Norrie McCulloch. Bare Along The Branches Album Launch. The State Bar, Glasgow. Friday 24th February 2017

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With some excellent reviews rolling in for his third album, Bare Along The Branches, Stirling based Norrie McCulloch held three consecutive launch gigs in Stirling, Glasgow and Edinburgh, each one unique with a revolving cast of musicians. Those attending the Glasgow show saw McCulloch joined by two of the musicians featured on the recording, Marco Rae on bass and Stuart Kidd on drums along with Stirling musicians Craig Ferrie, Keiran Hughes and Scott William Urquhart at various moments. Playing together for the first time the ensemble had a bit of a raggle taggle approach to the songs but this  added to the informal feel of the evening with the ever affable McCulloch in fine form on and off the stage greeting each of the audience as they arrived, his huge grin ever present. I’m sure that the epithet raggle taggle will cause no offense as it relates to the late Ronnie Lane’s tag for his band Slim Chance and when the band opened with Shutter, the first song on the album, there was a touch of that gypsy caravan about them reinforced by the song’s affiliation to Van Morrison’s Celtic soul music. McCulloch was in fine voice, a touch wearied but with a hint of joyousness in the rousing refrain. Little Boat continues to mine the Morrison comparisons on the record with its soulful organ but tonight it was delivered as a plangent ballad with the band delicately prodding McCulloch’s warm voice. There was a nod to the previous album with a fine delivery of Ordinary Joe before the more upbeat Frozen River cheered up the audience as a mandolin was introduced into the mix.

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From here on in the band members came and went and there were stripped down deliveries of the poignant Safe Keeping, Townes Van Zandt’s Dollar Bill Blues and McCulloch’s tribute to Townes, These Mountain Blues. His solo performance of Turn To Dust, written shortly after his mother’s death was mesmerising, the audience transfixed. The band gradually reassembled for the lonesome harmonica led Around The Bend, a dusty masterpiece that limped along wonderfully with a Neil Young bent before the chilling epic of Beggars Wood with a lonesome McCulloch gradually enveloped by languid guitars over a doom laden beat. Show over McCulloch returned for a masterful encore of When She Is Crying Too, a song that surely proves he is one of our foremost songwriters.

For tonight McCulloch graciously offered opening slots to two of his band compadres. Craig Ferrie AKA December 91 suffered from some audience chatter unfortunately, his elvin appearance failing to capture their attention but from the front his mix of freak folk and indie rock was somewhat intriguing.20170224_204452-copy

While he sounded at times like Eef Barzelay his songs wandered into a weird world of naiveté and psychodrama deserving of a much more dedicated listen (which is possible if you visit here).

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Scott William Urquhart was a revelation, a guitarist obviously in thrall to the likes of John Fahey and Leo Kottke, he mesmerised the audience with several instrumentals that, had some joss sticks been available would have had us all back in the scented sixties. Again this was intriguing, the man himself admitting that this was the first time he’d played outwith Stirling. Do check him out if this stirs up any interest, he even sells small run bespoke vinyl editions of some of his tunes. I thought he was wonderful.

 

 

 

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The Handsome Family and Courtney Marie Andrews @The Fallen Angels Club. St. Lukes, Glasgow. 23rd February 2017

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It was a welcome return to Glasgow for The Handsome Family and a solo debut performance tonight from fellow Loose Records artist Courtney Marie Andrews, the sold out show proof that even on a storm-ridden weekday there’s an audience for quality music in Glasgow.

Not her first time in Glasgow (she previously was here as a backing singer for Jimmy Eat World which she remembers primarily due to a beer swilling “taps aff” fan) Ms. Andrews’ appearance was keenly anticipated, many of the crowd seeming to be familiar with her latest release, Honest Life. Her set was short but compelling, her voice crystal clear, the songs lonesome reflections on life delivered perfectly. There was some tasty pedal steel accompaniment from Bryan Daste on several of the songs with Andrews’ guitar picking confident as displayed on the sublime delivery of Woman Of Many Colors (from her 2013 album On My Page). Rookie Dreaming and Table For One were somewhat sublime, the latter suffused with the loneliness of the long distance traveller and the song tonight that did recall the tundra like epistles of Joni Mitchell with whom Andrews has been often compared to. And while Andrews does court comparison with some sixties and seventies icons (I heard someone even say that in appearance tonight she looked a bit like Melanie) she has surely proved with Honest Life that she has moved on from such forebears,  the emotional heft of Not the End which tonight sliced through the venue proof indeed. There were similarly powerful performances as she sang Honest Life and Put The Fire Out, the audience in her hand and it was a pity that we were allotted such a short time in her company. Whispers are that Ms. Andrews will be returning in the not too distant future, if so be sure to catch her, she is a gem.

