Sam Outlaw. Tenderheart. Six Shooter Records

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On the back of his debut album Angeleno Sam Outlaw quickly became a critics and fan favourite with the record declared International Album Of The Year at the latest UK Americana Awards ceremony. He’s one of a new wave (sortish) of artists, male and female, who are eschewing the current Nashville wave of brash and brassy country pop rock preferring to dig deeper into the past. In Outlaw’s case he somewhat out on a limb as he’s out there in LA as opposed to East Nashville, Austin or North Carolina but he uses Los Angeles as a fulcrum for his music to the extent that he had the esteemed Ry Cooder produce Angeleno while LA Weekly stated that he was a “contender to be the biggest country star LA has produced since Dwight Yoakam.”

Tenderheart is less varied than its predecessor with the majority of the songs somewhat yearning although there are some muscular moments such as the guitar breaks on Diamond Ring. In fact much of the album has moments that recall the days when Waddy Wachtel or David Lindley were the guys propelling the songs and that leads us into the likes of Jackson Browne who Outlaw approximates on the excellent Bougainvillea, I Think which could have sat on Browne’s first album.

The album opens with the reflective Everyone’s Looking For Home which starts off well, brooding organ softly swelling with malleted percussion as Outlaw’s weary voice is cosseted by harmonies before a short crescendo of strings and horns disturb the peace briefly. Bottomless Mimosas is brimful of sweet country sounds, warm pedal steel and the soft shoe shuffle percussion waft the song along as Outlaw sings of a sense of ennui capturing perfectly the vacuity of everyday life. Here Outlaw captures perfectly his thoughts on Los Angeles. As he said recently to Rolling Stone, “There is something special about Los Angeles, a special sadness. There is a faded beauty that is here, that kind of strange following of dreams while dreams are being crushed in a regular basis.”

Outlaw roams across an LA musical topography. The title song is a soft rock ballad of the type that used to hit the charts but Trouble is more in keeping with the late Warren Zevon’s muscular approach although it lacks Zevon’s sardonic wit. Say It To Me  is dominated by some wonderful  zippy pedal steel over a heavy drum beat as it recalls the darker side of sun dappled Topanga Canyon days, latter day Byrds meets post Manson Terry Melcher. She’s Playing Hard to Get (Rid Off) is a riff on the country tropes of Merle Haggard (and George Jones)  while Two Broken Hearts is somewhat akin to Gram Parsons zoning into the Bakersfield sound.

Towards the end of the album Outlaw offers the smooth pop of Now She Tells Me, a sunny breeze of a song that’s almost in Jimmy Buffet territory and which disguises the lyrical content of a stalker’s grim thoughts. This is a glorious song and testament to Outlaw’s writing skills. The album closes with a raw sounding recording of Look At You Now which has Outlaw and a female chorus singing over a stripped down setting on a song that is replete with accusation. All in all a fine album that on the surface is a friendly listen but with some delving reveals a darker side. Somewhat appropriate for a paean to Sin City.

A regular visitor to these shores Sam Outlaw is appearing at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival in July.

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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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Southern Fried. Perth. Thursday 30th July-Sunday 2nd August 2015. Part 2

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As with most festivals Southern Fried requires some juggling if one is to catch some shows and not others. Tough choices had to be made, some shows missed or only partially caught. It’s all part of the experience and after all there’s always next year. Blabber’n’Smoke caught some or all of these and apologies to those we missed. Here’s a round up of the shows we caught at The Salutation Hotel.

Della Mae

Heroes of the weekend, Della Mae played their second show of the festival at the late night Late & Southern Fried session on Friday. A world away from the Concert Hall shows Late & Southern Fried is a loose limbed and drink friendly informal set up, a wristband allowing patrons to wander “as the mood takes you” with two band shows on the ground floor and three acoustic acts upstairs at the Songwriter Sessions hosted by Dean Owens. Tonight these bluegrass belles confirmed the opinion formed at The Twa Tams that they are one of the most exciting string driven outfits around at present. While their set was similar to the pub gig there was more opportunity to marvel at their performance, songs and playing with guitarist/banjo player Courtney Hartman really coming to the fore. Celia Woodsmith was sassy as hell (if one is still allowed to use the term) and fiddler and band founder Kimber Ludiker showed why she has been named Grand National Fiddle Champion at the prestigious National Old-time Fiddlers’ Contest in the States.

Ags Connolly/Dean Owens

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Ags Connolly, Oxford’s ambassador of Ameripolitan music was a late addition to the roster, an addition that was welcomed by all we met who remembered his appearances from last year. Indeed his show on the Saturday afternoon in The Salutation Hotel was almost a repeat of last years. Same time, same stage, same players (Nico Bruce and Joe Nisbet and, according to Nisbet, the same shirt he wore last year). Nevertheless a year of solid touring has sharpened Connolly’s presence. He was witty when speaking and his tough country tales of heartache and woe continue to impress. Playing favourites from his album, How About Now,  he also offered some new delights including the very impressive Prisoner Of Love In A Neon Jail and I Hope You’re Unhappy Enough To Come Back To Me. He championed Robert earl Keen on his version of Love’s a Word I Never Throw Around. Nisbet, who played guitar on How about Now was particularly impressive throwing in some fine country flecked solos particularly on the Neon Jail song while Bruce, sporting a wrist support due to his extensive rehearsals for the upcoming Gospel show, was supple and supportive on the double bass.

