A Blabber’n’Smoke Christmas Tale.

Part 2 of our seasonal tale, A Christmas Playlist. Written by Ken Irvine

THE BIG MAN

I bought the Christmas edition and nothing else.  I had realised that I had enough to eat and drink in the studio, I guess I had just gone in there for some recognition. Now, out in the cold, with the magazine tucked under my arm and my hands deep in my coat pockets, I mused about how strange it was that we had ended up in there, Fortrose Bros, of all places.      

When we first turned up on that late spring morning, half volunteering, half hungry, they had treated us like nineteen year old gap year kids. The shelves had to be filled on the go – during opening hours – no sooner had the delivery wagon backed up the alley into the loading bay, than we were in there, offloading the cages and wheeling them straight into the supermarket. No storing this stuff in the back – it was needed straight out there.

We had been nighthawks in the studio but in the store it was the opposite – they had wanted us in there at 4.30am to meet the first deliveries, the bread and the dairy  – that had been the end of our working day in the studio – our bodies were used to our first beer at 4.45am, then we would drink till about 9am – listening to the recordings, bed at 10am  then rise around 5pm to start all over again.

Andre found the supermarket tough the first few days, I would smell alcohol and weed on his breath, I think he had stashed some away to help him get through the day. He was miserable and uncommunicative at work – especially with the customers. The management told us that we were all ambassadors for the company and we should know the products and drop anything to help a customer. “Drop everything” – but at the same time, not fall behind in our assigned tasks.

He just didn’t buy into it at all. He wouldn’t last the week.

And then one day something changed.

We were out back, sorting out the surplus produce – for pick-up by the Food Project. I was hungry and wanted some lunch – I had opened up a packet of ham and was rooting around in the crate for some nice bread to go with it.

“Good idea, shoot a piece of that over here.”

I pushed the open packet towards him –

“No,” he said covering his eyes with one hand – “don’t let me see it.” He dipped his hand into the packet and dropped a piece into his mouth still with his eyes covered.

“Nice choice my man, Wiltshire free range roasted ham with rosemary and thyme, … one day still left on the shelf life too”

I read the label: “OMG – dead right-how do you know that?”

“I lived on these things for years – in the streets. People round here are tight with money, they won’t give you a pound coin – which is what I really wanted – but they were generous with food and drink – always the good stuff too.”

He went quiet for a bit then got up and headed into the store. I feared the worst.

When I came back in from helping the driver load the crates into her van, I saw him in a heated debate with a customer. She was shaking her head animatedly and yelling, “No – how can you say that?”

I went over to defuse things, we needed to keep these jobs, but when I got close I saw that she was smiling at him.

“Believe me M’am I’ve read a lot about this, it’s a  family farm, on a modest scale, their approach to animal welfare is second to none, you will appreciate this – I just had an IMMENSE  sandwich with this in the –  ummm… staff canteen – it cost me a bit more but it was .. incredilicious.”  He kissed his fingers.

I watched her replace her packet of cheap cuts with the premium one and walk away still smiling.

“You totally upsold her” I whispered.

He told me later that she was one of the people who would drop food off for him on the streets.

“I was humbled, man,” he said. “You know, she would always leave the best of stuff” He picked up a bottle of chocolate milk. 89p it said in big letters. “Not this, but that one” – he pointed to another that was priced about three times more. “Then I see her in here and she’s buying the budget meat for herself – so I was like, you have to treat yourself in these times. You’re wrong, I wasn’t upselling her. I also told her that our £4.99 Pinot is better than the £8.59 one she had in her basket, so she’s up on the deal”

And she didn’t recognise you?

He laughed. “Look at me, I’m a square,” pointing to the brown and green striped shirt, grey tie and brown grocer’s apron, glasses and facemask. “I’ve never worn a neck-tie in my life – till now.”

So, no one ever linked the smooth-headed, metal-framed-glasses-wearing grocer with the wild-eyed, dreadlocked, homeless busker.

