John Mayall. The Sun Is Shining Down. Forty Below Records

I have to admit that the last time I listened to a “new” John Mayall album was in the early 1970s. At that time Mayall was already considered the godfather of British blues and a bit of an elder statesman. Having helmed The Bluesbreakers, famous for their successive triumvirate of guitar heroes (Clapton, Green and Taylor), as the 60s waned he moved to LA, became somewhat mellower and funky on albums such as Turning Point. That’s around where we parted company as Mayall kind of fell off the weekly music press radar and a fickle teenager like me had found new acts to follow.

Mayall, now 88 years old, has of course released a slew of albums in the interim and retained his reputation, certainly within the blues community. The Sun Is Shining Down however has been given a push, perhaps due to his recent announcement that he is retiring from live shows (he’s 88, god bless him) and perhaps due to just sheer disbelief that he can still deliver the goods. I was certainly curious when I loaded this into the CD player and then quite astonished that, in the first instance, Mayall just about sounds like he did some fifty years ago, and also, that it’s a bloody good album.

His voice is just that little bit more weathered (heck, he sounded old way back then) but there’s no sense of strain or easing in while he remains a wizard at blues harmonica. With his regular band of several years standing (bassist Greg Rzab, drummer Jay Davenport, and guitarist Carolyn Wonderland) stoking the engine, Mayall pulls a fine trick in inviting several guest players including guitarists Buddy Miller, Mike Campbell, Marcus King and Melvin Taylor, violinist Scarlett Rivera, and ukulele player Jake Shimabukuro to sit in. The result is ten songs which, while rooted in the blues, all carry their own unique signature with the guest artists all given their solo moments to shine in.

So, there are amped up horn driven roustabouts such as Hungry and Ready and the superb squall that is Driving Wheel along with more traditional blues as on A Quitter Never Wins. I’m As Good As Gone (written by Grammy winner, Bobby Rush), with Buddy Miller’s baritone tremolo guitar burbling away amidst Mayall’s swirling Hammond organ, is simply superb and when Rivera comes on board on Got To Find A Better Way, one is transported back to Mayall’s early 70s sojourn with Sugarcane Harris. The steady but sure One Special Lady is given an unexpected lift when Shimabukaro weighs in on an electric ukulele, delivering a solo which definitely is unlike any ukulele sound these ears have ever experienced as it buzzes and burns.

Mayall closes the album with the title song which recalls his work with Mick Taylor on Blues From Laurel Canyon. Whether it’s a valediction we have to wait and see but it’s the sound of a man contented with his surrounds and it provides his guitar player, Carolyn Wonderland, an opportunity to show that she is no slouch as she delivers a wonderfully sinuous solo which is the equal to those of the star guests. If you haven’t bought a John Mayall album in the past fifty years, you should buy this one.


Lachlan Bryan And The Wildes. As Long As It’s Not Us. Social Family Records.

Covid has robbed us in the UK of Lachlan Bryan’s annual jaunt over here for the past two years, so a new album is hugely appreciated. It too was a victim of Covid, recorded fitfully as and when possible but it was eventually released in Australia back in September and now it’s available here. For those not in the know, Bryan and The Wildes reside around Melbourne down under and have released, over a decade, four albums which perfectly capture that element we call “Americana” with Bryan proving to be a superior songwriter who can easily summon up memories of Cash and Cave, The Go-Betweens and Merle Haggard.

Their last album, Some Girls Quite (Like) Country Music was Bryan’s attempt to, in his own words, “To make an adult-sounding country record,” which they did and to some acclaim. As Long As It’s Not Us has less country content but the regular tropes of love lost, melancholy and danger are all present and correct. While Bryan is the main songwriter, his bandmates, Shaun Ryder and Damian Cafarella contribute to the writing here, offering a more democratic approach but overall, it’s Bryan at the front end with the band offering stellar support in a variety of styles.

Unlike most of our reviews, we’ll start with the closing song here. Take It Out On Me is a classic Lachlan Bryan And The Wildes song. It’s a little bit country, a little bit LA Canyon, a whole bit enjoyable. There’s a glorious jangled guitar intro then the band lope along in a grand canyon style with freewheeling pedal steel while Bryan’s finely grained voice has just the right degree of lassitude and remorse. It’s a grand song and if the remainder of the album was like this then that would suit us just fine. However, much of what precedes Take It Out On Me is much more adventurous with the band moving into new territories, song by song.

