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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here’s Al Foul singing Shitty Little World

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