Matt McGinn. Lessons Of War

mattmcginnAs the TV news screens abysmal and horrific scenes from Syria, Yemen and Lebanon, the UN proves toothless and Brexit threatens to open up old sores in Ireland, Northern Ireland’s Matt McGinn’s fourth album is a timely release. McGinn remembers “The Troubles” well but the impetus for recording this collection of what can be loosely called “anti war” songs came about when he saw the infamous photograph of the drowned Syrian refugee toddler, Aylan Kurdi, saying, “It triggered something in me. I felt I had to do something, and writing was all I could do.” Lessons Of War is the first fruit of his endeavours, a documentary film accompanies it but so far has only had limited showings in Northern Ireland. The album finds McGinn collaborating with a host of artists. He co-writes several of the songs with some of Ireland’s finest writers including Mick Flannery, Ciaran Lavery, Ben Glover, Stephen Scullion and Brigid O’Neill. Meanwhile, several of the musicians playing on the disc are from war torn countries or have suffered serious injury in conflict areas.

Musically, the album is more akin to McGinn’s 2015 album, Latter Day Sinner, than the bombast and anger contained in his 2018 release, The End Of The Common Man. Having said that, it’s more varied, due perhaps to the various matchmaking of writers and players, but overall McGinn retains his particular Hibernian take on folk music. This particular bent is evident on the lilting co-write with Ben Glover, I Was There, with its Van Morrison like stride and fluttering Celtic flute. It’s a good snapshot of the album actually, as McGinn refers to Belfast, the civil rights movement in Montgomery and the refugee camps in Calais, bearing witness to ongoing calamities. An Shualmhneas (One Day Of Peace) goes one further with McGinn singing in Irish Gaelic, the most traditional sounding song on the album.

Evidence of the album’s democracy is apparent when Ciara O’Neill takes the lead vocals on the moving Bubblegum, a song based on a Newry teenager’s 1981 diary as she remarks equally on Top Of The Pops and a mortar attack on the local police station. It’s a chilling reminder that war was on our doorstep not so long ago. McGinn also cedes vocals on Lyra, sung by Ria McGuire and the most oblique song here, perhaps it refers to the hope besieged and battered families still harbour against all odds, whatever, it’s undeniably beautiful with Vyienne Long’s cello quite haunting.

The more one delves into this album the more powerful it sounds. The opening song is a powerful diatribe against the politicians and money men who control, remotely, atrocities across the globe. Refugees is quite astonishing as it gently floats along  with whispers of Nick Drake in its arrangement despite its grim subject. Featuring Mickey Raphael on harmonica and Barry Walsh on accordion and with some delicious double bass from Jon Thorne, it’s a magnificent song. McGinn pulls out all the stops on Child Of War which features propulsive strings and a pounding beat and is the one song here which recalls the fury of The End Of The Common Man.

Fittingly, the title song harks back to the classic days of protest songs in that it trades in slogans, questions and accusations. McGinn dresses it wonderfully as the song progresses through Celtic folk and Muslim chants for peace to all, all the while slipping in a John Lennon moment as he has a massed choir (The Citizens Of The World Choir, a London based choir of refugees from all over the world) join in. The album closes with McGinn at his best on the simple and superb When Will We Learn. A lament really but with a glimmer of hope, beautifully played and with lyrics worthy of Phil Ochs, it’s quite spine tingling and should be heard worldwide.

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Dean Owens brings the spirit of Johnny Cash back to Fife

cashback posterCash Back In Fife is the latest addition to the Scottish roots music calendar, a weekend of music celebrating Johnny Cash’s links with the Kingdom of Fife. It’s the brainchild of Dean Owens who has always acknowledged his debt to the man in black. Taking place at The Woodside Hotel in Aberdour, Fife, the weekend extends the spirit of Owens’ album Cash Back (Songs I Learned From Johnny) and his resulting show which was a hit at the Edinburgh festival.  Aside from Owens, the weekend will feature musicians (many from Fife) who were equally inspired by the giant of country music.

Owens’ a busy man these days. So far, in 2020 he’s been to Tucson to record with Calexico for his next solo release,  appeared at Folk Alliance in New Orleans and then jetted back to the UK to play with his latest line-up, The Southerners, at the AMAUK awards in February, revisiting his triumph of 2019 when he won song of the year for Southern Wind. He’s now gearing up to tour with The Southerners to promote the release of The Man From Leith, his career spanning collection which is released in March with a sold out launch gig in Leith. Before that however, there’s the simple task of curating Cash Back In Fife. In the midst of this whirlwind of activity, Dean took some time to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke on a wet and windy afternoon. We kicked off proceedings by asking him how he came up with the idea for this weekend of Cash inspired music.

