Buffalo Blood, Buffalo Blood, Eel Pie Records

album-cover-pic-smallBuffalo Blood is the collaborative work of three American musicians and a Scot who set out to capture some of the legend and history of Native Americans, victims of a genocide which rivals that of the Nazi’s against the Jews. The collective – Dean Owens, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman – were drawn to the project after Owens, a man from Leith, raised on cowboy movies but lured to the plight of the Native Americans after visiting their sacred lands, mentioned a batch of songs he had written as a result of his fascination, to Hubbard. Hubbard, a Grammy nominated producer and, along with Britt and Spillman, a member of The Orphan Brigade, a band who seek out unusual recording opportunities, got on board and the newly formed quartet decided to collaborate in the writing and recording of what became Buffalo Blood. A project long in the making, it eventually saw all four decamp to New Mexico, along with sound engineer and photographer, Jim DeMain, to record the album in several iconic locations. Aside from the recording, they captured the outdoor performances on film as they followed what is known as the trail of tears, the historical forced marches of Native Americans from their ancestral lands to reservations. The resulting album is heavy on atmosphere with ambient sounds trickling into the songs, many of which reflect the arid conditions of the New Mexico desert.

There’s no narrative as such although some numbers mention the likes of Custer and Crazy Horse (Land of Broken Promises) while others portray the repressive regime which tried to wipe out their culture as on Carry The Feather, inspired by the habit of forbidding Native Indian children to speak their own language at schools which taught a white curriculum. There are a couple of mood pieces. The excellent Ten Killer Ferry Lake (named after a reservoir on Cherokee land) opens the album and sets the scene perfectly combining a ghost dance like lament and mournful whistling. The whistling (by Owens) returns on Ghosts Of Wild Horses, a tune redolent of spaghetti western soundtracks, a sly nod perhaps to what, for most of us, was our first exposure to the American west via the movies. Whatever, it’s another strongly suggestive piece of music casting up images of sun blasted parched lands, bleached bones and the unique strangeness of the frontier. Similarly, Buffalo Thunder, a wordless chant with ambient wind sounds throughout, transports the listener to late night campfires among the tepees.

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There’s an inherent sense of drama throughout the album. War Among The Nations is portentous, warning of calamity ahead and Reservations bristles with indignity singing of the white men’s lies. Comanche Moon captures the fury of the tribes as they fight back against the white man who considers them “all just savages,” while Buffalo Blood is a powerful number which rings out with a fierce sense of pride amplified by the native chant which surrounds Owen’s strident vocal delivery. There’s a resigned air to Daughter Of The Sun, White River and Bones, songs which reflect the sense of loss and identity suffered by the Native Americans while Land Of Broken Promises just about sums up the series of injustices dealt to them as treaties were torn up and they were moved further westward.

Throughout the album the quartet perform excellently. The primary sound is of acoustic guitars and mandolin with percussion and keyboards filling out some of the numbers. The harmonies are wonderful as the band inhabit the spirituality of well-worn chants brilliantly. Owens says that as they recorded in the desert, under clear skies and amidst stunning red rock formations, they felt the presence of the spirits which permeate the locations. They capture this perfectly on Bones, an excellent song with a mournful organ base which is suffused with suffering and a simmering anger. Overall, Buffalo Blood is a bold venture which sets out to portray a particular injustice but it burns with a contemporary relevance as one realises that the plight of the Native Americans is not far removed from the forced migrations and exploitation of indigenous people which continues to this day. From the pipeline protests at Standing Rock to refugees fleeing brutality in Africa and South America, the story continues.

Buffalo Blood is released on February 15th as a download and, in the UK, a double vinyl album. £1 from the sale of each vinyl album will be donated to the Redhawk Native American Arts Council , an organisation which is dedicated to educating the general public about Native American heritage through song, dance, theater, works of art and other cultural forms of expression.

Celtic Connections will present the live world premiere of Buffalo Blood in performance tonight at The Mitchell Theatre. Details are here while the project’s website is here. For more information on the project check out this interview.

 

 

 

 

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Cosmic Cowboys, Acid and Having a Beer With Jesus – Justin Osborne of Susto

10915026_1610467402502047_3413982370388978341_oTouring in support of their second album, & I’m Fine Today, South Carolina band Susto make their debut Scottish appearance at Celtic Connections this week. Formed in 2014 by Justin Osborne, the band have rapidly gained a reputation for their live shows while & I’m Fine Today is a well crafted set of songs which explore doubt and the human condition and  essentially ask the question, “Why Are We Here?” With beautifully delivered ballads such as Havana Vieja and more complex layers of sound as on Waves, the album is like a less manic version of The Flaming Lips with a dash of Wilco added.

Osborne grew up in a Pentecostal community and attended military school for a while. Rebelling, he dived into drugs, lost his religion and started a band, Sequoyah. When they broke up in 2013 he returned to college but eventually left and travelled to Cuba before forming Susto. On the eve of setting off to Europe (and on his birthday) Justin took some time out to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke.

First off, Happy Birthday to you. I believe it will be a busy day as you are flying out to Europe. Is this your first time over here?

Thanks. We actually leave for Europe tomorrow, first we fly to Chicago then to Copenhagen.  I’m really looking forward to this, really excited. I’ve played solo before in Europe and in the UK I’ve only played London so I’m excited to be getting to some other places such as Glasgow to play at Celtic Connections. I hear it’s a great festival and that you get to meet lots of other musicians and I’ve always wanted to go to Scotland. We’re also playing some showcases in the Netherlands with some other musicians and I’m really looking forward to seeing Corb Lund and Colter Wall.

First off, can I ask you about the band name? I’ve read that Susto is a Latin American term meaning a sense of malaise or dread, kind of like an existential crisis.

It’s a bit of both really. I was an anthropology student when I first heard the term and it literally means that your soul is separated from your body but the  more I read about it I realised that it has degrees, it can be as simple as a panic attack all the way up to a feeling that you’re not really yourself. When I first heard it I was like 24 or 25 and I thought it described how I was feeling but then I started to learn Spanish and I lived in a Spanish speaking country for a while and I realised then that it’s often just a colloquial term for a fright. But it still has this deeper feeling and I thought that it was an appropriate name for my band.