The opener, OK To Love has an ache at the heart of it and is delivered with a power pop bash, reminiscent of Big Star at their best, while As Long As It’s Not Us has a hypnotic groove not a million miles removed from Wilco while its guitar and organ strut reminds one of the insouciant hipness of Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express. OK, we’re tossing names around here willy nilly, but they’re just pointers as Bryan and the band are in full control here. You Remind Me Of Myself takes these pointers and reveals itself via an insistent propulsive beat of guitar and organ with the rhythm section motoring along before a grand climax. However, just as the listener is getting acquainted with this funkier sound I Went Down heads into darker territory with a much harder edge. Written by Damian Cafarella, the song slouches and slowburns wonderfully while the lyrics come across as a trainspotters guide to watery murder ballads with Down By The River and Knoxville Girl both alluded to. In a similar vein, they head into Nick Cave territory on the haunting Quit While We’re Ahead.

There are no attempts to replicate Bryan’s mastery of the sad country love song (see The Basics Of Love) but he shines on the delicate ripples of I Found God and the excellent lovelorn ballad that is The Road. Meanwhile, there’s the shimmering beauty of Never Said A Word, a song polished and buffed so well but still retaining its soul. Radio friendly yet lyrically intriguing, it beguiles and fascinates.

As Long As It’s Not Us is more proof that Lachan Bryan And The Wildes are some of the best purveyors of roots based “Americana” treading the boards these days. The album is well recommended and if you hanker for more then there’s a live album, released digitally last year, which we would urge to have a listen to. It’s available here.


Bruce Cockburn. Greatest Hits (1970-2020). True North Records.

To be perfectly honest, we here at Blabber’n’Smoke were never too aware of Canadian Cockburn until we heard his 2017 album Bone On Bone which is an excellent set of mature and wise songs hewn from folk and blues. The album surprised us as what we had heard of Cockburn previously was his more radio friendly oriented rock from the 1980s where he came across as kind of a fellow traveller to Jackson Browne – similar political views – but Cockburn’s songs weren’t in the same class.

Greatest Hits (1970-2020) is a handy Cockburn companion then for those, like us, who haven’t delved into the man’s back catalogue. Cockburn has chosen the 30 songs (plucked from around 34 albums) himself and they are arranged in chronological order. Oddly, there are only five songs from this century, which is a pity as the elder Cockburn is much more to our taste than the young folkie of the 1970s and the AOR rocker of the 80s. Anyhow, the two discs serve to portray his journey pretty well, both in song and in the accompanying booklet which features portrait pics of him ranging from Warren Zevon lookalike to ear bejewelled new waver and finally the sage elder he now is. The collection also allows Cockburn to demonstrate his early (and longstanding) commitment to topics such as indigenous rights and environmental concerns for which he has been justly recognised receiving several honorary doctorates and honours while, musically, he is the recipient of 13 Juno awards.

The young Cockburn greets us with winsome folk songs (Going To The Country and One Day I Walk) and the Beatles like piano song Musical Friends, all from 1970-71 before heading into the blues on Mama Just Wants To Barrelhouse All Night Long, originally released in 1973 but delivered here as a live performance from 1987. For the remainder of the 70s he’s in troubadour mode, culminating in the mild calypso of Wondering Where The Lions Are but 1980s’ Tokyo introduces a fuller band sound which becomes increasingly slicker as the years progress with The Trouble With Normal featuring unfortunate (fashionable at the time) Fairlight programming. A pity as powerful songs such as If I Had A Rocket Launcher are diluted by the 80s production.

Things look up when T Bone Burnett gets into the producer’s chair in 1990 with Listen For The Laugh given a contemporaneous Dylan like rock’n’roll rumble but it’s another producer, Colin Linden, himself a prodigious Juno Award winner, who seems to have brought out the best of Cockburn over the past two decades. Night Train is an excellent song with Rob Wasserman’s elastic bass reminding one of Joni Mitchell’s forays into folk jazz and Last Night Of The World finds Cockburn almost returning to his roots although now more weathered and more wise. The final seven songs are the Cockburn we discovered via Bone On Bone, a man grown into his songs, somewhat akin to Nick Lowe or John Hiatt, two men who just get more magisterial as they carry on.

Despite our misgivings about the 80s sojourn, Greatest Hits is an impressive introduction to Cockburn’s music, however, we’d recommend that any deeper delve begins with the latter albums. You won’t be disappointed.


