Petunia & The Vipers. Dead Bird On the Highway.

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Joy indeed to have the third album from the oddly named and even odder sounding Canadian outfit Petunia & The Vipers as Blabber’n’Smoke was somewhat enamoured of the two previous releases which we reviewed here and here. Dead Bird On The Highway sees Petunia continuing to wander into the more esoteric byways of popular music while still retaining the core mixture of Western Swing, Blues and Rockabilly which are the foundations of his sound. Although there is yodelling to be found there are songs by Otis Blackwell, Ike Turner and a stunning version of Little Willie John’s I’m Shakin’ along with several numbers that have African roots. All in all a very eclectic mix but if you’ve been following Petunia’s career this should come as no surprise.

Petunia’s reedy vocals in themselves are a joy to listen to as he croons, scats and yodels with a zest that is at times exhausting while The Vipers can lay down a vampish beat, rock like hell and kick the gong around as easily as you switch car gears. At times they do this within the space of a song as on Gonna Put On My Suit where they switch from a bluesy opening into tom tom fuelled guitar blizzards and then tumble into a jazzy Slim and Slam interlude which is then interrupted by pedal steel coming down the tracks. On paper, this seems like a train wreck but it’s an exhilarating ride, the twists and turns coming so fast that by the end the listener is dizzy but satisfied.

The opening song, Blue Yodel Blues, a tremendous mash up of western swing and Jimmy Rogers doesn’t prepare the listener for what’s to come as it’s one of the most straightforward numbers here, straightforward that is for Petunia. As they proved when they played here back in 2013 The Vipers are a deadly force when it comes to delivering hi octane rock, rhythm and blues and they do so here on several occasions. Oh What A Wonderful Time, an Otis Blackwell number finds the band in a viperish mood, all Cotton Club and Cab Calloway swing as Petunia comes across all lascivious, My heart Cries Out For You skitters along like a mutant Buddy Holly number while Bloom, Bloom, Bloom is like Tav Falco with a nervous tic. Throughout the album Petunia takes on familiar styles and mutates them, Chained is a frantic dash that resembles a Merrie Melodies cartoon soundtrack that marries Eastern melodies and hard boiled gangster film noir grit and Put Yourself On The Market (AKA Why Don’t You Do Right or Weed Smoker’s Dream) out Waits Tom Waits with its junkyard jackhammer blues.  We reach the outer limits on the surf guitar fuelled  Asaw Fofor, a  cover of a Ghanaian song from the sixties by Ignace de Souza which finds Petunia switching between English and Swahili over a tremendous groove and on the crowning achievement here, the spooky netherworld of Death Himself. Shimmers of guitar and a rain slicked noirish sheen glower over a slow beat that breathes menace, a shadow in the dark stalking the living. Petunia casts himself as a torch singer, lapsing into French in a danse macabre although he can’t help himself from comparing the man with the scythe to a lumberjack, the Canadian in him coming out I suppose. In any case it’s shivering in its cold beauty.

While it’s not your normal country folk rock blues fodder Dead Bird On The Highway is firmly rooted in supremely listenable roots music as it challenges and provokes the listener to delve and explore but best of all it’s huge fun.

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Best of 2014

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There’s a lot or pros and cons when it comes to listing end of year best ofs or favourites. Two years ago Blabber’n’Smoke eventually plumbed for the pros outweighing the cons so this is the third time we’ve presented what, when it comes down to it, is an arbitrary choice of remembered listen. Albums that have stood the test of (a relatively short) time, the ones we’ve returned to or recommended to others in the pub. Above all it’s been fun to look back, read the reviews and see if they still stand. So with this in mind the following are the official Blabber’n’Smoke 2014 picks, in alphabetical order.

Blue Rose Code. Ballads Of Peckham Rye
Birds Of Chicago. Live From Space
Fire Mountain. All Dies Down
Bradford lee Folk and The Bluegrass Playboys. Somewhere Far Away
Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. I’ll Swing My Hammer With Both My Hands
Jim Keaveny. Out Of Time
Parker Millsap. Parker Millsap
Michael Rank & Stag. Deadstock
Sturgill Simpson. Metamodern Sounds In Country Music
John Southworth. Niagara