You lived in Cuba for a while?

Yes, I was in Havana for much of 2013.

Was it easy to go there? I know that the US back then didn’t really encourage tourism.

Well when I went there it was just before Obama relaxed some of the rules but the first time I went it was through an educational programme which was one of the ways you could legitimately visit the country. The second time I kind of snuck in, I flew to the Bahamas and from there I was able to get to Cuba. But then I got detained in the airport when I came home as they didn’t believe that I had spent all that time in The Bahamas and I was carrying all this Cuban rum. However I got off with a slap on the wrist so that was OK. The Cubans are happy to see you, it’s the US government who don’t want you to go.

You’ve said that your time spent there was quite influential. Was that in terms of you personally or was it more of a musical influence?

Both really but it’s not really an obvious influence on the sound. There’s so much music on Cuba and it’s so diverse. There’s the traditional dance music and there’s lots of rock bands and cover bands who just do Beatles songs but what really intrigued me was the singer songwriter tradition, called son truvo. They have this sense of sarcasm and they’re not afraid to sing about the darker side of humanity but kind of playfully and I think that has been the main influence, I came back really as a different kind of writer, using lyrics in a different way from before. It’s definitely on the first album and some of it spills into the current one. We’re not afraid of being sarcastic and we’ve put out little vignettes on some of our videos which I think shows that side of us.

That comes out on the song Chilling On The Beach With My Friend Jesus. Your idea of heaven is having a beer on the beach with your friends instead of seeing pearly gates.

I guess. I’m not religious but I come from a deeply religious family and part of my struggle over the past few years has been reconciling where my head is at now with the way I grew up and being able to communicate with my family. That song was meant to be like a bridge between people who had lost their faith and those who have the traditional beliefs. I don’t know if I succeeded in building that bridge, maybe I blew it up. The song was one thing but then we made a video for it and that made some people more upset, they didn’t like to see Jesus partying and drinking. The church I grew up in, there’s no alcohol so that didn’t go down well but I was told that I had a personal relationship with Jesus and I think if that’s true then you’ve just got to be yourself and not be like on your best behaviour all the time and that’s what we tried to show in the video. I don’t lose sleep over it, a lot of people had fun with the song and we certainly did but if you read the YouTube comments you see people writing, “You’re going to burn in Hell” and stuff like that but I just laugh it off.

You mentioned setting up little vignettes or stories for several of your videos

In a way it’s really just giving people something to chew on. I mean we can’t put out a new record every couple of months so we add a little bit to a song. It’s mainly for people who are really into the band, who are interested enough to search us out. We don’t do it with every song, there are some that I’m not comfortable talking about but it’s more or less a way to orientate people and let them know where we are coming from. We’re kind of giving people a different way of hearing a song and it’s been fun to do but listening to music is a personal experience and some people just want to hear a song and some want to know more about it and I think the listener has a right to choose which way they go about it. We don’t want to push a song’s meaning down anyone’s throat, it’s really just to keep the interaction going.

Having said that, some of the songs are quite obvious. Gay In The South for example tackles attitudes towards gay people with family and friends saying they will go straight to hell. Some parts of the South have always had a reputation for being intolerant but do you think it’s worse today?

I was up late last night just talking about the way this country is going and there are lots of conversations like that going on all over the place. When it pertains to gay rights, women, minorities and such I had hoped we had moved on a little bit but when I go home to my family and the place I grew up, it’s not just my family but people in restaurants and most people around you and it’s like they all voted for Trump. It’s not the case in Charleston where I live now, it’s a more progressive town, but back home you start to think, why, where did we separate? Guys I grew up with, played sports with and could probably still have a beer with, but when it comes to politics there’s a very big rift. With my parents I cannot talk about politics at all, it would just blow up even though they’re people I love. Before Trump there was already a lot of animosity, us and them, but Trump is the great divider, the wedge that’s making that split much wider. It’s sad because basically I love people and I Love my family and where I’m from but I can’t reconcile with their views.

Can we talk about your experience of microdosing with LSD?

I got into LSD when I was at college, not microdosing but going on a trip trying to get that psychedelic experience, it felt like it was stripping away the layers of bullshit and seeing the world in a new way. Maybe that was just us going crazy, I don’t know but it didn’t really feel like that. I started hearing about microdosing when I was in Sequoyah, as a band we weren’t tripping all the time, maybe just a couple of times a year. But by then I had a song called The Acid Boys  and I’ve got the word ACID tattooed on my hand and so some fans would give me some LSD and I started to think about microdosing – the government’s definitely listening in on this but it doesn’t matter because I’m clean right now!

I didn’t want to go back down the whole ten hour acid trip but remembering the changes it brought out in me I started microdosing in the studio for the first record, it wasn’t just me but our guitar player at the time and our producer. And we got a lot done. We were taking just trace amounts and it wasn’t as if you felt you had any substance in you, it was just like, “Wow, I’m in a great mood today, I’m firing on all cylinders.”  It just raises the energy levels but it’s not like caffeine or any kind of amphetamine, I hate that edgy feeling, it’s just a very clean feeling of energy. I don’t do it all the time and although we did do it a couple of times when we were making & I’m Fine Today there was a lot more times when we weren’t doing it. I’m not like saying to everyone, go do acid, but for me personally it’s helped me deal with bouts of depression, helped me deal with the changes in my life.

There’s a song on the new album, Cosmic Cowboy. Did you grow up listening to psychedelic country records?

I’ve been a Grateful dead fan for a long time. I’m not really into jam music, bands like Phish although a couple of the guys in the band like that. I’m coming more from a punk rock and singer songwriter background, I went to military school right after high school and while I was there I just fell in love with the imagery of The Grateful Dead, the Steal Your Face look, I’m even wearing a Dead T shirt right now. I was drawn to them through the graphics and although I wasn’t smoking weed or anything I started to fall in love with their music. It wasn’t because of them that I started taking LSD however, that was just boredom

a4018315158_16You said earlier you had studied anthropology and with your interest in Latin America I wondered if you know much about the culture and drugs of indigenous South American tribes

Well I’ve never used a drug like Ayahuasca which some Amazonian tribes use but that culture is represented on the album cover for & I’m Fine Today which is a painting by Pablo Amaringo. He’s deceased now but he was a shaman from the Peruvian Amazon, a rain forest preservationist and an amazing artist. Our drummer is a visual artist and he brought me some ideas for the album artwork including this. It’s supposed to be a representation of this inner battle that can happen and I thought it was a great way to represent the concept of Susto. When Marshall brought that to the table I couldn’t believe that a piece of artwork like this could exist. Because again, the reason the band is called Susto is because of that ongoing battle internally and I just thought the painting represented us. We spent a lot of time making this album and we were always adding little things here and there, maybe we added too much stuff but the album sleeve, it’s like you can look at it and keep on finding new things and I think it’s like listening to the record, you can keep on finding new things in the songs. I’m really grateful to Pablo’s estate and to the Universe for putting that artwork in front of me.

