Norrie McCulloch. Compass. Black Dust Records

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If you’re a regular reader of Blabber’n’Smoke then you probably know that we hold Norrie McCulloch in high esteem, his trio of albums,  Old Lovers Junkyard, These Mountain Blues and Bare Along The Branches, all essential listening. They are proof that he is one of the best Scottish songwriters around these days, his voice rooted in the soil even as he writes with an eye on the likes of Townes Van Zandt’s melancholic poetry or Jay Farrar’s deadpan Americana. Musically he roots around in the fertile sounds of British folk rock and classic singer songwriters of the seventies along with nods to the insurgent alt country bands which spawned No Depression. Compass, released last week, finds McCulloch harvesting the results of his immersion in those ill-fated troubadours of the early sixties, Tim Buckley and Fred Neil, buccaneering romantic troubadours both.

Recorded in close collaboration with McCulloch’s long time foil, Dave McGowan, the album is more fleshed out than its predecessors with guitarist and mandolin player Iain Thomson contributing to the sound while Shane Connolly takes over percussion duties on several of the songs from McCulloch’s usual drummer Stuart Kidd. There are a couple of songs which would sit comfortably on any of the earlier albums. Janey (When We Were Young) is classic McCulloch showcasing his guitar, harmonica and voice on a solo tour de force as he sings this heart-tugging tale of youthful love. Drinking Money has a skip in its step as Thomson’s mandolin leads this little ditty which recalls Ronnie Lane or even John Martyn’s folkier efforts while Hollow Love finds McCulloch aching romantically, conjuring delicious images in his words, over a languid liquid guitar.

Elsewhere, McCulloch makes the most of his expanded sonic palette as Thomson comes across as the equivalent of Lee Underwood or Bruce Langhorne, guitarists who lit up so many essential sixties folk albums. Dear Lady Blue opens with a delicious melange of 12 string acoustic and electric guitar as McCulloch opens up his heart to his muse, the song kicking off with this arresting couplet, “A crow is picking at scraps by the side of the road I’m driving alone. Felling like that old lonesome crow with no place to go and nowhere to call my home.” The song limps along over a halting rhythm as McCulloch waxes more poetically until a wonderfully restrained electric guitar brings it to a halt. The following Road Sign is infused with the spirit of early seventies LA as McCulloch’s Scot’s voice is accompanied by harmonies reminiscent of CS&N as he delivers a Scottish version of a California freewheeling highway song.  She’s So Good is a magnificent ensemble piece with McGowan’s supple double bass  burbling under Thomson’s cascades of electric guitar while With You In My Life, the closing song, is another song reminiscent of bygone LA troubadours. In this case McCulloch carries off the unbelievable as the harmonies, jangled guitars and the song’s repeated mantra places it on a par with David Crosby’s legendary album, If Only I Could Remember My Name. A bold statement perhaps but we’ll stand by it. As good as this is, it’s eclipsed by the album’s title song. Compass encompasses the likes of Fairport Convention’s A Sailor’s Life, the jazzy folk rock of Pentangle and the dizzying heights of Tim Buckley’s 1968 Festival Hall live performance. It’s simply mesmerising and somewhat awesome.

As it stands, Compass is surely McCulloch’s crowning achievement so far. It sets him at the forefront of the song writing talent we have in the UK these days and deserves to be in any respectable record collection. And, speaking of that, the album is available on limited edition vinyl and we can testify to how great it sounds. Head here to buy it before the edition runs out.

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Best of 2017

OK, decorations are coming down, it’s back to work time but before that here’s a short list of the albums that have stood out over the past year. If there’s a link it will take you a review of the album. Looking back it seems that 2017 wasn’t a bad year for music in terms of releases but a total bummer in terms of Tom Petty leaving us. Here’s hoping next year is as good so, all the best for 2018.

Chuck Prophet, Bobby Fuller Died For Your Sins

cp18cdIn the year of Brexit and Trump, Chuck’s sheer love of rock’n’roll shone throughout this album. Coupled with seeing him play two blindingly great gigs this year the album’s been a regular on the stereo and in the car while Jesus Was A Social Drinker is my song of the year.

