Erika Wennerstrom. Sweet Unknown. Partisan Records

a1556881509_16With her Austin based band Heartless Bastards on a hiatus, Erika Wennerstrom allows her full bodied voice an outing on a solo debut that is the result of a period of introspective soul searching, sparked off by a hallucinogenic experience in South America. She’s taken her time in crafting these nine songs which alternate from scorching rockers to more laid back country tinged songs with all of them relating to her self confessed anxieties and what she sees as a sort of spiritual and physical recovery from years on the road. Having said all that the album is a buoyant affair for the most part despite lyrics which can be dark such as, “I crack so deep, cracks that went right down to the bone,” and, “I’m searching for a place to feel like home, a place where I could breathe.”

There’s a centrepiece in the shape of Be Good To Yourself and Staring Out The Window, two songs which sound weirdly enough like Patti Smith singing with the Velvet Underground but before these Wennerstrom storms the barricades with slabs of guitar and pounding bass on the opener Twisted Highway and Extraordinary Love, an overarching vista of her trip to the jungle and her “mind expanding” experience. Coming out of the rabbit hole on the other side there’s a redemptive quality of sorts in the mildly psychedelic groove of Good To Be Alone while Like A Bird finds Wennerstrom in an LA country rock mood. The sparkling Letting Go is another LA canyon influenced song and Time, with a mellotron added to the mix, ripples along nicely with Wennerstrom again reminding one of Patti Smith in her vocal delivery. The only issue with the album is that for such a confessional outing Wennerstrom’s words are sometimes lost within a torrent of sound.

Website

Advertisements

Ramble on down to The Ramblin’ Roots Revue

ramblin-roots-revue-2018-905016388-300x300We’ve mentioned previously a couple of the newer (and smaller) festivals which have been popping up over the past few years. The Ramblin’ Roots Revue, held in Bucks University Union in High Wycombe, has its second outing this year from the 6th -8th April and will be featuring a host of acts who are Blabber’n’Smoke favourites so we spoke to organiser Tristan Tipping about the weekend’s events. First of all we asked Tristan why he decided to dip his toes into the perilous waters of organising a festival.

Why did we start Ramblin’ Roots? I guess we’re just gluttons for punishment.  We really just wanted an excuse to have a big weekend surrounded by lots of people we knew while enjoying some great music.

You run Clubhouse Records with your brother Danny but I believe that the festival is a separate entity. Aside from yourself who else is involved in setting it up?

Ramblin’ Roots is really myself along with Noel Cornford who runs Earbelly who do pop up stages for acoustic acts and Jamie Alexander who is the events manager for Bucks University Union where we hold the event. Last year we got off to a real flyer, we were pleasantly surprised both in terms of ticket sales and the feedback we got so we decided to try and have it as a regular event. We don’t really see it as a festival; it’s just a big get together of like minded people who are into the same type of music, not muddy fields and bad camp sites. It’s all indoors in an award winning venue with some great bars and food. We’re all in our forties so the idea of standing in a wet field for days doesn’t really appeal, personally I don’t want to be more than 15 feet away from a bar.

It certainly seems to be a bargain in terms of the ticket prices.

Yes, it’s under a pound per band if you buy a full weekend ticket. We’ve got 36 artists playing and it’s only £32:50. We’ve tried to keep it reasonable and the drinks and the food are all sensibly priced,  having it in the Union keeps costs down and we’re not out to make a huge profit, we just need it to wash its own face. We want an event that attracts folk so we’ve kept the prices as low as we can manage. It’s great if you think that it’s a bargain, I hope other people see it that way. It’s difficult to get people to get out of their house to come to events but I think we’ve chosen a good weekend to hold it on, there’s not a lot of other things going on near us then. It is hard work and there is a bit of a risk in putting anything like this on but as I said a lot of people turned up last year and we’re getting really good support and good mentions.

And it’s not dependent on the weather as it’s indoors.

