Todd Day Wait on Serendipity and the Art of Busking

new-orleans-river-boat

At the tail end of last year I heard this album from a guy from New Orleans called Todd Day Wait. It was an unassuming listen, no flash or fandango, just some very fine folk, country and blues which, incidentally, was the name of the album. There wasn’t that much info on Todd on the old interweb thing but lots of video of him and his band, Todd Day Wait’s Pigpen, busking around America. I described the album in a review  as ” a bit of a gem in the vein of a down home Leon Redbone or a pared back Pokey LaFarge with its roots in the pantheon of American roots legends” and it’s been on regular rotation over the months. The album, Folk-Country-Blues,  was released on a German label, Blind Lemon Records, which indicated some European interest and sure enough Todd announced a couple of months back that he was swinging through the continent over March and April. Strangely enough I heard about that via Ags Connolly, a good friend of Blabber’n’Smoke and who turns out to be a buddy of Todd so when I eventually was able to talk to Todd on a day off in Vienna the first thing I asked him was how he knew Ags.

I met Ags when he and Jack Grelle did a tour in the States a year or so back. They came to New Orleans and stayed at my house, Ags is really good, he’s got a great voice and great songs, he nails it. And then when I was in the UK last year I played a couple of shows with him.

I was really taken by your album Folk-Country-Blues and thought that it was your debut but looking at your website I see that you have an earlier mini album, Travelin’ Blues available.

 

untitled-1-300x300

Yeah, that’s six songs I did in Georgia with upright bass and fiddle, no overdubs, just a couple of mics, the bare bones but I like to just capture the performance. Before that I had some demos I used to sell at shows but I’ve stopped printing them now I’ve these two discs.

So you recorded your first official disc in Georgia but then went to Germany to record Folk- Country-Blues?

 

Yeah, the owner of Blind Lemon Records saw me playing in North Carolina a few years back and after the show he came over and asked if I’d like to go to Germany to record an album so I said, “Sure, if you pay for it” and he said, “Of course!” And then at the start of this tour before we got on the road we went back into the German studios and recorded four songs which we’re planning to put out as a 45. And then when I get back to the States I’m going to record some more songs and again release them on vinyl so by the end of the year I’m hoping to have two 45s out.

You capture a fine old time feel and you mention folk like Jimmy Rodgers,  Charlie Poole and Lefty Frizzell as inspirations.

I really like stuff going back to the 1920’s when you had people like Jimmy Rodgers and Riley Puckett. You know white guys playing blues stuff and black guys playing white stuff and then there’s folk like Bob Wills and his Texas swing and then you go into the 1930’s and there’s Ernest Tubb and Floyd Tillman and I think that they all kind of started out from the same place and a lot of it goes back to Jimmy Rodgers.

So when did you start listening to music like that

I’m not really sure. My grandma played piano in the church and her aunt was a travelling vaudeville musician. So my grandma learned stuff from her and would not only play church tunes but would also play songs from the old days so I heard a lot of songs through her. The first show I went to was a Willie Nelson show in the nineties back when he was doing a lot of shows in farming communities as a part of Farm Aid. He played a show next to my grandma’s property and I really liked him and if you like Willie Nelson then you can backtrack with him into Texas music until you hit those singers like Tubbs and Frizzell and again back to Jimmy Rodgers. And through liking Willie I heard Merle haggard and that took me into the guys from the sixties. And listening to them I wondered what they liked, what they were listening to and so I looked into their influences. So really how I got into this music was really just backtracking.

When did you start playing?

I started playing guitar in my early teens but I remember writing little songs when I was just a kid. I remember singing little songs and writing them down and showing them to my sister and her then making fun of me. I’ve always thought that music and songs are a cool language, you know, writing your thoughts down and singing them and adding a melody. I’ve always loved doing that since I was young.

I read that you were living in Missouri but in 2009 you just decided to up sticks and go on the road so you just put all your possession on the kerbside and left.

Yeah. I’d been playing music for a couple of years by then. I’d quite often just travel. You know, jump in a car with my guitar and just go some place and I’d been doing that for several years but in 2009 I kind of just realised that I had to jump in all the way. There was no point in doing it just halfway so I just said that’s it. I took everything out of my house, put it on the kerb and within like five hours people came and took it away and I was ready to leave.

So did you have like a yard sale to get enough money to get up and go?