Now I had followed suit, but only recently, my locks had gone. It felt weird, the cold air against my bare head, but strangely liberating – like I had been playing a character for years and now I was free. The cold air was condensing around the edges of my mask – I pulled it tighter and wished I had worn a hat.

I was listening to Wilco’s Tiny Desk concert from 2016 – trying to figure out how they got that vocal sound without a PA. 

We never got round to sending the video to NPR back in springtime. That had really annoyed Venetia.

“You lazy fekkers, I left you one thing to do!” She was berating us like schoolkids – I started wondering what it must have been like working for her in the bank or wherever she had been employed.

“Sorry Momala,” said Andre

“Stop calling me that!” But she went off, biting her lip and suppressing a smile.

Maybe it was all for the best, otherwise we wouldn’t have met the man.

          ———————

“Hi kids, how are you all doing in here?” He was a middle-aged guy, tanned, grey haired with a stubbly beard, no mask.  He was dressed for an informal business meeting, smart jacket, open neck shirt, jeans, and he had walked in like he owned the place, one day in early summer. None of us asked him who he was- when we spoke about it later we realised that we all thought at least one of us was acquainted with him.

He asked what we were up to and we sat fidgeting in our seats for a moment, then let him hear some tracks that we were mixing,

“take the bv’s out there, they’re cheesy and they’re at odds with the guitars-”

 “-cut that intro you don’t need it –straight in with that horn stab”

Andre was at the desk at the time and he found himself obliging the overbearing stranger, half thinking that we would restore the parts after he had gone – but it turned out that we got used to his ideas and went further with the edits in the same vein. Venetia called him the big man, and from then on that’s how we referred to him, or a variation, big man, BM or the man.


The last thing we played him was our home-made video of “We Need an Able Hand” – he went a bit crazy when he saw that, the blurred close up of Andre’s face at the mic, the build-up of the track, the two guitar parts that I somehow had managed to play simultaneously, the interweaving melodies on Venetia’s bass and the other-worldly drum part that was almost impossible to call – as the camera  pulled out to reveal that Andre was not only delivering the heartfelt vocal but was playing that drum track.

“The blues, the blues, it’s the very essence of the blues,” he kept murmuring “This is it guys, this is genuine. Tell me, please tell me you haven’t sent this to anyone.”

He picked up on us all avoiding his gaze. “Tell me, come on – have you actually physically sent this out?”

“Well, we were going to send it to NPR for their competition…. but we missed the deadline.”

“Hallelujah! Forget NPR, they’re minnows in a sea of sharks. I tell you, let me have this … I can get a major corporation interested. Promise 100%.”

He held my gaze and in the periphery I was aware of Alex hypnotically pulling a pen-drive from the desk and handing it to him.

“We trust you, man,” Alex said, but with slight menace in his voice. The man snapped his hand closed and was gone.

He hadn’t even asked for the band’s name – but somehow he must have found it, because about a week later a letter arrived, addressed to Alexandre Appolonia, c/o The Studio, St Julian’s Mews….on BBC stationery.

          ———————

“We loved your back story,” the BBC guy said, “we are doing a special on,” he scrolled his phone  “….. Black Pumas, but … starting the show with new acts, and you guys fitted in perfect.”

“BBC not bigger than NPR!”  Venetia had mumbled under her breath as she grudgingly helped us unload the battered equipment from the back of a Citroen estate. I had sensed she was apprehensive, so was I.

A lot had happened since the letter had arrived.

I just wanted them out of there before they twigged. I could do a passable imitation of his voice – about 90% there – I had persuaded myself that it would be ok, a song is a song, it doesn’t matter who sings it

“How many are there of you again, will 3 mics do?”

“Yeah fine”

Luckily the people from the BBC looked as nervous as us, they weren’t comfortable in the cramped surroundings – some hasty instructions and then they were off.  There was a laminated instruction manual.

I wasn’t sure if they had noticed, they certainly didn’t question us any more – where was the flamboyant front man with the dreadlocks, the one who bashed out the songs on a drumkit set up stage front and sang beautiful poetic heartfelt lyrics with an air of detachment from the body that was working the drum kit?

