Mishka Shubaly. When We Were Animals

Art copyBack in 2015 we wrote about an album which seemed to epitomise that old Wildean quote, “We are all in the gutter, but some of us are looking at the stars.” That album was Mishka Shubaly’s Coward’s Path, a dark and at times shambolic collection of drug fuelled misanthropy compared to which the likes of Nick Cave and Mark Lanagan sounded like top 40 popsters. Well Shubaly, a man who has probably the most chequered past of anyone we’ve reviewed has done it again with When We Were Animals, another dive into the depths of despair and again delivered with a voice sounding like Barry McGuire has had throat surgery.

It’s not for the faint hearted. No radio station is ever going to play World’s Smallest Violin, a song which kicks off with a punk rock throb sounding like a testosteroned Lou Reed looking for a fight as Shubaly describes a pretty sordid carnal encounter in a bar seesawing between GG Allin like explicitness and wry humour. You just have to love a line like, “When I pulled down my pants, that look on your face like you had lost a bet, “showing that Shubaly is at least not going to boast of his penile prowess.

So, fair warned, what can one expect from the remainder of the album? Well, pretty much more of the same, the music ranging from a mutant form of freak folk to spikier rock songs but the subject matter pretty much focussed on degradation and regret. Never Drinking Again is a bluesy hangover filled with regret as Shubaly populates the song with an exhaustive list of substances that he’s never going to do again before singing, “I’m never going to talk to you again,” indicating a partner as destructive as the drugs. By the end however he’s still in thrall to this person, the relationship reminiscent of Bukowski’s Barfly. The opening song Forget About Me, another loutish punk like thrash sets out Shubaly’s take on relationships as he looks for a cross between an angel and a demon while Animal is a slow growler of a song with Shubaly joined by an anguished female singer as they sing about down and dirty coitus. There’s a hint of Jim Carroll’s Basketball Diaries in the drug fuelled night out recalled (or not as the case may be) on Death In Greenpoint with Shubaly again transforming a calamitous one night drug fuelled Odyssey via his fantastic words on the final lines, “Well I think I’m going to go with a headfull of blow, in a Polish disco, in Greenpoint.” Meanwhile there is a tender moment on the Farmer John referencing Destructible which, while remaining quite dark, reminds one of The Handsome Family.

Just in case you’re wondering how far entrenched into the drugs world Shubaly was engaged in he offers us a loaded cover version of Little Feat’s Willin. Whereas the original was a brilliant delivery of those days when smuggling drugs had a fine and breezy outlaw vibe to it, here Shubaly invests it with a menace more akin to the murder and mayhem we’ve seen via shows like Narco. Just brilliant.

Mishka Shubaly is currently touring the UK. All dates here including a show at the 13th Note in Glasgow this Saturday.



Jamie Freeman. Hasia Dreams EP. Union Music Label

hasia20dreams20cover_724x724-837a8aIt’s been a while since a Jamie Freeman disc slid through the letterbox, his last release being 2013’s 100 Miles From Home. Despite being a familiar name down south in the UK Americana world as a musician and a behind the scenes mover and shaker he’s not well kent up here which is a bit of a pity. 100 Miles From Home (recorded with his band The Jamie Freeman Agreement) roamed around jangled power pop, English folk and dark Americana creating what should really be considered as a bit of a lost classic. There are certainly elements of the first two on this EP but there’s also a healthy dash of patchouli scented psychedelia with Freeman admitting that several of the songs are influenced by his favourite sixties bands.

The EP was recorded in Nashville and the UK with The Jamie Freeman Agreement playing on the UK songs while the Nashville tracks feature Larkin Poe and The Wild Ponies but aside from the opening number you’d be hard pressed to tell which was which. Hasia Dreams is that opening song and it’s a wonderful evocation of English psychedelia, the backwards guitars and  raga rock scales reminiscent of bands such as Tintern Abbey and (the UK) Nirvana. It’s a delicious listen with Lucy Powell’s voice weaving around Freeman’s vocals and while it may seem like a lysergically influenced song it’s actually a pretty grim tale of a refugee’s perilous journey fleeing Syria as she clings to happier days in her dreams.

