The Mammals. Sunshiner. Humble Abode Music

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Mike Merenda and Ruth Ungar, after a long spell on the road and one (excellent) album as The Mike & Ruthy Band, here revive their old band name which went into hibernation some years back. The Mammals were considered one of the best roots rock band back in the noughties and came with a government warning due to their political songs, one in particular, The Bush Boys, getting right up the White House’s nose.

Currently a six piece band, the front pair are joined by guitarist and keyboard player Ken Maiuri, pedal steel player Charlie Rose, bassist Jacob Silver and drummer Konrad Meissner. Together they have produced in Sunshiner, an incredibly vibrant and joyous slice of music, a collection of songs that glide, that soar and exhilarate. This is today’s American folk rock, the band rolling along expertly picking up moss from antecedents from both sides of the Atlantic such as Fairport Convention, The Byrds and The Band while ancient roots from the folk tradition are also to be heard. It’s also a political album, not in the sense of polemics, but across the piece they cleave to an American radical position which goes all the way back to the Wobblies through to hippies and into the current protests on American streets. They celebrate humanity, deplore poverty and care for the environment and they do so in a most entertaining manner.

The full power and sweep of the band is apparent on the opening Make It True  with its Dylan like harmonica and folksy bustle with soaring harmonies urging folk to just appreciate and celebrate the very act of being here. This impressive ensemble sound is repeated on The Flood and Fork In The Road while Culture War is somewhat more folky with Merenda commenting caustically on current information highways, worrying about those cathode rays beamed into homes and feeding your mind, instead urging folk to get back to basics citing Guthrie and Seeger –  basically, Educate, Agitate and Organise. Open The Door meanwhile has Ungar singing about altruism with the band laying down a powerful rock beat and as the song heats up she sounds almost like Grace Slick as she hammers home the closing lyrics. For a full appreciation of the band’s chops however there’s the incredible kaleidoscopic mix of rock and folk which is Doctor’s Orders. There are words in here but they are submerged and distorted as Ungar’s fiddle and Maiuri’s organ just go kind of batshit all over the place, a delirious knees up indeed.

While this quicksilver folk rock sound is exhilarating, the band dial it down on a couple of numbers going back to their Catskill roots. Beautiful One is just Ungar and her ukulele on a lullaby like primer for kids advising them to be loving and kind and children are again at the heart of My Baby Drinks Water with Ungar’s voice almost acapella ( her father, Jay, adds some very  quiet violin) as she decries an avaristic society which allows children to starve. Maple Leaf chugs along nicely with a fine ecological message and Sunshiner is a very tender acoustic number with Merenda singing about a family whose men folk worked in the mines but who now try to be carbon neutral with solar powered generators. A worthy but perhaps dry subject to sing about but the band invest it with a quiet beauty, banjo tinkling and pedal steel gently flowing. When My Story Ends is a song some folk might consider worth having played at their demise.  Sounding as if it could have been written by Pete Seeger or Rosalie Sorrels it’s an incredibly sweet song with Ungar singing of her perfect way to end her days on earth.  They close the album with the beguiling notes of Big Ideas, the music here recalling the mood and ambience of John Martyn’s Grace and Danger over nine soothing minutes with Ungar and Merenda softly singing together over muted keyboards and atmospheric guitars. It’s truly a beautiful song and a wonderful way to end the album.

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The Mike + Ruthy Band. The Glad Cafe. Glasgow Sunday 24th July 2016

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This was Mike + Ruthy’s second appearance in Glasgow this year, the first being a spirited and well received show at Celtic Connections back in January in the Old Fruitmarket. Tonight was a not to be missed opportunity to see them at closer quarters and they did not disappoint making few , if any, concessions to the intimate setting, a far cry from their appearance at Newcastle’s Summertyne Festival last Friday and their forthcoming shows at The Cambridge Folk Festival. A five-piece band with folk roots they can rock as well; at one point Mike Merenda almost apologised for a song being somewhat loud before going on to say “that’s because it is loud.”

