Rab Noakes, now aged 70, is one of Scotland’s musical heroes. Since the early seventies he’s been a fixture on the music scene, an early member of Stealers Wheel and recording with legendary Nashville producer Bob Johnston. Blabber’n’Smoke first became aware of him when Lindisfarne recorded two of his songs on their first two albums in their brief moment of glory and there’s a back catalogue of delights to be heard for those new to his music. His last album I’m Walkin’ Here (2015) was a fine collection of his own songs along with his interpretations of several songs that had influenced him in his youth. The release of that album was delayed by a diagnosis of tonsillar cancer and the ensuing treatment, radiotherapy and chemotherapy which was a tough road but which seems (thankfully) to have worked well enough to allow Noakes to return to performance.
The Treatment Tapes is a chronicle of sorts, six songs written throughout the treatment process and then recorded with little fuss over two sessions. Aside from the lethal fears of a cancer diagnosis the site of Noakes’ lump could have been a death sentence of sorts to a singer no matter how well the treatment worked. On the evidence here his voice has survived the illness and the treatment (although his candid sleeve notes detail some limitations) allowing him to deliver the set in his recognisable style. There are plaintive introspections which recall Loudon Wainwright and the late Alan Hull along with more jaunty folk blues numbers. The songs stand proud without any knowledge of the story behind their genesis; the deeply affecting love song, I Always Will coming across like a Townes Van Zandt number cosseted by a wonderfully woody cello and the opening Fade (to shades of black) a Gene Clark like fatalist ballad. However Noakes’ detailed notes on each of the songs pins them to a particular stage in his treatment process allowing the listener an insight into the trials he faced and it’s a measure of the man that the notes, the words and the songs all coalesce into a triumph of sorts. He’s still here and still singing. He champions the NHS treatment he received on Water Is My Friend as he sings, “There are people looking after me who don’t get paid enough while bankers take a big reward for far less useful stuff”, the title taken from advice fromhis radiographer to keep his mouth hydrated (and delivered with a nod to The Sons Of the Pioneers cowboy classic, Cool Water). Overall the EP is a two fingers to the big C delivered with a life affirming sense of spirit.
Rab Noakes celebrates his 70th birthday and his 50 years in music on his 70/50 tour which opens at Celtic Connections on February 2nd. From there on he tours the UK with all dates here.
The grainy portrait of Courtney Marie Andrews (almost like those pictures of lost kids on American milk cartons) which adorns Honest Life’s cover is close up, intrusive. The grain suggests a zoomed in crop of a larger picture, the surroundings unseen, allowing the listener to imagine the background, the baggage that inevitably clutters most photographs. What is undeniable is that Ms. Andrews’ stare is unflinching, defiant almost. Here she sets out her wares, crafted by her own hand and hewn from her own experiences and this fierce independence infuses the album as she sings of trials and tribulations and offers a sense of dignity to the downtrodden.
Still only in her mid twenties Andrews has packed a lot into her ten years in the music business. There’s a back catalogue which is somewhat confusing with several albums withdrawn apparently. Aside from her own ventures she has been an in demand musician and singer for various artists including Damien Jurado and Jimmy Eat World, a gig that ended up with her residing in Belgium playing for several artists there. The genesis of Honest Life occurred in Belgium as Andrews broke up a relationship and returned to the States taking up a job as a barmaid in a small tavern several miles out of Seattle. Here she served tables and heard the tales of the tavern’s denizens, several of which have made their way onto the album. She strips the tales and her own experiences down to the bone, the Honest Life(s) of the title, no aggrandisement here, the result recalling the naked emotions stirred on Joni Mitchell’s Blue. Crafting the album Andrews courted several producers but felt that their ideas didn’t tally with her wish to deliver a raw and relatively unembellished record so she took the bull by the horns and produced it herself.
