Rod Picott. Out Past The Wires. Welding Rod Records

12IN_GATEFOLD_JKT_2PKTWhetting our appetite for his upcoming tour of the UK, Rod Picott releases his most ambitious album yet, the sprawling double disc (on CD and also on vinyl!) Out Past The Wires, 22 songs carved from his usual cast of blue collar workers, hard luck losers and folk living on the edge. Picott seems to have been extraordinarily prolific in the last year, the songs on the album whittled down from a long list of 78 to 32 serviceable ones, the ten spare songs expected to surface at some point. In addition he has released a collection of his poetry (God in His Slippers) and is preparing a book of short stories which will expand on some of the characters in the songs here.

Produced by Neilson Hubbard, the album features Picott backed by a studio band which includes Hubbard on percussion along with Will Kimbrough, Evan Hutchings, Lee Price and Kris Donegan with Picott recording his voice and guitar initially before the band set to backing them allowing the fuller band arrangements to rock out with some finesse, a finely nuanced balance of loose limbed spontaneity and excellent playing. There are moments here when they sound like The Faces with the slide guitars on A Better Man particularly reminiscent of Ronnie Wood slashing away while Better Than I Did opens with a Lennon like harmonica trill before the band head into Basement Tapes territory.

With Picott’s more sensitive songs, featuring just him and his guitar with some minimal backing, scattered throughout the two discs, mingling with the full on band songs, there’s no dichotomy between the discs here and, somewhat rare for a double album, no sense that Out Past The Wires would work better as a single disc. Instead it’s a double dose of good medicine with no slump in quality control in sight. He’s by turn joyous and morose, optimistic and pessimistic, angry and resigned. Blanket Of Stars is a beautifully delivered tender song sung by an outsider who’s mother was a teenage bride, his daddy a little bit drunk while Holding On ruminates in a similar manner with Picott in solo folksinger mode, the song grabbing one’s attention just as much as the rockier items here. Dead Reckoning is a perfectly realised love song as is The Shape Of You although here the love is in the past and the singer is drinking away his memories. Alcohol is the devil in Bottom Of The Well, a stark and astute portrait of a descent into addiction but this despair is somewhat redeemed by the following We All Live On, a rare note of optimism from Picott.

It’s a joy to hear Picott and the band gel on songs such as Take Home Pay (one of four co-writes with his buddy, Slaid Cleaves) and Coal which burns with a slowly seething sense of injustice along with a Southern rock swamp vibe while Hard Luck Baby is a rocker in the Mellencamp camp. But the 22 songs here run through a gamut of styles with the common denominator being Picott’s finger on the pulse of today’s America with Hard Luck Baby coming across like a condensed and updated version of The Grapes of Wrath. Overall the album is a triumph with Picott stepping up to the mark throughout and it certainly sets the barrier high for his upcoming shows, a barrier we are sure he will surmount as he’s a seasoned and exceptionally good performer. In addition he’s preparing the companion book with a first sneak peek available here as he fills in the background to Take Home Pay.

Rod tours the UK in March, all dates here

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The Lost Brothers. Halfway Towards A Healing.

a3891704386_16Oisin Leech and Mark McCausland, the Irishmen who sing so beautifully together as The Lost Brothers, headed to the arid lands of Tucson, Arizona for their latest instalment of wonderfully crepuscular songs. The pair have a penchant for choosing a specific location for each of their recordings (including Liverpool, where they started off as a duo, Sheffield, Portland Oregon and Nashville) and often a particular producer, believing that it’s key to attaining the “magic.” For Halfway Towards A Healing they recorded in Dust and Stone Studios with owner Gabriel Sullivan and the legendary Howe Gelb overseeing the production and sure enough, some of the Giant Sand man’s sonic drizzle percolates throughout the album.