We’ve got three stages. There’s the acoustic stage which is actually outside and two indoors, the main room holds around 600 people and the other is more of a traditional bar setting. We never have more than one act playing at the same time so if you’ve got the stamina for it you can actually see all the bands that are playing.

https3a2f2fcdn-evbuc-com2fimages2f397720532f476140524972f12foriginal

It’s a great line up, I presume it’s a lot of hard work to assemble such a cast but how do the three of you choose who is playing?

Well obviously it is down to availability but aside from that it’s important to us that there’s a mix across the Americana genre so that there’s a degree of variety. I mean it’s a broad church so we have some of the more traditional folky and bluegrass stuff alongside more alt country music and some almost psychedelic West Coast sounds.  So there is a common thread there and all three of us have worked in the industry long enough to have some great contacts and a lot of mates so it is a community we’re tapping into. We want to be surrounded by acts we enjoy but the main common denominator is that they are all excellent live acts. Between us we’ve seen all who are coming to play and we know they can offer a great experience on the day.

Looking back at last year’s festival I see that aside from the music there was a pie eating contest!

Yes although it’s a bit of a hazy memory. I think it was my brother who won it. I mean it’s all about the music over the weekend but we’re trying to make the whole event an experience with the food and drink just as important. We’ve got lots of food stalls with free tastings and we wanted to have a bit of fun as well which is where the pie eating came in.  I’m not sure what we’ll do this year, someone suggested horse shoe throwing!

This is maybe an unfair question but who are you looking forward to seeing?

That’s a tough one but I’m really looking forward to The Midnight Union Band who I’ve seen at Kilkenny a couple of times and then The Raving Beauties and The Hanging Stars are right up my street as I really like that West Coast type of thing. But it’s all quality from top to bottom. The act who most people seem to be really looking forward to are Bennett Wilson Poole who are just starting off and who release their album the weekend of the festival.  The other set I’m excited about is the Clubhouse All Stars tribute to Tom Petty. We actually did that at Truck Festival five years ago and with Tom passing away quite a few people asked if we could do it again. We’ve got a wealth of people who can come on and sing their own personal tribute so it should be a great show.

The Revue has a charity partner this year, Ridin’ The Roots.

We’re supporting our good buddy Del Day who is doing a sponsored cycle ride from Lewes to Kilkenny to raise money for Cancer Research. It’s in memory of Willie Meighan who was at the heart of the music scene in Kilkenny and who I had the pleasure to meet when I was at Kilkenny Roots. We’ll be having a collection at the shows and Del will be there to tell folk all about it. It’s a pleasure to do our little bit to help.

Tickets for The Ramblin’ Roots revue are available here

You can read about and support Ridin’ The Roots charity cycle here.

Courtney Marie Andrews. May Your Kindness Remain. Loose Music

a4286792715_16If many listeners felt that the spirit of Joni Mitchell hovered around Courtney Marie Andrews‘ hit album of last year, Honest Life, the broader palette of this follow-up should be food for thought. True, Andrews can still evoke Joni’s austere tundra ballads but May Your Kindness Remain is of a richer texture than its predecessor, less inclined to wander a folksy trail, preferring instead to delve into Gospel, soul and country rock. Produced by Andrews and Mark Howard and recorded mostly live in a house in LA the organ work and sinewy guitar recalls The Band at times while Lowell George’s Little Feat surely inform at least one song here. As for muses, this reviewer indeed muses that Aretha Franklin and Laura Nyro may have been on Andrews’ mind when she recorded these songs.

If Honest Life was a set of personal observations  then May Your Kindness Remain casts its net somewhat wider as Andrews delves into what she sees as a nationwide malaise with  relentless redevelopment, anti immigration forces, opioid dependency causing untold grief while she also inhabits the personal political with some atypical love songs. Above all she continues to sing in a glorious manner while her songs remain elegantly crafted, each one here pitched to perfection with memorable hooks and intriguing melodies and all wrapped up in a warm production somewhat akin to Daniel Lanois’ infamous ambient feel as on Dylan’s Time Out Of Mind.