They didn’t ask that.

I slumped into the leather sofa when they had gone. We could do this. Luckily, we had Venetia on bass.  It was fate.  She had answered an advert. She had the look, torn clothes, a croak in her voice that sounded like it came from late night cigarettes. She had confided in us later she had got the look from an internet search and had seen a picture of the Clash – the croak had come from a fight she had had with her partner when she had thrown him out for good.

Venetia was a classical musician. She had studied double bass at the conservatoire and had wound up in a top orchestra in her province, Yunnan. I hadn’t heard of it and she said it was mountainous and not many people had, except the 45 million people who lived there. It wasn’t enough for her parents, who persuaded her to enter an arts recruitment programme in a major accountancy firm. From there she had gone on to work in San Francisco, then had come here. She had worked with a Top Four something or other. About a year ago she had a meltdown at work and started playing music again as a kind of therapy. She left her high-pressure job and got recruited by some symphony orchestra here, I couldn’t remember which one, but they were the real deal. They were due to do a major tour starting in Hong Kong in   February. That got cancelled and she had finally been furloughed in March without performing a single note. She needed music, for her mental health – our advert had come up and she had gone online, done her research, ordered a wig and made up a stage name. She had cruised through our audition. We didn’t pick up on the wig or the phony name.

I opened my eyes and she was sitting beside me – studying the manual.

“Kinda weird this, isn’t it, they’re expecting a couple of complete amateurs to set up a TV studio and broadcast live a big chunk of a peak time Friday night show using a few photocopied instructions.”

“It’s not peak time, it’s 11pm, everyone’s in bed.”

I had started to explain to her that the timing was set for people coming home from the pub but stopped when I thought it through. She was clearly still miffed about NPR. That was more her thing.

          ————————

My phone went.

“Hey, have you seen the news? – there’s going to be a big freeze.”

“I know mate, I’m out in it just now, freezing my bollocks off!”

“You should’ve worn a hat.”

“How’d you guess? – anyway, doesn’t matter. Venetia, you know I worry – that he may be dead …or worse.”

I didn’t know what I meant when I said it “…or worse”  – nor did she, but somehow I knew that she understood.

She changed the subject – “Yea, what is it – once every ten years or something it goes this cold – get home and make sure you put the heating on – don’t worry about the bills – money will come to us – it has to – I heard our track in the supermarket today”.

“Hah, so did I. Yea, I will do, but later – I’m gonna check out a music thing at the Old Swan this evening.”

“Rather you than me, ok, enjoy, and don’t worry about him- he’ll be ok, he’s a survivor.”

Part three continues next week.

A Blabber’n’Smoke Christmas Tale.

In the grand tradition of Christmas themed short stories, last year Blabber’n’Smoke published The Rough Sleeper, written by Ken Irvine (which you can read here). One year on (and what a year!), Ken returns to his story which we are publishing in three parts.

A Christmas Playlist. Part One. By Ken Irvine.

Christmas 2019 and Alex has sub-let his flat and asked a homeless musician, Andre, to record an album with him in a studio. Encouraged by the early material the pair go on to enlist classical double bass player Venetia Casal to join them and they form the band Alexandre Appolonia. As lockdown takes hold Alex’ flat is repossessed, and they take on summer jobs in upmarket grocers, Fortrose Bros, to make ends meet whilst living as property guardians.

Months later, it’s the week before Christmas and Alex finds himself drawn to his old employer’s high street store.

1. December  17th 2020

“Produce Manager to the Turkey Counter, code nine”

There was slight panic in the voice. 

They were missing Andre.

I had been lost in a moment, with Joni Mitchell, The River, playing softly over the PA. Everything had been peaceful, and then that interruption. I knew what code nine was – it usually signified a problem with someone’s order. Most likely the customer would be standing resolute at the counter demanding the premium free-range turkey that they ordered in September. Code nine would be used because the staff couldn’t find the order and they and were calling in the store’s diplomatic service, the SWAT team to smooth-talk the irate customer, remove them from the front of the queue and allow the staff to serve others.

