Red Pine Timber Co. Sorry For the Good Times. Goldrush Records

a3958064908_16With Scotland’s premier Americana festival at Southern Fried Perth looming, a perusal of the programme jolted us into remembering that we hadn’t discussed this second album from this excellent Perthshire band although it was released a few months back. For that we apologise but now is as good a time to delve into the album’s delights as surely any Blabber’n’Smoke readers within hailing distance will be going to Perth and they can purchase the album at the band’s show.

Anyway. Red Pine Timber Co. came into being several years ago, a hefty ensemble of  players assembled by Gavin J.D. Munro, late of the much missed Southpaw, and they released their first album in 2014 (which we reviewed here). With Monro well versed in the Americana idiom and the band adding a fine Celtic soul sound mix to the songs (including an adventurous horn section) the album was a bold step forward for Monro. As we said at the time the album was a collection of, “Wearied ballads that glow with a Tupelo honeyed light while the brass section adds a tumescence that is quite daring.” Four years down the line and we find that this could quite easily sum up Sorry For the Good Times although there are fewer wearied ballads and in the meantime Munro’s vocal foil, Katie Whittaker, has blossomed into a singer par excellence, her crystal clear voice able to worm its way into your heart while also being capable of belting out some raucous rockers. The band meanwhile, despite some line up changes, are well honed in bar room ballads and country styled rockers with that horn section still injecting a vital ingredient into the mix.

The album is much more reflective of the band’s live performances than their debut release. Having seen them several times, outdoors, indoors, in a crammed sweaty pub and a concert hall, they always put on a fantastic show. Monro and Whittaker can bring a tear to the eye as they cast themselves as heartbroken losers in life’s lost highway before the band roars into action and rips it up sounding for all the world like a testosterone charged Hot Band or a whisky fuelled New Orleans combo. Happily much of this is captured here.

They open with a Byrds’ like guitar jangle on If You Want To before the horns weigh in and propels the song forward as Munro and Whittaker share vocals on a number which is defiant and punchy. The pair then deliver Hollow Heart which still has a pugnacious horn section but has at its core a simple country styled song with mandolin breaks and creamy pedal steel churning away as the pair sing like star crossed lovers. The third song, Tracks in The Snow, allows Whittaker her first opportunity to fly solo with the band dialling it down to a pared back acoustic backing with only a swooning steel guitar and occasional twanged telecaster interrupting her vocal reveries. An acoustic guitar solo erupts halfway through with Spanish sounding arabesques adding a touch of exotica to this magnificent piece. Munro meanwhile is the front man on The Same Kind of Pretty which has a sinful slide guitar worming its way throughout adding a swampy southern touch to the song.

We do get some much anticipated tears in the beer songs with Whittaker, sounding like a Nashville angel, singing the aching hurt of Put Down The Bottle while Munro, not to be outdone, gives us the boozy western waltz Bar Stool with the band expertly inhabiting a mood of inebriation as fiddle and pedal steel weave away and a tipsy trombone completes the scene. The band do gear up however for the Bo Diddley rhythms of Look at The Moonlight, sounding here like some bastard son of The Stones and Tom Waits with screeching fiddle and an impressive harmonica solo wailing out from amidst the sonic maelstrom they conjure up. They swoop into Gram Parson Las Vegas territory on two songs, the horn fuelled For the Angels (which again has a lovely touch of the Stones in the piano opening) and the magnificent Cutting You Loose which finds the band really cutting it as they sound like the tightest country rock combo around while Whittaker here excels, staking her claim to considered amidst the newest crop of feisty country singers such as Sarah Shook and Linda Loveless.

Sorry for the Good Times is an eclectic listen but the Red Pine Timber Co. are an eclectic band who fuse a wide range of influences into an energetic whole. It’s somewhat heartening to be able to report that, for once, a band is able to capture some of their live energy on a disc. If you are going to Southern Fried be sure to catch them live.

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Scotland’s celebration of Americana and Roots Music, Southern Fried, is ten years old.

Southern Fried, the premier Scottish festival of Americana roots music celebrated its tenth birthday at the tail end of July. Held annually in the fair city of Perth, sometimes called the gateway to the Highlands, it’s what one might call, a bijoux affair, although there has been a fair bit of expansion especially over the past two years. Now a four day event, there’s no camping or standing in muddy fields, good news for those who have experienced a typical Scottish summer. Instead, it’s based around a series of stellar indoor concerts – held in the celebrated concert hall – and a late night club affair which invariably sells out well in advance. In addition, there’s a wealth of free music. Two full days of music outside and in with the outdoor stage featuring full band set ups while there’s an indoor acoustic stage, both featuring UK and international acts. With open mic sessions in local pubs, an all day rockabilly event (with a classic car cavalcade) and an opportunity to sit with, listen to and discuss a classic Americana album (on vinyl) with the likes of Jim Lauderdale, there’s enough going on over the four days to satisfy even the most satiated fan.

