Benjamin Folke Thomas. Copenhagen.

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Copenhagen finds Scandinavian artist Benjamin Folke Thomas continuing his journey from folkie (admired as much for his finger picking skills as his songs) to melodic rock band leader. Recorded with the same line up as on Rogue State Of Mind the album is less punchy than its predecessor with Thomas’s attractive baritone well to the fore over a backing that rarely lets loose but is more sonically adventurous. The opening song, Good Enough For Me, is a prime example as the band settle into a mid tempo shuffle with Thomas almost talking through the Dylan like lyrics before his refrain is amplified by muted guitar swirls. As the song progresses the guitars muster some energy before breaking out into a Thin Lizzy type duality without disturbing the neighbours. The following Rhythm And Blues is sparkier with an acoustic guitar thrash and is the first of several songs that address relationships. The band are in fine folk rock form here but the passion emanates from Thomas’s vocals.

There’s a great deal of passion involved here but again it’s down to Thomas’s  voice or his lyrics with one song, Hold On particularly scathing as Thomas tears into some rock idols and their predilection for youthful flesh. The soulful intro in Good Friend Again finds Thomas recovering from the night before and disturbed by the neighbours, “fucking through the wall” before he goes on to scourge himself for his failings while the band slowly ramp up the tension. Bad News finds Thomas approximating Leonard Cohen’s apocalyptic pronouncements on his The Future album down to Cohen’s use of keyboards and programmed drums on an enigmatic song that might refer to the global banking crisis that still has us bailing out the banks.

Nestled within these songs are some gems. Finn is a trilogy of tributes to three people in his life that wafts wonderfully with the band finely pulsating and sending out some barbed guitar shards that swell towards the end as a chorus of backing vocals come in and then fade leaving only a beating drum. Copenhagen 30/6 is lighter fare with as its almost bossa nova beat finds Thomas recalling a rock’n’roll romance threatened by poor gigs and too much booze but with a hopeful ending. Struck Gold is about salvation via a muse and again the band gently propel the song along with a funereal beat and slivers of guitar. The song itself is one that had it been written back then might have been selected by Johnny Cash for one of his valedictory albums. The album closes with Thomas revisiting his earlier folk persona with Gimme A Smile recalling the work of Tom Paxton.

The album’s released this Friday and Benjamin Folke Thomas starts a short UK and Europe tour tonight, dates here.

 

Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough. Mockingbird Soul.

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He may not be a household name but it’s a fair bet that most Blabber’n’Smoke readers will have several albums that have benefited from the presence of Will Kimbrough as a player or producer, often both. Included in his extensive CV are Brigitte DeMeyer’s last two albums and the pair have toured together extensively. It makes sense then that the pair have decided to record Mockingbird Soul, a set of songs written by the duo and set firmly in the Southern traditions of country, blues and soul. Their shared playing experience has certainly honed their harmonising with the duet’s singing throughout the album superb and they’ve had the good sense to keep it simple, the majority of the songs featuring Kimbrough’s guitar along with double bass (Chris Donohue) with spare percussion on the odd occasion. The result is an album that will surely delight followers of the likes of Mavis Staples and Ry Cooder along with anyone who is a sucker for well crafted male/female harmonies.

A couple of the songs are relatively straightforward retreads of familiar tropes. The Juke is a country blues number which allows Kimbrough plenty of space for his fine slide playing and excellent harmonica as DeMeyer comes across like an amalgam of Bonnie Raitt and Bobbie Gentry. Running Round is another country blues jaunt that recalls the likes of The Loving Spoonful or Taj Mahal while Honey Bee harks back to the days of innuendo laden viperish jazz torch songs (think of Betty Boop).  DeMeyer milks the song for all it’s worth as Kimbrough adds a wonderfully lazy backbeat. All three are excellent but they are but crumbs in comparison to the main course on offer here.

The album opens with Everything, Kimbrough’s delicate acoustic guitar leading into an enchanting song of enduring love that immediately showcases their vocal empathy. Broken Fences is more spirited with Kimbrough’s voice to the fore on a frontier number with gutsy guitar runs on a song that might have sprung from the pen of Steve Young. There’s some Dr. John like gumbo on the sultry Rainy Day (with Chris Woods taking on the double bass role here with some gusto) and speaking of Dr John New Orleans is the subject of one of the highlights here. An impressionistic take on the Crescent City with Kimbrough’s sole guitar strumming beneath the pair’s breathy vocals, Little Easy is suffused with sensations of the city, the shining stars, reflections on the water, muddy banks and a hot and heavy breeze. It’s a wonderful song and the pair match it with the snapshot of a street seller in Carpet Beggar’s Lullaby, again a song that is delicate and empathetic. The title track meanwhile is a soulful number with Kimbrough picking some fat and curly guitar like Pops Staples as DeMeyer testifies.

The album ends with a surprise as the pair tackle an old Incredible String Band Song from 1966, October Song. A Kimbrough suggestion apparently but one which reminded DeMeyer of Townes Van Zandt when she first heard the guitar part. It’s a breathtaking reinvention of the song transporting it from the cold climes of an Edinburgh winter high into the Appalachians. Kimbrough’s guitar cascades throughout with frills and runs as he and DeMeyer hit some high lonesome notes with their performance here rivalling the best of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It’s simply wonderful.