The result is an album of glacial purity with Andrews’ voice cool and clear over a subtle and perfectly executed band setting that has glistening guitars and warm pedal steel complemented by superb keyboard playing. The sound does hark back to Mitchell’s first forays into group arrangements and that “Ladies of the canyon” vibe so popular with the folk rock mafia of that time but such is the strength of the songs that Andrews surmounts any accusations of mere copyism. There’s a heart and soul to these songs which bleeds from the speakers with dignity. Irene is perhaps the best example as a powerful country rock pulse twitches with her forensic lyrics, “The heart is funny Irene, you can’t control who it wants to love, so let it love Irene, man or woman, or anyone it wants. You dream of the north Irene, well then that’s where you oughta be. But you gotta want it Irene, don’t follow any path half-heartedly.”
Paths and roads feature heavily on the album be it the routes (mainly dead end) leading to a local dive or the paths Andrews herself follows. The album opens and closes with ruminations on a journey. The opener Rookie Dreaming positing her as an ingénue with romantic notions of sixties movies in her mind as realises romance is not all sugar and spice. On the closing song Only In My Mind she’s somewhat wiser, able to recognise that the notion of a perfect love is mainly in the mind. In between there’s the winsome Not The End, a song that captures the transience of true love. Part of Andrew’s voyage is her time bar tending, her muse here the customers of the bar she worked in and she captures perfectly their dramas and woes on several of the songs. Table For One paints a picture of a lonesome traveller stopping off for liquid succour while How Quickly The Heart Mends is Andrews’ version of a honky tonk song with a sting in its tail as she sings,
“I can’t believe I got all made up, put on this dress that you love, only for you to go and pretend, like all those years meant nothin’. So go on and forget, act like we’ve never met, leave with your new friends, how quickly your heart mends. The jukebox is playin’ a sad country song, for all the ugly Americans. Now I feel like one of them dancin’ alone and broken by the freedom.”
The album is packed with such lyrical acuity and all the songs are gracefully delivered, the band excellent on all accounts. It’s early days but Honest Life is already a contender for one of the albums of the year.
Ms. Andrews will be touring in the UK (supporting The Handsome Family) at the end of February and she was available for a short chat with Blabber’n’Smoke at the tail end of last year. We started off by asking her about the writing process for Honest Life.
I started writing songs when I was really young, a teenager but for this album I started writing when I was in Belgium. Then I was a bartender in a small town bar in Washington State and that’s where I finished writing the songs.
They’re pretty sad songs
I was going through a hard time, a breakup.
Some folk think that breakup albums are some of the best ones
Yeah, well songs are a great way to express emotions, sometimes I think when you feel pain it’s easier to express that in a song.
There are lots of images of roads, trains and such. Is the album like an emotional journey?
I’d say that it is. I was talking to an interviewer a few months ago and we kind of came to the conclusion that even the sequencing of the songs was like a travelogue. The beginning, the opening song Rookie Dream is getting on the train, the beginning of the journey.
I take it that Rookie Dreaming is one of the earlier songs you wrote as you’re singing about moving too fast to see the paintings in Paris and the sunrise in Barcelona so presumably it was written in Europe.
Yeah. It was written way before all the other songs, that was actually a different time when I was in Europe some way back
I was going to ask you about your lyrics in that song when you say you felt like you were a 1960’s movie. Did you have a particular movie in mind?
No, I didn’t have any one movie in mind there. It’s more of a “feeling ” lyric if you know what I mean but now that you ask I wish that I did have one in mind, that’s a cool question.
Again, talking about paths and roads in Only In My Mind you sing, “life is a road without any turns” and I wondered if this is in any way related to the Robert Frost poem The Road Not Taken.
Well again, I didn’t have that in mind when I wrote that song but I love Robert Frost and it’s great that it has that effect on you when you listen to it.
Most of the album is just you and the band but there’s a string arrangement on Only In My Mind which is wonderful and sounds as if you had an orchestra in the studio with you.
That was my friend Andrew Joslyn. There’s a story behind that. He and a friend of mine were dating and they went on vacation and when they came back their house had burned down. I’d asked him to write an arrangement and it was only a couple of days after the house burned down so he said that he wrote it in a kind of fervour, feeling all the pain and hurt he had and he managed it all in under an hour. There’s a lot of emotion in it and it really adds to the song.
You produced the album yourself.
Yes. I spoke to a few people but they weren’t really in line with what I wanted it to be, at least for this batch of songs. I wanted it to be raw and real.