No, I just gave it away; it was just old furniture and stuff. I didn’t think about selling it but now you mention it maybe I should have. I’d saved up about $1200 but just a week before I was set on leaving I saw a Fender Rhodes piano on sale. It was $600 so I spent half my money buying that and I went from Missouri to California with the 600 I had left. I had an old white Chevy van and I loaded the piano, an amp and some other stuff and went off. I had a buddy who came along for a little bit. We went to California, spent some time out there and then I headed down to New Orleans.

So why New Orleans?

Well I went there in 2006 and then another couple of times before 2009 and I realised that you could make some money just playing in the streets in New Orleans, you don’t get harassed or arrested. And there’s just so much music there. Coming from Missouri, OK, there’s music there but nothing like what was going on in New Orleans. There’s music in the streets, all the nightclubs, and I realised I could live there pretty cheap. First year I was there I lived in my buddy’s kitchen. He had an apartment which was one room and a kitchen and a bathroom and he let me sleep underneath his kitchen table.

I’ve seen several videos of you busking. Do you have a regular group of people you play with or is it just whoever turns up?

83-atlg

 

I knew what I wanted to do but it’s kind of hard to convince other  people to do it for basically no money so what happens is when I’m in New Orleans I use people who live there, when I’m in California I use people who live in California. I’ve just developed this thing where I can claw people in when it works for them. It’s a lot easier for someone in New Orleans to just play locally rather than ask them to travel all over the mid west for next to no money.

What about this tour you’re currently on? You’re going through Germany, Italy, France, Austria and Switzerland. Have you brought a band with you on that?

Yes. This is my fifth time over here and I’ve brought a fiddle player (Lyle Werner) and a steel guitar player (Nikolai Shveitser). We’re using local upright bass players for some of the shows and then for the last two weeks we’ve got a bass player from Italy. So some shows as a three piece but most as a four piece.

The pictures I’ve seen on Facebook look as though the shows are going well.

Well I just love playing Hillbilly music and we throw in some country, jazz and swing.  I mean basically it’s all the same stuff and we’re playing songs from the twenties through to the fifties, songs with lots of lyrical content and then ones you just want to dance to. So I think that if you’re young or old, no matter what your background, you can come along and enjoy the show.

On the album you have two cover songs, one by Jimmy Rodgers, and one by Gus Cannon. How did you go about picking those?

album-cover-e1486062853134

Well I just love playing Jimmy Rodgers’ songs so there had to be one of those and the Gus Cannon song, well, Thomas had heard us play it and he wanted it on the record and if the boss man says he wants something I guess we gotta do it. It’s always good to have the boss man on your side.

And as you said earlier it was Thomas Schlieken who heard you play in a bar in the states and invited you over to record the album.

Yes, you never know how this crazy world works you know. Some of the biggest opportunities I’ve had have been in the most unlikely circumstances. I met the producer of my first disc at a farmer’s market in San Diego. His name is Mark Neill (producer of The Black Keys and Los straitjackets amongst others) and he’s helped me out ever since. It was just the sort of place where you’d never expect to meet someone like that. We were playing on a Thursday afternoon at this crappy farmers market. I’d found out that you could make some money just playing these farmers markets across the country, some are good and some not so good but this one was really terrible, we were standing in the glare of the sun in the dirt and sand and Mark saw us, you never know how this world works.

Serendipitous indeed. You must make a good impression if these guys just happen across you and say, “Hi, let’s make a record”.

Well I’m a big baseball fan and I just grew up knowing you can’t hit the ball if you just sit and wait. You got to get up to the plate and take your swing and you never know how it will work but you just need to give it your best swing and then you never know. So that’s what I’ve been doing. I was playing on my own and then as a duo, a trio and now there’s four or five in my band and the more people who see you  play and then maybe book you allows you to get more money to hire more people for the band and play more places. And people seem to like country music, the reason I’m in Vienna right now is that last time I was over here someone saw me and said, “I want you to come to Vienna next time”.

Any plans to come back to the UK anytime soon.

I’d love to. I plan to come to Europe at least once a year and I know that folk like Jack Grelle have a great time when they’re playing in Britain so I’d hope to come back hopefully next year. I’m hoping that these singles we’re bringing out get a few spins and spread the word. They’ll have a digital download code but I’m hoping people will like the singles themselves. That’s the way I listen to music, I don’t have a CD player so I listen to records and I think that more and more people are doing that. It’s a great experience, having your friends over and they go through your collection, to me that’s an ideal Friday night, let’s listen to records. It’s so much more tangible, singles, ten inchers and albums, I think people just like them.

