Jeff Crosby. Waking Days. At the Helm Records

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Anyone looking for a whiff of nostalgia for the good old California days need look no further than this album from Jeff Crosby, Idaho raised but inhabiting (at least in his mind) Laurel Canyon circa ’74. He looks the part, longhaired and denim clad on the sleeve, an extra awaiting his call to lie down beside the Eagles for the Desperado photo shoot. His sound is akin to a gruffer Jackson Browne, his voice has a handsome lived in element to it while the songs are snapshots of outsiders; strangers in a bar, folk killing time on the street corner, drifters on a two lane blacktop, all caught up in their memories of happier times.  Delivered with a nod to the stirrings of country rock when rock musicians such as The Dead were starting to sweeten their songs with pedal steel Crosby sails through the album with some finesse.

Aside from one out and out rocker, the ferocious snarl of What’s Normal Now which Crosby says is a homage to his liking for 90’s rock (Nirvana, Dinosaur Jr.?) and the title track’s Springsteen like blue collar rock imagination of the American Dream Crosby sticks to his 70’s template albeit he’s no copyist. Opening with the evocative City Girls he establishes his narrative gift as he describes a chance encounter in a bar with a girl who dreams of better days but who is condemned to endlessly repeat the scene, the song ending on a guitar solo that recalls the likes of Waddy Watchell.  This easy rolling rock’n’roll, reminiscent of artists across the spectrum from Warren Zevon to Fleetwood Mac, continues on The Homeless and The Dreamers with Crosby in particularly good form on the lyrical front here, the words a cry from a lost soul cast adrift from friends and family. The elegantly sculpted piano laden love song Emily is a road song of sorts with Crosby drawing on the topography of the West, the lovers separated by canyons and time, a theme revisited on the brash country rock of The Only One I Need, a song that is borne aloft by the pedal steel playing of Brian Whelan.

Whelan features heavily on several songs that are more contemplative. Carved In Sandstone, a song inspired by a feature built on Table Rock in Idaho, a 60-foot high cross on which teens carve their undying love. It’s perhaps the fulcrum of the album as Crosby again sings of a past lover and their memories but ends up admitting he’s down and lonesome in Tennessee. It’s a lovely careworn country lament, bittersweet but honeyed. Red White and Blue is another pedal steel crowned beauty, somewhat starker but again imbued with memories as is I Should Be Happy with Crosby again facing choices and looking back as he imagines his ex lover’s happy existence while he is stuck in a rut, his internal voice telling him he should be happy.

A fine listening experience, Waking Days is a fresh take on well-worn themes and a welcome calling card for those new to Crosby’s music. This release is a second time around for the album which was originally released in 2015. This version has two bonus songs tacked on at the end, both older songs from Crosby which have been featured in the TV series Sons Of Anarchy. This Old Town is a fine blend of Springsteen and Dylan with harmonica to the fore while Oh Love, Oh Lord is a bang on capture of the funky corkscrewed guitar and keyboard sound of The Band.

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Pete Coutts. Northern Sky. Fitlike Records

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Pete Coutts is a well kent musician in the folk world of North East of Scotland and he first came to Blabber’n’Smoke’s attention as one third of Ballad of Crows whose 2015 album we reviewed here. While that album had some roots in American music for his solo debut Coutts sticks firmly to his homeland and traditions, singing in the local tongue, Doric. A northeastern version of the Scots language Doric has an extensive history in literature and song stretching back to the 15th Century (many of the Child Ballads can be traced back to here) and its earthy kailyard utterances fit perfectly into Coutts collection of fine folk songs and tunes.

