The Orphan Brigade. Heart Of The Cave. At The Helm Records

ath201317_cover_artTwo years ago Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Josh Britt got together to record The Orphan Brigade – Soundtrack to a Ghost Story, an album recorded in a “haunted” antebellum mansion on a civil war battle site. Touring the album in Europe they landed in Osimo, Italy, a town with its own ghostly past and a warren of ancient caves under its streets to boot. Taken by the place they returned for a ten day stay later and recorded this album in those caves with Glover explaining, “I had a profound sense that we were stepping into the past, into a mysterious and ancient world.” As on the previous album the trio enlist assistance (Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh, Kris & Heather Donegan, Dan Mitchell, Dean Marold, Will Kimbrough, Natalie Schabs, Eamon McLoughlin, Audrey Spillman and Kira Small) and while many of the songs relate directly to the history and myths of Osimo they retain their distinctly American sound that resonated throughout the earlier album. Mandolin and softly strummed guitars predominate although there are strings and horns and some wonderful vocal arrangements.

Although it opens with a brace of spritely numbers the album overall is dark and reflective.   The opening Pile Of Bones is a primeval workout, a chant over scrubbed instruments and a tribal thump as a massed chorus sings, “we ain’t leaving but a pile of bones” An invitation to reflect on our mortality and not dissimilar to Patti Smith’s Ghost Dance. Town Of A Hundred Churches is resolutely set in the Italian town they’re in but it swings with a fine mid western breeze and, as the notes state, could as easily have been written about Nashville. Similarly their song about a 17th century local mystic who could levitate, Flying Joe, is given a fine string band gospel arrangement. There’s a return to a primeval stomp on Alchemy but the remainder of the album is of a darker hue.

Osimo (Come To Life) has the pace of a funeral procession and is suffused with images of death being just a gateway to a new life with its final refrain a nod to the many carvings in the walls of the caves. Meanwhile Pain Is Gone, a hushed affair sung over a simple acoustic guitar for the most part, again delves into the mysteries of death. This flirtation with mortality might be partly explained by the fact that as the band were recording the album Italy suffered several earthquakes with loss of life. This may have informed the pair of songs, The Birds Are Silent and The Bells Are Ringing, that sit at the centre, the former has the earth shaking and urgent descriptions of people clawing at ruins looking for survivors in a chilling song that rattles along like a south western bandit ballad full of cinematic drama. The Bells Are Ringing, by contrast, is a firm rejoinder to celebrate the destructive power of nature and is given a rapturous delivery.

The album closes with four powerful songs. Sweet Cecilia is moored firmly in that dark Americana vein populated by ghosts and dead lovers while Meet Me in The Shadows is a dolorous affair, ghostly voices singing from Stygian depths.  That glimmer of hope that death is the not the end is revisited on There’s A Light That Never Goes Out, the one song here that sounds truly cavernous with the piano and percussion reverberating amidst ominous sound effects with the ghost of Leonard Cohen hovering somewhere nearby. Donna Sacra, with a wordless female voice, is a rapture of sorts. A close to the album emphasised by the final sound snippet of an Italian train service announcement as the band come back to the surface.


Ben Glover. The Emigrant. Proper Records


Although Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t previously reviewed any of Ben Glover’s albums his is a name which has cropped up several times.  He co-wrote Gretchen Peters’ wonderful Blackbirds, winner of ‘International Song of The Year’ at the UK Americana Awards back in February and he was one third of The Orphan Brigade who released the very fine Soundtrack To A Ghost Story around a year ago.

An Irishman who has lived in Nashville since 2009 Glover was drawn to consider the theme of migration as he was going through the process of getting his Green Card. Of course Ireland has had waves of emigrations over the centuries but the current political climate, dominated by the plight of refugees across the globe and the ensuing backlash and rise of xenophobia assures that this resulting album has a topical purpose. For all that it’s far from a polemical album. Instead Glover has reached back to popular and traditional Irish songs that evoke feelings of displacement and exile  and to these he has added four songs, three co-written with Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier and Tony Kerr, the title song, commenced in Ireland and finished in collaboration with Peters being the starting block for the album.