There’s no dramatic change in The Lostie’s sound. They’re still the perfect late night accompaniment, their harmonies excellent, the songs almost lullabies, a balm for the discontented and the lonely. They’ve often been compared to Simon & Garfunkel but at times here they approach the melancholic lyrical beauty of Leonard Cohen, the title song here being the premium example (while it also slouches along wonderfully with Gelb’s fingerprints all over it). More Than I Can Comprehend (co-written with Glen Hansard) is a lyrically stark portrait of a relationship blowing up and Songs Of Fire is despair writ large despite its incredibly nimble arrangement. For true melancholia however it would be hard to beat Summer Rain which rambles along wonderfully with Gelb’s idiosyncratic lounge piano allied to a lazy cowboy rhythm.

The opening songs, Echoes In The Wind and Where the Shadows Go, will satisfy those who hold to the Simon & Garfunkel comparison, the former in particular is suffused with Simon’s early style. Come Tomorrow, a song which canters along in comparison to its siblings recalls another sixties songwriter, in this case Tim Rose and his version of Morning Dew. Again Gelb seems to be in the background with gently twanged guitar and occasional sonic splutters making their mark. On working with Gelb Mark McCausland says, “He would pick us up in the morning and take us out into the desert. We’d walk for hours, then he’d drop us back at the studio. We’d go through songs with studio engineer Gabriel Sullivan, then Howe would meet us at the end of the day, listen to what we’d done and work on the tracks. All those trips into the desert were to get the environment into our system.” The Tucson topography looms large in the instrumental, Reigns Of Ruin, a gentle cantina styled strum and Gelb himself has a cameo appearance as he narrates the closing song, The Ballad Of The Lost Brother, a self help manual of sorts which sounds like the sort of thing Travis Henderson (from Paris, Texas) might have said were he a gonzoid Zen like musician from Tucson, an odd end to the album but a delight for any fans of Gelb.

Mark Twain said, “Comparison is the death of joy” but if one were forced to compare Halfway Towards A Healing against their earlier albums it’s tempting to say that this is their best yet.

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Tom Heyman. Show Business, Baby.

a1381658475_16For two decades Tom Heyman has been a vital part of the San Franscisco music scene, a go to pedal steel man and guitar slinger who has recorded and played with the likes of Chuck Prophet, Alejandro Escovedo, Russ Tolman, Mark Eitzel and John Doe. He came to Blabber’n’Smoke’s attention when he released his third solo album, the late night wallow that was That Cool Blue Feeling and we got to see him play live when he toured over here with Dan Stuart and Fernando Viciconte. On Show Business, Baby, Heyman wanted to capture the experience of “seeing a great band getting down in a small club, “citing his love of bands such as Rockpile, The Flamin’ Groovies and NRBQ, an experience he knows all too well having spent ten years with Philadelphia’s Go To Blazes and he succeeds in spades.

With 13 songs, all hovering around the three minute mark, the album is an excellent collection of taut and punchy numbers, many of them capable of being inserted into The Groovies’ Teenage Head with no seams showing. There’s a sense of juvenile delinquency (and more so, inadequacy) on several of the songs along with tons of swagger and snot –  the closing number, Sonny Curtis’ Baby My Heart (with Heyman digging into Bobby Fuller’s version) is straight out of Nuggets. The curling guitar riff which kicks off the album on Baby Let Me In sets the scene as Heyman snarls and whines impotently at his girl who’s locked him out as the band barrel on magnificently, a Seeds like keyboard stab incessant along with a deranged guitar solo from Heyman.  It’s a great start to the album but throughout there are songs which just spring from the speakers brimful of attitude, stuffed with memorable riffs and stomps. The cowbell happy Show Business recounts Heyman’s time as a bartender, What In The World is NRBQ meets Bo Diddley while Whiskey Wolf kicks off with a Dragnet like guitar riff as Heyman sings of a 9-5 guy transformed into a booze fuelled predator at the weekend with guest guitarist Eric Ambel howling at the moon on his “rip snorting guitar solo.” Meanwhile the hero in Out West dreams of getting it together by heading for the coast of the setting sun as the band clatter along like Joe King Carrasco and All Ears has the pounce and drive of Nick Lowe’s Rockpile.

