Sounds in The South Part 2 – Martha L Healy, Al Shields & David Starr. The Glad Cafe, Glasgow. 16th May 2019

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There was an undeniable sense of déjà vu around as this talented trio of singer songwriters reconvened for a night of storytelling and song singing,  almost exactly one year since they last appeared at The Glad Cafe. Aside from the three familiar faces onstage much of the audience seemed to have been at the last show and, on a night where Hayes Carll was also appearing in Glasgow, the trio pulled in a handsome crowd, filling the back room auditorium.

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Playing “in the round,” each performer singing and then passing the baton on, the show was not however a retread of last year’s performance. Sure enough, some songs were repeated but a quick perusal of a review of last year’s performance showed that much of the evening was fresh and, with as much attention given to the dialogue preceding a performance (an essential element of a songwriters’ in the round experience), there were anecdotes and stories galore. So, aside from insights into their songs’ gestations from all three, we were given a glimpse into the “back stage” manoeuvrings which assist in setting up shows such as this with sound files flying over the Atlantic in advance allowing, for example, Ms. Healy to sing harmonies on a new song by Starr. There were also laughs in abundance throughout the night, most of them instigated through the droll humour of Shields although Healy gave as good as she got with the pair of them bickering in the best fashion of The Handsome family with Healy’s driving ability questioned. Shields also had the funniest story of the night when explaining why several expected audience members hadn’t turned up; note to self: check your Facebook privacy settings.

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Aside from that, the trio were in top form musically. Starr had just stepped off his ‘plane from Colorado the day before and had only sound checked with his Glasgow and Leith based collaborators that afternoon, the first time they had played in a year. While the roundtable presentation is suited for solo performances, each musician was able to join in on songs be it on vocal harmonies or adding guitar with Shields and Starr both taking solos on many of the songs of the night. Shields sang the excellent Boys In The Band from his most recent EP but also reminded us that he’s been ploughing a bittersweet strain of Americana for several years with renditions of Way Back When and Johanna. There was a pin drop silence in the room as he sang the lonesome Counting The Hours with Starr commenting at the end on how good a song it was. Healy featured several numbers from her highly acclaimed album, Keep The Flame Alight, with the title song and Falling In Love Again resonating with the audience who hung on to every word. Her mini melodrama, Woman With No Shame, was preceded by some sparring with Shields whose interpretation of the song”s protagonist differed somewhat from Healy’s. The song itself is a masterpiece of social observation. Starr, with no evidence of jet lag, proved again that he is well versed in the grand traditions of American song writing kicking off with the deep romance of Edge Of The World and then dedicating No Time Like The Present to his wife Cindy who was in the audience. He unveiled some new songs, one from an ongoing project based on a novel written by his grandfather, Fred Starr. The novel, Beauty And Ruin, is set in late nineteenth century Arkansas and Starr is collaborating with John Oates, Dana Cooper and Jim Lauderdale among others to produce an album based on the book and tonight we were introduced to the title song. Another collaboration with Oates is the song, Rise Up, written by Starr after a post -op “morphine dream” which featured his father and grandfather. It’s another swell song which has a hint of classic Laurel Canyon singer songwriter in its bones reminding one of JD Souther.

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The trio concluded their two hour set with a nod to one of the foremost singer songwriters of our time as they delivered a sublime rendition of John Prine’s Angel From Montgomery. A great ending, but the crowd were hooting and hollering for more so our three intrepid songsters huddled up before launching into the Eagles’ Take It Easy, Starr piloting with Shields and Healy as his wingmen. The crowd loved it.

 

 

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David Starr. South and West

61v48w2essl-_ss500Blabber’n’Smoke was glad to have a sneak preview of Colorado musician David Starr’s latest album, South and West prior to him playing a show in Glasgow this week. The follow up to his acclaimed Love & Sabotage (from 2016 with a John Oates’ produced EP in between), South and West is another robust and joyful dive into those halcyon days of freewheeling and hair flowing country rock songs from the seventies with a dash of more introspective melodies giving the album just enough emotional ballast to prevent it from flying down the freeway.