 

Jeremy Pinnell, Ties Of Blood And Affection

e2069a_5277bb38e84c4e118495b89d2105a130mv2While Stapleton gets all the notice I think there are numerous others who are bringing out better albums and Jeremy’s second solo album is the best of the lot this year. I was privileged to host a house concert with Jeremy and Ags Connolly and it was a great occasion.

 

Courtney Marie Andrews, Honest Life

cc752a_ccb74ac415f74324bdde66d0b5f81184mv2An album of glacial purity with glimpses of Joni Mitchell in its shadows.

 

 

GospelbeacH, Another Summer Of Love

500x500Jangled sunny California music which stretches from Petty to The Jam in its inspiration.

 

 

Nathan Bell, Love > Fear (48 hours in Traitorland)

love-fear-front-coverOld fashioned protest perhaps but Bell is a powerful writer and as good a champion of “blue collar” folk as Rod Picott. And, in concert, he’s funny with it (just like Rod Picott).

 

Blue Rose Code. The Water Of Leith

the-water-of-leithRoss Wilson continues his journey into the hinterlands of folk and jazz. A wonderful and evocative album.

 

Eric Ambel, At The Lakeside

61ceyom7fgl-_ss500It took 12 years for Ambel to come up with this one, a bunch of songs he imagined could have been on his pub’s jukebox. Guitar album of the year.

 

Don Antonio, Don Antonio

cs646897-01a-bigAside from his band, Sacri Cuori, Antonio Gramantieri has worked with Howe Gelb, Dan Stewart and Alejandro Escovedo. This solo album is a magnificent retro stew of sixties soundtracks and Italian cool.

 

Jaime Wyatt, Felony Blues

jaime_coverA true jailbird, Wyatt’s album is part outlaw country, part Laurel Canyon country rock. For me she just beats Margo Price

 

Malojian, Let Your Weirdness Carry You Home.

a1294981180_16Irishman Stevie Scullion conjures up a slight psychedelic trip with McCartney like melodies and Harrison’s Blue Jay Way vibes.

 

Best reissue/compilation

The Wynntown Marshals, After All These Years

a2597450969_16A perfect introduction to the band if you haven’t heard them before. A perfect keepsake for those who are in the know.

 

 

Also of note…

Slaid Cleaves, Ghost On the Car Radio

Margo Price, All American Made

Danny & The Champions Of The World, Brilliant Light

Ags Connolly, Nothin’ Unexpected

Robyn Hitchcock, Robyn Hitchcock

Todd Day Wait, Folk-Country-Blues

Whitney Rose, South Texas Suite

Norrie McCulloch, Bare Along The Branches

Russ Tolman. Compass & Map

John Murry, A Short History of Decay

Jim Keaveny, Put It Together

Ian Felice, In The Kingdom Of Dreams

Gill Landry, Love Rides A Dark Horse

Amanda Anne Platt & The Honeycutters

Daniel Meade Shooting Stars & Tiny Tears 

The Sadies, Northern Passages

John Alexander, Of These Lands

There are many others which could/should be mentioned here, apologies to those I’ve either forgotten about or overlooked. In the meantime here’s the song of the year.

 

Norrie McCulloch & The Fireside Sessions. Townes Blues EP. Black Dust Records.

a4218351905_16One of the highlights of the recent Glasgow Americana festival was a night celebrating the late, great Townes Van Zandt. A host of musicians queued up to pay tribute to the man who is surely the lodestone of Americana singers and songwriters, the queue including Norrie McCulloch who sang his own tribute, Mountain Blues, along with his versions of Townes’ songs.

McCulloch has released three sublime albums which pitch him as one of the best artists to have emerged in the Scottish folk/Americana scene over the past few years. The title song of his second album was written beside Townes’ gravesite which McCulloch visited while on a stateside trip and it was when he managed to find a rare copy of a Van Zandt songbook that he embarked on this limited edition EP of Townes’ songs. Recorded back in January, twenty years almost to the day of his demise, the disc is an emotional and affectionate salute to the man famously described by Steve Earle as “the best songwriter in the whole world.”

