Jim Byrne. 4 Country & Folk Songs. Fox Star Records


Glasgow’s Jim Byrne is something of a musical chameleon. Over the course of four solo albums and a couple of EPs as a member of The Bearpit Brothers, he has rooted around various pop, folk and tin pan alley styles while he will be fondly remembered locally for his fledging years in Clydebank playing punk and garage rock, including a stint in The Primevals. So far he has been firmly in the independent camp when it came to his recordings but for 4 Country & Folk Songs, he finds himself on the roster of Fox Star Records, a situation which allows him to proudly (somewhat tongue in cheek) proclaim, “59 year old songwriter signs his first record deal.”

Following in the footsteps of musicians as varied as Dan Hicks and Richard Hawley, Byrne delves into past sounds and reinvigorates them. Be it on the fragile and broken down country waltz of The Yellow Clock or the twanged telecaster thrums on The Holy Ghost, he sets the scene and then peoples it with his fine baritone croon and keen lyrics.

The four song EP opens with an eerie fiddle introduction to The Yellow Clock, a haunting song which inhabits the thoughts of a daughter returned home from her mother’s funeral. Surrounded by mementos, she surrenders into a reverie, almost hypnotised by the ticking clock. With rustic fiddle (by Kurt Baumer) and harmony vocals from Lesley O’Brien, Byrne paints a perfect miniature of grief and loss. This Heart Of Mine Is A Blind Blind Fool, in contrast, is quite jaunty as Byrne looks to Hank Williams and his ilk for inspiration, adding in a mild Jambalaya of swampy Cajun sounds with O’Brien again joining in on vocals.

Tell The Devil I’ve Stole His Crown Of Pain is a grand melodrama which neatly sits within murder ballad and Child ballad idioms. The culprit here is a shadowy and somewhat supernatural figure who is “born with the devil’s charm,” the type of character you’d be well advised to avoid never mind entering into a contract with him. It’s wonderfully realised with a lonesome fiddle providing the melody over a repetitive guitar rythym while Byrne comes across like Nick Cave channelling Johnny Cash. Cash comes to mind again, along with Lee Hazlewood, on the concluding song, Holy Ghost. It’s cinematic, almost widescreen, as it boils down religious symbols, spaghetti westerns and an old fashioned love story into one great pot boiler. If Quentin Tarantino is still on the lookout for songs to put on his next pulp film, then he’d find some salvation here.


Jim Byrne. Ten Writers Telling Lies

bookimageTen Writers Telling Lies is an ambitious project. A book of short stories, an album of songs, a series of illustrations, all entwined and caught up in a lie which, in the end, is withheld from the reader/listener. It’s the brainchild of Jim Byrne, a Glasgow West End flaneur and songwriter who admits that he was somewhat tired of the normal “record some songs and release them cycle.” The light bulb moment occurred when Byrne was at a book reading, which ended with the author of the night and friends playing some tunes. Mulling this over afterwards Byrne decided to recruit some writers for a collaboration which would entail them writing a story or poem and lyrics for the songs he was sitting on. In addition he asked each of them to take a “selfie” each of which were then the basis for an illustration by Glasgow artist Pam McDonald. The results, all included in the book, follow in the footsteps of the renowned Alasdair Gray who typically would enliven his books with intriguing illustrations although McDonald sets her own style.

At the heart of the project was the somewhat nebulous idea of the lie. Here Byrne was somewhat ahead of the pack as he conceived of the idea long before the issue of “fake news” became commonplace. Anyhow, Byrne states in his introduction that all involved were to agree to lie about a particular aspect of the project to the extent of signing a document forbidding them from revealing this “lie.” It’s a tantalising aspect, a challenge to discover the lie (and which, so far, we haven’t fathomed) but ultimately there’s no need to go all Tin Tin and investigative as the package works brilliantly on its own two feet. You can consider it as an anthology of new Scottish writing (to which it stands up well) with an album of songs to listen to as you read or try to match up the hidden threads which bind the project together.