On a couple of the songs Heyman comes across as a successor to Mott The Hoople’s Ian Hunter whose hip sense of sneer ruled songs such as The Golden Age Of Rock’nRoll. Etch A Sketch is a clever metaphor for a broken heart while Little Killers is one of those songs stuffed with rock’n’roll cliches tossed off with a cool attitude and a fine pop sensibility. Finally, there’s a magnificent cover of Dion’s Daddy Rollin’ (In Your Arms) which is heavier than the other songs here, an evil sounding organ fuelled blast with pummelling drums, it’s like a Vanilla Fudge cover of Dion’s fuggy folk psychedelic original leading one to wonder whether Heyman could investigate a late sixties voodoo vibe somewhat further.

With this sleek, sharkskin suited (with a hint of glitter), album, a hymn to tight rhythm, cool riffs and snarly rock attitude, Heyman succeeds perfectly in his quest to capture the joy of close up musical nirvana. It would be a joy to see him deliver any of this live.

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The Man From Leith Finds Himself in Muddy Waters – Dean Owens & Southern Wind

railway-pic-crop-3Dean Owens unveils his latest album, Southern Wind, at a showcase concert this Friday as part of Celtic Connections. Recorded in Nashville with a crack team of American musicians (including Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough, both part of The Orphan Brigade) the album is a bit of a departure for Owens. Many of the songs were co-written with Kimbrough and there’s a definite whiff of the deep South woven throughout. We spoke to Dean about its making and asked about several of the songs on it.

You’ve recorded several of your albums in Nashville but Southern Wind seems to be more rooted in an American sound as opposed to the Celtic Americana that characterised Into The Sea. While the opening number, The Last Song, sounds like it could have fitted easily into the last record with that freewheeling roustabout swing which is reminiscent of Ronnie Lane’s last Chance, the rest is quite different.

It was hard to follow up an album like into The Sea, a lot of folk really liked that and I think the best thing to do is to go down a different road and try not to repeat yourself. I’ve done that with all my albums I think. If you go back to my first album and follow them thorough I think they are all quite different. Last Song is probably a bit of a connection to the last album, when we sequenced the album we decided to kick off with that one and then head into a slightly different world.

The main difference from Into The Sea is that I wrote most of the songs with Will Kimbrough and he’s from the South and that brought a strong flavour into the album. I was talking to a friend the other night about this and he thought that Into The Sea, although I recorded it with some of the same musicians in Nashville, was much more about my background, looking at me growing up and with lots of family and friends references whereas on this one there are different characters and a different feeling. That has come about through writing with Will and also through spending more time over there. Since I recorded Into The Sea I’ve spent a lot of time over in Nashville and travelling about. Aside from Southern Wind I’ve also been recording this other project, Buffalo Blood  down in New Mexico and I think that, as an artist, you kind of soak up all that stuff.

The instrumental break on When The Whisky’s Not Enough and the opening slide guitar and bluesy moans of No Way Around It are particularly evocative of Southern music.

I’m really pleased with the way No Way Around It worked out. I wanted it to be a big sounding song and that take was the one and only time we played it in the studio. I think we really captured the vibe I was going for, the real spirit of the song and in bringing in Kira Small for the backing vocals, I really wanted to have a good soulful voice in there and she nailed it. I’d said to Neilson Hubbard, the producer, “I really want to make a swampy sounding record,” and that’s what he does really well. He’s from Mississippi and Will’s from Alabama as is Evan the drummer so they have that sound in their veins.

I really wanted  especially to feature Will’s guitar playing on the album and on The Last Song he’s actually playing guitar, bass and piano. He just had that Ronnie Lane type of bass sound on the demo so rather than have the regular bass player Dean Marold play, Will did it and he also played piano on it as he has that rollicking Faces’ like loose way of playing.

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You mentioned Kira Small and her voice on No Way Around It is spectacular. It reminds me of Merry Clayton’s singing on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter.

That’s exactly what I was thinking of when we were recording that, that Gimme Shelter type sound. I’d said to Neilson that I wanted a big soulful voice in there and right away he said that he knew exactly the woman who could that and it was Kira. That’s one of the great things about Nashville, I mean people ask me, “Why go to Nashville? There’s loads of great musicians here.” Well of course there are but in Nashville everything’s on your doorstep. You can say I want that voice or I want that instrument and you’re surrounded by some of the best players and singers who can just come in, almost at a minute’s notice for a session. Kira came in and nailed that on the first take. That’s one of the reasons I love working with Neilson, I trust him and he knows what I want and he knows how to get it.