Shiprock is another song which visits childhood memories although here Freeman’s template is The Who as he offers a Townshend like exploration of a dysfunctional family with the prodding keyboards recalling the synth additions to The Who’s Next album. With its muscular guitars and punchy propulsion the song soars towards another psychedelic moment on its bridge before climaxing with wailing guitar and an eventual sonic breakdown. You really need to listen to this one with the volume way up. The shimmer of Rum and Smoke then wafts into view and its clear by now that Freeman is exploring in these songs the adult influences on the psyches of their children as here he  inhabits the mind of the child of an alcoholic father. Incredibly poignant, the song clothes the child’s formative memories in a bittersweet delivery which at times recalls early Traffic.

Damaged children can find redemption and it’s tempting to see the last two songs as evidence of this. Make Do With England has the protagonist finding a partner who is helping him to cope despite his frailties with Freeman singing, “Baby you taught me how to care, yeah, well I taught you how to swear.” It’s not all plain sailing as he thinks the idea that she would marry him must mean she’s crazy while their union doesn’t always lead to bliss with the title of the song (I think) a nod to that old adage of lying back and thinking of England. Whatever, Freeman again sets the song against a magnificent and rousing delivery which slowly builds in grandeur from its folky beginning to the swell of guitars and percussion towards the end. There is a happy ending as Freeman and the band throw out a rollicking almost rockabilly number on Wedding Ring and a New Tattoo which sounds like a cross between Dwight Yoakam and Ian Dury believe it or not.

The only quibble here is that there’s only five songs. Hopefully now that Freeman has divested himself of his record store in Lewes we can expect to hear more of him in the future. Fingers crossed.

Hasia Dreams is available here


The Arisaig Americana Festival takes its first steps

arisaig-festival-1The West Highlands of Scotland may well be one of the most beautiful places on the planet and there’s been no shortage of music emanating from the area over the years, most of it in the traditional vein and reflecting the rich culture of this historical landscape. Now, an enterprising musician, Mairi Orr, wants to see the West Highlands, or, more specifically, the village of Arisaig,  on the romantically named “road to the Isles” to become a beacon for Americana music in Scotland complementing the sterling work carried out by the likes of Celtic Connections in Glasgow and Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. Orr (whose music we’ve discussed here) recently moved to Arisaig after living in Edinburgh and she’s decided to use her contacts to set up a festival which she hopes will grow into a popular attraction. Obviously that’s a long term goal and on the understanding that great oaks from little acorns grow this year’s inaugural Arisaig Festival is a small (but perfectly formed) affair. Intrigued as to why and how Ms. Orr set about this Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to her and we started off by asking her why she decided to have a go at setting up the festival in the first place.

I moved back here three years ago, not long after I released my album. It’s a lovely place but I found that I was kind of missing the music scene I’d been around in the big city. There are some amazing musicians up here but it tends to be mostly Scottish and traditional music and while the musicianship is second to none I felt that there was room for more Americana type music and importantly, that there is an audience for it, so I decided to see if I could kind of kick-start that, get it off the ground. I’ve always loved being up here.  Before we moved here permanently I visited a lot because I’ve got family here and I always thought it would be great to have some sort of event here. It’s a popular tourist destination, absolutely mobbed in the summer and there’s a great appetite for cultural events, music and such. When we got here I had my baby girl and that obviously took up my time but I started thinking seriously about setting up an event at the beginning of this year. In reality I’ve set up this first festival in a ridiculously short time but I’ve got a three year plan where I want to build the festival up, hold it over a couple of days and hopefully get some American musicians to come up and join in. So this year is really just to get it off the ground, put the word out and gauge the reaction.