With Dave McGowan, Shane Connolly, Iain Thompson, Stuart Kidd and Marco Rea constituting The Fireside Sessions, the disc rattles into view with a rollicking version of Dollar Bill Blues, scattershot guitar, banjo and growling electric guitar skittering over some tremendous percussion and double bass, the drums almost jazz like as if Terry Cox from Pentangle was in the drum seat while McCulloch’s gruff Scots’ brogue spits out the words. It’s a magnificent interpretation of an excellent song.

There’s always been a touch of the late sixties folk rock sound in McCulloch’s music and he sprinkles this over No Place To Fall with the result that one can imagine this as a long lost Fairport Convention outtake from Unhalfbricking. Again the drums are a wonder, a splash of cymbals while the guitar is as liquid as Richard Thompson’s back in the day. Flying Shoes follows and McCulloch sticks more firmly to the original in his vocal delivery although the sublime piano playing adds a sense of grandeur to the song. Thus far the songs covered are probably familiar to anyone with a passing interest in Townes. McCulloch next covers a deep cut, the waltz time Don’t You Take It Too Bad, a song perfectly suited for his vocal delivery and given a delicate, mandolin dappled delivery. It’s short, it’s sweet, and just about perfect.

The EP closes with a new version of Mountain Blues, McCulloch’s poignant paean to the man. Although it’s not too dissimilar from the original version it seems here to be more stately, more measured. The piano still strides majestically over the rolling percussion and McCulloch sings with a passion while there’s a brief reprise of the song after several seconds delay with McCulloch leading a singalong of the song’s refrain.

All in all Townes Blues is a splendid although brief snapshot of McCulloch’s undoubted admiration for the man. It’s available as a limited edition EP with handcrafted sleeve and there’s a smaller run of the CD along with a signed and numbered print of McCulloch’s portrait of Townes Van Zandt, a very nice artefact. Details of how to get these are here.

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Here’s the original version of These Mountain Blues…

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.

Norrie McCulloch. Bare Along The Branches Album Launch. The State Bar, Glasgow. Friday 24th February 2017

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With some excellent reviews rolling in for his third album, Bare Along The Branches, Stirling based Norrie McCulloch held three consecutive launch gigs in Stirling, Glasgow and Edinburgh, each one unique with a revolving cast of musicians. Those attending the Glasgow show saw McCulloch joined by two of the musicians featured on the recording, Marco Rae on bass and Stuart Kidd on drums along with Stirling musicians Craig Ferrie, Keiran Hughes and Scott William Urquhart at various moments. Playing together for the first time the ensemble had a bit of a raggle taggle approach to the songs but this  added to the informal feel of the evening with the ever affable McCulloch in fine form on and off the stage greeting each of the audience as they arrived, his huge grin ever present. I’m sure that the epithet raggle taggle will cause no offense as it relates to the late Ronnie Lane’s tag for his band Slim Chance and when the band opened with Shutter, the first song on the album, there was a touch of that gypsy caravan about them reinforced by the song’s affiliation to Van Morrison’s Celtic soul music. McCulloch was in fine voice, a touch wearied but with a hint of joyousness in the rousing refrain. Little Boat continues to mine the Morrison comparisons on the record with its soulful organ but tonight it was delivered as a plangent ballad with the band delicately prodding McCulloch’s warm voice. There was a nod to the previous album with a fine delivery of Ordinary Joe before the more upbeat Frozen River cheered up the audience as a mandolin was introduced into the mix.

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From here on in the band members came and went and there were stripped down deliveries of the poignant Safe Keeping, Townes Van Zandt’s Dollar Bill Blues and McCulloch’s tribute to Townes, These Mountain Blues. His solo performance of Turn To Dust, written shortly after his mother’s death was mesmerising, the audience transfixed. The band gradually reassembled for the lonesome harmonica led Around The Bend, a dusty masterpiece that limped along wonderfully with a Neil Young bent before the chilling epic of Beggars Wood with a lonesome McCulloch gradually enveloped by languid guitars over a doom laden beat. Show over McCulloch returned for a masterful encore of When She Is Crying Too, a song that surely proves he is one of our foremost songwriters.

