Pickin’ Up The Pieces – a reissue round up.

1592_2000xHot Tuna – Live at New Orleans House Berkely, CA 9/69

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Poco – Live at Columbia Studios Hollywood 30/9/71

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Poco – The Songs of Paul Cotton

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New Riders of The Purple Sage- The Best Of

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Barefoot Jerry – Watching TV With The Radio On/You Can’t Get Off With Your Shoes On

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Pure Prairie League- Firin’ Up

We’ve got a good tranche of reissues here which in a way show the journey of what we used to call country rock back in the seventies.  First off is a 1969 live recording from Hot Tuna, Jorma Kaukonen and Jack Casady’s spin off band from the Jefferson Airplane. Although they eventually morphed into a power trio Hot Tuna initially kicked off playing country blues with Kaukonen on acoustic guitar and Live at New Orleans House is a generous 70 minute capture of their early days when they were whiling away their time while Grace Slick was recovering from throat surgery. A selection of songs from this show were released as the first Hot Tuna album but here we get a shed load of others which could just as easily could have been featured. Kaukonen was going back to his roots, Rev. Gary Davis and such, which he learned to play in Texas along with a young Janis Joplin. His distinctive voice and accomplished finger picking is well aided by Casady’s fluid and sturdy bass playing while Will Scarlett adds harmonica on several songs. They run through songs by Davis, Jelly Roll Morton, Leroy Carr and Lightin’ Hopkins among others with the highlights being a fine delivery of Death Don’t Have No Mercy and a snappy rendition of Blind Blake’s Never Happen No More with Kaukonen’s guitar playing spritely. It’s well recorded and quite intimate and well worth a listen.

Fast forward two years and we have Poco Live at Columbia Studios, Hollywood in 1971, featuring their most solid line up of Richie Furay, Paul Cotton, Rusty Young, Timothy B. Schmidt and George Grantham. It relies heavily on songs from their then current release, From The Inside but with space to showcase Furay’s Buffalo Springfield song, Child’s Claim to Fame along with Pickin’ Up The Pieces from their debut album. Poco of course were the somewhat unsung pioneers of country rock but here they rock out on occasion and add some fine slurps of southern influenced grooves while there are moments when they seem to anticipate Steve Still’s use of Latin American music in Manassas. On this evidence they were certainly funkier than the fledgling Eagles who were just taking off around this time. The clamour and clash of guitar and pedal steel with some fine harmonies on Hear That Music along kicks ass while What A Day has the melodic finesse and fiery fury of a Moby grape song. The recording here is not as clean as on the Hot Tuna disc but crank it up and open a bottle and it’s a great listen.

It’s Poco again on a selection of songs written by the man who replaced Jim Messina from the original line-up on Poco – The Songs of Paul Cotton.  Cotton added some muscle to the band along with some excellent song writing.  One Horse Blue and Ride The Country are both stalwart songs while Western Waterloo bashes along with some fantastic pedal steel, banjo and squirreling guitar. Blue Water meanwhile is as sinewy a bluegrass influenced country rock song as you would want to hear. Ten songs long it’s an excellent introduction to this severely underrated songwriter.

While Poco were establishing the ground rules for country rock those psychedelic cowboys from the west coast, The Grateful Dead, were dipping their toes into country music eventually begetting The New Riders of The Purple Sage. Here we have a Best Of collection (expanded from a 1976 vinyl release) which, again, is a handy primer for those yet to hear these hippie born celebrations of country music. Their laidback early style is well captured on Glendale Train and Last Lonely Eagle from their first album with Buddy Cage’s pedal steel weeping and wonderful. From their magnificent The Adventures of Panama Red album we get the powerful rush of Kick In The Head, which sounds like Bob Weir leading an energised Dead with Cage thrashing about on fuzzed pedal steel, along with the glorious title song, one of the great hippie country anthems.

The pick of the crop here is the straightforward bundling of two mid seventies albums from Barefoot Jerry (You Can’t Get Off With Your Shoes On and Watching TV With The radio On) on one CD. barefoot Jerry were a shifting bunch of seasoned Nashville pickers led by Wayne Moss who played guitar on Roy Orbison’s Pretty Woman, was one of the crew on Dylan’s Blonde On Blonde and who formed Area Code 561, the band responsible for Stone Fox Chase AKA the theme music for The Old Grey Whistle Test. With the rest of the band having a similar pedigree this outfit really could play just about anything and so here they wander from southern rock to western swing to hippie dope anthems and scintillating instrumental workouts. If anything they were just too eclectic and really never achieved much more than cult status. Watchin’ TV…  still stands the test of time and is a highly recommended listen, the title song and Funny Looking Eyes could easily have been released recently  by the likes of Sam Morrow or Andrew Sheppard, both having a tough southern slink. The instrumentals, Pig Snoots and Nehi Red and Two Mile Pike, allow the band to show off their chops and really have to heard to be believed while the delicate acoustic number If There Were Only Time For Love harks back to their magnificent debut album (which you really should search out).  The albums ends on a (ahem) high note with the cosmic dope anthem, Mother Nature’s Way of Saying High, which is not a million miles removed from David Crosby’s musings on his solo debut. You Can’t Get Off… pales in comparison but it’s still well worth a listen with the opening tale of Ali Babba a fine chunky slice of southern rock, Slowin’ Down a down home country rock number in the manner of The Ozark Mountain Daredevils and the title song a rip snorting  funky number sounding like the Band on amphetamines. If you’ve never barefooted with Barefoot Jerry then here’s your chance.