Co produced with fellow Orphan Brigadier, Neilson Hubbard, the album stays close to its Irish roots, the instrumentation is spare; acoustic guitar, piano, fiddles, Uilleann pipes, whistles the primary instruments. Glover skilfully wrests the traditional and cover songs from any cosy sense of familiarity, the arrangements breathing new life into them while the presence of his own songs prevents the album from becoming a set of “well kent” Irish songs, the album as a whole a powerful listen.

Opening with a stirring rendition of The Parting Glass, the upbeat tempo belying the air of farewell within the song, Glover immediately takes us into an Irish heartland, a fiction perhaps of a jolly lot managing their loss through alcohol, oft posited by numerous screenplays. Aside from a slight return to a toe tapping moment on the traditional Moonshiner, another song with drink at its centre, the rest of the album is a more sombre affair, the reality of alienation and loss hitting hard. A Song Of Home, one of the originals is a magnificent effort, glover’s voice yearning, at times approaching Van Morrison’s stream of consciousness repetitions, the song celebrating the landscapes, mists and mysteries of a remembered homeland. The title song follows opening with plangent piano, a Tom Waits’ like moment considered perhaps but it then swells with Uillean pipes as Glover dissects with his poet’s scalpel the curse of the emigrant, “to be cut loose from all you knew, beyond the pale, beyond the blue…the restlessness, the discontent…” It’s a deeply moving song that stakes its claim immediately to be considered part of the folk canon. The co-write with Mary Gauthier, Heart In My Hand, is a roving fiddle fuelled ramble while Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers is a very brief reiteration of the lines inscribed within the album sleeve, Glover’s alternative to Emma Lazarus’ words welcoming emigrants to the USA.

Woven between these bitter pills are the familiars. Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here, Glover more impassioned than McTell’s original, more bereft. The Auld Triangle wrings out all the emotion it can from this well travelled song with a touch of Shane McGowan to be sure in here. The Green Glens Of Antrim closes the album and again Glover summons up ghosts and memories, an emigrant looking back through rose tinted glasses, delivered here like a Hibernian Tom Waits. Finally Glover manages the almost impossible task of breathing new life into a song that through familiarity has somewhat lost its original impact. He tackles Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda with a raw vocal and a tremendous arrangement, half Waits, half Weill as he snarls and rages, finally collapsing into a bereft croak, the band playing on.

It’s not that often that an album captures such a terrible zeitgeist but Glover here lays down a powerful challenge to those who just see immigrants taking up their council houses and jobs. Several of these songs should accompany news items but that’s too grand to ever happen. Still, there’s social media there to spread his message. On a more local level we should mention that Glover is appearing at next week’s Glasgow Americana Festival performing in the round with Boo Hewardine and Roddy Hart (information here).



Gretchen Peters. The Essential Gretchen Peters. Proper Records



Gretchen Peters‘ career has been an interesting intersection of her song writing skills and her own performances. Initially she was successful as a writer, her songs providing hits and awards for country stars such as George Strait, Shania Twain, Trisha Yearwood and Patty Loveless. As a performer she found the going tougher, her early albums struggling to get recognition. Gritting her teeth she ploughed on and in part due to her frequent visits to these shores she gained momentum here, Bob Harris an early champion, and then in the States, eventually being inducted into the Songwriters Hall Of Fame. Her last album Blackbirds (reviewed here) is the pinnacle of her career so far, lauded far and wide. Now, on the eve of yet another UK tour she releases this handpicked two-disc overview of her work so far, not a “best of” but an intriguing collection of familiar songs, rarities and demos.

Disc one contains a selection of songs from her albums going back to 1996’s The Secret Of Life. It opens with the tremendous murder ballad Blackbirds, a bold move but the twelve songs that follow aren’t shadowed by it, indeed they cast light on the excellence of her work throughout her career along with her versatility. There is one previously unheard song here, a collaboration with Bryan Adams on When You Love Someone, an achingly tender duet in classic boy/girl country style, pedal steel weeping away. Elsewhere there’s no doubting the majesty of songs like Hello Cruel World and Sunday Morning (Up And Down My Street), the simple truth of If Heaven and the hypnotic pull of The Matador.