DSC_0081.JPGThe outdoor stage is essentially a showcase for the best of Scottish “Americana” if we can say that such a thing exists. In any case, aside from High Plains Jamboree (from Texas) and GD Sweeney & The Undercover Cowboys (originally Irish but now based in England) all the acts were homegrown. The full depth and breadth of roots based music (and more besides) was on show with blues, folk, country and gritty rock’n’roll all featuring. Local heroes the Red Pine Timber Co. limbered up the crowd with their good time take on just about all of the above with their horn section adding ballast to the energetic cavorting of the eight piece band who have a new album ready for release. The Sunshine Delay and The Wynntown Marshals proved that there’s plenty of jangle in their version of Edinburgh rock and vintage garage rockers, The Primevals (whose peer group included The Gun Club and The Cramps back in the days) powered their way through their set, the first time in all these years that I’ve seen these guys play in daylight. Their psychedelic tinged garage rock seemed to take the crowd by surprise at first but with their wave of sound blowing away the threatening clouds the majority stayed and were baying for more at the end of the set. Crowd favourites over the weekend seemed to be two bands with deep roots in primal American rock’n’roll. The Beat Poets, an instrumental garage rock/surf band combo (who share two members with The Primevals) energised everyone with their rousing versions of tunes ranging from Link Wray to John Barry. Meanwhile, Lord Rochester, a Bo Diddley themed trio (and excellently kitted out in tartan jackets) proved that you can’t sit still when that old shave and a haircut hambone beat hits you.

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We need to mention the opening acts on the outdoor stage on both days, the Southern Fried Rock Shop. A longstanding feature of Southern Fried it showcases young musicians who have attended workshops in the run up to the festival and offers them the opportunity to appear in this very public setting. Nerve wracking I’m sure but the two combos who appeared coped well as they performed, in the main, covers of well known songs, hopefully giving them the encouragement to carry on. Some graduates of the rock shop, now a band called Longstay, actually were on the bill for the outdoor stage and while they are still learning they performed well with enthusiastic encouragement from the audience. It’s a fine example of the commitment from Southern Fried to support local talent and encourage awareness of roots music.DSC_0221.JPG

Indoors at the same time as the outdoor stage was the acoustic stage, again this year in the main UK acts with the exception being Hannah Aldridge. Aldridge, a scion of the legendary Muscle Shoals swampers, was as good as expected. Gutsy and soulful, she sang several songs from her latest album Gold Rush with the small hall packed out. However, she was well matched by several of the other performers. Roseanne Reid, a nominee for BBC Radio 2’s Young Folk Awards, showed why she is highly touted with her careworn take on dusty Americana tales while Redwood Mountain, a duo of Dean Owens and fiddler Amy Geddes, played their interpretations of songs plucked from Alan Lomax’s Book Of American Folk Songs. Red Pine Timber Co’s Katie Whittaker, always a fine singer, was a revelation as she sang her powerful and emotive refugee song, Welcome to Life, a Gospel like plea for humanity and a song which led Billy Bragg to offer her a slot at his Glastonbury gig.

With two stages going on at the same time it was impossible to see all that went on but we caught Glasgow songwriter Steve Grozier’s set which included an impressive tribute to Jason Molina and we have to mention the acoustic stage’s compere, Roberto Cassani. He’s an Italian transplanted to Perth and he played a short set of his own, wickedly humorous songs backed on guitar by Owen Nicholson (who, for those in the know is one of the best guitarists in Scotland). Anyway, Cassani had the audience in stitches with his ribald humour while he also managed to stick in some fine jibes against our current government’s austerity policies.P1070385