People have compared the album to Joni Mitchell and I certainly thought that were elements of her and artists like Judee Sill and Carol King, an early seventies singer songwriter feel to it.
Well those women are definitely huge influences on me and I respect and honour them but for me it wasn’t so much getting the sound of a certain time as getting a more timeless sound, one that you couldn’t pin down to a certain age. I think that when you have a more organic sound and instruments on a record that people think of an older time and an older sound just because that’s what those records had on them.
The album’s being released here in January but I believe that it’s been out in the States since last summer. Has it done well over there?
It’s quite a big gap between the two release dates so it’s been a slow ride but yeah, it’s done well and it’s been a good time for me
For some of the songs you drew on your time spent bar tending.
Yes. In these small time bars in America there’s all sorts of characters, people who don’t really seem to have many ambitions, not afraid to be themselves and especially when they’ve had a few drinks they’ll start to talk. They’ll tell you stories and I’m always willing to listen and be empathetic and try to connect with them. I think that everyone has a story in them but some are just more willing to tell you about it and those are the ones I wrote a song about.
In How Quickly Your Heart Mends you sing, “The jukebox plays a sad country song for all the ugly Americans.” It’s a very evocative lyric, a Hopper painting meeting a Tom Waits song.
Well when I played that song to some members of my family they were like, how can you say ugly Americans? But then it’s small town America and most city folk just don’t have the experience of being there. They don’t understand what that small town feel is. It’s people who have been stuck in a small town forever and that’s what I was trying to convey.
As we said Courtney Marie Andrews is touring the UK with Loose Music stable mates The Handsome Family. Dates are here
Death Is Not The End said Dylan, words which unfortunately have been a signpost for much of the last 12 months as numerous musicians signed off. We’re not subscribing to the curse of 2016, people come and go and there is an age thing of course, the baby boomers at the end of the mortal coil. Still it’s sad to yet again have an album that is probably going to be remembered as much for the passing of an artist as for its musical merit.
Cakehole Presley‘s bass player Mark Humphries died just a few weeks after this album was recorded, not headline news but a shock to his community in Cardiff. The album (their second) carries a quotation from him in the sleeve notes, the release a tribute of sorts to him. As such it’s a fine capture of a band who are typical of those who toil at the coalface of rock’n’roll; local heroes with the chops and song writing savvy to rise above the norm but unlikely to command the attention of all but the most finely attuned movers and shakers. A pity really as it’s a bloody good listen, earthy and honest reminding one of the early days of Lindisfarne along with a hint of the better pub rock bands; folk, country, rock and good old ballardeering here aplenty. If anything there’s just a touch too much variety on show as they move from hammering home a sixties type R’B rave up on Great Together into the dreamy protest swirl of Sweet Dreams (Little Darlings), an anthem to the poor and huddled which has a quiet grandeur about it. The softer (with a whiff of Celtic romanticism within) songs just tip the scale over the rockier ventures. In the Used To Be is jauntily nostalgic, Reeva, a touching celebration of grandchildren. Sweetheart is Dylanish in its sinuous delivery while Sunderland captures perfectly those moments when a gray and drizzled life that is only punctuated by bus timetables is coloured by thoughts of a whimsical wonderland.
Aside from a foray into a woozy cabaret world on the Weimar Wurlitzer of Cobbled Streets & Syphilis there’s a shimmering guitar driven pop song on Hope I’m Reaching Your Heart, the opening song on the album while the closer, Don’t Let The Bastards Grind You Down, is a fine sing-along barrelhouse carouse. Overall, the album is a rousing listen and a fine farewell to their departed member with an unlisted last song, a simple folksy ditty, their eulogy.
This Bristol based country bluegrass duo were kind enough to send their debut EP to Blabber’nSmoke at the tail end of last year but we’ve only recently got around to giving it a full listen. Turns out that it’s an evocative listen with the duo delving deep into the world inhabited by Gillian Welch and David Rawlings (although with some role reversal in terms of the vocals). Andy Nowak is the guitarist while Camilla Johns adds mandolin, the two instruments welding together perfectly. Nowak is the singer and Johns the harmonist, again their voices blending well with Nowak’s lead voice nicely wearied and worn.