Written in Cedaredge, Colorado and recorded in Nashville (hence the title) Starr and his accomplished band (Dan Dugmore, guitars, pedal and lap steel, mandolin; Erik Stucky, mandolin; Mark Prentice, bass; Mike Severs, guitars; Howard Duck, keyboards and accordion; Tommy Hayden, drums) expertly navigate the difficult waters of playing like a plethora of the usual suspects (Eagles, Poco, Fleetwood Mac) while not copying them and even occasionally wandering into unexpected backwaters as when they deliver Could Have Run Together with its churchy organ and sweet guitar outro recalling The Stones’ in their more mellow moods. Starr, who wrote or co-wrote all bar one of the songs here, has his finger on the button throughout with arresting images such as on the opening lines of Nothing Short as he sings, “There’s a jar full of nickels on a stand beside the bed. The sun hits it in the morning, shines like a million bucks.”

The album opens with a classic wide open road song on Good As Gone, the restless spirit of the adventurer bouncing out of the speakers buoyed on frantically scrubbed acoustic guitar, a propulsive rhythm and some muscular guitar breaks. There are several such numbers here. Love Won’t Make Itself starts off as a breezy Fleetwood Mac like number before Dugmore’s pedal steel weighs in and transports the song into cosmic cowboy territory. Even better is the fiery Until It’s Gone with Starr singing, “Of the ten commandments I’ve broken nine, and the tenth I’ll believe I’ll break in time,” as the band really rock out with barrelhouse piano, wicked slide guitar and caroming bass and drums, the song coming across as a brilliant mash of Springsteen and Joe Walsh.

Nestled between these rousing anthems are several more laid back numbers. The sweet accordion and pedal steel laced Don’t Give Me Hope, the yearning that is the mandolin speckled Night Rolls Around, a song reminiscent of Jackson Browne, and the closing These Damn Goodbyes, an excellent song which conveys a wonderful sense of bittersweet memories and letting go. Nestled within these songs Starr conjures up an excellent cover of Elton John’s Country Comfort, a fine reminder that the man with the funny specs (and his writing partner) used to matter. While it’s fairly faithful to the original the band swell out the song excellently and Starr sounds uncannily like John. He’s aided and abetted here by his quartet of harmony singers who sing throughout the album adding yet more texture to the fine band sound.

All in all South and West is an almost perfect collection of breezy country rock with some added muscle provided by the excellent ensemble playing. Starr is obviously well versed in his forebears and he is well able to dig a similar seam. Perfect summer listening.

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David Starr. The Head and Heart

original-the_head_and_heart_coverWhen Blabber’n’Smoke first heard David Starr on last year’s Love & Sabotage  we likened him to Poco, Steve Stills, JD Souther, Andrew Gold and even Fleetwood Mac. The album (which featured contributions from Ritchie Furay, Steve Cropper and John Oates) was a wonderfully melodic slice of country tinged rock music and on the one occasion we saw Starr play the songs live he more than made up for a lack of a band with his enthusiasm and skill honed from many years on the road.

The Head And Heart, Starr’s six song EP follow up is a more reflective affair with little of the California highway breeziness that dominated the earlier album. Instead, Starr offers up some robust thoughts on the inner self and the temptations and conflicts we all face from day to day. The EP finds his friend John Oates firmly in the driving seat as he produces and arranges all the songs breathing new life into one Starr recorded some years ago and also tackling a golden oldie.

Starr proved on Love & Sabotage that he can delve into the more introspective and folkier side of things with his excellent You Will Come To Know and here he continues on that path. The album opens with The Edge Of The World, a peek into the mysteries of women and their beguiling ways that’s cloaked in a sumptuous melody with cello and pedal steel adding a quiet majesty over a pulsating rhythm section, somewhat akin to Jackson Browne’s work on For Everyman. The following title song is similar in delivery with the backing musicians somewhat stellar here with some very fine percussion (from Greg Morrow) in particular. Starr sings here of the ongoing conflict between emotional and rational thoughts, that moment when it’s tempting to just do it and consequences be damned while an inner voice is screaming just the opposite. Here his voice is strong and earnest with Oates adding fine harmonies. It’s a wonderful song and perfectly executed.

There’s more roots rumbling on the closing Dancing With My Pride (co written with cellist Bob Leipman) which utilises the woody timbre of the cello (played here by Nat Smith) to underscore the elemental aspects of the song as Starr picks upon a theme suggested by his reading of a book written by his grandfather. Here he sings of a farmer wronged in the past but for whom hope springs eternal as the song sashays from  haunting verses to a countrified middle eight with the cello coming across like a fiddle and parlaying with mandolin and pedal steel.  Again this song exemplifies the contradictions that Starr dots throughout the EP as the song attempts to defeat pessimism with an optimistic hope for the future and there’s a wonderful moment when his voice just drops into a whisper on the last line of “I’ll forgive her soon by the light of the prairie moon. Imagining her kiss and her sweet perfume. I’ll close my eyes and I’ll see her face , in a dream I’ll be the man I hoped to be. But for now…”  in a manner that is reminiscent of Warren Zevon.

