Peter Bruntnell and Norrie McCulloch. Sounds In The Suburbs @ The Doublet, Glasgow. Wednesday 22nd March 2017

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At times, it seems like life is just one big shit storm, the past year a steady downpour of blows against the empire of anyone in their right senses. So any rays of sunshine are to be welcomed and one such was the welcome return of Peter Bruntnell (a cult hero according to The Guardian  to Glasgow just a few months after his last visit to the city. Back in September Bruntnell and his band tore the roof off as the guitars gyred and gymbled with some ferocity. As that Guardian article pointed out Bruntnell is not only a psychedelic guitar warrior but also a master of the perfectly crafted pop song. Tonight this side of his coinage was expected to be at the fore as he proffered the UK debut of The Peter Bruntnell Trio; Bruntnell on acoustic guitar, Scots string wizard Iain Sloan on pedal steel and veteran  Danny Williams (ex Black Grape and St Etienne)  on double bass.

The trio, packed into a corner of the tiny room with a capacity audience just inches away didn’t disappoint. The opening Clothes Of Winter was a winsome reminder that Bruntnell follows in the footsteps of writers such as Nick Drake, a sense reinforced by the following Sea Of Japan while Tin Streamer Song was suffused with memories of a lost way of life. The songs were delivered with a creamy melancholic air, Williams supple on bass, Sloan winding his way through the melodies and they turned in magnificent versions of Here Come The Swells and an awesome By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix. So far so sublime but the trio (despite this being their first time together) expanded their sound with Sloan picking up his telecaster and Williams proving to be quite adept at coaxing sounds from his bass with his bow with the first murmurings heard on John, a song that pays tribute to Mr. Cash that had some stormy guitar from Mr. Sloan. They ventured further into the hinterland with a stunning delivery of Cold Water Swimmer as Williams bowed a low droning backdrop before Bruntnell and Sloan added some fractured psychedelic haziness as the song slowly segued into the summery bliss of Domestico, tonight given a tougher approach than on the recorded version.

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Allowing his compadres a breather Bruntnell played End Of The World solo which was quite mesmerising, a quiet moment equal to the best of McCartney as on Blackbird. With the band back on St. Christopher flowed sweetly while Have You Seen That Girl Again dipped into power pop territory. The crowd were loving this but all too soon the curtain dropped allowing the one encore which surprisingly saw Bruntnell dipping into the catalogue of another English songwriting genius as he performed Roy Harper’s Another Day. A wonderful end to a fantastic show.

 

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The evening opened with Norrie McCulloch, Stirling based singer/songwriter who has recently released the excellent Bare Along The Branches. I saw Norrie play a very fine album release show a few weeks back but have to say that tonight topped that. Playing a 12 string acoustic for much of the show added resonance to his playing which was further aided by the electric guitar of Dave McGowan who came on stage for several numbers. The opening Calico Days (from second album These Mountain Blues) positively skipped with joy and celebration. It’s a song that increasingly reminds me of Fairport Convention’s Come All Ye, not sounding similar but a fellow jubilant hymn to comradeship. From the new album the languid Little Boat floated on McGowan’s liquid guitar fills, Frozen River rippled with a folky lilt and Around The Bend satisfied all with its down-home Neil Young like honeyslide harmonica intro. Best of all though was the closing song which was a tremendous performance from McCulloch and McGowan of Beggar’s Woods, a song soaked in memories and tonight glowing with McGowan’s silvery playing.

Mark Eitzel with Fernando @ The Fallen Angels Club. The Admiral Bar, Glasgow. Sunday 12th March 2017

 

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Hailed by The Guardian some years ago as “America’s greatest living lyricist” Mark Eitzel has toiled at the coalface for around 30 years gathering a fiercely loyal following but steadfastly remaining under the radar of mainstream acceptance. There have been brushes with fame (when his band American Music Club almost charted in the early 90’s) and a brush with death when he suffered a major heart attack seven years ago.  Throughout all this Eitzel has released a series of albums that, aside from occasional forays into electronica, portray him as a poet of the streets with a mellifluous voice, an amalgam of Scott Walker and Jean Genet sometimes surrounded by an almost middle of the road musical swell. His latest album Hey Mr. Ferryman, produced by Bernard Butler, has been acclaimed as one of his best, a return to form although it’s a fair bet that the majority of the packed crowd tonight would argue that Eitzel has never lost his form.