Really, it all started when I played a gig at The Woodside Hotel in Aberdour last May. I’d never been there before even though when I was a kid we used to holiday further along the Fife coast. After my sound check I went for a short walk and was really impressed by this quaint little village and so after that I kept coming back just to enjoy the place. I’d take my dog, Alfie, there for long walks and both my wife and I just fell in love with the village. Anyhow, I came across an article about Johnny Cash’s association with the area, how he discovered that one of his ancestors came from Fife and so he became a regular visitor and even recorded one of his TV shows in Fife. Something clicked and I thought it would be nice to celebrate Cash’s connection with the area so initially I spoke to John McTaggart who owns The Woodside Hotel about it. He’s a passionate music fan and has been putting on some great shows at the hotel and he was up for it so, along with Morag, my manager, we started to see if we could get folk interested in playing.

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I suppose we should make it clear that it’s not going to be a tribute weekend of people playing and singing Johnny Cash songs.

No. We thought quite a bit about this. We wanted folk who had links with Fife but we also wanted to widen it out to others who just were appreciative of Cash in their own writings. It’s not a tribute band weekend, instead I’m hoping that it will just show that Cash’s influence reached out to so many performers over here but with many of the artists coming from Fife we’re going to highlight that specific connection.

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I rooted around YouTube and saw some clips of Cash in Scotland and he seemed quite chuffed to have discovered that he might have some Scottish blood in him.

Yeah, it’s quite funny I suppose but it’s more that we Scots like to grab folk for our own  and claim them as Scottish so the idea of having Johnny Cash as an honorary Scot makes me smile.

So, who can we expect to see and hear over the weekend?

There are several folk who actually come from Fife, Rab Noakes, Ian Rankin, Fay Fife of The Rezillos (who is fae Dunfermline), David Latto and The Marriage featuring Stuart Adamson’s daughter, Kirsten. But we reached out a little further afield to people who have a fondness for Cash’s music so we have Hannah Rose Platt coming up from England and there’s Martha Healy and obviously I’m doing a couple of things. It’s small but as it’s the first time we’re doing it we wanted to keep it that way. It’s all under the one roof which is nice and it should be a fun weekend. People in the area are quite proud of the Cash Connection so we’re expecting a lot of local folk will be attending especially as John has been building up the hotel’s reputation by booking a lot of well-regarded acts.

On Friday night I’ll be playing with The Celtabilly Allstars who are people I’ve played with over the years including Amy Geddes on fiddle and Kevin McGuire, my old bass mate from The Felsons. We’ll also have Martha Healy playing. It’s a nice and easy way to open the weekend and there’ll definitely be a few Cash songs sung as it ties in with my album and show about Cash. On Saturday afternoon, Ian Rankin will present a talk about his favourite album by one of Fife’s greatest artists, Jackie Leven, the album being Elegy To Johnny Cash. It was actually Ian’s idea to do this and and I’m really happy that it’s happening. If Jackie were still with us I’d have definitely asked him to play. Then that evening we have a Nashville styled songwriter’s circle with me, Hannah Rose Platt and the legendary Rab Noakes. I’ve known Rab for a long time and of course he’s one of these guys who has been around for ever and is still making great music. He’s got a lot of knowledge of growing up in Fife just as Cash and these guys were starting out and it will be interesting to hear his stories on the night. Finally, there’s what we are calling Sunday Afternoon Coming Down with David Latto, Fay Fife with her country rock band The Countess of Fife, and The Marriage. I’ll just be hanging around and lending my support but it’s a lazy brunch in a lovely place so it should be great fun.

Cash back In Fife runs from 6th -8th March at The Woodside Hotel in Aberdour. Weekend tickets and tickets for individual shows are available here.

Tami Neilson. Chickaboom! Outside Music

a3510082113_16Blabber’n’Smoke first became aware of Tami Neilson back in 2015 when we reviewed her album Dynamite! The exclamation mark in the title was well placed as the disc was an excellent slice of revved up rockabilly and hard-core country honky tonk. Chickaboom! really deserves two exclamation marks as it further revs up the energy.

Bequiffed with a tremendous beehive, Neilson is unashamedly retro. The songs here sneak around the likes of Etta James, Mavis Staples (indeed, she pays tribute to the Sister on Sister Mavis), Wanda Jackson and Patsy Cline although she can also deliver an excellent slice of voodoo rock’n’roll in the manner of Screaming Jay Hawkins on the gutsy You Were Mine.

Call Your Mama sets things rolling, its title recalling of course Etta James’ Tell Mama and Neilson does come across here like Etta fronting The Cramps. And that’s part of the beauty of the album, the fifties and sixties styles driven with a riveting studio gloss, the guitars swathed in reverb and twang, recalling the rockabilly revivals of the eighties and onward.