Michael Hurley. The Time Of The Foxgloves. No Quarter Records

Approaching his 80th turn around the sun, Michael Hurley shows no sign of letting up on this latest release, billed as less lo-fi than his usual recordings. If that’s the case it’s more to do with him having more folk than usual involved – Gil Landry makes an appearance on several songs – as the overall feel here remains that of Hurley messing around wonderfully in folk and blues and country, all indelibly stamped with his unique personality. One listen to the enchanting rendition of Se Fue En La Noche allows that this nocturnal ramble, replete with cooing background singers, laidback rusty guitar and knockabout percussion, could easily have appeared on any number of Hurley’s 60s or 70s (or 80s, 90s and 21st century) albums. It’s essentially him, the essence.

There’s actually nothing here which wouldn’t fit on an earlier album but that’s not to say that Hurley is resting on his laurels. He’s always recycled songs (Love Is The Closest Thing here is a new version of The Time Is Right from Ida Con Snock) and, in the main, he’s always breathed new life into them. The majority of the songs here are new examples of Hurley doing what he does best. That is, being Michael Hurley.

Fans will need no encouragement to buy this album but, if you are unfamiliar with Hurley, prepare to delve into songs which sound as old as the hills, have a peculiar presence to them and which root around in the best of American roots music over the last century. At the centre of the album is an instrumental, Knocko The Monk which features just banjo and pump organ and which paints a picture so evocative of an American past – equally sepia toned and wide screen cinematic – that it transports you into your own favourite old time American movie. It’s followed by what is perhaps the best song on show here, Jacob’s Ladder. A bass clarinet and xylophone, along with Josephine Foster’s rhapsodies, accompany Hurley in this magnificent and somewhat wonky front porch Gospel song which should surely be included with every Flannery O’Connor book.

The album opens with Hurley in classic Hurley form on the easy going folk blues of Are You Here For The Festival which, with its addition of fiddle, bass and banjo to Hurley’s captivating guitar and vocal does add some gloss. Alabama, written by The Louvin Brothers, sounds older than the brothers would be these days and another cover, Boulevard (written by Rob Keller) finds Hurley returning to the band sound he had on Snockgrass while Blondes And Redheads and Little Blue River feature Hurley on vintage keyboards (an area he explored on Blue Hills). The album ends with a new version of Lush Green Trees (originally on Wolfways) which is accorded a fuller arrangement and, as we’ve noted throughout, is an example of classic, revisited, updated and also timeless Hurley. On The Time Of The Foxgloves, Michael Hurley just proves, once more, that there is only one Michael Hurley and for that we should be grateful.


Matt Patershuk. An Honest Effort. Black Hen Music

If you’re looking for someone to write you a fantastic song about a horse, then look to Matt Patershuk. The Canadian singer/songwriter seems to have a weird predilection for songs about our equine buddies as witnessed on past albums and An Honest Effort adds another two to the list. Horses however are but one element in his bag as this album allows him to deliver a fantastic set of wonderfully warm and laid back songs which range in subject from downtrodden women, the aimless flight of a bullet, Shane McGowan’s dentures and the laws of thermodynamics.

As on its predecessor, If Wishes Were Horses (see, we told you so), Patershuk’s songs here are ably recorded by Steve Dawson who produces and plays guitar and pedal steel while Fats Kaplin offers sublime banjo, fiddle, ukulele and harmonica. Gary Craig and Jeremy Holmes are the subtlest of rhythm sections and Keri Latimer adds harmonies to Patershuk’s handsome voice on several selections. The overall feel of the album is somewhat restrained, the songs allowed to find their own level which, in the main, is immensely relaxed, an album to be savoured late at night, an unwinding of sorts as Patershuk beguiles you with his (sometimes tall) tales.

We’ll kick off with those horsey songs. Jupiter The Flying Horse is a Jerry Jeff Walker like number which incorporates the whimsical style of The Handsome Family. It’s a grand song but it’s beaten to the post by the extraordinary tale of Clever Hans, a true story about an early 20th Century attraction, a horse who could calculate, add and subtract and whatnot. It was, of course, a con, but Patershuk allows the colt some dignity as he tells the tale with Dawson adding sly guitar much in the manner of Ry Cooder on an early Randy Newman song. Staying within a realm of weird humour, Patershuk postulates that Shane MacGowan’s new dentures can pick up radio signals and, in a fine front porch manner, kind of like Steven Hawking hawking tobacco and playing banjo as he lectures to a bunch of locals, on The 2nd Law Of Thermodynamics, Patershuk explains that the universe tends to disorder.

