Roseanne Reid. Trails. Last Man Records

americana-roseanne-reid-trails-250x250A long standing favourite on the Scots live music scene,  Roseanne Reid at long last delivers her much anticipated debut album which she spoke about when Blabber’n’Smoke interviewed her back in October 2017. It’s fair to say that Trails is probably the most anticipated album of the year so far with Reid’s dedicated fans (and there are many) waiting with bated breath for its arrival, perhaps with fingers crossed that it would meet their high expectations. It’s also fair to say that Reid has probably surpassed their expectations as Trails is a magnificent album with many songs familiar from her live shows and single releases given a wonderful treatment from her producer Teddy Thompson. One of the many delights of the album is to hear these songs dressed in their Sunday finery after spending so much time in their company accompanied only by Reid’s guitar.

The song arrangements are tastefully done with Reid’s voice given space front and centre as is only right. She’s a great singer, her voice tastefully worn and weary, perfectly suited for her songs which are primarily in an Americana idiom. There are elements of blues, soul, country and folk folded into the mix with some songs given a full band arrangement while others feature Reid and her guitar with minimal embellishments. As for the songs, well, Reid’s been writing songs since she was inspired by Martha Wainwright, whom she saw in concert aged only 12, and then discovering Steve Earle a few years later. Earle’s played a role as a mentor of sort for Reid ever since she attended his first song writing boot camp (a 21st birthday present from her family) and he has repeatedly invited her back. A measure of his regard is his appearance on Sweet Annie where he sings harmony with Reid, a real feather in the cap for a girl from Leith. Anyhow, Reid has blossomed into an excellent writer, able to spin a tale or spill her heart out in a couple of verses.

The album opens with Amy, a very familiar song to those who know Ms. Reid but with its brief piano accompaniment a taste of what she has conjured up in the studio with Thompson to flesh out her sound. Heading North goes the whole shebang as the band serve up a wonderfully mellow Muscle Shoals like sound with piano, organ, guitar and female harmonies all surrounding her southern soul voice as she fully inhabits a song which recalls the likes of Lucinda Williams and Jackson Browne. The south beckons also on I Love Her So which, which with its horn arrangement, sounds like a lost deep soul cut from the bowels of Stax studios but elsewhere Reid delves into a very sweet and melodic country rock sound. There’s the shuffling rhythms of Hey River with its intricate drum patterns and sly slide guitar and on It Is You she harvests the sound of Dylan and The Band goofing around in their basement. Take It From Me is a soft shoe shuffle reminiscent of Van Morrison’s lighter side while Me Oh My is actually a bit of a rocker with the band whipping up a bit of a storm. The sublime Out In Space starts off as it is another song suffused with the spirit of the American south but instead Reid sings in her native Scots accent here. As the band swoon around her with a delicate tapestry of guitar and organ, Reid paints a metaphysical portrait tingling with an aura of mysticism and longing, a perfect example of what some folk might call Caledonian soul.

Getting back to basics, Reid, her guitar and voice, are central to the more stripped down songs here. Sweet Annie, a sparsely worded miniature love song is just wonderful as Steve Earle adds his voice to Reid’s while a melancholic violin weeps across the delicate fingerpicking. Reid’s pin perfect capture of  love and loss on Levi, a song which recalls no less a figure than Townes Van Zandt, is also embellished by evocative string playing but it’s on the closing song, What I’ve Done, where Reid really shows what she’s capable of. A skeletal banjo repeats her guitar lines as she roams into American gothic territory sounding for all the world like the late Karen Dalton.

Trails is an absurdly accomplished achievement for a debutante singer songwriter and if there’s any justice it should be in the running for all sorts of awards and gongs as the year goes on.

Website

 

 

Roseanne Reid gears up for her debut album release

rr copyThere’s a fair chance that if you’re a regular attendant at shows in the central belt then you’ve probably already encountered Roseanne Reid. The Leith born singer/songwriter has rapidly established herself as a rising star in the Scots folk/roots firmament to the extent that she seems to be the person to go to to add some local colour when major artists are hitting town. Now she’s ready to really step out on her own, a debut album on the cards with a plan to run a Kickstarter campaign over the month of October in order to fund the recording.