Winding up this roundup is a 1980 release from Pure Prairie League, a band perhaps better known on these shores for the emblematic Norman Rockwell cowboy, Lucky Luke, who appeared on all their album covers.  They had a sizeable success in the States although by the time of this album none of the original members were present but they had inducted a new member, the fledging Vince Gill. Gill injected new blood into the band and the album achieved top 40 status but there’s precious little down home music here with the band playing for the audiences who were lapping up the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac. As such there’s some very polished rockers here, She’s All Mine is classic FM fodder and it still sounds great with a fine twin guitar solo spiralling away while I‘ll Be Damned is an excellent country rocker which benefits from Gill’s bluegrass background.

All the above are available from Floating World Records

 

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Carter Sampson. Lucky. Continental Record Services

a1160217178_16She’s the self styled Queen of Oklahoma but Carter Sampson extended her sovereignty into European territories with the 2016 release of Wilder Side, her first album to see distribution on this side of the water.  Its success saw her playing at the Maverick, Glastonbury and Kilkenny Roots festivals as part of the eight tours of Europe she has undertaken in the past two years and on the eve of another visit we get a brand new album to whet our appetite.

Recorded with fellow Oklahoma musicians including Kyle Reid, John Calvin Abney and Jared Tyler (erstwhile travelling companion of Malcolm Holcombe) Lucky is a magnificent collection of upbeat country numbers and yearning love songs all entwined with pedal steel and Dobro. The album kicks off with the title song which is just about as perfect an example of sinewy country rock as one can imagine. The band chug excellently with Jared Tyler on Dobro snaking in and out as Sampson effortlessly sings of her good fortune in life. The mesh of guitars, piano, organ and Dobro here is terrific, reminding one of Rainer’s recordings with Giant Sand, a great start to the album. Luck pops up again on the following Anything To do, another excellent band effort as they offer up a finely sun dappled romp with piano to the fore while Peaches, with Carter reminiscing on childhood days, glides along on some succulent pedal steel playing. On Ten Penny Nail, a song inspired by a tale about Guy Clark, they delve into a southern swampy sound with Sampson sounding like a feisty Bobbie Gentry and there’s more southern touches on the existential All I Got with Sampson singing, ” All  I’ve got it don’t mean nothing if I don’t know who I am.” Meanwhile Wild Ride finds Sampson in a sassy mood as she sings of a turbulent relationship with the lyrics essentially recalling Bette Davis in All About Eve when she says, “Fasten your seatbelts. It’s going to be a bumpy night.”

Throughout the album Carter’s lyrics are impressive, able to cast a thought, an image, memory or emotion with style but she allows space for a couple of covers from some fellow Oklahoma songwriters. Zac Copeland’s Hello Darling is a fine slow country waltz with creamy pedal steel while Kayln Fay’s Tulsa with its fatback bass and spidery acoustic guitar celebrates the titular city with some aplomb. The album closes with another cover, a song which has been a regular fixture of her live shows, Shel Silverstein’s Queen of the Silver Dollar. Sampson gives the song a reverential reading, wringing out the pathos of the original while the band are just superb, sounding as if this were the Flying Burrito Brothers playing. Prior to this Sampson gives us the tale of Rattlesnake Kate (another live favourite) about a woman who lived on the edge in frontier times at one point killing off a horde of rattlesnakes and turning heir hides into a dress.  Here Sampson approaches Townes Van Zandt territory and again the band turn in an excellent performance just nailing this excellent album. . One of the best of the year so far.

Carter Sampson kicks off her UK tour this Saturday in Glasgow at the Glad Cafe, all other dates are here.

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Birds of Chicago. Love In Wartime. Signature Sounds Recordings

a0345302836_16On this, their third full studio album, Birds of Chicago firm up what has been called their “secular gospel” sound, the trademark harmonies of Allison Russell and JT Nero still to the fore but with the music slightly more muscular as befits an album which slyly cocks a snoot at the world of fake news and atrocities we currently live in. It’s not a political album nor a collection of protest songs, rather it’s a celebration of life and love, the antidote they believe to troubled times, and not just romance. It’s all kinds of love, maternal, familial, the ties that bind us and shape us. As Nero said to The Chicago Times, “We didn’t want to make a heavy-handed record, but a joyful rock ’n’ roll record while acknowledging that the stakes feel high.”

Joyful rock ‘n’ roll certainly describes the album well. Moving on from the more rustic feel of its predecessor, Real Midnight, produced by Joe Henry, Love In Wartime finds Luther Dickinson co-producing with Nero as the band dip into rock and soul, name checking popular songs from the sixties throughout. The band are tight and well honed from constant touring, Chris Merrill on bass, Nick Chambers, drums, Drew Lindsay, keyboards and Javier Saume-Mazzei on percussion are punchy and perfect but it’s the guitarists, Dan Abu Absi and Joel Schwartz, who get the chance to shine on many of the songs.  On the frontline of course are the voices of Russell and Nero, both superb singers but who really shine when they are conjoined, their evident empathy and affection for each other (they are a married couple) a joy to hear.