Singing and playing guitar and mandolin Coutts is assisted by a fine cast of top players from the Scots folk world who add whistles and pipes, fiddle and accordion, bodhran and cittern. The result is a nimble and excellently played series of instrumentals and songs that burst with energy as the players engage with each other as only the best folk musicians can creating a concatenation of strings and things. As with the finest Celtic music Coutts conjures emotions and memories of the land, sea and air along with the folk who dwell within. The instrumentals have a wonderful sense of restrained gaiety as the musicians parry with each other summoning up images garnered from the televised Transatlantic Sessions.  Allathumpach opens the album and immediately the listener is transported into a bothy session, a sense heightened by In & Oot. Boink!, despite its title, is somewhat more mannered initially with Coutts’ mandolin and the guitars gently bolstered by the fiddle and whistles before a grand entrance from the pipe ushers in a sense of grandness. The last tune on the album, Strichen Gala/The Road To Aikey Brae, closes the circle as once again one feels as if you are surrounded by a fleet of fine players and the ale is flowing fast.

These instrumentals are scattered throughout the album with Coutts’ songs standing proud amongst them. With occasional seabird sounds interspersed adding to the atmosphere Coutts’ strong voice delivers a powerful set of songs that take in the pride of fishermen returning home with a full catch (Sail & Oar) and the backbreaking work of cutting peat (Castin’ The Peat). Will Ye Byde is a glimmering gem of a song that sounds as ancient as the Caledonian Forest with Coutts accompanied only by a sonorous accordion on a love song which invokes the likes of Rabbie Burns and Lewis Grassic Gibbon with Coutts standing tall beside such keepers of the folk tradition as Martin Carthy. This is reinforced on Belhelvie, a gutsy rendition of a fatal accident involving a traction engine falling into a dyke which is both stirring and emotive. all the more so as it’s apparently based on a true family tale.

The title song is a bit of an anomaly here and presumably something of a tribute to its writer but Coutts handles Nick Drake’s Northern Sky with some aplomb. He sings it wonderfully and the slight Celtic air afforded it remains true to the melancholic feel of the original. It’s probably the best cover of a Drake song we’ve come across. Whatever, it sits well within the album which overall is a blissful winter listen. If you’re looking for some Celtic music to air around this New Year then is thoroughly recommended.

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Ags Connolly. House Concert @ Celtic Music Radio, Glasgow. Thursday 8th December

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Glasgow based community radio station Celtic Music Radio opened their doors for their second House Concert following the successful debut last month with Eef Barzelay. Tonight it was country all the way as Oxfordshire based Ags Connolly dropped in to open a very brief set of Scottish dates. 2016 has been a productive year for Connolly with his second album (recorded in Scotland and produced by Dean Owens) due for release in February while he had a successful sojourn in the States touring and playing with members of Pokey Lafarge’s band. His song When Country Was Proud was named among the Top 50 country songs of the last 30 years by Country Music People magazine. In addition, his self-released album of cowboy songs will be going into its second pressing with his initial run just about sold out. The few copies he had with him tonight were quickly snapped up.

Connolly is a fierce defender of traditional country music; the music of Hank Williams, George Jones and Merle Haggard and the outlaw crew of Nelson, Jennings and David Allan Coe. His 90 minute set, composed mainly of self penned songs, proved that he has the writing and performing chops to fight his corner with many of the songs sharing the lyrical beauty (and simplicity) of his forebears, the topics familiar to anyone who has listened to these masters, heartache, drinking and heartache. He opened with A Good Memory For Pain (from his 2014 debut album How About Now) which set the scene for most of the night with its George Jones like evocation of romantic loss and hurt. With several other numbers from the debut album such as the title song, Trusty Companion, I Saw James Hand and When Country Was Proud delivered throughout the night Connolly proved why one reviewer said of him that he is England’s answer to Willie Nelson.

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The intimate setting of the house concert seems to relax the performer and Connolly was in fine form as he spoke about his songs, his heroes and influences. He spoke of how before falling under the spell of his country wizards he was prepped somewhat by his love of writers working more in the folk and rock tradition before delivering two of the evening’s three covers. Loudon Wainwright’s I Suppose fitted perfectly into Connolly’s bag of hurt while his version of Leonard Cohen’s Heart Of No Companion (heard initially on a Ron Sexsmith album) was tender and heartfelt and really quite moving.

