Arksong : The Return of Marc Pilley

Cast your mind back to the year 2000 and there was a band called Hobotalk who created some waves in the general music scene. Their debut album, Beauty In Madness had been critically acclaimed and apparently was in the running for The Mercury Prize, but sales didn’t reflect that acclaim. Caught up in issues regarding their label, Hut, a subsidiary of Virgin Records, the band disbanded with leader and songwriter Marc Pilley taking some time out to reconsider his career.

Come 2005, Pilley revived the band with a new line-up and went on to release three superb albums on Glitterhouse Records. Again there was a positive reception from a small knit community, especially in Europe, but, once again, it just kind of petered out after their final release, 2008’s Alone Again Or. Since then, Pilley kind of disappeared from the scene, so it was a welcome surprise to find him back on stage a short while ago when, now billed as Arksong, he supported My Darling Clementine at the latest Glasgow Americana Festival. Appearing solo, Pilley plied the audience with a set of new songs which he has been carefully crafting over the past few years. His honeyed vocals were immediately recognisable to anyone familiar with Hobotalk and it was a joy to see him again.

It turns out that since around mid 2019, Pilley has been quietly releasing a series of albums and EPs in a DIY manner under the name of Arksong, selling them though his website and Bandcamp. After that gig, we delved into these and were quite astonished to find what amounts to a treasure trove of songs. Pilley has stripped his music back to, in the main, his voice and guitar, and recorded his songs in his garden shed. Despite this deliberately homegrown independence, there is much of what made Hobotalk such a compelling listen still evident. Pilley’s voice, quite mellifluent, a distant cousin of Tim Hardin’s, remains present. Nature and the seasons still feature with the music evocative of being beyond civilisation, a sense amplified by the beautifully stark black and white photographs which adorn the releases (all photographed by Pilley’s wife, Pam).

With Pilley’s most recent album, Ruin Valley Rising, glued to our stereo system, Blabber’n’Smoke reached out to him in his little garden cottage just outside of Edinburgh to chat about Arksong.

The last we heard of you was in 2008 when the final Hobotalk album was released. It’s been a long time.

Indeed it has. People still ask me about Beauty in Madness and that came out, oh, more than 20 years ago. I think it’s true to say that back then I didn’t really take care of business. When I’m asked about it I’ll tell folk that if you have a group of people who step in and say, here’s a bunch of money and we’ll take care of all this for you, a warning bell should go off. It’s really more important to take care of business yourself and by that I mean looking after relationships. If you take care of your business, each working relationship, then you’ll be much better placed to step forward. I didn’t do that back then. After Beauty In Madness, I took time out to go to Canada for several years and then I came back with a new band which I still called Hobotalk. We were signed to Glitterhouse and we grew quite a good following in Europe but eventually that came to a halt. Basically, I stopped thinking about having guitar, bass, drums and keyboards and I really got down to just my acoustic guitar and song writing.

So, what prompted you to come back as Arksong?

Well, I stopped doing a lot of things but the two things I didn’t stop were black coffee and song writing. Song writing seems to be the way I move though the world and I kept on doing that. It was my wife who said to me that there was no point in having all of these songs I’d written just sitting there, under a bushel if you like, so I reckoned it was time to record them and to say to people, here are some of my songs.

As you say, most of the songs are just you and your guitar but Ruin Valley Rising has some guests playing on it.

At first it was just me in my shed, singing and playing the songs. I recorded them and Ross Edmund, the original guitar player in Hobotalk who is a very gifted producer these days and runs a small studio called The Medicine Hut, mixed and produced the discs. On my last record, Ruin Valley Rising however, I asked some friends to join me and it was lovely to have The Unthanks, Ainslie Henderson, Henry Priestman, Mairi Campbell and Steve Balsamo all contribute.

I’ve really enjoyed listening to the albums and it strikes me that, on a song such as Turn To Me (on Everything’s Coming Home) you are walking in the footsteps of someone like Tim Hardin, a comparison which was often made in the Hobotalk days. Can you tell us a little about the music you were listening to when you were starting out?

I actually started off as a drummer but after a while I wasn’t enjoying the songs I was drumming on so I started writing my own. I was actually talking to Michael Weston King about this the other week when we played the Glasgow show. The first albums I remember really listening to were Bless The Weather by John Martyn and the three Nick Drake albums -I remember being floored by them and thinking this is what I want to do. When I was living in Dunbar I got to know Brian Hogg (Edinburgh based rock writer, author of All That Ever Mattered: The Story Of Scottish Rock and Pop and editor of Bam Balam magazine). I used to go round to his place where he had a huge record collection and he’d start at A and go through his collection with me to Z. It was Brian’s record collection which had a huge influence on me. It’s very hard to have something like a favourite list as it always changes but I’ve been asked that in the past and I always try to mention Tim Hardin, John Martyn, Joni Mitchell, Gillian Welch, Grant Lee Phillips and Justin Townes Earle. I think that Justin was really going places. You’ve probably heard Charlie Patton and I think that Justin was on that road. He was doing that howling at the stars thing and I thought it was going to get really exciting. Poor chap, that’s not going to happen now.

I enjoyed your contribution to the Jackie Leven tribute album, The Wanderer.

I was really honoured to be asked to participate on that. Jackie is one of those artists, a bit like Fred Neil, who are actually treasures but when you mention them to people they don’t know who you are talking about. I can’t believe that they don’t get more recognition.

So, what are your future plans?

The Glasgow Americana show was the first I’ve done in a long while and I really enjoyed being back on a stage again. I’m hoping to be touring again soon, here and in Europe where I’ve still got a lot of faithful fans. I’ll be playing solo as I think that it works out pretty well with just me and my guitar and my voice. I like to squeeze as much music as I can out of the least instrumentation. I’m currently recording songs for a new album but it won’t come out until next year.

So, keep you eyes peeled for news of Pilley playing anywhere near you soon. You can listen to and purchase his albums here and visit his website here.

Nathan Bell: A Dead Man Talking

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Here at Blabber’n’Smoke we’ve been huge fans of Nathan Bell ever since we heard his 2016 album I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love. We spoke to him back then and now, on the eve of his UK tour to celebrate the release of his new album, Red, White and American Blues we caught up with him again. First off, we asked him if he was looking forward to visiting the UK and whether he was certain he would make it given the current travel issues.

Well, I’ve got so much to do these days that I never really slow down so I’m actually looking forward to coming over to the UK as it will almost  be like, a break. I’ll just be doing one job instead of several. When we were setting it up it looked like it might be a 50/50 chance of travelling but right now it’s much more certain. I think we’ve reached the point statistically where, if you’re smart enough to be vaccinated, and you should be smart enough, that you’ve reached the point where the real danger is to people who are really unwell in other ways. It’s also a great opportunity to launch the new album which was actually recorded back in June 2019. A lot of people didn’t put out new music during the pandemic because there was no touring and of course there’s no money to be made in streaming.

Red, White and American Blues features a full band on most of the songs.

It’s a different kind of record from what I would normally do. I mean you can still find the acoustic songs in there and I had some nervousness about making it but it turned out well and the band didn’t overwhelm the songs. It was originally going to be acoustic but when I started recording with Brian (Brinkerhoff) we came up with a vinyl release, The Right Reverend Crow Sings New American Folk and Blues, which was acoustic. This one is more electric or “electricious,” as I wouldn’t call it a completely electric album.

I saw a collection of short videos on YouTube where you play the songs from the album on acoustic guitar and talk about them and I recall that you said that Mossberg Blues was the closest you get to one of your favourite albums, Let It Bleed.

That’s maybe an exaggeration. I did those videos on the back of having Covid but I mean I’m not going to get the sound The Stones’ had. This is my record, I’m not trying to recreate Let It Bleed. It’s just the approach, it was pretty down and dirty and all of the songs here are first or second takes, I don’t think we got around to doing a third take on any of them. And some of it was just the instrumentation. You know, when someone else produces your record you have to hope that they hear the spaces the same way as you do and luckily Bryan and Frank (Swart) did.

I was very impressed by your co – singers, Parry Griffin, Regina McCrary and Aubrie Sellers who add so much to several of the songs.