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Ah, The Handsome Family, the Morticia and Gomez Addams of Americana, a deliciously dark and twisted invite to visit an America peopled by freaks, mutant animals and fast food addicts getting their fix in lurid plastic palaces; they really have no equal. On record they continue to hone their audio alternative to David Lynch but live they open up with the songs punctuated by the superb (and achingly funny) repartee between Rennie and Brett, almost as if they were in a reality TV show featuring the battling Sparks family. Tonight, in-laws, depressing vacations and Brett’s mixture of lager and Lemsip (or Lemsick as Rennie renamed it) were running throughout the show, the pair bickering wonderfully. It was all hugely entertaining, at times rib tickling, but ultimately the repartee led into the songs which did not disappoint with a fine overview of their many albums including several from last year’s Unseen. They opened with the Gonzo reportage of Gold, a surreal tale of a robbery at their local Stop’n’Go (now closed) and the old favourite (and Christmas themed) Too Much Wine and then headed into the addled The Loneliness Of Magnets with Brett singing like Mel Torme on psilocybin, the song dedicated to an audience member’s birthday.

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The favourites came and went. Back In My Day, Weightless Again, Bottomless Hole, Tiny Tina, all delivered brilliantly, Brett’s deadpan baritone backed by the very fine band setting. Rennie on ukulele bass or autoharp, percussionist Jason Toth and a new family member, Alex McMahon on guitar, pedal steel and plastic organ along with Brett’s dynamic guitar delivered dark Gothic spells and toytown magic equally well. And of course they visited that nugget which allowed them their moment in the sun (surely anathema for such a crepuscular couple) with a fine delivery of Far From Any Road, chosen as the theme song for True Detectives some years back. As Brett said tonight he watched the TV and saw into the future, more people coming to their gigs. Fortunately they  have spurned the silver dollar and continue to purvey such eccentric songs as Octopus and Frogs, both delivered tonight and much more fun than listening to David Attenborough. The Handsome Family remain a singular delight and long may they do so.

 

Quick. This I Know. Holy Smokes Records

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Quick, a three-piece acoustic band were winners of Celtic Connections’ Danny Kyle Open Stage award in 2016. As winners, they were then offered a support slot in this year’s CC Fest appearing with Chicago Bluegrass outfit Special Consensus. They also delivered a live session on Celtic Music Radio and this Friday they release their debut five song EP, This I Know.

The trio (Alex Hynes, guitar and vocals, Willem Mckie, mandolin & vocals and Emily Barr vocals) use their spare instrumentation to underscore their superbly arranged and intricate vocal harmonies. While all three are excellent singers it’s the harmonies that shine here although Barr carries most of the delicate My Half Moon by herself with the guys only appearing towards the end. The opening Salt & Water is an atmospheric folk number that is surprisingly assured for the band’s first outing while Barber’s Song, while still in the folk idiom, is quirky in a Fence Records sort of way as the band stealthily invest the tonsorial protagonist with a quiet dignity and a fine sense of hubris. Sonder has a more straightforward brisk delivery with added bass and percussion allowing Hynes and McKie an opportunity to show off their fine finger picking and the EP closes with the Acappella Crazy Grace (apparently dedicated to Hynes’ niece) with the three voices creating a sublime sound which recalls Gospel and Appalachia.