Susto are playing two shows at Celtic Connections on 3rd and 4th Feb. All tour dates are here.

Website

Findlay Napier. Glasgow. Cheery Grove Records

a31bbe_6a612d26cfae416f991e593997008c1emv2_d_1490_1491_s_2Celtic Connections is coming up and one of the first artists Blabber’n’Smoke is going to see is Findlay Napier who will be performing his latest release, Glasgow. An album that is part tribute to, part dissection, of his adopted hometown, Glasgow is a worthy successor to Napier’s VIP, an album that found him delivering wry biographies of some famous (and some not so) people.

Glasgow’s a notorious city (or so we Glaswegians think). On the one hand it has a reputation for poverty and violence, on the other, it’s the friendly and forward looking metropolis that has been a city of culture and which has its very own “style mile” (in reality just a bunch of the same department stores you can find in any city centre). What Glasgow does have and always had is a ready supply of talent ready to mythologize the grimy tenements, the gangs, the shopping, the culture, the football and the music and perhaps Napier’s greatest achievement here is that he isn’t one of those. Sure, there are moments on Glasgow when he is in thrall to the history and romanticism that does exist in this once called “second city of the empire” but overall here he is an oblique aural flaneur taking the listener throughout various aspects of the city that have influenced him. That he does it with such casual excellence is the icing on the cake.

With Boo Hewerdine supporting on guitar and piano and with occasional field recordings the album is less fleshed out musically than VIP, however this allows Napier’s clear and ringing voice full rein over the simple backings. He opens the album with tolling bells as he sings about the city’s central necropolis, a ghost story one might expect but instead Napier delivers a potted history of Glasgow’s patron saint while describing the Goths who frequented the graveyard when he lived nearby. As on VIP’s Hedy Lamarr, Napier gets a subject and takes it places one would never expect. Glasgow’s history of shipbuilding sails into view on the powerful There’s More To Building Ships with Napier railing against the faceless men who dismantled the industry while detailing the industrial illnesses endured by the workforce, here he reminds one of a powerful songwriter from Leith, Dick Gaughan. Pulling Wires is another social testament inspired by a documentary on Glasgow’s homeless who collect scrap metal and again it’s transformed into a memorable and hefty folk song. The Locarno, Sauchiehall Street 1928 pays tribute to a famous Glasgow dance hall and is imbued with a similar sense of wonderment and memory as VIP’s Valentina but Napier’s other slice of everyday life centres on a chip shop bang in the centre of town as he sings of an unrequited love affair with a girl who wraps the fries. Banality transformed into art it’s supremely underplayed.

As a musician who came to live in the city, Napier acknowledges others who have written and sung about Glasgow with a fine selection of covers. Chief of these is his rendition of Cod Liver Oil And The Orange Juice, a song popularised by the late Hamish Imlach and a great vehicle for Napier who gives it just the right amount of salaciousness. The Blue Nile’s A Walk Across The Rooftops, a reminder of Napier’s student days is stripped right down and sung as a delicate and tender love song, Napier posing as a Glaswegian Chagall. Michael Marra’s King Kong’s Visit To Glasgow manages to cram several tributes into one as it mentions The People’s Palace, Glasgow bands, footballers, Glasgow’s one time reputation (again) as “cinema city” and , most of all, to the writer, Marra, a Dundonian who wrote about Glasgow better than most Glaswegians. Football, and its unsavoury punch-ups, open Julia Doogan’s Glasgow but the song soon settles into a hymn of sorts to the Dear Green Place. Finally, Napier offers up a gorgeous reading of Emma Pollock’s Marchtown, a glorious song which addresses the history of an area, now called Strathbungo, historically associated with Mary Queen Of Scots, an area which Napier himself now calls home.

Glasgow is an album which any fan of Napier will love and for many Glaswegians it will strike a chord. From the excellent cover artwork with Napier recreating Raymond Depardon’s striking image of Govan kids in the 80’s (including a very sad shot of him standing in the doorway of the derelict Lyceum cinema, a haunt of Blabber’n’Smoke’s childhood) to the many totems mentioned in the songs, it just hums with the vibrancy that many of us believe still surrounds the city.

Findlay Napier performs Glasgow at Celtic Connections on Saturday 20th January while he also hosts the late night sessions at The Drygate and Hazey Recollections and he will be appearing with Shake The Chains on 31st January

Website

Rab Noakes. The Treatment Tapes EP. Neon Records

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Rab Noakes, now aged 70, is one of Scotland’s musical heroes. Since the early seventies he’s been a fixture on the music scene, an early member of Stealers Wheel and recording with legendary Nashville producer Bob Johnston. Blabber’n’Smoke first became aware of him when Lindisfarne recorded two of his songs on their first two albums in their brief moment of glory and there’s a back catalogue of delights to be heard for those new to his music. His last album I’m Walkin’ Here (2015) was a fine collection of his own songs along with his interpretations of several songs that had influenced him in his youth. The release of that album was delayed by a diagnosis of tonsillar cancer and the ensuing treatment, radiotherapy and chemotherapy which was a tough road but which seems (thankfully) to have worked well enough to allow Noakes to return to performance.

