Peter Bruntnell and Norrie McCulloch. Sounds In The Suburbs @ The Doublet, Glasgow. Wednesday 22nd March 2017

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At times, it seems like life is just one big shit storm, the past year a steady downpour of blows against the empire of anyone in their right senses. So any rays of sunshine are to be welcomed and one such was the welcome return of Peter Bruntnell (a cult hero according to The Guardian  to Glasgow just a few months after his last visit to the city. Back in September Bruntnell and his band tore the roof off as the guitars gyred and gymbled with some ferocity. As that Guardian article pointed out Bruntnell is not only a psychedelic guitar warrior but also a master of the perfectly crafted pop song. Tonight this side of his coinage was expected to be at the fore as he proffered the UK debut of The Peter Bruntnell Trio; Bruntnell on acoustic guitar, Scots string wizard Iain Sloan on pedal steel and veteran  Danny Williams (ex Black Grape and St Etienne)  on double bass.

The trio, packed into a corner of the tiny room with a capacity audience just inches away didn’t disappoint. The opening Clothes Of Winter was a winsome reminder that Bruntnell follows in the footsteps of writers such as Nick Drake, a sense reinforced by the following Sea Of Japan while Tin Streamer Song was suffused with memories of a lost way of life. The songs were delivered with a creamy melancholic air, Williams supple on bass, Sloan winding his way through the melodies and they turned in magnificent versions of Here Come The Swells and an awesome By The Time My Head Gets To Phoenix. So far so sublime but the trio (despite this being their first time together) expanded their sound with Sloan picking up his telecaster and Williams proving to be quite adept at coaxing sounds from his bass with his bow with the first murmurings heard on John, a song that pays tribute to Mr. Cash that had some stormy guitar from Mr. Sloan. They ventured further into the hinterland with a stunning delivery of Cold Water Swimmer as Williams bowed a low droning backdrop before Bruntnell and Sloan added some fractured psychedelic haziness as the song slowly segued into the summery bliss of Domestico, tonight given a tougher approach than on the recorded version.

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Allowing his compadres a breather Bruntnell played End Of The World solo which was quite mesmerising, a quiet moment equal to the best of McCartney as on Blackbird. With the band back on St. Christopher flowed sweetly while Have You Seen That Girl Again dipped into power pop territory. The crowd were loving this but all too soon the curtain dropped allowing the one encore which surprisingly saw Bruntnell dipping into the catalogue of another English songwriting genius as he performed Roy Harper’s Another Day. A wonderful end to a fantastic show.

 

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The evening opened with Norrie McCulloch, Stirling based singer/songwriter who has recently released the excellent Bare Along The Branches. I saw Norrie play a very fine album release show a few weeks back but have to say that tonight topped that. Playing a 12 string acoustic for much of the show added resonance to his playing which was further aided by the electric guitar of Dave McGowan who came on stage for several numbers. The opening Calico Days (from second album These Mountain Blues) positively skipped with joy and celebration. It’s a song that increasingly reminds me of Fairport Convention’s Come All Ye, not sounding similar but a fellow jubilant hymn to comradeship. From the new album the languid Little Boat floated on McGowan’s liquid guitar fills, Frozen River rippled with a folky lilt and Around The Bend satisfied all with its down-home Neil Young like honeyslide harmonica intro. Best of all though was the closing song which was a tremendous performance from McCulloch and McGowan of Beggar’s Woods, a song soaked in memories and tonight glowing with McGowan’s silvery playing.

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Norrie McCulloch & Iain Sloan with Howie Reeve and Michael Anguish. Seven Song Club. Tron Theatre Glasgow. Friday 13th February

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Norrie McCulloch’s Old Lovers Junkyard was one of Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite home grown albums of 2014. Its honeyed country stylings coupled with McCulloch’s warm rasp of a voice and his fine song writing all added up to a winner, an album that’s been receiving ongoing radio plays and gathering new followers; certainly anyone we’ve recommended it too has been quite effusive in their praise. Friday was our first opportunity to see McCulloch in action as part of a trio of acts appearing at the Seven Song Club in one of Glasgow’s hidden treasures, The Victorian Bar at The Tron Theatre. All warm and woody it was a perfect setting for his heartfelt songs. An added attraction was that McCulloch was appearing accompanied by Iain Sloan of The Wynntown Marshals playing pedal steel guitar, an instrument he uses not only for the Marshalls’ jangled rock but also as the current dreamweaver for progressive rock band Abel Ganz. An intriguing set up we thought. Old Lovers Junkyard wallows at times in the pedal steel yearnings of Dave McGowan but a two man show, acoustic and pedal steel only remains a rare beast. Willie Vlautin and Richard Buckner have appeared thus in live situations but on record we can only recall the magisterial And The Hits Keep On Coming, Michael Nesmith’s 1972 album recorded with just him and Red Rhodes on board. While there’s a recording of Nesmith and Rhodes playing live live on The Amazing Zigzag Concert box set this set up is not one that you would generally come across. It intrigues in two ways; pedal steel is apparently difficult to master and naked might miss a tight rhythm section to bolster it. However, with its ability to change pitch and harmonics it’s almost unique in its ability to accompany human voice, to echo, support and cosset the singer.

