Heidi Talbot. Here We Go, 1,2,3… Navigator Records


In the space between her last album, 2013’s Angels Without Wings and this, her fifth release Ms. Talbot has undergone several changes, the birth of her second child, the passing away of her mother. More mundanely, she and husband John McCusker have built their home studio in the Scottish borders. Here We Go, 1,2,3… reflects some of these changes. There’s a contemplative aspect to several of the songs, a looking back and forward aspect. In addition she describes the new recording set up as being, “in your own environment, you’re comfortable, you’ve got all the time you need and the kids can come over.” Fittingly then she has written or co written eight of the ten songs here, a departure from previous albums where she relied mainly on traditional covers or songs from her extended musical family.

While Talbot’s (and McCusker’s) folk roots still underpin the songs with Uillean pipes and tin whistles prominent on Time To Rest and The Willow Tree, the album continues the slight shift into the mainstream that was evident on Angels Without Wings. Talbot here is closer to Eddie Reader than to Julie Fowlis and the beauty of songs such as A Song For Rose (will you remember me) and Tell Me Do You Ever Think Of Me recall the days when Linda Thompson was still singing the songs penned by her then husband Richard. Talbot’s voice is, as ever, a thing of joy. Light and clear with a youthful vulnerability to it she soothes as she sings, indeed there’s a childlike anticipation on the uplifting lilt of the opening title song despite it being about meeting in the afterworld. Likewise, A Song For Rose (will you remember me), written while her mother was ill, reaches into the past with a childlike refrain with Talbot’s daughter joining in briefly on the last chorus. While such a venture could easily become maudlin here it’s managed with grace and tenderness, the song  beautifully realised with warm strings. Throughout the album Talbot draws pictures that are evocative and warm. The Year That I Was Born sparkles with a nostalgia that anyone digging through old photographs will recognise while Tell Me Do You Ever Think Of Me starts off like an old grandfather clock brooding over Talbot’s tentative love song, the ensemble playing here just excellent, percussion, strings and horns all wrapped cosily together.

The musicians (including the hubby, Louis Abbott, Michael McGoldrick and Donald Shaw) conjure wonderful sounds throughout. Gossamer like on occasion, elsewhere gently swelling, all captured in a great clarity. It’s a comforting album, one to be savoured at length and perhaps late at night cosseted by a fine beverage.






John McCusker. Hello, Goodbye. Under One Sky Records


Since he first came to attention as a 17 year old prodigy invited to join The Battlefield Band back in the early nineties John McCusker has become a cornerstone of the UK folk music scene. His fiddle playing has graced many an album while his production and arrangement skills have seen him work with numerous artists and ensembles, one off projects, television and film work. Regularly nominated for (and often winning) all sorts of folk awards he is as often to be found working with rock and pop musicians and regularly tours as part of Mark Knopfler’s band.

Hello, Goodbye is his sixth solo album and it features a fine cast list including James Mackintosh, Ewen Vernal, Ian Carr, Michael McGoldrick, Andy Cutting, Tim O’Brien, Phil Cunningham, Jarleth Henderson and McCusker’s partner Heidi Talbot (heard briefly as the album opens). Coming 13 years after his last solo effort it’s the first to be recorded at his new home studio, a converted bothy next to his Borders home and is a welcome return to the frontline for this folk Renaissance man.

Aside from a (very) brief sung part as the album opens, it’s all instrumental with all of the tunes written by McCusker. Having said that the album is as traditional as the hills, jigs, reels, waltzes and laments all represented, sounding as if McCusker has grasped them from the very air, melodies of the ages, reshaped by each generation. There are modern elements in there, the funky bass line of FooFog for example or the nod to the American duo The Milk Carton Kids on the same titled tune, a fiddle lament with acoustic guitar gracings.  Throughout the album McCusker duets with various musicians on more fiddle, mandolin, guitar or flute as the rhythm section skip merrily along defying the listener to sit still. From the titles of the tunes it’s apparent that he’s written these almost as a musical diary, the titles reflecting life events, his own or of friends. It’s A Girl, The Wedding, A Trip To Roma, Molly’s Waltz/Heidi’s Waltz  and Tune For Nana probably all resonate strongly with McCusker and his family and friends but there’s no sense here of exclusivity. Instead it’s indicative that, despite his impressive CV, McCusker has kept close to his roots, as happy to write a reel to celebrate a friend’s wedding as he is to share a stage with Bob Dylan. A cert to be on the lists of top folk albums by the end of the year.