A fine selection but for any avid Peters’ fan the lure here is the second disc, the demos and live songs, many of which are unveiled for the first time. Here one can hear her own versions of The Chill Of An Early Fall (a hit for George Strait) and Independence Day (Martina McBride) while an early recording of Blackbirds with vocals shared by the co-writer, Ben Glover, is stunning. There’s a live recording of The Stone’s Wild Horses from the Wine Women and Song set up (Peters, Suzy Bogguss and Matraca Berg) with heavenly harmonies while Peters also covers John Lennon’s Love (from his Plastic Ono Band album) and sings a dreamlike When You Wish Upon A Star, originally recorded for a charity album some years ago. Best of all is the stark The Cruel Mother, a song that was included as a bonus track on some versions of Blackbirds. It’s a song soaked in tradition, Celtic and Americana, lilting and mournful and just wonderful.

Ms. Peters will be appearing at Celtic Connections on the 30th and 31st January as part of an extensive UK tour. Dates here

The Orphan Brigade. Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. Proper Records

Two Americans and an Irishman walk into a haunted house… No, it’s not the opening line of a joke but the punch line for the story behind The Orphan Brigade. The three (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Ben Glover) have built an album around the tales and histories of characters from the Civil War period, notably Confederates housed in and around a plantation house named Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky, sixty miles north of Nashville. The Hall still stands, spared from immolation by the Northern troops, an antebellum reminder of the horrors of war and slavery and reputed to be the “most haunted house in America.” With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the trio set up shop in the haunted house to write and record the album with assistance from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, Heather Donegan, Dean Marold, Eamon McLoughlin, Dan Mitchell, Barry Walsh, Carey Ott, Brad Talley, Zach Bevill, Jim DeMain and Ryan Beach.

It’s a fine back story and the cast tell tales of spooky happenings during the recording, much of it captured on a documentary directed by Hubbard and Britt. However, entertaining as this all is it’s much more than an Americana version of American Horror Story, the good news being that the album stands up to scrutiny whether the listener knows the origins or not. It’s not a retelling of the era in the vein of White Mansions although there are songs that refer directly to the experiences of the historical protagonists. Rather it’s an impressionistic capture of the spirit (sorry) of the times delivered in a variety of styles that gather in musical influences but are rooted in modern music. One could imagine that The Band or a solo Robbie Robertson might have made the album.

The war does loom large on the wheezy accordion tooled I’ve Seen The Elephant, the delicate harmonies of Last June Light and the martial numbers, The story You Tell Yourself, decorated with slight mandolin and throbbing guitar and We Were Marching On Christmas Day which captures excellently the tribulations of the foot soldier in a wintry waste. On a more optimistic note The Good Old Flag points to the reconciliation required after a bitter war and is delivered as an excellent mid tempo ballad buoyed on some fine guitar flourishes and sublime harmonies.

There’s a wealth of styles here, a sea shanty on Cursed Be The Wanderer, an Irish Lament with Paddy’s Lamentation and some slide driven Southern grit on Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet). Whistling Walk appears at first to be an oddity, a whistled instrumental with a jazzy cornet and guitar it ambles into view with an unexpected jocularity but when one reads that it’s inspired by the fact that slaves carrying food from the kitchen to the table were ordered to whistle in order to prevent them eating any of the food then it falls into place.
As we said earlier, the album stands on its own two feet but there’s a wealth of information to be had for anyone wanting to delve, either into its making or the history it commemorates and is heartily recommended.