So you’ve got a couple more dates in Europe and then it’s back to the States.

When we get back we’re going up to Cincinnati to play a Merle Haggard tribute and then it’s back to the west coast for a six-week tour so it’s a busy time of the year coming up.

We left Todd there but followed his tour adventures including two sold out nights in Paris. Hopefully he’ll make it to our shores in the not too distant future and there’s always the prospect of a couple of cool 45’s to look forward to.

Website

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro. Live at Southern Ground. Del Mundo Records.

UK lap steel and slide blues guitarist Martin Harley gained a good deal of recognition with his 2013 album Mojo Fix. Live At Southern Ground, the follow up was recorded “live” (no audience as far as we can gather) in Nashville’s Southern Ground Studios with double bass player Daniel Kimbro after the pair met up and jammed at a Tennessee festival. Almost a spur of the moment decision then, the album was recorded in one day with Harley playing regular, resonator and lap top (Hawaiian style) guitars with Kimbro slapping the big fiddle.

As such it’s a really fine slice of acoustic blues, well recorded and definitely an album that will please anyone who recalls Taj Mahal in his acoustic prime or the many finger picking wizards from the sixties folk boom who peppered their sets with blues covers. Harley writes the majority of the songs with a fine handle on the classic blues rhetoric while his guitar playing is at times mesmerising and vocally he answers that age-old question as to whether white men can sing the blues with some aplomb. The interaction between him and Kimbro’s nimble bass playing is a delight with some passages demanding to be replayed as one decides which instrument to concentrate on. Together they have a similar sort of musical telepathy to that of the late John Martyn with the great Danny Thompson.

Acknowledging his roots Harley covers Lead Belly’s Goodnight Irene and Blind Willie Johnson’s Nobody’s Fault But Mine while a cover of Tom Waits’ Chocolate Jesus is given a razor edged slide guitar thrust which takes the song into acoustic Led Zep territory. The album ends with an uncredited song that harks back to Johnson’s Dark was The Night, Cold Was The Ground with its sinister slide playing laid over some sombre and spine tingling double bass bowing. It’s a hidden track so if you do get the album wait for it at the end, it will blow you away.

website

Heid: The T. F. Arnott Story

Here’s an oddity, the description alone commands attention and demands a listen.

“….. fragments of a long lost more extensive piece of work by a radio documentarian about a delta blues guy called T. F. Arnott. It tells the story of his strange and deeply twisted career and how it spanned throughout the better part of the 20th century. First spotted as a talent scout in Hollywood in the mid thirties he appears throughout the ages, meeting folk like Elvis, Richard Feynman, and even Bill Clinton along the way. “

The album is the demented brainchild of T. F. Arnott (described as a “Blues Player, Poet, Theoretical Physicist, Hollywood Mogul, Alligator Hunter and also Glaswegian”) who recalled his younger days when he and his chums would record improvised radio comedy programmes on his mum’s tape player. Now grown up (allegedly) he’s spun this fantasy (with the assistance of Kerr McClure, Isaac Wilcox, Marcus Montgomery Roche and Peter Arnott) and unleashed it on an unsuspecting world.

It’s great fun. The album consists of acoustic blues songs for the post part interspersed with snippets of documentary commentary from various characters recalling the career of T. F. Arnott. These range from Shaky Mo (a doppelganger for Camberwell carrot Danny from Withnail & I) describing Arnott’s 1967 spell in London where he recorded “Twelve songs about Sausages” (” great title, crap record”), to the owner of Florida’s Crocodile Club who went hunting in the Everglades with Arnott, killed a manatee and tried to make a guitar case out of its skin. Failing to do so they eventually fashioned a hat instead. There’s episodes involving The Manhattan Project, Jean Paul Sartre’s sex club and Arnott’s in setting up Sun Records which he originally called Bum Records. Sure, it’s juvenile at times but there’s many chuckles contained herein, a bit like listening to Cheech and Chong recording Blind Melon Chitlin Lemon while watching Spinal Tap.