The impressive concert hall hosted the big names. Nick Lowe returned for a second year running after appearing with his occasional trio set up with Andy Fairweather Low and Paul Carrack last year. This time it was Lowe songs all the way as he delved into his 40-year career for a greatest hits set although he did add a glorious version of Elvis Costello’s Alison. Loudon Wainwright (aided by Chaim Tannenbaum on banjo and David Mansfield on fiddle and mandolin) was a delight, his humour undimmed despite some recent surgery. As with Lowe he rooted through his back catalogue going back to Schooldays, the opening song from his debut, along with the ever popular Swimming Song and Dead Skunk. The other concert hall set pieces were tribute nights and we were unable to attend the opening Thursday concert dedicated to the late Chuck Berry. Helmed by Andy Fairweather Low with his eight piece band, The Hi Riders, the reports we heard were all positive with Steve Gibbons (who had a hit with Tulane in the 70’s) in particular praised. The closing event, North Star: Scotland Sings Canada, was a star studded event which tied in with Canada’s 150th celebrations and of course, the wealth of music which has come from there. Some of the cream of the Scottish music scene sang their favourite Canadian’s songs with Joni, Neil and Leonard featuring heavily but there was space for many others. These included Gordon Lightfoot, Bruce Cockburn, Ron Sexsmith, Haydon, Arcade Fire and Paul Anka. Sung by Justin Currie, Rab Noakes, Jim Grant and Dean Owens among others the songs were reinterpreted in various ways with a genuine love of them shining through. Honorary Scot for the night, Canadian Cyndi Cain reminded us that Canada is not just about white singer songwriters as she paid tribute to Bobby Taylor of Bobby & The Vancouvers (who had sadly passed away the previous week) with a superb Does Your Mama Know About Me while she also sang a gutsy Ohio based on The Isley Brothers’ arrangement with James Grant adding funky wah wah.  Of course, The Band featured heavily and the night ended with all gathering on stage to sing The Weight. Highlight of the night however was the heart-rending rendition of The McGarrigles’ Talk To Me Of Mendocino, sung acapella by Emma Pollock and Karine Polwart. It was simply beautiful.P1070411 copy

The late night sessions are where Southern Fried breaks loose and lets its hair down, there’s even dancing involved. A wristband allows access to all of the shows with the quieter songwriter sessions offering three acts while the downstairs room has two bands on. Held in the historic Salutation Hotel it’s a rare opportunity to see some great acts close up and it invariably sells out well in advance. The most anticipated act this year was Chuck Prophet and he didn’t disappoint as he and The Mission Express delivered a tutorial in how rock gigs should be; electrifying and loud, the songs played with glee and the audience caught up in the excitement from the start. Prophet’s been on a roll these last few years and songs such as Temple Beautiful, You Did (Bomp Shooby Dooby Bomp) and Bobby Fuller Died For your Sins are just dynamite in his hands. The communion between the audience and the band however was there for all the acts, the intimacy of the room removing any reserve, so that Doug Seeger’s honky tonkings and Sam Outlaw’s update on the Bakersfield sound (with Jim Lauderdale, a presence on several stages over the weekend, joining in) were received just as raucously as Prophet’s set. Cyndi Cain meanwhile supercharged the impulse to dance with her update on classic Stax and Motown floorstompers. Upstairs and away from the fray if you desired, there were some elegant performances from Peter Bruntnell, Danni Nicholls, Sean Taylor and Rachel Harrington, all top class acts which would attract an audience anywhere they were playing but all part of the late night package. Canny timing allows the undecided to catch snatches of all the acts over the two nights but depending on where your head is at you can dance the night away or bask in the warm and intimate embrace of some acoustic music into the late hours.P1070453 copy

On its tenth anniversary, Southern Fried excelled itself with its line up and there were several shows that we just couldn’t make it to including performances from Doug Seegers, Ags Connolly, Angaleena Presley, Jill Jackson and Rab Noakes. While it has expanded over the past four years with the addition of the free outdoor and indoor stages and, this year, a full Thursday programme, it remains compact and it’s a unique opportunity to spend a long weekend experiencing the best of international and local Americana artists. While the Edinburgh Fringe and Glasgow’s Celtic Connections continue to dominate Scotland’s cultural calendar Southern Fried is a bit of a hidden gem.

Dean Owens and the Celtabilly Allstars – Settin’ the Woods On Fire (Songs of Hank Williams). Southern Fried Festival. Perth. Sunday 31st July 2016

 

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Dean Owens is a regular feature at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival where, in addition to hosting the late night Songwriter Sessions, he is a star attraction in his own right. Last year Owens and his band, The Whisky Hearts played a blinder of a show that drew heavily from his album Into The Sea, a finely crafted blend of Celtic Americana which received rave reviews across the board. This year Owens doffed his hat to one of his heroes, Hank Williams with a show that featured him in a trio setting, The Celtabilly Allstars along with guitar whizz Stuart Nesbit and his former Felsons’ band mate Kevin McGuire on double bass. As on a previous venture, his tribute to the man in black, Cashback, Owens and his compadres selected a bunch of Hank written and Hank related songs to perform along with a self penned number, Celebrate The Life that hymned Williams’ life and works.

