Michael Weston King. The Struggle. Cherry Red Records

the-struggle

Most folk reading this will be familiar with Michael Weston King as one half of the excellent My Darling Clementine, the on stage bickering husband and wife team who have released a series of excellent albums which explore and update the dynamics (and the wonder) of country duets. Most recently, they added their chemistry to a selection of Elvis Costello’s “country darkness” songs on an acclaimed trilogy of EPs which also featured Steve Nieve, Costello’s long-standing keyboard foil. Now, taking time out from My Darling Clementine duties, Weston KIng has released his first solo album in a decade, The Struggle.

Recorded in a remote Welsh studio, The Struggle features Weston King accompanied by Clovis Phillips, a multi instrumentalist (and the studio’s owner) with additional parts added by a fine ensemble of musicians remotely. A world away from the Tammy & George like marital world of My Darling Clementine, Weston King here has looked back to that classic late 60s, early 70s singer songwriter period, seeking inspiration from the likes of Jesse Winchester, Dan Penn, John Prine and even Van Morrison in his high kicking Caledonia soul days.

 It’s a wonderfully accomplished album, suffused with elements of growing older, of remembering past times and, on occasion, bitingly contemporary. The title, Weston King says, is not a reference to the hardships of Covid but to the more elemental and ongoing concerns which we all face in our day-to-day existence and which will remain long after Covid is but a sniffle. It’s also a reference to a stout hill climb in Cumbria which has stuck in his mind for some time.

The album opens with the most contemporary song, Weight Of The World. It was written after Weston King watched, appalled, Donald Trump marching to St. John’s Church in Washington to brandish a bible, having had his troops brutally remove Black Life Matters protestors who were in his way. Weston sings it as a policeman who, having voted for Trump, sees the reality of this most heinous of characters finally unveiled. It’s a grand protest song which doesn’t point fingers but tries to understand why some folk can be fooled and fooled again and there’s a remixed version at the end of the album which really roots around in a Dan Penn/Spooner Oldham fashion. It’s followed by Sugar, a song co-written with Peter Case and the most “Americana” like song on the disc with its mandolin trills and sly slide guitar.

The heft of the album is in a brace of songs, some personal, some less so, which have a vein of nostalgia and loss running through them. The Hardest Thing Of All is a fine soulful account of solitude while Another Dying Day drips with weariness and, yes, struggle. The nostalgia is lit large in the wonderful waltz time The Old Soft Shoe which is a very affectionate and quite moving snapshot of the surviving partner of a dancing couple retracing their dance steps, “I live here alone and nobody knows, that I dance each evening, all on my own.” A mournful trombone and Barney Kessel like guitar licks set the scene and Weston King sings it quite beautifully. Valerie’s Coming Home is Weston King’s memoriam to Lou Dalgleish’s mother who passed away shortly before these viral times and he paints a fine portrait of her with a wonderful sense of delicacy. Finally, Me & Frank tells of a childhood friend who, it seems, was a bit of a lark, with Weston KIng transposing red dirt country tales to the badlands of a seemingly endless Southport beach.

The Final Reel finds Weston King paying tribute to his late friend, Jackie Leven. It’s appropriately windswept and full of Celtic romance with a roaring chorus. A fine send off but Leven appears again on Theory Of Truthmakers, a song written by Leven but never recorded. Given the lyrics by a mutual friend, Weston King dresses them in a glorious arrangement, assisted by Mike Cosgrove (a long time associate of Leven’s) on strings and with Lou Dalgleish (and daughter Mabel) on vocals. There’s a sense of the quiet majesty of Jimmy Webb here, the soft ebb and flow of the strings, the nylon guitar, the sweep of the chorus. It’s quite magnificent and it’s the topping on what is a mature, thoughtful and very engaging album.

Website

Karen Dalton. In My Own Time. 50th Anniversary Reissue. Light In The Attic Records.

In My Own Time, Karen Dalton’s second and final album was released 50 years ago and this week Light In The Attic reissues the album in various formats, including “deluxe” editions, which contain previously unreleased alternative takes and a very rare live appearance. It has to be said that the Super Deluxe vinyl version is incredibly tempting and, while it might appear a tad expensive, it contains a bumper load of goodies. The good news is that the basic CD edition has all of the music and that’s really what it’s all about, so let’s dive in.