Mockingbird Soul is one of those albums that will surely grow in stature as word of its excellence spreads. Helping to spread the word Kimbrough and DeMeyer are touring the UK in March and the good news is that they visit Glasgow on 24th March for a Sounds In The Suburbs show at a new venue, the Fox Star Club in The Argyll Hotel, 973 Sauchiehall St. A gig not to be missed.

Will Kimbrough website

Brigitte DeMeyer website

 

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.

 

Quick. This I Know. Holy Smokes Records

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Quick, a three-piece acoustic band were winners of Celtic Connections’ Danny Kyle Open Stage award in 2016. As winners, they were then offered a support slot in this year’s CC Fest appearing with Chicago Bluegrass outfit Special Consensus. They also delivered a live session on Celtic Music Radio and this Friday they release their debut five song EP, This I Know.

The trio (Alex Hynes, guitar and vocals, Willem Mckie, mandolin & vocals and Emily Barr vocals) use their spare instrumentation to underscore their superbly arranged and intricate vocal harmonies. While all three are excellent singers it’s the harmonies that shine here although Barr carries most of the delicate My Half Moon by herself with the guys only appearing towards the end. The opening Salt & Water is an atmospheric folk number that is surprisingly assured for the band’s first outing while Barber’s Song, while still in the folk idiom, is quirky in a Fence Records sort of way as the band stealthily invest the tonsorial protagonist with a quiet dignity and a fine sense of hubris. Sonder has a more straightforward brisk delivery with added bass and percussion allowing Hynes and McKie an opportunity to show off their fine finger picking and the EP closes with the Acappella Crazy Grace (apparently dedicated to Hynes’ niece) with the three voices creating a sublime sound which recalls Gospel and Appalachia.

The EP is released this Friday with a launch gig at Glasgow’s Old Hairdressers. Presumably they’ll play this song…http://player.stv.tv/video/43q0/live-five/danny-kyle-stage-quick/

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Norrie McCulloch. Bare Along The Branches. Black Dust Records

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This third album in as many years from Ayrshire bred songwriter Norrie McCulloch confirms what Blabber’n’Smoke has maintained since we first heard his debut, Old Lovers Junkyard, that he is one of Scotland’s (and the UK’s) premier artists. Over the course of his three albums McCulloch, along with his superb studio band (Dave McGowan of Teenage Fanclub / Belle & Sebastian and Stuart Kidd and Marco Rea from The Wellgreen) has gathered from a well of inspirations (artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Jay Farrar, Fairport Convention, Van Morrison and John Martyn). By some alchemical process he has transformed them into his own noble spirit with songs that inhabit the past and celebrate the here and now, his attractive and slightly wearied voice with its mild Celtic burr anchoring him to his homeland whilst the music traverses oceans and genres.

Bare Along The Branches finds McCulloch continuing to peer into his roots and influences but with a new found confidence that is reflected in the more diverse instrumentation on show here. There’s an expansive edge to some of the songs with electric guitar and organ added to the trail mix that was on show on These Mountain Blues. Thus enabled McCulloch is able to capture for example the sheer joy of vintage Van Morrison Caledonia Soul escapades on songs such as Shutter with its repetitive refrain which is pure Morrison soulful scatting. The song itself concerns a tryst gone wrong in a lonesome cabin, a wonderful concatenation of images and sound with piano and organ fuelling the sheer exuberance of McCulloch’s lyrics. There’s more soul on the plaintive Lonely Boy with electric keyboards and Chi-Lites harmonies harnessing the song to seventies Top of The Pops memories of smooth harmony groups dressed in silk while Little Boat chugs along with some meaty guitar plunges and churchlike organ on another song that is reminiscent of Van Morrison.

While this affiliation to a hybrid Celtic soul music dominates the first half of the album McCulloch proves he can deliver ballads in the Americana vein with Safe Keeping and Frozen River evidence of his admiration for Jay Farrar, the former a halting  dust blown rust belt eulogy while the latter skips along almost approaching bluegrass. Never Leave You Behind meanwhile is a full blown dive into country rock with some fine lap steel playing from McGowan and McCulloch revisits the dusty troubadour persona of his previous albums on the tremendous Around The Bend. This is a glorious ballad in a Neil Young mode with banjo, harmonica and lonesome pedal steel combining to create a frontier feel while McCulloch’s lyrics are a form of old Western Zen acceptance. The album closes with the lengthy Beggars Wood, a stark meditation on a childhood fable that has followed the artist into adulthood and is only exorcised when he revisits the scene. As it progresses the song blossoms from skeletal guitar and voice into a soaring guitar solo that avoids bombast as it stutters to the end, the song proof indeed that McCulloch continues to explore new avenues for his muse. Three albums in and not one clunker, McCulloch has the talent to enter the mainstream if he gets the breaks so grab a hold of this and let everyone else know about it.

Norrie McCulloch has arranged several shows to launch Bare Along The Branches starting with The Tollbooth in Stirling on 23rd February. Next up is Glasgow’s State Bar on the 24th and then Edinburgh’s Bluebird Cafe on the 25th.

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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.