Blabber’n’Smoke’s Top Ten for 2013

I succumbed to the idea of a top ten for the first time last year and if nothing else it’s been useful looking back at it over the past few days and comparing it to the list below. Was it a good year for music? I don’t know. Has there ever been a bad year? All I can say is that I’ve enjoyed listening to music this year as much as the last one and the year before that and so on. Many of last year’s list still get regular plays here so at least I liked them and the number one, John Murry’s Graceless Age has had a second wind with its eventual release Stateside. It may seem odd to have an artist with two entries in the list but both albums by Michael Rank & Stag are simply superb examples of what Blabber’n’Smoke would define as Americana; rooted in the country with a frontier outlook and a fierce regard for the common folk. And a happy coincidence to have two works from Howe Gelb mentioned also as he continues to plow his singular field. Both albums have striking images of Gelb threatening to turn him into an Americana icon, part Mt. Rushmore, part Dorothea Lange, for Blabber’n’Smoke, he’s a hero. Anyway, here’s what rocked our boat over the past twelve months.

1. Doc Feldman & the LD50. Sundowning At The Station. This Is American Music

Soiled songs and dusty ballads sounding like a wounded Crazy Horse. A triumph for label of the year, This Is American Music.

And here’s the man himself

2. Michael Rank and Stag. Mermaids. Louds Hymn

Wracked and raw country folk and rock from North Carolina’s Michael Rank. In the space of two years he’s delivered three albums (one a double disc set) that in a fit of hyperbole we said it sounded as if Keef had left the Stones in ’69, joined The Band and recorded with Neil Young frying honeyslides in the kitchen. At the very least it comes close.

3. Israel Nash Gripka. Israel Nash’s Rain Plains. Loose Music

Guitars weave and wander with a ferocity and lyricism that defies description and he repeats this throughout the album and there’s a moment in the title song where the guitars fizz and burn just like the best firework you’ve ever seen.

4. Cam Penner. To Build A Fire. Independent

“Ukuleles, guitars, banjos were strummed. Floors were stomped. Kick drums were kicked. Feet stumbled. Thighs, knees, hands, slapped, clapped. Voices strained and bent. Fingers gripped, grabbed, picked. Arms and hands flung. Skin wrapped tight strained and stretched. Body and sound thrown against wood and metal.”

5. Michael Rank & Stag. In The Weeds. Louds Hymn
No apologies for the second appearance from this tall, stick thin North Carolina rock’n’roll ragamuffin. The sonic slurry he conjures up is nothing less than mesmerising.

6. Sam Baker. Say Grace. Independent

Baker’s wounded heart goes from strength to strength

7. Diana Jones. Museum of Appalachia Recordings. Proper Records.

She’s not well known but whenever we mention her there’s a flurry of activity from folk who recognise Jones’ ability to sound as old as the hills and bang up to date, the thinking man’s Gillian Welch?

8. Birds of Chicago. Birds of Chicago. Independent.

JT Nero makes an honest woman of Allison Russell as they formally pair up for a laid back celebration of harmony singing and some Tupelo honey.

9. Dead Flowers. Midnight at The Wheel Club Hee Haw Records

Dark and deep, vocally and lyrically, a trip through North America and the soul.

Dead Flowers – The Beach from deadflowers on Vimeo.

10. Wynntown Marshals. The Long Haul. Blue Rose.

Local heroes, The Wynntown Marshals survived some turbulent years with band members coming and going. With new crew on board they came up trumps with a bigger, more layered sound and another fine songwriter in the shape of bassist Murdoch McLeod who penned the amazing Tide. Topping off a great year for them the band were snapped up by the very discerning blue Rose label.