Looking to the new album the lead song I Hope You’re Unhappy showed that Connolly continues to mine the rich seam of country contradictions in love while Prisoner Of Love In A Neon Jail and When The Loner Gets Lonely should get him some award for song titles. The latter song was especially good garnering all the ingredients for a real old fashioned dusty beer stained lament. Nothin’ Unexpected, the title song of the forthcoming album is full of yearning for the supposed good old days with Connolly adding some unexpected Mexicali influences in the chorus. He explained this prior to playing another song from the album as he revealed that The Mavericks’ Michael Guerra adds accordion to some of the songs on the new album and certainly on tonight’s showing the new album will at least be the equal of its predecessor. Connolly ended the show with a song with a bang as he led the audience on a rousing version of I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock’n’Roll, a song he said he had to do at the request of his tour mates in the States as they all thought it a perfect example of UK country. They weren’t wrong.

Here’s a taster from the new album.

Dumb Instrument. Backwards Is The New Forwards EP

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Back in the heady days of the Scottish Referendum the Ayrshire based troupe Dumb Instrument were all over the airwaves with their deadpan hymn to the nation, Suffering From Scottishness. A perfect combination of our ability to poke fun at ourselves and our gift for self deprecation (which is only there to hide the fact that we do believe we are the “greatest little nation on earth”) the song captured the zeitgeist (as we journos say) and there were even suggestions that it become the national anthem for the newly emerging independent nation.

Well, we all know where that got us and now, two years on, we’re facing a future where we might all be forced to become Little Englanders while a bouffanted buffoon across the pond might be considering invading us in order to stop wind farms spoiling his view from the links. It may be farfetched to consider that in the title song to their new EP, Backwards Is The new Forwards, Dumb Instrument have again got their finger on the pulse of the national mood but at the very least the song can be considered a parable about the dash to the past that has characterised these political catastrophes; as if walking backwards will take us back to the days of Empire (or in the US, glorious isolation). If so then it’s a masterstroke, if not then it’s just a bloody great song.

The undoubted humour inherent in Suffering From Scottishness and other songs such as Buckfast Vs. Hash on the album The Silent Beard somewhat overshadowed the musical prowess of the band. On this EP it’s almost the reverse. The title song, a whimsical piece that in its subject recalls The Goons is delivered swathed in a stately jazz rock arrangement that recalls some of Robert Wyatt’s work. The horn section is alternately muted and then swollen as the song progresses over a metronomic drumbeat and some beautiful double bass work. Singer and writer Tom Murray’s use of Scots idiom is perfect, the song overall a miniature absurdist masterpiece that is just glorious to listen to.

The third song, Shug, is also set to a somewhat ponderous beat as Murray sketches a portrait of an idiosyncratic artist (one is tempted to consider this almost a self-portrait). Here the music achieves prominence over the words as pedal steel glides in towards the end with a fine otherworldly sensation against an ethereal choir which recalls some of Eno’s work on his Apollo soundscapes. In between these two songs is the electronic bounce of Blin Bobette which harks back to Euro disco with plenty of synthesized burps although it seems to be about a woman’s descent into a religious madness who sees Jesus rising from her soap dish.

On the strength of the title song alone this is a tremendous listen and apparently it’s the first of a series of EP’s the band are planning to record over the next year, one a month. Dumb Instrument are appearing at a charity show at Mono, Glasgow on 22nd December in aid of Glasgow Night Shelter along with Rulers Of The Root and The Primevals.

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3hattrio. Solitaire. Okehdokee Records

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This third album from Utah band 3hattrio doggedly pursues their concept of American Desert Music. The trio (Hal Cannon, Greg Istock and Eli Wrankle) live and work in the desert of Southern Utah, the band forming when they chanced upon each other in a town called Virgin in the middle of the Zion National Park, jammed and then set out on this stony path. Unlike previous bands such as Giant Sand who were tagged with the desert rock tag only to disown it (Howe Gelb prefers “erosion rock” apparently) 3hattrio make a conscious attempt to translate the alien landscape around them into words and music. Their second album Dark Desert Night was inspired by the sharp crack of desert nights, the songs dark and evocative. On Solitaire they are basted in the heat of the day, the cover showing 3 hats on 3 chairs, a nearby tree shedding shade in the opposite direction.