I smiled when I thought back a few months to the summer and it had been all Andre, he had defused so many situations.

Joni sang “I’m gonna make a lot of money and quit this crazy scene”

We believed we were going to be stars and money would follow. He did become a star in a way – he was the face of the supermarket for a moment.

Staff and customers alike, everyone knew him, in a short time he had made a huge impression. “Andre Harrison to Aisle 6”, “Andre to fishmonger counter”, “Andre to check outs”.

It was weird – “Andre the homeless man” – perhaps, “Andre the frontman in the band” – more likely, but “Andre to checkouts?”.

I had been standing at the magazine counter, staring blankly at the festive issues. I picked up the glossy store magazine Christmas edition, flicked past the recipes: celebrity chefs telling us how to carve a turkey; a soap star reminiscing about past Christmases; a politician declaring that a goose was a far more sustainable bird than a turkey, There was a double pager on the making of that Christmas ad, and then I got to the page that I’d been looking for.

“Jane Egan talks to Nigel Charleson, Fortrose Bros Media Manager  about curating the stores’ Christmas playlist that this year includes everything from Joni Mitchell to Sufjan Stevens, Mary J Blige, Ella Fitzgerald, Mary Gauthier, Benjamin Britten, Jonas Brothers, Stevie Wonder, Nina Simone …” they went on to say how you wouldn’t hear The Darkness, Slade or Jona Lewie at Fortrose Bros, and that some songs weren’t Christmas but evoked a feel for family and warmth and get togethers.

– like that was going to happen!

      ———————————

Christmas Eve last year – when we had first opened doors and stepped into the dusty mothballed studio. How the neighbour had eyed us up suspiciously when we called to pick up the key. I had heard them furtively make a call, presumably to the owner in Barbados, to confirm that these wild-eyed vagrants really were the young professionals that the caretaking had been entrusted to. 

That night , once we had established ourselves in the studio, heated the place up and cracked a few beers he had opened up a little to me – one of the first things he had told me was a tale about why he had left Canada.

It all started with an incident when he was driving on the highway somewhere north of Edmonton heading to his work. It was around Christmas the landscape was flat and it was a long drive– at one point, he had glanced across the wind-blown snow fields and caught a glimpse in the distance of what looked like someone dressed as Santa Claus, carrying a sack on his back “Dude comes up to this building, like a log cabin type thing, opened the door and last thing I saw was he went inside- he definitely went inside”

“OK – I had said “So was it one of these sad Christmas attractions that farmers build to try and generate some income over the Christmas-”

He had interrupted me “ Yes my thoughts precisely, man, it never troubled me again, until I was heading up on the same highway at the end of summer the next year- I was tired and I had pulled over into a gap at the entrance to a field. I sat on the gate and had a cigarette- looking across the field I saw that same building. I guess curiosity got the better of me and I jumped the gate and strolled across the field -to the cabin. It was much bigger close-up, but yes, definitely the same cabin. Back across the field I could see the highway. Open, flat farmland I would have had a good view of it for a few minutes driving north.  I tried to prise a little crack in the door to see what was inside. Then there’s this dude behind me saying “Can I help you sir”. Like a farm worker or somethin’ out of nowhere. I guess he assumed I was up to no good. “Sorry man, was just stretching my legs – I’m heading up to ….  -was there a Christmas thing here a few months back”. He locked eyes on me “Nothin’ in here worth poking around – filled it up with bales of hay a year ago and forgot about them – he opened the door and there was just this solid wall of hay. A solid wall – no way in for Santa”

I was waiting for more….