The album opens with the elemental surge of the title song couched in Gospel tones as it builds in intensity from its reverential opening into a glowering guitar solo and then soaring to the heavens with CC White’s gospel voice adding some heft to Andrews’ voice. Next up is a song which could easily sit within Honest Life, Lift The Lonely Heart, while at the same time it could as easily have featured on Emmylou Harris’ Wrecking Ball.  Andrews does recall Emmylou here in her singing while the reverbed guitar and swooning organ are evocative of that album. Lyrically Andrews revisits her lonesome travails of the previous album and altogether the song puts paid to any notions that May Your Kindness Remain is a Judas moment for those who wanted a remake of honest Life. In a similar vein Took You Up is a travelogue come love song, a long distance romance with some glorious guitar work from Andrews while Rough Around The Edges is a stark American version of a kitchen sink drama with a saloon bar like piano adding to the desolation.

There’s so much to savour here as Andrews gets into a chunky country rock vibe on the vividly painted death of the American dream that is Two Cold Nights In Buffalo and then slips into Little Feat territory with her tale of a racist sheriff on Border while This House is a homily to the idea of home redolent of sweet memories with a whiff of both Little House On The Prairie and the white picket fences in David Lynch’s blue Velvet. There’s more country soul on the powerful Kindness Of Strangers, a song written after a musician friend died from an overdose, a song of hope despite despair and then there’s the initially upbeat I’ve Hurt Worse with Andrews listing the reasons she likes her honey which soon dissects the relationship portraying it as bereft of mutual respect leaving her stoically enduring his selfishness.

The album closes on a high note with Long Road Back To You which is stuffed full of American yearnings; a road song, a love song, the romance of Kerouac and all who ride the roads waiting for money wired at gas stations and cheap motels. The song glides along with a soulful feel with CC White again on backing vocals and one imagines that it’s a song which could enter the canon as it sums up a scenario as succinctly as the likes of The Last Picture Show did in film. It’s simply superb and a perfect closer to a sublime album which cements Andrews’ status as a major artist.

Website

Blabber’n’Smoke Signals: Harry & The Hendersons, The Dead South, Johnny Dowd

Harry & The Hendersons. The Method of Matchstick Men

matchstickmethodcover1005pm-1Listening to the seven piece Glasgow band Harry and The Hendersons is a bit like time travelling back to the early seventies when the bands had groovy clothes, long hair and were interested in Eastern mysticism. Taking elements of LA hipness (CSN&Y and such) and Notting Hill squats (Quintessence, East of Eden) they conjure up a fine pot pouri of sounds on their debut album. A string section introduces the opening number Transcendental Meditation with the band’s excellent harmonies well to the fore before the song  settles  into a guitar based groove with echoes of Dave Crosby’s work woven into it. Meanwhile Matchstick Men, the second song, is more baroque in its delivery, the harmonies again one of the main features here while the strings dance around a gritty guitar figure ending in a guitar/fiddle duel of sorts and the addition of flute to the fluttering freak folk of Chromophobia harks back to the seventies while also challenging the work of peers such as Trembling Bells.  There’s even a five piece suite, Apollo’s Vision, which allows the band to wander hither and thither with willowy flute, Crosby like scatting and Tolkien imbued fantasy. There’s a wonderful moment in the segue between the sections, Medieval Weather Report and The Milkman, where they perform an audacious handbrake turn from prog folk to a Grateful Dead guitar noodle. Had this album been released on Vertigo or Deram back in ’72 it would be a collector’s item but it’s here and now and, having seen The Hendersons live, we can confirm that they can carry off this time travelling lark excellently on stage. Website

 