Neilson is a force of nature on the ballsy Ten Tonne Truck as she adds a lascivious laugh to the choruses and 16 Miles Of Chain allows her to bellow magnificently over some fabulous junkyard blues. Queenie, Queenie meanwhile adopts the Dixie Cups’ Iko Iko rythym and her tribute to Mavis Staples is rollicking and slapping rockabilly deluxe. She steps out from her comfort zone in the early sixties romance of Any Fool With A Heart which has an Everley’s touch to it while the closing song, Sleep, is a lullaby with a light touch with a slight sense of Santos And Johnny to it along with a Disney like naiveté.

With ten songs all blasted out in half an hour, Chickaboom! is tremendous fun. Do join in.

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David Starr. Beauty & Ruin. Cedaredge Music

unnamed-5Colorado musician David Starr has been steadily building a following in the UK over the past five years. A trifecta of well regarded releases (Love And SabotageThe Head And Heart and South And West) alongside his annual touring posited him as a deeply romantic and yearning singer songwriter, well schooled in the attractions of classic American song writing, in particular, the seventies heydays of California’s sun blistered troubadours. A fine guitarist and an excellent raconteur, Starr uses this heritage to grand effect on disc and in performance but on Beauty & Ruin, his most ambitious project to date, he delves into his own past for what must surely be considered as his best album of his career.

Beauty & Ruin is a homage to Starr’s grandfather, Fred Starr, a teacher, politician and novelist, who died in 1973. His last novel, Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, tells the tale of an Arkansas youth, indentured to work for a veteran of Teddy Roosevelt’s Rough Riders who fought in the Spanish American wars. The book spans his decades with ‘The Cap’n’, dealing with love, loss, treachery and death, with echoes of Steinbeck and Charles Portis in it. Starr had fond memories of his grandfather but had avoided reading his books until, a few years ago he decided it was time to right this and his reading of Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, sparked his creative spirit. Starr gave a copy of the book to his chum, John Oates, who was equally taken by the story and the pair decided to gather a select group of friends together and ask them to read the music and write songs inspired by it. Jim Lauderdale came on board as did Doug and Telisha Williams (of The Wild Ponies) along with Dana Cooper, Wood Newton, Irene Kelley and Shelley Rae Korntved. Together they crafted the album (with several of them appearing on it) and with Oates producing.

Beauty & Ruin is not a concept album, it doesn’t follow the book’s narrative and can be listened to and enjoyed without any knowledge of the book. However, the songs do pertain to places, people and incidents in the narrative so the disc and the book are definitely companion pieces and for those thinking of reading the story, this review is spoiler free.

Beauty & Ruin is much more expansive than Starr’s previous albums, the music provided by a swarm of players and backing singers. It opens with a simple Starr love song, Laura, for the female protagonist in the book, the cause of much heartache. With its gliding pedal steel over rippling guitars and superlative percussion it’s a reminder of Starr’s love of classic singer songwriter days and this style reappears on the darker title song and then on Road To Jubilee, a song co-written with Jim Lauderdale, which traffics in the narrative songs of Jackson Browne while Fly By Night recalls the Eagles. There’s a more direct country rock influence on Laurel Creek which features Dobro as Starr sings of one of the more devastating events from the book while Irene Kelley provides excellent accompanying vocals. Bury The Young (written by The Wild Ponies) is in a similar vein as it flows as gently as a mountain stream but with a heart of darkness. Americana gothic indeed.

At the centre of the album are two songs on which Starr and company pull out all the stops. Of What Was, Nothing Is Left has a Jackson Browne tilt to it initially with the rhythm section punching it beneath a grand melee of guitars and pedal steel. As the song progresses, Starr’s voice becomes more strident and soulful till, by the end, he’s wound tight as a spring, ready to snap. It’s a powerful song and it’s followed by another highlight on The Cracks Of Time. It’s a gentle but ominous song which opens with pattered hand percussion and mandolin before a glowering electric guitar prowls into sight eventually slithering into a solo which is quite intoxicating. The darkness abides on the night time prowl of My Mother’s Shame which almost growls with an old testament sense of destiny and on which, the guitars are elementally evil as they slouch towards the narrator’s demise.

As in the contradiction of the title, there’s darkness and light here and Starr manages both with equal aplomb. He’s not cutting edge Americana but that’s probably not where he wants to be. Instead, he’s a craftsman with his finger on the pulse of what, for a great many people, was the high point of American song writing. That he does it so well is to be applauded and in Beauty & Ruin he has perhaps crafted his masterpiece. We’re sure his grandfather would be proud.

The album is available on CD and vinyl (which really shows off its striking cover) and Starr has republished his grandfather’s book. All available on his online store. Meanwhile, Starr will be touring the UK in May, all dates here.

