The Coal Porters. No. 6. Prima Records

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Only yesterday Sid Griffin, erstwhile founder of The Coal Porters was anointed a cult hero by The Guardian for his role in alt country pioneers The Long Ryders. Problem with cult heroes is that, by definition, they are relatively unknown, often long gone before cult status is bestowed on them. No such problem with Mr. Griffin as not only is he alive and kicking he’s barnstorming across the country with his “alt bluegrass” band The Coal Porters who are now in their 25th year, originally following the Ryders’ country rock path before entering the 21st century as an all acoustic band.

No. 6 is the sixth album from the acoustic Porters and it’s important to emphasise that while Griffin might be the “name” here the band are a truly democratic collective with song writing and singing duties shared between Griffin, guitarist Neil Robert Heard and Fiddler Kerenza Peacock. Produced by folk rock legend John Wood (who has worked with Fairport Convention, Nick Drake, John Martyn and Beth Orton) the ten songs here see the band working within their bluegrass base while including folk, country and even 80s’ type indie romanticism.

Herd’s Songs are muscular and earthy. Save Me From the Storm is a clever amalgamation of sea faring folk song and spiritual call and response with the Porters’ dynamic soloing mid song quite invigorating. Unhappy Anywhere ripples along finely with a Celtic lilt and morose lyrics, Herd in a Hibernian existentialist mood. Meanwhile The Old Style Prison Break is a keen examination of cowboy movie staples delivered with a shit kicking front porch jollity.

Ms. Peacock offers up the instrumental Chopping the Garlic, a showcase for her fiddle playing with the band not playing second fiddle, banjo player Paul Fitzgerald and bassist Andrew Stafford getting the chance to shine along with Griffin on mandolin and Herd on guitar. They certainly zip along and the coda is cool. She then sings on Play A Tune (apparently her first vocal performance) and it’s a much more mannered song than its siblings. Her high, almost breathless vocals and fiddle allusions to The Lark Ascending are miles from normal Porters fare but it’s a very personal song, a tribute to her mother and its wonderful performance reminiscent of acts like The Raincoats and Virginia Astley.

Your man Griffin turns in his usual high calibre efforts. He strolls effortlessly through the jaunty Salad Days, a witty quickstep recalling his brush with fame while Train No. 10-0-5 is classic story telling with Fitzgerald’s banjo well to the fore before Peacock goes all Scarlet Rivera. He tops this with the sublime The Blind Bartender, a song that’s loaded with Peckinpah border drama heightened by the soaring trumpet solo from Cuban Eikel Venegas which transports the song into a dusty cantina. Wonderful.

We need to mention the closing song. A fine Coal Porters reclamation of The Only Ones’ Another Girl Another Planet, bound to be a sing-along at their gigs and then there’s Griffin’s opening gambit, his bluegrass tribute to the Ramones on The Day The Last Ramone Died. No stranger to rock’n’roll history Griffin here takes the tragic fact that all four bros are gone and forges an excellent tribute to them. His memories of seeing the band, donning his leather jacket when he heard of Tommy going, his aside regarding the ubiquity of the tee shirt are delivered energetically and I’m pretty sure that when they play this live it will give the audiences one more chance to yell, “Gabba gabba hey.”

Currently touring the UK (dates here) the good news is that if you’re quick you can catch The Coal Porters in Glasgow tonight at Woodend Bowling Club

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The Dreaming Spires/Various Artists. Paisley Overground. At the Helm Records

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Oxford’s Dreaming Spires are well known for their jangled take on classic sixties California bands with their last album Searching For The Supertruth one of the nominees for the inaugural UK Americana Awards. For their debut release on At The Helm Records they’ve come up with a concept of sorts, another nod to the past for sure, Paisley Overground being an obvious tribute to the 80’s Paisley Underground, the LA based combustion of ex punks and garage bands who dug The Byrds as much as the Sex Pistols. There’s the album (or mini album, eight songs and under 30 minutes) which is released on plum coloured vinyl and which features four songs from the Spires and an additional four from friends who share their passions and there was even a mini package tour which took in four dates down south last week to coincide with the release.

Side one (and it’s really nice to write that) features The Spires and three of the four songs here were recorded in the legendary Ardent studios in Memphis which they visited when they played Americana Fest last year.  They open with the title track, a glorious smorgasbord of 12 stringed chiming guitars, soaring organ and harmonies galore as Robin Bennett waxes in autobiographical mode as he sings about finding a new kind of sound and his love of  Paisley shirts and 12 string guitars. Harberton Mead hymns an Oxford street with a Stax like propulsive beat coloured by sitar like guitar breaks and a brief organ led freakout at the end. The Road Less Travelled eases up on the clutch as it glides into sight. A ballad that’s imbued with the spirit of Big Star, stately piano, keening pedal steel and soaring vocals remind one that Chris Bell was as integral to Big Star as Alex Chilton and the band here are just magnificent. Silverlake Sky, the final part of their four piece jigsaw is the one song recorded in Oxford but it fits perfectly with The Road Less Travelled as it again recalls Big Star.