Elsewhere Starr heads into darker territory on a pair of songs which have a burnished sheen to them that is in danger of roaming into AOR in the eighties. Waiting In The Dark shimmers with a menace as Starr descends into drugdom in the inner city but the scything guitars and polished production mark the song as somewhat out of step with the overall sound of the EP.  I’ve Come For You is another rainpuddled neon sign reflective slice of nightlife but it’s delivered much more successfully with some actual wickedness in the slide guitars and a sense of venom in Starr’s vocals.

Finally, Starr takes the brave step of covering California Dreaming, a song that’s imprinted on just about everyone and a choice that beggars the question of why redo this one? Apparently it was suggested by Oates as fitting into the EP’s theme of contrasts and for sure, despite it being thought of as the epitome of hippie heaven, the song actually is a wistful plea to be in sunny climes as the singer is stuck in a cold and dreary place. Starr (and Oates) take this melancholic yearning as the starting point for a dramatically reinvented version that replaces the Mamas & Papas soaring vocals for a wintry and claustrophobic New York winter feel, the band closer to The Insect Trust than Papa John and Mama Cass.

Davis Starr is currently touring the UK. all dates here including a Blabber’n’Smoke House Concert on 23rd May. PM for details.

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David Starr. Love and Sabotage.

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The unassuming, almost professorial, chap staring at you from the cover of this album doesn’t give a hint of the sparkling old school country tinged melodic rock he’s packaged within the cardboard. Starr, from Colorado, has a hefty pedigree under his belt with five previous albums and a lengthy list of acts he’s supported or played with, several of whom turn up here including Richie Furay, John Oates and Steve Cropper. The album ranges from classic guitar driven freeway friendly songs to fiddle and mandolin rich ballads, suffice to say if the likes of Poco, Steve Stills, JD Souther, Andrew Gold and even Fleetwood Mac (circa Rumours) floats your boat then you should lend your ears to the 15 songs on offer here.

The title song opens the proceedings, a radio friendly riff of a song sparked with soaring guitar breaks and some snarly lap steel that keeps it grounded, there’s a muscular heft in the rhythm section and keyboards. It’s classic FM fodder, the Eagles and even Boston recalled as Starr sings with confidence. Secrets, a co-write with John Oates (who provides harmonies), is another song that, had it been released back in the days, could now be a staple of retro radio. It’s supremely melodic in the Fleetwood Mac manner with a winning guitar break and an excellent middle eight featuring some fabulous harmonies. Starr turns in several other songs in a similar vein, the aching Called It Love, a Jackson Browne like drama with Steve Cropper adding some sinuous guitar lines and Our Mistakes which glistens with some Byrds like guitar flourishes.

The album is finely balanced with a brace of introspective numbers and some rootsy ramblings. Long Ride Home is a cosmic cowboy lament, an intricate lace of slide and electric guitar with mandolin and accordion it’s a valedictory to life on the road and beautifully delivered. What Do You Recall is a stripped down piece, piano and fiddle and voice only as Starr peers into a memory of a love, a song that is painfully wonderful, like a love song to a dementia sufferer if that’s not supposing too much. Memory also features on the slinky and slick night-time blues of Afraid as Starr revisits his past while The Beautiful Music Of You (featuring Furay on harmonies again) is a simple love song with a hint of sadness provided by mournful viola.

The rootsiness shines through on the Dobro and accordion driven Acadian rhythms of You Will Come To Know and the jaunty harmonica led skip of No Time Like The Present. However the crowning glory here is Starr’s rendition of Tumbleweed, a song written by Canadian Tia McGraff. With a grumbling and growling guitar underpinning some sweet mandolin and fiddle playing along with some very sweet harmonies (courtesy of Tania Hancheroff) Starr here recalls the luminous sound of Emmylou Harris on Wrecking Ball.

Love and Sabotage is an excellent album and the good news is that Starr is currently touring the UK although he’s performing solo. However, on the strength of this he seems well worth seeing. He appears in Glasgow as part of the Southside Fringe on Thursday his other dates are here.

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