Reid has certainly captured the imagination of the audiences and local media with The Scotsman describing her thus, “Her singing and song craft displays a talent and maturity awesomely beyond her years” while she also has the cachet of being admired by none other than Steve Earle who has said she is, “An outstanding song writer.” Certainly one listen to her excellent song,  I Love Her So, proves that Earle is right on the button as Reid, sounding far older than her years, jerks at the heartstrings  with the song coming across as if it could be a deep cut from Lucinda Williams.

Poised to press the button to launch her Kickstarter campaign,  Ms. Reid was kind enough to take some time out to talk with Blabber’n’Smoke and we started by asking her about her background.

I was born in Leith but I live in Dundee right now. I guess I really started to get interested in music when I saw Martha Wainwright in concert when I was only 12. Rufus was actually the headliner but when I heard Martha it changed a lot of things for me and I really started to listen to things after that. But it was a couple of years later when I discovered Steve Earle for the first time. My brother had the Copperhead Road album and I think I was about 15 or 16 when I first listened to it. After that it was just a natural progression from Steve to Townes Van Zandt who was kind of like Steve’s mentor and that just led me onto a lot of other artists.

Going to a concert aged 12 seems like an awful early start but then you come from a musical family. It’s not something that you talk about but I’ve read in one interview you did a while ago that your dad is Craig Reid of The Proclaimers.

Well it’s not a secret and if anyone asks then I’m happy to talk about it. I did keep it quiet for a time and it’s only recently that people have begun to comment on it.

So when did you start wring and playing your own songs?

After seeing Martha I wanted to play guitar so I got one and my mum taught me a few chords and things and then I started writing some songs a year or so later. I can’t remember any of them, I haven’t kept anything from that time. I’d say I started to get a bit more serious about it when I was around 17.  I played at things like school assemblies and that but when I turned 18 I started to play in bars and folk clubs. Leith Folk Club were really good to me giving me my first support slot and it really just kicked off from there. They were the first to really support me as an artist and it gave me the confidence to move further afield and I started doing open mic nights in Glasgow in places like Nice’n’Sleazy. They had a really good open mic night and it was a great opportunity to improve your song writing and performance. Open mic nights aren’t easy, they can be really hard gigs to do, to capture the audience’s attention but they’re great places to cut your teeth and it’s an opportunity to meet more established acts and to make connections.

Talking of connections you seem to have established a good relationship with our local promoters, The Fallen Angels Club, I think most of the shows I’ve seen you play at were promoted by them.

Kevin Morris runs that and I actually got in touch with Kevin via email at first. I was wanting to get into a more Americana folk-based thing and when I looked that up on Google Kevin’s Glasgow Americana Festival was the first name to come up so I got in contact with him just saying I was looking for opportunities to play and Kevin was good enough to get back and offer me some slots. He’s been really brilliant for me and the shows I’ve played for The Fallen Angels have been with really quality acts. It’s been a great experience and I’m really looking forward to playing a couple of shows at the Glasgow Americana Festival next week.

You were nominated for a Radio Two young Folk Artist Award.

That was in 2015. My mum had heard about the awards when listening to the radio and she suggested I go for it. So I sent in a couple of demos and I was lucky enough to be selected by them to go down south  for a Young Folk weekend and then four acts from that were officially nominated and I was one of them.  It was a great experience, I played a live slot on Radio Two and it stood me in very good stead for making more contacts and getting my name spread around.

The year before that you attended Steve Earle’s Camp Copperhead, the song writing workshop he holds in the Catskills.

That was the first year it ran and I was really keen to go as I’m a huge fan. It was actually my 21st birthday present from all my family to send me off to it. It was brilliant, just the opportunity to spend a few days being able to listen to him talk about his songs and song writing. There were about 120 campers that first year and I sang one of my songs there and he must have seen something in it as in the years since I’ve been able to get scholarships to go back and help out so I’ve been to them all. It’s quite intensive over five days, you’re getting up early, he gives a two hour lecture every morning and in the afternoon it’s workshops looking at various things, poetry, guitar playing, writing and then there’s an open mic every night. We’ve had guest lecturers in like Shawn Colvin and Dar Williams.  And again I’ve been very lucky and Steve’s been really supportive helping me out with the scholarships so I can go back and assist with people attending for the first time. He wants me to learn, I know that for sure, so that’s been the deal for the last three years.