It’s a sold out show and as we said, packed. Eitzel is playing with his band and Glasgow hasn’t seen that for some time now. The only problem tonight is that with such a full house and no stage as such the only folk who are able to see the band are those who arrived sharp and got to the front. A minor quibble however as there’s an intimacy to the show, an almost palpable sense of connection to the man who rewards the audience with a wonderful balancing act, his edgy, sometimes angst ridden songs leavened by a deliciously dark and at times ribald commentary. The band (Gareth Huw Davies, Patrick Nicholson and Stephen Hiscock) are well attuned to the tunes after six weeks of touring, tonight the last show of their European trek. They capture the sonic swells and dips of his music, his smoky croons and nervy rock squalls all perfectly delivered. Eitzel himself apologises for his perceived vocal limitations believing his voice shot after so many shows but to our mind he was still in fine voice as he closed the show with Jesus’ Hands (accompanied by the audience) and the threnody of Western Sky.

There was the LA smog ridden Mission Rock Resort and the cymbal splashed torch song of What Holds The World Together (introduced by Eitzel as “a song that doesn’t make sense, even to me”). A triumphant I Love You But You’re Dead showcased Eitzel’s mordant way with words as it slouched slowly from the band while a song from the new album, In My Role As A Professional Singer and Ham shimmered and burned with a visceral force. From the old days Firefly fired up the crowd and from the new album, The Last Ten Years was a defiant declaration that Eitzel can deliver soaring melodic rock.

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Opening the evening was the Portland Oregon based songwriter Fernando. Since overcoming a chronic illness two years ago Fernando has been touring like fury and this was his second visit to the city in just over a year. On record he is supported by friends such as Peter Buck and Paul Brainard dishing up rootsy rock not dissimilar to that of Alejandro Escovido. His melancholic opening number, White Trees set the scene for much of his 40 minute slot, his tender guitar and clear voice floating through the audience. The Devil’s In The Sky was another plaintive number showcasing Fernando’s talent for capturing emotions and setting them within a dark Western vista. Como Sueno, sung in Spanish, was a tribute to his union organiser aunt who defied Argentinian authorities in dangerous days while The Dogs was a blasted heath story worthy of Cormac McCarthy. His late colleague Jimmy Boyer was celebrated with a fine delivery of Three Sheets To The Wind, a slowly loping country song before Fernando returned to his own catalogue for the lonesome strains of Watchtower and a poignant Kingdom Come before closing with Fade Out, a song dedicated tonight to his grandfather and played with a quiet dignity. Altogether a wonderful opening set.

 

 

 

 

Norrie McCulloch. Bare Along The Branches Album Launch. The State Bar, Glasgow. Friday 24th February 2017

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With some excellent reviews rolling in for his third album, Bare Along The Branches, Stirling based Norrie McCulloch held three consecutive launch gigs in Stirling, Glasgow and Edinburgh, each one unique with a revolving cast of musicians. Those attending the Glasgow show saw McCulloch joined by two of the musicians featured on the recording, Marco Rae on bass and Stuart Kidd on drums along with Stirling musicians Craig Ferrie, Keiran Hughes and Scott William Urquhart at various moments. Playing together for the first time the ensemble had a bit of a raggle taggle approach to the songs but this  added to the informal feel of the evening with the ever affable McCulloch in fine form on and off the stage greeting each of the audience as they arrived, his huge grin ever present. I’m sure that the epithet raggle taggle will cause no offense as it relates to the late Ronnie Lane’s tag for his band Slim Chance and when the band opened with Shutter, the first song on the album, there was a touch of that gypsy caravan about them reinforced by the song’s affiliation to Van Morrison’s Celtic soul music. McCulloch was in fine voice, a touch wearied but with a hint of joyousness in the rousing refrain. Little Boat continues to mine the Morrison comparisons on the record with its soulful organ but tonight it was delivered as a plangent ballad with the band delicately prodding McCulloch’s warm voice. There was a nod to the previous album with a fine delivery of Ordinary Joe before the more upbeat Frozen River cheered up the audience as a mandolin was introduced into the mix.

