Roddy Hart & The Lonesome Fire. Swithering. Middle Of Nowhere Records

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Fate smiles upon Roddy Hart. Notwithstanding his obvious talents a brief look at his career will have many other artists shaking their heads in disbelief. His first album featured a guest appearance from an early fan Kris Kristofferson with Kristofferson championing Hart’s work since then. An invitation from fellow Scot Craig Ferguson to appear on The Late Late Show in the States was so well received that Hart and his band returned for a five night residency on the show which was viewed by 12 million Americans. A chance encounter in a Glasgow studio led to a cameo role in the movie Sunshine On Leith, he was invited to play at the Scottish Parliament’s 10th anniversary and in his role as curator of Celtic Connection’s Roaming Roots Revue he has had the opportunity to collaborate with a veritable who’s who of American and UK roots royalty; his phone book must be well guarded. In addition he hosts one of the better radio shows here in Scotland and just recently has become the MC of Radio Scotland’s Quayside Sessions. One might suggest that he change the name of his band from the Lonesome to the Ubiquitous Fire.

Of course this hasn’t all just tumbled into Hart’s lap. Kristofferson was quick to spot a songwriter with promise telling Hart (who has a law degree),”The world doesn’t need any more lawyers” when Hart was swithering about his future prospects.  Aside from his own take on classic Americana song writing gathered from years listening to the likes of Jackson Browne Hart is able to turn his hand to writing new arrangements for songs and poems by Rabbie Burns and he also delivered a very respectable EP of Dylan Covers a few years back. It was however a bit of a surprise when in 2013 he formed The Lonesome Fire and turned in an album that was somewhat anthemic in its ambition with Hart and band allowing the likes of Arcade Fire and The National to erupt from its shiny grooves, the album was nominated for a Scottish Album Of The Year Award.

So, three years on Hart & The Lonesome Fire return to the fray with another album that if anything is more polished and epic in its ambition. Swithering (a Scots word that indicates indecision) is an odd title for an album that sounds so self assured (it shines at times with the arena allure of U2). A close inspection of the lyrics reveals Hart singing on Sliding, “And I don’t really know why I didn’t doubt it, I was sure but now I’m swithering” as the band whirl up a Springsteen like storm, keyboards rippling away over a pummelling rhythm. Hart himself explained in an interview  that the album was conceived in a different manner from that which was he used to and that he swithered throughout the process before producer Paul Savage came on board and helmed the project. Whatever, the result is an album that might remind folk of the works of The Blue Nile and Lloyd Cole as it alternates between rain speckled drama and guitar based epics.

Opener Tiny Miracles is a seductive glistening groove while the following Berlin has Hart in his most emotive mode amidst shards of glimmering guitars and an eighties like percussive beat. Low Light descends into a rubbery funk beat that is somewhat beholden to Talking Heads but Hart struts his stuff quite excellently here with a fine sense of paranoia and a brilliant glimpse of his native accent thrown in. The cavernous No Monsters rumbles with an evil menace and there’s a similar sense of dread on the ethereal I Thought I Could Change Your Mind which is like a cross between Nick Cave and The Beatles especially as it approaches its end and a mournful horn section appears from the mists. The closing song We’re The Immortals is in a similar vein as a wheezy organ leads into an arrangement that sounds somewhat like something Brian Wilson would come up with if he was a funeral director.

At times there’s just a wee bit too much bombast, clang and clamour, the songs too in thrall to AOR as on Dreamt You Were Mine and In The Arms Of California but there’s a fine reminder of Hart’s own past on the gentle sway of Violet. It’s a softly strummed love song adorned with sympathetic guitar and keyboards and, despite Hart’s onward progress, the song here that I think best sums up his qualities. Not as iconoclastic as shouting Judas at a Dylan gig but just a personal preference expressed here. However, there’s no doubting that Hart & The Lonesome Fire have the chops to make it big with this album and hopefully the Fates will continue to shine on him.

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Various Artists. Look Again To The Wind. Sony Masterworks

First thing to say here is that Look Again To The Wind is a perfect Christmas present for anyone who has any interest in American country music. Like the soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou it’s crammed full of excellent songs, excellently played by some of the best artists around. As a concept it’s interesting, as an album it’s little short of magnificent.