So there are stories and poems about adolescent courting, rural surgery, beatnik dreams, termination blues and cross dressing priests. As in all anthologies there are different styles and themes but it’s an enthralling read and, if nothing else, a fine introduction to each of the writers. As for the music, Byrne excels. As befits the collaborative element of the project there’s a fine degree of variety on show here although it’s all helmed by his fine voice, at times lugubrious, plaintive or occasionally crooning. There’s a lengthy list of contributing musicians, singers and spoken work participants and the songs range across gospel themed laments, Celtic airs, Ronnie Lane like folky jaunts, Mexicali border dustiness, creamy pedal steel country and finger popping rock’n’roll. Variety for sure but it all hangs together with the overall sense of the album a peek into the human spirit and the many ways in which it can encounter adversity and try to overcome it. From the weeping fiddle that opens Burdon Of Your Cross, a song that recalls Johnny Cash’s religious songs, to the closing Promise That We’ll Meet Again, sung by Elaine Fleming and delivered with a folk purity with Byrne finger picking on acoustic guitar it’s a joy to listen to. There’s tenement gallousness in the spoken parts on Sweet Gone Tomorrows, All This I Learn From A Kiss is a gloriously warped waltz and Blood On Your Hands is a heart melting country duet with Byrne and Dinny Shuff doing their best George and Tammy.

The writers are Stephanie Brown, Pat Byrne, James Carson, Samina Chaudry, James Connarty, Pauline Lynch, Calum Maclean, Gillian Margaret Mayes, Micheal Norton and Stephen Watt. You can read more about the project here.

For a man who says he was somewhat jaded this project has certainly invigorated Byrne. It’s warm, evocative and exciting and well recommended. There’s a launch show at Cottiers in Glasgow this Thursday with readings and music and the book and album are available here. 






Bearpit Brothers. Something Cruel

When Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed the first EP from Bearpit Brothers we waxed about their kodachromed 50’s spangled pop. Two years on and their second EP is lined up for release and the brothers themselves say that they’ve moved onto the early sixties. Well, there’s a lot of folk who say that the sixties didn’t really start until 1964 when The Beatles hit global dominance while there does seem to have been a watershed with the advent of the Pill. As Philip Larkin famously wrote,

Sexual intercourse began/In nineteen sixty-three/ (which was rather late for me) /Between the end of the “Chatterley” ban/And the Beatles’ first LP.

We mention this because while the band might be dipping their toes into the rising tide of sixties pop they’re holding on to a lifebelt of innocence, a raft of teenage dreams with the hormones held in check, the songs limited to allusion and portrayed as melodrama. Musically they continue to inhabit a pre Beatles world, crooner vocals, old school married to a pop idiom, think of the Larry Barnes’ stable of brylcreemed balladeers such as Dickie Pride or Vince Eager. Next drop in a dollop of sumptuous guitar draped pop of the type purveyed by John Barry and Joe Meek, both influenced by Buddy Holly but able to add their own idiosyncratic touch. Cap this with Cliff and The Shadows and we’re somewhere near where Bearpit Brothers are at these days although a top notch production and some spectacular guitar playing rises the EP well beyond mere nostalgia.

On to the songs then. Say Goodbye is a pop confection of the first order, pizzicato type guitar underpins singer Robert Ruthven’s warm croon as he evokes tearful railway platform goodbyes. There’s a glorious melange of acoustic and electric guitar midway through which rings to the heavens. Love Born In The City is a paean to young love hit by Cupid’s arrows lifted aloft again by the deft guitar work which does recalls Hank Marvin strutting behind Cliff. Love And Hate moves into Roy Orbison territory, darkly dramatic with a flamenco flourish on the chorus with some low riding twang guitar to boot it sets the scene for the sour title song which follows. Something Cruel has an exotic touch, castanets clicking away as Ruthven realises he’s been taken for a fool, recognising clues too late. Here we’re reminded of Billy Liar, lured by his dolly bird, Liz, only to bottle out at the last moment. This kitchen sink cinematic touch continues on the closing song, Ruby Wine although here it’s the fatalistic element of Poor Cow that’s evoked as Byrne recognises the hopelessness entwined in the relationship.

It’s only 16 minutes long but Something Cruel grabs the listener and is a wonderful evocation of a more innocent time. The EP will be available at the launch gig at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe this Saturday, 22nd August.