The EP is released this Friday with a launch gig at Glasgow’s Old Hairdressers. Presumably they’ll play this song…http://player.stv.tv/video/43q0/live-five/danny-kyle-stage-quick/

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Norrie McCulloch. Bare Along The Branches. Black Dust Records

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This third album in as many years from Ayrshire bred songwriter Norrie McCulloch confirms what Blabber’n’Smoke has maintained since we first heard his debut, Old Lovers Junkyard, that he is one of Scotland’s (and the UK’s) premier artists. Over the course of his three albums McCulloch, along with his superb studio band (Dave McGowan of Teenage Fanclub / Belle & Sebastian and Stuart Kidd and Marco Rea from The Wellgreen) has gathered from a well of inspirations (artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Jay Farrar, Fairport Convention, Van Morrison and John Martyn). By some alchemical process he has transformed them into his own noble spirit with songs that inhabit the past and celebrate the here and now, his attractive and slightly wearied voice with its mild Celtic burr anchoring him to his homeland whilst the music traverses oceans and genres.

Bare Along The Branches finds McCulloch continuing to peer into his roots and influences but with a new found confidence that is reflected in the more diverse instrumentation on show here. There’s an expansive edge to some of the songs with electric guitar and organ added to the trail mix that was on show on These Mountain Blues. Thus enabled McCulloch is able to capture for example the sheer joy of vintage Van Morrison Caledonia Soul escapades on songs such as Shutter with its repetitive refrain which is pure Morrison soulful scatting. The song itself concerns a tryst gone wrong in a lonesome cabin, a wonderful concatenation of images and sound with piano and organ fuelling the sheer exuberance of McCulloch’s lyrics. There’s more soul on the plaintive Lonely Boy with electric keyboards and Chi-Lites harmonies harnessing the song to seventies Top of The Pops memories of smooth harmony groups dressed in silk while Little Boat chugs along with some meaty guitar plunges and churchlike organ on another song that is reminiscent of Van Morrison.

While this affiliation to a hybrid Celtic soul music dominates the first half of the album McCulloch proves he can deliver ballads in the Americana vein with Safe Keeping and Frozen River evidence of his admiration for Jay Farrar, the former a halting  dust blown rust belt eulogy while the latter skips along almost approaching bluegrass. Never Leave You Behind meanwhile is a full blown dive into country rock with some fine lap steel playing from McGowan and McCulloch revisits the dusty troubadour persona of his previous albums on the tremendous Around The Bend. This is a glorious ballad in a Neil Young mode with banjo, harmonica and lonesome pedal steel combining to create a frontier feel while McCulloch’s lyrics are a form of old Western Zen acceptance. The album closes with the lengthy Beggars Wood, a stark meditation on a childhood fable that has followed the artist into adulthood and is only exorcised when he revisits the scene. As it progresses the song blossoms from skeletal guitar and voice into a soaring guitar solo that avoids bombast as it stutters to the end, the song proof indeed that McCulloch continues to explore new avenues for his muse. Three albums in and not one clunker, McCulloch has the talent to enter the mainstream if he gets the breaks so grab a hold of this and let everyone else know about it.

Norrie McCulloch has arranged several shows to launch Bare Along The Branches starting with The Tollbooth in Stirling on 23rd February. Next up is Glasgow’s State Bar on the 24th and then Edinburgh’s Bluebird Cafe on the 25th.

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Jeff Finlin & Clive Barnes. Sounds In the Suburbs, Glasgow. Sunday 19th February 2017

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A dismal damp Sunday night in leafy Jordanhill, a wee bit off of the beaten track for Glasgow rock’n’roll but testament to the night’s players and the reputation of Sounds In The Suburbs that a fair crew turned up tonight almost filling the room. By day a douce clubhouse for post tennis or bowls drinks Woodend Bowling and Tennis Club doubles up as a warm and intimate setting for a musical evening and as such has hosted events for several years arranged by promoters Sounds In The Suburbs. It’s a measure of Blabber’n’Smoke’s general inertia that this was our first venture here despite a previous roster of highly acclaimed acts appearing so off we went, transport no problem with a rail station just around the corner, for what turned out to be a highly entertaining night.

Jeff Finlin is yet another one of these jobbing musicians who have skirted around fame (songs on telly shows and such) but ultimately remain just under the radar. Like so many of his peers Finlin is a master craftsman, a songwriter of note and talented performer with a back catalogue that rewards any investigation. His touring buddy Clive Barnes is an Irishman who may have sold his soul to the Devil at some desolate crossroad in the Emerald Isle given his mastery of blues guitar. Indeed he was awarded album of the year by the American publication Acoustic Guitar some years back, a fact he worked into a fine joke tonight. For tonight Barnes played electric guitar foil to Finlin’s thoughtful and provoking songs along with a solo slot mid show.

