It’s been a long time since Blabber’n’Smoke last heard of Ash Gray – nine years it turns out – but it also turns out that this Texan transplanted to Sheffield (his parents hailed from Yorkshire) has become a staple of the live scene in his adopted home and this live album finds him and his band, The Burners, somewhat on fire on their return to the stage as the Covid pandemic ebbed.
Live 55 was recorded in a Sheffield pub, the Dorothy Pax , not a venue we’re familiar with but seemingly a well managed music venue (their website proudly states they have hosted two musicians who played at Woodstock). Given that, it’s a ridiculously well recorded album with the band sounding warm and close up with the audience present enough to applaud the songs but absent as the band are playing. And what a band. A tight knit five piece comprised of Gray on guitar and vocals, Jim Widdop on pedal steel, Tom Jarvis lead guitar, Johnny Griff on bass and Tom Townsend on drums, Ash and his Burners pretty much tear through a fabulous set of cosmic country rockers, sounding at various times like reincarnations of The Grateful Dead, New Riders Of The Purple Sage, Poco, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band and The Long Ryders. Towards the end they even toss in some 13th Floor Elevators Texan garage punk.
And while the band tear through the songs with a fine tie dyed in the wool vigour, Gray comes up with the goods on the songs. The opening number Jeremiah with its “Hey grandpa” refrain romps along in a breezy country-rock style with Widdop and Jarvis duelling excellently and Two Lane Blacktop has the band rolling along the highway with a skip in their step. While Gray’s not the strongest singer in the land he sounds quite impassioned throughout and he is most energised on the more dramatic numbers on show here. Billy, introduced by Gray as “a song about the old West,” is an excellent outlaw blues country tale with Widdop’s pedal steel snaking throughout and Chickenwire has a Calexico like dramatic sweep in its essence, the highlight of the album actually.
The addition of keyboard player Joe Newman and Liz Hanley on backing vocals add some more “oomph” to the last two songs. Back Alive snarls with a Texan proto punk attitude, the band attacking the song as if they were auditioning for a slot on Lenny Kaye’s Nuggets compilation. The closing song, When The Devil Comes Home, finds Gray at his most impassioned while, over its seven minutes, the band show off their chops ending with a maelstrom of sound which reminds one of the eastern scales pioneered by Kaleidoscope on their Beacon From Mars album.
As a live “warts and all” album, Live 55 is ridiculously good and definitely recommended. And if Gray and his Burners venture forth from Sheffield then get in the queue for tickets. You won’t be disappointed.