The Mountain Firework Company. The Beggar’s Prayer.

sualb01577274Missing in action for too long, Brighton based The Mountain Firework Company have finally released a follow up to their 2012 release, The Lonesome Losing Blues, and it’s been well worth the wait. This five piece band perform an incredibly listenable brand of bluegrass and Celtic influenced folk music and at various times they can remind the listener of Ronnie Lane, Fairport Convention or even Lindisfarne back in their Fog On The Tyne days. They’re a great unit and live can be quite incendiary as several appearances at Celtic Connections have shown. The Beggar’s Prayer is no great departure from their usual style and finesse as they variously skirl and weave through several up-tempo numbers along with several more introspective pieces which investigate matters of the heart among other topics.

The band is comprised of front man and writer Gareth McGahan who plays guitar and banjo, along with Grant Allardyce; drums, Brian Powell; guitar, Simon Russell; double bass and autoharp and Mike Simmonds; violin, viola and mandolin. Together they create a fine din belying their acoustic set up while they are also well able to switch tempo mid song adding a fine dynamic sense and swing to the proceedings. McGahan meanwhile has the knack of writing memorable tunes along with catchy choruses with all band members adding their voices while he possesses a fine voice with a soft northern Irish brogue to it. The result on The Beggar’s Prayer is 14 numbers which roll easily from the speakers, some rousing, some more melancholic, but all immediately attractive.

Like A Fire opens the proceedings with a flourish. A whirlwind of fiddle infused folk rock,  it’s a grand start and a guide to several other songs in a similar musical vein such as Refugee, A Long Time Ago, Ready To Run and the epic Hello Stranger. There’s a more down-home raggle taggle element to Come Back and Spare Change, two songs which recall the late Ronnie Lane as does the title song which is more mannered in an old time tea band style. The band’s instrumental prowess is well to the fore on The Gravedigger’s Lament which has a great percussive beat along with gypsy like fiddle and their bluegrass influences are well evident on If Only and How Long. Meanwhile there’s the melancholy of One More Time and Come Back, two songs where McGahan is the abandoned lover. Almost hidden within the track list is a short instrumental, The Fish And The Crow, a tune reflected in the album’s artwork and which allows the band to create, albeit briefly, a wonderfully sad and reflective moment.

Like an old friend appearing at your door after an absence, The Mountain Firework Company are back and you should invite them in.

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Sounds in The South Part 2 – Martha L Healy, Al Shields & David Starr. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. 16th May 2019

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There was an undeniable sense of déjà vu around as this talented trio of singer songwriters reconvened for a night of storytelling and song singing,  almost exactly one year since they last appeared at The Glad Cafe. Aside from the three familiar faces onstage much of the audience seemed to have been at the last show and, on a night where Hayes Carll was also appearing in Glasgow, the trio pulled in a handsome crowd, filling the back room auditorium.

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Playing “in the round,” each performer singing and then passing the baton on, the show was not however a retread of last year’s performance. Sure enough, some songs were repeated but a quick perusal of a review of last year’s performance showed that much of the evening was fresh and, with as much attention given to the dialogue preceding a performance (an essential element of a songwriters’ in the round experience), there were anecdotes and stories galore. So, aside from insights into their songs’ gestations from all three, we were given a glimpse into the “back stage” manoeuvrings which assist in setting up shows such as this with sound files flying over the Atlantic in advance allowing, for example, Ms. Healy to sing harmonies on a new song by Starr. There were also laughs in abundance throughout the night, most of them instigated through the droll humour of Shields although Healy gave as good as she got with the pair of them bickering in the best fashion of The Handsome family with Healy’s driving ability questioned. Shields also had the funniest story of the night when explaining why several expected audience members hadn’t turned up; note to self: check your Facebook privacy settings.