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Opening with Walking On Air (from the excellent My Moby Dick), a bluesy affair with Barnes adding some crunchy notes on a beautiful Gretsch White Falcon, Finlin delivered a set of swampy rock, folky narratives and yearning ballads. His voice had an element of Southern cool that at times recalled a mix of Sal Valentino (of The Beau Brummels and Stoneground) and Randy Newman with Postcard From Topeka perhaps the best example tonight of his ability to summon up that mid seventies ennui, the slightly blissed out LA smog and coke ridden country rock of the times. Songs such as The Perfect mark Of Cain, The Long Lonesome Death Of The Travelling Man and I Killed Myself Last Night allowed Finlin to stake his claim as a writer of note while Barnes coaxed and teased his guitar with some blistering solos while able to sweeten the songs sounding almost like a pedal steel at times. There was some boogie on the highway riproar of Jesus Was A Motorcycle Man while Sunday’s Forgiving came across as a brethren to Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down. What’s The Big Idea, originally penned for George Bush was tonight aimed at the 45th resident of The White House with Finlin acknowledging that he’d be happy these days to find Bush back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Finlin closed the show with a solo rendition of Alchemy which sounded tonight as if it were an outtake from Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, a bittersweet song of romance and regret.

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Barnes was a revelation in his short mid set solo slot as he mesmerised the audience with his superb lap steel playing summoning up the ghost of folk blues along with some supremely entertaining anecdotes. His list of dubious American place names along with his misadventures via his Hobbit of a booking manager in the States was hilarious. Above all however he showed that he’s up there with the likes of Taj Mahal and Eric Bibbs in terms of acoustic blues playing.

Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express @The Fallen Angels Club. O2 ABC Glasgow. Wednesday 15th February 2017

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It’s a measure of Chuck Prophet’s standing that notice of his return to these shores led to a frisson of anticipation and delight amongst the Facebook and Twitter communities that Blabber’n’Smoke inhabits. While no one (as far as we know) went so far to mention a rock’n’roll orgasm several knowledgeable pundits and many devoted fans were firm in their belief that the Prophet Express live is guitar driven Nirvana.  Given that his latest album, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins, is another triumph building on previous releases Let Freedom Ring, Temple Beautiful and Night Surfer it’s no wonder that the packed crowd tonight were tingling with anticipation and Prophet fulfilled all expectations.

He hit the ground running with the opening song the title track from the new album. A new song perhaps but already hard wired into the rock’n’roll hippocampus of the audience who joined in on the refrain as this classic slice of jukebox rifferama roared from the stage. Ramona Say Yes followed with a sleazy freak beat energy, jagged guitars and stomping drums driving the beat along before the chiming guitars of Lonely Desolation showed why some folk consider Prophet to be the underground answer to Tom Petty. Three songs in and already this is great when Prophet introduces Bad Year For Rock’n’Roll, his homage to Bowie with a cool tale about thieving Siouxsie Sioux’s equipment back in the days (he reckons the statute of limitation is up by now). It’s a snotty glam rock romp and it’s reinforced by the Mott The Hoople like glory that is Temple Beautiful which has the audience in a kind of ecstasy as Prophet orchestrated their contribution to the refrain. By now it was getting hot and sweaty with Prophet so close to the front line of fans that they were in danger of getting knocked in the head by his headstock as he prowled the lip of the stage ripping into the ferocious fury of Alex Nieto before allowing some breathing space with the groovy existentialism  of  Barely Exist. It’s a toss up as to who was enjoying themselves the most between Prophet and the audience as he strapped on his acoustic guitar for a tremendous (and hugely appreciated) delivery of Jesus Was A Social Drinker before  crowd favourite, You Did (Bomp Shooby Doobie Bomp)  hove into view. A song that has evolved from its almost trip hop original recording tonight it sees Prophet coming across like an evangelical preacher spreading the Gospel of rock’n’roll. His appropriation of classic grooves was well to the fore on the Alan Vega tribute that was At The Mausoleum (with Stephanie Finch stepping to the front here on vocals) and the garage thrust of Ford Econoline, another favourite that threatened mayhem at the front as the band went full throttle.