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Despite the tears and tragedy of Williams’ words and life this was a joyous show. Stuart Nisbet’s lap steel playing along with McGuire’s dextrous bass work giving a fine hillbilly feel to the proceedings while Nesbit was in fine vocal form on the Gospel song Calling You. They opened with the excellent country lope and swagger of Setting The Woods on Fire which contrasted with the beer fuelled melancholy of You Were On My Mind, the music still at a fair clip but the youthful exuberance of Setting The Woods on Fire replaced by bitter experience. The show continued to alternate the exuberant side of Williams with his darker side. Hey Good Looking saw Nisbet switch from lap steel to his Gibson for a raucous ramble which was followed by a stellar version of Why Don’t You Love Me while My Bucket’s Got A Hole In It was a light humoured delight.

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Owens reminisced about his first encounter with Williams courtesy of a friend who owned a record shop back in the day who played him Ramblin’ Man, Owens’ version today quite excellent, his voice capturing Williams’ hi and lonesome vocal break on the line endings. He also recalled his attempt to write in Williams’ style when back in The Felsons on a song called Dave, a warning to a friend about a treacherous woman.  There were fine deliveries of Lost Highway and Your Cheatin’ Heart, the melancholia seeping through, Nisbet’s lap steel a mournful wail, before Owens sang his song, Celebrate The Life, a number delivered in the style of I Saw The Light with the audience joining in on the chorus as Owens entreated us to remember the “hillbilly Shakespeare” with his “songs of love and heartache, liquor, beer and tears“. The show ended with Owens alone on stage to deliver a spellbinding I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry, a reminder not just of William’s genius but also that Owens has matured into a masterful performer, his voice rich and emotive along with a whistling solo that was just superb.

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Dean Owens has several other shows lined up over the coming weeks (see here) but currently there are only two further outings for this Celtabilly Allstars show. One is tonight at Glasgow’s Glad Cafe and then in Edinburgh’s Queen’s Hall on Wednesday 24th August. Aside from being a tremendous show these will be the only opportunity to buy a limited edition CD that The Celtabilly Allstars have recorded of Hank’s songs, Settin’ The Woods on Fire (Songs I Learned From Hank) which features most of the songs from the show including Celebrate The Life. It’s a fine listen that enlivened our journey back from Perth.

 

 

Southern White stories. A chat with Martha Fields.

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Last October Blabber’n’Smoke was intrigued to receive a bona fide album of Texan tunes that was recorded in France. The album, Long Way From Home was billed as recorded by Texas Martha & The House of Twang and some investigating (well, reading the liner notes) revealed that while Texas Martha AKA Martha Fields was indeed from the Lone Star State the House Of Twang were all Frenchmen who appeared to have been steeped in the whys and wherefores of Americana.  Now Martha has her second album, Southern White Lies ready for release (we reviewed it here), again recorded with her expert Gallic pickers (Manu Bertrand -Dobro, banjo, mandolin, Serge Samyn -double bass, Olivier Leclerc -violin, Urbain Lambertguitar and Denis Bielsadrums). Southern White Lies reverses the urge to go West as Fields heads northeast to the Kentucky foothills of the Appalachians, her mother’s homeland. Martha’s playing all over Europe to tie in with the album release and she and her band are making their first Scottish appearance this weekend at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. She took some time out of her busy schedule to talk to Blabber’n’Smoke about the new album. First off however we asked her how a Texan musician comes to be living and recording in Bordeaux, France.

I’ve been coming over to Europe and to France in particular for the past four years after I was invited to play some festivals.  I have some friends who live around Bordeaux so I was invited to play here and I thought, “Wow, they like this kind of music over here” so I started to come over in the summer to escape the Texas heat and found that I really like the lifestyle. So just staying here and playing shows, I happened to meet some amazing players and eventually formed the band.

Your band are all French I believe.

They’re all French but they’ve been playing this kind of music since they were little bitty kids and they love it. They know more about the history and the trivia than I do. They live it and they are super players, they’ve played all over the world with some very well know French stars, Johnny Hallyday, Dick Rivers, stars for another generation but big names over here.

I’ve heard of Johnny Hallyday but not Dick Rivers.

Oh, he’s kind of like the French Elvis. He’s older now but he cut an album last year that I really like, he’s good.

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Was Long way From Home your first album?

It’s my first solo album but I’ve played with other bands and in various collaborations back in the States. I’ve been writing songs since I was six or seven years old but I had another career. I was a professor in Texas, teaching but I was always playing my music, weekends and such. But now I’ve taken a hiatus from that to concentrate on the music for the meantime. I can always go back to that when I’m 80 or so. In the meanwhile I’m having a great time and it’s working really well.