As a fledging unit they’ve (perhaps) wisely used the EP to set out their singing and playing skills first and foremost with four of the six numbers covers. They’ve also gone “old school” singing into a vintage sixties microphone and recording to good old fashioned tape and the sound is indeed warm and up close. This works to best effect on the opening song, Bill Monroe’s Dark Is The Night, Blue As the Day which is just short of wonderful. The lazy swing, the plinking and plonking interplay of guitar and mandolin and Nowak’s nuanced vocal delivery all coalesce into a fine old time sound that captures Monroe’s high clear sound. More up to date is the cover of Nickel Creek’s 21st May which actually benefits from the stripped back duo delivery with the guitar/mandolin interplay particularly good here. There’s a bit of a curveball as they tackle Creedence’s Bad Moon Rising but picked to the bone and slowed down it fits well into the overall picture as does the closing cover of Welch and Rawlings’ Wayside/Back In Time which strips out the organ and fiddle of the original but ups the tempo somewhat. With Johns sharing lead vocals here the playing is more robust and as the song opens it is surprisingly reminiscent of vintage Richard Thompson.
There are two originals. A song from Nowak, Still Standing Still which is folkier than the covers tempting one to consider whether a bluegrass duo playing songs in a Nick Drake vein is a plausible concept. Spider On The Headstock is an instrumental composed by Johns and again it sits more comfortably in a folk setting with its elegiac process and nimble dexterity.
Nathan Bell’s album I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, released midway through 2016, featured heavily in many year end top ten lists, for a virtual unknown this side of the water an impressive task. Bell has a firm grasp on a folk roots sound with hints of country folded in as he sings of the dignity (and the plight) of the modern day USA working man. Following in a line from Woody Guthrie to Dylan, Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Springsteen, Bell’s songs burn with a smouldering sense of injustice and hurt, the American Dream laid bare, factories closing with folk having a hard scrapple existence. Despite the tribulations however there’s still a sense of dignity and pride, the victims as heroes.
I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love is the third album from the 56 year old Tennessee resident. Along with its predecessors, Blood like A River and Black Crow Blue it constitutes what he has called The Family Man Trilogy examining life today as a 50 something man, a family man and a working man. While the first two featured primarily Bell and his guitar on I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love he is accompanied by Missy Raines & the New Hip adding new dimensions to his sound. At its heart however is the voice and experience of a man who had a shot at Nashville back in the 80’s recording albums with his first wife before hanging out with the likes of Earle and Townes Van Zandt. It didn’t work out and Bell moved into white collar work forsaking music, remarrying and raising a family until the tectonic plates of capitalism shifted him into the ranks of the unemployed once more, the shifting ground finally settling when he once again picked up his guitar after almost two decades of silence.
With such an intriguing story topped by the excellence of I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, Blabber’n’Smoke was delighted when it was announced that Bell would be making his UK debut at Celtic Connections. An opportunity to speak with the man came up and we grabbed it with both hands so here is a conversation with Nathan Bell.
Hi there and congratulations on your album, it’s been really well received over here.
It’s done better across the pond than in the US and I appreciate that. Done well in the UK and also in Europe where they’re very keen on lyrics based music. Most of them speak English in the financially well off countries but it still surprises me that my albums seem to do best in countries where English is a second language.
You’ve played in Europe before so do you try to reciprocate and learn any of the languages over there?
Well, Dutch and German are so close together, when I was over there I was trying to speak in Dutch but I was pronouncing it like a German. My family line is Ukrainian and Dutch-German with something else in there somewhere.
But the Celtic Connections show is the first time you’ve played in the UK?
Yes. I’ve been to Edinburgh before but on a holiday. I had a tour in Holland and then my family came to meet me in Amsterdam and we got over to the UK. I have a friend who directs for the BBC in London so we came over and hung out and other than the fact that you can’t set foot in London without giving them all your money we had a great time! We then came up to Edinburgh. Where I come from on the East coast of the States a lot of the people come from Scotland.