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We must mention here The Mission Express (James DePrato, guitar, Kevin White, bass and Vicente Rodriguez, drums and Stephanie Finch, keyboards, vocals and cowbell). All part of the gang and all fulfilling their role, DePrato sparring with Prophet, Finch his inspiration. They cooled it down for the eulogy that is We Got Up And Played (dedicated by Prophet to Dan Stuart) and offered up a fine loose limbed tribute to Leonard Cohen on the fairly obscure Iodine (from the legendary gun and drug-riddled album Death Of A Ladies Man). Summertime Thing flowed sweetly with the guitars overflowing as Prophet and DePrato casually swapped lines before they swooped into the bottleneck fuelled Countrified Inner City Technological Man and then dialled it down for the modern testifying of Wish Me Luck. The guitar chemistry swelled on the closing Willie Mays Is Up To Bat with Prophet and DePrato channelling their inner Thin Lizzies.

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By now two and a bit hours had passed but there was no sense of flagging as the band came back on for another shot of Bobby Fuller as they slid into a Mersey beat styled cover of Let Her Dance. The last gasp was a slow burning You And Me Baby which allowed Prophet to incorporate Memphis soul and noirish beat lyrics into his final testimony of the night, a night of rock’n’roll wisdom and joy.

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Support act Max Gomez from New Mexico had a job on his hands as a couple of hundred Prophet fans stared at him and his guitar when he wandered onto stage. However, his Arlo Guthrie like presence and troubadouring folky songs soon had their attention with the opener Good Friend Girl showing that he’s another songwriter following in the footsteps of the likes of Townes van Zandt and Steve Earle. Ball and Chain from his debut album and Joe from his latest EP were fine deliveries showcasing a strong finger picking style and he had a fine line in his song introductions. It was gratifying to see a queue form at his merch table at the end of his brief set.

 

 

The Steve & Ben Somers Country Band. The Highway Is My Home

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Way back in the dark ages (well, the seventies) TV talent shows were fairly popular. This was of course way before the Simon Cowell perversities that pollute our minds these days. There was Opportunity Knocks and New Faces, the latter with a panel of judges who were in the main Tin Pan Alley types. I mention this as Steve Somers, father of Ben, notes in the liner for this album that his first break was as a winner on New Faces in the mid seventies, he even provides a link to a video of the performance on his website, a rabbit hole I fell into as I spent far too long watching related time capsules on YouTube. It certainly was a different world back then.

Anyway. Since then Steve’s kicked around the business playing and singing or supporting dozens of artists (Lonnie Donegan, Joe Brown, Glen Campbell, Johnny Cash, Billy Jo Spears) and leading his own bands which have generally played Country and Western Swing. Ben’s been a musician for as long as he can remember and again has an impressive resume having worked with Dr. John, Taylor Swift, Seal and Dizzee Rascal (first time appearance for Mr. Rascal on Blabber’n’Smoke I believe).  Together the pair have played their favourite Country songs for some time but for The Highway Is My Home they’ve gathered together a tight little band to deliver 11 cracking slices of good old fashioned delights.

With Steve on acoustic guitar and Ben on double bass they share the vocals and are backed by Matt Park on pedal steel and Chris Haigh on fiddle with electric guitar duties shared between Rob Updegraff and Marcus Bonfanti. A talented bunch as a brief glance at their respective CVs will confirm and as such well able to nail the various strands of classic Country they tackle here. The guitars fizz and burn while the pedal steel is a delight throughout. The highlight is their version of Dallas Frazier’s Elvira goes back to its original Southern soul grit groove with Park and Updegraff’s respective solo turns quite magnificent.

Ten of the songs are covers, some familiar (TVZ’s Loretta, Bob Wills’ San Antonio Rose and Hank’s Jambalaya), others less so (Paul Burch’s If You’re Gonna Love (C’est Le Moment) and Sydney Bechet’s Wabash Blues). They’re all delivered with panache with the band dipping into Western Swing, bluegrass and lovelorn waltzes with an out and out rocker on the thrilling Seven Nights To Rock. The one self penned song, The Highway Is My Home, pales somewhat in comparison to its neighbours. A breezy number similar in vein to Gentle On My Mind it’s delivered excellently with some valiant fiddle and fluid pedal steel but ultimately it fails to pack the punch delivered by the other songs.

And if you want to watch the youthful Mr. Somers on New Faces look here.

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