So when did you start to record.

After the Folk Awards I recorded an EP called Right On Time. I had quite a few songs together by then but I didn’t feel it was the right time for an album so I thought that releasing four songs was just about right. Happily, the CD run has sold out, I’ve only got one copy left but it’s still available as a download on Bandcamp.

So now you’re ready to record an album.

Well, I’ve kind of held off until now for a variety of reasons, working different jobs, various things happening in my life. There was no way I was ready to do this before now if I’m being honest but recently everything’s taken a turn for the better with me and now I’m really looking forward to it.

Teddy Thompson has offered to produce it and hopefully, if I can raise the money I’ll head over to New York to record it with him. I still wasn’t sure if it was the right time to do this but I’ve spoken to folk about it, asking for advice and Ross Wilson (of Blue Rose Code) said, “Well, it’s the album you’ve been writing your whole life and if you feel that Teddy’s the right guy for you then go for it.” I mean I’ve been writing these songs for the past ten years and they’re all sitting there ready to go.

Your EP is just you and a guitar. Will the album be more fleshed out with regard to instrumentation?

It’s going to be quite low key, maybe a bass player, some pedal steel and a few harmonies, quite basic, I just want a bit of a backbone to support me and the guitar.

And how do you describe your music?

The great thing about the Americana tag is that it’s quite a wide umbrella so I usually go with Americana Folk, I’m not purely folk, not wholly Americana, it’s about a 50/50 thing.

Who are you listening to right now?

I’ve been listening to a lot of Sam Cooke as I want to try and get a more soulful element into my voice but my current favourite is definitely Blue Rose Code. Their new album is going to be phenomenal.

October looks to be a busy month for Ms. Reid as she launches her Kickstarter project while she appears at two shows in this year’s Glasgow Americana Festival in addition to her usual schedule of live gigs. The Kickstarter goes live at 6pm on Sunday 1st October and there will be incentives for those who sign up while she promises some surprise news regarding the project sometime next week.

Kickstarter page

Picture courtesy of Carol Clugston

 

 

 

 

 

Bap Kennedy. Reckless Heart. At The Helm Records

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Released at the tail end of last year Reckless Heart is Bap Kennedy’s last work. Sadly, he succumbed to cancer on November 1st, shortly before the album release. Over the years since his days in Energy Orchard and then progressing onto a solo career Kennedy built up a reputation as one of Ireland’s finest songwriters marrying Celtic and American influences and although he was younger than peers such as Nick Lowe and Elvis Costello his body of work sits well alongside the likes of theirs. He had celebrity supporters; Steve Earle produced the first solo album and proclaimed him, “the best songwriter I ever saw” and Van Morrison, Shane McGowan and Mark Knopfler all collaborated with him.

Reckless Heart was all but done and dusted when Kennedy fell ill and was diagnosed with a terminal cancer early in 2016 so it’s not an album written by an artist facing up to his own mortality. Instead it’s a fairly joyous celebration of music and life with Kennedy less in thrall to America than he was on his previous release Let’s Start Again and delivering a generous dollop of good time songs with hints of rockabilly and rhythm’n’blues. There’s a deceptive ease to the songs, a measure of the man’s craft. Like Ronnie Lane he has the knack of seeming to be able to casually knock off songs that just hover in the air, all warm and fuzzy and memorable as on the second song here, Good As Gold, a delightful candy flossed gossamer of a song that summons up lazy summer days. The insouciant Help Me Roll It, the Basement Tapes like nonchalance of Reckless Heart and the easy rolling Honky Tonk Baby show a man at ease with his world and on top of his form as he revisits his rock’n’roll roots.