I don’t do a lot of touring. I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to do a lot of small shows and be away for several weeks. Partly it’s because I’m too old to do that, I mean put me on the road for 20 days and I’m dead, after two weeks I need a day off. And my music, it’s wordy, dense and there’s only a certain kind of audience who will come to that so if I can find that audience then I’ll book a short tour around them so I get to play really high quality places. But the life of a 19 year old in a band, that’s not me. I’m up there on stage on my own and I’m not bragging when I say I’m quite an accomplished guitar player and I know what will do well in front of an audience that’s paying attention.
I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love is said to be the third part of a trilogy of albums.
It is a trilogy of sorts. Record companies and PR folk tend to shy away from the use of that word because we’ve become such a short-term society that people are only interested in what is current but I started these records as a trilogy and if there was an over arching title for it would be the Family Man Trilogy. It starts out with Black Crow Blue which is about the single man in America, Blood Like a River is about the family and this new one is about working and it’s been about a four or five year process.
Much of the new album seems to be about people working or not working in what I suppose we call the rustbelt, the steel industry and such, people who have been having such a rough time of it recently.
Yes, these are jobs which will never come back. People say they will but they won’t other than in a boutique sort of way. There’s a company called Nucor Steel which recycles steel but the big plants are gone, we’re never going to make the level of steel that they do in China. We’re in a funny position in that the money moved up and it didn’t get replaced by anything. I’ve worked since I was eleven years old and I’ve experienced that first hand.
I know that you were in Nashville in the 80’s but that didn’t work out and you eventually ended up working in the telecommunications business.
In 1991 I came to Nashville. It didn’t work out but I kind of knew that from the moment I got there. I had a publishing contract and I was working with the producer Richard Bennet who worked with Steve Earle on Guitar Town. Richard became a good friend. But even in the process of getting all these things together, contacts and such that for some some people takes years of work to get hold of, as soon as I got to Nashville I realised that this wasn’t necessarily what I was wanting and that they had a business model that wasn’t for me. It wasn’t their fault that I couldn’t be in their business model and you can only blame them if you did exactly what they told you to do and it didn’t work out. I never did that. So after about six months I was treading water and after two years I was out.
I accidentally ended up in telecommunications working with cell phones right at the point when everybody was starting to buy them. Then the company downsized as they always do so I was out for about a year. I got back then into the same business doing a different job but the parameters had changed so much and there were some ethical compromises I wasn’t willing to make. I tried to hold on to the job for as long as I could as I had a family growing up. If you have to make a living you make a living. I mean they weren’t asking me to do anything that was evil or illegal it was just getting harder and harder to be successful without going into some gray areas which I wasn’t willing to do.
And all this time you were away from music, not playing or performing. I read some story about your wife one day setting up a guitar in your garage.
I didn’t play from around 1994 until 2008 and then a friend of mine, a songwriter called Don Henry invited me to a show he was doing and called me up on stage to do two songs. I could barely dredge them up, I was terrible; you know people always tell you it wasn’t that bad but it was that bad. And then after that I had to go on a business trip and when I got back my wife had a set up for me in this closet under the stairs, a tape player and a guitar and I’ve made most of these albums in that closet. It’s like a half closet with an angled roof but it’s got the sort of sound you would get in a $50,000 studio, I mean I couldn’t recreate this set up and sound for less than 50,000 bucks. And you know it’s like an aging football player, you put him in an over 50’s league and he starts thinking his glory days are going to come back and that was me.
Well according to a lot of folk over here those glory days are happening right now for you.
Yeah, I like that but I’m not as quick as these young guys anymore.
OK, but young guys, unless they are very gifted don’t have a lot to sing about. You’ve got a lifetime of experiences.
Well, the young ones are probably going to sing about girls or boys. For me, I come from a literary background and I would have liked to have written long fiction or long journalism if I wasn’t so bad at it. So I ended up writing short. I wanted to be Steinbeck or Jack London but you could only be those guys if you have experience. It was probably good for me to be out of it and doing everything else. Plus I love my life; I’ve always said that if the business had stayed relatively the same and I was able to do what I wanted to do then I wouldn’t be doing this because those years were wonderful, just wonderful. This just happens to be the next step.