And just because it’s Halloween

Tom Russell. The Rose Of Roscrae. Proper Records

The first thing to say about this album is that if you intend to listen to it then best go out and buy some beers and snacks beforehand. Next, get a comfy seat, set up your audio for its best “widescreen” effect and prepare to sit through two and a half hours of prime Americana country folk opera. It’s an effort for sure to sit throughout The Rose Of Rosecrae but having done so on three occasions (along with several dips into individual songs) Blabber’n’Smoke can confidently declare that ultimately it’s an interesting and rewarding endeavour and that the album, while not quite the masterpiece that some are pronouncing, is poised to loom over competitors in year end lists.
Tom Russell is no stranger to themes and concepts with previous albums such as The Man From God Knows Where and Hotwalker comprised of songs and spoken word, sound collages and guest artists. The Rose Of Roscrae takes this to another level, it’s a full blown musical story that traces the journey of a young Irishman to America where he goes West (as young men were inclined to do) allowing Russell to include Celtic laments, talking blues, cowboy songs, square dance, slave songs, Native American chants, Gospel and Mariachi music. Weaving traditional songs, standards and his own material into his sonic tapestry Russell has engaged a luminous cast of characters using archive recordings and contemporary collaborations to flesh out the story, the list is daunting……………
Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Olney, Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Fats Kaplin, Barry Walsh, Jimmy La Fave, Gretchen Peters, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Walt Whitman, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Jack Hardy, David Massingill, A.L. “Bert” Lloyd, Finbar Furey, Sourdough Slim, Blackie Farrell, Tex Ritter, Glen Orhlin, Pat Russell, John Trudell, Henry Real Bird, Thad Beckman, Maura O’Connell, Eliza Gilkyson, The McCrary Sisters, Ian Tyson, The Swiss Yodel Choir of Bern, Bonnie Dobson, Lead Belly, Guy Clark, Dan Penn, Gurf Morlix, Pat Manske, The Voices of the Waverley School, Pasadena, California and The Norwegian Wind Ensemble.
You get the picture.
As we said the album is a night in, the songs rolling over you. Some are snippets, over in less than a minute but like connective tissue essential to the overall sinewy aural chew. However there is sustenance galore in many of the individual songs which cleave to Russell’s familiar styles, bold and proud American folklore with sparkling guitar and Dobro providing punch and his spoken soliloquies that paint campfire pictures with tender guitar backdrop. When his hero is thinking back to his homeland Russell captures a fine Hibernian air which is best heard when Finbar Furey provides an excellent Carrickfergus/ The Water Is Wide before Russell wades in with a fierce expatriate’s memories of the Irish landscape. Throughout the album Russell deploys his “actors” as a director might with Jimmie dale Gilmore’s high lonesome voice capturing the frontier while David Olney rants magnificently as a hang ’em high judge. Meanwhile Eliza Gilkyson is a fine vocal foil to Russell on the opening songs of the second disc as does Gretchen Peters before the story heads down to Mexico allowing Augie Meyers and Joe Ely to shine.
Overall there isn’t enough space here to dig deeply into the 52 songs that comprise The Rose Of Rosecrae. Suffice to say that it’s a bold adventure and one that by and large succeeds. It’s begging for a visual accompaniment, a stage show or film gathering all of the cast (although the deceased might have to phone it in) but it’s safe to say that for those who have enjoyed Russell’s previous thematic albums this is essential. As for the others I’d recommend a deep breath, some popcorn and open ears and prepare to be astonished. Tom Russell will be appearing in Glasgow as part of Glasgow Americana in October.


Gretchen Peters. Blackbirds. Proper Records

It’s surprising that Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t featured Gretchen Peters before now. Recently inducted into the Nashville Songwriters Hall Of Fame Peters has steadily built up her reputation as a writer for other singers and a solid performer in her own right. A frequent visitor to these shores Ms. Peters returns in spring and on the strength of Blackbirds she’s well worth seeing. The album is billed in the promotional literature as being about loss and ageing following a bleak period two years ago when she attended three memorial services in short order. However Blackbirds isn’t a morbid listen, instead it’s a defiant and at times uplifting experience. This is partly down to the music here as Peters and her players (who include Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimborough, Kim Richey, Suzy Boguss and Jerry Douglas) offer some sterling country rock romps with When All You Got Is A Hammer, a song about a war veteran’s fragile state, ripping away with electric guitar and Dobro zipping about over a mandolin driven rhythm. Black Ribbons has a folkier feel with accordion added to the mandolin although there’s a bubbling undercurrent of churning guitars which add a sense of danger. This sense of danger is apparent from the opening title song which has a chunky guitar bite that recalls Neil Young’s Harvest era as Peters unfolds a grim murderous tale, one she repeats at the close of the album (on an uncredited extra track) however on this occasion it’s much starker with an acoustic accompaniment that reflects the back cover of the album which is like an alt country version of Hitchcock’s Birds.