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Dean Owens gathered together his Whisky Hearts for this performance giving the songs from his latest album Into The Sea a powerful punch. Dora, Up On The Hill and The Closer To Home were opened up with the latter approaching The Waterboys in its widescreen sound and rocking guitar from Craig Ross. It Could be Worse was even more epic with the drums pushing the song as guitar and fiddle swept upwards. Owens proved himself capable of more tender moments with a solo rendition of an old Felsons song Shine The Road which was given a Big O treatment while Valentines Day In New York had a jaunty Slim Chance skip in its beat. With many of his songs tied to his biography Owens explained the story behind Dora, saluted his father (who was in the audience) on the mighty Man From Leith and paid tribute to his late sister on the tender Evergreen. Closing with his popular Raining In Glasgow Owens showed himself at the top of his game with Into The Sea his most fully realised album so far.

Doug Seegers

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Doug Seegers has a back story you couldn’t make up. A New Yorker who drifted to Nashville when hard times hit he was homeless for a while, recorded some songs one of which went viral in Sweden. This led to a recording contract and an opportunity to have Emmylou Harris appear on his debut album which has been universally praised. His appearance tonight was his UK debut and one that exploded any notions one might have had that he’d provide the soulful country groove that permeates the album, Going Down To The River. Tall, rangy, cowboy shirt and hat on, Seegers turned in a fierce honky tonk shock peppered with some Western swing backed by drummer Simon Wilhelmsson, bassist Scott Esbeck and flamboyant fiddler Barbara Lamb. Back in his homeless busking days Seegers was sometimes known as Duke the Drifter and tonight it wasn’t a huge leap to imagine him as a present day version of Luke The Drifter, a nom de plume of Hank Williams back in the days. Stretching it a bit perhaps but Seegers sang and rocked as if his life depended on it throwing in Luke like thanks to the Lord for his current good luck. He opened with Angie’s Song, the opening song from his album with its laid back seventies folk rock feel but pretty soon he was into the ball busting blues of Hard Working Man and a much tougher version of Going Down To The River than that on the album. There was gospel on Will You Ever Take The Hand Of Jesus, world weary loss on The Edge Of The World and some actual Hank on a cover of There’ll Be No Teardrops Tonight. There was humour and bathos on Pour Me which was preceded by a fine tale of a cheating wife while Precious Wedding Vow should become mandatory at each proposal. Barbara Lamb on fiddle was a joy to behold, carrying all solos with a zest she added spark to Seegers’ fire on what was, for Blabber’n’Smoke, the gig of the festival.

Southern Fried. Perth. Thursday 30th July-Sunday 2nd August 2015. Part 1

Perth’s annual celebration of American soul, country and blues music, Southern Fried more than lived up to its title of Best Small Festival in Scotland (Scottish Events Awards) in this, its eighth year as a host of musicians descended on the city for four days of unalloyed musical joy. Blabber’n’Smoke attended and had a whale of a time, not only in seeing the acts (who also seemed to having a whale of a time also) but in meeting folk from last year’s event and , thanks to one of the sponsors Inveralmond Brewery, meeting various bloggers and journalists many of whom were but virtual friends on a computer screen. We compared notes and some drink was taken. Here’s the first report from the weekend.

Della Mae/The Red Pine Timber Co. The Twa Tams

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The festival started with a bang at a sold out Twa Tams concert on the Thursday evening with two sets from bands who exemplified the Southern Fried ethos, class acts from America and home grown talent. Della Mae, a bluegrass quintet, originally from Boston and now based in Nashville are a youthful crew who are making waves in the country world with their records released on Rounder. They were to be almost ubiquitous throughout the weekend playing another show at the late night Friday session and acting as the house band for the Because We’re Women Dolly Parton tribute show at the Concert Hall. At the Twa Tams they were on top form playing several songs from their current album including the excellent Boston Town along with covers of The Stones’ Factory Girl and The Everly’s Wake Up Little Susie. Singer Celia Woodsmith gave as good as she got from the rumbustious audience with a performance that at times recalled the vigour of the late Janis Joplin, not bad for a bluegrass band. The other band were local heroes, The Red Pine Timber Co. who were a perfect fit for the night with their mixture of self penned country songs and covers of classics such as Gram Parsons’ Las Vegas and Dylan’s You Ain’t Going Nowhere (with some John Martyn thrown in to good effect). The eight piece band, replete with trombone, sax and fiddle partied along with the crowd late into the night. A great start to the weekend. The Twa Tams hosted further shows over the weekend including a Glasgow based showcase for bluesman Dave Arcari along with bluegrass act The Dirty Beggars and a day long rockabilly show however Blabber’n’Smoke can only be in one place at a time so missed these.