Earlier you said that much of Into The Sea was informed by family memories but there are a couple of songs here that are also  about your family.

When Into The Sea was being recorded my sister was gravely ill and her passing was obviously a huge blow and although I don’t want to dwell on it, in a way I wanted to, as it were, put that part of me to rest. My sister will always be with me and that song, Madeira Street, is a memory but it’s also a way of moving on. It’s a situation that affects more and more people as we go along. I’ve realised that in the past few years that so many people I know have had similar situations so although the song is about me and my sister I hope that people can relate to it.

You also have a song about your mother.

Well, my parents try to come along to my shows whenever they can and one of my most popular songs is The Man From Leith which is of course about my father and my mum’s always been giving me a hard time about not writing a song for her. So I had started this song (Mother) a while back but I really didn’t know where it was going. I sang it to Will when we were doing a wee song writing session way before we started on the album and he helped me out with some of it. I still felt it needed something else however and when I was touring with Danny & The Champs I was playing it in the dressing room, just as a way of warming up, and Danny asked me what it was as he quite liked it. Anyway, I was staying with Danny the next day and we were messing about with it and I was telling him about my mum and some of the things she was always saying and he said, “That’s it, there’s your lyrics there,” and he helped me to piece it together and encouraged me to put it on the album. Fortunately she loves it, I sang it to her on Christmas Eve and by the time I was finished we all had a bit of a tear in our eyes.

There’s a great rockabilly punch on Elvis Was My Brother.

That’s the song that people seem to be picking up on so far. It was pretty much based on a letter a friend sent me and I asked him if I could use it and he said yes and he’s really happy with the way it turned out. Of course it’s about a huge Southern character, Elvis, so it fitted on the album along with my other song about another Southern hero, Louisville Lip, about Muhammad Ali. Aside from musicians one of my greatest heroes was Ali and although we’ve lost a great many musicians in the past couple of years his death was the one that really hit me. I’ve got some memories of sitting with my dad watching Ali fight Foreman when I was really young and although I’m not sure if it’s what really happened as I was so young, I think that I was mesmerised by this guy dancing around with these really cool white shorts on and I said to my dad that I wanted a pair of those. He said I could only get them if I became a boxer and so later I joined a boxing club and that was a huge part of my growing up.

I remember exactly where we were when we heard that Ali had died; we were in Amarillo, Texas, one of those names that certainly conjures up one particular song. We were in the van coming back from New Mexico when one of the guys read the news on his phone. And when we got back to Nashville I sat down and wrote the song and played it to Will and we decided it had to go on the album. Ali was just my hero and aside from his boxing prowess he was a huge figure in the South in the civil rights era so he deserved to be on the album.

The album launch is on Friday and you’ll be appearing with your own band, The Whisky Hearts. Given that the album was recorded with these American Southerners, how will The Whisky Hearts play the songs?

The songs will sound different when we play them. The Whisky Hearts are all brilliant Scottish musicians and while they’re not steeped in the South like Will and Neilson are, they’ll play the songs with their own passionate take on it. For example, there’s no fiddle on the album but we’ve got Amy Geddes on fiddle so it will sound different.  We did it with Into The Sea, we took the songs I had recorded in Nashville and brought them home and we’ll do the same here, the spirit of the record will shine through.

Dean Owens & The Whisky Hearts are appearing as part of Celtic Connections at the Drygate, Glasgow on Friday 2nd February. Southern Wind is officially released on 16th February with advance copies on sale at Friday’s concert. Dean will also be a guest of Celtic Music Radio‘s Mike Ritchie on Friday afternoon, 1-2pm, talking about the album and playing some songs in session.

