Alejandro Escovedo with Don Antonio. The Crossing. Yep Roc Records

crossingcover-300x300Sometimes a record just accords with the times and so it is with this sprawling and epic collaboration between Alejandro Escovedo, a Mexican-American who was named by No Depression as the Artist of the Decade at the end of the nineties, and Antonio Gramentieri, AKA Don Antonio, the Italian leader of the awesome Sacri Cuori. Both outsiders of sorts who manage each in their own way to capture the spirit of American music while retaining elements of their native culture, the pair teamed up last year when Gramentieri supplied the live band for Escovedo’s European tour and having hit it off they repaired to Italy to record The Crossing.

The album purports to be the story of two immigrants, Diego and Salvo, one Mexican, one Italian (natch) who are both seeking the American dream. They’re not the migrants of Steinbeck or Guthrie, seeking employment picking fruit. Instead, they’re in awe of the pop culture of America, the Beats, the punks, the movies, and as the album progresses they name check many of their heroes while at times aping the sonic attack of bands such as The Stooges and The MC5 (to the extent of having James Williamson and Wayne Kramer play on the songs which name check their bands). The album roams from fiery guitar led outbursts to more atmospheric (and, yes, cinematic) numbers with Gramentieri’s experience in creating pulsating and evocative music sitting side by side with Escovedo’s melodic and muscular rock punchiness.

And the album doesn’t hold back its punches. There’s the spoken word Rio Navidad, written by Willie Vlautin and read by Freddie Trujillo which has a racist Texas Ranger put in his place while on Fury and Fire Escovedo spits out the words, “They call us rapists so we build a bigger wall. We’re gonna tear it down.” On Footsteps in the Shadows  they evoke the nightmare of Diego’s crossing the American Mexico border with the music claustrophobic and haunting while Salvo’s introduction to the American way of life is his encounters with an alienated bunch of rednecks – “bigots with guitars” – on Texas Is My Mother. While our heroes strut their stuff on Outlaw For You which name checks several heroes (Thee Midnighters, The Plugz, James Dean, Alan Ginsberg, Cesar Chavez) over a pumping organ riff,  ultimately their odyssey turns sour with the closing title song a eulogy of sorts. Here they accept that the dream has soured as ICE (U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement) tighten the screws with Diego lamenting the death of his buddy Salvo.

With 17 songs and a playing time of around an hour the album is a hefty listen but for such an opportune adventure which addresses real time issues it’s well worth the effort. Musically it’s an album to savour as it twists and turns with Gramentieri’s brief interludes allowing him to speak to his own love of Italian music leggera  while Escovedo is allowed to wallow around in the glittered rock kingdom of T Rex on MC Overload. Joe Ely’s Silver City aches with a longing for the promised land (with Ely assisting on vocals) and Cherry Blossom Rain is up there with Escovedo’s excellent tear stained ballads on Thirteen Years. There’s even a rare appearance from former Only Ones Peter Perrett and John Perry on Waiting For Me, a nice nod to UK new wave.

Overall, The Crossing is an album made for our times with Escovedo and Gramentieri  painting a picture of hopes and dreams but ultimately aware of the challenges facing those who are railing against the prevailing wave of populist hate and dogma.

The Alejandro Escovedo Band With Don Antonio commence a UK tour this week playing in Glasgow at Oran Mor this Friday, 26th October, all tour dates are here.


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Dan Stuart. The Unfortunate Demise of Marlowe Billings. Cadiz Music

danDan Stuart finally kills off his alter ego and supposedly his recording career with this third instalment of the strange and troubled tale of Marlowe Billings. Billings, the suicidal expat who travelled to Mexico to kill himself after his marital breakup and subsequent incarceration in a psychiatric hospital, has served Stuart well over three albums and two novels (the second book published to tie in with this album release and sharing its name). The origin of Billings’ himself is somewhat foggy but is believed to be associated with the writer B. Traven, author of The Treasure of the Sierra Madre and whose own identity is still something of a mystery these days. It’s a smoke and mirrors trick allowing Stuart to stand apart from himself as he entertains, releasing his records and touring, his profession surely but one which he has often debunked as when he wrote this regarding the response to an earlier album, “…some grudging critical respect, really a sympathy fuck for days gone by… well the planet could get along without Stuart’s morbidly self-righteous world view just fine. His inability to lighten-up and endure life’s little insults like the rest of us had grown old and tired, like Stuart himself.”

