Norrie McCulloch – These Mountain Blues live at Tron Theatre, Glasgow 18th March 2016

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Such is the way of the music business that it’s been four months since Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Norrie McCulloch’s second album, These Mountain Blues which only is released this week. It’s a beautiful album, the songs warm and expertly crafted, an opinion only reinforced last week when the limited edition vinyl album was delivered leading to several further listens.

The album was given an official release show on Friday night at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in the fine setting of their Victorian Bar. Part of the regular Seven Song Club nights, McCulloch was given special dispensation to go over the usual seven song limit, the album unveiled in all its glory and played by the cast who recorded it. With Stuart Kidd on drums and Dave McGowan and Marco Rea swapping piano and bass duties through the night before a sold out crowd there were a few nervous moments from Norrie particularly when one of his guitars appeared to be somewhat recalcitrant when being tuned. However the band stepped up to the mark, their camaraderie obvious as they gamely held the song aloft as he found his stride. The audience, it must be said, willing him on.

These Mountain Blues has been receiving rave reviews across the board and it was a treat to hear the songs tonight. The musicians have lived with these songs for a while and their expert playing offered a fine sense of grandeur to McCulloch’s song writing while he delivered the words with grace, his voice warm, able to sound weary or joyous, stained with his memories.

Calico Days was an excellent opener, a clarion call to believers much in the way that Fairport Convention rallied their listeners on Come All Ye on Liege & Lief, its punchy drive and elegant piano nailing McCulloch’s colours to the mast. This bracing folk rock vibe was continued on Pass By My Door again with the piano prominent particularly on the closing melody and it was the fine interplay between McCulloch’s guitar and McGowan’s stately piano playing that elevated the following These Mountain Blues into a thing of wonder. Written by McCulloch after a trip to Townes Van Zandt’s grave it’s the beating heart of the album and the standout tonight although it was run a close second by McCulloch’s solo rendition of Black Dust, a song written for his grandfather who was bruised and eventually died from his coal mining exertions. A song that could well have come from the pen of Van Zandt was given a local bearing as McCulloch’s voice was more noticeably Scottish here while his words recalled the late William McIlvanney’s stout celebrations of the stoic Ayrshire working man.

The songs flowed sweetly. The grim acceptance of fate on Hard To Be The Man You Are Not and the plaintive loss of New Joke (here given a lengthy rendition) and The Old Room were testament to the band, the songs and the singer as they floated from the stage. Cloudberry Flower was a brief return to a more upbeat feel before they closed with the heartrending When She Is Crying Too and Heart’s Got To Be In The Right Place. The latter tentative at the beginning but as we said earlier it was gently guided by the band into its rightful place as a grand finale to a superb suite of songs.

The Seven Song Club generally features three acts, each confined to seven songs. Tonight’s set was opened by Alan Tempie, a chap you might encounter busking in the city centre. Playing guitar and using a harmoniser pedal on his vocals he sang a mix of his songs and some covers. His renditions of The Divine Comedy’s Lady Of A Certain Age and Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talking certainly pinned him to a late sixties troubadour style, a style he carried off well with hints of chaps as varied as L. Cohen and Peter Sarstedt. His own Florence Foster Could Not Sing, a song about a 1940’s socialite who self funded her recording career in spite of her lack of talent, was a delight, a song that could sit easily on Findlay Napier’s VIP album.

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Everywhere were up next. A grizzled three piece they parlayed some songs that one would have termed “pub rock” back in the days, some funk, some Merseyside sparkle with guitarist/singer Jimbo MacKellar laying into his guitar. They then stretched back into a psychedelic haze that recalled The Pretty Things at their most deranged before ending with a cracking deconstruction of Bowie’s Jean Genie, the verses slowed down amid whip smart bursts of the chorus, the guitar shredded this time.

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Although the spotlight was on Norrie’s album launch, the two acts here offered up some fine appetisers.