I feel very fortunate to have them on the record, it was Brian who had the contacts. I really didn’t expect to have someone like Regina McCrary sing on one of my records but as I say in that video you mentioned, she adds a kind of Harlem theatre like feel to Mossberg Blues while she’s fantastic on Retread Cadillac.

You had an acoustic version of Retread Cadillac on the Reverend Crow album and here you really amp it up.

Everybody loves that song. I’m very conscious that I don’t want to mimic black blues music. I don’t want anyone to hear me and think, “He’s trying to sound like he’s black.” I think it’s clearly me, it’s my voice, but I’ve spent years playing like that, a drop thumb on a baritone guitar so it’s got a nice deep thump to it. It’s about Lightnin’ of course and there’s one line in the song, about Dowling St and when I sing it, it sounds like Downing St, so the blues fanatics will come after me for making a mistake. However, we left it in because part of the charm of those old blues records is that they left shit in, mistakes and all. I saw him in his last years and by then he was cultivating the legend because he was making a lot of money being Lightnin’ Hopkins, playing the character. I’ve no idea what he was like at home but for a 15 year old, to see him on stage was just huge. You could say that the song sort of sums up my entire development as a musician through the use of Lightnin’s legend.

American Blues pays tribute to Gil Scott Heron.

There was a period of my life when I listened to him. I grew up in a culture, which was a mixed medium of poets and their intersection with jazz. I’ve never been a jazz player because I’m not very good at it and I wouldn’t want to be a mediocre jazz musician because that’s maybe the worst thing you can foist on the world. A mediocre blues musician might be alright for a while, but a mediocre jazz musician, well, that’s just wrong. So, it’s taken me years and years to get comfortable with doing an overtly political and almost spoken word song like American Blues. It doesn’t sound anything like Gill Scott Heron but if you know about him then you can see the connection.

Mark Kemp writes in the liner notes, “Red White And American Blues is not a protest album, although it has protest songs, It’s not a Black Lives Matter album, but in these songs, Black lives matter. It’s an American album. It’s a set of songs about a broken country and its broken people.”

I’ve always been a political writer. Just in the subject matter. But then there’s marketing of protest music and then there’s protest music. Leadbelly wasn’t marketed as a protest singer until long after he’d written his songs. My songs don’t have the symbols of protest music. If you listen to the lyrics you’ll find some humour in there if you’re looking for it. American Gun for example, it’s not quite what you might think it is about so you have to listen carefully to the whole song. I think that if the record is marketed as a protest album it does it some disservice to it but there’s no question that it’s political. I left out Trump’s name on purpose because he colours the scene so much. Dave Chappelle (Americana comedian) said that the problem with Trump is that he’s scary as hell and as funny as hell, and that scared him. I mean even people who hate Trump can’t help but laugh when he says some of the stupid shit he says. So, I didn’t want his name in there because it would take up too much space and I mean, he’s not the only one. There’s Viktor Orborn, Bolsonaro and that crazy guy in Belarus who’s willing to hijack a plane to kidnap a journalist. There’s plenty of people who fit into that slot so I didn’t want it to have any specificity to one guy if that makes sense.

But America has made a lot of mistakes. The problem with any country that offers a great deal of hope, but which requires you to be subsumed into it, is that it also offers the possibility of a great deal of oppression. When 9/11 happened, and the album’s being released in the United States on the 20th anniversary, the reaction in America wasn’t, “What is our role in the world?” Well, maybe it was for a few forward thinking people, but for most, it was. “Well tomorrow these guys are going to drive a truck full of gasoline and blow it up in my back yard.” There was no realistic reason to expect that but the guys who know how to pull the levers and make money pressed that on to the American people. So our reaction was aggressive, it cost millions of people their lives all across the globe and it ruined thousands of American military people’s lives. Not just those who were killed or injured, but everyone who was sent over there, it affected them and their families. I mean, I’m going to take some punches to the face if this gets noticed out there because I’ll be seen as unpatriotic, antifascist, and supporting groups that want to see America change. But America has to change, if we don’t, then at some point we’ll just go full circle back to the way we formed the country which was on the backs of native American and black people.

The album’s subtitle alludes to Sinclair Lewis’s 1935 novel about a demagogue who is elected to the White House.

That was actually Frank’s idea. We were sitting around talking about a title and I just said we should call it Red White and American Blues. Now, I think there have been plenty of songs or albums called that. If you look hard enough you can find a guy who is as far to the right as I am to the left who has an album with the same name. So Frank said, we should just call it, It Couldn’t Happen Here and so we just joined the two titles together. The thing is, it could always happen here, or anywhere. Part of my family comes from Ukrainian Jewish stock and if anyone knows anything about it couldn’t happen here it’s us. I’m only one generation away from the immigrant and like most people with a Jewish background I’m very aware of what can go wrong.

A Lucky Man seems to be the most personal song on the album and it’s dedicated to your late father, the poet Marvin Bell, whom you call the original Dead Man.

My father wrote a series of poems that eventually morphed into a collection called Incarnate: The Collected Dead Man Poems. It is really something to read, it was his crowning achievement. He used the character of the Dead Man as the speaker or the subject. He was like a representation of something, a voice like you might have in the Tibetan Book of the dead. Obviously, I knew the whole series of books and I guess some of it rubbed off on me. I had characters in my songs like Ghost or Crow that work in the way of the Dead Man. I don’t know if any of my music had any influence on my father’s concept of the Dead Man but I know that to some extent we became intertwined over the years. He and I were going to do a joint project. He was going to do 12 poems about jazz and I was going to do 12 songs about jazz but which weren’t jazz songs, a bit of a challenge. But it never really got started before he died last year. Anyway, when I was writing these songs I realised that I had borrowed some of the Dead Man’s persona so I thought I should acknowledge that.

Do you write any poetry?

I’m a dreadful poet, I really am and I know when not to do something. Having said that, I know that many songwriters say their words aren’t poems, but I’d argue that any lyric that isn’t poetic has failed.

Well, Nathan Bell has made it to the UK and he kicks off his UK tour tonight at the Glasgow Americana Festival. All tour dates are here

Tucson’s music community comes together in a tribute to one of their own.


While it doesn’t get the acclaim afforded to Nashville, Arizona’s Tucson is home to a vibrant musical community and has been the launch point for a host of Blabber’n’Smoke favourites including Giant Sand, Rainer Ptacek, Calexico and, more recently, XIXA. We were intrigued therefore when we heard of a new collection of songs recorded by a host of Tucson musicians in order to raise funds for Al Foul, a local legend, who was recently diagnosed with cancer and faced a hefty bill for medical treatment.

Al Foul – A Tribute To The One And Only is a digital album available from Bandcamp and features 29 songs, most written by Foul, performed by familiar names such as Howe Gelb, Jesse Dayton, Calexico, Kid Congo Powers and Gabriel Sullivan, along with a variety of acts previously unknown to us. While all were recorded in the past few weeks, there is also the poignant presence of a performance by Rainer Ptacek who succumbed to a brain cancer back in 1997.

Al Foul himself has been a fixture of Tucson’s music scene since moving there from Boston in the late 1990’s, playing in a rockabilly/ hard country style, often as a one man band. Like many US musicians, he also has a loyal following in some European countries, in particular France. When he disclosed his diagnosis recently, Tom Walbank, a friend and, like Foul, an immigrant to Tucson where he has established himself as a blues artist, reached out to fellow artists and began collecting the songs which make up the album. Local studios (including Gabriel Sullivan’s Dust + Stone and Jim Waters’ Waterworks) opened their doors and donated free time to record while Walbank comments, “I realized that because it’s a pandemic, not everyone wants to go to the studio and not everyone had a home studio, so it was a little tricky. So there are some songs which are done very intimate on iPhones and stuff like that.”

One of the many musicians contributing is Naim Amor who appears on two songs. French born, Amor relocated to Tucson in 1997 and he has since released several solo albums and soundtracks and has also played live with and appeared on record with too many acts to mention here. He has had a long association with Foul and he was happy to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke to support the tribute album’s release. First off, we asked him about Al as he’s not that well known over here in the UK.