“Dude, I had just turned nineteen,  I had no college, but I had landed my first job, most people would think I had fallen on my feet but I had started even then worrying about my sanity – I had to get out of there”

To what though? To come to here and end up living in a subway I had thought, who really was this guy? and should I be worried about getting him involved in my project? But he seemed to have guessed what I was thinking and he had smiled at me reassuringly, his brown eyes darting as he held me in an embrace. “You’re the best kind of person man, you’ve just saved my life, you really have and I’m gonna play my heart out for you I’m going to give you everything I have”

And on that note we had ended a non-descript 2019 and headed into a 2020 that would see some of the worst times, but also some of the best. Andre had delivered his promise to me and more.

  —————————————-

The playlist was set to random and out of the blue our track came on. I blushed slightly as I stood at the magazine rack shiftily glancing around to check for reaction. A woman with two young children in tow started nodding her head to it, and elderly man’s finger tapped the side of his basket handle and Adesuwa, on the check-out, straightened her back and seemed to be energised on hearing it.

I heard them before I saw them. A couple in conversation strode around the corner, both dressed in expensive looking camel coats, I noticed her first, then I saw him point to the ceiling and say “Hey. this is the guy I used to work with”

I recognised him – Darren –, tall and broad shouldered. a project manager who had sat a few desks away from me, but moved in higher circles  – I nodded across to him, and he looked straight through me – then I realised , why would he recognise me? – shaved head and facemask and it had been a year. I was  about to pull my mask down , when he came over and stood beside me – picking up the same publication and quickly found the page, as though he had checked it out before – he rapped the page aggressively with his middle finger and spoke to the woman, “– there he is, strange guy , we had to get rid of him, just didn’t fit in, you can see why”

We had to get rid of him” it felt like a dagger in my side. This guy was my age, we had come through the same graduate development programme, in fact I had helped him with a load of his assignments.

“Still it’s a nice song” she said.

“anyone can write a nice song babe, I’ll write you one if you want – he threw the magazine towards the bottom shelf where it slipped down onto the tiled floor. As they strode away I bent down and picked it up. I muttered “anyone can be a project manager, jerk!”

“Oh,  if I could give you a hug I would right now, it is you isn’t it?”

I stood up. Adesuwa was standing behind me arms outstretched – I pulled my mask down for a millisecond “yes it’s me-it’s good to see you”

“I LOVE your song Alex”, and then she turned and hurried to her position at the checkout, apologising to those she had kept waiting.

I smiled and went back to reading the article about the Christmas playlist. There were a hundred songs. No one would get bored, the music was eclectic, but, it said “this year we have a particular emphasis on country, blues and roots music including Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Jimmy Witherspoon, Merle Haggard, Brandi Carlile ”, and so on. I got to the last paragraph,  “ ..and on this theme, finally we would like to introduce a band of young musicians who we found working here right under our noses in one of our flagship branches, the trio,  Alexandre Appolonia and their song Christmas in July.”

And there it was – the little black and white picture of us. Andre at the front at the drumkit– his locks caught mid-air with Venetia and me pulling our best moody faces behind him.

The face of the company.

Except by the time the article had been sent the printers in August, Andre was already gone.

“Produce Manager to the Turkey Counter, code nine”

They were missing Andre.

So was I.

Part two follows next week…

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.

Martin Simpson. Home Recordings. Topic Records

What’s a multi talented artist such as Martin Simpson to do when everything around him shuts down? Answer – hunker down, and record an excellent album. In his illuminating sleeve notes, Simpson explains how he chose what to put on this collection of covers and a few of his own songs, relating several of the choices to the situation concerning Covid. With time to renew his banjo technique and finding delight in arranging familiar songs in a particular tuning (CGCFCD if you need to know), Simpson seems to have found the exercise something of a refuge amidst what he describes as “the chaotic, greedy and ultimately near murderous way that populist right wing governments” have managed the crisis.  