Long Way From Home got some fabulous reviews

I was really pleased. We got a lot of radio play all over the place. I was very happy with the album, it was Texas boogie most of the way but as you know I love folk music, that Appalachian thing as well and in my live show I do both and people seem to appreciate that variety. I was really pleased with the way Long Way From Home turned out but for this one I really wanted to show that other folkier side. Some folk might prefer the honky tonk songs, some the folkier ones but I want to express both aspects, who knows, it might help me gain a new audience because of this slightly different approach but overall this is me.

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Southern White Lies is quite different, the music’s acoustic, it draws from the Kentucky and Virginia Appalachian traditions with the cover art reflecting your memories of family playing on the front porch. Where did you get the inspiration for the songs you wrote for the album?

I usually always take it from real life, reflecting on things that have happened to my, my friends, my family, things that are happening politically. That’s how I’ve always dealt with things that I find joy in or sometimes pain, I set them to music.

There’s a thread going though the album, a sense of social justice. You see Southerners as being used and abused over the years, especially by politicians.

It’s happened to my family! Right now, there’s a lot of conflict going on, not just in the states, politically it’s a very difficult moment. I wrote two songs, American Hologram  and Southern White Lies maybe 12 to 18 months ago but I didn’t realise things were going to get this challenging. I’ve got family on both sides of the political spectrum and it can get really difficult to talk about these things over the kitchen table. I don’t think that people realise that we are all fodder for all these games that politicians play but we’re living it. I try to stay positive and one of the ways that I’m able to address it is through my music. I wrote a line in the title song that says, “pandering politicians, we need more musicians”. We need artists to really address what’s happening. If you think back to the sixties, there were a lot more artists singing about issues but there’s less of that these days, maybe because of the way the industry is these days. We don’t have much of a voice now and I think that’s one of the reasons we’re in the mess we’re in.

The album isn’t all political. I redid my song about my aunt (Do As You Are Told) because when I wrote it I really had in mind more of a bluegrass feel although I suppose it is a political song in a way just because of her own life. But there are love songs, bluegrass, Gospel and there’s a good old drinking song.

The Janis Joplin cover (What Good Will Drinking Do You)?

Yes, you’ve got to have at least one drinking song. It’s life. We cry, we drink, we go to church, we do all these things so it’s really just a part of everyday life.

So are you bringing the whole band over to your appearances at Southern Fried?

Yes. The only one who’s not coming over is Oliver, the violin player. He’d already been booked for something else by the time we arranged to come over but the rest of us will be there. We are playing two shows, one on Friday evening and then late on the Saturday night. I’m really looking forward to it, it’s my first trip to Scotland and the festival line up looks amazing.

Thanks for taking the time to talk with us. I look forward to seeing you in Perth.

As Martha says, she is playing two shows at Southern Fried with the Friday show on the free outdoor stage, an incredible opportunity to see an artist who in a short time has leapt to the forefront of rootsy American music. You can check her show times here.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Martha Fields. Southern White Lies

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Martha Fields sprang to our attention last year under the guise of Texas Martha who, along with her band, The House Of Twang, released Long Way From Home, a terrific album of pedal steel driven twangy Texan honky tonk songs. Fields is indeed a Texan but she recorded the album in France with French musicians with only the very occasional lyric sung in French signalling that Ms. Fields was more likely to be sipping a Bordeaux rather than quaffing a bottle of Lone Star.  While the album was chockfull of barrelhouse road songs Fields reined it in on a couple of songs, most notably on Do As You Are Told, a song which verged on Southern Gothic. Tellingly this song reappears on Southern White Lies, an album which finds Fields reaching out to another aspect of her heritage, her mother’s Appalachian roots which lie deep in Kentucky and West Virginia.

Still based in France and still with her hotshot French pickers Fields forsakes the twang-fuelled telecasters and barrelling pedal steel for an acoustic set of numbers, fiddle, banjo, mandolin and Dobro fuelling the numbers. She refers to memories of back porch picking on her regular visits to her mother’s kinfolk but the music here is more muscular with bluegrass, blues and country all imbued with a Southern defiance, a sense of social justice, some God fearin’ good sense and a love of a good time. Fields has a gutsy voice that allows her to cover Janis Joplin’s What Good Can Drinkin’ Do You with  some aplomb as you reckon she might be able to match Pearl drink for drink. The traditional Lonesome Road Blues and Jimmy Rodgers’ California Blues allow Fields and band to show that they can still summon up the lure of the road unplugged with both songs ripping along finely, the solos as acute here as they were on the chrome plated Texas numbers of the previous albums.