The Treatment Tapes is a chronicle of sorts, six songs written throughout the treatment process and then recorded with little fuss over two sessions. Aside from the lethal fears of a cancer diagnosis the site of Noakes’ lump could have been a death sentence of sorts to a singer no matter how well the treatment worked. On the evidence here his voice has survived the illness and the treatment (although his candid sleeve notes detail some limitations) allowing him to deliver the set in his recognisable style. There are plaintive introspections which recall Loudon Wainwright and the late Alan Hull along with more jaunty folk blues numbers. The songs stand proud without any knowledge of the story behind their genesis; the deeply affecting love song, I Always Will coming across like a Townes Van Zandt number cosseted by a wonderfully woody cello and the opening Fade (to shades of black) a Gene Clark like fatalist ballad. However Noakes’ detailed notes on each of the songs pins them to a particular stage in his treatment process allowing the listener an insight into the trials he faced and it’s a measure of the man that the notes, the words and the songs all coalesce into a triumph of sorts. He’s still here and still singing. He champions the NHS treatment he received on Water Is My Friend as he sings, “There are people looking after me who don’t get paid enough while bankers take a big reward for far less useful stuff”, the title taken from advice from his radiographer to keep his mouth hydrated (and delivered with a nod to The Sons Of the Pioneers cowboy classic, Cool Water). Overall the EP is a two fingers to the big C delivered with a life affirming sense of spirit.

Rab Noakes celebrates his 70th birthday and his 50 years in music on his 70/50 tour which opens at Celtic Connections on February 2nd. From there on he tours the UK with all dates here.

Website

 

The working man’s blues – a chat with Nathan Bell

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Nathan Bell’s album I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, released midway through 2016, featured heavily in many year end top ten lists, for a virtual unknown this side of the water an impressive task. Bell has a firm grasp on a folk roots sound with hints of country folded in as he sings of the dignity (and the plight) of the modern day USA working man. Following in a line from Woody Guthrie to Dylan, Steve Earle, Guy Clark and Springsteen, Bell’s songs burn with a smouldering sense of injustice and hurt, the American Dream laid bare, factories closing with folk having a hard scrapple existence. Despite the tribulations however there’s still a sense of dignity and pride, the victims as heroes.

I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love is the third album from the 56 year old Tennessee resident. Along with its predecessors, Blood like A River and Black Crow Blue it constitutes what he has called The Family Man Trilogy examining life today as a 50 something man, a family man and a working man. While the first two featured primarily Bell and his guitar on I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love he is accompanied by Missy Raines & the New Hip adding new dimensions to his sound. At its heart however is the voice and experience of a man who had a shot at Nashville back in the 80’s recording albums with his first wife before hanging out with the likes of Earle and Townes Van Zandt. It didn’t work out and Bell moved into white collar work forsaking music, remarrying and raising a family until the tectonic plates of capitalism shifted him into the ranks of the unemployed once more, the shifting ground finally settling when he once again picked up his guitar after almost two decades of silence.

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With such an intriguing story topped by the excellence of I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love, Blabber’n’Smoke was delighted when it was announced that Bell would be making his UK debut at Celtic Connections. An opportunity to speak with the man came up and we grabbed it with both hands so here is a conversation with Nathan Bell.

Hi there and congratulations on your album, it’s been really well received over here.

It’s done better across the pond than in the US and I appreciate that. Done well in the UK and also in Europe where they’re very keen on lyrics based music. Most of them speak English in the financially well off countries but it still surprises me that my albums seem to do best in countries where English is a second language.

You’ve played in Europe before so do you try to reciprocate and learn any of the languages over there?

Well, Dutch and German are so close together, when I was over there I was trying to speak in Dutch but I was pronouncing it like a German. My family line is Ukrainian and Dutch-German with something else in there somewhere.

But the Celtic Connections show is the first time you’ve played in the UK?

Yes. I’ve been to Edinburgh before but on a holiday. I had a tour in Holland and then my family came to meet me in Amsterdam and we got over to the UK. I have a friend who directs for the BBC in London so we came over and hung out and other than the fact that you can’t set foot in London without giving them all your money we had a great time!  We then came up to Edinburgh. Where I come from on the East coast of the States a lot of the people come from Scotland.

 I don’t do a lot of touring. I made a decision early on that I wasn’t going to do a lot of small shows and be away for several weeks. Partly it’s because I’m too old to do that, I mean put me on the road for  20 days and I’m dead, after two weeks I need a day off. And my music, it’s wordy, dense and there’s only a certain kind of audience who will come to that so if I can find that audience then I’ll book a short tour around them so I get to play really high quality places. But the life of a 19 year old in a band, that’s not me. I’m up there on stage on my own and I’m not bragging when I say I’m quite an accomplished guitar player and I know what will do well in front of an audience that’s paying attention.

I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love is said to be the third part of a trilogy of albums.

It is a trilogy of sorts. Record companies and PR folk tend to shy away from the use of that word because we’ve become such a short-term society that people are only interested in what is current but I started these records as a trilogy and if there was an over arching title for it would be the Family Man Trilogy. It starts out with Black Crow Blue which is about the single man in America, Blood Like a River is about the family and this new one is about working and it’s been about a four or five year process.

Much of the new album seems to be about people working or not working in what I suppose we call the rustbelt, the steel industry and such, people who have been having such a rough time of it recently.

Yes, these are jobs which will never come back. People say they will but they won’t other than in a boutique sort of way. There’s a company called Nucor Steel which recycles steel but the big plants are gone, we’re never going to make the level of steel that they do in China. We’re in a funny position in that the money moved up and it didn’t get replaced by anything. I’ve worked since I was eleven years old and I’ve experienced that first hand.

I know that you were in Nashville in the 80’s but that didn’t work out and you eventually ended up working in the telecommunications business.

In 1991 I came to Nashville. It didn’t work out but I kind of knew that from the moment I got there. I had a publishing contract and I was working with the producer Richard Bennet who worked with Steve Earle on Guitar Town. Richard became a good friend. But even in the process of getting all these things together, contacts and such that for some some people takes years of work to get hold of,  as soon as I got to Nashville I realised that this wasn’t necessarily what I was wanting and that they had a business model that wasn’t for me. It wasn’t their fault that I couldn’t be in their business model and you can only blame them if you did exactly what they told you to do and it didn’t work out. I never did that. So after about six months I was treading water and after two years I was out.