The album is an impressive showcase for Simpson’s voice and instrumental skills (on guitar, banjo and Ukulele) as he roams through UK and American folk traditions with ease. Several instrumentals, in particular, the Ukulele tune, Augmented Unison (recorded on Simpson’s phone while sitting on his garden deck), are simply superb, while the better known covers (The Times They Are A-Changin’, Angel From Montgomery and October Song) are all worthy additions to the many other versions recorded of these hallowed songs. However, it’s when Simpson delves into the real folk tradition that he really excels. 3 Day Millionaire/Don’t Put Your Banjo In The Shed Mr. Waterson is a lovely tribute to the late Mike Waterson and the banjo driven Child Ballad, House Carpenter is quite spine chilling. The pinnacle of the album is Simpson’s reading of The Plains Of Waterloo which is as atmospheric as Ry Cooder’s work on Paris Texas.

Simply put, Home Recordings is an album which is quite gorgeous from start to finish. It can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it to be – just listen to it or delve in and research the notes – and it’s certainly a fine way to while away your time as you wait for that vaccine.

Website

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.

Nina Yates. Mama’s Heart.

While it’s Nashville and The South that most people turn to when thinking of Americana music, it’s instructive to dig into the recent archives and to consider how much great music has been coming out of Portland, Oregon, these last few years. Nina Yates is the latest to arrive on record and while her debut album has been a long time coming, it’s a balm for the musical soul.

The seeds of the album were sowed when Yates attended a weekly Open Mic song challenge, hosted by Taylor Kingman, leader of TK & The Holy Know Nothings, at the legendary Laurelthirst Tavern. Mike Coykendall, a local musician had offered to record some the participant’s songs and these sessions went so well that Yates asked him, “Hey, how about we make a whole album? Are you willing?” Fortunately, he was, and so here we have this ten song album which is by turns beguiling and bewitching.

It’s a low-key affair with Coykendall adding guitar, keys and percussion to Yates’ plaintive vocals and delicate acoustic guitar, while another local, Paul Brainard, adds pedal steel on one song. The end result is an album which will surely delight fans of Joni Mitchell, and, from a more contemporary angle, Courtney Marie Andrews. Too True, the beneficiary of Brainard’s steel playing, is a wonderfully delicate but steely dismissal of a former lover delivered in a hypnotic swoon and very reminiscent of Andrews’ recent “break up” album.

Yates opens up emotionally straight from the beginning with the excellent title song which is a bittersweet message of love from a mother to her daughter as she describes the father as a man who “slashed and burned my life apart, so I could be reborn with a mama’s heart.” Amid the song’s gentle folk melody Yates gently rails against the male sex and affirms the bond between mother and child. She certainly has a way with simple yet memorable melodies and refrains. Witness Fear No More, a pitch perfect portrait of a young woman suffused with ennui which is perfectly embroidered with gilded guitar stylings while Jolene’s Lament finds Yates inhabiting Dolly Parton’s nemesis and offering her apologies.

Halfway through the album, Yates delivers a song which is quite astounding. Just A Girl is, on the face of it, a bootlegger’s song about a hidden whiskey still, but this moonshiner is a girl whose boyfriend has been targeted instead for the crime. Here Yates rides roughshod into Bobbie Gentry territory on a song which is soaked in Southern gothic with snakelike guitars and glowering percussion. It’s worth the price of entry all on its own. Also reminiscent of Gentry is the patina vignette of Player Piano with its tinkling piano and atmospheric synth grumbles emphasising the sense of loss of the protagonist.

Cheerfully enough, Yates closes the album with a song called Death. It’s the obverse of the opening song, this time the mother saying farewell to her child. Cleaving closely to the likes of The Child Ballads, Yates here turns in a modern folk classic as she challenges the grim reaper and the band deliver a suitably sombre and spooky folk backdrop.

For an album birthed from an informal open mic setting, Mama’s Heart is quite astounding with Yates proving to be an immensely gifted songwriter while her voice and performance are both to be noted. Have a listen and spread the word.

website

Robin Adams. One Day. Hamework Records

There’s a well-trod tradition of fragility and nuance in the singer songwriter folk tradition, Nick Drake being perhaps the best-known example. Delicate musings, as friable and beautiful as a spider’s web on a frosty morning can catch many emotions although they tend to veer towards introspection. For some reason, nature, and in particular, the seasons feature often, the writer observing their surroundings, more likely to be comforted by birdsong as opposed to hale and hearty greetings.