The next step perhaps but folk are comparing you to the likes of Van Zandt and Earle and I thought that many of your songs inhabit the same territory as the likes of Rod Picott.
Wonderful compliments. Anytime anyone wants to compare me to writers like that or to some literary figures then I can handle that. As for Rod I know him, I bump into him from time to time. He’s the genuine deal, he comes from a real working man’s background so him and Slaid (Cleaves) know what they’re talking about. I respect what he does a great deal.
In terms of that your working career was in selling cell phones and working in middle management. So what gives you the insight or the ability to write about steel mill workers living in a rusty shack with their lives falling apart?
Well I didn’t have very much money most of my younger years. I mean I wasn’t poor, I had enough to eat but I wasn’t able to spend money like someone who was middle class. I spent about 19 years with the phone company and that’s about half of my adult life. The rest of that time I was doing jobs in the docks and in construction and in hotels and then later with the phone company I have always been around people doing different jobs so all those conversations alone have been helpful in what I’m writing about now. I’ve been there working 80 hours a week picking up heavy stuff but I’m too old for that now, it’s cost me a shoulder and a knee.
You mentioned wanting to write like Steinbeck or Jack London. What draws you to writers?
My father is Marvin Bell and he’s at least a relatively well-known poet, he’s 79 now and he just drove off from here a few minutes before we started to speak. So I grew up around the writing department at the University of Iowa, it was my school so to speak and I guess that’s one of the reasons I didn’t go to University as it had been such a big part of my childhood. My father and all his friends were writers and most of my friends outside the music business are writers.
I believe that you knew Studs Terkel.
Yeah. When I met him he was older of course and we weren’t what I would call close but he was in the Chicago folk circle which was very vibrant back in the eighties. I would run into him and talk to him. There aren’t that many people that I think of as being larger than life but his book (Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, 1974) changed the way that everbody looked at the study of work. It was a real pleasure just to have known him and to have talked to him.
Terkel worked very much in an oral tradition, is that what you’re trying to do?
Well, I’m trying to tell my stories honestly. If you look at them then you’ll see that almost none of them take the arc of promising something, well, ethereal. I’m actually a really happy optimistic guy but I see the life we’re living, the jobs we do, the reality of it. Part of what we’ve lost in the world and with social media especially is that we’ve lost the way the oral tradition protected us, the way the folk world told stories that fostered a sense of community. If you listen to an Irish band, a Scottish band, a Cape Breton band or a blues band they’re playing music that you can understand in a form that’s fairly similar and their stories are just their own stories and I think that the folk tradition of songwriting is critical. My next album will be the first one that talks expressly about love but it won’t talk about love like say, Gerry and The Pacemakers (who I quite like), it’ll be my own weird dark version of it.
On I Don’t Do This For Love you’ve got Missy Raines and her band playing with you. How did that come about?
I’ve known Missy for a long time, since 1986 or so, and she and her band came through our town and I heard them play and I thought this was one shot at getting a band like this on a record. These days bands don’t stick together, they have to be off earning somewhere all the time so now Ethan Ballinger, the guitar player is playing with Lee Ann Womack and Jarrod Walker is playing with Claire Lynch. But I got to have them for a couple of days in the studio and we recorded everything but the harmony vocals so for the most part it’s the five of us playing live in the studio. They’re wonderful musicians so all I had to do was stand there and get my part right.
As you said earlier, the songs are honest tales about working men. I was particularly taken by Jesus Of Gary, Indiana. Just reading the lyrics is impressive.
Thanks, I appreciate that compliment, it’s one of my favourites. I do work very hard to make the lyrics stand up without the music. They’re not poems but I think if you read them the cadence is there, the rhythm is there, the story is there and if it’s not then I won’t record it.
Speaking of poetry what are your thoughts on Dylan’s Nobel Prize?
Dylan is so important to what happened to song writing and the oral tradition. The only reason people are mad at him is because writers get mad when they don’t win awards so they’re all pissing ad moaning because it wasn’t one of them that got the award. The truth is that what Dylan did was exceptional, extraordinary. Some of his lyrics, if you go in and listen to them and read them it is literature.