For tonight McCulloch graciously offered opening slots to two of his band compadres. Craig Ferrie AKA December 91 suffered from some audience chatter unfortunately, his elvin appearance failing to capture their attention but from the front his mix of freak folk and indie rock was somewhat intriguing.20170224_204452-copy

While he sounded at times like Eef Barzelay his songs wandered into a weird world of naiveté and psychodrama deserving of a much more dedicated listen (which is possible if you visit here).

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Scott William Urquhart was a revelation, a guitarist obviously in thrall to the likes of John Fahey and Leo Kottke, he mesmerised the audience with several instrumentals that, had some joss sticks been available would have had us all back in the scented sixties. Again this was intriguing, the man himself admitting that this was the first time he’d played outwith Stirling. Do check him out if this stirs up any interest, he even sells small run bespoke vinyl editions of some of his tunes. I thought he was wonderful.

 

 

 

Norrie McCulloch. Bare Along The Branches. Black Dust Records

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This third album in as many years from Ayrshire bred songwriter Norrie McCulloch confirms what Blabber’n’Smoke has maintained since we first heard his debut, Old Lovers Junkyard, that he is one of Scotland’s (and the UK’s) premier artists. Over the course of his three albums McCulloch, along with his superb studio band (Dave McGowan of Teenage Fanclub / Belle & Sebastian and Stuart Kidd and Marco Rea from The Wellgreen) has gathered from a well of inspirations (artists such as Townes Van Zandt, Jay Farrar, Fairport Convention, Van Morrison and John Martyn). By some alchemical process he has transformed them into his own noble spirit with songs that inhabit the past and celebrate the here and now, his attractive and slightly wearied voice with its mild Celtic burr anchoring him to his homeland whilst the music traverses oceans and genres.

Bare Along The Branches finds McCulloch continuing to peer into his roots and influences but with a new found confidence that is reflected in the more diverse instrumentation on show here. There’s an expansive edge to some of the songs with electric guitar and organ added to the trail mix that was on show on These Mountain Blues. Thus enabled McCulloch is able to capture for example the sheer joy of vintage Van Morrison Caledonia Soul escapades on songs such as Shutter with its repetitive refrain which is pure Morrison soulful scatting. The song itself concerns a tryst gone wrong in a lonesome cabin, a wonderful concatenation of images and sound with piano and organ fuelling the sheer exuberance of McCulloch’s lyrics. There’s more soul on the plaintive Lonely Boy with electric keyboards and Chi-Lites harmonies harnessing the song to seventies Top of The Pops memories of smooth harmony groups dressed in silk while Little Boat chugs along with some meaty guitar plunges and churchlike organ on another song that is reminiscent of Van Morrison.

While this affiliation to a hybrid Celtic soul music dominates the first half of the album McCulloch proves he can deliver ballads in the Americana vein with Safe Keeping and Frozen River evidence of his admiration for Jay Farrar, the former a halting  dust blown rust belt eulogy while the latter skips along almost approaching bluegrass. Never Leave You Behind meanwhile is a full blown dive into country rock with some fine lap steel playing from McGowan and McCulloch revisits the dusty troubadour persona of his previous albums on the tremendous Around The Bend. This is a glorious ballad in a Neil Young mode with banjo, harmonica and lonesome pedal steel combining to create a frontier feel while McCulloch’s lyrics are a form of old Western Zen acceptance. The album closes with the lengthy Beggars Wood, a stark meditation on a childhood fable that has followed the artist into adulthood and is only exorcised when he revisits the scene. As it progresses the song blossoms from skeletal guitar and voice into a soaring guitar solo that avoids bombast as it stutters to the end, the song proof indeed that McCulloch continues to explore new avenues for his muse. Three albums in and not one clunker, McCulloch has the talent to enter the mainstream if he gets the breaks so grab a hold of this and let everyone else know about it.

Norrie McCulloch has arranged several shows to launch Bare Along The Branches starting with The Tollbooth in Stirling on 23rd February. Next up is Glasgow’s State Bar on the 24th and then Edinburgh’s Bluebird Cafe on the 25th.