The western dream of sun kissed bliss that’s invoked in California Blues, a bluesy hobo’s dream of escape to the coast reminds the listener of the hardscrabble times that have hit the poor denizens of the rural south time and time again. Fields allows for that other form of escape via The Good Lord on her cover of the spiritual What Are They Doing In Heaven but elsewhere she’s fired up at the way common folk are treated.  Over the course of seven songs she covers emotions ranging from despair (on the opening Soul On The Move) to a burning sense of anger on the title song. Do As You Are Told, Fields’ song about her aunt, retold from the previous album still packs a punch as it’s relayed this time as a frontier song, all rolling guitars, snake like Dobro and skirling fiddle. The closing song, American Hologram is perhaps the crowning achievement here as Fields and the band adopt a slight Texicana lilt, a cantina like tune that belies the anger behind the words. Here Fields spits out her diatribe against shock jocks who paint her people as poor white trash and politicians who use them as cannon fodder in foreign wars.

Southern White Lies is a brave album. One that packs a social message or as we used to say, protest songs but it’s no mere finger pointing. Fields has the sense to deliver her powerful words clothed in an incredibly attractive suit of rootsy finger picking. She’s not immune to the lure of the heart as heard in the fine and lilting Where Do We Go Now but overall she manages to combine the anthems of Woody Guthrie and the Southern documentation of Bobbie Gentry.

Good news is that Martha Fields makes her Scottish debut this weekend at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival.

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Joe Nisbet Jr. The Gospel According To Mr. Niz.

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Listening to The McCrary Sisters’ vocals on the new single from Blue Rose Code reminded me of their blistering show back in August at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival. This also reminded me of the stellar work carried out by their Scottish band and in particular the guitar work of Joe Nisbet Jr, guitar work which had also graced Ag’s Connolly’s show a few days earlier. Nisbet is a bit of a hidden treasure. He’s worked extensively with The Proclaimers and China Crisis and is the regular go to player for Dick Gaughan and Justin Currie. He’s the one bending the strings and playing those country licks on Ags Connolly’s excellent album How About Now and was up on stage with Dougie McLean for the closing song of the 2014 Commonwealth Games, Caledonia.

Seems like Mr. Nisbet and his buddy, bass player Nico Bruce, are like a Scots version of the wrecking crew, laying down some wicked music but forever in the background. I was intrigued to discover then that he had released an album at the back end of 2013 called The Gospel According To Mr. Niz, a copy of which he gracefully provided Blabber’n’Smoke with. The intrigue grew when some Googling unveiled the story behind the album of which he says, “Took 4 days to record but had been 30 years in the making.” It turns out that Joe Nisbet Sr. was an evangelical preacher and when Joe Jr. was a kid he accompanied his dad on a two-month tour of the American South with pop preaching each night accompanied by Gospel choirs. This, says Nisbet, was, “the beginning of a lifelong fascination with the classic sound of the black gospel quintets of the 40’s and 50’s.” It abided during his tenures with China Crisis and The Proclaimers but when Justin Currie persuaded Nisbet to add his vocals on Currie’s songs and then to sing himself he was finally able to make his own Gospel record which we will now delve into.

The Gospel According to Mr. Niz has 13 songs, the majority based on vocal quartet songs from the 40s and 50s with two covers  of Rev. Gary Davis and Mississippi Fred McDowell. There are no choirs or harmonies here however with Nisbet handling the vocals himself. For a guitarist who doesn’t sing he does a fine job here, his voice at times recalling John Mayall in the late sixties proving that white men can sing the blues even though the accent is sometimes not spot on. However and remarkably there are times when he almost reminds one of a young Elvis crooning the gospel, most notably on Maybe It’s You and Peace In The Valley. It’s a stripped back album, the basic set up being Nisbet on guitar, Nico Bruce on double bass and drums from Keith Burns while Neil Weir adds trumpet on occasion. Producer Phil Cunningham (of Hogmanay fame) captures the bare sound as if they were in the Sun studios, the bass snapping and slapping, the guitar threshing like Sister Rosetta Tharpe’s. There are moments however when Nisbet’s guitar wizardry is astounding, the shimmering effects on Walk With Me up there with Ry Cooder’s brooding soundtrack work.

Nisbet, not an evangelist himself, takes liberties throughout, changing and adding lyrics to suit his take on these songs. The listening experience is greatly enhanced by his notes on the songs which are enlightening and witty such as his comment on his pulverising version of I John which he says, “opens with John the Divine on Patmos and ends with Robert Fripp in Berlin.” His rendition of Joe Louis which incorporates The Walls Of Jericho as originally sung by the Dixieaires is a delight and the one occasion here when he’s compelled to add some harmonies.  While songs such as Samson & Delilah, I Am A Pilgrim and Peace In The Valley will be familiar to many I’m sure that aficionados of gospel music will find that Nesbit has delivered a very singular take on the genre, a take that is inspiring and a great listen.