Who knows if this is part shtick or really how Stuart sees himself? He said in an interview some years back that, “the creative process is largely about trust and deception… two sides of the same coin,” What we do know is that since his arrival in Mexico he’s appeared, to fans at least, as revitalised, with the Marlowe recordings welcomed and acclaimed and on The Unfortunate Demise of Marlowe Billings he delivers what may be his best effort yet. The themes are familiar but they are delivered in a variety of styles – low key confessionals, pedal steel laced laments, sixties rock’n’roll rumbles and punchy Tex-Mex blues –  his stellar accomplices playing their hearts out.

Stuart/Billings is still hurting from his cuckolding and several songs relate to this. He is despondent on Why I Ever Married You and then sneering on the Dragnet styled Joke’s on Me while You Were The Flower glistens with low slung guitar twangs recalling Johnny Rivers’ Secret Agent Man. The latter song introduces the one salvation of Stuart’s ruined relationship, his son, with whom he has remained in contact. The cycle of birth and death tops and tails the album. The opening March 5, 1961 is Stuart’s birth date and the song is a tender rumination on the emotions engendered when a child arrives (he later radiates a father’s pride on Here Comes My Boy). The closing song, Upon a Father’s Death is Stuart’s most nakedly autobiographical song to date as he reminisces about his own father and muses on the tangled twists of father/son relationships singing, “Just look at Jesus trying to live up to all that shit, impossible.”  His troubled adolesence  colours Tucson which is a splendid Tex-Mex riff of a song with parping Farfisa organ a la Doug Sahm which eventually disappears into its own rabbit hole.

In the midst of these rueful snippets of autobiography Stuart throws in some superb songs which are allied in the sounds but which roam further afield. Last Century Blues finds him singing of a Zelig like character who dodged the draft, roomed with Manson and Jim Jones and who ended up running coke for the Contras and selling it to the Crips. The Day William Holden Died is a sensitive bonding with the late actor and his sad demise while The Disappeared is an evil sounding song with rattlesnake percussion and Peter Green like Manalishi guitar solos as Stuart salutes the armies of South American mothers who still rally to this day to find the fate of their beloved long after the turbulent wars and coups which scarred the sub continent for far too many years.

Gathering this album together Stuart has relied on friends old and new. His Italian buddies Antonio Gramentieri and Christian Ravaglioli are present and correct while J. D. Foster and Tom Heyman also contribute with Heyman’s pedal steel an essential ingredient on many of the songs. However it’s producer, Danny Amis, a founding member of Los Straitjackets who is his right hand man here, co-writing several of the songs and adding guitar, bass and keyboards throughout.

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Stuart says this will be his last ever album citing the current preference for digital streaming and such as the death knell for this tradition. Again one hopes this is part of his mythologising but if not it’s a glorious swan song. The accompanying book is a more straightforward affair than his previous “false memoir” The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings. Whereas that came across like a collection of weird flashbacks to Stuart’s early days The Unfortunate Demise of Marlowe Billings is a conventional narrative for the most part with our hero escaping to Mexico and getting caught up in the murky and deadly intrigues of the cartels. While parts of it coincide with the album it stands on its own two feet, hardboiled fiction, akin to the current fascination with Narcos and El Chapo and even Breaking Bad although Stuart weaves his own story into the pages and allows himself some sweet mental revenge in the epilogue.  He says the story is 65% true and there are several episodes which offer an insight into his thoughts as when he describes himself as, “a lazy writer, songs came easy and he didn’t take them too seriously. He didn’t have the courage or stamina to write serious fiction.” Well, he has done here. The novel has an introduction by Stewart Lee, the comedian, which suggests that the book is sufficient  recompense for the lack of further songs from Stuart. We would respectfully disagree and hope that this is not the last we here from Stuart or even Billings.

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Best of 2017

OK, decorations are coming down, it’s back to work time but before that here’s a short list of the albums that have stood out over the past year. If there’s a link it will take you a review of the album. Looking back it seems that 2017 wasn’t a bad year for music in terms of releases but a total bummer in terms of Tom Petty leaving us. Here’s hoping next year is as good so, all the best for 2018.

Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins

cp18cdIn the year of Brexit and Trump, Chuck’s sheer love of rock’n’roll shone throughout this album. Coupled with seeing him play two blindingly great gigs this year the album’s been a regular on the stereo and in the car while Jesus Was A Social Drinker is my song of the year.

 

Jeremy Pinnell, Ties Of Blood And Affection

e2069a_5277bb38e84c4e118495b89d2105a130mv2While Stapleton gets all the notice I think there are numerous others who are bringing out better albums and Jeremy’s second solo album is the best of the lot this year. I was privileged to host a house concert with Jeremy and Ags Connolly and it was a great occasion.

 

Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life

cc752a_ccb74ac415f74324bdde66d0b5f81184mv2An album of glacial purity with glimpses of Joni Mitchell in its shadows.

 

 

GospelbeacH, Another Summer Of Love

500x500Jangled sunny California music which stretches from Petty to The Jam in its inspiration.

 

 

Nathan Bell, Love > Fear (48 hours in Traitorland)

love-fear-front-coverOld fashioned protest perhaps but Bell is a powerful writer and as good a champion of “blue collar” folk as Rod Picott. And, in concert, he’s funny with it (just like Rod Picott).

 

Blue Rose Code. The Water Of Leith

the-water-of-leithRoss Wilson continues his journey into the hinterlands of folk and jazz. A wonderful and evocative album.

 

Eric Ambel, At The Lakeside

61ceyom7fgl-_ss500It took 12 years for Ambel to come up with this one, a bunch of songs he imagined could have been on his pub’s jukebox. Guitar album of the year.

 

Don Antonio, Don Antonio

cs646897-01a-bigAside from his band, Sacri Cuori, Antonio Gramantieri has worked with Howe Gelb, Dan Stewart and Alejandro Escovedo. This solo album is a magnificent retro stew of sixties soundtracks and Italian cool.

 

Jaime Wyatt, Felony Blues

jaime_coverA true jailbird, Wyatt’s album is part outlaw country, part Laurel Canyon country rock. For me she just beats Margo Price

 

Malojian, Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home.

a1294981180_16Irishman Stevie Scullion conjures up a slight psychedelic trip with McCartney like melodies and Harrison’s Blue Jay Way vibes.

 

Best reissue/compilation

The Wynntown Marshals, After All These Years

a2597450969_16A perfect introduction to the band if you haven’t heard them before. A perfect keepsake for those who are in the know.

 

 

Also of note…

Slaid Cleaves, Ghost On the Car Radio

Margo Price, All American Made

Danny & The Champions Of The World, Brilliant Light

Ags Connolly, Nothin’ Unexpected

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock

Todd Day Wait, Folk-Country-Blues

Whitney Rose, South Texas Suite

Norrie McCulloch, Bare Along The Branches

Russ Tolman. Compass & Map

John Murry, A Short History of Decay

Jim Keaveny, Put It Together

Ian Felice, In The Kingdom Of Dreams

Gill Landry, Love Rides A Dark Horse

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters

Daniel Meade Shooting Stars & Tiny Tears 

The Sadies, Northern Passages

John Alexander, Of These Lands

There are many others which could/should be mentioned here, apologies to those I’ve either forgotten about or overlooked. In the meantime here’s the song of the year.

 

Alejandro Escovedo with Don Antonio @ The Fallen Angels Club. Stereo, Glasgow, Friday 7th April

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Tonight was a welcome (and much overdue) return to Glasgow from Texan Alejandro Escovedo who is touring on the back of his acclaimed (and much overdue) album Burn Something Beautiful, his first in five years. A fascinating character and one who might conceivably be worthy of the accolade “legend” Escovedo straddles the worlds of punk, Americana, Latin and Mexicana music. His first band, the Nuns, were the support band in San Francisco for the final Sex Pistols gig and with Rank and File and True Believers he was a prime mover in the rootsy alt country scene of the eighties. Solo albums commencing with Gravity (in 1992) were critically acclaimed with No Depression magazine declaring Escovedo “Artist of the Decade” at the end of the nineties. A struggle with hepatitis in the new century threw a spanner into the works but with the assistance of some earnest fundraising from his musical community and beyond he returned to recording and live appearances. He has collaborated with numerous artists familiar to these pages including Chuck Prophet, Peter Buck, Carrie Rodriguez and for this tour Sacri Cuori’s Antonio Gramentieri.