Glasgow’s Robin Adams is one such artist and at Blabber’n’Smoke we were mightily impressed by his impressionistic album, The Garden, back in 2015, where he delivered a fine set of songs inspired by the outlook from his window onto his garden while musing on his own struggles with his state of mind. One Day surpasses this as Adams offers up ten songs which follow a similar path but, to our ears, eclipse the earlier album.

The album opens with Adams almost whispering over an attractive soft shoe shuffle on A Friend Of Mine. His mild Scots’ brogue, the delicate guitar and subdued piano with brushed drums along with wispy harmonies set the scene for much of what follows. Recorded at home with Adams playing all the instruments and ably assisted by Amanda Nizic who adds her superb vocal support to Adams, the disc is one of those for which the word bucolic was coined but beneath the feather light delivery there is a seam of melancholy.

Dancer In Your Eyes has some of the lyrical qualities of early Incredible String Band woven within it while No Reason Why is somewhat breathtaking in its almost Presbyterian solemnity with Adams’ coming across as if he were a sweet voiced Ivor Cutler fronting Pentangle. That Cutler sense is maintained when a brief spoken interlude, a very proper sounding vintage BBC reporter, bridges into the next song, From A Dream, another excellent number which is perhaps the most folk like song here. Lyrically, Adams sets out the struggle between nature and civilisation as his “wee red robin” strains to be heard amidst the city sounds. With a rousing refrain, this song deserves to be heard far and wide.

While there is some gaiety on the winsome All Your Money, the remainder of the album is stolidly rooted in melancholy and, on a song written by Adams’ father, nostalgia. Market Convent Garden was written in the sixties by Chris Adams (of String Driven Thing fame), but never recorded. Adams Jnr. does his dad well as the song comes across like a hidden gem from the heyday of bedsit albums. However, the highlight of the album is perhaps Adams’ most personal song, Black Cloud. In its perfect simplicity and brevity, Adams approaches the darkness which clouded the likes of Nick Drake and Syd Barrett but here he is defiant as he rallies against it.

Simultaneously low key and spectacular, One Day is a delight to listen to.  

Website

Ben Glover. Sweet Wild Lily. Proper Records

Somewhat stealthily, Ireland’s Ben Glover has gradually built up an impressive body of work, as a solo artist and also as an inveterate collaborator, be it with outfits such as The Orphan Brigade or via song writing partnerships, the most celebrated being that with Gretchen Peters. Their co-write, Blackbirds, was awarded song of the year in 2017 by the AMAUK. Sweet Wild Lily, a four song EP reflects much of this displaying as it does Glover’s warm performance glow along with contributions on the writing front from Peters and Matraca Berg.

A child of covid, the EP came about as Glover, deprived of touring, dashed off two songs and messed around with two other songs that had been sitting around for a while. With some transatlantic gimmickry, Colm McLean added guitar from Belfast to Glover’s Nashville recordings while Ms. Peters and Kim Richey added thier vocals. The result is somewhat tremendous.

Sweet Wild Lily is a song about a free spirit (not dissimilar to his early heroine, Carla Boone) and it is suffused with what we generally call Celtic soul these days. The honeyed guitars gliding amidst the bustling percussion and impassioned vocals remind one of Van Morrison’s Tupelo Honey, it’s an intoxicating listen. Arguing With Ghosts, a co-write with Peters (who recoded it on her Dancing With The Beast album) is slowed down and given a more elegiac feel with Kim Richey adding close harmonies. Also written with Peters, Broke Down is somewhat akin to Glover’s recordings with The Orphan Brigade as a spangled banjo leads a jaunty rythym section with spectral slide guitars adding some spookiness. Finally, Fireflies Dancing, a song inspired by the myriad displays of the said bug which fascinated Glover when he hit the American south, is a wonderfully realised song of hope and wonder. With a whiff of the late John Prine hiding within Glover’s simple evocation of a warm July night, it’s a lovely song which speaks to us all.