The album opens with the perfection that is Nothing Can Stand In The Way Of Love. Here Kennedy is again in Basement Tape Dylan mode and the band busk in fine fashion as accordion, organ and tasty guitar licks cement the rustic roots feel. I Should Have Said  is an introspective love song tinged with regret which, with hindsight, is very moving, suffice to say that Kennedy here sings wonderfully while the arrangement with sensitive burbling bass, stately piano, organ swirls, curling guitar and female harmonies is dynamite. In a similar fashion Henry Antrim is another moving ballad that transports a cantina type melody to the Irish hinterland but Kennedy can kick out as on the rollicking closer It’s Not Me It’s You with its gutbucket guitar solo while Por Favor bursts with a nuevo wavo frenzy recalling the likes of Doug Sahm. The crowning glory however is the sombre The Universe And Me, another song that with hindsight grows in stature. Here Kennedy approaches Dylan’s metaphysical meanderings as he sings,

“There’s no music in money, there’s no money in love, there’s no love in this town tonight but I think I’ll stick around…I live between the stars upon the cosmic sea, And I’m down here all alone, just the universe and me. And I wonder why the sun shines and who taught the birds to sing. You can tell me all the numbers but nobody knows anything.”

It’s a beautiful number and as epigraphs go not a bad one.

Bap Kennedy is survived by his wife Brenda. Bravely Brenda and Bap maintained a blog detailing his treatment which you can read here.

 

 

Allison Moorer. Down To Believing. Proper Records

Break up albums. Some folk think that the dissolution of a romance is the fuel that fires greatness and can cite a litany of recordings to prove their case. Well we’re not going there right now although Down To Believing is Allison Moorer‘s first album since her marriage to Steve Earle ended. Earle has trucked off to Texas to dig some blues and Moorer spends her time between Nashville and New York where her son John Henry who has been diagnosed with autism attends school. In interviews Moorer has been quite explicit regarding her sense of anger and self blame regarding her son’s condition and this is apparent on the blistering bluesy howl that is Mama Let the Wolves In. Produced by Kenny Greenberg the album as a whole is a return to the rock laced songs Moorer delivered on 2008’s Mockingbird album, quite a distance away from the gentler Crows, her last release. While the marital breakup underpins the plaintive pedal steel laced title song and the somewhat syrupy ballad If I Were Stronger could also allude to the pain involved in becoming Mr. Earle’s seventh ex wife, for the most part Moorer delivers a solid set of songs seesaw between Nashville gloss and country grit.

Wish I, the aforementioned If I Were Stronger, Tear Me Apart and Thunderstorm/Hurricane all seem destined for playlist attention, somewhat overproduced and melodramatic. However the sinewy opening song, Like It Used To Be, the disarming ballad, Blood (written for her sister, Shelby Lynne) and the very fine and zippy Back Of My Mind show that Moorer has the chops to deliver some choice country rock and soul. She throws in a worthy cover of Creedence’s Have You Ever Seen The Rain before closing the album with her best offering, Gonna Get It Wrong. This Dobro driven lament is a magnificent closer eclipsing all before it as Moorer bares her soul and the band hunkers down in empathy to create a miniature gem.

website

Justin Townes Earle. Absent Fathers. Loose Music.

It’s coming up time for Celtic Connections and one of the highlights will surely be the much-anticipated appearance by Justin Townes Earle, indeed, his show at Oran Mor on 17th January was so swamped by demand that it’s been shifted to the larger O2ABC. Four days earlier sees the release of Absent Fathers, the unexpected companion piece to his last album, Single Mothers released only three months ago. A Yin/Yan concept of sorts the splitting of the releases reflects Earle’s own background as a child of separated parents and there is surely a temptation to hone in on his relationship with his father, Steve Earle. An eight times married man, drug addict and ex jailbird, hard enough to cope with never mind the fact that Earle senior has surmounted his own devils to become one of the most respected Americana artists around, one who regularly relates anecdotes about Justin at his live shows. With his own addiction issues to deal with in the past Earle junior could easily have got lost in some Freudian fog and crash-landed. Instead he’s one of the few rock’n’roll offspring who have made their own mark with five well respected albums under his belt allowing him to come out from under his father’s shadow.

Recorded simultaneously with Single Mothers, Absent Fathers maintains the loose country rock styled approach with just a hint of rockabilly at the edges, a step away from the swinging jauntiness of Harlem River Blues and Nothing’s Gonna Change the Way You Feel About Me Now. Despite the parental background there’s no Wainright like psychodrama here. While several of the songs reference momma’s and father’s it’s in the context of Earle’s ongoing relationship difficulties with none of the pointedness evident on Single Mothers where he sang “Absent father, is long gone now” on the title song. Paul Niehaus’ pedal steel is to the fore on many of the tracks adding to the resigned, melancholic air that pervades the album with Day And Night standing out with Earle’s guitar picking and plaintive voice floating over the keening pedal steel.