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Pete Gow. The Fragile Line. Clubhouse Records

51ozy1xibrl._aa256_Pete Gow’s debut solo album, Here, There’s No Sirens, was one of the UK’s best albums from last year and fans who attended his short run of shows to promote the disc had the opportunity to buy The Fragile Line, a companion disc, limited to tour dates only. Now, the good folk at Clubhouse Records have released the album digitally (with an additional song tacked on) so if Sirens rocked your boat, here’s a chance to get more from the pen of Gow.

Recorded by the same team as on Sirens (Gow with drummer Fin Kenny and producer Joe Bennett on keys), The Fragile Line is more dynamic than its companion with a punchier rock touch to several of the songs. Tourniquet, for example, rushes by in a tour de force, and Gow explains that many of the songs were written to allow a more dynamic flow to the live set, saying that, “the songs on Sirens made a great track listing, but a pretty depressing set list, so we wanted to get lots of light, shade and balance into the live shows.”

Thus we have the punchy soul groove of Let’s Make War Happen, the aforementioned Tourniquet and the closing remake of Case Hardin’s Poets Corner (from Colours Simple) which retains its funereal drumbeat but adds strings and loses the original guitar soloing while Gow’s voice dominates more so than on the original. The digital addition, Storm Surge, could easily have sat on Here, There’s No Sirens as Gow delves once again into a gloomy and solipsistic doomed romance as piano and strings weigh in with a resigned forlornness. The title track is perhaps the best on the disc, stripped back, with cello adding a wonderfully sad timbre. There’s a cover of Warren Zevon’s Lawyers, Guns And Money sat in the middle of the disc which, in the live shows, was apparently a highlight. Here it’s slightly out of place and slightly awkward. It’s, of course, a great song and Gow performs it well, but to this reviewer’s mind the strings and things just muddy the waters here. That said, The Fragile Line is a must buy for anyone who dug Here, There’s No Sirens.

Gill Landry. Skeleton At The Banquet. Loose Music

gilllandry_skeletonatthebanquet_web-1500Currently weathering the storms battering the UK as he tours, Gill Landry’s latest release is perhaps the best of his career. Skeleton At The Banquet is a gorgeously dark and delicious album, deeply grained with Americana tropes – Dylan like troubadouring on Angeline,  western vistas on The Wolf, badlands existentialism on Nobody’s Coming and drunk in the gutter romance on The Refuge Of Your Arms. With Landry’s fine baritone voice oozing throughout along with grand guitar and excellent arrangements, it’s a winner from start to finish.

Landry describes the album as, “a series of reflections and thoughts on the collective hallucination that is America” and it’s true that the songs are not narratives per se. Rather, Landry summons up a mood which is reflective but also rather lost. The Place They Call Home, a song best heard in a low light, glimmers with an almost apocalyptic despair as weeping violin accompanies this series of snapshots, the characters almost ghostlike. However, Landry dresses all of this musing in immensely listenable melodies and arrangements such as on the lush neon-lit noir of I Love You Too and the gypsy rhythms of Trouble Town. All in all, quite magnificent.

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Dropkick. The Scenic Route. Bobo Integral Records

a3687674551_16To paraphrase Ms. Austen, “It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a fan of Byrds styled jangle rock will love Dropkick” and on their latest release, Dropkick simply confirm this universal statement. To The Byrds we’d also add that anyone who enjoyed the debut album by Bennett Wilson Poole or are aware of the myriad glories of Peter Bruntnell will also take to The Scenic Route like a duck to water.

Much, or indeed, all of the album will be no surprise to anyone who has followed this band. The wispy vocals, the jangled guitars and driving rythyms, the sunny disposition are all intact. The ten songs are all compact, most of them around three minutes in length and the band stick to their signature sound throughout closing with a couple of finely wrought minor key songs.

The album opens with a bang on the jubilant crashing guitars of Feeling Never Goes Away, a chime fest indeed and the most buoyant number here although it’s over almost before it starts. Catching On follows and it’s a bona fide classic Dropkick number with its gliding rhythm and glorious harmony vocals ending in a slight smorgasbord of feedback and sonic gobbledegook. Disappearing is announced by grumbling guitars and sweeping organ as Andrew Taylor guides the band in a Bruntnell direction which they follow again on the muscular For Too Long with its exuberant guitar solos.

Despite the sunny disposition, several of the songs deal with loss and rejection. A Matter Of Time has a resigned air to it with the lyrics recalling the late Gene Clark and that sense of unrequited romance is maintained on the mournful Home Early but hopes springs eternal as the band spark into the naive optimism of Tomorrow. Broken is the ballad of the album which has a McCartney like air to it before burgeoning into a glorious and soaring guitar solo and the band wind things up with the homely You’ll Always Be There, a tender concoction of laidback guitars over a shuffling beat as Taylor sounds wonderfully hopeful and vulnerable.