The Dead South. Illusion & Doubt

14676493_1665812647012609_4563089150667915264_nThe Canadian four piece punky bluegrass outfit’s 2016 album gets a UK release to tie in with dates coming up in April. A frenetic collection of songs peopled with some ghastly characters knee deep in mud and blood and gore this is a tremendous listen. While songs such as Dead Dog Isle rattle along with a grim fury reminiscent of The Violent Femmes there are also numbers such as Smoochin’ In The Ditch and Time For Crawlin’ which are almost pure bluegrass while Miss Mary vamps along like a jug band on amphetamines (along with some particularly gruesome lyrics).  There are some epic tales on show here. The Massacre of El Kuroke adds a Morricone touch to their sound with some sly slide guitar adding to this very cinematic song while Gunslinger’s Glory, the closing song, weaves between a bone rattling gallop and a woozy funereal waltz with strings adding a macabre touch. It’s all great fun with the band firing on all barrels and one suspects that these songs will fly from the stage with fire and fury.  Website

 

Johnny Dowd. Twinkle Twinkle.

twinklecoverforsite460wJohnny Dowd continues to eviscerate Americana on this wonderful collection of popular songs from the past which are chewed up and spat out by Dowd in his unmistakable style.  The album opens with a manifesto of sorts on the updated Execute American Folklore (Again) and it’s hard not to express a chuckle when this Residents like  caustic surge of electronica mutates into  Dowd’s delivery of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. We all know this lullaby but here it’s a bad dream vividly reimagined, more akin to Der Struwwelpeter than Disney with Anna Coogan’s operatic voice adding to the disquiet. Like a mad scientist let loose in a laboratory of steam punk synths Dowd plays all the instruments on the album; farts, parps, clangs and ominous hisses permeate the disc sounding like Krautrock meets the Clangers at times. Songs such as Going Down The Road Feeling Bad, Red River Valley and Tom Dooley are punched into submission. St. James Infirmary Blues is spoken like a beat poet suffering from a benzo famine and John The Revelator is full on biblical fury as the synthesized sounds beep and warble while there’s more biblical darkness on Job 17:11-17 with Dowd coming across like a Manson type prophesiser although the song morphs from its biblical origins into an electro funk invitation to a Friday night funky party.  Dowd’s reworkings of these songs are bizarre and challenging but  he’s  continuing in the tradition of others, taking the songs and adding his own distinctive twist. I challenge anyone not to listen to his take on My Darling Clementine without a smile appearing. Website

Matt McGinn. The End of The Common Man. BinLid Records

mattmcginn4Irishman Matt McGinn might share his name with an infamous Glasgow singer and writer but he’s one of Ireland’s foremost artists. His 2013 album Latter Day Sinner was one of The Telegraph’s top ten folk releases of that year and he has played Nashville’s famous Bluebird Cafe and shared a stage with the likes of Elvis Costello, Nanci Griffith, Crowded House and Crosby Stills & Nash. Latter Day Sinner was an excellent collection of Celtic tinged songs which at times recalled Blue Rose Code’s similar forays into that hinterland but The End of The Common Man is a much more robust beast concerned as it is with many of the current woes of the world. There are still sweet moments of glistening folk but much of the content is informed by McGinn’s anger (and bewilderment) at the state of things – populist leaders, corporate greed and an increasing groundswell of warfare across the globe.

The album comes out punching from the bell with the horn laden title song, a powerful rant against big greed pointing out that it’s the common man who suffers as jobs and homes are lost while fat cats coin it in. With its pummelling percussion, brassy riffs and whiff of clangourous guitars the song recalls Blood Sweat & Tears and drives its message home with a slow burning anger. McGinn revisits this fuller band sound (with some twists) on several of the songs with Bells Of The Angelus sounding as if it were being played by some swampers from the South as an electric piano and sinewy slide guitar come to the fore while Out Sinner rings out with some Gospel fervour. The Right Name has one foot in a Springsteen like groove with the other planted in Van Morrison territory as it swings with a fine sense of street cool. However the full fire and fury of the band is kept in rein until the rude and raucous blues eruption of Trump, a no holds barred diatribe against the current incumbent of the White House. An easy target perhaps but the ramshackle and gritty blues riff along with McGinn’s spat out vocals and his clever adaptation of Nelly the Elephant’s chorus will certainly delight those who are not fans of the orange skinned buffoon.