The album opens with the brief Intro Now/Sunlight with Russell wordlessly humming over spare piano and banjo, the piece evoking that lazy just awake feeling, the dawn promising a new day. From there clipped electric rhythm guitar launches the joyous soul sound of Never Go Back, a song which brings to mind Donny Hathaway while Nero gets to sing some falsetto and Russell slips in a sensuous verse sung in French preceded by an infectious giggle. This is classic Birds of Chicago territory, playful and uplifting while the production and dynamics are just perfect, the song ending with several powerful keyboard chords punched in over a Stax like drumbeat. Love in Wartime starts off as an achingly beautiful vocal duet as the pair celebrate the humdrum elements of daily life finding beauty in them (“Morning dew on the petal, steam on up from the kettle”) before a stirring slide guitar solo carries the song to a glorious end. It’s just wonderful and here one wonders if this is the album’s peak but that’s not so. There’s another eight songs to go and several of them achieve a similar height.

Travelers is a bright and sunny song with Russell singing of the elements and nature while managing obstacles in life as she sings, “So I roll and I wind, I slip and I weave and I duck and I dive” with the music also ducking and diving and enlivened with a cheesy keyboard solo. It’s followed by the powerful Try, a haunting duet with Nero pleading as the song progresses while Russell wails with a wonderfully soulful presence, the band trickling along with them with a careworn swampers like sound. It’s the most naked song on the album as it acknowledges emotional barricades and the hurt of loss. Nero’s words capture this sense brilliantly singing, “I don’t think that I can carry this heavy load all on my own, but Man if you’re still game you and I can carve our names in hidden caves and giant oaks.” Wringing out their emotions and fears here the song is devastating although it’s leavened by another sweet slide guitar solo.

It’s somewhat sunnier thereafter. Lodestar sparkles from the start, its gently propulsive beat enlivened by slivers of banjo and guitar before building up into a frenzied all out guitar and drum assault. Roll Away is a joyous Gospel tinged number which nods to the closing song as they welcome the boisterous windstorms which can wipe the slate clean while Baton Rouge is a wonderfully languorous reminder of the travails of New Orleans. Superlover garners together the whole aspects of love which weave throughout the album and is a perfect summation. It’s an almost perfect song with Russell immediately evoking Dylan and The Band in the opening words while the band deliver a sumptuous blend of glistening guitars and soulful organ. They close with the sly funk of Derecho, a defiant salute to resilience as the Derecho (a violent windstorm) approaches and they hide out awaiting the calm after the storm. As a metaphor for these troubled times it’s pretty neat and the band imbue it with a fine Sly & The Family Stone bounce. It’s a fine end to what is a magnificent set of songs on what is probably the best album of the year so far.

You can catch Birds of Chicago in May as they are touring the UK and Ireland. All dates here

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Al Shields and The Delahayes. Fire On Holy Ground EP

online-square-imageEdinburgh based Al Shields has been carving a bit of a reputation on the local Americana scene over the past couple of years. Here he ditches his usual acoustic presentation for a full blooded band sound giving us six songs which are all fine country flavoured rock numbers and which display his admiration for the likes of Jason Isbell along with some venerable artists who have walked this road before. Melodic, with curling guitars and a flavour of sweet pedal steel playing, Shields and his Delahayes have turned in a most welcome collection.

The disc opens with the peaceful easy feeling of Counting The Hours with the band gliding through this lyrically downbeat number as Shields sings of sleepless nights spent listening to high lonesome sounds waiting for his absent other half to come home. It’s a classic topic and Shields’ note of resignation in his voice along with the band’s easy stroll brings his words to life. There’s another absent lover on Kick Your Feet Up although here Shields is more expectant as this time she’s coming home and he’s just biding his time. With a finely flowing twang guitar solo thrown in to elevate matters it’s another fine country rock song in the vein of JD Souther and Shields and The Delahayes go for this sound again in a full throttled manner on the pedal steel laced The Road with the rhythm section giving the song a muscular beat.

Elsewhere, Shields delves into Isbell territory on the glistening Holy Ground with gossamer guitars decorating his opaque words while Closer allows the band to stretch out on this doom laden set of images with some fine dynamics and a swell guitar solo. They close with the brooding The Boys In The Band, a southern rock tinged salute to bar bands plagued by endless requests to play Freebird. A fine nod to the somewhat beer stained  rock’n’roll romanticism which fuels endless combos  it’s delivered with an excellent sense of world weariness, the guitars lazily  strummed as a harmonica wheezes,  the song sounding as if it was conceived at the same time as Neil Young’s Tonight’s The Night.

All in all an excellent EP, Shields convincing as the wounded romantic troubadour while the band (Stuart Brunton on guitar, Adam McMillan bass, David McManus drums and Dale Birrell pedal steel and keyboards) all play like seasoned Nashville veterans.

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