Johns & Nowak. Johns & Nowak. Independent release

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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.

A fine first start then and well recommended.

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