Al’s originally from Boston, he moved to Tucson as a young adult. Although I’m not sure of the year, it was around the time I moved out here so he has been part of the Tucson music scene since the early 90’s. He is known a bit in France because of particular connections and friends. He can go to France and actually make money, he never had any offers in the UK that would make it worthwhile. Al plays as a one-man band, it largely depends on budget… he could have a bass player or a guitar player or both. Sometimes it’s a four piece band with drums. I have been Al’s friend since the late 90’s and started playing with him in the mid 2000’s. I also recorded several of his albums.

You appear on two songs on the album. Where did you record them given Tom Walbank’s comments on the general rush, in the midst of a pandemic, to get the recordings done?

I have a recording studio on my own that is located at Jim Waters studio (Waterworks). We have lots of space here, lots of studios.

Your first appearance is with Lola Torch on Shitty Little World. From what I’ve read about Al it seems somewhat autobiographical and his original is very like Johnny Cash singing a Shel Silverstein song but I love the way you and Lola perform it. How did that come about?

Lola is a friend. She is a singer, a burlesque performer and a seamstress (Hi Tiger Lingerie). She wanted to do that song, but she had no plans on how to do it as she doesn’t play any musical instruments. I immediately thought about a song which we quite often cover together “ Is That All There Is “ by Peggy Lee. I thought we could give Al’s song the same treatment and that worked out nicely. We thought about changing the person singing to a “He” instead of “I,” given it’s the story of a boy. But Lola decided to keep it in its original gender which in turn bends the gender in a surprisingly very natural way.

You also perform Flying Saucer with Thoger Lund and John Convertino. Why did you choose this song?

Well, there’s a limited number of songs and they had to be recorded pretty quick. But I always loved that song, I can give it a bit of a swing feel, jazz it up. It’s also a sweet song that is so typical of Al’s humor.

I was quite impressed by the wealth of collaboration on show on the album. Is Tucson the kind of place where all the music acts know each other and there’s a lot of cross-fertilization in terms of playing together?

Definitely! It’s not a really big city, but it’s an American city, 1 million people. However, the music community feels like a village. Lot’s of people play in different bands. It ends up creating a culture of how things happen, how people work.

On that note, how is the music community in Tucson coping with Covid and how have you been spending your time?

There’s no live music so people record, practice, start new projects. That’s my case, I have been practicing guitar like crazy and working with my jazz Trio, I learned and memorized nearly 90 jazz standards. We play in backyard.  I also recorded an album with John Convertino last summer (Correspondents) that was released in Japan in the fall. Shaun Hendry is talking about putting it out in the UK on vinyl. I’m currently recording a project with Kid Congo Powers, a “rockabilly/drum machines” kind of thing.

Both of Naim’s contributions to the album are pretty swell but the same can be said of all 29 songs, all of which point to Foul being quite a pointed and direct songwriter. There’s delta blues, rockabilly, country and swamp rock and a good dose of Tucson idiosyncrasy. The album is available for the measly sum of Ten Dollars on Bandcamp and all proceeds go towards Al Foul’s medical expenses. We’ll leave the final words to Foul himself.

“The thought of everyone getting together to produce this tribute for me is beyond touching. Often people share negative memes on social media or express the attitude that choosing to be a working musician is some form of folly or a loser’s game…driving to the ends of the earth for nothing. But the outpouring of love I have received proves to me, that is absolutely wrong. Now I see that thirty years of playing music has left me with something so absolutely pure, beautiful, and beyond priceless that I will never see the craft the same way. I am so humbled by the love that I feel now. Those words ring true more every day.”

Al Foul – A Tribute To The One And Only is available here.

Here’s Al Foul singing Shitty Little World

And here’s the version by Lola Torch and Naim Amor

David Starr talks about looking back and the joys of cover versions. The Touchstones project.

Colorado based David Starr was all set up to promote his latest album, Beauty & Ruin, when Coronavirus brought everything to a halt. That album, produced by John Oates, was inspired by Of What Was, Nothing Is Left, a novel written by Starr’s grandfather in 1972 and Starr’s last live gig was the album release show in Nashville in March (a show which turned into a benefit concert for those affected by the tornado which whipped through Nashville days earlier). As so many others did, Starr then turned to social media for a series of live streams to play the songs from the album accompanied by readings from his grandfather’s book but, when time and safety allowed, he returned to Nashville to record a new project called Touchstones where he covers some of his favourite songs from other writers, an immersion into what he has called, “musical comfort food”.

Blabber’n’Smoke caught up with David for a Zoom chat to discuss the project. He’s keeping his selection of songs kind of secret so we haven’t mentioned any song names but the more astute might guess at least one from the clues scattered. We started off by asking him why he had decided to record a bunch of cover songs.

The idea was really to try to keep the creative juices flowing while all this pandemic stuff has been going on. It was so soon after Beauty And Ruin and I didn’t have enough original songs to put together a new project. I’ve always  enjoyed playing songs which I like and which have had an impact on me, like when I recorded Elton John’s Country Comfort on my South And West Album. Anyhow, the idea of recording a bunch of covers had been going around in my head for a while and I thought that this was as good a time as any to actually go ahead with it.

I believe that all of the songs have been recorded, but rather than release them as a collection you are going to issue them one at a time digitally.

That’s the plan for now, a digital release each month. I’d love to press them up and go out on the road to sell them but that’s not going to happen for a while. So, for the meantime I’ll release a song a month, for a year and I hope that folk will join me on Facebook, Instagram and Youtube as I release these songs and the stories behind them. I’m hoping that people will join in on the online conversations and we can share our thoughts on the songs. It’s also a way, hopefully, to keep up interest as if I released all of them at once it would be up and then down in a very short time. It was all recorded in Nashville, in the same studio I recorded my last three albums. It’s a studio that John Oates introduced me to and although he hasn’t produced any of these songs he came over to sing on a few of them. It’s a good band with a couple of guests coming in.

You released the first song, Robert Palmer’s Every Kind Of People a few weeks ago and it generated some conversation. I didn’t know that it was written by Andy Fraser, Free’s bass player, so that was new to me. Obviously, you know what’s coming next but you’ve said that you’re keeping the song’s identities close to your chest until they come out one by one.

I thought it would be good to try and keep it a secret so that each release is a bit of a surprise. However, that makes it just that little bit more difficult to talk about in public as we’re doing now. Maybe the best way is to just mention a couple of the artists I’ve covered and people can try and guess! Anyhow, I can say that the next one will be a Bob Dylan song and then later on there’ll be one by Jackson Browne. It’s either artists who have really meant a lot to me or songs that I’ve sang in the past and really enjoyed doing so. There is one original song in there which I did just to make the selection an even dozen so that the release schedule spans one year.

So, have you thought the sequence out?

Well I’ve already released Every Kind Of People and I know what the next three will be, but beyond that I’m not sure what order they’ll come out in. I can say that we recorded a John Prine song and I’m going to release that one on the anniversary of his death. I’ve been trying to look at making some rational of when to release each song. The first one, Every Kind Of People, seemed to me to be a good place to start what with all the discord and trouble we’ve had over here. It seemed like a nice sentiment you know. Most people associate Robert Palmer with his glossy pop videos with the girls playing guitars but to me he’s the guy who recorded with Little Feat and that makes him cool as far as I’m concerned.

How did you choose the songs?

Well, I made a list of about thirty and then I started to whittle away at them. Like I said, I thought that some of them just seemed more appropriate for these times, like Every Kind Of People, and the Dylan song I’ve picked seemed to me to be about choices and because we’re all being asked to make choices, like here we just had a very divisive election, it suits what’s going on right now. The Jackson Browne song is just a song I love, the words, the melody, the fact he wrote it when so young which tells me that if you dig deep you can write a song which lasts throughout the ages. There’s also a well-known blues song which I’ve always just found great fun to play. So, essentially the final list is a bunch of songs which all speak to me somehow. The funny thing about cover songs that I’ve always noted is that when I was playing my own songs solo, if people started to look as if they were drifting a bit then I’d play a cover and that would kind of bring them back into the fold. That Jackson Browne song always worked because if the audience didn’t like me then at least they liked the song.