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Rhiannon Giddens/The Punch Brothers. Perth Concert Hall

As usual, Perth’s Concert Hall hosted  three main events on consecutive evenings. Friday saw Rhiannon Giddens offer a master class on American roots music opening with her haunting rendition of a revived Dylan song, Spanish Mary before going on to cover artists as diverse as Odetta, Dolly Parton, Jean Ritchie and Patsy Cline. Water Boy took us into the deep south of chain gangs while Cousin Emmy’s Ruby Are You Mad At Your Man was a bluegrass hoedown of the first order. The outstanding Black Is The Colour saw cellist Malcolm parson on melodica inserting some of John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme towards the end while Gidden’s fine Gaelic mouth music on Puirt a Beul had the audience on their feet. Pulling together the roots of what we might call Americana music Giddens took time to discuss many of the songs’ origins and explained that North Carolina has a large settlement of Scots Gaelic speakers. Charming and engaging Giddens set the bar high for the weekend.

The Punch Brothers were hampered initially by sound problems leading to several pauses in the show which Chris Thile managed to fill with some fine deprecatory quips. Eventually they abandoned their attempts to fix the sound and grouped around one microphone old style allowing their finely crafted style of chamber bluegrass to flow. While at times they can seem incredibly mannered, (a stately version of Debussy’s Passepied done bluegrass style?) there’s no doubting the instrumental prowess on show here and the crowd lapped up the virtuoso delivery of Movement and Location and Julep. However the frantic version of Jimmy Rodgers’ Brakeman Blues that closed the set showed that they can still play exciting rootsy music with a fervour with Thile’s vocal delivery most impressive.

Because We’re Women: The Songs of Dolly Parton. Perth Concert Hall

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Saturday night was Dolly night. A concert dedicated to Ms. Parton and a reminder that away from the showbiz glitz and rhinestone guitars Dolly is at heart a great musician and songwriter. The sight of seventeen female artists gathered on stage was an impressive statement in itself. Della Mae were the house band, able to turn in bluegrass, soul and some good old rock and pop ably assisted by drummer Signy Jakobsdottir and Mhairi Hall on piano after some intensive rehearsals over the previous few days. In front (or sitting at the Dolly themed stage bar) were The McCrary Sisters, Meaghan Blanchard, Yola Carter, Lisa Mills, Samantha Crain and Amythyst Kiah. With three songs each from the Parton canon each of the performers added their own particular sparkle to the night. Yolanda Carter beaming a soulful joy, Meaghan Blanchard a fine country joy, Lisa Mills some bluesy charm, Samantha Crain an earthy folkiness and Amythyst Kiah a swampy grit. With the McCrary’s adding yet more soulful touches songs such as Applejack, Jolene, My Tennessee Mountain Home and Coat of Many Colours were all given an airing. The most poignant moment was a tender and moving version of The Grass Is Blue sung by Della Mae’s Jenni Lynn Gardner who seemed almost overwhelmed at the end of the song. A reminder then of Dolly’s place in the pantheon of country fame but her pop persona was not ignored with Alfreda McCrary delivering I Will Always Love you (occasioning some arm waving on stage and in the audience and a standing ovation) and an ensemble encore of Nine To Five which again had everyone on their feet. A great night.

Rock My Soul. Perth Concert Hall

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For the final concert hall event The Fairfield Four and The McCrary Sisters transformed the auditorium into a gospel tent for the evening. For the first song both ensembles delivered Come Into This House before the McCrary’s departed. Dressed in pressed dungarees and dinner jackets The Fairfield Four boomed impressively on songs such as Swing Low Sweet Chariot, Dese Bones and Children Go Where I Send Thee on which they were joined by Willie Watson. Their four voices meshed magnificently with Joe Thomson’s bass particularly impressive and while the exhortations to give thanks to the Lord seemed to affect primarily the front row by the time Levert Allison came down from the stage for the final number the audience was happy clapping along.
From the glories of the unaccompanied voices of The Fairfield Four The McCrary Sisters, although still delivering a sanctified message were soulful and grooving thanks to their well drilled back up band for the night. All Scots (Nico Bruce bass, Joe Nisbet guitar, Jim McDermott drums and Andy May keys), they were able to lock into a Stax-Volt backbeat with Nisbet throwing out some very fine Cropper like guitar licks on the bluesy This Train. Bringing up guests Yolanda Carter for two songs and Doug Seegers (taking the part of Buddy Miller on Hold The Wind) the sisters praised the Lord but also partied with abandon with Fire stoking up an Otis inspired frenzy and a cracking version of The Staples I’ll Take You There. The encore featured the Fairfield’s and the guests for an awesome Rock My Soul inciting the third standing ovation of the three concert hall nights.

For a limited period you can hear highlights of the shows from Rhiannon Giddens, The Punch Brothers and The Fairfield Four recorded by BBC Radio Scotland for Another Country with Ricky Ross here