The album title is borrowed from environmentalist Edward abbey’s 1968 book Desert Solitaire. Not having read the book and never having been in a desert I can only imagine what a solid wall of heat and light is like but fortunately there are other writers who have taken it upon themselves to describe it such as Cormac McCarthy’s powerful lines from Blood Meridian.

“The sun in the east flushed pale streaks of light and then a deeper run of color like blood seeping up in sudden reaches flaring planewise and where the earth drained up into the sky at the edge of creation the top of the sun rose out of nothing like the head of a great red phallus until it cleared the unseen rim and sat squat and pulsing and malevolent behind them.”

 This play of light and colour with the heat almost visible in the air is subtly manifested by the songs and music on Solitaire. It’s a softly shimmering album, the fiddle and double bass almost palpable while the guitars and banjos crackle like a batshit old prospector who has spent too long in the hills. The vocals inhabit an age old America reflecting the travellers who voyaged over these sands as they went westward ho while the primitive scatting on the opening Texas Time Traveller is reminiscent of the Native Americans displaced in this ruthless migration.

When Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Dark Desert Night we reckoned that 3hattrio were ripe for soundtrack plucking and this is maintained on Solitaire. One can imagine McCarthy’s border desperadoes riding into hallucinatory settlements and hearing these songs sung by itinerant musicians who may be real or not. Rose limps along with an air of despair, an elegy for these badlands, Mojave is an intricately weaved jig of sorts with banjo leading over atmospheric fiddle wails that is somewhat shamanistic. Blood River, Eddy Mesa and Should I all display the disparate elements of the band, folk, jazz, experimental as they meander like a 19th Century version of Beefheart’s Magic Band. Even on a song that is more conventional and descriptive such as Range there’s a spookiness that’s almost akin to that of The Handsome Family. The album closes on a traditional note with a version of Bury Me Not that is almost ethereal and in its nocturnal feel a fitting close to the end of days spent under a blazing sun. The one quibble on the album is the band’s cover of Bob Marley’s Get Up Stand Up which despite a fine interpretation is probably just too familiar to sit easily in these unfamiliar surroundings.

All in all Solitaire is a worthy successor to Dark Desert Night and the good news is that 3hattrio are coming to Glasgow as part of Celtic Connections playing The Mackintosh Church on 4th February.

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Yola Carter. Orphan Offering.

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To borrow Mr. Kristofferson’s lines, Yola Carter is a walking contradiction. She’s black and can belt out a Gospel song as if she was raised on Southern grits but her earliest musical heroes were Dolly Parton, The Byrds and CSN&Y. She has toured the world with Bugz In The Attic and played at Glastonbury with Massive Attack and co-wrote Will Young’s single Hope and Fears. Her co-writer for that song was her fellow band member Stew Jackson in the Bristol based country soul band Phantom Limb, Carter’s first attempt to indulge her country roots. Aside from the apparent oddness of someone from Massive Attack tackling country songs Carter challenges preconceptions, people don’t expect an Afro crowned ebullient character to sing a Dolly Parton song.

It’s a contradiction that has stalked Ms. Carter since her early years. She has spoken about the difficulties of growing up in a mostly white community and her musical favourites just made her feel more isolated back then. Add to that a difficult family background and it’s clear that her career has been something of a victory against the odds. Still it’s been a long journey and Orphan Offering is her first opportunity to let the world hear who the real Yola Carter is. We had the opportunity to hear some of the songs from this five track EP back in the summer when Carter played at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival noting a slight Band influence and she made a big splash at her appearance at this year’s AmericanaFest in Nashville so hopes were high for this debut disc.