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Aside from that, the trio were in top form musically. Starr had just stepped off his ‘plane from Colorado the day before and had only sound checked with his Glasgow and Leith based collaborators that afternoon, the first time they had played in a year. While the roundtable presentation is suited for solo performances, each musician was able to join in on songs be it on vocal harmonies or adding guitar with Shields and Starr both taking solos on many of the songs of the night. Shields sang the excellent Boys In The Band from his most recent EP but also reminded us that he’s been ploughing a bittersweet strain of Americana for several years with renditions of Way Back When and Johanna. There was a pin drop silence in the room as he sang the lonesome Counting The Hours with Starr commenting at the end on how good a song it was. Healy featured several numbers from her highly acclaimed album, Keep The Flame Alight, with the title song and Falling In Love Again resonating with the audience who hung on to every word. Her mini melodrama, Woman With No Shame, was preceded by some sparring with Shields whose interpretation of the song”s protagonist differed somewhat from Healy’s. The song itself is a masterpiece of social observation. Starr, with no evidence of jet lag, proved again that he is well versed in the grand traditions of American song writing kicking off with the deep romance of Edge Of The World and then dedicating No Time Like The Present to his wife Cindy who was in the audience. He unveiled some new songs, one from an ongoing project based on a novel written by his grandfather, Fred Starr. The novel, Beauty And Ruin, is set in late nineteenth century Arkansas and Starr is collaborating with John Oates, Dana Cooper and Jim Lauderdale among others to produce an album based on the book and tonight we were introduced to the title song. Another collaboration with Oates is the song, Rise Up, written by Starr after a post -op “morphine dream” which featured his father and grandfather. It’s another swell song which has a hint of classic Laurel Canyon singer songwriter in its bones reminding one of JD Souther.

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The trio concluded their two hour set with a nod to one of the foremost singer songwriters of our time as they delivered a sublime rendition of John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery. A great ending, but the crowd were hooting and hollering for more so our three intrepid songsters huddled up before launching into the Eagles’ Take It Easy, Starr piloting with Shields and Healy as his wingmen. The crowd loved it.

 

 

Jesse Dayton. On Fire In Nashville. Blue Elan Records

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On Fire In Nashville, as the name implies, is a smoking hot mini-album recorded live at last year’s Americana Fest in Nashville. Anyone who has caught Jesse Dayton’s incendiary shows on his past couple of visits to these shores will know what to expect but it’s gratifying to report that the disc captures much of the excitement and sheer joy which exudes from the stage. It’s loud and vibrant with the instruments and Dayton’s hell raisin’ voice leaping from the speakers.

Backing Dayton’s voice and guitar are Chris Rhoades on bass and Kevin Charney on drums with the pair of them also contributing backing vocals. They are a true power trio, churning up a veritable wall of noise at times but always remaining true to a gritty brand of real roots music, a grand mix of rockabilly and tough country music; hillbilly rock’n’roll as Dayton calls it here in one of his introductions.  With seven songs and a good helping of Dayton’s between song banter, the album certainly zips along (and is probably one of the few examples where one wishes that a live album was twice as long) and presumably, it’s the full set played as showcases at the AMA’s are usually short, show off affairs. Thus we get the barnstorming Daddy Was A Baddass opening the set then the Waylon Jennings’ like country rocker The Way We Are, both stuffed full of fantastic guitar licks and solos from Dayton. From his latest album, The Outsider, there’s May Have To Do It (Don’t Have To Like It) which rumbles along splendidly showing off the band as the natural heirs to The Blasters while Hurtin’ Behind The Pine Curtain is a fine slice of outlaw country which has the fury and venom of a coiled rattlesnake ready to strike.

Dayton then takes time to pay tribute to one of his favourite artists, Nick Lowe, on what is the most restrained number on the album, Lately I’ve Let Things Slide. It’s a glorious version capturing Lowe’s nuance while hammering home his melody and Dayton lets rip a short but fiery solo. Next is Take Out The Trash, dedicated to, “All the people who have not had a perfect life,” and which rips along sounding like The Clash fighting the law. Dayton switches to a furiously picked acoustic guitar for the closing song, Charlottesville, written in protest against the right wing  neo Nazi thugs who marched in Charlottesville in 2017 leading to the death of Heather Heyer who was protesting against them. As Dayton says in the introduction, he grew up listening to protest songs from Woody Guthrie to Neil Young to Joe Strummer and here he’s justifiably angry, roaring the song out with a true sense of patriotism.