Where did the project title, Touchstones, come from?

I was trying to think of a word which kind of spoke to the idea of things you pick up along the way. I toyed with the idea of calling it Breadcrumbs, you know like Hansel and Gretel, how do you find the way back to where you came from. And then, someone suggested Touchstones and that just stuck with me.

Is there any one particular song which stands out for you.

I have to say that it’s the Jackson Browne number. An interesting thing happened. I used to sing that song years and years ago but then left it behind, but a couple of years ago I was in Nairn, up in the highlands, and this guy came up to me and asked me if I knew that Gregg Allman had died that day and did I know any of his songs. I didn’t but I told him that I knew a song Gregg had covered and so I sang it that night and since then I’ve sang it at most of my shows. It’s a song that I connect with for whatever reason, there’s a sort of melancholy that goes with it although it becomes more hopeful towards the end and I just love the act of playing it. On our recording of it, Garth Brooke’s fiddle player, Jimmy Mattingly, added a lovely fiddle part and I was really pleased that he was able to do so.

So, while we’re all waiting for this miracle vaccine to come and save us, what are your plans for the future?

I’m writing all the time. I note down words and phrases as they come to me, like, in the middle of the night, I’ll think of something and write it down because, you know, by the morning it will be gone. I’ve got some songs started but, as I said earlier, not enough to be putting anything out so that’s why I’ve done these covers. I feel that I really haven’t finished with Beauty And Ruin as I’d just started to get off the ground with that before everything came crashing down. So, once we’re able to get back out on the road I’d like to pick up on that just where I left off and add in a few of these covers. I’d really like to get the whole band together in Nashville and play a big show just to get these songs out of our system when it all blows over. I’d love to get back to the UK but who knows when that’s going to happen again.

Will you be doing any more live streams?

I haven’t done one for a while. It seemed like all of a sudden everybody was doing them and it seemed like too much. Most of the ones I did were based on my record and the book where I sang a song and read from the relevant chapter but I also did a couple of others like the ones with Martha (Healy) and Al (Shields) and they were fun things to do and probably more therapeutic than anything else. But this has been a strange time and we’re all trying to find new ways of getting across to people.

Touchstones will be added to monthly with the second song coming this Tuesday. The songs will be available to stream and buy on digital platforms and David will release a video to accompany each song on his Youtube channel which you can subscribe to here.

Robin Adams on getting top marks for his homework

Glasgow singer and songwriter Robin Adams released his latest album, One Day, on his own HameWork record label last Friday. Recorded in his home studio, some of it during lockdown, it’s an excellent collection of gentle acoustic songs and it furthers the notion that Adams is one of the most talented musicians working in Scotland these days. A recipient of several song writing awards over his career, he has released six solo albums with Q magazine at one point describing his music as, “strummed ruminations worthy of John Martyn.”

While the John Martyn comparison kind of passes us by (unless it’s the innocent looking chap on the cover of London Conversations), Adams certainly evokes classic singer songwriters such as Nick Drake with whom he has also been compared to by others. Here at Blabber’n’Smoke we were much taken by One Day which we reviewed here. We were also able to catch up with him to discuss the album just as was preparing for a virtual launch gig which was to filmed at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe. We started off by asking Robin who had played on the album.

It’s all home made with me playing all the instruments with my friend Amanda Nizic helping out on vocals. I think that her voice is a really important part of the sound on the album and lifts it up. I’ve known her for several years know after we met at a party and sang together and she’s appeared on stage with me. She also plays the musical saw but unfortunately, there’s none of that on the album.

Your main instrument on the album is acoustic guitar along with very quiet piano and some percussion but I was wondering about the sounds you created towards the end of the last song, One Thing. Is that a string section?

It’s actually a mellotron and it allows for a really nice closure to the album. One Thing was actually the last song I recorded and the songs, as you hear them, are mostly in the chronological order I wrote them. The first half of the album was actually recorded some time ago and initially they were for an EP, which I never got around to releasing. Instead, I put them up on YouTube but then decided I could do a bit more with them. And then when lockdown happened I decided to try and write ten songs in ten days so I recorded a big batch of songs and for some reason I just felt that some of them fitted naturally with the first five songs which had been floating around and it just all came together quite naturally.

Listening to the album, I was reminded of artists such as Roy Harper and Alan Hull. I wouldn’t say that it’s a folk album but it has that element of the folk tradition that singer songwriters in the seventies were digging into.

I think it probably does have some of that influence in there but I also think that I’ve been able to put in some Neil Young Harvest like stuff in there, especially on Black Cloud. I mean I do like Roy Harper and artists such as Karen Dalton but I do feel that, in relation to my other albums, this one has a lighter feel and there’s definitely a seventies flavour to it.

You say there’s a lighter feel to the album but I thought there was also a melancholic air about the album. Black Cloud, which you mentioned, seems to me to be about fighting off a depressive mood.

Well, that’s something I’ve struggled with, like many other people. I was actually playing Black Cloud before you called, getting ready for the live show, and I think that it’s a song which will resonate with a lot of people and it’s a song which is going to last.

Although you live in Glasgow there’s not really what I would call an urban feel in your songs, you seem to take more inspiration from nature and the great outdoors.

I definitely prefer to be outdoors. I remember my big brother Chris taking me up north when I was a teenager and we’d climb mountains and stay in a bothy and that introduced me to this new world which really opened my eyes  and inspired me as a writer. I think that due to my experiences up north and being close to nature that my songs just grew as did I as a person.

Of course, you can be in a city and still get close to nature. You made an album a few years back called The Garden which you said was inspired by looking out onto your garden from your bedroom window.

Well, there are a lot of themes on that album but that was part of it. I think you can get a lot from just seeing the subtleties in the atmosphere around you. The garden was another album I recorded at home but it was in a different house and there was a different atmosphere around. It was actually the house I grew up in and there was a slightly ethereal quality to recording in there.

Getting back to One Day, one of the songs, From A Dream, seems to be about the struggle between nature and urban blight as you sing about a wee Robin struggling to be heard above all the background noise. Although it was one of the songs recorded well before our pandemic lockdown, listening to it I was reminded that back in spring, as lockdown happened, birdsong appeared so much more apparent as traffic disappeared.

I think that at the beginning of lockdown, a lot of people were appreciating that aspect of it. I have a friend who saw a deer out in the street and it was kind of an eye opener as to how much we affect the world but then when we’re absent, nature starts to creep back in. It was a kind of bittersweet feeling but then when lockdown ended another friend of mine, George Tucker, who I played with in String Driven Thing, posted a picture online of a street littered with MacDonalds’ wrappings and said, “Ah well, back to normal.”

Talking of String Driven Thing, you have one of your father’s songs on the album, Market Covent Garden (Robin’s father is the late Chris Adams who had chart success in the seventies with his band which also featured his mother, Pauline).

That was a song he had written back in the sixties but he never recorded it. When was ill with cancer we were talking about his songs and he was quite sad as had never got around to recording this one. So we sat down and went through it to see if we could work out a version he liked. He pointed out bits and pieces of it and told me how he would have done it and finally I recorded it and let him hear it. I’m glad that he liked it, he actually said it was like a bird trapped in a cage and that I had set it free for him. It’s a beautiful memory and I’m always reminded of that time together whenever I sing the song.

That’s quite wonderful that Chris got to hear your version and it’s quite poignant hearing it on the album. It might be cheeky to ask but do you have a favourite song on the album?

Well, having said all that it definitely has to be my dad’s song, not one of mine. However, I think that Black Cloud has some kind of resonance but that might be just for now. I do think that the first five songs flow really nicely into each other and seem to be seamlessly related which is quite a difficult thing to achieve. But as a standalone song it’s probably Black Cloud.

Can I ask you about the cover art? I’ve been trying to figure out what is actually is.