I’m sure there’s more to tell here, the image of a wee Edinburgh lad in tented prayer meetings in the rural South 30 years ago surely deserves some inquiry, a sure fire documentary for the Beeb perhaps. Anyway, I’ll leave it to Mr. Nesbit Jr. to tell it more eloquently than I can manage.

Buy The Gospel According To Mr. Niz here

Southern Fried Festival Perth.

This weekend sees the eighth Southern Fried Festival in Perth headlined by the PUNCH Brothers, Rhiannon Giddens, McCrary Sisters and The Fairfield Four and featuring an all-women celebration of the songs of Dolly Parton.The Festival which was awarded the Scottish Event Awards Best Small Festival in 2014 takes place in Perth Concert Hall and other city centre venues. Other confirmed acts include Chris Smither, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Speedometer featuring James Junior,  Della Mae, Red Sky July, Dean Owens and the Whisky Hearts, Yola Carter, Amythyst Kiah, Meaghan Blanchard, Boogalusa, Wolftrain, The Holy Ghosts, JD &The Straight Shot, The red Pine Timber Company, The New Madrids, Dave Arcari and Daniel Meade & The Flying Mules.

Friday 31 July in Perth Concert Hall sees two of the most talked-about emerging Americana acts take to the stage in a unique double-bill. With interests spanning indie rock, folk, jazz, bluegrass and classical, US five-piece Punch Brothers dazzle with their virtuosic playing. They will be joined by Rhiannon Giddens who Southern Fried audiences will remember from Grammy Award-winning Carolina Chocolate Drops.Combining gospel, jazz, blues, and country, plus a hint of proto-rock and roll, Giddens displays an emotional range to match her dazzling vocal prowess throughout.

A superb all-female line-up of singers and musicians will gather in Perth Concert Hall on Saturday 1 August for Because We’re Women: The Songs of Dolly Parton, a celebration of the songs and influence of the Queen of country. House band, bluegrass quintet, Della Mae, will back an array of vocal talent brought together specially for this show including latest Southern Fried discovery Amythyst Kiah from Tennessee, Prince Edward Island’s Meaghan Blanchard (this year’s representative of Southern Fried’s partnership with the East Coast Music Association in Canada), Yola Carter formerly of Southern Fried favourites Phantom Limb, Samantha Crain and Nashville gospel legends, the McCrary Sisters, making a greatly anticipated return to Perth. The uplifting finale to the festival on Sunday is Rock My Soul, a celebration of the power and the glory of the black gospel tradition starring the McCrary Sisters, The Fairfield Four and guest singers.

The Salutation Hotel, a favourite after show haunt with Southern Fried acts, steps in once more to host Saturday and Sunday afternoon gigs as well as the iconic Late and Southern Fried gigs on Friday 31 July and Saturday 1 August after the main stage shows in Perth Concert Hall. The Late and Southern Fried line-up will include classic soul and funk from Speedometer featuring James Junior, Yola Carter, Meaghan Blanchard, Della Mae, Amythyst Kiah and Doug Seegers, an artist with a back-story that would grace any classic country song. Afternoon shows at The Salutation Hotel include Scottish Americana from Dean Owens and The Whisky Hearts with Ags Connolly on Saturday and an afternoon of world-class blues with solo sets from Alvin Youngblood Hart and Chris Smither on Sunday.

There will be an expanded line-up of smaller gigs in city centre venues, including a free launch party in the Twa Tams on Thursday 30 July and the Southern Fried Open Mic in Greyfriars Bar on Sunday afternoon. The Southern Fried outdoor stage returns for the second year showcasing the huge range and quality of roots talent on our doorstep, Perth Playhouse will host a film programme for the first time and, as ever, the whole festival is fuelled by the famous Southern Fried soul food and served up with a warm slice of Scottish hospitality.

Festival director, Andy Shearer, said:

“I am confident that Southern Fried 2015 is the most exciting line-up we’ve presented to date. At the heart of the festival, we have secured three completely unique show-piece performances for Perth Concert Hall.

