The Hellfire Club. Songs For Fallen Stars. Strength In Numbers Records

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Blabber’n’Smoke noted The Hellfire Club’s single release of Sun In The Sky back here.  Now the album it’s taken from, Songs For Fallen Stars is being launched this Saturday at Stereo, Glasgow. Produced by Johnnie Smillie the album is  jangle packed classic Americana, think REM, The Long Ryders, Grant Lee Buffalo with some Waterboys and Neil Young thrown in for good measure and you’ll have an inkling of what’s contained herein.
The single opens the disc and pretty much sums up the album. Strong and propulsive songs, hooks a plenty with muscular guitar breaks while Nick Ronan’s fiddle work is a fiery Celtic addition to the American influences. All Because Of You has some abrasive mandolin adding a folky feel with the band almost going into jig time on the refrains with fiddle and guitars skirling like bagpipes. Cal dips its toes into Neil Young waters with a melody that recalls Powderfinger at times. It lurches along with a rough and ready feel, the guitars unfettered and snarling while the fiddle is a dervish in the background as Willie and Helen Brown duet, their sweetness contrasting with the din and clatter of the band. Overall the song comes across as a bruised and battered dose of reality without any studio sweetness added; it does recall Neil Young’s maverick attitude to country rock and one wonders if producer Smillie’s well known affinity for Shakey was to the fore here.
Private Campbell is gentler fare initially with its mandolin driven intro although it’s not long before some restrained fuzz guitar starts to breakthrough adding a grittier feel to this tale of a soldier’s grim doom. Again there’s a folky root to this song but the band abandon any folk pretensions for the portentous and eponymously titled The Hellfire Club. An attempt perhaps to create a band mythology it’s a bit of a mish mash of roaring guitars and East Of Eden fiddle driven prog rock but there’s no denying it’s stirring enough and tailor made for live performance especially the climatic ending. We’re on surer ground with the honky tonk country waltz of Absent Friends which boozily weaves its unsure path and the fast-paced romp of Dali’s Clock which repeats the assured country rock of the opening song with the rhythm section on top form. Montgomery maintains this form as the band go on an Odyssey through the old South with lashings of guitar sparking and feeding back over an inventive backdrop that evokes the hope and fears of the civil rights movement as it pitches from jangled melody to discordant chaos. Montgomery closes the album on a high note although it should be noted that there’s a following snippet of old timey fiddle that properly ends the playing, a trick used by the band throughout the album with four of the 13 tracks comprising these snippets.
Overall a strong showing from The Hellfire Club and definitely recommended for anyone interested in home grown Americana. The album launch is this Saturday, 14th March and if you attend you can buy the album for the once only reduced price of £5 and that’s a bargain these days. In addition you’ll see the band play the songs and sets from The Dirt and Les Johnson And Me. In addition you’d be supporting local music, ’nuff said.

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Steve Earle/Monica Queen. Glasgow Kelvingrove Bandstand. Thursday 7th August.

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First opportunity to attend a show at the refurbished bandstand in Kelvingrove Park and what a change. Not so much in the venue but actually having a ticketed place to sit while the arena was enclosed by a battery of drink and food stands, OK if you dig cider and seemingly many of the audience did with a constant trail of imbibers climbing to and from their places for much of the evening and consequently ensuring that the inadequate toilet facilities had huge queues so that to spend a penny one missed several songs from the show. Anyway, gripe over, bar the fact that Kelvin Walkway was closed southward so that when the show was over the throng had to squeeze through a small park gate and in pitch black find their way to Sauchiehall Street, a potential disaster I thought.

On the bright side it was a bright day. Sunshine through the day had dimmed somewhat by evening although it remained warm and dry and once the sun had set and the arena lights came on it was a magical sight, adding to the warmth from the crowd to the man they had come to see. It was still daylight when Earle came on stage, solo, guitar, harp and mandolin to hand. This current tour is just him, his equipment and a suitcase, a minstrel zigzagging through Europe for around two months. His first show on the tour was at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival two weeks ago and while the show was fine there was a lack of spark, not something one generally expects from an Earle show. Tonight, with a similar set list (and the same anecdotes) Earle was revitalised, perhaps well warmed up after several shows, perhaps the venue (and Glasgow, there does seem to be a special relationship here), perhaps the audience reaction, singing along by the third song, going bananas for Galway Girl and crowding to stand in front of the stage like moths to a flame, dancing and generally, as we say here, giving it laldly. Whatever it was Earle fed on it with the end result a truly magnificent show.