Random honourable mentions go to

Lucinda Williams Down Where the Spirit Meets The Bone,
The Johnny Cash Native American album reboot, Look Again To The Wind,
Danny and The Champions Of The World’s Live Champs!
Dan Michealson & The Coastguards Distance
Cale Tyson’s EP, High On Lonesome,
Luke Tuchsherer’s debut You Get So Alone at Times It makes Sense,
Petunia’s Inside Of You,
Ags Connolly How about Now,
Chris Cacavas & Edward Abbiati. Me And The Devil along with Abbiati’s band Lowlands who delivered the excellent Love Etc.,
Zoe Muth. World Of Strangers,
Hank Wangford & The Lost Cowboys. Save Me The Waltz .
Grant Peeples and the Peeples Rebublic. Punishing The Myth.
Simone Felice. Strangers.
Bronwynne Brent. Stardust.
Sylvie Simmons. Sylvie (allowing an honorary mention here for Howe Gelb who produced).
The War On Drugs. Lost In The Dream.
Lynne Hanson. River Of Sand.
Gal Holiday & The Honky Tonk Revue. Last To Leave.
And finally John Murry’s EP, Califorlonia which is brilliant and hopefully just an appetiser for his follow up to the majestic Graceless Age.

Digging through the archives it’s been noticeable that there’s been a fine contribution this year from Scottish acts who dip into or draw from an Americana well to a greater or lesser extent. While Blue Rose Code’s Ballads Of Peckam Rye features above the following are all stellar contributions to the local scene.

Dropkick. Homeward
Dumb Instrument. The Silent Beard (with the Scottish song of the year, Suffering from Scottishness).
John Hinshelwood. Lowering The Tone.
The David Latto Band. Here Today, Ghost Tomorrow EP
Norrie McCulloch. Old Lovers Junkyard
The New Madrids. Through the Heart of Town.
Red Pine Timber Company. Different Lonesome
The Rulers Of The Root. Porky Dreams
Ten Gallon Bratz. Tales From The Long Shadows

Although his album, Little Glass Box came out in 2012, Fraser Anderson is a major find of the year while another local lad, Daniel Meade unleashes his Nashville recorded Keep Right Away in January. Hopefully folk will have long enough memories to recall this when it comes to compiling the 2015 lists. In the meantime it can be first on the New Year shopping list.

Cale Tyson. High on Lonesome EP. Clubhouse Records

2014 is turning out to be a fine year for new artists delivering new music that is steeped in a country tradition. After Sturgill Simpson’s magisterial retake on hard core outlaw country along comes Cale Tyson, a new signing to Clubhouse Records who grasps the sound of Hank Williams and George Jones in a warm embrace to deliver some wonderfully honky tonk soaked, tear stained ballads. The sound Tyson and his excellent band produce is mesmerising with the guitars and pedal steel given a spectral feel, as if Santo and Johnny of Sleepwalk fame had turned up at the Grand Ole Opry or Chris Isaak had joined Petunia and The Vipers. At heart however this is pure Country and the opening song, Honky Tonk Moan, is a perfect example as the Hawaiian sounding pedal steel introduces the band who clip clop into view while Tyson moans like Hank Williams. It’s an almost perfect song with Kenny Vaughan’s electric solo dripping with class as the song weeps out of the speakers, guaranteed to melt the heart of all but the stoniest listener.

One could be forgiven for expecting the remainder of this seven song disc to fall short of the standard set by Honky Tonk Moan but Tyson rises to the challenge with a set of songs that at times are better in that they are less anchored in the past. Is the Flame Burning Low is another tear stained waltz with more George than Hank. With a lighter touch on pedal steel, a more acoustic feel and some fine piano added to the mix Tyson croons wonderfully albeit with a lump in his throat. Lonesome In Tennessee is another love letter to a lost girlfriend (and by now one is wondering if Tyson will ever get to keep a gal) which adds a female chorus to his love raddled misery while the band are yet looser with drummer John McTigue adding a touch of drama with his cymbal work. By now it’s clear that Tyson is destined to be lonesome and Not Missing You adds a touch of defiance as he determines to move on from his heartbreak. Despite this, it’s still a sorrowful song with the sense of loneliness accentuated by a fine fiddle solo from Christian Sedelmayer. Again, the song is in waltz time but on this occasion one can hear the influence of another of Tyson’s heroes, Gram Parsons, in the vocal delivery and lyrics.