America’s about to enter the Trump age. Are you still optimistic about the future?
Always. You know half of my family is Jewish so even us being here means that I’m optimistic. It’s only been 60 to 70 years since they stopped chasing us out of every country in the world. Optimism isn’t about everything’s going to be great. It’s if you do the work and you fight the fight and you’re honest and don’t pretend that things aren’t what they are that you can advance the cause of humanity.
I get that in your songs. The characters, despite the hardships, they are survivors.
Well, the way I see it, here’s an example. Leicester City wins the premiership and they won it with a bunch of guys everyone else had given up on. The secret is, if you’re here, you got a chance, if you show up you got a chance. If you hide in the corner and complain all the time then you got no chance.
Nathan Bell makes his UK debut at Celtic Connections on Thursday 2nd February at Oran Mor. He’s also performing on these dates.
Mon 6: Woodend Gallery Scarborough
Tues 7: The Green Note, London
Thurs 9: Drovers Arms, Puncheston, Haverfordwest
Fri 10: The Forge, Anvil Arts, Basingstoke
Released at the tail end of last year Reckless Heart is Bap Kennedy’s last work. Sadly, he succumbed to cancer on November 1st, shortly before the album release. Over the years since his days in Energy Orchard and then progressing onto a solo career Kennedy built up a reputation as one of Ireland’s finest songwriters marrying Celtic and American influences and although he was younger than peers such as Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello his body of work sits well alongside the likes of theirs. He had celebrity supporters; Steve Earle produced the first solo album and proclaimed him, “the best songwriter I ever saw” and Van Morrison, Shane McGowan and Mark Knopfler all collaborated with him.
Reckless Heart was all but done and dusted when Kennedy fell ill and was diagnosed with a terminal cancer early in 2016 so it’s not an album written by an artist facing up to his own mortality. Instead it’s a fairly joyous celebration of music and life with Kennedy less in thrall to America than he was on his previous release Let’s Start Again and delivering a generous dollop of good time songs with hints of rockabilly and rhythm’n’blues. There’s a deceptive ease to the songs, a measure of the man’s craft. Like Ronnie Lane he has the knack of seeming to be able to casually knock off songs that just hover in the air, all warm and fuzzy and memorable as on the second song here, Good As Gold, a delightful candy flossed gossamer of a song that summons up lazy summer days. The insouciant Help Me Roll It, the Basement Tapes like nonchalance of Reckless Heart and the easy rolling Honky Tonk Baby show a man at ease with his world and on top of his form as he revisits his rock’n’roll roots.
The album opens with the perfection that is Nothing Can Stand In The Way Of Love. Here Kennedy is again in Basement Tape Dylan mode and the band busk in fine fashion as accordion, organ and tasty guitar licks cement the rustic roots feel. I Should Have Said is an introspective love song tinged with regret which, with hindsight, is very moving, suffice to say that Kennedy here sings wonderfully while the arrangement with sensitive burbling bass, stately piano, organ swirls, curling guitar and female harmonies is dynamite. In a similar fashion Henry Antrim is another moving ballad that transports a cantina type melody to the Irish hinterland but Kennedy can kick out as on the rollicking closer It’s Not Me It’s You with its gutbucket guitar solo while Por Favor bursts with a nuevo wavo frenzy recalling the likes of Doug Sahm. The crowning glory however is the sombre The Universe And Me, another song that with hindsight grows in stature. Here Kennedy approaches Dylan’s metaphysical meanderings as he sings,
“There’s no music in money, there’s no money in love, there’s no love in this town tonight but I think I’ll stick around…I live between the stars upon the cosmic sea, And I’m down here all alone, just the universe and me. And I wonder why the sun shines and who taught the birds to sing. You can tell me all the numbers but nobody knows anything.”
It’s a beautiful number and as epigraphs go not a bad one.
Bap Kennedy is survived by his wife Brenda. Bravely Brenda and Bap maintained a blog detailing his treatment which you can read here.