 

 

 

Cosmic Cowboys, Acid and Having a Beer With Jesus – Justin Osborne of Susto

10915026_1610467402502047_3413982370388978341_oTouring in support of their second album, & I’m Fine Today, South Carolina band Susto make their debut Scottish appearance at Celtic Connections this week. Formed in 2014 by Justin Osborne, the band have rapidly gained a reputation for their live shows while & I’m Fine Today is a well crafted set of songs which explore doubt and the human condition and  essentially ask the question, “Why Are We Here?” With beautifully delivered ballads such as Havana Vieja and more complex layers of sound as on Waves, the album is like a less manic version of The Flaming Lips with a dash of Wilco added.

Osborne grew up in a Pentecostal community and attended military school for a while. Rebelling, he dived into drugs, lost his religion and started a band, Sequoyah. When they broke up in 2013 he returned to college but eventually left and travelled to Cuba before forming Susto. On the eve of setting off to Europe (and on his birthday) Justin took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke.

First off, Happy Birthday to you. I believe it will be a busy day as you are flying out to Europe. Is this your first time over here?

Thanks. We actually leave for Europe tomorrow, first we fly to Chicago then to Copenhagen.  I’m really looking forward to this, really excited. I’ve played solo before in Europe and in the UK I’ve only played London so I’m excited to be getting to some other places such as Glasgow to play at Celtic Connections. I hear it’s a great festival and that you get to meet lots of other musicians and I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland. We’re also playing some showcases in the Netherlands with some other musicians and I’m really looking forward to seeing Corb Lund and Colter Wall.

First off, can I ask you about the band name? I’ve read that Susto is a Latin American term meaning a sense of malaise or dread, kind of like an existential crisis.

It’s a bit of both really. I was an anthropology student when I first heard the term and it literally means that your soul is separated from your body but the  more I read about it I realised that it has degrees, it can be as simple as a panic attack all the way up to a feeling that you’re not really yourself. When I first heard it I was like 24 or 25 and I thought it described how I was feeling but then I started to learn Spanish and I lived in a Spanish speaking country for a while and I realised then that it’s often just a colloquial term for a fright. But it still has this deeper feeling and I thought that it was an appropriate name for my band.

You lived in Cuba for a while?

Yes, I was in Havana for much of 2013.

Was it easy to go there? I know that the US back then didn’t really encourage tourism.

Well when I went there it was just before Obama relaxed some of the rules but the first time I went it was through an educational programme which was one of the ways you could legitimately visit the country. The second time I kind of snuck in, I flew to the Bahamas and from there I was able to get to Cuba. But then I got detained in the airport when I came home as they didn’t believe that I had spent all that time in The Bahamas and I was carrying all this Cuban rum. However I got off with a slap on the wrist so that was OK. The Cubans are happy to see you, it’s the US government who don’t want you to go.

You’ve said that your time spent there was quite influential. Was that in terms of you personally or was it more of a musical influence?

Both really but it’s not really an obvious influence on the sound. There’s so much music on Cuba and it’s so diverse. There’s the traditional dance music and there’s lots of rock bands and cover bands who just do Beatles songs but what really intrigued me was the singer songwriter tradition, called son truvo. They have this sense of sarcasm and they’re not afraid to sing about the darker side of humanity but kind of playfully and I think that has been the main influence, I came back really as a different kind of writer, using lyrics in a different way from before. It’s definitely on the first album and some of it spills into the current one. We’re not afraid of being sarcastic and we’ve put out little vignettes on some of our videos which I think shows that side of us.

That comes out on the song Chilling On The Beach With My Friend Jesus. Your idea of heaven is having a beer on the beach with your friends instead of seeing pearly gates.

I guess. I’m not religious but I come from a deeply religious family and part of my struggle over the past few years has been reconciling where my head is at now with the way I grew up and being able to communicate with my family. That song was meant to be like a bridge between people who had lost their faith and those who have the traditional beliefs. I don’t know if I succeeded in building that bridge, maybe I blew it up. The song was one thing but then we made a video for it and that made some people more upset, they didn’t like to see Jesus partying and drinking. The church I grew up in, there’s no alcohol so that didn’t go down well but I was told that I had a personal relationship with Jesus and I think if that’s true then you’ve just got to be yourself and not be like on your best behaviour all the time and that’s what we tried to show in the video. I don’t lose sleep over it, a lot of people had fun with the song and we certainly did but if you read the YouTube comments you see people writing, “You’re going to burn in Hell” and stuff like that but I just laugh it off.