There’s a change of tone next as Long Gone Girl is given a darker, bluesy feel. Tyson is more judgemental here, his girlfriend drug addled and dragging him down. Sounding not a million miles away from The Doors on LA Woman the band lay down a neon rain specked vibe while Tyson’s lyrics are evocative and bang up to date.
Now my mind is racing faster than a car/Back in Texas for a night I’m playing in a bar/She calls me up ‘cos that girl is never quite too far/Saying Baby, come back home to me/I live like a sunset and all your drinks are on me/Though when I return she’s too coked out to see
This is brilliant story telling that raises the hair on the back of your neck recalling Jim White’s more spectral moments but following this we’re back in traditional territory as Old Time Blues returns to George Jones’ like laments while Thorn In My Side returns to the Hankness (if there is such a word) of the opening song. Again it’s a pitch perfect capture of raw country music back in the days when giants ruled the Opry although there is a hint of Parsons in the delivery.

Overall Tyson shows that he has an extraordinary ability to capture and repackage what some folk might consider to be the golden age of Nashville while tweaking it somewhat to bring it up to date. A post modern take on Parson’s Cosmic American Music perhaps, indebted to the elders, topical topics on occasion but overall infused with the spirit of Country music. Whatever it’s one of the best discs we’ve heard this year. The EP is released in early November on Clubhouse Records

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Petunia. Inside Of You.

This summer is turning out to be a bumper time for great music with excellent albums arriving almost daily. Petunia (formerly billed as Petunia and the Vipers) doesn’t disappoint with his follow up to his 2012 album (reviewed here) which Blabber’n’Smoke saw as evidence of a “left field genius.” While Inside Of You doesn’t quite have the jaw dropping effect that the Petunia and The Vipers album had it still provides thrills galore. Some chin stroking moments as the listener wonders what on earth is going on perhaps but at its best there’s some of the most vibrant country swing and modern rockabilly we’ve heard in a long time while Petunia toys with genres on several of the more challenging listens.

The Vipers are present along with a slew of Vancouver’s best including Paul Rigby (Neko Case, Garth Hudson and Calexico) while Frank Fairfield also makes an appearance and they open the album with an almighty clatter on the thrilling railroad countrybilly of Runaway Freight Train Heart which propels turbo charged twang guitar riffs and licks at the listener while the rhythm section goes at it pell mell. There’s more muscle on the junkyard blues of Primitive Love which is like a cross between Peggy Lee and The Cramps as it sashays with a wicked jungle sway and lewd trumpet. The trumpet returns accompanied by snaking guitar and a mutant cocktail jazz backing on The One Thing while Oh My Mother vamps along like a subdued Cab Calloway with some jazzy fiddle included (and there’s aSpanish version hidden at the end of the CD). Petunia and his cohorts head into Western Swing territory on the album’s closing numbers as They Almost Had Me Believing is buoyed by some tremendous lap steel playing with the final song, Tear Drops Rolling adding fiddle to the mix while Petunia’s high, wide and lonesome vocals are the icing on the cake.

If this were all then the album would rate highly but scattered within these superb romps Petunia offers some other gems which serve to show his peculiar genius and raise the album from good to great. Forgotten Melody is an odd song by any standard. It races along with nimble double bass, sticks and Django Reinhart guitar runs almost outpacing Petunia’s rushed vocals before JP Carter’s trumpet soars into view. There’s a continental air to this with a whiff of the circus like music of Nino Rota in the sixties as the song twists and turns with an almost cartoon like elasticity. There’s an audacious key change in the coda which borders on genius. Bicycle Song is a wonderful slice of whimsy that recalls the earlier album as Petunia scats and plays with the words as the band lay down a lap steel flavoured buzz. Holy Budge Winters features Frank Fairfield on pump organ on a song that sounds as if it were rescued from The Anthology of American Folk Music as Petunia relates a tale redolent of God fearin’ times as a travelling showman prays for rain to put out forest fires. Petunia plays with the song, bringing it up to date as helicopter and ‘plane water drops fail to quench the flames. When his prayers are answered and rain falls he goes to church but as Petunia sings
” he went to a church it was closed so he went to another one where he hadn’t been in years and he said his thankyou’s and then his work was done.”
On the title song Petunia stands alone with just his guitar and voice as he offers an epistle urging self awareness. Its testament to his talent that this solo effort, the longest on the album at six minutes, keeps your attention throughout.