I accidentally ended up in telecommunications working with cell phones right at the point when everybody was starting to buy them. Then the company downsized as they always do so I was out for about a year. I got back then into the same business doing a different job but the parameters had changed so much and there were some ethical compromises I wasn’t willing to make. I tried to hold on to the job for as long as I could as I had a family growing up. If you have to make a living you make a living.  I mean they weren’t asking me to do anything that was evil or illegal it was just getting harder and harder to be successful without going into some gray areas which I wasn’t willing to do.

And all this time you were away from music, not playing or performing. I read some story about your wife one day setting up a guitar in your garage.

I didn’t play from around 1994 until 2008 and then a friend of mine, a songwriter called Don Henry invited me to a show he was doing and called me up on stage to do two songs. I could barely dredge them up, I was terrible; you know people always tell you it wasn’t that bad but it was that bad. And then after that I had to go on a business trip and when I got back my wife had a set up for me in this closet under the stairs, a tape player and a guitar and I’ve made most of these albums in that closet. It’s like a half closet with an angled roof but it’s got the sort of sound you would get in a $50,000 studio, I mean I couldn’t recreate this set up and sound for less than 50,000 bucks. And you know it’s like an aging football player, you put him in an over 50’s league and he starts thinking his glory days are going to come back and that was me.

Well according to a lot of folk over here those glory days are happening right now for you.

Yeah, I like that but I’m not as quick as these young guys anymore.

OK, but young guys, unless they are very gifted don’t have a lot to sing about. You’ve got a lifetime of experiences.

Well, the young ones are probably going to sing about girls or boys. For me, I come from a literary background and I would have liked to have written long fiction or long journalism if I wasn’t so bad at it. So I ended up writing short. I wanted to be Steinbeck or Jack London but you could only be those guys if you have experience. It was probably good for me to be out of it and doing everything else. Plus I love my life; I’ve always said that if the business had stayed relatively the same and I was able to do what I wanted to do then I wouldn’t be doing this because those years were wonderful, just wonderful. This just happens to be the next step.

The next step perhaps but folk are comparing you to the likes of Van Zandt and Earle and I thought that many of your songs inhabit the same territory as the likes of Rod Picott.

Wonderful compliments. Anytime anyone wants to compare me to writers like that or to some literary figures then I can handle that. As for Rod I know him, I bump into him from time to time. He’s the genuine deal, he comes from a real working man’s background so him and Slaid (Cleaves) know what they’re talking about. I respect what he does a great deal.

In terms of that your working career was in selling cell phones and working in middle management. So what gives you the insight or the ability to write about steel mill workers living in a rusty shack with their lives falling apart?

Well I didn’t have very much money most of my younger years. I mean I wasn’t poor, I had enough to eat but I wasn’t able to spend money like someone who was middle class. I spent about 19 years with the phone company and that’s about half of my adult life. The rest of that time I was doing jobs in the docks and in construction and in hotels and then later with the phone company  I have always been around people doing different jobs so all those conversations alone have been helpful in what I’m writing about now. I’ve been there working 80 hours a week picking up heavy stuff but I’m too old for that now, it’s cost me a shoulder and a knee.

You mentioned wanting to write like Steinbeck or Jack London. What draws you to writers?

My father is Marvin Bell and he’s at least a relatively well-known poet, he’s 79 now and he just drove off from here a few minutes before we started to speak. So I grew up around the writing department at the University of Iowa, it was my school so to speak and I guess that’s one of the reasons I didn’t go to University as  it had been such a big part of my childhood. My father and all his friends were writers and most of my friends outside the music business are writers.

I believe that you knew Studs Terkel.

Yeah. When I met him he was older of course and we weren’t what I would call close but he was in the Chicago folk circle which was very vibrant back in the eighties. I would run into him and talk to him. There aren’t that many people that I think of as being larger than life but  his book (Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do, 1974) changed the way that everbody looked at the study of work. It was a real pleasure just to have known him and to have talked to him.

Terkel worked very much in an oral tradition, is that what you’re trying to do?

Well, I’m trying to tell my stories honestly. If you look at them then you’ll see that almost none of them take the arc of promising something, well, ethereal. I’m actually a really happy optimistic guy but I see the life we’re living, the jobs we do, the reality of it.  Part of what we’ve lost in the world and with social media especially is that we’ve lost the way the oral tradition protected us, the way the folk world told stories that fostered a sense of community. If you listen to an Irish band, a Scottish band, a Cape Breton band or a blues band they’re playing music that you can understand in a form that’s fairly similar and their stories are just their own stories and I think that the folk tradition of songwriting is critical. My next album will be the first one that talks expressly about love but it won’t talk about love like say, Gerry and The Pacemakers (who I quite like), it’ll be my own weird dark version of it.

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On I Don’t Do This For Love you’ve got Missy Raines and her band playing with you. How did that come about?

I’ve known Missy for a long time, since 1986 or so, and she and her band came through our town and I heard them play and I thought this was one shot at getting a band like this on a record. These days bands don’t stick together, they have to be off earning somewhere all the time so now Ethan Ballinger, the guitar player is playing with Lee Ann Womack and Jarrod Walker is playing with Claire Lynch. But I got to have them for a couple of days in the studio and we recorded everything but the harmony vocals so for the most part it’s the five of us playing live in the studio. They’re wonderful musicians so all I had to do was stand there and get my part right.

As you said earlier, the songs are honest tales about working men. I was particularly taken by Jesus Of Gary, Indiana. Just reading the lyrics is impressive.

Thanks, I appreciate that compliment, it’s one of my favourites. I do work very hard to make the lyrics stand up without the music. They’re not poems but I think if you read them the cadence is there, the rhythm is there, the story is there and if it’s not then I won’t record it.

Speaking of poetry what are your thoughts on Dylan’s Nobel Prize?

Dylan is so important to what happened to song writing and the oral tradition. The only reason people are mad at him is because writers get mad when they don’t win awards so they’re all pissing ad moaning because it wasn’t one of them that got the award. The truth is that what Dylan did was exceptional, extraordinary. Some of his lyrics, if you go in and listen to them and read them it is literature.

America’s about to enter the Trump age. Are you still optimistic about the future?

Always. You know half of my family is Jewish so even us being here means that I’m optimistic. It’s only been 60 to 70 years since they stopped chasing us out of every country in the world. Optimism isn’t about everything’s going to be great. It’s if you do the work and you fight the fight and you’re honest and don’t pretend that things aren’t what they are that you can advance the cause of humanity.