Opening with the bittersweet kick of Farther From Me with some fine guitar licks from Niehaus Earle is in fine voice, relaxed and resigned as he sings of detachment and loneliness. Why is jauntier in its delivery but again the subject is lost love. It leads to the old fashioned country lament of Least I Got the Blues which sounds like Hank Williams on downers. Call Ya Momma adds a rock beat to the mix adding up to a chunky mea culpa as Earle regrets his treatment of a partner adding a sob to his voice at the end. Round The Bend recalls the earthy R’n’B of Tim Buckley on Greetings from LA as it churns and snakes away while Someone Will Pay is another bruised and slinky rocker as Earle plots to get even with those who’ve let him down. There’s a southern soul feel to When The One You Love Loses Faith which echoes Otis Redding in its hurt and pain with Earle well able to convey this in his vocals. He wraps the album up with a solo rendition of Looking For A Place To Land, a song that is probably the most autobiographical here as he uses a metaphor to describe learning to fly at too young an age and its attendant dangers. Wishing to land despite a fear that in doing so he’ll never fly again he eventually touches down, safe despite the past. Apparently now clean and sober and in a relationship it’s safe to say that on the evidence here Earle is still capable of flying high with Absent Fathers a superb album overall.

Tying up these siblings Loose Music. have announced that Single Mothers and Absent Fathers will be released as a double vinyl set, a lovely notion that on plastic at least sees Earle’s family reunited.

Various Artists. Look Again To The Wind. Sony Masterworks

First thing to say here is that Look Again To The Wind is a perfect Christmas present for anyone who has any interest in American country music. Like the soundtrack to Oh Brother Where Art Thou it’s crammed full of excellent songs, excellently played by some of the best artists around. As a concept it’s interesting, as an album it’s little short of magnificent.

The album is a recreation of Johnny Cash‘s 1964 LP, Bitter Tears: Ballads of The American Indian. The original shows Cash at the cutting edge of the civil rights movement, the Civil Rights act was published that year in response to coloured Americans battles against segregation but Native American Indians were still primarily seen as fodder for John Wayne’s cavalry. Cash set out to highlight their cause although it’s not a political set as such. With five tracks penned by Peter La Farge, two by Cash himself and one by Johnny Horton (writer of The Battle Of New Orleans) it celebrates a culture while highlighting injustice such as on its most famous song, The Ballad Of Ira Hayes or the dangers of miscegenation as on White Girl.

Look Again To The Wind was produced by Joe Henry who picked the artists for the album, in particular Gillian Welch and David Rawlings who appear on several of the songs. Norman Blake, who played on the original, contributes as does his wife Nancy while Emmylou Harris, Steve Earle, Kris Kristofferson, The Milk Carton Kids and Rhiannon Giddens (of The Carolina Chocolate Drops) all perform. As such the delivery is impeccable, the songs transformed from the rough-hewn Cash originals into intricate tapestries with hints of bluegrass and country. Kristofferson towers on Ira Hayes while Earle offers a fine talking blues dissection of Custer. Nancy Blake, Emmylou Harris and Welch are delightful on The Talking Leaves while Giddens wails wonderfully on The Vanishing Race. The highlight however is the nine minute version of the opening title song of the original LP by Welch and Rawlings which opens here and almost spoils the album as it begs to be repeated as soon as it’s ended.

The track list follows the original with three exceptions. Apache Tears and As Long As The Grass Shall grow are reprised towards the end while another of Lafarge’s Native American songs, Look Again To The Wind, not featured on the original, is sung by Native American Bill Miller, a valedictorian statement that closes the album on a poignant note.

you can hear Gillian Welch and David Rawlings sing As Long As The Grass Shall Grow here

Steve Earle/Monica Queen. Glasgow Kelvingrove Bandstand. Thursday 7th August.

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First opportunity to attend a show at the refurbished bandstand in Kelvingrove Park and what a change. Not so much in the venue but actually having a ticketed place to sit while the arena was enclosed by a battery of drink and food stands, OK if you dig cider and seemingly many of the audience did with a constant trail of imbibers climbing to and from their places for much of the evening and consequently ensuring that the inadequate toilet facilities had huge queues so that to spend a penny one missed several songs from the show. Anyway, gripe over, bar the fact that Kelvin Walkway was closed southward so that when the show was over the throng had to squeeze through a small park gate and in pitch black find their way to Sauchiehall Street, a potential disaster I thought.