Inside Of You is an album that on one level immediately grabs you with its hi-octane offerings but one that repays repeated listens as its onion layers are unveiled. It’s odd in parts but that’s part of the joy in delving into it. Blabber’n’Smoke saw Petunia live at Celtic Connections two years ago and they were magnificent live. They’re returning to the UK later this year and on the strength of this it’s a show to see.

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Celtic Connections: The Leon Hunt n-Tet, The Two Man Gentleman band

It’s coming up for Celtic Connections time again and as usual there’s a hefty wallop of Americana music on show. Blabber’n’Smoke aficionados will already be familiar with some of the acts appearing. John Murry whose album, The Graceless Age, was our No. 1 release of last year appears along with the Cowboy Junkies at Kelvingrove art gallery while another of our top ten faves Petunia & The Vipers hit the Old Fruitmarket accompanied by Woody Pines. A Blabber’n’Smoke night to savour we think. Others we’ve previously mentioned here include the Heritage Blues Orchestra at the Royal Concert Hall, The Lost Brothers(supporting Glen Hansard), again at the Old Fruitmarket and finally a show that promises to be a doozie, Otis Gibbs at the Glasgow Art Club. Gibbs’ Hard As Hammered Hell was another album in our top ten releases of 2012.
This list only scratches the surface of course and it’s serendipitous that all of the above were mentioned here last year. We thought we’d take some time to mention a few others whose albums have fallen into our lap recently and who are also appearing.

The curiously named Leon Hunt n-Tet will be the must go gig for any music loving mathematicians as the n-tet suffix denotes a number that is liable to change (in layman terms they can be a duo, trio, quartet etc) and it’s likely that only boffins will get this. If so the boffins will be rubbing shoulders with bluegrass fans as Mr. Hunt is reckoned to be the UK’s premier 5-string banjo player and can be heard on numerous collaborations with a stellar array of transatlantic musicians. Here he’s promoting his tribute to the late Earl Scruggs. Farewell Blues (Remembering Earl Scruggs) sees him teamed up with three other UK exponents of the high lonesome sound (Jason Titley, Guitar, Ben Somers, Double Bass and Joe Hymas, Mandolin) and it’s pretty much what you’d expect from such experienced hands. The playing is impeccable, vibrant and joyous as they wheel through 12 cuts which range from the whirlwind Foggy Mountain Special to the ragamuffin roll that is Deep River Blues. It’s a joy from start to finish and in a blindfold test you’d swear these guys were raised on a porch on momma’s moonshine liquor. They play St. Andrews In the Square on 26th January supporting Sarah Jarosz

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The Two Man Gentleman Band are a different kettle of fish although they also base their sound on a vintage American sound, in this case the very cool, hip and voutereeniest man ever, Slim Gaillard. Gaillard was a blast in the past, hobnobbing with Hollywood royalty and recording some of the daftest and deftest music ever. Most popular in a twin setting (as Slim and Slam then Slim and Bam, perhaps the chaps should rename themselves for Celtic Connections as Slim and Tam) he appeared in movies and was as popular as Louis Jordan. Playing guitar accompanied by double bass Gaillard scatted and jived about food, drinking and at times just nonsense in his invented language, vout. The Two Man Gentleman Band don’t share his language but they do sing about food (Pork Chops, Tikka Masala, Cheese and Crackers) and drinking (Chocolate Milk, Wine, Oh Wine!, Please Don’t Water It Down). What they do manage is the sense of fun, the joy of goofing off on a riff and the almost absurd (think Warner Brothers’ Looney Tunes and Bugs Bunny) worldview that on record is engaging but should go down a storm live. They’re at the Glasgow Piping Centre on 26th January.

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Top 10 2012

Don’t think we’ve done this before but it looks like everyone in the world this year has come up with a “best of” selection. So, here’s our tuppenceworth.

1. John Murry The Graceless Age. Bucketful of Brains
A narcoleptic diary of hard times that shimmers with a beautiful heat haze.

2. Cahalen Morrison & Eli West. Our lady of The Tall Trees. Independent
Songs carved from old wood and turned into objects of beauty

3. Dan Stuart. The Deliverance of Marlowe Billings. Cadiz Music.
Back from the almost dead with a vengeance

4. Deadman “Take Up Your Mat and Walk” Blue Rose
An Americana primer, they gather in their influences and forge a fresh sound

5. Otis Gibbs. Harder Than Hammered Hell. Wanamaker Recording Company
A solid set of songs of the working man that packs a Southern punch.