As for the music, some of it is excellent. There’s a fine Glaswegian take on How Come My Dog Don’t Bark (recorded by Dr. John among others) retitled How Come My Dog Dinnie Bark. Cry recalls the works of Hamish Imlach with wonderful woozy Glaswegian backing vocals, Don’t Ya Call Me sounds like an angry west of Scotland John Lee Hooker while there’s a lighter take on the blues with the toe tapping and memorable Magic Band. Overall it’s great fun, not to be taken too seriously (the legend himself confided to Blabber’n’Smoke “it’s just a wee DIY type affair”) but for the grand price of £2 you can download it and judge for yourself.

Buy it here

Craig Hughes. Losers and Bastards. Channel Nowhere Records.

Obviously going all out for the Radio Two audience Glasgow blues behemoth Craig Hughes‘ latest album, like a previous effort, Pissed Off, Bitter And Willing To Share, takes no prisoners and accepts no compromise when it comes to describing what he is singing about. You might not hear Hughes’ grizzled voice beaming at you while you have your cornflakes (although local Americana show Sunny Govan Switchback has been championing the album) but one gets the impression that Hughes is not in it for the fame but is compelled to record his bleak tales peopled with wretched, well, losers and bastards, and if folk like them then so be it.

Losers and Bastards is Hughes’ second full length release (third if you count his split double disc with Sleepy Eyes Nelson) and sees him once again in the company of Tommy Duffin who drums and plays “boom-chicka-boom” guitar on one of the cuts. Hughes reprises the mix of acoustic slide guitar and stomping razor bladed electric blues wails that he showcased on his last release, Hard Times Vol. 1 (which was voted best blues EP of 2012 by American mag Blues Underground Network). His lyrics too are a mix of despair and grim humour and on a couple of the songs here he proves himself to be a great chronicler of Glasgow life with one of the songs, Future After All reading as if it was an excerpt from a James Kelman story.

The album opens with the foot stomping acoustic blues of Happy Man Cries, an open wound of a song that recalls Richard Thompson’s End of the Rainbow in its pessimism as Hughes sings of a kid’s joy and reminds him that it won’t last as “life’s not as much fun as it seems.” That kid, now grown up, might be the subject of Jam Jar Wasp Trap, another acoustic trip which describes an empty life of staring at the television vicariously grasping at celebrities and ultimately ending up like “an old man in a brothel who can’t get it up.” Next up Hughes plugs in for the dirty blues stomp that is Last Orders (When I Die) as he wonders who will mourn him when he’s gone and plays some mean slide. Future after All is a life in miniature as the protagonist expresses a futile optimism after a small lottery win which is soon drank away and he sinks amidst the morass of his life wondering where his next drink is coming from. A bleak tale but Hughes expresses it with some wonderful imagery and a fine Glaswegian existentialism as he blames the possibility of nuclear annihilation for his having no ambition other than to drink. We mentioned James Kelman earlier on but it’s not too fanciful to compare this to the sordid ballads of Jacques Brel as well.
For Dressed in Rags Hughes sticks on an imaginary Stetson and goes all ZZ Top on us while Beans and Bread is another poverty ridden tale but delivered with some humour and a breathless chorus. White Water is the most upbeat number here with a touch of country blues as Hughes sings of a femme fatale and waxes poetically
“As the years go by I think of her from time to time/Out of the blue her smile might come to mind/And I recall losing her, the way she turned back as she left/And that faraway look in her eyes/She wasted her youth going further and faster/She fell for successive losers and bastards/She was a kindred spirit and I was drawn to her.
With his growl of a voice one would never expect to accuse Hughes of showing a little tenderness but here he shows that we all have our soft spot and everyone has a shot at romance, successful or not. Everybody’s Got to Cheat and Lie Sometimes might turn out to be Hughes’ anthem as he churns out a Woody Guthrie type manifesto over a rough beat and some scintillating slide guitar. A Strongman and an Acrobat visits Blind Willie Johnson territory on an evil sounding acoustic slide number with voodoo lyrics and he wraps the album up with the rollin’ and tumblin’ boogie of Wood and Wire which declares that when the chips are down a guitar is a poor man’s best friend.

As usual Hughes is offering Losers and Bastards on a pay what you want basis for the download however for a measly five quid you can get the CD package with a lyric sheet and it’s well worth every last penny. check it out here.