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With such a back catalogue to choose from Earle could have played twice as long and still not satisfied everyone however the show followed a trajectory that allowed Earle to warm the crowd up before some breakup songs (he’s in the throes of yet another divorce it seems), songs that documented or were written when he was in the grip of his addiction before homing in with the expected crowd pleasers to finish. Having said that he opened the show with an unfamiliar song (Girl On The Mountain?) but swiftly followed up with My Old Friend The Blues and I Ain’t Never Satisfied, the latter with the audience joining in on the chorus. Taneytown was followed by the heartbreak songs Now She’s Gone and Goodbye with Earle quipping “same girl, different harmonica” in between. Sparkle and Shine showed his romantic bent while for Valentine’s day he delivered the first of his stories relating how he had to write the song as he couldn’t drive to buy flowers on Feb 13th as he didn’t have a licence before going on to berate the 14th as a ploy to sell cards. Romance done with Earle launched into a ferocious delivery of I Feel Alright which lifted the show up several notches, from her on in he could do no wrong. A heckler was shut up with Earle telling him he “didn’t have a fuckin’ say in what I play up here, this is my job man,” although later after he baited another shout out asking if he was on probation and had to get home early before his bracelet blew up, he did add that the request would come later.
South Nashville Blues was powerful with Earle demonstrating that armed only with a guitar he can transform misery into magic. At the end he said that the song made his addiction sound much more fun than it actually was before stating “welcome to my nightmare” and delivering a stark and equally powerful CCKMP. His announcement that he would be celebrating his twentieth year of recovery in September was greeted with applause. Earle then played tribute to the late Townes Van Zandt with a story and a rendition of Rex’s Blues followed by a mesmerising Fort Worth Blues. By now it was dark and a portion of the audience had started to drift towards the stage in a similar manner to the insects you could see swirling around the spotlights. A cheer erupted as Earle strapped on a mandolin and sure enough (after a slight sound hiccup) Dixieland, The Galway Girl and Tom Ames’ Prayer started the party portion of the gig. Dancing erupted, front stage and elsewhere as the Celtic elements of the songs ratified Earle’s hold on the Glasgow folk. A terrific tale about Earle’s then errant son Justin and a missing revolver led into the very spirited The devil’s Right Hand before Copperhead Road plunged some of the crowd into a frenzy. Earle returned for one song, prefaced by a lengthy introduction. He told us he was travelling to play in Tel Aviv in a few days time, an announcement that seemed to draw a gasp from some of the audience. Explaining that he was teaming up with a friend, David Broza, an Israeli peace activist who proposed to play a sunrise show at the ancient fortress of Masada on Sunday despite the show being cancelled by the authorities, Earle compared the pessimism of those who think of the Palestinian cause as a lost cause with his own past and recalled passing bomb detectors to check into hotels in Belfast back in the eighties, another lost cause back then that proves things can get better. This was soaked up by the crowd as Earle ended the night with Jerusalem, a demonstration not only of his artistic skill but also a reminder of his mighty heart.
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Pity poor Monica Queen who opened for Earle with partner Johnnie Smillie on guitar. The usual issues for opening acts were amplified with the grounds less than half full, folk queuing for their ciders and meeting, greeting and seating themselves down. In addition their amplification was barely adequate to carry to the back. Despite this Queen captured those folk at the front and the others paying attention with a fine set of songs. By the time they played an excellent cover of Wrecking Ball more folk were listening and the hometown road trip of The 260 allowed Queen’s yearning crystal clear voice full rein. With a switch to electric guitar for the last number, The Holiest Night, they created a small cathedral of sound despite the hubbub coming from the carnival of cider tents at the back.

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