Elsewhere McGinn advances the sounds he conjured up on Latter Day Sinner with more adventurous arrangements. There are aching love songs such as Somewhere To Run To, borne aloft with strings and rippling piano and The Overlanders with its mournful muted horns and softly throbbing rhythm. The pinnacle is achieved on McGinn’s grim tale of a father driven to crime to support his family and ultimately losing them on Marianne. Here the arrangement is delicate with dashes of acoustic guitar, pedal steel, a burbling bass line and weeping strings forming the skeleton of the song while a Theremin adds a lonesome eeriness to the mix. The album closes with another fine arrangement on The End Of Days with its sweeping strings and horns lending a sense of portent to McGinn’s bitter sweet ruminations as he despairs of information overload while sensing that there might be a way out, a light at the end of the tunnel, although the song collapses at the end into a babble of voices snatched from the ether.

The End Of The Common Man is a brave and adventurous album. It growls and protests without pointing fingers (aside from the Trump song) while it still has enough balm to satisfy the soul. There was an album launch last week in Belfast and the good news is that McGinn is touring to promote the album with a show in Glasgow at The Admiral Bar, a Fallen Angels promotion, on Tuesday 20th March.

Website

Hugh Christopher Brown. PACEM. Wolfe Island Records

pacem-cover-1-300x300Peace on earth or at least peace on Wolfe Island, the island musical community nestled between Canada and the USA close to the great lakes which Chris Brown calls home for much of the time. An acclaimed producer and multi instrumentalist, Brown has helmed several albums we’ve reviewed in the past including the mighty debuts from Suzanne Jarvie and David Corley. In addition he’s a dedicated believer in the rehabilitative powers of music having founded the Pros And Cons programme which runs music workshops for Canadian prisoners.  PACEM was recorded in his Wolfe Island studio set up, a former post office and it’s a beguiling mix of breezy songs couched in an almost Celtic soul vibe with dashes of Americana; fiddles, pedal steel and churchlike organ adding atmosphere to the album.

A sense of community permeates the album with Brown collaborating with various singers who take centre place on several songs. There’s a spiritual dimension also, the album opening with an arrangement of a prayer by the 16th century Saint Ignatius sung in Latin by Sherry Zbrovsky which sets the scene for Brown’s meditations which seem to be those of a man cleaving to life and music while seeking some divine sign that he’s on the right path. However the overall feel is redemptive and joyous despite some of the songs begging the eternal question.

Love, The World is an excellent acoustic mumble of a song with some mild sonic interludes from wayward keyboards recalling the freak folk movement of a few years back while Keeper Of the Flame is an upbeat piano based song which swells into an lovely slice of pedal steel laced Americana as Brown breathlessly expresses his admiration for a soul mate, spiritually and musically, the song dancing with the same bright and light footsteps as some of Van Morrison’s work.  Several of the songs recall Morrison’s heyday with Margaret a song poem replete with burbling bass lines and glorious harmonies while To The Lighthouse roams wonderfully through some Celtic landscapes with the fiddle adding a sense of mystery.

The Yield is a brief keyboard instrumental which is rich in atmosphere with a touch of Debussy about it and it segues into the powerful and plaintive The Wave, a song about those tossed across the oceans seeking refuge, sung with great feeling by Kate Fenner. Brown gives space to another powerful voice on Moved By Hands To Shelter as David Corley’s gravelly vocals contrast with Brown’s lighter voice in a song which is delivered as if plucked from the King James Bible.  There’s a similar biblical feel to the magnificently structured The Great Unknowing which kicks off sounding like Will Oldham in a mischievousness mood with a wonderfully wooden timbre before ascending into an almost Brian Wilson like middle eight and then fizzing out resplendently. Brown closes the album with a song which harks back to those folk singers who had a metaphysical bent back in the sixties on Broken. Here he roams the highways and byways of love with a cobblestone back street romanticism lit by candlelight.