Honorable mentions

Howe Gelb. The Coincidentalist
Howe Gelb. Dust Bowl
Mark Collie & his Reckless Companions. Alive At Brushy Mountain State Penitentiary.
J. R. Shore. State Theatre.
The Coals A Happy Animal
Benjamin Folke Thomas. Too Close to Here
Slaid Cleaves. Still Fighting The War
Thriftstore Masterpiece presents Lee Hazlewood’s Trouble Is A Lonely Town.
The Quiet American. Wild Bill Jones
Amanda Pearcy. Royal street
Heidi Talbot. Angels Without Wings
Jim Dead I’m Not Lost
Rachel Brooke. A Killer’s dream
Great Peacock E. P.

Mary Dillon and Heidi Talbot

Catching up on some Celtic Connections related items here’s our take on a couple of albums released by participants in this year’s shindig.
First up is Mary Dillon with North, a fairly traditional album of songs from this Northern Irish singer and sister of Cara Dillon. Mary was a member of Irish band Deanta way back in the nineties but retired from the music business for the past decade or so to raise her family. Stepping back into the fray North is a fine selection of mostly traditional songs on which she sings beautifully and is supported by a very talented group of musicians including former Deanta band mate Neil Martin who arranges the strings on the very affecting lament Edward On Lough Erne Shore. With all of the songs having a connection to Northern Ireland and having grown up with the majority of them Dillon seems to live and breathe by them and this is apparent in the delivery. Her voice appears as if out of a mist, clear as a bell, intimate and warm whether it be unaccompanied on the haunting Ard Ti Chuain which closes the album or the gently lilting and mildly ribald When’s A Man’s In Love which open the proceedings. This is an album that’s as warm as a glass of whiskey on a cold winter’s night, to be savoured and taken at one’s leisure.

Heidi Talbot chose to have the official release party of Angels Without Wings at Celtic Connections, fittingly enough as it was recorded in Glasgow’s new Gorbals Sound Studios. While she’s backed in the main by her regular band including husband John McCusker and Boo Hewerdine the album includes contributions from such luminaries as Jerry Douglas, Mark Knopfler, Tim O’Brien, Karine Polwart and King Creosote. While stellar line-ups don’t always guarantee a result Talbot has hit pay dirt here as the album is as swell a selection of modern folk songs as one could wish for. From the Hurdy Gurdy folksiness of the title song to the bare boned The Loneliest the playing is excellent and Talbot’s voice hits home with its childlike vulnerability. When The Roses Come Again is perhaps the most traditional sounding song here but the best is saved for last with two heart tugging songs, My Sister The Moon and Arcadia that are sumptuous and beguiling. Pillows of sound waft from the musicians while Talbot sounds vulnerable, cosseted by the very sympathetic playing. All in all a fine showing from a singer who deserves to be held in the same regard as Sandy Denny and Linda Thompson.

Heidi Talbot at Celtic Connections

Another Blabber’n’Smoke favourite who’s appearing at Celtic Connections is Heidi Talbot. Irish born she was a member of America’s Cherish The Ladies before returning to the UK and hooking up (professionally and personally) with John McCusker. With a new album, Angels Without Wings, set for release she plays the Old Fruitmarket on 27th January, sharing the bill with Paul Brady. We haven’t heard all of the album yet but the four songs on display below show that she’s building on her fine 2010 debut , The Last Star which found her finding her own songwriting skills.
Angels Without Wings was recorded in the Gorbals Sound Studios with her regular team of Ian Carr (guitars), Phil Cunningham (Accordion), Michael McGoldrick (flutes/whistles) James Mackintosh (percussion), Boo Hewerdine (acoustic guitar) and Ewan Vernal (bass). It features guest spots from Mark Knopfler, King Creosote and Karine Polwart.
When we reviewed The Last Star we thought that there was a similarity in the sound and feel to Richard and Linda Thompson’s early recordings and the title song of the new album confirms this as the accordion and brass would sit easily within Hokey Pokey. When The Roses Come Again meanwhile has that heartaching quality that Linda Thompson was so good at conveying.
Proper Records have autographed copies of the album for sale at http://www.propermusic.com/product-details/Heidi-Talbot-Angels-Without-Wings-Ltd-Autographed-Edition-146125