So it can be reasonably argued that the packed crowd tonight were expectant, memories of previous shows in King Tuts and the Arches bandied about, expectations high and for the most part they were not disappointed. Escovedo, now in his mid sixties but as dapper as ever threw us a show that was high on energy; primal slabs of rock’n’roll with chest clenching bass notes rumbling away this was the Escovedo who briefly appeared on the bar band grooves of his 1997 side project Buick Mackane where he explored his inner Iggy Pop. The opener Can’t make Me Run was a slow burning inner city groove with guitar squalls and a squalid sax solo with the closing refrain of “Don’t give up on love”  overwhelmed by a cacophonous sax introduction into the raw rock riff of Shave The Cat which welled into a ferocious wall of noise, visceral and pummelling. Taking no prisoners they then slammed into Beauty of Your Smile quickly followed by an old favourite, Castanets, a mutant child of Chuck Berry with some glorious guitar riffing from Gramentieri.

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Time for a breather and as Escovedo strapped on his acoustic he said hello and offered some observations on Austin over the years which led (naturally) into a song he co wrote with Chuck Prophet, Bottom Of the World, with the versatile band turning down from 11 on the amps to deliver some sweet sounds. Sensitive Boys, which followed, was a slice of autobiography and a touching tribute to fellow musicians, some now fallen by the wayside. Sally Was A Cop opened with some inventive percussion as it sparkled into sight, the dramatic lyrics woefully resonant of our times before the slam-dunk guitar onslaught of Horizontal followed.

Curfew time approached but this was cast to the wind as Escovedo paid tribute to his backing band (which he had only met the day before the tour), his encounters with Bruce Springsteen (and the scary Little Steven) and of his friendship with tonight’s promoter, Kevin Morris, whose wedding Escovedo attended in Austin a few years back. The encores commenced with the panther like prowl of Everbody Loves Me before he discarded his guitar for a dub like version of Leonard Cohens’ A Thousand Kissed Deep followed by Dylan’s Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues. With the band departed he then played a request, I Wish I Was Your Mother, reminding us that he’s as capable of pulling the heartstrings  as pummelling us into submission. A satisfying end to a very satisfying night.

As good as Escovedo was several in the audience were equally excited to see Don Antonio, AKA Antonio Gramentieri of Sacri Cuori unveil his new album which was released today. A wizard on guitar Gramentieri is also a master of texture and style, a rock’n’roll Morricone who grafts American music and cinematic Italian pop and rock creating a fairly unique sonic experience. As American culture conquered the West in the latter half of the last century, various nations devised their own versions with Italy being perhaps the most noteworthy especially in the sixties and early seventies when Italian cool was as hip as Hollywood cool and resonated worldwide for a while before the world moved on. Gramentieri plugs into this vibe with his music populated with dashes of Morricone and Rota along with a slew of Italian pop composers including artists such as Riz Ortolani, Armando Trovajoli and Piero Umiliani, composer of the song forever associated with the Muppets, Mah Na Mah Na.

As Don Antonio,  Gramentieri was accompanied by Denis Valentini on bass (and sublime whistling), Franz Valtieri on saxophone and keyboards and Matteo Monti on drums and percussion. The quartet were later to prove more than ample as a shit kicking roots rock band as they laid down the law with Escovedo but for their own set they roamed across a fine palette of musical colours and textures, the percussion and keyboards especially inventive and intriguing. From John Barry like spy riffs to Morricone soundscapes and mondo Hollywood twist extravaganzas they were just jaw droppingly good. In between songs and tunes Don Antonio took us on a tour of what he called Italiana (“not Americana” he insisted). Explaining that as he grew up he and his peers all wanted to be Americans but finally decided that their tongues were more suited to delivering their own Adriatic version of the fabled land. The show was a through a kaleidoscopic sonic tour of his Italy and he was witty as he acknowledged that songs by the likes of The Scorpions and Simple Minds were not going to cut in the Romagna rock’n’roll circuit.

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They opened with the tingling Lontana, an immediate leap into Cinecitta sounds with sinister vocals, whistling and prowling sax as Don Antonio summoned up some dreamscape guitar. Coffee can percussion and amplified slaps on the sax led into a throbbing, almost psychedelic instrumental with shards of guitar splintering throughout which eventually morphed into a Dick Dale like groove with Valtieri allowed full rein on a shrieking sax solo. Sunset, Adriatico was a glorious swoon of a tune which recalled Brian Eno’s vision of astronauts listening to alien country music in space. We were brought back to earth with a bump de bump on the thrilling Baballo, a parped sax fuelled dance frenzy, a mutant variation of the twist which owed as much to Alan Vega as it did to Tin Pan Alley.