So this year is pretty much dipping a toe in the water and seeing how it goes?

As I said it’s really just a launch pad for what I hope will be a bigger festival next year. We’re holding what is the main event on the Saturday night but before that we will be having musical workshops for guitar, fiddle, banjo, and mandolin, on the Saturday afternoon. There’s also going to be what I’m describing as a big pub session on the Sunday and I know there’s going to be a lot of musicians turning up for that, a good mix of people I hope.  A lot of local people have expressed their interest since we announced it and we’ve received some funding from a local trust fund and it’s great to get their support. There will be tourists around looking for something to attend and then folk I know in the music scene have also said they’re coming up, they’ll join in the session so that should be good fun.


Tell us who you’ve got lined up to play

Well I’m really pleased to have The Wynntown Marshals as our headliners as they are one of Scotland’s best known “Americana” bands. They’ll be playing here as an acoustic trio which suits the hall we’re holding the concert in although I’ve asked Iain Sloan to be sure to bring his pedal steel with him. We also have The Jellyman’s Daughter, an excellent duo who have just released their second album and for this they’re bringing some friends with them to add bass and banjo on stage so that should sound great. Then there’s The Daddy Naggins who will be rounding off Saturday night with some good old foot stomping bluegrass. They’ll also be around earlier in the day as they are going to be helping out on the afternoon workshops.

You’ve missed out an act, the Crow County Pickers, which, after some extensive research, turns out to be yourself and some chums!

OK, that’s me with David Currie, Craig McKinney and Alan Finn. David is a fantastic Dobro player who did several shows with me when I was out playing my album. We hadn’t played for sometime after I had my daughter but we got back together a little while ago and started working on this and Craig is bringing along his mandolin while we’ve got Alan on bass

It seem to me that aside from the concert you’re trying to inject an awareness of roots type music, folk, Americana and such in a place that’s probably more used to trad fiddle sessions and pipers galore.

Well there’s a lot of music students up here who are learning trad music along with a lot of “closet” players out there who would probably love to have a go on the banjo or mandolin. We’re just trying to expand the idea of folk music to encompass more than trad so the workshops are aimed at them. One of things I like about Americana music is that it’s really open and friendly and inclusive, I’m hoping that if you play guitar or banjo or mandolin or anything really you can come along and join in. The workshops will be free as will the session on Sunday, bring an instrument or just come along to hear the music. The Sunday session is being held in a great bar where they’re really encouraging to musicians and I’m getting feedback that a lot of folk will be coming to that.

It is a small festival, we don’t have a great capacity in terms of the venues but I really want to grow it over a couple of days and bring artists up here who probably don’t come to this part of the world that often. Really we just want this year to put us on the map, there are musicians who come to the West Highlands but not often enough. I’ve been talking to some other promoters to see if can start to join the dots as it were for American acts coming over here so that they don’t just play the cities, to see if we can make it attractive enough for them to play a bit further afield.

Which bring us to my final question. A lot of folk will thing that Arisaig is out in the sticks, cut off from the mainstream as it were. If we were to go would we have to hike there or get a helicopter?

Although we look as if we’re out in the wilds there are good transport links. There’s a steam train that comes from Fort William, it’s actually the one you see in the Harry Potter films which goes over the Glenfinnan viaduct. That’s the tourist way of getting here but you can get the train from Glasgow while buses run from Glasgow and Inverness. I think most people will drive and we’re only about three to four hours away from most cities in Scotland. It is a bit of an effort to get here but it’s such a beautiful part of the world it’s well worth the effort. We’ve already got a successful trad festival here, Feis Na Mara, which is held in October and it always sells out and that’s in the off season so there’s no reason not to come.

The Arisaig  Americana Festival takes place on 23-24 June. Their website is here and tickets are available here.

And here’s some video of Mairi in action. She’s sure to give The Marshals’ a run for their money.