I get that in your songs. The characters, despite the hardships, they are survivors.

Well, the way I see it, here’s an example. Leicester City wins the premiership and they won it with a bunch of guys everyone else had given up on. The secret is, if you’re here, you got a chance, if you show up you got a chance. If you hide in the corner and complain all the time then you got no chance.

Nathan Bell makes his UK debut at Celtic Connections on Thursday 2nd February at Oran Mor. He’s also performing on these dates.

Mon 6: Woodend Gallery Scarborough
Tues 7: The Green Note, London
Thurs 9: Drovers Arms, Puncheston, Haverfordwest
Fri 10: The Forge, Anvil Arts, Basingstoke

Website

 

Findlay Napier. A Very Interesting Conversation.

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It was a tired but happy Findlay Napier who met up with Blabber’n’Smoke in early February to talk about his latest release, an EP called VIP Very Interesting Extras. As the title implies this is a companion piece to his 2015 release VIP Very Interesting Persons, an album that was given the accolade of second best folk album of the year by Martin Chilton, music critic of The Telegraph. We had meant to talk in January but there was the little matter of Celtic Connections to contend with, Findlay’s workload there, hosting the late night sessions at Drygate (seven shows in all) along with his work curating Hazey Recollections just too much for his diary.

Very Interesting Extras, released this week, is a five song EP that complements the 10 songs on Very Interesting Persons. That album, a result of a mentoring project funded by Creative Scotland which saw Findlay teaming up with Boo Hewerdine, is a collection of songs about people who lived “interesting lives,” some famous, some not so. Favourably reviewed on release these songs about folk such as Hedy Lamarr and Mickey Mantle were fine poetic encapsulations with some biographical detail included but it was the imagery and allusions that stood out along with the quality of the playing and Napier’s strong vocals. Much of the biographical material was gleaned from the likes of Wikipedia in the first place with Findlay and Boo then taking the raw material and shaping it into song. Their success in bringing these characters to life in a musical setting was enhanced by the short notes which accompanied each song on the album sleeve. Tantalisingly brief they begged the listener to carry out their own Wikipedia expedition to find out more regarding these intriguing folk, folk like the Japanese soldier who refused to surrender until 1974 and Jimmy Angel, the pilot who accidentally discovered Angel Falls in Venezuela. Happily, Findlay has produced a book (VIP – Behind The Lyrics) which offers more detailed information on the subjects along with his inspirations for the words.

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The EP was recorded at the same time as the album and opens with another song about an historical character, this time Harry Houdini, and closes with another true story. The other three songs however are fictitious creations, dreamt up by Findlay from observations and situations he’s encountered. We started off by talking about the EP. The songs here are as strong as those on the album, there’s no sense of them being outtakes or demos so I asked Findlay why none of the five songs made the cut for the album.

Well, they were all recorded at the same time. We had 15 songs recorded but we only wanted to put 10 on the album, a self-imposed limit, so we had to consider which ones to leave off. After The Last Bell Rings, Princess Rosanna and 52Des aren’t technically about real people so they were the first ones to be left off. With How Will You Escape, well, we just thought there were too many songs in 3/4 time, Boo in particular was listening to the songs and making sure there was a certain amount of variation in the running order. So on the last day we recorded Eddie Banjo and Sweet Science simply because we had too many waltz time songs. The Houdini song actually was one of my favourite co writes with Boo. I wrote the three verses and sent them to him and he wrote the chorus and the music, he wrote it on a ukulele actually. And while it’s about Harry Houdini I was actually thinking of Amy Winehouse when I wrote it, that thing about having to please your audience and having to push yourself one step further. Houdini I think had to do that, in fact I think he died after challenging someone to punch him in the abdomen. And Winehouse, I mean Rehab was just perfect and then Back To Black came out and it was like, how can she top that? And when her drugs stuff was going on a bunch of us were drunk up in the Shetlands and we thought we should just get a van, go to London, grab her and bring her back to some croft and dry her out so she can get on with her music. Daft, but looking back maybe someone should have done it. However, back to the song and your question, as I said we just had too many in 3/4 time so it didn’t fit into the running order.

Can you tell us about these fictitious folk, Princess Rosanna for example?

I was underneath Jamaica St. Bridge, it was part of my running route and on the north side, under the bridge, someone had spray painted in luminous pink, “RIP Princess Rosanna” and I took a note of that on my phone and it just grew out of that. I haven’t found out who Princess Rosanna was, nothing on Google or anywhere so I liked the idea that it’s a bit of a mystery, was she murdered, did she drown, was it suicide? It’s a wee bit like Taggart, I wanted to leave that unknown and then I liked the idea of her body being taken out by the tide and then coming back in, I can see it as a wee black and white film. I used to hill walk with my dad on a place called Ben Rinnes and close to that is a smaller hill called Babby’s Moss. It’s named after a woman who killed herself and was buried there because as a suicide she couldn’t be buried in a churchyard or cemetery and that had always stuck with me, I mean, what an unchristian thing to do to someone who was so unhappy they killed themselves. At least let them actually rest in peace because they weren’t at peace when they were alive. So that was woven into the song.

And what about 52Des?

Well Des is not a real character but it was a real number plate on a car, a BMW I saw in Haghill when I was out running. In Haghill there were doorways were people were dealing and I thought, “Oh Man, don’t park a brand new BMW outside an old tenement,” because that’s giving the game away, telling the police a drug dealer lives here. The last line, “your beautiful things always give you away,” it’s like in crime films where there’s always one idiot in the gang who can’t wait to spend the money instead of sitting on it until the heat fades, so Des is that guy.

Folk will know who Harry Houdini, who you sing about on How Will You Escape, is but can you tell us what inspired the closing song, Showfolk?