It’s only seven songs but On Fire In Nashville is probably the most kick ass album you’ll hear this year so do yourself a favour and buy it. And then, if you’re lucky, go see Jesse Dayton as he is swinging through the UK at the beginning of June with a handful of English dates supported by the great Russ Tolman and then is back in July for a couple of festival shows.

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Tour dates.

JUN 1 Red Rooster Festival
JUN 2 The Half Moon Putney – Country In The Afternoon Festival London
JUN 4 The Greystones Sheffield
JUN 5 Night People Manchester
JUN 6 Fat Lil’s Witney
JUN 7 The Sebright Arms London
JUL 20 Ramblin Man Fair 2019 Maidstone
JUL 21 Summertyne Fest Newcastle

Melissa Ruth. Meteor

a0005527541_16We last encountered Melissa Ruth in 2013 when her album, Melissa Ruth & The Likely Stories, got our attention. She pops up on our radar again with this set of polished songs which are more rock based than those of the earlier album with Ruth playing guitar and singing while hubby Johnny Leal wields lead and slide guitars.

The album kicks off in style on West with a strong bass line underpinning slide guitar before Ruth’s strong voice weighs in. Ruth calls her music “doo-wop twang,” a confection of, “blues, the teeth of country, and the grit of rock ‘n’ roll.” West is indeed a sinewy dose of bluesy rock but any country element only emerges in the lyrics which mention various items and places one might expect to populate a country song. Long Haul Heartbreak follows in a similar vein with Ruth and the band weighing in like The Pretenders as one can imagine Chrissie Hynd wrapping her voice around this one while Free Your Life actually harks back to eighties power pop in its jagged delivery and poppy chorus.

Fine as these songs are, there’s a generic feel to them so its pleasing to say that elsewhere,  Ruth takes her foot off the pedal and slows down somewhat allowing her voice room to breathe. The title song has the band laying down a slow burn beat with the guitars wiry and spare as Ruth sounds lost somewhere between the stars and seedy lo dive bars. Goodbye Again comes across like a broke down country waltz, a Patsy Cline song for the age as the protagonist wanders home from a bar with dark thoughts of a final goodbye running through her thoughts. It’s dark but the following song, Broken Heart, is darker still as Ruth inhabits a twilight world of lost highways and late night drama, her mention of Johnny Cash’s infamous line, “I shot a man in Reno…” perhaps an allusion to what she’s running from. Concertina is added to the jazzy guitar lines here with the end result a song one wouldn’t be surprised to find popping up on a David Lynch soundtrack.

Hey Mr. Bartender returns to the driving rhythms and muscular beat of the earlier songs but it works much better as Ruth intones the words to this outlaw tale in a sultry voice resulting in a song not a million miles removed from Springsteen’s State Trooper. Likewise, Sugar Pill, six minutes of narcotic blues, could have come from the pen of Lucinda Williams, the band dragging the song out with grumbling guitars and a sluggish rhythm. If that’s too much doom and gloom for you the album has a more upbeat note towards the end as the band slip into an actual country song on The Knot. Being a country song it’s still sad but bittersweet as Ruth sings of the ties which bind a couple despite trials and woe. Closing the album, Ruth slips into more of a southern soul sound on You Are Not Alone with the band sounding as if they were recording in the old Stax studios. A pity there’s no horn section here as the song is just begging for one but it’s a fine close to an album which certainly grows on the listener.

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Russ Tolman. Goodbye El Dorado.