Jingle Balls. Mr. Plow, Llewellyn & Kristin, Jim Byrne, The Lost Brothers Christmas music

Well it’s December so it’s safe to mention the C word. For the next four weeks it’s jingle all the way downhill as we get bombarded with “cute” adverts from mega million stores itching to squeeze more money from our pockets and have to endure endless loops of schmaltzy Xmas muzak in shops which are far too full of other people. Bah Humbug indeed. On the music side there’s a well-drilled and finely honed canon, chestnuts roasting and all that, fodder for the folk, the stuff of Christmas specials, funny pullovers and fake snow with some Slade thrown in for the “youngsters” which you can buy on any number of CDs with titles such as Now This Is Christmas Vol. 2014.

As always there’s another side to the coin and while for a time this Christmas underbelly was composed primarily of comic or smutty ditties, over the past few years there’s been a veritable outburst of reasonably fine Christmas songs. Along with this a wealth of blogs spring up around this time pointing folks in the direction of the darker side of the season with Blabber’n’Smoke’s favourite being Big Rock Candy Mountain who delve deep and bring up some astonishing items. Anyway, all of this is just a way of introducing some Christmas music that’s been sent in for review, so eggnog in hand (what on earth is eggnog?) here we go.

Mr. Plow weighs in with the grim noire of The Greatest Christmas Ever Seen that features some festive tropes, mentions of snow and percussion that is faintly reminiscent of sleigh bells, that identify its Christmas status but there’s no Ho Ho Ho here as he tells a tale of domestic violence, a woman battered as “the tills rang out their joyless greed.” Gabi Monk of The Good Intentions harmonises on vocals as the deadpan lyrics describe a Christmas of ambulances and hospital. It’s not going to be number one in the festive chart but all of the proceeds from sales are going to Refuge, a charity that supports victims of domestic violence. Available as a download there’s also a very fine and limited vinyl edition (with cool snow coloured vinyl) available from Pink Box Records that has an excellent wearied rendition of Away In A Manger on the flip side.

David Llewellyn & Ida Kristin offer up their reading of Christina Rossetti’s In The Bleak Midwinter, the song that has snuck Bert Jansch into many a home via numerous commercial Christmas compilations. Llewellyn & Kristin stay true to the familiar arrangement with its wintry air and old-fashioned Dickensian Christmas feel while they both sing well. The pair have their debut album, Songs Around The Kitchen Table out soon but in the meantime you can buy In The Bleak Midwinter here.

Glasgow songwriter, Jim Byrne download only For We Are Born To Doubt is a cracker (sorry) of a song as Byrne hymns the Cartesian way of life with some festive trappings such as a music box melody and heavenly choruses (provided by folk singers, the Linties). Towards the end Stuart Miller of The Linties speaks the chorus with a wonderfully couthy Scots tongue, reminiscent of Ivor Cutler that caps the song with a flourish. Expect to hear the likes of Iain Anderson and Tom Morton playing this in the next few weeks. For We Are Born To Doubt will be available from December 10th here

Finally (and capping a trip around the British Isles with England, Scotland, Wales and now Ireland all represented here) The Lost Brothers have Little Angel, another download only single which captures perfectly their wonderful Everly like harmonies on a song that is the most “Christmassy” one on offer here. It floats along like that flying snowman and evokes that simple sense of wonder and goodwill that films such as It’s A Wonderful Life manage. With brass flourishes building up towards the end it’s a song that will warm the cockles of your heart if you’re not a real curmudgeon. Little Angel is free to download but The Losties are asking folk if they can to donate to UNICEF via a link on the download

Bearpit Brothers E.P. Launch. Glad Cafe. Glasgow. 23rd November.