Boo wrote that one and it’s a kind of complicated story. The album was a Pledge campaign and a guy called Jono McLeod who is a filmmaker was one of our major backers at the level where we would write and record a song based on his idea. He then sent us a story that was just perfect for VIP all about his uncle, a Scots’ comedian called Jimmy Mac. I had several goes at writing it but they were awful, just dreadful attempts and then Boo just called me up and said I’ve done it and sent it to me and it was just right. It’s a great story. Jono’s uncle was a comedian in Glasgow working in music hall and he then fell in with a troupe called Fred Roper’s Performing Midgets down in London. Roper had this trick of promoting his show by organising midget weddings and he thought it would be a great idea to have Jono’s uncle, a tall, slim guy, marry a midget. Her name was Winnie and even though it was a publicity stunt she fell in love with Jimmy, Jono’s great uncle. It’s a bizarre story, in fact there’s a whole album of songs or even a movie in there all about Fred Roper’s Performing Midgets but you can’t really say midget these days, the term now is little person. Anyway the song’s about Winnie and her having to come to terms with it all being a publicity stunt and it’s full of killer lines from Boo like, “the angel on my shoulder lied, perhaps the lie was mine,” and really I can see Boo just running through this minefield of political correctness trying to write this song without using THAT word. It could be too easy to turn it into some funny circus type song but it’s turned out really beautiful. And another great thing about it and something I totally forgot to mention on the EP credits is that Jono sang the backing vocals on the song. He came in to film us recording and we managed to persuade him to do it so there’s a nice connection to the story and the performance as it was his uncle and he sings on the song. It’s even weirder how Jono came to find out about the story. He was at some exhibition in London and saw this photograph and recognised his uncle in it. So he went to his family and asked them and gradually got all the details. His uncle, Jimmy Mac, appeared at the Panopticon with Stan Laurel back in the music hall days and then years later he was actually in Dad’s Army as one of the Home Guard platoon!

Going back to the album, you mentioned Eddie Banjo and it’s a song that really stood out for me when I first heard it, it reminded me of Gerry Rafferty’s Can I Have My Money Back.

My dad told me about Eddie Banjo and Boo said, “let’s try to do a song with only one chord,” so up until the bit from You Are My Sunshine kicks in it’s only one chord. But, I can see what you mean about Can I Have My Money Back, I love that album. In fact one of my early memories was a birthday party, I must have been about primary one,  and my parents played that song while we were doing musical bumps, you know, everyone has to sit on the floor when the music stops and as we all jumped down the needle was skipping and jumping on the record. My dad, I think a lot of his records were stolen at one point but he had Penguin Eggs and Can I Have My Money Back and Do You See The Lights by Rab Noakes, maybe a Hamish Moore album as well. There was also an album called The London Hootenanny (recorded live in 1963 with martin Carthy, Alex Campbell and Nigel Denver among others) and I learned every song on that album and then later we got Rab Noakes’ Standing Up which was a big influence on me, I learned how to do all the songs on that album. Standing Up is a real good solid album, it’s like, “here’s how to write a song and here’s how to put a bunch of them together and if you do that it’s going to be great.”

Is it true that you used Wikipedia to find out about these characters?

We used Wikipedia for some of the songs, Hedy Lamar, The Man Who Sold New York, Angel Falls, Rising Sun, Idol in Decline. Sweet Science was mostly taken from an article in The New York Times. Eddie Banjo was a story from my dad about a guy who used to tramp around Wick, What A Shame About George, well, that’s just me because I love George Jones. Valentino I got from Tumblr when I saw a picture of her there. The Sport of Kings was mostly from a Guardian obituary of Sir Henry Cecil which I tweaked a bit

So, out of these twelve characters which one is your favourite or the most intriguing?

It’s probably Hedy Lamarr. It was again really weird how I found out about her. I was watching a documentary on The Adverts and they said that Gaye Advert, the bass player, looked like Hedy Lamarr. I’d never heard of her so, onto Wikipedia and it had this stuff about her inventing Bluetooth, “Aye right, typical Wikipedia,” I thought, but I looked a bit further and sure enough, she had developed a forerunner of the technology. I was playing a gig and when I was introducing the song some guy shouted out, “Oh, she didn’t actually invent Bluetooth,” and I was like, “Okay, this is a gig, not a lecture, let’s just say she did for the sake of the song.” But there was so much more about her, married six times, done for shoplifting, just a fascinating life but such a hard one. People think; Hedy Lamarr, rich and famous, but she was beaten up by her husbands, she wanted to be a scientist but the guys in charge said no, they didn’t want that, they just wanted her for her looks and that’s what that line, “every time the lights shine down you disappear,” means, Hedy Lamarr vanishes and all we see is the character she’s playing.

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Picture copyright Shaun Purser

You’ve said the release of the EP wraps up this VIP phase so what’s next on the cards?

There’s a tour coming up for late February and March, all over the place right down to Torquay and back up again. In London I’m doing a show called Boo Hewerdine and Friends along with Chris Difford and Brooks Williams, we did it last year at the Ely folk festival. We all do short sets and then bits together and it went down a bomb so I’m really looking forward to doing it again. It’s an honour to play with Boo and Brooks and especially with Chris Difford, he’s one of the greatest lyricists in the world in my opinion, him and Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello.

Then I’ve been thinking about a couple of projects. I’ve been living in Glasgow for 20 years come October so I’d really like to do something around that, 20 years in Glasgow, although it might need a snappier title. I’m also really keen to do a folky type thing with some of the hip hop artists around, folk like Loki and Solareye from Stanley Odd, I’ve got this thing in my head that’s a folk hip hop thing that I want to sort out. And then there’s a song writing workshop with Karine Polwart. That’s already sold out and it’s pretty exciting. Teaching or tutoring has really blossomed over the past few years and I’ve been really lucky because I’ve been doing it for some time so I’ve got the skills needed. Apart from the workshops with Karine I’ve done stuff at the Scottish Music Centre and some really interesting work with Vox Luminis who work with prisoners and their families. I went to Castle Huntly prison with Louis Abbott and Donna Maciocia for three days and we wrote songs with the guys in there and it was fantastic.

There’s also a couple of commissioned pieces I’m doing. One for the Hartlepool Folk Festival writing about East Durham and that was really interesting. East Durham is where the final scene in Get Carter was filmed, the black beach and the coal being tipped out to sea. Well now it looks like the Mediterranean, the sea is blue, so clear you can see the rocks below. It’s a beautiful place now but its surrounded by all these old colliery towns that have problems, no work and lots of drugs. A really rich history to write about. I’ve also been asked to write a song for the 250th anniversary of my hometown Grantown on Spey.