Side two cements the Paisley Overground concept by the clever trick of having one of the Paisley underground movers and shakers, Sid Griffin opening. Griffin here teams up with Tony Poole from the 70’s UK band Starry Eyed and Laughing (a living link between the 60’s jangle and the later revivals) for Tell Her All The Time, a song that recalls the earlier and folkier Byrds. The remaining three songs are from friends of The Spires. Co-Pilgrim have a shimmery sixties feel on the languid Save The Queen Blazer, The Hanging Stars have a Topanga canyon easy feeling vibe on their free flowing Crippled Shining Blues, twin guitars offering memories of Manassas. Finally The Raving Beauties, a band that grew out of a fictional account of a sixties Byrds inspired band offer up Arrows, a song that reminds one that the jingle jangle pop sound wasn’t confined to LA as they summon up memories of Merseybeat and The Searchers.

The album arrived just too late for our recent spell of Mediterranean weather but when the sun comes back out this would be the perfect accompaniment to a lazy sun speckled afternoon. In the meantime you can dig out the sun lamp and pretend, the songs will transport you.

There’s a fine interview with Joe Bennett on the disc here and you can buy it here. The Dreaming Spires will be coming to Scotland for a show at Southern Fried Festival at Perth on the Sunday Outdoor Stage.

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Gene Clark. The Byrd Who Flew Alone. DVD

It’s been gratifying over the past few years to see the rise of the “rockumentary” detailing the life’s and music of numerous musicians with more and more vintage footage unearthed. BBC4 may have staked its claim to be the natural home of these although honourable mentions must be given to the likes of Alan Yentob’s Imagine series. Once the province of occasional late night cultural backwaters such as Omnibus these days you can spend just about every Friday night reliving rock history. Unfortunately for every gem there’s a shed load of cheap and nasty shock docs peopled by a pool of talking heads who turn up spouting their opinions on just about anything even if their closest acquaintance with the subject was when their agent called to ask if they were interested in appearing. That said there have been some superb examples over the years. Aside from the fly on the wall type (Don’t Look Back, Cracked Actor, Dig!) there’s the historical document (No Direction Home, MC5: A True Testimonial, Oil City Confidential).

The Byrd Who Flew Alone is in the second camp, a two hour trip through time looking at the career of Gene Clark. Clark was the primary songwriter in the first incarnation of The Byrds and by all accounts was expected to be a massive solo star following his departure from them. The film documents his failure to achieve that fame as his ex bandmate David Crosby was the one who soared while his pioneering efforts in country rock were overshadowed by Gram Parsons who made the ultimate “career move” in dying young at the top of his powers.
Produced and co-directed by Paul Kendall, ex ZigZag writer, the film takes us from Clark’s humble rural beginnings in Tipton, Missouri to his untimely death at the age of 46. While there’s live footage of his brief stint with the New Christy Minstrels and The Byrds (of course) there’s a gap until the early eighties when there was a brief reunion with McGuinn and Hillman. Footage of Clark with Carla Olson however confirms that he remained a compelling performer and despite the lack of live action it’s great to have what little footage remains gathered together. While Clark is heard being interviewed there is no visual footage of him talking.

McGuinn, Crosby and Hillman are all interviewed with Hillman especially providing insights into their tumultuous relationship over the years. Taj Mahal, Carla Olson, Jerry Moss (the M in A&M) offer their recollections while Byrds biographer Johnny Rogan and standard bearer for the Clark legend, Sid Griffin, offer their explanations for the bad luck that dogged Clark as each time he was poised to leap ahead of the game he faltered. Clark is recalled almost as a Jekyll and Hyde character, a country boy with a sunny disposition when away from the bright lights of L.A. but prone to alcohol and drug abuse with a temper to match when in Sin City, a temper that proved disastrous when he tried to punch out David Geffen following Geffen’s displeasure with the No Other album. A more intimate picture of Clark is painted by interviews with family (Mendocino buddies, his brother, sister, sons and widow, Carlie) which offer us a glimpse of the man behind the rock star and a sense of the personal hurt they suffered as Clark indulged in his demons.

Above all there’s the music and the generous running time allows space for fuller discussions of his groundbreaking efforts. The first post Byrds album with the Gosdin Brothers, the pioneering country rock of the Dillard and Clark albums, The Byrds reunion, the pieced together and excellent Roadmaster, the template for the singer/songwriter era that was the “White Light” album and the pinnacle, the exotic and almost triumphant No Other are all detailed along with his last major label release, Two Sides to Every Story, released on Robert Stigwood’s label RSO (with Clark of course eventually insulting Stigwood) which featured a bearded avuncular hippie Clark on the cover just as punk was taking off. Olson, John York and Pat Robinson take us into Clark’s latter years although there’s little or no mention of their recorded output which Clarkophiles will argue was as good as the earlier work. The DVD also includes over an hour of special features with extended interviews, two complete performances and a directors’ commentary. We can’t comment on these at present as the review copy was of the film alone, one reason why Santa will be bringing a fully fledged Byrd related package come the day.
Gene Clark fans have been salivating ever since this film was mentioned however even if you have never heard Clark before it’s an important document in the development of Americana type music and best of all you will be amazed by the quality of his music. His voice, his writing haunts and will continue to do so.

Buy it here