I think it’s fair to say that the release of this album might be proof for Gene Clark fans that Santa really exists. News of an album composed of 24 unreleased Clark recordings (not even on bootlegs) broke in the middle of 2015 with a release date of December 2015 mooted. Of course that date came and went with no sign of the album. Fans, used by now to the haphazard ways that have accompanied various other Clark projects filled forums with their hopes and fears around the release, evidence of the devoted following that Clark still incites. Some of this may be a legacy of Clark’s spectacular ability to snatch failure from success in his brief life. His post Byrds albums were plagued by bad luck and bad timing, overshadowed by peers who perhaps had better management or a more disciplined approach to life.
Currently Clark is up there with Townes Van Zandt as a posthumous favourite, critics now hailing albums that were criminally overlooked in the first instance. There have been a valiant crew of believers who have been flying his flag for some time and there have been some excellent reissues and compilations along with John Einarson’s biography and the documentary The Byrd Who Flew Alone. We can now add to the roster this incredible collection of songs, all fully fledged studio recordings, no demos or alternative takes, which takes us from a fresh voiced 19 year old Clark straight out of The New Christy Minstrels through to a reunion with fellow ex-Byrds Michael Clarke and Chris Hillman in the early eighties. Here we should salute Sierra Records who have doggedly pursued this project and come up with the goods with the full consent of Clark’s estate (his sons Kai and Kelly Clark) with the album available in several formats, fully annotated and with some bonus songs for those who subscribed to the deluxe formats.
The album opens with a brace of songs recorded by Jim Dickson in 1964, the 19 year old Clark sounding earnest with already a hint of doomed romanticism in his delivery. Just months before he teamed up with his future band mates for the PreFlyte songs Clark is already stamping his unique style with the opening The Way I Am a signpost to the future. I’d Feel Better (complete with some whistling) is upbeat in a Peter, Paul and Mary pop direction but Clark heads into deeper territory on the following That Girl with his voice deeper and the lyrics bereft, his doomed minstrel waiting in the wings here. The five songs gathered here are curios to be sure but also a fascinating glimpse into the nascent genius of the man, a fine hors d’oeuvres for the main feast to follow.
From 1967 there are two gems, one of which exemplifies the hound dog of showbiz shenanigans that trailed Clark. His folk baroque (and Dylanesque) Back Street Mirror is a worthy companion to the songs on Echoes but was canned only to reappear some months later with his vocals stripped and replaced by those of the UK actor David Hemmings for his own album release (a crime repeated in 1972). From the same session is a pulsating slice of country soul that recalls both The Boxtops and Gram Parsons with Clark and trumpeter Hugh Masekela powering through Don’t Let It Fall Through. Next up is what might be called the heart and soul of the album as Clark delivers eight songs recorded around the same time as the White Light sessions. Here he is approaching his zenith, the songs achingly beautiful with a spiritual dimension and laid down simply, just voice and guitar and 20 minutes of sheer bliss.
There’s a brief pit stop into Flying Burritos territory on the gorgeous remodel of She Darked The Sun, presumably recorded around the time Clark dallied with the Parsons’ gang for the wonderful Here Tonight, before another generous and fascinating collection of songs. In 1972 Clark was in the studios with a top notch crew (Clarence White, Sneaky Pete Kleinow, Spooner Oldham, Byron Berline, Michael Clarke, Claudia Lennear) and the four songs here are excellent examples of the blissed out country rock that was popular at the time with Clark excelling on Roll In My Sweet Baby’s Arms. Again the curse strikes with Clark wiped from the tapes and the backing tracks for several of these songs used on Terry Melcher’s portrait of post Charlie Manson LA on his album. The album ends however on an upbeat note with some fine country rock recorded with Nyteflyte, a would be super group comprised of Clark, Chris Hillman, Herb Pedersen, Al Perkins and Michael Clarke in 1982. They cover Gram Parsons, The Box Tops and Rodney Crowell along with a final outing for Feel A Whole Lot Better and on the strength of the delivery here it’s a pity that they didn’t take off.
There isn’t much else to say here. Gene Clark nuts will already have this nestled under their wings but for anyone interested in the development of LA singer song writing, the history of The Byrds, The Burritos and even the Eagles then this is well worth a listen. An album curated with care and a love of Gene Clark’s music.