1009660237Blabber’n’Smoke noted, with some relish, the re-emergence of Russ Tolman back in 2017 when we reviewed his retrospective compilation, Compass & Map which also contained a smattering of new songs. Now, one of those songs, Los Angeles, heads up Tolman’s first solo album in many years and it’s a good indicator of what’s to come as its sweet Mexican influenced melody evokes a sun kissed climate while the words concern someone lost in the endless labyrinth of the city of angels. Goodbye El Dorado is an album soaked in the romance of LA while acknowledging the seedier side of life there. It’s a well worn trope going back to writers such as Raymond Chandler and Ross McDonald and movies such as Chinatown and Robert Altman’s the Long Goodbye while much of the more scandalous goings on were chronicled in Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon books.

Having said that, Tolman never gets too seedy nor melodramatic but he knows that LA is a magnet for folk who believe in the dream and who are inevitably let down while the living there is not always easy with daily traffic jams and the threat of flash fires to contend with. He writes as a person who has inhaled the city for many years but with a fine sense of detachment, most of the songs here were written by him while he was living in Japan, so this “love letter to Los Angeles” is tempered with distance and insight.

Tolman recorded Goodbye El Dorado when he returned to LA from Japan, picking his ace group of players from past friends. Robert Lloyd, Dave Provost, Kirk Swan and Kevin Jarvis are the primary players while Tom Heyman and Slim Zwerling provide pedal steel and horns respectively. Also on board are Cindy Wasserman and Dan Janisch on backing vocals. It’s an LA dream band really and it shows throughout the album as the players weave intricate patterns into the music, a prime example being on Take It Easy Take It Slow. It’s a song which is not too far removed from the peaceful easy feeling style of the Eagles but here it’s  given a rich tapestry of sound lifting it well beyond anything our stadium filling pals ever did.

Interviewed about the album Tolman has said, “I wanted it to be a warm, fuzzy companion as albums have been for me since I was a kid. Something to be listened to repeatedly, which is something that does not happen much in these days of streaming.” It’s certainly warm as the songs waft from the speakers. The opening Los Angeles is a different recording from that on Compass & Map, here given a Mexican lilt with Lloyd’s accordion prominent and Tolman returns to this Mexicana on the title song with added horns which take the listener to a comfortable cantina as Tolman bids farewell to the city on behalf of those whose dreams didn’t quite work out. As the horns blossom, Heyman’s pedal steel weaves in between Lloyd’s accordion creating a wonderful sound. Tolman’s deadpan vocals, disturbingly similar to his buddy Steve Wynn’s on occasion, carry a fine sense of ennui here and throughout the album. California Winter is another excellent ensemble piece with an element of tango in it while the horns recall the work of Calexico but the outro here is just superb with horns, muted twangy guitars, piano and organ all interwoven.

Do You Like The Way is a slight return to the snarly roots rock of his early solo albums while Yuba City comes across as a slightly tipsy trip into a cosmic honky tonk where the piano has definitely been drinking. Pacific Rain is definitely cosmic cowboy music as Tolman heads up the coast on the old hippie trail from California to Oregon on a song which is surely tongue in cheek as he arrives in a town where they claim it’s always 1973. On a more serious note there’s Kid, a song about a waif in waiting who is the product of broken marriage, while Almost Heaven can be seen as an ecological warning, an elegy of sorts for California and performed in a style reminiscent of those iconic LA writers, Jackson Browne and Warren Zevon, although Tolman adds a sinisterly comic fairground motif.

Talking of classic LA music, Tolman closes the album with a splendid jingle jangled slice of sunny side up California music on Time Flies. Calling on Gene Clark and The Dream Syndicate, here he takes flight indeed, closing the album on a very high note.

Russ Tolman embarks on a European tour this week including his first shows in the UK since the 1990’s. A rare opportunity to see one of the original progenitors of the famed Paisley Underground.