The EP opens quite magnificently with Home as delicately picked acoustic guitars trill before Carter makes her appearance sounding somewhat like Roberta Flack. As the guitars continue to trace their way through the song Carter’s voice grows in power before a gear change halfway through when backing vocals kick in, the guitars mildly thrash and Carter moves into full testifying mode. With Carter seeking her spiritual home and the second half sounding like a cross between David Crosby and Aretha Franklin it’s an impressive opener. What You Do is more down home with a sawing fiddle to the fore over a funky country backbeat and chugging guitars, The Band influence evident here although one can also detect the likes of Delaney & Bonnie in the grooves while Carter offers up one of her most powerful performances delivered with a Southern drawl. The fiddle returns on the closing Fly Away with the band again churning up a fine country stew that’s half barn dance, half psychedelic drone with Carter again in top form leading her backing singers on a series of vocal acrobatics whipping into a frenzy before gently letting the listener back down to earth.

Orphan Country is like a Richard Thompson song sung by Aretha Franklin, its melancholic melody and supple guitar solo (by Kit Hawes) deepened by Beth Porter’s sombre cello. Here Carter sings of the restraints she grew up against likening herself to a wild horse who should be allowed to run free. The mood deepens on Dead And Gone, a meditation on the delicate balance between misery and happiness with Carter again alluding to her own experiences over an excellent glimmering backdrop that recalls Joni Mitchell’s Hejira era and the ambient notes of Emmylou Harris’s Wrecking Ball. Finally, Heed My Words is a song that again recalls the metaphysical wanderings of Crosby and the Daniel Lanois ambient sounds of Wrecking Ball with Carter proving that she can be delicate and evocative, her voice here keening and redolent of spiritual searchers.

This is grown up music, deeply thought out, Carter’s influences skilfully blended into a sound that is somewhat unique and here fully realised. As she herself says (in an interview you should read here) “People say, “What’s your connection with American roots music?” I’m like, “My actual roots.”  How about that, kids? How about my actual, real actual roots?”

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Cam Penner & John Wood. Fallen Angels Club @ The Admiral Bar, Glasgow. Thursday 30th November

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One of the first shows we attended in 2016 was Cam Penner  & John Wood back in January at Celtic Connections. With a brand new album (Sex & Politics) under their belt they were a joy to hear back then and now they’re back in town, the songs truly bedded in, the result still somewhat astonishing.

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Penner & Wood record in a home built wooden shack in the wilds of British Columbia, a wooden cathedral of sound, tall pines looming on either side, and they evoke the primordial elements of their deep dark woods along with occasional shafts of sunlight in their unique take on rootsy bluesy country rock. Marrying technology and primitive strings and percussion Wood sets up from the start a spooky ambient background throb and thrum, the bedrock on which they deliver their songs. These in turn veer from honeyed acoustic laments with harmonica as creamy as Neil Young’s days in the middle of the road to guttural stomps and hollers, atavistic harbingers of dread and doom. At times the hairs on the back of the neck stand up as Penner wails away.

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There’s no showmanship but as the pair beaver away on stage, selecting guitars, sitting behind a simple drum kit, swapping roles, the ambient drone all the while like crickets in long grass soothing and insistent, there’s a workmanlike craft about them. Some of the sounds may seem primitive but there are keen minds behind them. The set didn’t vary too much from the January show leaning heavily on the last two albums and opening with the delicate whisperings of I’m Calling Out which crawled eerily into the tougher blues of I Believe with Wood moving from drums to guitar in the space of two songs. Wood is the cerebral side of the songs, hunched in the corner with his gadgets or laying down some sweet lap steel as the hirsute Penner commands attention but on several songs he slings on his guitar to lay down some liquid lines or throw out some gutbucket blues. They played familiar songs such as House Of Liars, Memphis, No Consequence with Trouble & Mercy given a particularly good delivery tonight.  There was less talk tonight although Penner remains a master of the understated joke as when he spoke of his song House Of Liars being featured on the BBC’s Stonemouth saying it was cool, he doesn’t make any money but cool will do.  And cool he is, the audience tonight treated to a magisterial show that had several facets but which ultimately proved that Penner and Wood are hard wired into a deep and dark old Americana, goosebumps and all.

There’s still a chance to see Penner & Wood as they play The Blue Lamp in Aberdeen on Friday 2nd December and The Traverse Bar in Edinburgh on Monday 5th.