Finally, how did it feel when The Telegraph put VIP in second place in their folk album of the year list?

Fantastic, really really fantastic. Stuff like that, well it helps when you try to get a gig, they might not seem too interested but when you point that out they perk up a bit. It’s like a passport and it’s helping to open doors in America and hopefully Europe, I’d really like to do more tours over there.

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So there we have it. The album, EP and book are all available via Findlay’s Bandcamp page  and his tour dates are all  here including a show at The Glad Cafe on March 2nd. All very interesting indeed and, who knows, the knowledge contained within might just include that esoteric piece of information that will win you the tiebreak in your local pub quiz. If not, well, just enjoy some very fine and very interesting  music.

Blue Rose Code @Celtic Connections. Mitchell Theatre, Friday 29th January

Our last blast from this year’s Celtic Connections.

Blabber’n’Smoke is happy to stand on anyone’s coffee table in our scuffed boots to proclaim that Ross Wilson, AKA Blue Rose Code, is one of the most exciting acts to have emerged from the Scottish diaspora in the past few years. He simply is the best writer and performer about; having seen him in several guises (solo, small band, big band) he is a mesmerising performer while his songs are a continuation of all that was good about such luminaries as Van Morrison, John Martyn and Jackie Leven. Committed as we were to reviewing some Celtic Connection shows for Americana UK including this one we’re grateful to David Ferguson who sent us his review of what was a tremendous night.

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Blue Rose Code is the pseudonym of singer-songwriter, Ross Wilson, a native of Edinburgh and currently based in Bournemouth. 2015 was a particularly notable year for Blue Rose Code, including as it did a SAY Award nomination (Scottish Album of the Year) for The Ballads Of Peckham Rye, a series of successful tours, a number of sparkling performances on radio and television, lavish praise from celebrated broadcasters Ricky Ross, Roddy Hart and Edith Bowman, recognition from Ross Wilson’s beloved Hibernian Football Club and the acquisition of a celebrity fan in Ewan McGregor. The start of 2016 saw yet another ‘first’ for Blue Rose Code, in the shape of his first-ever headline gig at Celtic Connections, on 29th January in the elegant Mitchell Theatre. This special event had been arranged to enable Blue Rose Code to preview his forthcoming third album, …And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing and to give fans the only opportunity to buy copies of the eagerly-awaited album prior to its general release in March.

Ross Wilson’s versatility is such that he is equally at home performing intimate solo gigs, as a trio or with a small band but, with up to eleven musicians on stage at any one time, this special gig was most definitely a case of “Blue Rose Code – max”. The line-up varied throughout the show, according to the arrangements and dynamics of each song. Ross Wilson revelled in the role of band leader, bringing the best out of the accompanying musicians and drawing great inspiration from them in return.

Ross’s customary beard was reduced, on this occasion, to a rather splendid pair of mutton-chop sideburns, all the better for the audience to witness his ever-widening smile as they roared their appreciation at the end of every single song. There was a richness and variety to the ten songs which make up the new album, yet they fitted together beautifully as a coherent whole. The set opened with an abridged version of the awe-inspiring gospel song, Grateful, featuring a quietly impassioned vocal from Ross Wilson, embellished by Angus Lyon’s elegant piano and feathery counterpoint vocals from Eliza Wren Payne. The majestic My Heart, The Sun featured pulsating rhythms, smoothly rippling trumpet and an anthemic chorus. The carefree swagger of Rebecca, a gentle country blues, gave way to one of the most achingly beautiful, tender and gracious break-up songs you will ever hear in Pokesdown Waltz, whose gently-whispered closing line surely brought a tear to the eye of most everyone in the room (”…the only regret that presides is that I do wish I’d kissed you goodbye…”). Ross Wilson then quipped that the next song, Glasgow Rain, would bring an end to “divorce corner” for the evening! This song was cinematic in scope, bringing a deeply soulful vocal from Ross (“…the rain fell like dominoes along Great Western Road….”) and a masterclass in cool and sweet jazz from the formidable combined talents of Colin Steele (trumpet), Nico Bruce (double bass), John Lowrie (drums) and Angus Lyon (piano).

In The Morning, Parts 1 and 2 was an extended tour de force, which started with the breezy country soul of part one and segued dreamily into the mesmerising ebb and flow of part two. The fragile beauty of Love, a perennial fans’ favourite which has finally made it onto an album, was notable for Ross’s ethereal vocal and delicate washes of cello, violin and trumpet. The free-flowing Favourite Boy was performed solo by Ross, with the rhythms provided by playful piano chords and foot-taps. In The Morning, Part 3 saw Ross’s vocals build gradually from pastoral lilt to passionate exhortation and featured an exquisite violin solo from Lauren MacColl and stunning ensemble playing from the full “caledonian soul orchestra”. At various points in the show, added musical textures and colours were provided by Graham Coe’s expressive cello and Signy Jakobsdottir’s bewildering array of percussion instruments and effects.

The main set came full circle to finish with an extended and intensified take on Grateful, with uplifting gospel choruses courtesy of Eliza Wren Payne and Emily Kelly, quicksilver blues guitar licks from “Wild” Lyle Watt and a series of beautifully-constructed and increasingly fiery trumpet solos from Colin Steele. There was still time to run through a couple of older favourites, including Edina, Ross Wilson’s affectionate and bittersweet tribute to his native city, which included another gorgeous violin solo. Sandaig was a quietly stirring and poetic evocation of the landscapes enjoyed by Ross during a memorable weekend spent in the Knoydart peninsula. As a final treat, and as this gig coincided with the seventh anniversary of John Martyn’s death, Ross Wilson paid a touching tribute to one of his musical heroes with a beautifully-judged cover of Fine Lines.

It was a sheer delight to hear the songs on the new Blue Rose Code album played in sequence, underlining the cohesion and uniform brilliance of this collection of songs. Having successfully come through several challenging periods in his life, Ross Wilson has attained a serenity which is reflected in the mellowness, elegance and grace of his songs and the warmth, assurance, charisma and inspiration which characterise his live performances. Ross Wilson’s instantly-recognisable brand of Caledonian Soul has reached a new level with this outstanding third album, which promises to elevate him to his rightful place among the elite of British singer-songwriters.

David Ferguson