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Tour dates:

09 May  Colegio de Abogados, Bilbao, Spain

10 May  Nebula, Pamplona, Spain

14 May  Grüneløkka Bryggerhus, Oslo, Norway

15 May  Bastard Bar, Tromsø, Norway

17 May  Folk å Rock, Malmö, Sweden

18 May  Boldts Bar, Haderslev, Denmark

19 May  Twang, Stockholm, Sweden

23 May  Music Star, Norderstedt, Germany

24 May  Kantine, Nuremberg, Germany

30 May  Red Rooster 2019

01 June Putney Country In The Afternoon 2019Half Moon, Putney, Putney, UK

04 June The Greystones, Sheffield, UK

05 June Night People, Manchester, UK

06 June Fat Lil’s, Witney, UK

07 June Sebright Arms, Bethnal Green, UK

Hannah Aldridge with The Goat Roper Band. Nice n Sleazy, Glasgow. 26th April 2019

This perfectly bundled mini package tour rolled into Glasgow with both acts having new albums to promote and they both did a swell job of selling them to the good sized audience who turned up on a miserable rainy night. Hannah Aldridge seems to have found favour with Glaswegians with several reminiscing before tonight’s show of an especially raucous gig a few years back while the front row was packed with a bunch who had seen her the previous night in Stirling and who fully intended to be at her next show in Edinburgh.

Aldridge’s new release is a live album recorded in London with a varied cast of musicians and one of the acts featured on the disc is The Goat Roper Band from Wales and it’s the Goat Roper’s who are both the support act and her backing band on this tour. Having met at a show in Liverpool some years back they’ve kept in touch and met up just before this tour for a rehearsal before hitting the road. It’s a fine example of one of Aldridge’s creeds, “The undying love of music without boundaries,” as this blend of Welsh raggle taggle and southern soulful Americana fit together perfectly.

The Goat Roper’s played the first set with several songs from their new album, Tall Grass, featured. A very hirsute trio with a 1970’s Ladbroke Grove look to them, they’re an energetic bunch, kinetic on stage with double bass player Tom Davies particularly intriguing as he caresses and dances around his instrument. His brother Jim, plays a mean acoustic guitar, wringing the notes out while Sam Roberts keeps the rhythm going on his acoustic guitar. Straddling R’n’B, rockabilly and country (with a particular bent for those old cosmic country days) the band were in great form with Desert Flowers, Ask For Alice and Whiskey Lullaby all performed, the latter allowing them to show off well their harmonies which surely draw from the well of The Everlys. Best of all was Don’t Mind The Rain, the closing song from Tall Grass, which meandered wonderfully with skeletal guitar and offbeat harmonies. A chap standing next to your reviewer said it was as if The Grateful Dead had stumbled into Dylan’s Basement Tapes sessions, and that just about describes it. They closed with a hi-octane rumble in the shape of High Heel Blues with Jim Davies almost ripping his guitar strings apart.

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After a short break, The Ropers’s were back on stage with Ms. Aldridge for her set. Her performance, stripped of the studio sheen of her albums, allowed her words more space to impress but there was no let up in the fury on several numbers. Explaining that although she is influenced by classic writers from the seventies she is a child of the nineties and it was the likes of Smashing Pumpkins who she grew up with, she sang a song from her favourite of that period, the late Chris Cornell. It was Audioslave’s Like A Stone and she imbued it with a fearsome power as it grew in intensity with Jim Davies’ guitar playing impressive. Her own songs didn’t lack intensity as she rubbished an ex boyfriend on Old Ghost and delved into history for Born To Be Broken, written after she read about Andrew Jackson’s slave mistress and her sad demise, the song soaked with southern sadness. Lie Like You Love Me, a co-write with the late Randall Clay was masterful as it hit the spot straight from its arresting opening line.

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The band left Aldridge on stage for a solo set which included a grand thrash through Howlin’ Bones, an excellent hard scrabble Razorwire and a song Aldridge wrote with her Muscle Shoals songwriter father, Yankee Bank, a good old-fashioned tale of civil war bitterness. The boys in the band were back up for the set closer, Burning Down Birmingham, a city Aldridge confesses to not being too keen on (that’s Birmingham, Alabama folks so breathe easy down south). As is her wont, Aldridge invited audience members on stage to sing along with her and with the volunteers in place they delivered a stripped down version which was much more affecting than the studio version. There was room for an encore which included a cracking version of Gillian Welsh’s Red Clay Halo before Aldridge said farewell by way of Don’t Be Afraid which opened like a lullaby before ascending into a thrashing crescendo of guitars. A great end to a grand evening.