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From here on in the band members came and went and there were stripped down deliveries of the poignant Safe Keeping, Townes Van Zandt’s Dollar Bill Blues and McCulloch’s tribute to Townes, These Mountain Blues. His solo performance of Turn To Dust, written shortly after his mother’s death was mesmerising, the audience transfixed. The band gradually reassembled for the lonesome harmonica led Around The Bend, a dusty masterpiece that limped along wonderfully with a Neil Young bent before the chilling epic of Beggars Wood with a lonesome McCulloch gradually enveloped by languid guitars over a doom laden beat. Show over McCulloch returned for a masterful encore of When She Is Crying Too, a song that surely proves he is one of our foremost songwriters.

For tonight McCulloch graciously offered opening slots to two of his band compadres. Craig Ferrie AKA December 91 suffered from some audience chatter unfortunately, his elvin appearance failing to capture their attention but from the front his mix of freak folk and indie rock was somewhat intriguing.20170224_204452-copy

While he sounded at times like Eef Barzelay his songs wandered into a weird world of naiveté and psychodrama deserving of a much more dedicated listen (which is possible if you visit here).

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Scott William Urquhart was a revelation, a guitarist obviously in thrall to the likes of John Fahey and Leo Kottke, he mesmerised the audience with several instrumentals that, had some joss sticks been available would have had us all back in the scented sixties. Again this was intriguing, the man himself admitting that this was the first time he’d played outwith Stirling. Do check him out if this stirs up any interest, he even sells small run bespoke vinyl editions of some of his tunes. I thought he was wonderful.

 

 

 

The Handsome Family and Courtney Marie Andrews @The Fallen Angels Club. St. Lukes, Glasgow. 23rd February 2017

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It was a welcome return to Glasgow for The Handsome Family and a solo debut performance tonight from fellow Loose Records artist Courtney Marie Andrews, the sold out show proof that even on a storm-ridden weekday there’s an audience for quality music in Glasgow.

Not her first time in Glasgow (she previously was here as a backing singer for Jimmy Eat World which she remembers primarily due to a beer swilling “taps aff” fan) Ms. Andrews’ appearance was keenly anticipated, many of the crowd seeming to be familiar with her latest release, Honest Life. Her set was short but compelling, her voice crystal clear, the songs lonesome reflections on life delivered perfectly. There was some tasty pedal steel accompaniment from Bryan Daste on several of the songs with Andrews’ guitar picking confident as displayed on the sublime delivery of Woman Of Many Colors (from her 2013 album On My Page). Rookie Dreaming and Table For One were somewhat sublime, the latter suffused with the loneliness of the long distance traveller and the song tonight that did recall the tundra like epistles of Joni Mitchell with whom Andrews has been often compared to. And while Andrews does court comparison with some sixties and seventies icons (I heard someone even say that in appearance tonight she looked a bit like Melanie) she has surely proved with Honest Life that she has moved on from such forebears,  the emotional heft of Not the End which tonight sliced through the venue proof indeed. There were similarly powerful performances as she sang Honest Life and Put The Fire Out, the audience in her hand and it was a pity that we were allotted such a short time in her company. Whispers are that Ms. Andrews will be returning in the not too distant future, if so be sure to catch her, she is a gem.