On the bright side it was a bright day. Sunshine through the day had dimmed somewhat by evening although it remained warm and dry and once the sun had set and the arena lights came on it was a magical sight, adding to the warmth from the crowd to the man they had come to see. It was still daylight when Earle came on stage, solo, guitar, harp and mandolin to hand. This current tour is just him, his equipment and a suitcase, a minstrel zigzagging through Europe for around two months. His first show on the tour was at Perth’s Southern Fried Festival two weeks ago and while the show was fine there was a lack of spark, not something one generally expects from an Earle show. Tonight, with a similar set list (and the same anecdotes) Earle was revitalised, perhaps well warmed up after several shows, perhaps the venue (and Glasgow, there does seem to be a special relationship here), perhaps the audience reaction, singing along by the third song, going bananas for Galway Girl and crowding to stand in front of the stage like moths to a flame, dancing and generally, as we say here, giving it laldly. Whatever it was Earle fed on it with the end result a truly magnificent show.

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With such a back catalogue to choose from Earle could have played twice as long and still not satisfied everyone however the show followed a trajectory that allowed Earle to warm the crowd up before some breakup songs (he’s in the throes of yet another divorce it seems), songs that documented or were written when he was in the grip of his addiction before homing in with the expected crowd pleasers to finish. Having said that he opened the show with an unfamiliar song (Girl On The Mountain?) but swiftly followed up with My Old Friend The Blues and I Ain’t Never Satisfied, the latter with the audience joining in on the chorus. Taneytown was followed by the heartbreak songs Now She’s Gone and Goodbye with Earle quipping “same girl, different harmonica” in between. Sparkle and Shine showed his romantic bent while for Valentine’s day he delivered the first of his stories relating how he had to write the song as he couldn’t drive to buy flowers on Feb 13th as he didn’t have a licence before going on to berate the 14th as a ploy to sell cards. Romance done with Earle launched into a ferocious delivery of I Feel Alright which lifted the show up several notches, from her on in he could do no wrong. A heckler was shut up with Earle telling him he “didn’t have a fuckin’ say in what I play up here, this is my job man,” although later after he baited another shout out asking if he was on probation and had to get home early before his bracelet blew up, he did add that the request would come later.
South Nashville Blues was powerful with Earle demonstrating that armed only with a guitar he can transform misery into magic. At the end he said that the song made his addiction sound much more fun than it actually was before stating “welcome to my nightmare” and delivering a stark and equally powerful CCKMP. His announcement that he would be celebrating his twentieth year of recovery in September was greeted with applause. Earle then played tribute to the late Townes Van Zandt with a story and a rendition of Rex’s Blues followed by a mesmerising Fort Worth Blues. By now it was dark and a portion of the audience had started to drift towards the stage in a similar manner to the insects you could see swirling around the spotlights. A cheer erupted as Earle strapped on a mandolin and sure enough (after a slight sound hiccup) Dixieland, The Galway Girl and Tom Ames’ Prayer started the party portion of the gig. Dancing erupted, front stage and elsewhere as the Celtic elements of the songs ratified Earle’s hold on the Glasgow folk. A terrific tale about Earle’s then errant son Justin and a missing revolver led into the very spirited The devil’s Right Hand before Copperhead Road plunged some of the crowd into a frenzy. Earle returned for one song, prefaced by a lengthy introduction. He told us he was travelling to play in Tel Aviv in a few days time, an announcement that seemed to draw a gasp from some of the audience. Explaining that he was teaming up with a friend, David Broza, an Israeli peace activist who proposed to play a sunrise show at the ancient fortress of Masada on Sunday despite the show being cancelled by the authorities, Earle compared the pessimism of those who think of the Palestinian cause as a lost cause with his own past and recalled passing bomb detectors to check into hotels in Belfast back in the eighties, another lost cause back then that proves things can get better. This was soaked up by the crowd as Earle ended the night with Jerusalem, a demonstration not only of his artistic skill but also a reminder of his mighty heart.
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Pity poor Monica Queen who opened for Earle with partner Johnnie Smillie on guitar. The usual issues for opening acts were amplified with the grounds less than half full, folk queuing for their ciders and meeting, greeting and seating themselves down. In addition their amplification was barely adequate to carry to the back. Despite this Queen captured those folk at the front and the others paying attention with a fine set of songs. By the time they played an excellent cover of Wrecking Ball more folk were listening and the hometown road trip of The 260 allowed Queen’s yearning crystal clear voice full rein. With a switch to electric guitar for the last number, The Holiest Night, they created a small cathedral of sound despite the hubbub coming from the carnival of cider tents at the back.

