling the free form jazz of Albert Ayler.

An album then that is and is not easy to listen to. It’s invigorating. An alternative state of the nation address that seeks ways to survive against the oncoming tsunami of small mindedness.

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Eef Barzelay. House Concert @ Celtic Music Radio. Glasgow. Wednesday 9th November

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Glasgow’s foremost community radio station dipped into the burgeoning world of house concert hosting this week, opening the doors of their south side studios for an intimate evening with the esteemed Eef Barzelay. A bit of a catch for what might be the first of an occasional series of close up concerts, Barzelay with his band Clem Snide were one of the finest confections to come out of the States in the nineties. His light and resigned voice allied to music that was somewhat akin to a mash up of grungy power pop, folk rock and string quartet, the arrangements complex at times, the lyrics ranging from the confessional to absurd and surreal juxtapositions not unlike those of Robyn Hitchcock. Another in a long line of bands whose name was inspired by the writings of William Burroughs Clem Snide were probably too clever to catch on despite the occasional brush with fame as when their song Moment in the Sun was used as the theme song for a TV series. The band carry on having split and reignited on several occasions while Eef has forged on with his solo recordings creating a devoted fan base via his Bandcamp releases; he’s a prime candidate for The Guardian’s Cult Heroes column.

A canny decision then to have a bona fide cult hero play in your parlour and the cognoscenti responded well. The room filled with people spilling into the hall, those in the front seats almost inches away from the man, a situation Eef explained as we spoke during the interval that he enjoys, much of his time these days spent in concerts like this. A chance to play his songs to his fans out with the promotional circuit, up close, a meet and greet event even though he is no stranger to larger festival crowds still. On these occasions it’s personal, just him and his guitar, the audience transfixed with no bar sounds or coming and going during his sets.

Playing on the intimacy of the occasion Barzelay opened with a joke as he mentioned that he’d heard that Willie Nelson would lock into eye contact with an audience member and play just for her (it was usually a her) as he scanned the front rows before confessing he was kidding. His humour was a large element of the night, self deprecating, oddball and endearing. Humour seeped into some of the songs also but overall this was a master class in songwriting with Barzelay taking subjects on and applying his unique vision. At times reminiscent of the younger Loudon Wainwright particularly when he applied his mournful scat like mock trumpet he regaled the audience with bittersweet love songs recalling walking along Central Avenue high on ecstasy   while his song The Ballad Of Bitter Honey (inspired by MTV viewing while on tour) was soaked in Wainwright’s acerbic wit.  A new song, Angeline (another song with a TV link, in this instance the US show Catfish) was an anguished and powerful depiction of damaged people.

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An accomplished performer and obviously very comfortable in such close quarters Barzelay had the audience in stitches with his coupling of Jews For Jesus Blues, written from his perspective as an Israeli born Jew who sings “fake country music” followed by God Answers Back. Finding an audience member who actually came from San Jose he delivered a wonderful version of Bacharach and David’s Do You Know The Way To San Jose with a bossa nova beat and ran through Elizabeth Cotton’s old chestnut Freight Train with evident delight. He closed the night with his “almost hit” Moment In The Sun capturing the allure and perils of fleeting fame, a perfect summary of his ability to turn a song inside out with neurosis shining through a beautiful tune, before segueing into The Velvet Underground’s Who Needs The Sun, a perfect companion to his own song.

It was a great evening and a great opportunity to see, hear and meet a world class musician. Hopefully Celtic Music radio will continue to plough this not so lonely furrow.

 

Will Varley. Kingsdown Sundown. Xtra Mile Recordings

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Will Varley is one of those “finger pointing” musicians singing the types of song that Dylan renounced around the time of My Back Pages. Of course, Dylan has pointed his finger at various injustices since those days and folk music has a powerful tradition of protest ranging from simple sloganeering to well-crafted lamentations on injustice and the human condition. On Kingsdown Sundown Varley certainly falls into the latter camp with the album a stark meditation on several woes, the environment, US politics and daily striving all featuring.