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Ah, The Handsome Family, the Morticia and Gomez Addams of Americana, a deliciously dark and twisted invite to visit an America peopled by freaks, mutant animals and fast food addicts getting their fix in lurid plastic palaces; they really have no equal. On record they continue to hone their audio alternative to David Lynch but live they open up with the songs punctuated by the superb (and achingly funny) repartee between Rennie and Brett, almost as if they were in a reality TV show featuring the battling Sparks family. Tonight, in-laws, depressing vacations and Brett’s mixture of lager and Lemsip (or Lemsick as Rennie renamed it) were running throughout the show, the pair bickering wonderfully. It was all hugely entertaining, at times rib tickling, but ultimately the repartee led into the songs which did not disappoint with a fine overview of their many albums including several from last year’s Unseen. They opened with the Gonzo reportage of Gold, a surreal tale of a robbery at their local Stop’n’Go (now closed) and the old favourite (and Christmas themed) Too Much Wine and then headed into the addled The Loneliness Of Magnets with Brett singing like Mel Torme on psilocybin, the song dedicated to an audience member’s birthday.

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The favourites came and went. Back In My Day, Weightless Again, Bottomless Hole, Tiny Tina, all delivered brilliantly, Brett’s deadpan baritone backed by the very fine band setting. Rennie on ukulele bass or autoharp, percussionist Jason Toth and a new family member, Alex McMahon on guitar, pedal steel and plastic organ along with Brett’s dynamic guitar delivered dark Gothic spells and toytown magic equally well. And of course they visited that nugget which allowed them their moment in the sun (surely anathema for such a crepuscular couple) with a fine delivery of Far From Any Road, chosen as the theme song for True Detectives some years back. As Brett said tonight he watched the TV and saw into the future, more people coming to their gigs. Fortunately they  have spurned the silver dollar and continue to purvey such eccentric songs as Octopus and Frogs, both delivered tonight and much more fun than listening to David Attenborough. The Handsome Family remain a singular delight and long may they do so.

 

Jeff Finlin & Clive Barnes. Sounds In the Suburbs, Glasgow. Sunday 19th February 2017

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A dismal damp Sunday night in leafy Jordanhill, a wee bit off of the beaten track for Glasgow rock’n’roll but testament to the night’s players and the reputation of Sounds In The Suburbs that a fair crew turned up tonight almost filling the room. By day a douce clubhouse for post tennis or bowls drinks Woodend Bowling and Tennis Club doubles up as a warm and intimate setting for a musical evening and as such has hosted events for several years arranged by promoters Sounds In The Suburbs. It’s a measure of Blabber’n’Smoke’s general inertia that this was our first venture here despite a previous roster of highly acclaimed acts appearing so off we went, transport no problem with a rail station just around the corner, for what turned out to be a highly entertaining night.

Jeff Finlin is yet another one of these jobbing musicians who have skirted around fame (songs on telly shows and such) but ultimately remain just under the radar. Like so many of his peers Finlin is a master craftsman, a songwriter of note and talented performer with a back catalogue that rewards any investigation. His touring buddy Clive Barnes is an Irishman who may have sold his soul to the Devil at some desolate crossroad in the Emerald Isle given his mastery of blues guitar. Indeed he was awarded album of the year by the American publication Acoustic Guitar some years back, a fact he worked into a fine joke tonight. For tonight Barnes played electric guitar foil to Finlin’s thoughtful and provoking songs along with a solo slot mid show.

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Opening with Walking On Air (from the excellent My Moby Dick), a bluesy affair with Barnes adding some crunchy notes on a beautiful Gretsch White Falcon, Finlin delivered a set of swampy rock, folky narratives and yearning ballads. His voice had an element of Southern cool that at times recalled a mix of Sal Valentino (of The Beau Brummels and Stoneground) and Randy Newman with Postcard From Topeka perhaps the best example tonight of his ability to summon up that mid seventies ennui, the slightly blissed out LA smog and coke ridden country rock of the times. Songs such as The Perfect mark Of Cain, The Long Lonesome Death Of The Travelling Man and I Killed Myself Last Night allowed Finlin to stake his claim as a writer of note while Barnes coaxed and teased his guitar with some blistering solos while able to sweeten the songs sounding almost like a pedal steel at times. There was some boogie on the highway riproar of Jesus Was A Motorcycle Man while Sunday’s Forgiving came across as a brethren to Kris Kristofferson’s Sunday Morning Coming Down. What’s The Big Idea, originally penned for George Bush was tonight aimed at the 45th resident of The White House with Finlin acknowledging that he’d be happy these days to find Bush back at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Finlin closed the show with a solo rendition of Alchemy which sounded tonight as if it were an outtake from Dylan’s Blood On The Tracks, a bittersweet song of romance and regret.