Website

The Hellfire Club. A Different Song. Independent

Another victim of the pandemic, A Different Song was recorded and all set to be revealed to the world back in March with a series of launch gigs. Well, we know what happened to all our best-laid plans back then. Instead, this latest disc from Glasgow’s The Hellfire Club, kind of snuck out in September as the band were fed up waiting for a window of opportunity to play live again.

The Hellfire Club are a fine example of our home-grown bands who fuse elements of American music with their own Celtic inheritance and then shake it up a bit, indeed, on their Bandcamp page they describe the album as Glaswegiana. Fitting then that the album opens with 1984, a fine rabble rouser of a song with hints of New Jersey grease in its grooves and which toys with the idea of Orwell’s Winston and Julia meeting up in Glasgow’s Griffin Bar, an old haunt of the band. There’s a Clemens’ like sax solo in there and horns predominate on several other songs here. Hadn’t Been For You has a Stax like propulsion while Country Blues allows Ivan Marples to wail away like Bobby Keyes as the band stoke away evoking blue eyed country soul music. Meanwhile the massed horns of Autumn Leaves gives the song a huge heft, recalling the manner of Blood Sweat & Tears who were a hybrid of rock and big band sounds.

The lonesome fiddle of Nick Ronan introduces Fragile, leading one to expect a Celtic folk number but instead the song wanders into fine laidback New Orleans  territory however the following Roving Eyes certainly has a folky jollity to it as Helen Brown takes front vocals and gets all sassy on her philandering partner. There’s a Tex-Mex lilt to Another Independence Day while Redwood, one of the highlights of the album, allows the band to stretch out somewhat with the keyboards adding a lovely touch of Garth Hudson like magnificence. Close to the end, there’s the finely burnished rockabilly of Red Dresses which zooms down the highway with the verve and oomph of Jace Everett.

It’s an eclectic listen, compounded by the closing song, Morning Train. Here, the band deliver one of those ballads which just twist higher and higher as they progress. With shades of McCartney and Gerry Rafferty, it builds from its simple piano and harmonica intro as the band and harmonies weigh in before climaxing in spiralling guitar and sax solos. It’s quite inspiring.

Website

Sam Morrow. Gettin’ By on Gettin’ Down. Forty below Records


Sam Morrow’s previous album, Concrete & Mud, allied to heavy touring, certainly gained him a dedicated following here in the UK and on the continent. Like many others, Morrow was sucking from the teat of southern murky rock, soul and blues along with a healthy dose of serious country but, importantly, he was doing so with some élan. Gettin’ By On Gettin’ On is a much more slippery creation as Morrow gets somewhat funky and in particular, hits on the syncopated slitheriness of Little Feat back in their heyday.


The opening song, Rosarita, is Little Feat to a T as slinky slide guitar and clattering percussion drive the groove (and there’s a sly nod in the lyrics to Sailing Shoes) and later on, Wicked Woman, while more toned down in the boogie stakes, is again reminiscent of good ole Lowell George in his more salacious mood. Not to push the comparison too far but the cowbell and funky keyboards of Make ‘Em Miss Me, really could be an outtake from The Last Record Album.


Of course, the album isn’t simply a retread of hallowed Feetness. While the template pretty much remains throughout, Morrow gets good and rowdy on Round ‘N’ Round while Money Ain’t A Thang reverbs with an urgency somewhat akin to Bob Seeger’s bullet days as Morrow rages against the lot of a travelling musician. Golden Venus has a Meters’ like strut and the grand Sit Crooked, Talk Straight is a Muscle Shoals deep country groove with its dart pointed straight at the heart of duplicity. Morrow discards his fellow syncopaters to sign off with an acoustic number, I Think I’ll Just Die Here which is finely jaded as he inhabits a character who has seen his life’s work turn to nothing.

https://www.sammorrowmusic.com/