6. Nels Andrews. Scrimshaw. Independent
A delicate and impressionistic set of tales from New York

7. Giant Giant Sand. Tucson. Fire Records
Expanded and emboldened Howe Gelb delivers a country rock opera as only he can

8. Petunia & the Vipers. Petunia & The Vipers. Trapline Productions
Left field country pop and rock with yodelling and guts

9. The Illegitimate Sons. American Music. Independent.
Bourbon soaked rootsy rock delivered with panache

10. Sacri Cuori. Rosario. Décor Records.
Italian band delivers some superb instrumental Americana that channels Calexico and Ry Cooder

Honourable mentions

Calexico. Algiers,
Chuck Prophet. Temple Beautiful,
For Fear the hearts of Men Are Failing. The Wonderful Clatter
Mark Lucas. Uncle Bones,
Malcolm Holcombe. Down The River
Richard Hawley. Standing At The Sky’s Edge
Michael Rank and Stag. Kin
Heritage Blues Orchestra. And Still I Rise
Ry Cooder. Election Special
Neil Young & Crazy Horse. Psychedelic Pill
Marvin Etzioni, Marvin Country!
Lincoln Durham. The Shovel vs the Howling Bones
Grant Peeples, Prior Convictions
Hat Check Girl. The Road To Red Point
Woody Pines. You Gotta Roll
Hurray For The RiffRaff. Look Out Mama
Pokey LaFarge and the South City Three. Live In Holland

Petunia & The Vipers.

“Imagine that David Lynch and Nick Cave had a hillbilly baby. A hillbilly baby that yodelled.” Well imagine no more because that absurd description just about sums up the extraordinary Canadian artist Petunia although it misses out on the Godparents. Jimmy Rogers, Willie nelson, Slim Whitman, Lux Interior, Ray Condo and Tom Waits among others. An eclectic mix but stir them all together, add a soupcon of Elvis and even a hint of Pokey Lafarge and you might end up with this enigmatic character.
Although he has released several albums in Canada this is the first to get a push here and as such it stands as a great introduction to his left field genius.
Petunia (a name given to him by a mysterious lady friend) emerged from a Vancouver post punk scene and embraced country music. Picking up the Vipers, composed of the cream of the local crop including members of the late Ray Condo’s band, he can deliver straightahead country pop that can thrill and exhilarate as on the closing cut here It Ain’t where the band cut loose with a jitterbug frug with guitars a flaying and a propulsive swing that comes across a little like Jimmie Dale Gilmore fronting The Mavericks. This song alone should propel Petunia to playlists across the land and grace wedding dances galore such is its feelgood factor and if more folk had good taste. However its simply the last in a collection of songs that blast from the past and then are given a unique twist courtesy of Petunia’s slightly warped vision.
Opening with the cowboy yodelling of The Cricket Song the listener is lulled into a false sense of security as the fifties’ sheen, the tin pan alley chorus, the comforting pedal steel playing all add up to a song that could possibly kill Martians. In the midst of this radio hour comfort Petunia however tosses in a slice of discord as he reveals that he has left his “baby” almost as an aside. As a result this picture perfect description of a beautiful moonlit Canadian night hides a darker story. The darkness comes to the fore on the following song Mercy. “If Tom Waits could yodel and I bet that he can” sings Petunia as he launches into a Waits inspired carnival with the previous sumptuousness of the music replaced with the clash and clatter one expects from Waits while the guitarists produce some fine Marc Ribot inspired licks. The breathless rockabilly rant of Maybe Baby Amy follows on sounding like a country version of The Cramps, a trick repeated on Gitterbug where fat pedal steel replace fuzz guitar. There’s a Latin sound to Bright Light and Che (Guevara’s Diary) and a return to a more conventional approach on Yes Baby Yes, a western swing type number. A cover of Hoagy Carmichael’s Stardust is almost conventional and crooned superbly but at the heart of the album there is a darker core with The Ballad of Handsome Ned a highlight. A cinematic introduction leads into an atmospheric obituary for a local musician who inspired Petunia and offers the band the opportunity to stretch out. This is trumped however by the spectral majesty of Broken Down Love. A lament graced by some incredible saw playing by Doug Tielli it is wonderfully evocative of dark skies with a shivering loneliness and as it stutters and almost halts the sobbing guitar, the spooky saw, the lyrics and Petunia’s voice all add up to something close to perfection.
One of the best releases of the year you really should try to hear this.

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