You mentioned setting up little vignettes or stories for several of your videos

In a way it’s really just giving people something to chew on. I mean we can’t put out a new record every couple of months so we add a little bit to a song. It’s mainly for people who are really into the band, who are interested enough to search us out. We don’t do it with every song, there are some that I’m not comfortable talking about but it’s more or less a way to orientate people and let them know where we are coming from. We’re kind of giving people a different way of hearing a song and it’s been fun to do but listening to music is a personal experience and some people just want to hear a song and some want to know more about it and I think the listener has a right to choose which way they go about it. We don’t want to push a song’s meaning down anyone’s throat, it’s really just to keep the interaction going.

Having said that, some of the songs are quite obvious. Gay In The South for example tackles attitudes towards gay people with family and friends saying they will go straight to hell. Some parts of the South have always had a reputation for being intolerant but do you think it’s worse today?

I was up late last night just talking about the way this country is going and there are lots of conversations like that going on all over the place. When it pertains to gay rights, women, minorities and such I had hoped we had moved on a little bit but when I go home to my family and the place I grew up, it’s not just my family but people in restaurants and most people around you and it’s like they all voted for Trump. It’s not the case in Charleston where I live now, it’s a more progressive town, but back home you start to think, why, where did we separate? Guys I grew up with, played sports with and could probably still have a beer with, but when it comes to politics there’s a very big rift. With my parents I cannot talk about politics at all, it would just blow up even though they’re people I love. Before Trump there was already a lot of animosity, us and them, but Trump is the great divider, the wedge that’s making that split much wider. It’s sad because basically I love people and I Love my family and where I’m from but I can’t reconcile with their views.

Can we talk about your experience of microdosing with LSD?

I got into LSD when I was at college, not microdosing but going on a trip trying to get that psychedelic experience, it felt like it was stripping away the layers of bullshit and seeing the world in a new way. Maybe that was just us going crazy, I don’t know but it didn’t really feel like that. I started hearing about microdosing when I was in Sequoyah, as a band we weren’t tripping all the time, maybe just a couple of times a year. But by then I had a song called The Acid Boys  and I’ve got the word ACID tattooed on my hand and so some fans would give me some LSD and I started to think about microdosing – the government’s definitely listening in on this but it doesn’t matter because I’m clean right now!

I didn’t want to go back down the whole ten hour acid trip but remembering the changes it brought out in me I started microdosing in the studio for the first record, it wasn’t just me but our guitar player at the time and our producer. And we got a lot done. We were taking just trace amounts and it wasn’t as if you felt you had any substance in you, it was just like, “Wow, I’m in a great mood today, I’m firing on all cylinders.”  It just raises the energy levels but it’s not like caffeine or any kind of amphetamine, I hate that edgy feeling, it’s just a very clean feeling of energy. I don’t do it all the time and although we did do it a couple of times when we were making & I’m Fine Today there was a lot more times when we weren’t doing it. I’m not like saying to everyone, go do acid, but for me personally it’s helped me deal with bouts of depression, helped me deal with the changes in my life.

There’s a song on the new album, Cosmic Cowboy. Did you grow up listening to psychedelic country records?

I’ve been a Grateful dead fan for a long time. I’m not really into jam music, bands like Phish although a couple of the guys in the band like that. I’m coming more from a punk rock and singer songwriter background, I went to military school right after high school and while I was there I just fell in love with the imagery of The Grateful Dead, the Steal Your Face look, I’m even wearing a Dead T shirt right now. I was drawn to them through the graphics and although I wasn’t smoking weed or anything I started to fall in love with their music. It wasn’t because of them that I started taking LSD however, that was just boredom

a4018315158_16You said earlier you had studied anthropology and with your interest in Latin America I wondered if you know much about the culture and drugs of indigenous South American tribes