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Stevie Agnew. Wreckin’ Yard.

Dunfermline, a Scots town in Fife has a small claim to fame in rock circles with Nazareth and Big Country springing from its loins while Ian Anderson of Jethro Tull was born there. Stevie Agnew, son of Pete Agnew, bassist for Nazareth, now stakes his own claim to fame with this excellent collection of blue collar tinged tales that , like another son of Dunfermline, Andrew Carnegie, looks to the new world for inspiration. Agnew might have grown up with a bona fide seventies rock star dad but there’s no pretension or nepotism on show here as he eschews the hard rock path and instead explores the highways and byways of American songwriters with particular nods to Springsteen and Dylan while the likes of Steve Earle, John Mellencamp, Tom Russell and Johnny Dowds all seep in.
Although Wreckin’ Yard is his debut album Agnew has knocked around a bit playing for several years on the local circuit. The catalyst for the album was his meeting with producer, drummer and co-writer of the album, Chris Smith. Together they’ve forged as good an Americana album to come out of Scotland in the past few years that burns with a respect for the working man, be it a squaddie or muck encrusted labourer and marries this with some memorable and at times very commercial sounds.
Wrecking Yard opens (and closes in an extended version) the album, a very smooth and polished medium paced rocker with sweet guitar tones that recall Mark Knopfler it’s tailor made for radio as the tale of a cuckolded labourer whose wife has left him for his boss dreams of vengeance. It’s an impressive song but more impressive is Agnew and Smith’s decision not to clone this airbrushed radio rock with the remainder of the album more dependent on acoustic instruments allowing Agnew’s very fine husk of a voice space to tell their tales. Pretend That You Love Me Tonight is Dylanesque (circa Blood on The Tracks) as Agnew seeks solace from a hooker while All That I Can See pairs Agnew with singer Kirsten Adamson (daughter of the late Stuart) on a country jaunt with Adamson sounding for all the world like a young Dolly Parton while Agnew sounds much older than his years. With banjo, Dobro, pedal steel and harmonica creating a fine backdrop it’s hard to imagine that this song originated in the Kingdom of Fife. Winter Rain is a wordy and spare backed narrative that recalls Steve Earle with Adamson again adding some sweet vocal harmonies on a grim and cold tale of a widower consoling himself with booze as he recalls his wife’s dying days, taking her to hospital and then taking her home with “her hair falling out into her hands and poison in her bones” and waiting for her to die. It’s a spectacular song that captures the protagonist’s pain without falling into sentimentality and its delivery is just as spectacular with the chorus reaching out to the listener. Agnew has another duet on Paid My Dues (Loving You) later on with Beth Malcolm replacing Adamson and again it’s a wonderful tale as two young lovers recall what went wrong.
The Pugilist is another narrative, this time about a battered and bruised fighter reduced to vagrancy. Again it’s delivered well and is reminiscent with its Celtic tinge of Ron Kavana. The one caveat here is that the melody is very reminiscent of John Lennon’s Working Class Hero. Sub Prime however struts out on its own two feet with sleek Dobro and slide guitar driving this finger pointing song against the bankers along and Agnew continues to deliver the goods for the remainder of the album in much the same vein although he does deliver a mean and dirty blues stomp on the vicious Sixteen Years which you can imagine his dad’s band might have had some fun with. Mention should be made of the stark Heavy Duty. Dedicated to a soldier friend killed in Afghanistan it avoids finger pointing but does point out that “the old wage wars for the young to die in” and is a reminder of the situation where many young men might see a career in the forces as the way out of unemployment with little thought of the possible outcome.