While I was doing the ten songs project, I needed some image to put up with the songs on YouTube. There was a dollhouse sitting on a shelf in my house and underneath it there was an electrical box which a previous owner had covered with old wallpaper which I really liked so I just left it there on the wall. And my girlfriend took a photograph of me which I didn’t really like but in the background was the doll house and the wall paper and I thought that it would be interesting if I just cropped that section so I did and it really worked. So, basically, it’s just an old dollhouse on a shelf. Funnily enough, I really only had one song done at that point and I think that the image itself kind of inspired some of the songs from then on such as All Your Money, which is kind of light-hearted and you can see that the song and the picture are related. It’s the first time that I’ve ever had a cover before the album is finished so I was able to draw on that for inspiration.

You’re releasing the album on your own label, HameWork. Can we expect any other artists to join you on the label?

It’s called HameWork because everything’s done at “hame.” I record the music and then make the CDs at home and I’m hoping to have some other artists join me on the label who also have that DIY type of attitude. You mentioned Roy Harper earlier and when I was supporting his son Nick at a festival I met a guy called Nicky Murray who I’ve been talking to about releasing something on HameWork.

And with that we wrapped it up as Robin prepared for his show. You can see his launch show at The Glad Cafe via their Facebook page and you can buy One Day via Robin’s website here or from Bandcamp here.

Blue Rose Code live from home. Saturday 9th May 2020.


Is this the “new normal”? Hunched over a screen watching a musician (and generally it’s one unless your favoured act is a commune or a happily domiciled live in couple), at all hours of the day and – depending on bandwidth – buffering, freezing, disappearing altogether? Since the lockdown has robbed all musicians of the ability to play live (and earn their living) there has been a tsunami of live streaming shows, many of them excellent it has to be said, although there have been a few clunkers. Generally these shows have been free to watch and hosted on social media with a virtual tip jar available in the hope that some folk will bung in a couple of quid.

With many of these shows lasting a short time and available for anyone to watch long after the live action has ended, there hasn’t been much point in reviewing them. However, Blue Rose Code’s live show on Saturday night was a horse of a different colour. A private ticketed event, privy only to those who stumped up and not to be streamed or shown elsewhere. This encouraged a sense of occasion. None of that, “I’ll just watch it later” attitude which is tempting, especially if it’s an American act live streaming at 3 am on Facebook which you can watch whenever you fancy the next day.

Ross Wilson chose to launch his first live stream via Zoom, the video conferencing app which has been one of the few beneficiaries of Covid 19. Many reading this will probably have used Zoom by now and will wonder how in hell you could watch a show without everyone and their uncle chatting away, it would be worse than the bar area at Oran Mor. However, Wilson, assisted by Gavin Hastie on tech and host duty, had done their homework and by and large it worked. It was an experiment, no doubt. Wilson is unhappy with the concept of playing for tips and wanted to see if a paying model would work and after the show Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to him about that.

Anyhow, on with the show. A Zoom invite got you a front row seat for this solo performance by Blue Rose Code. The doors opened at 7:30 with an 8pm start time. As folk logged in you could see them on video getting settled in before their video and audio options were muted. Hastie spun some discs and welcomed folk as they joined in, some participating from as far afield as Canada, Italy and the States. At eight, Ross Wilson came on, the sole screen to be seen as all others had been taken down. Screening from his Merseyside home, Wilson played guitar and piano over two 45-minute sets with a short break.

As live streamed gigs go this was pretty much par for the course in the sense that we were being treated to an intimate set of songs with no fancy effects. Fans had the chance earlier to send in song requests and to comment as the show progressed allowing Wilson the opportunity to answer some questions (example – what is your favourite John Martyn song) and to play some songs which are rarely played these days. He kicked off with the newly released single, Starlit, from the forthcoming album, a glorious song etched with aching and love. Red Kites followed before Wilson switched to piano for the first request of the night, My Heart, The Sun and then took some time to say hello to several of the folk signed in. Digging into his past there was an excellent rendition of Skin & Bones and, following a request, he sang Love Is…, a song he says he rarely performs these days which was followed by a powerful and joyful rendition of Ebb & Flow.

As the first set ended, our host Gavin Hastie unmuted all to allow a round of applause and shouts. This was an opportunity to be part of the crowd but it was interesting to see who was making the most noise as the Zoom app hoisted up the names of those closest to their gadget’s microphone. In such a close-knit community, we recognised several of the names.

As odd as it might be for the audience, it must be odder still for the musician to get into a groove, sitting as they are at home, trying to play, watch the messages coming in and respond to them without interrupting their flow. Wilson was certainly getting into the flow in the second half of the night particularly when he played and sang In The Morning and then Sandaig, ten minutes of bliss really as he became evermore animated with his guitar playing here just excellent. Then there was one of the most moving moments of the night with his rendition of Over The Fields, dedicated to his late friend, mentor and sponsor, John Wetton while Pokesdown Waltz (the most requested song of the night), was, as always, a tearjerker.

Prior to this there was an unexpected appearance from Wilson’s Liverpudlian chum, Robert Vincent who sang The Ending from his latest album, In This Town Your Owned, before having a chat with Wilson about how to earn a crust in these virtual gigging days.

By now well fired up, Wilson offered us another peek into the new album on the upbeat London City Lights and then travelled north for the wonderful Edina. The closing song, Grateful (what else) was dedicated to NHS staff and many others, the nameless and pitifully underpaid shop workers, drivers and all who, overnight, suddenly discovered they were “key workers.”

Loud applause from all the virtual attendees at the end and then, video enabled, we could see the faces of all present at this event, a moment captured by Hastie on a screenshot.

And that’s how it happened folks. It was a Saturday night in. Laptop wired to giant TV, Bluetooth speaker for the sound, some wine and nuts, two hours of Blue Rose Code, live, in our living room. An occasion. We really enjoyed it as did all of the other 120 ticket holders (most likely around 250 viewers given that couples were watching). It’s not the same as going to a sweaty live gig but as that’s not likely to happen for a while, this was perhaps the closest one can get these days.


Ross Wilson is a professional musician. That’s how he makes his living and right now, he has no paid work. Like all of us he’s seen Facebook explode with streamed shows, the tip jar dangled in front of us and he’s not happy with that. After the show, Blabber’n’Smoke spoke to him about his misgivings and about the model he’s proposing.

I’m an independent artist, this is my only means of making a living and I’m fiercely protective of that and I feel that there’s an awful lot of moaning going on but not much action. People rightly talk about the lack of proper remunerations from streaming but at the same time are happy to offer up lots of live shows on Facebook and asking for tips. That whole notion of tipping seems like a begging bowl and for me; if I’m not going to value what I’m doing then why should anyone else. I think there’s a responsibility on us to preserve the notion of paying for performances for the young musicians of today and tomorrow.

I’m lucky to have a fan base who support a lot of artists, buy albums and go to shows because they love live music, and they can’t do that right now. They’re sitting at home and from my experience, they are happy to pay for an event. So if you can create an experience for them which otherwise they wouldn’t be able to get during this time of lockdown, why shouldn’t you quantify its value? I’ve said it on Facebook, “It’s not just about the money but it’s also about the money”. I can’t understand how people can take issue with Spotify and then give it all away on Facebook. I can tweet all day complaining that I only get 000.1 of a penny for a stream but I think it’s better to do something about it.

Where I can maybe make a difference is by showing that it is possible to make money by putting on a “virtual concert.” There’s a whole bunch of people out there fed up watching Netflix and I showed that I can get 120 people to pay £12 a head to watch me. All of my work, my income, has been cancelled up to September and even then it might not start again. So the money I made through this show will let me pay my rent. The audience got to see me play and the show won’t be available online so it was a unique event. It won’t replace the real thing, the magic of being in a room with other people watching live music but I think we did a good job last night of interacting, I took requests, I answered questions, we had a song from Robbie Vincent and a chat with him. It worked well and I’ve got a few ideas as to how to make it better next time. It took me a while to work out how to do this model but I think I’ve shown that it can work. As a maiden voyage, it was no Titanic.

Is this a viable way ahead, allowing fans to experience a live show while guaranteeing a fee to the musician? It certainly seemed to work in this instance and, according to Wilson, the technical side of using Zoom was relatively easy to mange. It will be interesting to see if others begin to use this model to create a sense of an event rather than just the random selection of another Facebook video. If anyone reading this wants to know more about playing a concert via Zoom, Ross Wilson is happy to answer any questions you may have. Contact him at

Blue Rose Code website



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.