Roseanne Reid. Trails. Last Man Records

americana-roseanne-reid-trails-250x250A long standing favourite on the Scots live music scene,  Roseanne Reid at long last delivers her much anticipated debut album which she spoke about when Blabber’n’Smoke interviewed her back in October 2017. It’s fair to say that Trails is probably the most anticipated album of the year so far with Reid’s dedicated fans (and there are many) waiting with bated breath for its arrival, perhaps with fingers crossed that it would meet their high expectations. It’s also fair to say that Reid has probably surpassed their expectations as Trails is a magnificent album with many songs familiar from her live shows and single releases given a wonderful treatment from her producer Teddy Thompson. One of the many delights of the album is to hear these songs dressed in their Sunday finery after spending so much time in their company accompanied only by Reid’s guitar.

The song arrangements are tastefully done with Reid’s voice given space front and centre as is only right. She’s a great singer, her voice tastefully worn and weary, perfectly suited for her songs which are primarily in an Americana idiom. There are elements of blues, soul, country and folk folded into the mix with some songs given a full band arrangement while others feature Reid and her guitar with minimal embellishments. As for the songs, well, Reid’s been writing songs since she was inspired by Martha Wainwright, whom she saw in concert aged only 12, and then discovering Steve Earle a few years later. Earle’s played a role as a mentor of sort for Reid ever since she attended his first song writing boot camp (a 21st birthday present from her family) and he has repeatedly invited her back. A measure of his regard is his appearance on Sweet Annie where he sings harmony with Reid, a real feather in the cap for a girl from Leith. Anyhow, Reid has blossomed into an excellent writer, able to spin a tale or spill her heart out in a couple of verses.

The album opens with Amy, a very familiar song to those who know Ms. Reid but with its brief piano accompaniment a taste of what she has conjured up in the studio with Thompson to flesh out her sound. Heading North goes the whole shebang as the band serve up a wonderfully mellow Muscle Shoals like sound with piano, organ, guitar and female harmonies all surrounding her southern soul voice as she fully inhabits a song which recalls the likes of Lucinda Williams and Jackson Browne. The south beckons also on I Love Her So which, which with its horn arrangement, sounds like a lost deep soul cut from the bowels of Stax studios but elsewhere Reid delves into a very sweet and melodic country rock sound. There’s the shuffling rhythms of Hey River with its intricate drum patterns and sly slide guitar and on It Is You she harvests the sound of Dylan and The Band goofing around in their basement. Take It From Me is a soft shoe shuffle reminiscent of Van Morrison’s lighter side while Me Oh My is actually a bit of a rocker with the band whipping up a bit of a storm. The sublime Out In Space starts off as it is another song suffused with the spirit of the American south but instead Reid sings in her native Scots accent here. As the band swoon around her with a delicate tapestry of guitar and organ, Reid paints a metaphysical portrait tingling with an aura of mysticism and longing, a perfect example of what some folk might call Caledonian soul.

Getting back to basics, Reid, her guitar and voice, are central to the more stripped down songs here. Sweet Annie, a sparsely worded miniature love song is just wonderful as Steve Earle adds his voice to Reid’s while a melancholic violin weeps across the delicate fingerpicking. Reid’s pin perfect capture of  love and loss on Levi, a song which recalls no less a figure than Townes Van Zandt, is also embellished by evocative string playing but it’s on the closing song, What I’ve Done, where Reid really shows what she’s capable of. A skeletal banjo repeats her guitar lines as she roams into American gothic territory sounding for all the world like the late Karen Dalton.

Trails is an absurdly accomplished achievement for a debutante singer songwriter and if there’s any justice it should be in the running for all sorts of awards and gongs as the year goes on.

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