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An all too short set but a thrilling glimpse into the many-mirrored worlds of Don Antonio and his excellent band and judging by the audience’s reaction one opening set you really don’t want to miss.

 

 

 

 

Terry Lee Hale. Bound, Chained, Fettered. Glitterhouse Records

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Texan born, long domiciled in France, Terry lee Hale is a survivor. Throughout four decades of changing fashions and tastes he’s continued to deliver thoughtful and sometimes meaty deliberations on the plight of man. Like his long time associate, Chris Eckman of The Walkabouts, Hale found that Europe was a more fertile territory for his lean tales and dark folk blues than his native land, his albums in the main released via German labels. His last album, The Long Draw, a thought provoking mix of Dylan like rambles and punchy roots rock was one of our favourites of 2013.

Intriguingly, for Bound, Chained, Fettered, Hale sought out the services of a producer, arranger and guitarist who he had long admired and who is, coincidentally,  a Blabber’n’Smoke favourite, Antonio Gramentieri of Sacri Cuori,  Dan Stuart and Hugo Race fame. Hale ventured to North Italy to record the album with Gramentieri in the producer’s chair, the pair recording live for the most part, Hale on acoustic six and 12 string, Dobro and harmonica with Gramentieri providing bass, electric guitar and lap steel. Unlike The Long Draw it’s an uncluttered reflective album, no raging against the political machine here. Instead Hale seems to be musing on life, relationships, aging and death. Gramentieri weaves his magic through the songs, as a player yes, but more importantly in his assemblage of some of his local cohorts (Christian Ravaglioli, keyboards, Franco Neddei, synth and mellotron, Diego Sapignoli, percussion and Franceso Valtieri, sax) whose spare contributions add a fine light and shade to the songs. Gramentieri has a light touch, the arrangements always at the service of the song and Hale is front and centre throughout, his voice up close; rarely has he sounded better.

Aside from The Lowdown, a raunchy blues number that wanders finely into Tom Waits territory with Gramentieri scowling via his guitar parts as Hale wails on harp and a baritone sax parps, the album is a quiet affair. The opening title song finds Hale sounding like Bill Callahan as he recites his words over a distant guitar grumble and dusty Dobro delivering a back porch Don Juan like philosophy. Acorns belies its gentle, almost breezy, delivery with its cryptic words, a broken love affair, a faltering memory clinging to fleetingly recalled events while the following instrumental, Flowers For Claudia, a brief one minute interlude, does seem somewhat elegiac. Age and memory seem to crop up again on Can’t Get Back (Just Like That), Hale’s guitar given just a dusting of guitar, organ and percussion allowing the lyrics to stand tall although the meanings remain vague.  Scientific Rendezvous is more structured with Gramentieri’s guitars and lap steel somewhat menacing as Hale recalls The Walkabouts’ spookier European moments on a song that is again something of an enigma. Here he could be singing about cloning or artificial insemination but the song’s mention of daddies and mommies does seem to relate to birth while the opposite end of the life cycle is the subject of the following song, Signed Blue Angel. Here he has adapted words written by an eight year old grandchild of an old friend on a death. While this might seem cloying it’s surprisingly fresh and direct, a child’s reference to angels and butterflies given a sincere reading and set within an almost Appalachian melody with gliding lap steel and a hint of cowboy balladry. It’s offset by the following stark threnody of Jawbone, an arching summary of the cycle of life and death and dust to dust. An elemental song given some heft from Gramentieri’s atmospheric guitar stylings and Franco Neddei’s muted synth playing it’s spine tingling as Hale balefully repeats the title towards the end. The album ends with another low down blues number, the slow burn of Reminiscent. More full blooded than The Lowdown, Hale picks forcefully, Gramentieri the gut in the bucket as the song slouches along like a grim reaper looking for his target.

Bound, Chained, Fettered is an excellent listen. Its slow groove, Hale’s fine vocals and words and Gramentieiri’s sonic additions all adding up to a chilling and absorbing adventure. It’s available now and Terry Lee Hale is currently touring on the continent, dates here.

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Glitterhouse Records