“Our opening night sees the mouth-watering one-off double bill of two of the most talked-about young acts on the Americana scene, the amazing virtuosity of Punch Brothers and the wonderfully-expressive voice of Rhiannon Giddens. Saturday night brings the welcome return of our occasional tribute concerts to the great icons of American roots music and this time we’ll be exploring the treasure trove of songs written by Dolly Parton with an all-female line-up of superb musicians and singers. Bluegrass quintet, Della Mae, were recently named by Rolling Stone magazine as one of the Top Ten acts of this year’s SXSW festival in Austin and will anchor the evening as our house band, backing an incredible array of vocal talent brought together specially for this show. We close the festival on Sunday with Rock My Soul, a celebration of the great depth and breadth of southern gospel performed for the first time outside the USA where it has been the subject of a highly-successful TV special on PBS. Starring the McCrary Sisters and the legendary acapella quartet their father sang with for many years, The Fairfield Four, Rock My Soul also features several guest singers and will provide a wonderful uplifting finale to a fun-filled weekend”

Andy continued: “Our mantra has always been that the song is the uniting factor across the many styles of music that Southern Fried embraces and this is amply reflected in these three headline concerts and throughout the festival line-up. Some superb songwriters exhibit their craft in the afternoon shows at the Salutation Hotel; Scottish Americana from Southern Fried perennial, Dean Owens, performing with a full band for the first time on Saturday and a superb afternoon of blues with solo sets from Alvin Youngblood Hart and Chris Smither on Sunday. The song remains the same for our late night shows at the same venue where the line up will include Yola Carter, Meaghan Blacnhard, Della Mae, Doug Seegers and Amythyst Kiah.There’s another new innovation, a film programme in partnership with the Playhouse Cinema.”

Tickets available from Horsecross Arts box office on 01738 621031 http://www.southernfriedfestival.co.uk.

Here’s a snapshot of last years festival

(Thanks to Jon Langford for the Dolly painting)

Dean Owens. Into The Sea. Drumfire Records

Dean Owens recorded his second solo album, Whisky Hearts, in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. For Into The Sea, his latest release he’s returned to Tennessee, this time Nashville, enlisting again the talents of Will Kimbrough along with appearances from Suzy Bogguss and Kim Richey. Although the Nashville connection (and Owens’ past with The Felsons) might lead one to expect a pedal steel adorned collection of country songs, instead, Into The Sea is a mature set of reflective songs that showcase his ever improving writing skills and vocals. As is often the case with Owens he delves into family memories and his roots in Leith. I’m sure someone somewhere must have said this of him; You can take the man out of Leith but you can’t take Leith out of the man.

The album opens with the wonderful Dora, a song that rings with faint echoes of Richard Thompson especially in the guitar chords as Owens delves into his family tree to tell the story of his grandmother, raised in a travelling circus. He follows with the grand sweep of Closer To Home which opens with strummed guitar before a folksy accompaniment adds a lift to the song. A yearning tribute to those soldiers who didn’t return from war the song gains a melancholic piano refrain as it soars towards the end. Owens sparkles when he is in nostalgic mood and Evergreen is a nod to his past as he sings,
“I remember you and me as we were that summer on the beach at Gullane”
on what turns out to be a fine love song with Kim Richey adding fine harmonies. Kids (79) again mines his memories, a school picture leading to recollections of old school friends and their chequered stories. With a degree of resignation and sadness the song gradually gives way to anger with guitar bursting in as Owens recites,
“Jimmy died at 20, Andy’s a drunk. Stevie’s still a good friend, Davy’s on the junk.”

There’s a cosy warmth to the soft acoustic rock of Virginia Street and Up On the Hill vibrates with shimmering guitars that slide and swarm around the vocals. A more subdued feel attends the organ draped It Could Be Worse which has a crumpled melancholic tenderness to it while Owens’ elegy for the late Michael Marra, Sally’s Song (I Dreamed Of Michael Marra) successfully marries Marra’s wearied delivery with more of Owen’s reflections on his own past as he again remembers past friends and times in a recently demolished housing estate. The melody and arrangement along with the lyrics are a fitting tribute to Marra and the closing words are obviously from the heart.

Owens hits a peak towards the close of the album with the guitar undulations that reverb gently through The Only One adding a fifties dreamlike quality to the song. Written for a friend whose partner had a terminal illness the song is masterful and evocative. There’s sadness sewn into the melody while the words convey the loss and sense of emptiness thereafter. Finally, there’s a bonus track tacked onto the end of the album, a reprise of a song from Owens first album, I’m Pretending I Don’t Love You. It’s a wonderfully woozy honky tonk waltz in the George and Tammy tradition and features Suzy Bogguss duetting with Owens and some insouciant whistling.

Owens will be appearing at the Southern Fried Festival in Perth next week and is also performing his show, Cash Back, Songs From Johnny Cash at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Dates here

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