bearpit bros

A trip back in time in more ways than one to see the pre fab four inspired Bearpit Brothers launch their retro rock E.P. (unfortunately not on vinyl but you can’t have everything). The Bearpit Brothers consist of Jim Byrne, a musician who’s played for the past three decades in Glasgow but who continues to just bubble under the mainstream and the remaining members of rockabilly band The Creeping Charlies (Robert Ruthven and Larry Alexander), a band whose profile is so low it makes Byrne seem like a megastar, dogged as they were over the years by catastrophic problems. The Charlies were regulars on the gig circuit when Byrne was playing with his band Dexter Slim and The Pickups and recently Ruthven and Byrne decided to join forces and give birth to this band of brothers.
We reviewed the results here, only four songs so far but they’ve lovingly recreated a period when rock’s original wild men had been virtually neutered by the media and tin pan alley held sway. The period between Elvis going into the army, Jerry Lee shamed, Little Richard finding God and the worldwide domination of the Beatles is often thought of as barren but both within and out with the charts there was a host of good music produced. Spector, The Brill Building writers, early Motown, Roy Orbison, Bobby Vinton and others vied with light orchestras, syrupy strings and Frank Ifield and these days not many folk listen to old Frank.
The Bearpit Brothers capture this well produced, melodramatic style of 50/60s music almost as well as Richard Hawley, a man whose music speaks of Saturday nights at the ballroom under a glitter ball followed by a long walk home with a bag of chips in hand, the glamour of his evening enough to buoy him up during the working week. There wasn’t a glitter ball in sight tonight but there was an old standard lamp and a Dansette adorning the stage as Ruthven, Alexander and Byrne (accompanied by Lejoe Young on a single snare drum and Angus Ruthven on beat box) strolled on. It might have been nice to have them in matching tuxes and doing some Shadows type steps but I suppose you can only take a concept so far. As it was the quintet stepped up and delivered a fabulous recreation of the E.P. with some excellent vocals and outstanding guitar work from Alexander. His pitter patter raindrop intro to I’m At Sea was excellent and his warm and swooning guitar was ever present reaching new heights on Blue Boy. Ruthven’s physical presence belied his honeyed voice as he crooned away and he seemed humbled by the applause offered. With only four songs to promote this was a short set but they fleshed the show out with Byrne taking the lead on A Picture of You and a song called Lemon Crush which had some sparkling guitar from Alexander and was worked up into a clamorous climax. Called back for an encore the called up the time machine again for an old Dexter Slim & The Pickups song, Facial Scar. Admitting that remembering the lyrics might be a problem they battled through with some fine twangy guitar and by the end they were all word perfect. A fine ending to a fine set.



Earlier we were treated to some culture (as opposed to dirty rock’n’roll). Local writer Elaine Reid read a piece which captured the inquisitive and impressionable mind set of a child interjected with some black humour. Impressively delivered the piece could fit well within a Wes Anderson script. Poet , Aidan MacEoin, from County Clare but domiciled in Glasgow read several of his pieces accompanied on guitar by the spindly shock haired Craig Ralston who played some slow but dramatic bluesy runs as MacEoin’s wonderful brogue captured attention. His droll tales and wit reminded us of the Liverpool poets at times and we could have listened to him and Ralston for the best of the evening such a balm was he. Overall a fine night and the first time for us in the Glad Cafe, a beacon of sensibility in the South Side by all accounts.

The Bearpit Brothers.

There’s a widespread notion that the fifties were a monochrome time. Drab, black and white, sooty, dismal. The music matched this notion, dreary, formulaic, string laden pap until the likes of Little Richard, Jerry Lee and of course Elvis kicked off only to be battered into submission after three or four exhilarating years at which point the tin pan alley merchants regained control and stayed so until those wacky Liverpudlians reignited the fuse.
A closer look dispels these notions. The fifties, at least towards the end, was an optimistic time. Instead of monochrome there was a vibrant colour captured in vivid tones via cheaper film processing and the likes of Kodachrome. Our parents (or grandparents) danced at the local Palais which might have a glitter ball and swish, deep red, velvet curtains and went to the movies to see Rock Hudson in super saturated colour movies. They listened to pop music which might have abandoned the abandon of the rock’n’rollers but which captured the rich hues and sentiments of the period, think of Bobby Vinton’s Blue Velvet, released on the cusp of the Beatles’ takeover.
All of the above is a prelude to this fine E. P. (extended play we used to say) from The Bearpit Brothers, a grouping of members of The Creeping Charlies and Jim Byrne, a west end balladeer. The Creeping Charlies appear to be one of Clydesides best kept secrets, a no holds barred rockabilly influenced band who have suffered indignity upon indignity regarding their career while Jim Byrne is a crooner who cohabits the worlds of Hoagy Carmichael and Woody Guthrie. Together they delve into the velvet underground of fifties pop, a Technicolor dream of pre fab four melodrama.
The pizzicato pluckings that introduce the opening song, I’m At Sea give way to some swooning guitar lines and immediately one is reminded of Richard Hawley’s similar fifties fetish. There’s a wonderful melancholy in the air here along with a lushness that envelopes the listener. The vocals croon and swoon with an affected air, heartfelt but somewhat stilted, a tin pan alley singer told to emote and trying his best. This is pastiche perhaps but there’s a genuine love of the period peeking through. Burdon Of Your Cross is somewhat looser and even swings as a gospel influenced lyric is garlanded with some exquisite guitar duellings with twang and reverb battling away, a wonderful song. Blue Boy is a mini melodrama story song, the likes of which were popular long before The Who expanded the concept into album length. The guitars sound like Hank Marvin in space while the lyrics (complete with whispered monologue) are sinister and weirdly enough call to mind Graham Greene’s teen gangster, Pinky, in Brighton Rock. They finish off with Don’t You Wish, a Ricky Nelson type farewell that suffers in comparison to the previous songs but which cleaves to the concept of revisiting those bygone years.
The Bearpit Brothers unleash their E.P. at the Glad Cafe on the southside on 23rd November.