While Dalton’s reputation has slowly grown over the years, she remains hidden from popular view. She’s mentioned in Dylan’s Chronicles – “My favorite singer in the place was Karen Dalton. She was a tall, white blues singer and guitar player – funky, lanky and sultry. Karen had a voice like Billie Holiday’s and played guitar like Jimmy Reed, and went all the way with it.” Fred Neil also championed her. Dalton was reclusive and prone to mood swings with various drug habits which meant that she didn’t release an album (It’s So Hard to Tell Who’s Going to Love You the Best) until 1969 and even then, it was a recording of an impromptu session which piggy backed on studio time booked for Fred Neil. To say it sank without notice is probably an understatement. Nevertheless, another fan, Michael Lang, the fresh faced impresario behind the Woodstock Festival, flush with money for a short while, set up the sessions for In My Own Time, an album which, in comparison to its predecessor, has fully fledged band arrangements. It too sank and Dalton disappeared from view, falling further into drug use and dying in 1993.

In my Own Time was recorded at Bearsville Studios in Woodstock with Harvey Brooks producing and a host of Woodstock musicians (Amos Garrett, Bill Keith, Bobby Notkoff, John Simon) playing. The song selection includes several Dalton had been playing since the early 60s along with covers of soul classics (When A Man Loves A Woman, How Sweet It Is) a Richard Manuel song (In A Station) and the opening number, Dino Valenti’s Something On Your Mind. The result is an album which, on listening today, sounds much more pertinent than many of its peers released at the same time. There’s a fine sense of country and funk in the arrangements along with some skeletal folk, not dissimilar to hit records by the likes of Maria Muldaur at the time. A possible barrier might have been Dalton’s voice which is quite singular and, for some folk quite challenging. She’s been compared to Billie Holiday and that is in there but she really is quite unique. It may be a cliché but I reckon you can hear all of the hurt in her life in her singing.

It’s quite gratifying to say that the three alternative versions of songs from the original album are well worthy of inclusion here. Something On Your Mind is given a more spritely run through while In My Own Dream meanders wonderfully past its originally allocated time. Katie Cruel, one of the pivotal songs on the album, loses its fiddle solo, replaced by someone (presumably Dalton) whistling. These are followed by the primary lure here, six songs recorded live on an ill-fated 1971 European tour (with Dalton opening for Santana!). The sound quality is acceptable and the band are good quality country rockers, only a few bars removed from Neil Young’s Stray Gators. Two are from Germany’s Beat Club with Dalton sailing effortlessly on One Night Of Love and then delivering a killer lonesome wail on Take Me. The four songs recorded at the Montreux Golden Rose Pop Festival are more lo-fi. Something On Your Mind is a bit of a muddied acoustic scramble but it’s a real treat to hear Dalton singing Neil’s Blues On The Ceiling with its warbling guitar solo. One Night Of Love has a kind of early Jefferson Airplane vibe to it but the halting, wearied and wheezing version of Are You Leaving For The Country is quite brilliant in its fragile construction, a very early version of weird folk music.

With liner notes from Lenny Kaye and Nick Cave along with a host of fine pictures, this is an attractive package. I’d hazard that if you haven’t yet heard Karen Dalton, it’s well worth investigating. For Dalton fans, it’s essential.

Website

Steve Dawson. Gone, Long Gone. Black Hen Music

A Canadian, now based in Nashville where he has his own Henhouse Studios and record label Black Hen Music, Steve Dawson has produced and played on umpteen roots album over the past ten years along with several well-regarded solo albums. Live, his most recent notable stint was as the third leg in Birds Of Chicago, playing well over 200 shows with them before live music was stopped in its tracks. Reactions to this clampdown varied but, like some of his peers, Dawson doubled down in his studio work to the extent that he now has three albums worth of music set to be unleashed this year, Gone, Long Gone the first of the three to be released.

Dawson’s 2016 album, Solid States And Loose Ends, drew comparisons with Ry Cooder and it’s true that Dawson shares similarities with Cooder in that he’s an expert in all manners of slide and roots guitar. Solid States And Loose Ends was in the same territory as Cooder albums such as Get Rythym and Bop Till You Drop but Gone, Long Gone, while still containing bluesy wallows -gutbucket and swampy at times – also has a brace of numbers which are more constrained while retaining Dawson’s affection for roots music. Perhaps the most obvious example is on the instrumental, Kalaniapa Waltz. Here Dawson plays electric and National guitar, a Weissenborn and ukulele on a number which has a Hawaiian influence in its stately and intricate tapestry of strings and things while Chris Gestin’s pump organ adds to its quiet majesty. The title song is another departure as Dawson turns in a song which is light and airy, his nimble picking and sweet pedal steel playing backed by a small string section with the song coming across as if Pentangle were playing a Jimmy Webb number. The lyrics do have that Webb like prairie lonesomeness to them and it’s pertinent here to note that most of the songs on the album are co-written with Matt Patershuk, a great songwriter whose albums Dawson has produced.