Anyhow, waffle aside, McCulloch and Sloan fitted together like bread and butter. Seven songs, as advertised, wafted around the room, McCulloch assured, warm throated and ebullient, Sloan caressing the songs, creating wafts of billowing buttered sounds and occasionally soloing with a deftness and warmth that demonstrated the emotional capabilities of the instrument that Danny Wilson (of Danny & The champions Of The World) describes as the ironing board of love. Indeed as McCulloch sang Sloan appeared to be almost caressing his instrument, coaxing it into life, a winning combination indeed. As for the songs there was a fine mix of old and new, four from Old Lovers Junkyard and three from McCulloch’s current recording sessions. Old Lovers Junkyard itself was given a desolate and yearning feel with Sloan’s pedal steel weeping along to the forlorn lyrics while Too far Gone had some heart breaking pedal steel glissandos on this bitter sweet tale. Call Me Home was a lesson in frailty, the pedal steel keening away, McCulloch’s voice halting, reminiscent of seventies singer songwriter neurosis, questioning and wondering and adorned with an excellent steel led outro. Still Looking For You , the closing song on Old Lovers Junkyard and the closing song tonight had a warm, laid back country feel to it. Of the new songs New Joke was a hard luck tale written while travelling home from Bridge Of Allan had a harsher edge to the vocals with the pedal steel adding some bite. McCulloch was inspired to write These Mountain Blues on a road trip to see Townes van Zandt’s grave in Texas and the song does indeed inhabit TVZ territory as he sang about an oak tree next to the grave, achingly evocative it offered an opportunity for Iain Sloan to deliver his finest solo playing of the night. The other new song of the night bridged whatever gap there is between Ayrshire and Texas as McCulloch went solo and off mic to sing a song inspired by his grandfather’s toils in the mines, Black Dust. A powerful piece, this was the folkiest moment of the night as he sang, “he didn’t know he was digging his own grave” with guitar and harmonica and gusty vocals in the working class folk tradition.

A short set perhaps but throughout the show the audience appeared mesmerised, the combination of the songs and performance transfixing, McCulloch affable and commanding on stage in between songs. The queue for his album afterwards testament to the quality on show.

A mea culpa here regarding the other acts, both new to Blabber’n’Smoke but Howie Reeve was very impressive as he delivered a set of fairly challenging aural assaults, played on an acoustic bass which he banged, clattered, tweeked and plucked at times with some ferocity, at others a surprising tenderness. With lyrics that recalled the absurdities of Ivor Cutler or the surrealism of Robert Wyatt he was incredibly engaging, a cross between R M Hubbert and Eugene Chadbourne and he deserves some delving into his catalogue. Michael Anguish closed the night with a full band set that portrayed him as a fine performer who strays into Avett Brothers company at times. Loose limbed Americana styled songs flowed from the band with one in particular reminding us of the long lost Granfalloon Bus while there was also an element of 1970’s folk weirdness in the mix on the closing song.

Ten Gallon Bratz. Tales From The Long Shadows

Been a while since I heard from Ten Gallon Bratz, a band I reviewed for Americana UK back in 2006 but you can’t keep a good man (or band) down and Tales From The Long Shadows is a world away from their first tentative steps. Hailing from Greenock the Bratz are of a certain vintage that probably allows them to look back with some fondness to what passed for country rock back in the days before alt country kicked in. Their sound certainly reflects the likes of Poco, Guy Clark and the Eagles while there’s a Celtic tinge to some of their songs with Same Old Song seeming to come from time spent listening to The Waterboys.

A five piece band with three guitarists on board, they open the album with the guitar heavy stomp of Nothing Left To Say as the acoustics flail away and the electric guitar riffs in a Big Country style. It’s a big bold statement but in terms of the album somewhat misleading as what follows is more nuanced and dare I say, more interesting. Personally I’d prefer it at the end but there’s no doubt that it’s destined to be a crowd pleaser. The guitar crunching side of the band is revisited on the burnished bruise that is Fish Out Of Water, a shimmering groove that doffs its hat to Chris Issak and Jace Everett with its air of menace. For the remainder however the band allow their harmonies, allied to some fine picking, to showcase their talent and it’s here that that we find the heart of the band, one they offer live as testified some weeks ago when we saw them open for The Howling Brothers. While there’s a Ronnie Lane feel to the shuffling strut of Too Far Gone the band are at their best when they hunker down in their vision of American roots music. The addition of pedal steel by Iain Sloan (Wynntown Marshals) and fiddle (Alison McNeill, Reely Jiggered) fleshes out the sound on a slew of songs that drink deep from the Americana well. New King In Town has some very sweet and sorrowful Dobro and pedal steel flourishes as a relationship breaks down while All Fall Down swells musically despite the downbeat story. Brand New Old Fashioned Blues is a terrific tear stained lament with weeping pedal steel while Who’s Left To Save The Working Man delves into Steve Earle and Bruce Springsteen territory in their stripped down Woody Guthrie guises. Here the Bratz strive to celebrate and commiserate with the downtrodden and they succeed as they really nail it here.

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