Aside from the whimsy, a brace of songs are more down to earth and occasionally quite dark. The opening track, Johanna, a song dipped in molasses, has the heroine casting off her shackles to embrace a new life. Trepidatious to be sure but full of hope. Sunny, another song about a woman trapped, is more vague. She’s one of those abused women, the sort who feature in Willy Vlautin’s song stories, and Patershuck brings her to life with brushstrokes as evocative as those employed by The Delines. On the other side of the coin, Afraid To Speak Her Name is a shimmering joy with Dawson excelling on guitar and Weissenborn guitar as Patershuk paints a picture of an almost unattainable romantic memory.

Rounding out the album, Turn The Radio Up has a Tupelo Honey Van Morrison like lilt to it while 1.3 Miles is a return to front porch picking as Patershuk takes the listener on a bullet’s trajectory. An odd subject to be sure but, like Alice’s rabbit hole, a doorway into a wonderful series of vignettes. Stay With Me is a juicy slice of laid back country rock with rippling mandolin, fatback guitar and Kaplin’s harmonica surrounding Patershuk’s tender and nostalgic reverie with Latimer’s harmonies quite glorious. Finally, Patershuk pays tribute to his grandmother, a Liverpudlian activist, on the spare, banjo speckled Upright. Arrested aged 73 campaigning against the bomb and a fan of Fats Waller, she lives again on this affectionate song. It’s a magnificent end to what is a magnificent album.


Starry Eyed & Laughing. Bells Of Lightning. Aurora Records


We wanted to kick off the New Year with a bang and what better way to do so than with the turbo charged bass and 12 string blizzard intro to Set Me Free From This Lost Highway, the opening song on Starry Eyed & Laughing’s long awaited third album. Initially fuelled by The Byrds’ Eight Miles High, the song soars mightily and then incorporates CSN like harmonies alongside Hugh Masakela like trumpet sounds and stinging sitar like guitars. It’s bang on as it revitalises these treasured sounds from the past. Tony Poole, the Rickenbacker wizard, hauls the song into the present day with pointed lyrics which rail against that disgraced human anus who still believes he is the President of the USA.

Starry Eyed & Laughing’s last album release was in 1975 and they have been consigned to “lost legend” status for a long while. While guitarist Poole has kept the flame alive via a judicious selection of reissues and occasional low-key appearances with Iain Whitmore, bassist in the best-known line up of the band, the pair resolved to record a new album some years back. But then, stuff happens. Poole was laid low with a chronic illness for a time before getting a bravura second wind as one third of the excellent Bennett Wilson Poole. Revitalised, he and Whitmore set to the task but then Coronavirus bit. As we said, stuff happens. Nevertheless, the duo persevered and the result is this brilliant reclamation of jangled sixties rock, all dressed up for a new frontier as it were, post Trump, post illness, post Corona hopefully, as they fully intend to play these songs live at some point.

Starry Eyed And Laughing were always in thrall to The Byrds and CSN, no bad thing of course, especially if you can leap from that launch pad to deliver fine goods of your own. Their first two albums did that and Bells Of Lightning does it in spades. The influences are there and, for this listener, they amplify the joy of listening. Aside from the obvious nod to Eight Miles High in the opening song (alongside a less obvious nod to Going Down, the first song on their own first album) and the gorgeous Crosby inspired psychedelia of All Things Lost, there’s a trickle of memories for those who do remember those halcyon days throughout. Whitmore’s Come Home and You Feel Like Home have that winsome Topanga Canyon wind in their hair while Poole’s Stranger In My Time is quite timeless given that listening to it is somewhat akin to getting a shot of adrenaline straight into the memory muscle.

At the core of the album there’s a trio of songs which allude to Starry Eyed And Laughing’s ill-fated trip to the States. Dreamyard Angels opens with a cheeky nod to Simon and Garfunkel’s America before Poole offers us his tour diary in his best McGuinn style while delivering the most fully-fledged blend of The Byrds on offer here- it’s a real blast. Three Days Running is a Bakersfield like country romp with Poole’s E bender adding pedal steel like licks while Faith, Hope And Charity is a total zinger with the guitars twisting and turning every which way but backwards. Aside from these star spangled and cosmic outings, there’s a delightful and reverential ode to the forgotten Byrd, Gene Clark. The Girl In A Gene Clark Song is self referential to the nth degree perhaps, but it has the appropriate blend of LA optimism and melancholic lyricism.

Bells Of Lightning may have been a long time coming and a long time in its recording but Poole and Whitmore have come up with quite a joyous and brilliant listen. It’s quite astounding that the pair of them can conjure such a full-blooded band sound and hats off to Tony Poole for his studio wizardry.

Bells Of Lightning is available on CD and download here and there will be a vinyl edition in the near future. For the full lowdown on the album, check out our interview with Tony Poole on Americana UK.