Well I’ve never used a drug like Ayahuasca which some Amazonian tribes use but that culture is represented on the album cover for & I’m Fine Today which is a painting by Pablo Amaringo. He’s deceased now but he was a shaman from the Peruvian Amazon, a rain forest preservationist and an amazing artist. Our drummer is a visual artist and he brought me some ideas for the album artwork including this. It’s supposed to be a representation of this inner battle that can happen and I thought it was a great way to represent the concept of Susto. When Marshall brought that to the table I couldn’t believe that a piece of artwork like this could exist. Because again, the reason the band is called Susto is because of that ongoing battle internally and I just thought the painting represented us. We spent a lot of time making this album and we were always adding little things here and there, maybe we added too much stuff but the album sleeve, it’s like you can look at it and keep on finding new things and I think it’s like listening to the record, you can keep on finding new things in the songs. I’m really grateful to Pablo’s estate and to the Universe for putting that artwork in front of me.

Susto are playing two shows at Celtic Connections on 3rd and 4th Feb. All tour dates are here.

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Findlay Napier. Glasgow. Cheery Grove Records

a31bbe_6a612d26cfae416f991e593997008c1emv2_d_1490_1491_s_2Celtic Connections is coming up and one of the first artists Blabber’n’Smoke is going to see is Findlay Napier who will be performing his latest release, Glasgow. An album that is part tribute to, part dissection, of his adopted hometown, Glasgow is a worthy successor to Napier’s VIP, an album that found him delivering wry biographies of some famous (and some not so) people.

Glasgow’s a notorious city (or so we Glaswegians think). On the one hand it has a reputation for poverty and violence, on the other, it’s the friendly and forward looking metropolis that has been a city of culture and which has its very own “style mile” (in reality just a bunch of the same department stores you can find in any city centre). What Glasgow does have and always had is a ready supply of talent ready to mythologize the grimy tenements, the gangs, the shopping, the culture, the football and the music and perhaps Napier’s greatest achievement here is that he isn’t one of those. Sure, there are moments on Glasgow when he is in thrall to the history and romanticism that does exist in this once called “second city of the empire” but overall here he is an oblique aural flaneur taking the listener throughout various aspects of the city that have influenced him. That he does it with such casual excellence is the icing on the cake.

With Boo Hewerdine supporting on guitar and piano and with occasional field recordings the album is less fleshed out musically than VIP, however this allows Napier’s clear and ringing voice full rein over the simple backings. He opens the album with tolling bells as he sings about the city’s central necropolis, a ghost story one might expect but instead Napier delivers a potted history of Glasgow’s patron saint while describing the Goths who frequented the graveyard when he lived nearby. As on VIP’s Hedy Lamarr, Napier gets a subject and takes it places one would never expect. Glasgow’s history of shipbuilding sails into view on the powerful There’s More To Building Ships with Napier railing against the faceless men who dismantled the industry while detailing the industrial illnesses endured by the workforce, here he reminds one of a powerful songwriter from Leith, Dick Gaughan. Pulling Wires is another social testament inspired by a documentary on Glasgow’s homeless who collect scrap metal and again it’s transformed into a memorable and hefty folk song. The Locarno, Sauchiehall Street 1928 pays tribute to a famous Glasgow dance hall and is imbued with a similar sense of wonderment and memory as VIP’s Valentina but Napier’s other slice of everyday life centres on a chip shop bang in the centre of town as he sings of an unrequited love affair with a girl who wraps the fries. Banality transformed into art it’s supremely underplayed.

As a musician who came to live in the city, Napier acknowledges others who have written and sung about Glasgow with a fine selection of covers. Chief of these is his rendition of Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice, a song popularised by the late Hamish Imlach and a great vehicle for Napier who gives it just the right amount of salaciousness. The Blue Nile’s A Walk Across The Rooftops, a reminder of Napier’s student days is stripped right down and sung as a delicate and tender love song, Napier posing as a Glaswegian Chagall. Michael Marra’s King Kong’s Visit To Glasgow manages to cram several tributes into one as it mentions The People’s Palace, Glasgow bands, footballers, Glasgow’s one time reputation (again) as “cinema city” and , most of all, to the writer, Marra, a Dundonian who wrote about Glasgow better than most Glaswegians. Football, and its unsavoury punch-ups, open Julia Doogan’s Glasgow but the song soon settles into a hymn of sorts to the Dear Green Place. Finally, Napier offers up a gorgeous reading of Emma Pollock’s Marchtown, a glorious song which addresses the history of an area, now called Strathbungo, historically associated with Mary Queen Of Scots, an area which Napier himself now calls home.