An album best heard in the late hours, preferably with a broken heart or a sense of ennui, PACEM is an excellent collection of songs on which to ponder.

Website

Joan Baez. Whistle Down The Wind. Proper Records

joan-baez-coverWhat can one say about Joan Baez that hasn’t already been said? An icon of the folk and protest movement of the sixties, she moved into the seventies on a roll charting with The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down and releasing what was perhaps her most accomplished album, Diamonds & Rust, while reuniting with her old buddy Bob on The Rolling Thunder tour. Since then she’s continued to record and continued to be an activist, garnering awards and accolades across the globe. Her last release, Day After Tomorrow, from 2008, showed that she still had her finger on the musical pulse produced as it was by Steve Earle and featuring songs written by Tom Waits, Elvis Costello and Earle himself.

Ten years later and Baez is bowing out (at the age of 77) with what she says will be her final album (accompanied by a lengthy farewell tour). Whistle Down The Wind, if it is her final release, sees her leaving on a definite high note as it is an incredibly accomplished piece of work. Baez’s once piercing soprano voice is now a finely burnished thing of beauty, still recognisably her but a little bit weathered and worn and perfectly suited for some of the songs here. In addition, producer Joe Henry captures Baez and her players with astonishing clarity and warmth while the musicians are truly inspired with some of the playing and arrangements just breathtaking.

In the current political climate it would be easy for Ms. Baez to return to her roots and turn in a collection of protest songs, it would certainly be understandable. Instead, the album is a mature and reflective document with Baez still denouncing war and injustice while acknowledging that it’s time to pass the baton on. Her handpicked songs do include some which address issues directly but elsewhere there’s a valedictory feel.

The sense of a long life and one lived well is evident in the two songs here written by Tom Waits and Kathleen Brennan. Whistle Down The Wind maintains the hobo feel of Waits’ original while smoothing it out as the band play in slow waltz time with a wheezy organ and lonesome singing saw adding a fine patina. Last Leaf is given a stately old time delivery with Greg Leisz playing an antique Weissenborn and one wonders if Baez chose to sing this song just because it includes the lyrics, “I’ve been here since Eisenhower and I’ve outlived even he.” There are more reflections in the dappled version of Josh Ritter’s Be Of Good Heart and Mary Chapin Carpenter’s The Things That We are Made Of while her cover of Anthony & The Johnson’s Another World (with just Baez and her guitar with percussion from her son Gabriel) is a powerful performance.

More directly, Baez sings producer Joe Henry’s Civil War, a song which spans the ages and acknowledges those at home as well as those on the front while Eliza Gilkyson’s The Great Correction harks back to the grand tradition of the likes of Phil Ochs. Another Ritter song, Silver Blade, finds Baez visiting old time ballads as she sings of a maiden ravaged and taking her revenge, a nod perhaps to the current clime of #metoo and the closing song, I Wish All The Wars Were All Over, is another folk ballad with Celtic roots, which, aside from its excellent delivery, is a fitting farewell from this champion of the oppressed and downtrodden.

We can’t ignore the one song here which stabs to the heart and which nails Baez to her sixties civil rights roots while acting as a bit of a slap to the present POTUS. The President Sang Amazing Grace, written by Zoe Mulford, is a straightforward account of the shooting by a white supremacist of nine people in a church in Charleston and of Obama’s moving eulogy thereafter. Baez sings as if in a church, the band swelling behind her with an incredibly moving arrangement, the only pity here being that she still has to sing of events such as this fifty years after she first started to.

Whistle Down The Wind, aside from the legend, is a powerful and moving album, as topical as today’s weather and it bodes well for the singer’s farewell tour. Do give it a listen.

Website