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Barnes was a revelation in his short mid set solo slot as he mesmerised the audience with his superb lap steel playing summoning up the ghost of folk blues along with some supremely entertaining anecdotes. His list of dubious American place names along with his misadventures via his Hobbit of a booking manager in the States was hilarious. Above all however he showed that he’s up there with the likes of Taj Mahal and Eric Bibbs in terms of acoustic blues playing.

Chuck Prophet & The Mission Express @The Fallen Angels Club. O2 ABC Glasgow. Wednesday 15th February 2017

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It’s a measure of Chuck Prophet’s standing that notice of his return to these shores led to a frisson of anticipation and delight amongst the Facebook and Twitter communities that Blabber’n’Smoke inhabits. While no one (as far as we know) went so far to mention a rock’n’roll orgasm several knowledgeable pundits and many devoted fans were firm in their belief that the Prophet Express live is guitar driven Nirvana.  Given that his latest album, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins, is another triumph building on previous releases Let Freedom Ring, Temple Beautiful and Night Surfer it’s no wonder that the packed crowd tonight were tingling with anticipation and Prophet fulfilled all expectations.

He hit the ground running with the opening song the title track from the new album. A new song perhaps but already hard wired into the rock’n’roll hippocampus of the audience who joined in on the refrain as this classic slice of jukebox rifferama roared from the stage. Ramona Say Yes followed with a sleazy freak beat energy, jagged guitars and stomping drums driving the beat along before the chiming guitars of Lonely Desolation showed why some folk consider Prophet to be the underground answer to Tom Petty. Three songs in and already this is great when Prophet introduces Bad Year For Rock’n’Roll, his homage to Bowie with a cool tale about thieving Siouxsie Sioux’s equipment back in the days (he reckons the statute of limitation is up by now). It’s a snotty glam rock romp and it’s reinforced by the Mott The Hoople like glory that is Temple Beautiful which has the audience in a kind of ecstasy as Prophet orchestrated their contribution to the refrain. By now it was getting hot and sweaty with Prophet so close to the front line of fans that they were in danger of getting knocked in the head by his headstock as he prowled the lip of the stage ripping into the ferocious fury of Alex Nieto before allowing some breathing space with the groovy existentialism  of  Barely Exist. It’s a toss up as to who was enjoying themselves the most between Prophet and the audience as he strapped on his acoustic guitar for a tremendous (and hugely appreciated) delivery of Jesus Was A Social Drinker before  crowd favourite, You Did (Bomp Shooby Doobie Bomp)  hove into view. A song that has evolved from its almost trip hop original recording tonight it sees Prophet coming across like an evangelical preacher spreading the Gospel of rock’n’roll. His appropriation of classic grooves was well to the fore on the Alan Vega tribute that was At The Mausoleum (with Stephanie Finch stepping to the front here on vocals) and the garage thrust of Ford Econoline, another favourite that threatened mayhem at the front as the band went full throttle.

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We must mention here The Mission Express (James DePrato, guitar, Kevin White, bass and Vicente Rodriguez, drums and Stephanie Finch, keyboards, vocals and cowbell). All part of the gang and all fulfilling their role, DePrato sparring with Prophet, Finch his inspiration. They cooled it down for the eulogy that is We Got Up And Played (dedicated by Prophet to Dan Stuart) and offered up a fine loose limbed tribute to Leonard Cohen on the fairly obscure Iodine (from the legendary gun and drug-riddled album Death Of A Ladies Man). Summertime Thing flowed sweetly with the guitars overflowing as Prophet and DePrato casually swapped lines before they swooped into the bottleneck fuelled Countrified Inner City Technological Man and then dialled it down for the modern testifying of Wish Me Luck. The guitar chemistry swelled on the closing Willie Mays Is Up To Bat with Prophet and DePrato channelling their inner Thin Lizzies.

