Townes Van Zandt Down Home & Abroad/Doug Sahm Texas Radio & The Big Beat. Floating World Records

These two albums of vintage recordings from late Americana legends, both double disc CD sets with impressive liner notes, certainly serve a purpose as more and more live gigs and radio sessions from the past make it into the public domain. The question is, “Do they deserve to appear and is it worth forking out for them?” Well, in the case of Townes Van Zandt here, the answer is definitely yes. As for the Sahm set, it’s a bit more woolly.

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Down Home & Abroad consists of two live shows recorded in 1985 (at The Down Home in Johnson City, Tennessee) and 1993 (in Helsinki). In both shows Townes is in fine fettle, relaxed and chatty as he rambles through his stellar catalogue of songs, most of the classics are here with only four duplications across the discs. On the Tennessee set he is accompanied by guitarist Mickey White and flautist/saxophonist Donny Silverman, the latter’s contributions reminding one of the early Van Zandt studio albums. His talking blues on Talking Thunderbird Blues and Fraternity Blues both raise some hoots from the audience and some of his introductions raise a chuckle but when he delves into a song such as Rake, you know this is a guy who has faced darkness in his soul. The accompanying players give Snake Mountain Blues an additional heft and there’s a neat combination of Colorado Girl and Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues which is just outstanding. By 1993 Townes is much more weathered, his voice more stained but still capable of dredging up deep emotions. Here he’s solo and his guitar is just a bit more ragged but again he has those great songs to back him up. He sounds tentative at first on this first visit to Finland but as the show progresses he relaxes, his chats loosen up and by the end of the show (which, going by his repeated assurances to the crowd that the main act will be on soon, goes on longer than planned) he’s flying, playing audience requests and goofing around as when he kicks off Brother Flower saying, “If I start humming it’s because I’ve forgotten the words.” A raw rendition of Flying Shoes and a halting Don’t you Take It Too Bad (and here you can compare the performance to that of eight years earlier) close the show. With both shows well recorded (aside from some minor tape hiss on the Helsinki show) this release is bound to attract devotees of Townes Van Zandt and for more fair weather listeners is not too shabby a way to hear what all the fuss is about when it comes to the peculiar genius of Townes Van Zandt.

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Texas Radio & The Big Beat (aside from the title the discs have no relationship with The Doors) consists of two shows recorded for radio transmission in 1973 and 1974, in Philadelphia and then in Houston. Recorded in the wake of Sahm’s Atlantic album, Doug Sahm and Band, which had the likes of Dylan and Dr. John sitting in, the shows don’t reflect that disc with only two songs, Papa Ain’t Salty and (Is Anybody Going To) San Antone represented. Instead, Sahm and the bands behind him offer some of his older hits such as She’s About A Mover and At The Crossroads along with numerous covers of blues and country standards. It has to be said that both recordings are thin, the band muffled for the most part with instrumental solos either too loud or lost in the mix. Sahm himself is fiery and passionate, having fun but with his vocal track way up high on most of the songs. The Philadelphia recording wins out in terms of its variety and Sahm’s between song chat but on both shows the majority of the songs are blues shuffles with little of the variety that was on show on that Atlantic Records studio album. That said the versions of (Is Anyone Going To) San Antone and Wolverton Mountain, both from the Philly gig, are pretty cool but it’s difficult to recommend this to anyone but die hard collectors.

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Rich Krueger. NOWThen. RockinK Music

Final_NOWTHEN_Final_cover_hi_resIt’s just over a year ago that Blabber’n’Smoke stumbled across Rich Krueger, a man who has become our second favourite singing doctor (Hank Wangford is still No. 1, sorry, Rich). Krueger is a working medicine man in Chicago but he’s had a contemporaneous career as a musician with his band The Dysfunctionells (with the album title relating to this weird yin/yan) and in the past 18 months he’s launched himself solo with a vengeance, even attracting the attention of the self styled “Dean of critics, Robert Christgau. NOWThen is his second album in less than a year following on from the splendid Life Ain’t That Long and, as with its predecessor, NOWThen is a wonderfully meandering set of grand songs.

Krueger is an astute observer of human behaviour and he writes about it much in the way of wayward souls such as Randy Newman and Terry Allen. And although he fits somehow into the American folk scene being a winner at the 2018 Kerrville Folk Festival, the album veers through rootsy numbers spiced with Dobro and swirling organ, piano based jaunts, Asian exotica and Mariachi stylings. At heart however is his razor sharp observation which he translates into wordy yet incredibly enjoyable songs. The best example might be the coming of age tale Don where Krueger weaves a fantastic(al) tale of a teenage buddy who was a “contrarian,” an admirer of Nietzsche and Hitler although most of his classmates were Jews. The song flows along with a fine fiddle fuelled country swirl as Krueger’s words spill out – almost a screenplay in miniature – as he just about diagnoses Don as a sociopath before breaking down what one should imagine as an aural equivalent of theatre’s fourth wall as he asks, “Did I entertain you?” as the song ends.

Krueger can delve into history, singing about the Wright Brothers or Huey P. Long, the songs part story, part surreal. Then there’s his own experiences as on the opening song, Kenny’s (It’s Always Christmas In this Bar), dedicated to his local watering hole and delivered in a manner which, should Billy Joel ever hear it, have him weeping, as Krueger plays a doo wop flavoured piano led pop song which knocks Mr. Joel for six. The Cajun flavoured O What a Beautiful Beautiful Day is a warts and all depiction of the trial and tribulations of giving birth with Krueger noting that, on a chance encounter with Tom Waits, Waits’ advised him to, “Write about what you know,” and Krueger, being a neo natal doc, knows all about the bloody mess which surrounds a delivery. Elsewhere, Wittgenstein, Pope and Robert Browning are springboards for songs but pride of place here might go to Girls Go For Arse’oles, an apology of sort for most males’ behaviours towards the opposite sex with the title borrowed from Robert Crumb.