 

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Norrie McCulloch. These Mountain Blues. Black Dust Records

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Ayrshire man Norrie McCulloch’s 2014 album, Old Lovers Junkyard, remains possibly Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite Scottish album of the decade. McCulloch, seemingly from nowhere, wove a magnificent tapestry of country and folk influenced sounds on the album, its creamy pedal steel to the fore. However, as we mentioned when reviewing the album, there was more than a hint of classic UK folk rock lurking in the grooves, in particular the slightly jazz inflected keyboard work that John Martyn and Nick Drake used to adorn their songs on the cusp of the sixties and seventies. These Mountain Blues, due for release in February, reverses the mix. Yes, there are some sublime songs here which could stand tall beside the works of Townes Van Zandt or Guy Clark, the pedal steel still warms but the prominent instrument here is the piano, its cascading notes colouring the album with an autumnal melancholy and offering an understated grandeur. A perfect accompaniment for McCulloch’s excellent sense of nostalgia and regret expressed through his songs and his very fine, slightly wearied, voice.

Recorded live to analogue tape in the space of three days at The Tolbooth in Stirling (which just happened to have a baby grand piano in situ), These Mountain Blues captures McCulloch and his band (Dave McGowan, upright bass, piano and pedal steel; Marco Rea, bass and piano and Stuart Kidd, drums) in fine fettle. There’s an intimate organic feel to the disc as if they were playing in your room conjuring the images from the songs in front of you. McCulloch’s writing is evocative as he sings of his landscapes, his forebears and his descriptions of outsiders trying to fit in as on the impressive New Joke.

The album opens with Calico Days, a punchy acoustic guitar riff, not dissimilar to Bert Jansch’s work with Pentangle, grabs you before the rhythm section and piano glide in. A hymn in praise of life and the power of music McCulloch welcomes “old friends,” urging them to “bring your stories and your grace on these Calico days.” It’s a wonderful breeze of a song and the most upbeat on the album although the sweeping Pass By My Door which follows is a close contender. Here McCulloch captures some of that heady mix of folk, blues and jazz which informed Van Morrison on songs such as Young Lovers Do on astral Weeks. The freewheeling vibrancy and joyousness of the song is really that good, the piano celebrant, the lyrics approaching Morrison’s stream of consciousness way back then.

However if there’s a template for this album then it’s a fair bet that John and Beverly Martyn’s Stormbringer would fit the bill. Recorded in Woodstock in 1970 with Levon Helm on drums that album was produced by Joe Boyd with arrangement by Paul Harris who also played the very elegant piano parts. The sound they created informs much of These Mountain Blues with the title song a fine example. It’s a poignant recollection of McCulloch’s visit to the grave of Townes Van Zandt and as it soars and weeps the piano chords are resonant amid the guitar balladry at the heart of the song. Hard To Be The Man You Are Not and New Joke follow in similar style, wearied songs almost limping along but buoyed up by the piano along with pedal steel on the latter and it’s pedal steel which predominates on the tremendous When She Is Crying Too, a song which fulfils the promise shown on Old Lovers Junkyard. It’s a beautiful song, expertly played; steel guitar gliding over the slow rhythm and rich piano playing as McCulloch turns in a great vocal and lyrics,

” when that thief nightime comes around and steals the stars before they’re even out / that’s not the only crime even when you’re not here/ all it takes is a song for the pieces of my heart to start to disappear.”

Wreathed in a forlorn LA country vibe, When She Is Crying Too has some of the emotional heft and melancholic beauty of Gene Clark in its veins and is the stand out song here. That’s not to dismiss the remainder as McCulloch sings of his grandfather’s travails in the coal mines on Black Dust, a song that is defiantly rooted in local folk roots while The Old Room is another heady bout of nostalgia delivered with a light touch. Cloudberry Flowers is suffused with jangling acoustic guitar and woody bass and again captures some of that late sixties folk vibe and the album closes with another superb song, the ethereal Heart’s Got To Be In The Right Place. This tale of a split family, mother and father separating, is given a superb arrangement, the instruments delicately tip toeing around each other as McCulloch sounds forlorn, it’s a song that tugs at the heartstrings.

Richly textured, warm and chilling, soaked in memories and delivered with its heart on its sleeve These Mountain Blues is proof that Norrie McCulloch is mining a rich seam of songwriting. He transcends his influences creating some beautiful music which deserves to be heard by all who care about music.

Release date 26th February but you will be able to pre order the album on CD or vinyl soon via Norrie’s website