Varley’s vulnerable husk of a voice and his intricate guitar skills are the bare bones of the album with an occasional muffled percussive boom punctuating several of the songs. In the main acoustic but with electric guitar buried in the mix on Let Your Guard Down and then growling throughout We Want Our Planet Back, a strong environmental protest. Along with the opening song To Build A Wall there’s a strong sense that much of Varley’s ire is directed at the goings on in the US and although obviously recorded before this week’s election result listening to them is a reminder that the struggle, despite setbacks, must go on. To Build A Wall joins a long list of songs that allude to the possibility of a new Berlin like wall being built in the USA with Varley delicately reminding the listener of the consequences of such an action.  He’s more direct on the Dylan like Something Is Breaking which is like a clarion call from the sixties while When She Wakes, a dark puddle of a song with lyrics which weave urban squalor into a folk like lament has sparks of guitar which recall the likes of Bert Jansch.

Dipping into an almost surreal netherworld on Let Your Guard Down and waxing poetically on the wintry and bucolic February Snow Varley is an excellent exemplar for those who support the argument that lyrics can be literature as realised by Dylan’s recent prize. Varley rails against injustice throughout the album but he does so in a beguiling and ultimately disarming fashion.

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Uncle Lucius. The Light. Thirty Tigers Records

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From Austin Texas Uncle Lucius are a five piece band who have a busload of talent on board, various members writing and singing lead on their songs which are steeped in the South and feature inventive keyboards and sly guitar. Sound familiar? It’s tempting to compare them to The Band, especially when the horns kick in on the soulful organ push of The Age Of Reason, the second song here. It’s a comparison that can be deadly as it’s unlikely that we’ll ever get another collision of talent as existed in The Band but on their own terms Uncle Lucius deserve at least  to be considered along with further comparisons to the likes of The Allman’s and even Barefoot Jerry and Little Feat.

From the opening title song which moves from an acoustic strum into a full barrelled piano romp to the closing full tilt boogie of Someday Is A Far Cry the band roam through a series of thought provoking songs. At times the lyrics are positively existential as on Nothing To Save’s, “Reality’s a battle when fought in the mind, mind is a tool best used to measure time, time is a concept, a construct of man, man could very well be wrong again.” Heady stuff indeed but it’s delivered over a hypnotic and powerful swirl of Stax like balladeering and throughout the album the band manage this mix of swampy rock and questing lyrics.  For those who want to indulge in the words there’s a lyric sheet included which will provide hours of scrutinising but overall the band deliver a fine set of invigorating songs  that sway mightily, the cool melt of tom toms and swirling guitars on Flood Then Fade Away perhaps the highlight here.

The band are currently on tour in the UK and play in Glasgow on Sunday 6th November at The Hug & Pint.

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John Paul White. Beulah. Single Lock Records

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One half of the Grammy Award winning duo The Civil Wars, John Paul White returns to the fray two years after the shock ending of his musical partnership with Joy Williams. For a while he concentrated on his record label (Single Lock Records) producing the sublime Donnie Fritts album Oh My Goodness. Beulah doesn’t directly address the issue of the band’s split but it contains several songs described by White as ones he “tried to avoid but I realised the only way I was going to get rid of them was if I wrote them down,” the title refers to William Blake’s concept of the subconscious; the source of poetic inspiration and of dreams.

It’s an album that pokes into dark spaces, even on a creamy country love song such as I‘ve Been Over This Before (with harmonies by The Secret Sisters) there’s a tale of desertion and heartbreak. With simple acoustic based ballads and fuller arrangements that betray White’s love of Southern rock he alternately sounds angry and desolate, the opener Black Leaf a delicate recrimination with White’s acoustic picking to the fore backed by a sensitive keyboard and horn arrangement. It’s followed by the abrasive and swampy What’s So with White almost howling at times, pained by “the difference between what should be and what’s so.” White remains on this path for much of the album. There’s an almost Nick Drake like sound to The Once And Future Queen, apparently written for his daughter, while I Want To Make You Cry is simultaneously creepy and tender, the baroque folk backing adding to the sense of displacement here.

While songs such as I’ll Fight For You and The Martyr veer dangerously close to stereotypical “radio friendly angst rock” White can yank out a tremendous heartfelt apology on the lyrical folksy lament Hate The Way I Love You and he closes the album with another winner on the breathy close miked I’ll Get Even, a song whose lyrics are open to discussion.

John Paul White plays Manchester and London on the 7th and 8th November, details here

 

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