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.


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.

Tom Rafferty talks about his solo album and his guitar heroes. “Hit that long lunar note…and let it float.”

P1040776 copyWe’re sure that the name, Tom Rafferty, will be familiar to many readers of Blabber’n’Smoke, especially those who appreciate the rockier elements of Americana as opposed to the country element. Since the early 1980’s Rafferty has championed guitar based music on the local scene gaining an international profile via his work with seminal Glasgow garage rockers, The Primevals. Contemporaries of The Cramps and The Gun Club, The Primevals shared influences and stages with both of these bands and continue to perform and record with a ferocity which matches their more youthful efforts. Rafferty was also a founding member of Glasgow’s only “instrumental sixties surf-beat combo,The Beat Poets, who were infamous for a while for appearing in tartan jackets and bow ties as they plied their Dick Dale influenced  raunch. Legend has it that when Link Wray was presented with a copy of their single, Rebel Surf, which featured their natty dress sense on the cover, he was baffled, asking, “These guys are, like, right now?”

The Beat Poets and The Primevals both continue to tread the boards even sharing a bill at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival a while back, a busy weekend indeed for Rafferty. Now, he has announced the release of his first solo album, More Guitars, a selection of guitar instrumentals that was unleashed digitally a few weeks back and is now available on CD. It’s a cracking collection of tunes which obviously showcase his guitar playing skills but it’s not what one might have expected, that is, an album packed with either twangy surf beats or grungy garage rock. There are aspects of both in the mix but overall it’s a much more mixed bag taking in atmospheric mood music and aspects of Mondo Hollywood psychedelia. Intrigued, Blabber’n’Smoke reached out to ask Tom some questions about the album and to ask about some his favourite guitar instrumentals.


First off, you’ve been recording for around 40 years with your bands so why record an album of guitar instrumentals now? Have you been planning this for a while or did you just take a notion?

I’ve been playing and recording instrumentals for many years, so this was initially a way to collect my favourite home recordings of the last couple of years. Once I started that process, listening back and tidying up mixes, I wrote some more tunes and then thought it would be fun to do this as an album. Finally, another set of tunes flowed from that – Ward 9 and High Roller were both written after the first sequence I put together for this album.

I think a lot of folk would expect the album to be all turbo charged high-energy rumbles, sounding like Link Wray meets Dick Dale but that’s not the case. You do open with some weird “slide guitar from Mars” sounds on Glendale while Lumio has some fine twangy guitar and there’s a Stones’ like touch to Crystals, but thereafter it’s a much nuanced affair. What would you say influenced your writing on the tunes here?

That’s a reasonable expectation, for sure! It’s a long story. I’ve been listening to instrumental rock and roll for a long time and playing it in the Beat Poets since ’86. When the Beat Poets started, I was listening almost entirely to instrumental music, finding lost paths of rock and roll history. Dick Dale and Link Wray, of course, but also the Raybeats, Booker T & The MGs, Davie Allan and the Arrows, Jon & The Nightriders, the Strumming Mental series of compilations. That shaped my writing for many years, exploring surf music especially. It’s not easy for me to think of specific influences on this set of tunes- it’s mostly been following the sounds to see where they want to go, then adding some other instruments on top – some Hammond organ, some other guitars.

The writing process is pretty simple – I think of it as taking a guitar sound for a walk. I’ll play for a while, tweaking the vibrato or selecting different pickups, adjusting the drive and then settling on a sound that seems interesting. Then I’ll play guitar with that, looking for some changes that suit the sound. Sometimes a new tune falls off the end of that. Other times, I just make a din for a while. Then, with whatever comes out of that process, some are naturals for The Beat Poets, others are naturals for The Primevals. However, that left me with a bunch of tunes that didn’t have a destination, although when I started collecting them together there was some kind of common thread. It made sense to gather the pick of the bunch


Mata Hari is a great number, really evocative and reminiscent of some great TV theme songs. Do you give much store to non rock’n’roll writers such as Henry Mancini and Ron Grainger who wrote some great ones and do you have a favourite. I’m very partial to John Barry’s The Human Jungle.

Thanks! I love a twangy tune – Joe 90 and all those great TV themes. It’s a great attribute of many TV themes that they are packed with hooks – whether it is a regular piece of melody, a guitar shimmer, or a triangle figure, or a peculiar drum sound. The Beat Poets still play Randall & Hopkirk (Deceased) in our live set. I’d probably pick The Munsters as a favourite (and tomorrow it could be Captain Scarlet)

Staying with music to accompany visuals there are some psychedelic flourishes on Easterly while Ward 9 is pretty trippy, sounding like a song from a 60’s Roger Corman soundtrack. What would be your favourite mondo like soundtrack?

Good question! I’d pick Beyond the Valley of the Dolls – partly because I listened to it again after The Wards did a great version of Find It on their new EP. Get Carter is a great soundtrack too – not mondo, but full of singular sounds and great moods.


I presume you played all the guitars, who else can we hear? There’s bass, drums and, I think, keyboards on one number. And how many guitars were deployed in the process?

I played everything – not because I’m a megalomaniac, it was just easier to do it that way.  In most cases I didn’t know what I wanted to do with the tunes until I had done it. So I laid down all the guitars, the bass, sequenced the drums, picked some loops. I am a fairly limited keyboard player, but home recording allows me plenty of time to get a take. There’s a bit of Fender Rhodes on Jazzbo and on Easterly, and some Hammond on Blessings and In The Shadows. As for guitars, it was mainly the two pictured on the back sleeve. My 1986 Moon Guitars Strat, “Big Black”, which is a great workhorse, and a DeArmond Starfire (a reissue, not an original 60s model). And, since you asked, I counted it up – I used another nine guitars through the recording process (three of them have since moved on to other homes, you can’t keep them all!)

On One Flew South you manage to get your guitar to sound like a Theremin with a bad cold, how did you manage that?

That particular one was a combination of slow vibrato, delay, fuzz, and adjusting how hard I played until the weird noise coming out of the speakers was the noise I was after. The process overall involved a lot of trial and error, and some lucky mistakes, I remember thinking, “That’s not what I’m looking for now, but I’ll have to take a photo of the pedals and the settings so I can come back to it”

A couple of the numbers, High Roller and Gone Tomorrow in particular, remind me of a band called A Small Good Thing of whom I know very little apart from a tune they had on a compilation album called Guitars On Mars. They kind of summoned up a parched desert feeling so what kinds of mood (if any) were you going for here?

There’s a couple of moods I was aiming for with some of the tunes written as post-sundown surf music, music for chilling out in a beach hut. But Ward 9 and High Roller were both put together with desert thoughts so I’ll have to check out that band A Small Good Thing, thanks for the tip.

The album’s a download at present but I believe you are going to have some hard copies available soon.

Yes, physical copies are now in two of my favourite Glasgow record shops – Monorail and Love Music. Which is sweet, because Sandy who runs Love Music and Stephen who runs Monorail were the guys who ran 53rd & 3rd, the label which put out the first records by The Beat Poets all those years ago. The CD is also available by email direct from me –, £6 plus postage.

Finally, aside from anyone we’ve mentioned above who are your favourite guitarists and, if it’s possible, what would be your favourite guitar instrumental album?

Here’s 10 guitarists who I have lifted me up –

Marc Ribot is always surprising, always a left turn, a singular hand.

James Williamson – slamming raw power.

Tom Verlaine – liquidity

Ry Cooder – floating, yet gritty.

Sonny Sharrock (especially Ask The Angels) – rage.

Jimmy Reed – swinging sincerity, great heart.

Hubert Sumlin – righteous blues.

Pops Staples – The Shimmering King, with the deftest touch.

Robert Quine – skronk and fury.

Earl Hooker – astonishing twang and slide.

As for a favourite guitar instrumental album it’s almost impossible – not least because some of my favourite Link Wray and Earl Hooker albums have some tracks with vocals! But here’s a few:

Raybeats – It’s Only A Movie

Link Wray & The Wraymen – Rock’n Roll Rumble (the one with the blue cover, on Charly)

David Torn – What Means Solid, Traveller?