Jim Byrne album launch. The Innocent.

Glasgow singer/songwriter Jim Byrne’s last album, Every Day is Sunshine gathered some fine reviews with comparisons to Tom Waits and Johnny Cash among others. Perhaps it’s down to his smooth baritone but fine praise indeed. Two years down the line and Byrne has his third album in the trap and Blabber’n’Smoke went along to hear the unveiling.
The launch gig was held in Brel in Ashton lane, a place I’ve always found difficult to enjoy due to its layout and the intrusive noise at times from the bar. However a pretty full crowd crammed into the narrow conservatory to see and hear Byrne and his band The Blackwoods and to a man (and woman) they were not disappointed. The Blackwoods (brother Peter Byrne, occasional bass, percussion including cajon, and freedom boot, Graham Mackintosh, banjo and guitar, Elanor Gunn, violin and Dinny, guitar, bass, autoharp and vocals) proved to be an excellent troupe swapping instruments and styles with ease and managing an occasional set list confusion with good humour that fitted the down home and family type feel of the evening. Byrne himself was a perfect host with an engaging manner that connected well with the crowd.
Launching into the new album, The Innocent, they opened with the first song from the disc, Fancy Wooden Box, a death row ballad that would have sat very comfortably with Mr. Cash himself. This was a great performance with the violin, banjo and freedom boot giving it a stomping good delivery. Three songs in the band proved their worth with a fine performance of Down By the Wildwood, a song from his second album that fused some scintillating gypsy guitar duetting and fine fiddle playing with a flamenco hint of mystery and menace. This was our favourite of the night and one would have relished more of the same. However Byrne’s muse appears to favour a home spun folky idiom that flavoured the rest of the evening with covers of I’m Thinking Tonight of my Blue Eyes, Satisfied Mind and a cracking version of Make Me a Pallet on the Floor, all of which were as comfortable as sitting in front of a fine log fire. Best of all was a rollicking boozy rendition of There Stands the Glass which Byrne nailed with a fine looselimbed performance. Mention must be made of Ms. Gunn’s playing, she has a fine tone and at times was exquisite. Bar the lack of a moustache I was reminded of Bobby Valentino who used to play with Hank Wangford.
Songs from the album that were aired included Two Empty Chairs, its jaunty air masking a tale of betrayal that came across as a mixture of Leonard Cohen and the Harry Lime theme. Sand in Your Shoes and Sweeter Than a Rose were sleepy waltzes that recalled the likes of Hoagy Carmichael and Bob Wills, a fine tincture for what was outside a cold and wet night. Also from The Innocent was a very touching and emotive cover of Big Star’s supreme tale of teenage longing Thirteen which had some fine guitar from Graham Mackintosh. Byrne commented on the laid back content of the album several times as he introduced yet another ballad but at the end they encored with a superb delivery of Daddy’s Car from his first album On these Dark Nights. A singalong song very much in the style of Loudon Wainwright or Woody Guthrie’s kiddies songs it was a grand way to end a fine little gig.
The opening act was a short performance by one of The Blackwoods, Dinny herself who proved to be a fine singer and who delivered an all too short set which was folky but at times had the louche torch song approach of kd lang.