Glasgow is an album which any fan of Napier will love and for many Glaswegians it will strike a chord. From the excellent cover artwork with Napier recreating Raymond Depardon’s striking image of Govan kids in the 80’s (including a very sad shot of him standing in the doorway of the derelict Lyceum cinema, a haunt of Blabber’n’Smoke’s childhood) to the many totems mentioned in the songs, it just hums with the vibrancy that many of us believe still surrounds the city.

Findlay Napier performs Glasgow at Celtic Connections on Saturday 20th January while he also hosts the late night sessions at The Drygate and Hazey Recollections and he will be appearing with Shake The Chains on 31st January

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Tim Henderson. Gone To Texas: The Legacy Collection (Vol.1)

timhenderson6For anyone interested in Texan folklore and the songs of Townes Van Zandt, Butch Hancock and Guy Clark this album is an intriguing listen. Tim Henderson, who died in 2011, was from West Virginia but moved to Austin, Texas when in his 30’s. Influenced by his grandmother who played mountain dulcimer Henderson took up music at an early age but once in Texas he joined in the budding musical scene there releasing his first album in 1978. While his fame never expanded much beyond the State’s borders, at home he was feted with Townes Van Zandt championing him as he won a best song award at The Kerrville Folk Festival in 1977 while he was awarded a Lifetime Achievement Award by the Academy of Texas Music in 2011 for his “timeless contributions to Texas music.”

Gone To Texas is the first volume of a six album set which gathers Henderson’s recording together and, as the title hints, it concentrates on the songs he wrote about Texas history, culture and people. Released last year in The States it’s coming to our attention now due to the ministrations of promoter Rob Ellen who heard about Henderson when he was on the road with an artist Henderson mentored, Chuck Hawthorne. Ellen attended a concert celebrating the album release and was knocked out and amazed at the galaxy of Texas artists who turned up to pay homage and undertook to try and spread the word further. For that we say, Thanks Rob.

Listening to the album I was struck time and again as to why Henderson isn’t better known. His songs range from vibrant retellings of pivotal moments in Texas history to songs packed full of humour and wit. His Ballad Of Whiskey John (one of the songs that helped him win the Kerrville New Folk Competition – Van Zandt was a judge that year) is a folk tale, almost a talking blues, which recalls Loudon Wainwright and Kinky Friedman. Witch Of West Lynn, written in revenge against getting a ticket for running a red light, cackles with an absurd humour with Henderson roaring like Shel Silverstein while Jesus Would Have Loved El Paso is a sly dig at television pastors such as Jerry Falwell who delighted in calling Texans sinners and it’s delivered with a passion similar to that of Tom Russell.

Russell comes to mind again when Henderson dips into the border territory as on La Dona Maria and Maria Consuelo Arroyo, both replete with Hispanic sounds and the latter leading us into another comparison, this time with the rawness of Terry Allen’s Juarez. There really is so much treasure here (some not so polished, the living room recording of Texas Morning Ride gains from its lo fidelity) with songs such as Dust and Texas In His Ways truly embedded in the Texas tradition but our favourite is the magnificent Miss Amelia Harris, Spinster, a song which sounds as if you had bundled together all of the artists we’ve mentioned here and added a dollop of John Prine.

Gone To Texas is a tremendous listen and it whets the appetite for the accompanying volumes. Hopefully it and the other five discs serve to spread Henderson’s legacy further afield, we’d certainly love to hear more of the man. Thanks again, Rob.

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Here’s some vintage footage of Tim Henderson…

And here’s Chuck Hawthorne singing Miss Amelia Harris, Spinster (just for good measure)