Jon & the Nightriders – Live At The Whisky A Go Go

Earl Hooker – The Genius of Earl Hooker

More Guitars is available on CD from Love Music and Monorail or directly from Tom Rafferty ( It’s also available as a digital download here.

From charity shop chords to AMAUK awards. A chat with Steve Grozier.

a1336805552_16Glasgow based singer/songwriter Steve Grozier  released his latest songs on a double A side digital single last Friday. This Saturday he has a launch party to celebrate the release at The Old Hairdressers , a funky and wonderfully distressed venue in the city centre which is high on the list of the hippest places to play in these days. The release follows on from two well received EPs, Take My Leave, released in 2016, and A Place We Call Home which came out a year later. The discs were instrumental in getting Grozier prized slots at festivals in the UK and some regular rotation on roots based radio shows. The new release maintains Grozier’s reputation as a winsome and somewhat melancholic artist, his mellow voice supported by some very sympathetic players including his buddy, Roscoe Wilson, a Glasgow guitarist who has mastered the art of country rock licks and doleful lap steel.

Goodbye Rose is a lachrymose affair with some fine chunky and curling guitar licks over a sluggish rhythm, a thick as molasses southern affair. Jason Molina’s Blues is leaner with keening lap steel adding a valedictory sense as Grozier salutes one of his musical heroes. We’ve heard Grozier perform this live on a few occasions and it’s always been quite chilling to hear. Suffice to say that here he has captured that chill perfectly in the studio on what is a remarkable song. Both songs indicate that Grozier continues to grow in confidence as he plows on despite the difficulties encountered by a truly independent artist these days. In the run up to this weekend’s show Steve was kind enough to have a quick chat with Blabber’n’Smoke.

First off, congratulations on the new release. What can you tell us about the songs and why a double A side release?

Well, the first one is Goodbye Rose, which details the disintegration of a marriage following the loss of a child. The second, Jason Molina’s Blues, is inspired by and dedicated to the memory of the American singer-songwriter Jason Molina. I wrote the latter after reading Erin Osmon’s book Jason Molina: Riding with the Ghost. I don’t know if the term ‘double A side’ still has meaning with a digital only release, but I liked the way The Hold Steady recently released a series of singles (two tracks) over the course of about a year. I thought it was an interesting way to release music. The costs involved in delivering hard copies such as CDs are so prohibitive these days, particularly for independent artists, and I lost money on both of the EPs I released. I do want to continue to release music, but I need to work out how to do that in a sustainable way.  I did look into a small run of 7” vinyl for these two tracks. Unfortunately, without a tour to support the release I definitely wouldn’t make my money back. I would love to have something on vinyl in the future, finances and audience permitting.


One of the reviews of your first release, Take My Leave,  stated, “Part Townes Van Zandt, part Jason Isbell, Grozier’s vocal style is a classic blend of old and new Americana,” which is fine praise. Which artists have influenced you and who do you rate today?

Fine praise indeed. I admire both of those artists. Personally, I’m not sure I sound like either of them, but no complaints here. I’ve always been drawn to songwriters that have something interesting to say about heartbreak and the darker aspects of life and death. Equally, I like something with twangy guitars. The alt-country scene was emerging at the time I really started exploring music, buying my own records and going to shows. I was interested in the way that bands like The Jayhawks, Wilco, Son Volt, Old 97’s, Drive by Truckers and Richmond Fontaine took that punk/DIY ethos and applied it to country songs. A few of the contemporary artists I admire include Phoebe Bridgers, Lucy Dacus, Jenny Lewis and Big Thief and loads other that I can’t think of right now.

So was that when you started to write your own songs?

Like a lot of songwriters and musicians, I grew up in a house filled with music. I have my dad to thank for that. I don’t know if he ever played an instrument, but he was a singer in a band, briefly, and he loves music. I remember when I was growing up and he had this Pioneer record deck and he’d always have on a blues or rock ‘n’ roll record. I grew up listening to Springsteen and Dylan or The Stones and Rory Gallagher. I didn’t get into country music until later, when I heard The Flying Burrito Brothers. I started writing when I was in high school, probably when I was 15 or 16. It was just poetry at first. Then, I found my dad’s acoustic guitar. I’d never heard him play it. I started setting this awful poetry to the few chords I’d learned from a charity shop chord book. The first song I ever learned to play was Blowing in the Wind by Bob Dylan.


Going back to the EPs, they got some fine press and on the back of that you were selected to appear in the showcase events for last years’ AMAUK awards festival down in London. You’ve also played a couple of festival shows over the past two years so what have been the highlights?

It was great to have the opportunity to play the AMAUK showcase. Roscoe (Wilson) and I went down to London and we played completely unplugged in this little room above a pub and you could have heard a pin drop. It was a rad couple of days and it was also cool to have had our pals from James Edywn and The Borrowed Band there too. Other highlights from last year have to include Maverick Festival. I got to play in a barn and then record a couple of songs for Richard Leader’s radio show. Closer to home I did a rare full band show at King Tut’s with Blitzen Trapper back in April ’18 and it was fun too. The guys in that band are sweet people. 

OK, it’s on to the launch show for the new release this weekend at The Old Hairdressers. What can we expect?

This show is going to be special. It’s an intimate (50 covers) all seated affair with cabaret tables, candles and fairy lights all those things. It’s with my band, the Wildcats – Roscoe Wilson on electric guitar and vocals, John Dunlop on bass and it will be our first show with Graham McDonald on drums. No spinal tap jokes please, but he’ll be our fourth drummer in just over two years! I’m also delighted to have Scottish Alternative Music Award winner Megan Airlie joining us on the bill.

Tickets for Steve’s launch show are going fast but you might be able to snag one here, a steal at only £6.

Goodbye Rose/Jason Molina’s Blues is available here.

Thanks to Ryan Buchanan  and Graham McCusker for the pictures.

Talking about show business, baby, with Tom Heyman


A founding member of Philadelphia rockers Go To Blazes, Tom Heyman built up a solid reputation as a sideman after the band broke up in 1997. Moving to San Francisco, his guitar and pedal steel skills graced albums and tours by the likes of Chuck Prophet, The Court and Spark, Russ Tolman, John Doe and Alejandro Escovedo. In between this extensive touring Heyman also dipped his toes into a solo career releasing two well received albums in 2000 and 2005 but it wasn’t until the release of a third album, That Cool Blue Feeling,  in 2014  that he recommenced his solo career in earnest hanging up his guitar slinger for hire sign for the time being. His current release, Show Business, Baby, is an album which he says is, “a straight-up love letter/homage to my late ’70s/early ’80s pub rock heroes Rockpile, Mink Deville, The Leroi Brothers and all of their many offshoots.”

Heyman this week embarks on a lengthy tour of Europe and the UK in the company of Dan Stuart, the pair of them playing a gruelling 33 shows over 33 days in nine countries but he was kind enough to take some time out on the eve of flying to Italy to speak to Blabber’n’Smoke. And mighty entertaining it was too as he spoke about his love of records and how Dan Stuart is bad luck for any liberal minded folk heading into an election among other things.

Hi Tom, how are you?

I’m good, just sitting here in my kitchen in San Francisco where it’s 70 degrees out, just getting my stuff together for the tour, the usual pre tour anxiety making sure I’ve got the right amount of picks and strings and stuff, covering my bar shifts and stuff.

The calm before the storm perhaps as it looks as if you and Dan are going to be barnstorming through Europe for the next month.

Yeah, it looks pretty brutal. I didn’t realise until we put up the poster that there’s literally not one day off but Dan and I have done this a bunch now so we know each other pretty well and we should be able to tackle it. The worst thing was I had to learn to drive a manual car for the tour and there was no end of ribbing from Dan for that. I had to explain to him that my dad’s from Brooklyn and he didn’t have a car until he was 30 so driving wasn’t a thing for us until we moved to the suburbs and there everyone just drove an automatic, whereas Dan’s from the west where they have more manual transmissions, so I had to take some lessons before we go.

So it’s like 33 dates in nine countries, you’ll be exhausted by the time you get to Scotland towards the end of the tour.