Peters says that when writing this album she spent time listening to 70’s singer songwriters and this is apparent on the Joni Mitchell influenced Pretty Things which opens like an outtake from Ladies Of The Canyon with Peters singing “I knew a girl who said that beauty kills, dulled the pain with wine and pills, took that slow ride down the hill to nowhere.” A female chorus and reverential keyboards drape the song but the Mitchell influence remains strong throughout and this is repeated on Everything Falls Away although here the template is Blue. Again Peters embroiders what might have been a stark offering from Mitchell with swathes of chords and strings to come up with her own triumphant song. It would be unfair to say that Peters is simply channelling Mitchell and her contemporaries and this is made apparent on the magnificent The House On Auburn Street, a song that captures in words a perfect picture of a past event that left a mark. Peters sings evocatively while the musicians weave a delicate sound tapestry with brushed drums and rippling strings that recalls the groundbreaking work of Fairport Convention on A Sailor’s Life.
In a simpler vein there’s a fine duet with Jimmy LaFave on the yearning When You Coming Home while the stark piano and strings of Jubilee is akin to the best of Jackson Browne in its mesmerising simplicity and awe. The closing song, The Cure For The Pain is another simple unadorned song, perfectly executed and the most sombre note here as Peters defiantly cocks a snoot at whatever life throws at us.

Ms. Peters is bringing a band over for the first time in the UK. Tour dates here


Beth Nielsen Chapman. Uncovered

Released in time for her appearance at Celtic Connections, Uncovered is pretty much the obverse of the usual covers record. With a healthy reputation for penning hits for others in addition to being a fine performer in her own right Beth Nielsen Chapman has delved into her bank balance (sorry, her notebooks) to deliver a selection of songs she has written but not recorded before, the majority of which were hits for the lucky recipients. To cap this she’s rounded up a host of luminaries to guest on most of the songs she’s chosen. The roster includes Duane Eddy, Vince Gill, Kim Carnes, Gretchen Peters, Suzi Boguss, Darrell Scott and our very own Phil Cunningham.

Given that many of these songs were written (perhaps) with an eye on the market I have to confess that several of them are not what would normally rock Blabber’n’Smoke but Chapman usually wins out even on her version of This Kiss, a hit for Faith Hill although Pray did test our endurance somewhat (despite it being one of the songs recorded in Scotland). However there are some cracking moments here with Sweet Love Shine (a co-write with Waylon Jennings and which features Jennings’ widow Jessie Colter and twang master Duane Eddy) featuring Chapman in sultry mode with Eddy adding his own eddies of subdued twang in the background. Strong Enough To Bend (written for Tanya Tucker) is a fine bluegrass romp while Meet Me Halfway wears its Bonnie Raitt origins proudly on its sleeve as Chapman, Bekka Bramlett and George Marinelli get down and dirty with guitar and organ mining a Southern groove.
Chapman excels herself on the tremendous rush that is One In a Million with guitars scrubbing away and a chorus that rings to the heavens before the countrified lament of Five Minutes offers an opportunity to hear what a fine singer she is as sleek pedal steel skirls around what is an almost perfect example of a strong female ultimatum to her man who done wrong. It might be bias but for us the standout song is the other one recorded in Scotland. Nothing I Can Do About It Now was written for Willie Nelson but Chapman, Phil Cunningham, Duncan Chisholm, John McCusker, James Mackintosh, Euan Burton, and Matheu Watson offer up a rollickingly good honky tonk cut with some excellent clamorous pedal steel and of course Cunningham’s accordion which adds a peculiar Scottish lilt to the Texicali feel.

Chapman appears at the opening Celtic Connections show at the Royal Concert Hall today before her own show on Saturday 18th January at the City Halls.