The album is a recreation of Johnny Cash‘s 1964 LP, Bitter Tears: Ballads of The American Indian. The original shows Cash at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights act was published that year in response to coloured Americans battles against segregation but Native American Indians were still primarily seen as fodder for John Wayne’s cavalry. Cash set out to highlight their cause although it’s not a political set as such. With five tracks penned by Peter La Farge, two by Cash himself and one by Johnny Horton (writer of The Battle Of New Orleans) it celebrates a culture while highlighting injustice such as on its most famous song, The Ballad Of Ira Hayes or the dangers of miscegenation as on White Girl.

Look Again To The Wind was produced by Joe Henry who picked the artists for the album, in particular Gillian Welch and David Rawlings who appear on several of the songs. Norman Blake, who played on the original, contributes as does his wife Nancy while Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, The Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens (of The Carolina Chocolate Drops) all perform. As such the delivery is impeccable, the songs transformed from the rough-hewn Cash originals into intricate tapestries with hints of bluegrass and country. Kristofferson towers on Ira Hayes while Earle offers a fine talking blues dissection of Custer. Nancy Blake, Emmylou Harris and Welch are delightful on The Talking Leaves while Giddens wails wonderfully on The Vanishing Race. The highlight however is the nine minute version of the opening title song of the original LP by Welch and Rawlings which opens here and almost spoils the album as it begs to be repeated as soon as it’s ended.

The track list follows the original with three exceptions. Apache Tears and As Long As The Grass Shall grow are reprised towards the end while another of Lafarge’s Native American songs, Look Again To The Wind, not featured on the original, is sung by Native American Bill Miller, a valedictorian statement that closes the album on a poignant note.

you can hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sing As Long As The Grass Shall Grow here

The Coals. A Happy Animal.

It’s always nice to open up an album from an unknown band and to be, well, blown away by the music therein. The Coals is perhaps at best a fairly nondescript name for a band with no real indication of what they’ll sound like (apparently they are named after a bar in L.A., weird name for a bar I think) and the cover art, a washed out picture of a naked woman sitting on a hillside close by a dog, seems to be, well, random and given the title of this mini album, mildly disturbing. Several days and several plays later we still think The Coals isn’t the greatest brand name in the world (although its growing on us) but the cover strikes us as a sly joke given the sense of humour apparent on the band’s website and their determination to bring a sense of laidback joy to their audience. The album title is from a Leonard Cohen poem, not one of his happiest called How We Approached The Book of Changes where he asks to be released from his human form in this “miserable and bewildering wretchedness” and be instead, “a happy animal,” presumably released from the cares, miseries and woes of the world, happy to just wag a tail and sit innocently beside a siren.
Enough already of the pseud’s corner analysis. After all there are only eight songs here clocking in at under a half hour but we can safely say that listening to A Happy Animal is a half hour you’ll not regret losing and indeed that many more will disappear under the mellifluous influence of The Coals. They’re from California and are led by singer and songwriter Jason Mandell whose laid back vocal delivery recalls the young Kris Kristofferson and Dylan’s brief baritone circa Self Portrait The band (Mandell, guitar, vocals, Darice Bailey, keyboards, Peter Hastings, bass, Greg Eklund, drums, Andy Tabb, guitar and Jack Arky, accordion) slip easily between styles with country folk, gospel blues and Mexicali all featured.
The album opens with a brief snippet of a street corner preacher warning that “destruction will come to Los Angeles, God will destroy Los Angeles for its sin” (echoes of the Burritos here folks) before Redeem Me, a free flowing country flavoured jaunt with Mandell almost purring the lyrics opens the album proper. Dirt Road is a rambunctious barrelhouse country song that sounds as if it was unearthed from The Basement Tapes and it’s over all too soon, a pity as the band’s playing is exuberant with fine piano and percussion driving it along. Let Me Down Easy lowers the temperature as Mandell sings a heartfelt love song over some striking Dobro playing. Maria takes us into Tijuana territory with Mexicali trumpet added to the mix, it’s a fine addition to the canon of Tex-Mex influenced California songs and one that we return to time and time again. Hand To Hold is a minor gem as Mandell visits the glory days of the LA troubadours and sings resignedly of the burden of relationships as rippling acoustic guitar and fine harmonies on the chorus recall the simplicity of James Taylor and the craft of John Prine. It’s an excellent song and encapsulates all that has to be said in less than two minutes, no fat here. Steal My Heart is a very laidback honky tonk number with barroom piano and a fine Dobro solo all delivered with a loping devil may care attitude. Another excellent song. Baseline Blues excavates the early Kristofferson along with a whiff of Cohen and even Lee Hazlewood as Mandell is accompanied on vocals by Sally Dworsky and the listener should be astonished at the quality of Mandell’s writing and the band’s delivery as this is as good a song as we’ve heard all year. Mandell sings “Tried to say I need I you without saying that I do, Tried to make you see what kind of hell you put me through, baby I just can’t help but wanting you” over a majestic piano led Muscle Shoals type melodrama that excites through and through. After this the ragtime Lord, Lord, Lord is almost an anticlimax but again the boogie piano and general bonhomie gives it a rousing feel. If we rated albums this would be a 10/10. The only quibble is its brevity as we could listen to this all night.