The album opens with a firm declaration of intent on Dimes with slide guitar sputtering into action before a horn section weighs in and Dawson, accompanied by Allison Russell on vocals, delivers an excellent Little Feat like slice of rock’n’roll gumbo. Russell (of Birds Of Chicago) sings on several of the songs on show here, adding a great soulful vibe to Dawson’s voice. There’s the tub thumping gyrations of I Just Get Lost, a song which twists and turns quite wonderfully recalling any number of late 60s combos who tried to combine blues, psychedelia and gospel into one big happy hippy tent. Six Skeletons In A Car vamps along with Dawson’s guitars in particularly wicked mood, twisting and snaking throughout and Bad Omen is a startling and snarling acoustic guitar blues number, full of  menace and voodoo vibes as the band inhabit a loose limbed New Orleans backdrop with groovy organ and skeletal drums. And, going back to that Cooder vibe, how can one resist a song dedicated to King Bennie Nawahi, a Hawaiian street performer, which is called King Bennie Had His Shit Together. Fats Kaplin’s fiddle and Kevin McKendree’s piano roll all over this loose-limbed frolic while Dawson’s slide playing snakes throughout.

There’s one cover song on the album. Ronnie Lane’s revered Ooh La La is given a reverential and somewhat restrained reading, which, for those familiar to the song, might take some getting used to. Ultimately however it does sink in, especially on the chorus (and you will have to join in) and Dawson’s guitars, Russell’s brilliant vocal accompaniment and the band’s skilful shuffle will eventually win you over. And, persevere to the closing number, Time Has Made A Fool Out Of Me, to see if those comparisons to Ry Cooder are ill judged. Dawson’s slide guitar here is quite sublime as he makes it throb and quiver with echoes of Pop Staples on a song which, surely, The Staple Singers would have taken on board.

Gone, Long  Gone is an excellent album and highly recommended. As we said above, it’s the first of three Steve Dawson albums due for release in the forthcoming months and, if they are anything like this, then we are in for a treat.

Website

Massy Ferguson. Joe’s Meat & Grocery

a0623459071_16

Seattle’s Massy Ferguson roar back into action with another album which is the musical equivalent of what you might expect to find in a store called “Joe’s Meat & Grocery” – no fripperies, just the basics, good, solid, and nutritious. Over several albums, the band have consistently delivered the goods, hard driving rock music with an occasional alt-country edge. Looking back over past reviews we’ve mentioned the likes of Uncle Tupelo, Drive By Truckers and The Lemonheads in comparison and this remains the case here.

The opening Miles Away arrives amidst a haze of guitars before erupting into a powerful organ and piano fuelled cry of despair (and, ultimately hope) that doesn’t seem a million miles removed from the strictures of the pandemic. As a song it soars, it’s of a type which one usually hears at the end of an album but here it stamps the band’s authority as they end it with an almighty thrash. There are several songs in a similar manner, foreboding, powerful, epic if you wish. Backspin has thunderous percussion and portentous, almost apocalyptic lyrics as the band pummel away reminding one of The Hoodoo Gurus while Sister Roll Up is a claustrophobic ride with squirrelling blues harmonica echoing throughout the tunnel. In contrast, The Road Ahead is panoramic as it builds to a thunderous climax with singer Ethan Anderson painting a picture worthy of Cormac McCarthy’s The Road before Anderson recalls his Pentecostal upbringing in the barrelling rock’n’roll of The Hard Six. With Anderson playing flute here and with Fred Slater flying on piano, the song is a bit of a blitzkrieg.

No less listenable, several of the songs dial back the thunder. Save What Couldn’t Be Saved is a tumbledown saloon bar tale of those cast out from the American dream – made redundant, hooked on drugs, lost and lonely. I Don’t Know Why does remind one of The Lemonheads with its wistful mix of thrash and pop hooks allied to a rush of jangled guitars and there’s more jangle on the country rock of Off To See Rose, while they close the album with a song which, live, could become a boozy sing-along on You Don’t Bother Me At All.

Website