This Glasgow show was one of four gigs squeezed in between the two festival appearances (there’s one to go on Wednesday 27th at The Birnam Arts Centre in Perthshire) and the band were obviously out to have some fun. They treated the audience to a two hour set plus encores, the core being their main show but allowing them an opportunity to drag out some old songs and to road test a couple of new ones. There was no horn section tonight (unless you count Merenda’s occasional harmonica) but  the infectious, joyous and robust playing of the rhythm section (Jacob Silver, bass and Konrad Meissner, drums) along with Rob Stein, superlative on pedal steel, hummed and roared with the front pair (playing guitar, fiddle, banjo and banjo-uke) sparring  and bantering and delivering some deadly songs.

They slipped into the set with the beguiling simplicity of Simple & Sober with Ruth Ungar in fine voice on a song that is rooted in American folk music as popularised by Pete Seeger. With some fine three part harmonies wafting the song along and a sweet liquid pedal steel solo this was a hypnotic opening but then they pumped up the volume for the rousing folk rock strains of Bright As You Can, Ungar transformed into a powerful belter while the band just rocked out.  Almost as if they were setting out their stall they then launched into a magnificently slow lumbering rendition of sixties’ peacenik Len Chandler’s civil rights song, I’m Going To Get My Baby out of Jail before wafting into their rendition of an unfinished Woody Guthrie song, My New York City.  With these four songs they had established their credentials, rooted in protest era folk of the fifties and sixties and fuelled with the bite of later folk rock acts, a true embodiment of the spirit that inhabits the Catskills and Woodstock to this day.

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While Ruth Ungar was to the front for the opening songs Mike Merenda stood up for the excellent Word On The Street as Ungar skirled away on fiddle with Stein skirting around her bowing. Thereafter we were treated to a cornucopia of delights, delightful folky numbers such as Freckled Ocean and the ominous Cigarette, their fine and full bodied tribute to The Band on The Ghost Of Richard Manuel. The pulsating Golden Eye,  a song that Ungar described back in January as “country disco” allowed the band to riff magnificently while there was some soulful wailing on the powerful Rock On Little Jane and  Merenda’s banjo had a fine outing on The Farmer which was Appalachian in its rippling country flavours and hi lonesome harmonies.  There were some new songs, one, from Ruth called Old Days another nod to Greenwich Village times and they closed the set with an invitation to the audience to sing along on the rousing On My Way Home, the pair duelling on their respective strings and the band all offered a short solo that was somewhat invigorating. Time up but space for an encore and here they really called in the audience for an affecting rendition of The Water Is Wide, the audience reciprocating in fine voice. Thereafter there was a rip snorting Cajun like instrumental, again with solos from all band members that just about raised the roof. A fantastic show from a very versatile band, loud, soft, folk, blues, country? All of these and more. They should slay Cambridge.

 

Celtic Connections

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It’s that time of year again when the good folk of Glasgow (and elsewhere) brave the cold for the warm sup of Celtic Connections, better than chicken soup for the soul in these dark January nights.

There’s the usual array of star names. This year Lucinda Williams, Kris Kristofferson, Rickie Lee Jones, Jason Isbell and Sturgill Simpson are all on board while the likes of Rhiannon Gidding, John Grant and Patti Griffin should be familiar to readers. Over the next few posts Blabber’n’Smoke will be highlighting some acts we’ve reviewed who are appearing, perhaps less stellar in the billing but guaranteed to appeal.

Cam Penner Tron Theatre. Saturday 16th January

Penner (along with his musical wizard Jon Wood) brings his sparse, cold songs, steeped in nature and history to The Tron. His last album, To Build A Fire was universally lauded and two of its songs were used by the BBC for their series Stonemouth. He’s got a new album, Sex and Politics out this month so we can expect some of that to be aired. We reviewed his last Glasgow show  here

The Mike and Ruthy Band/ Sawitsky & Koulack Old Fruitmarket Sunday 17th January

Looking forward to this one. Debut  Celtic Connections performances for both acts with Mike and Ruthy bringing a full band including a horn section over for what should be a rollickingly good show. We  noted that they have a solid propulsive folk rock sound on their album, Bright As You Can .Meanwhile Sawitsky & Koulack were responsible for the haunting old time guile of Fiddle & Banjo

 

We’ll look at some more of the hidden gems of Celtic Connections soon and see you if you’re at any of these shows.