With a cast of players which include Robbie Fulks, Gary Lucas, John Fulbright and Peter Stampfel, the album is expansive and eclectic (there’s even a mock advert with the Colbert Report’s Erik Frandsen voicing Krueger). When Blabber’n’Smoke first noticed Krueger we said he was a maverick and NOWThen kind of confirms that but it’s important to say here that he’s an incredibly talented maverick.

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Willard Grant Conspiracy. Untethered. Loose Music

wgc_untethered_loresIt’s impossible to listen to Untethered without a heavy heart, the album being the last recordings made by Willard Grant Conspiracy’s mainstay, Robert Fisher, before his death from cancer in 2017. Throughout their 25 plus years of recording Fisher and his ever-changing Willard Grant line-ups were always somewhat portentous, his sombre voice offering a spectral foreboding to many of his songs. Although the songs here were recorded after his diagnosis there’s only one written in the wake of it. Nevertheless, it’s difficult not to see the album as Fisher’s farewell to the world. The songs have been “dusted down and brought to life with the care and attention of his longtime compadre David Michael Curry” and Curry has certainly done a magnificent job as there’s no sense of this not being a finished product which would have accompanied the band on their next tour.

Most of the album is stark in its acoustic beauty, the one song which kicks against the prevailing mood being the opener, Hideous Beast, which snarls with bared teeth in a manner not unlike a feral Nick Cave. The remainder is a creaky voyage with viola and cello, a musical saw and occasional guttural guitars driving the songs over laid back rhythms. None more so than on Do No Harm (with Steve Wynn on guitar) as Fisher seems to gather euphemisms for passing on and refers to the titular medical oath as the song progresses as if Charon was piloting the band across the Styx. There’s a tremulous tenebrosity in the saw and sawed instruments of All We Have Left, an instrumental which recalls the melancholy of Nick Drake and the solemn quality of an elegy. It’s a quality the album returns to over its course with  Let The Storm Be Your Pilot casting Fisher in a vulnerable position, his voice lowered to a whisper as guitars slither and squirm while I Could Not almost weeps with a list of unfulfilled ambitions, its ramshackle structure as frail as a dust bowl shack as the storms gather. Untethered, written post diagnosis, recalls Johnny Cash’s glorious bowing out on songs such as Hurt as Fisher delves into portents of death while the closing Trail’s End, another instrumental, comes across as if it were a soundtrack for an apocalyptic Western movie, Morricone mixed with Jodorowsky with juddering guitars and sombre strings.

Amidst the above there’s a brace of songs which are classic Willard Grant Conspiracy fare such as Chasing Rabbits and Saturday With Jane. That we get to hear these is a blessing and a sure indication that Fisher was still at the top of his game as his time here grew to a close. Untethered is a wonderful obituary for the man but in its own terms it stands up with the rest of his catalogue.

GospelbeacH. Another Winter Alive. Alive Natural Sound

51dnpq5qkhl-_ss500What with the price of coal being what it is, here’s another way to keep warm this winter, a new album from the sun dappled GospelbeacH, purveyors of prime California sunshine jangled pop. Another Winter Alive is not in fact, a full-blown follow up to the excellent Another Summer of Love, rather it’s a collection of songs recorded for that album which didn’t make the final cut, supplemented by a short live set, recorded at The Betsey Trotwood in London. Some might suspect that this is a quick cash in by the band or record company to hoover up some bucks before Christmas but we’d consider it more in the tradition of releases such as The Smiths’ Hatful of Hollow, an attempt to allow fans to hear songs which otherwise would languish in a vault somewhere.

Anyhow. The album kicks off with the five studio recordings beginning with an excellent version of fellow traveller, Neal Casal’s Freeway To The Canyon. This is just perfection, from the jangled guitar intro and the slightly wearied harmonies to the organ fills and trippy guitar solo the song flows as sweetly as a Topanga Canyon stream summoning up visions of latter-day Byrds. Down South is somewhat more baroque with its signature changes and closing honky tonk piano knees up with the guitars here having a George Harrison touch to their slips and slides. Running Blind takes a left turn in a more turbo charged direction with a fuzz toned organ riff leading the charge until halfway through the song spaces out into cosmic Americana territory with pedal steel gliding adrift amidst sound effects and heavenly harmonising. It’s back to the main drag however for the perfect power pop of Change of Heart, a Petty like number which will knock the socks off of you while Dreamin’ is more laidback, an attractive slice of harmony soft rock which is, indeed, sun dappled.

The live songs feature Brent Rademaker, Jonny Niemann and Jason Soda playing in a London pub in a kind of unplugged set up on guitars and keyboard (although one of the guitars is plugged in). There’s a splendidly ragged version of California Steamer, and then a fine reading of Out of My Mind (On Cope & Reed) with Rademaker doing his best Lou Reed impression and the trio out doing the studio version for sheer energy and passion. Miller Lite (originally called Sunshine Skyway on the first album) is a light hearted tale of a bohemian surfing jobs on the road in Florida with Rademaker urging the audience to join in with the great line, “is this a pub or a morgue?” They nail the romance and mystery of In The Desert and finish off with in a similar manner on You’re Already Home, another song which reeks of seventies long haired freedom with the trio harmonising well in the live setting.

As football commentators might say, it’s an album of two halves. The studio songs are excellent, the live songs a very welcome addition. Those new to the band might best be directed to either of the two previous albums but for fans, this is an excellent stocking filler.