Craig Hughes. Hard Times Volume 1

Writing on the (assured) presumption that all those who frequent Blabber’n’Smokeland have a copy of Jim Dead’s tremendous Ten Fires to hand we direct you to the fiery guitar therein, much of it provided by local blues colossus, Craig Hughes. Much like his fellow blues traveller, Dave Arcari, (a guy who looks like he’s possessed by the devil while delivering his blues damnations), Hughes puts his all into a performance commanding the stage, growling for all he’s worth while turning out some awesome picking be it electric or acoustic. Fortunately he’s a dab hand at conjuring up this magic in the studio as well as he has demonstrated on the Jim Dead album, his recent forays as part of the uber heavy Dog Howl Moon or solo as on this, his latest EP.
His debut album, Pissed Off, Bitter and Willing to Share was considered by a Canadian publication to be the best UK blues album of 2009 while his shared platter with yet another local bluesman, Sleepy Eyes Nelson won plaudits galore. Now he unleashes Hard Times, Volume 1, a six song EP that runs the gamut from acoustic blues to rockabilly mayhem.
Promises, Promises sees Hughes running down the blues as he slides away on acoustic and growls his resolutions to give up drinking, fighting and lovin’. Straightforward and excellent and a fine opener. He Loved Her and Sent Her To Hell stomps along with drum assistance from Ally Tennick as Hughes delivers a cautionary tale that wouldn’t go amiss on a Nick Cave album. Hard Times Every Day is less pugnacious although as a diatribe against the recession it follows in the grand tradition of songs like Buddy, Can You Spare A Dime as Hughes captures a sense of futility and failure singing “It’s hard to keep your chin up when you’re face down in the dirt.” Tapes For My Walkman lightens the mood on a banjo driven send up of a guy sticking to obsolete technology (apart from the needle for his stereo, still a must folks). The slide guitar returns for Left To Crawl as Hughes displays his songwriting and playing skills to great effect as he whizzes around the fretboard with a fair degree of wizardry while his words capture a poignant memory of a relationship that foundered and as the woman goes on to have a family the protagonist draws into himself. This is a great song and it recalls the likes of Richard Thompson’s early solo work. For the finale Hughes puffs up his chest and goes into Cramps mode with Cave Full Of Woman Bones. Fuzz guitar fuzzes and drums stomp on this caveman rocker that good old Lux would have loved.
So, six songs, all crackers. Hughes acknowledges the modern world and as such he’s offered the disc for download on a pay what you will basis on his Bandcamp site. However if you care to have a real life artefact in your mitts then it’s yours for the measly sum of £4, the price of a pint almost. Whatever way you get it I’m sure you’ll dig it.

bandcamp page

Kelly Joe Phelps. Brother Sinner & The Whale

Kelly Joe Phelps is one of the premier acoustic blues guitarists of the last decade or so with a brace of albums featuring his lap steel playing and refreshing the traditions of the Reverend Gary Davis, Mississippi John Hurt and even John Fahey. His latest album Brother Sinner & the Whale sees him continue in this fashion however here he plays bottleneck acoustic guitar and the songs stem from what appears to be have been a period of spiritual reawakening for him. Whatever crisis has caused him to reflect and embrace a Christian approach is neither here nor there but it’s led him to record these 12 songs which are steeped in the gospel blues tradition and in the main relate to the biblical tale of Jonah and the Whale. The tale of a prophet, Jonah, who initially spurns god and is thrown into the sea only to be saved inside the belly of a whale and then goes about god’s business may be a metaphor for Phelps’ own journey, certainly he appears to have wholly embraced the concept with several pages on his website detailing the lyrics to this album and the biblical quotations corresponding to each song. That’s not to say that this is an album to be relegated to the “spiritual” section of record stores. Phelps is indeed carrying on the tradition of incorporating religion into his music, a tradition as old and as wide as the Mississippi and as such the music can be enjoyed and appreciated in a secular sense much as one would listen to old spirituals, the Staple Singers or even Mr. Dylan’s born again albums.
As for the music Phelps is a wizard guitar player and the album is chock-full of delicate picking and bottleneck slide and concludes with a fine instrumental, Brother Pilgrim, that recalls the majesty of John Fahey. His voice is a smooth huskied croon which allows him to sound comfortable in his skin and the combination of voice and guitar makes for a stimulating listen with several of the songs outstanding. Pilgrim’s Reach is a fine flowing flourish of fingerpicking guitar while Spit Me Outta the Whale is a masterclass in bottleneck playing. If you want to listen to an old time gospel blues album without the sonic imperfections of shellac then go dig this. Wonderful.

website