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No Mean City Americana Festival

September 2013, sees the return of the ‘No Mean City’ Festival in Glasgow, a unique celebration of Americana music. Tipping its hat to the City’s close ties and associations with American roots music and heritage with over 20 artists performing across five of Glasgow’s best loved live music venues including; O2 ABC Glasgow and Òran Mór, Broadcast, Nice N Sleazy, and The Art School.
O2 ABC Glasgow. General Manager, Joe Splain says… “As a City, Glasgow has so much to offer, we’re lucky enough to be immersed in such a plethora of unique musical styles and Americana and new country have really pushed through in recent years. 2012 saw us host our second Festival, joining forces with some of Glasgow’s most popular venues and promoters. It really was a fabulous event, featuring the likes of Patti Smith and Grandaddy on our bill. No Mean City is the perfect addition to the eclectic music scene and this year’s programme has even more to offer, from outstanding internationally acclaimed headliners, to raw, upcoming talent”
‘No Mean City 2013’ will take music fans on a journey through the many sub genres of Americana music with performances from fresh talent including Junip (15th September) who have recently been making waves within the genre, all female alt country group The Be Good Tanyas (5th September) and a highly anticipated performance from American Alt -Rockers Eels (3rd September). ‘No Mean City 2013’ also sees the welcome return of Caitlin Rose (9th September) who played the very first ‘No Mean City’ festival back in 2011 and the month long celebration will come to a combustible end with American Country music legend and member of the Country Music Hall of Fame, Kris Kristofferson (28th September) as he delights fans with a very special UK performance.
The official launch for ‘No Mean City 2013’ will take place at ‘For The Sake Of The Song’ on Friday 31st August, a one-day event at O2 ABC and O2 ABC2 Glasgow and Broadcast.

Friday 31st August: O2 ABC, O2 ABC2 Glasgow and Broadcast
“For The Sake Of The Song” – a one-day event launching ‘No Mean City 2013’

Sunday 1st September: O2 ABC2 Glasgow
Kat Men + Lou Hickey

Monday 2nd September: O2 ABC2 Glasgow
Strand Of Oaks + Daniel Norgren

Monday 2nd September: Broadcast
Dawes

Tuesday 3rd September: O2 ABC Glasgow
Eels

Tuesday 3rd September: Broadcast
Daughn Gibson

Wednesday 4th September: Nice N Sleazy
The Barr Brothers

Wednesday 4th September: Oran Mor
The Milk Carton Kids

Thursday 5th September: O2 ABC Glasgow
The Be Good Tanyas

Thursday 5th September: O2 ABC2 Glasgow
King King

Monday 9th September: O2 ABC2 Glasgow
Caitlin Rose

Thursday 12th September: O2 ABC2 Glasgow
Heartless Bastards

Sunday 15th September: O2 ABC2 Glasgow
Junip

Monday 16th September: Oran Mor
Jim White

Tuesday 17th September: Broadcast
Joe Pug

Thursday 19th September: Broadcast
Laetitia Sadier
Friday 20th September: Oran Mor
Johnny Reid

Sunday 22nd September: O2 ABC2 Glasgow
Raintown + Ash Before Oaks

Wednesday 25th September: The Art School
Stephen Kellogg

Friday 27th September: O2 ABC2 Glasgow
Ethan Johns / Zervas & Pepper

Saturday 28th September: O2 ABC Glasgow
Kris Kristofferson

For full listings and details visit http://www.nomeancity.co.uk