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By now two and a bit hours had passed but there was no sense of flagging as the band came back on for another shot of Bobby Fuller as they slid into a Mersey beat styled cover of Let Her Dance. The last gasp was a slow burning You And Me Baby which allowed Prophet to incorporate Memphis soul and noirish beat lyrics into his final testimony of the night, a night of rock’n’roll wisdom and joy.

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Support act Max Gomez from New Mexico had a job on his hands as a couple of hundred Prophet fans stared at him and his guitar when he wandered onto stage. However, his Arlo Guthrie like presence and troubadouring folky songs soon had their attention with the opener Good Friend Girl showing that he’s another songwriter following in the footsteps of the likes of Townes van Zandt and Steve Earle. Ball and Chain from his debut album and Joe from his latest EP were fine deliveries showcasing a strong finger picking style and he had a fine line in his song introductions. It was gratifying to see a queue form at his merch table at the end of his brief set.

 

 

Ags Connolly. House Concert @ Celtic Music Radio, Glasgow. Thursday 8th December

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Glasgow based community radio station Celtic Music Radio opened their doors for their second House Concert following the successful debut last month with Eef Barzelay. Tonight it was country all the way as Oxfordshire based Ags Connolly dropped in to open a very brief set of Scottish dates. 2016 has been a productive year for Connolly with his second album (recorded in Scotland and produced by Dean Owens) due for release in February while he had a successful sojourn in the States touring and playing with members of Pokey Lafarge’s band. His song When Country Was Proud was named among the Top 50 country songs of the last 30 years by Country Music People magazine. In addition, his self-released album of cowboy songs will be going into its second pressing with his initial run just about sold out. The few copies he had with him tonight were quickly snapped up.

Connolly is a fierce defender of traditional country music; the music of Hank Williams, George Jones and Merle Haggard and the outlaw crew of Nelson, Jennings and David Allan Coe. His 90 minute set, composed mainly of self penned songs, proved that he has the writing and performing chops to fight his corner with many of the songs sharing the lyrical beauty (and simplicity) of his forebears, the topics familiar to anyone who has listened to these masters, heartache, drinking and heartache. He opened with A Good Memory For Pain (from his 2014 debut album How About Now) which set the scene for most of the night with its George Jones like evocation of romantic loss and hurt. With several other numbers from the debut album such as the title song, Trusty Companion, I Saw James Hand and When Country Was Proud delivered throughout the night Connolly proved why one reviewer said of him that he is England’s answer to Willie Nelson.

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The intimate setting of the house concert seems to relax the performer and Connolly was in fine form as he spoke about his songs, his heroes and influences. He spoke of how before falling under the spell of his country wizards he was prepped somewhat by his love of writers working more in the folk and rock tradition before delivering two of the evening’s three covers. Loudon Wainwright’s I Suppose fitted perfectly into Connolly’s bag of hurt while his version of Leonard Cohen’s Heart Of No Companion (heard initially on a Ron Sexsmith album) was tender and heartfelt and really quite moving.

Looking to the new album the lead song I Hope You’re Unhappy showed that Connolly continues to mine the rich seam of country contradictions in love while Prisoner Of Love In A Neon Jail and When The Loner Gets Lonely should get him some award for song titles. The latter song was especially good garnering all the ingredients for a real old fashioned dusty beer stained lament. Nothin’ Unexpected, the title song of the forthcoming album is full of yearning for the supposed good old days with Connolly adding some unexpected Mexicali influences in the chorus. He explained this prior to playing another song from the album as he revealed that The Mavericks’ Michael Guerra adds accordion to some of the songs on the new album and certainly on tonight’s showing the new album will at least be the equal of its predecessor. Connolly ended the show with a song with a bang as he led the audience on a rousing version of I Knew The Bride When She Used To Rock’n’Roll, a song he said he had to do at the request of his tour mates in the States as they all thought it a perfect example of UK country. They weren’t wrong.

Here’s a taster from the new album.