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Norrie McCulloch – These Mountain Blues live at Tron Theatre, Glasgow 18th March 2016

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Such is the way of the music business that it’s been four months since Blabber’n’Smoke reviewed Norrie McCulloch’s second album, These Mountain Blues which only is released this week. It’s a beautiful album, the songs warm and expertly crafted, an opinion only reinforced last week when the limited edition vinyl album was delivered leading to several further listens.

The album was given an official release show on Friday night at Glasgow’s Tron Theatre in the fine setting of their Victorian Bar. Part of the regular Seven Song Club nights, McCulloch was given special dispensation to go over the usual seven song limit, the album unveiled in all its glory and played by the cast who recorded it. With Stuart Kidd on drums and Dave McGowan and Marco Rea swapping piano and bass duties through the night before a sold out crowd there were a few nervous moments from Norrie particularly when one of his guitars appeared to be somewhat recalcitrant when being tuned. However the band stepped up to the mark, their camaraderie obvious as they gamely held the song aloft as he found his stride. The audience, it must be said, willing him on.

These Mountain Blues has been receiving rave reviews across the board and it was a treat to hear the songs tonight. The musicians have lived with these songs for a while and their expert playing offered a fine sense of grandeur to McCulloch’s song writing while he delivered the words with grace, his voice warm, able to sound weary or joyous, stained with his memories.

Calico Days was an excellent opener, a clarion call to believers much in the way that Fairport Convention rallied their listeners on Come All Ye on Liege & Lief, its punchy drive and elegant piano nailing McCulloch’s colours to the mast. This bracing folk rock vibe was continued on Pass By My Door again with the piano prominent particularly on the closing melody and it was the fine interplay between McCulloch’s guitar and McGowan’s stately piano playing that elevated the following These Mountain Blues into a thing of wonder. Written by McCulloch after a trip to Townes Van Zandt’s grave it’s the beating heart of the album and the standout tonight although it was run a close second by McCulloch’s solo rendition of Black Dust, a song written for his grandfather who was bruised and eventually died from his coal mining exertions. A song that could well have come from the pen of Van Zandt was given a local bearing as McCulloch’s voice was more noticeably Scottish here while his words recalled the late William McIlvanney’s stout celebrations of the stoic Ayrshire working man.

The songs flowed sweetly. The grim acceptance of fate on Hard To Be The Man You Are Not and the plaintive loss of New Joke (here given a lengthy rendition) and The Old Room were testament to the band, the songs and the singer as they floated from the stage. Cloudberry Flower was a brief return to a more upbeat feel before they closed with the heartrending When She Is Crying Too and Heart’s Got To Be In The Right Place. The latter tentative at the beginning but as we said earlier it was gently guided by the band into its rightful place as a grand finale to a superb suite of songs.

The Seven Song Club generally features three acts, each confined to seven songs. Tonight’s set was opened by Alan Tempie, a chap you might encounter busking in the city centre. Playing guitar and using a harmoniser pedal on his vocals he sang a mix of his songs and some covers. His renditions of The Divine Comedy’s Lady Of A Certain Age and Fred Neil’s Everybody’s Talking certainly pinned him to a late sixties troubadour style, a style he carried off well with hints of chaps as varied as L. Cohen and Peter Sarstedt. His own Florence Foster Could Not Sing, a song about a 1940’s socialite who self funded her recording career in spite of her lack of talent, was a delight, a song that could sit easily on Findlay Napier’s VIP album.

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Everywhere were up next. A grizzled three piece they parlayed some songs that one would have termed “pub rock” back in the days, some funk, some Merseyside sparkle with guitarist/singer Jimbo MacKellar laying into his guitar. They then stretched back into a psychedelic haze that recalled The Pretty Things at their most deranged before ending with a cracking deconstruction of Bowie’s Jean Genie, the verses slowed down amid whip smart bursts of the chorus, the guitar shredded this time.

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Although the spotlight was on Norrie’s album launch, the two acts here offered up some fine appetisers.