Well you could say ten countries because I consider Scotland to be a separate country from Britain, I mean you guys didn’t vote for Brexit, did you? But we’ll be at the top of our game by then, we’ll be really tight in our show business thing. The first night of the tour is always the trickiest so in this case Rome gets to see the warts and all thing, how the sausage is made but by the time we get to you it will be seamless.

So essentially it’s a two man show, you and Dan. What will you be playing for us?

We’re going to be joined by Sid Griffin on several of the shows, some in the UK and a couple in Europe and that will be fun but for the most part it’s Dan and me. I’ve been working up a bunch of stuff, songs from my new record which is sort of like a full on rock record but I wrote the songs like they were folk songs at first so five or six of them I can do solo –  instead of sounding like Rockpile they sound like Leadbelly. And I’ve been trying to learn a bunch of other interesting things so I don’t bore Dan on the tour and he won’t be seeing the same show from me every night, I’ll be throwing something different or new in each night. I could maybe pick a set list of 10 or 12 songs that work and play them every night and the audience would be seeing it for the first time but Dan would be seeing the same show from me night after night so my primary objective, aside from putting on a good show, is to amuse Dan in some way.


And after your set you’ll be playing guitar with Dan.

Yes, I add the colour. And again, Dan’s catalogue is pretty deep and I’ve played a lot of his stuff with him before so we probably won’t be the same every night. We’ll probably take requests as some folk will want to hear his solo stuff while others will want a Green on Red song and then he’ll sometimes throw me a curveball. But if you play with someone long enough you can kind of anticipate things a little bit and its fun as well, kind of being kept on my toes. It makes it kind of exciting. For me it’s like the best of both worlds. I started out as a guitar player and I just really thought of myself that way for a long time so with Dan I get to do two things, singing my own songs and then playing guitar with Dan.


Will you playing any of your older stuff.

There’s one Go To Blazes song that I usually play called Bloody Sam which I wrote about Sam Peckinpah. It’s a significant song for me because it was the first one I wrote which worked well and it seemed to really resonate with people. I mean I didn’t sing it originally, I wrote it and played guitar but back then we had this extraordinarily great singer, Edward Warren, in the band so I didn’t see any reason in singing. But I still like the song and it kind of weirdly dovetails with one of Dan’s songs, The Day William Holden Died and of course one of Holden’s last great performances was in Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch. But then I’ve got a bunch of new songs I’ve written so there’ll be a couple which I’ll try to put in every night. It’s a way of getting the tyres on them, seeing how people react. I’ve probably got about a record and a half of songs ready but every time I make a record it seems like an even more futile gesture in a world of a diminishing music industry so I figure I’ll try to make two more full-length records and then reassess whether doing them is still viable.


That seems to dovetail with Dan Stuart’s declaration that his latest album is going to be his last, at least in the sense that most folk would call an album.

That’s what he’s saying and I think he’s serious about that but who knows? It’s tough in these days of streaming music, folk just making playlists.

I take it you’re a fan of a good old-fashioned record album?

I can’t seem to let go of that. When I think of music I don’t think of just a song but I go back to the way I formatively listened to music which was on vinyl, side A and side B. That sense of getting past that fourth song to get to the fifth because that’s really good and then the third one on the second side is brilliant. It would take what, 30, 35 minutes to listen to a record and I would listen to it the way people read a book, I would just disappear into it. I really like blues and I’ve got the original Stax recording of Albert King’s Born Under A Bad Sign and I love that record, it just works so well. Even collections of songs such as The Beatles’ Red and Blue albums, they work as albums to me, they’re really curated. Look at Neil Young’s Decades, it really works. So I still think of stuff that way, of grouping songs together, thinking we need an uptempo song here and then another in maybe a different key before we get to the ballad, that sort of thing.

It seems so much better than streaming songs, there was the cover art, the liner notes

Absolutely and I come from an age when the liner notes were really good, there was like a personality in the best ones. I remember a Thin White Rope record and I opened it up and inside there was a heavy coloured piece of paper with a single spaced typed message from the band talking about a tour they did of Russia. They toured Russia by train and, by the way, this was way before Billy Joel went to Russia, and it seemed like this insane misadventure and it just made me feel connected to the band and it made me listen to the record really differently. That experience of holding a record is just so good. I was always really disappointed when the liner notes weren’t there, I mean country records didn’t tell you who played on the disc but then you had the LA records from the seventies like Warren Zevon’s Excitable Boy. There’s all the lyrics on one side of the sheet and on the flip side there’s a list of who played what, like Leeland Sklar, Russ Kunkel and Waddy Watchell and then there’s Jackson Browne on backing vocals and it’s like, WOW! That was exciting to me.

Regarding your own records there was quite a gap between Deliver Me and That Cool Blue Feeling.

Yeah, eight years really, how to explain that? Well I was really deep deep deep into the sideman thing and I was playing in some very active bands. I was with Chuck Prophet for several years and that included several European tours and multiple trips across the States. Then I was with a band called The Court and Spark who have now become hiss Golden Messenger and again we did lots of touring, I was playing pedal steel exclusively with that band. I also spent time playing with a guy called Lloyd Tripp, a rockabilly guy who had a band called The Vibes and then a later one called The Blubbery Hillbillies, you had to be over 250lbs to be in that band, and he was living in Texas when I was playing with him. I was doing some solo gigs from time to time but I was easily distracted. I was drinking a lot and I didn’t want anything to distract from my drinking. And then for a while I had a straight job, working in an office so you know, stuff got in the way and once I left Chuck’s band and left my job I went back to working in a bar and I was sort of at a loose end but I was always writing. The thing that really kicked things off again was a record I did, a collection of covers called Ballads, Blues and Union Dues, which I recorded live in the studio. I say about that record that anything you want to know about me musically you can find out on that record. So I made that and it was a very affirming thing, a real confidence builder and I was like, Oh, OK, I can do that.

At this point in the interview we were interrupted when Tom got a phone message urging him to vote in the upcoming midterm elections. Back to him…

I’ve voted already, I’ve done that. You know, it’s really scary just now. I’ve got a friend who has a silkscreen business and I was thinking of getting a T-shirt done for the tour saying “I did not vote for that motherfucker” but hopefully people can tell that I didn’t. If things don’t turn around on November 6th I don’t know what I’m going to do. This weird nationalism seems to be creeping everywhere. I followed the Brexit vote because I studied in England and I’ve got friends there and I was watching the vote and it was like, it’s close but the big cities haven’t come in yet so it will be alright, and then when the final result came in I couldn’t believe it. A funny thing is that Dan Stuart flew into the UK for a show at Glastonbury with Twin Tones on the day of the Brexit vote. And then later that year in November Dan and I were going to do a tour so he flies in from Mexico on the day of the election and I pick him up and get back to the house. We’re not watching the results because Hilary’s going to win we reckon,  so we’re playing guitars, sorting out the tour when my wife comes in and says, “Guys, turn on the TV,” and it’s like this red wave sweeping across the screens and we can’t believe it. So Dan is like some kind of bad luck charm, don’t let him come to your country if something bad is on the ballot. He caused Brexit and he caused Trump! But then here we are talking about music and Trump barges in because there’s no getting around it, there it is. I didn’t get the T-shirt but I’ve got a couple of songs that say a few things about the situation, not directly but it will be there, I’m not afraid to speak up.

Well, unless The Tories call a snap election in the next few weeks, you and Dan should be clear to land. Is there anything else you’d like to say before you head to the airport?

Not really aside from this straight commercial pitch. I’m going to have all my records on sale and I’ll have lots of vinyl, real records. Don’t make me take it home with me, buy them on the night and avoid that hefty postal fee, I’ve covered that for you. Vinyl’s great and records make a great Christmas gift so don’t make me take them back home with me. My baby needs shoes and she likes Italian shoes and they’re expensive so help me out folks.

And with that we let Tom get on with his packing. The tour with Dan Stuart meanders across Europe hitting Italy, Germany, Denmark, Sweden, Norway, The Netherlands, Belgium, Switzerland and France before a brace of UK dates. You can see the itinerary here.

The live pictures are from Tom Heyman and Dan Stuart’s Glasgow show in 2016.