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Malcolm Holcombe. Down The River

Slowly but surely North Carolina bred singer and songwriter Malcolm Holcombe has carved a reputation over the years as a fine purveyor of rootsy country blues with his albums and live shows almost universally praised. Despite this he remains a bit of a hidden gem, known only to the cognoscenti but there’s a chance this might change with the release of this, his ninth album.
Having been on several labels (including Geffen who refused to release the album he recorded for them) he’s self released Down The River and it’s a measure of the respect he’s held in that he’s gathered a grand set of musicians to assist him. The band include Darrell Scott, Ken Coomer and Viktor Krauss while vocals are supplied by Kim Richey, Emmylou Harris and Steve Earle. In addition the album is produced by Steve Earle’s sometime producer Ray Kennedy. The result is a stellar collection of songs that feature Holcombe’s amazing growl of a voice and his deft guitar picking with truckloads of banjo, steel guitar, mandolin, fiddle and Dobro backing him up. The effect is very similar to that of Earle’s “come back” album Train A Coming.
In addition to the excellent playing Holcombe writes with a fine sense of anger at the modern ways of the world railing against injustice but also celebrating the eternal optimism of the human spirit most pointedly in The Crossing, one of the more tender songs here. With some fine lilting fiddle this is a beautiful spiritual lament. The Door continues in this vein as Holcombe reins in his voice while pedal steel (by Russ Pahl) glides and weaves. Both of these songs are cloaked in mystery as Holcombe sings of people who seem to be lost and desolate but who are buttressed by hope and pride. The starkness of The Empty Jar is the culmination of this; delicate guitar and viola paint a lonely picture as Holcombe sings “an empty jar but full of eyes/ that see you here pourin’ perfect comfort /for thirsty silent tears.” The effect is similar to the grim determination seen in the photography of Dorothea Lange. The duet with Emmylou Harris In Your Mercy is lighter in its delivery but again tells of an abandoned soul clinging to pride and memories.
All of these songs are beautiful and had the album stuck with this style it would be very impressive indeed. However Holcombe adds a topping of righteous indignation and launches his full bear growl on a clutch of songs that damn those in control who cause misery and loss. Butcher In Town opens the album like a boxer jumping out on the bell. Darrell Scott’s Dobro is excellent here as Holcombe proclaims “I don’t claim a thing/not a two bit clue/but somebody whispered/war kills the truth” while on Twisted Arms he almost spits out the words. Whitewash Job nails the politicians with an undisguised glee with Holcombe sounding not unlike Baby Gramps with his piratical “har hars” over a fine chugging rhythm. The duet with Steve Earle, Trail O’ Money is the most direct diatribe as Holcombe declares “all the noise from the crowd/breakin’ hearts with deceit/all you war hungry bastards/bloodthirsty with greed.” Despite the vitriol in the words the song itself is a wonderful recreation of the sound of Bob Dylan circa 1970 with lonesome harp and a nice country lope. Holcombe sums up the album and his thoughts on the closing title song, a fine old fashioned number with female backing vocals and an uplifting beat as he sings “the hard times makes us stronger to get by/and leave this world behind/down the river.”

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Marvin Etzioni. Marvin Country!

Very occasionally an album comes along that stops you dead in your tracks, knocks the wind out of your sails and demands that you pay attention. Marvin Country! is one such album. The work of Marvin Etzioni, one time member of Lone Justice and producer of the likes of Counting Crows, Peter Case and Toad The Wet Sprocket (remember them?)it’s a double disc CD with various “star” names guesting which had our antenna twitching. After all aren’t such beasts often a recipe for disaster? All doubts were dispelled as soon as the virtual needle hit the grooves (and there is a vinyl release which I presume will be magnificent in its own grooviness) and as song after song tumbled out of the speakers, each and every one great in its own unique way we realised we were in the presence of an album which in its ramshackle and splattergun approach pretty much approaches the pinnacle of current Americana music.
While Etzioni plays much of the music himself including various keyboards, mandolin, mandocello, casio, bass, drums, porchboard, synthesiser, mellotron and some scintillating electric guitar he opens the borders of Marvin Country to the likes of John Doe, Steve Earle, Maria McKee, Buddy Miller, Richard Thompson, Gurf Morlix, Greg Leisz and Lucinda Williams. While it’s fair to report that they all add something special to the mix even without their presence the album would stand up on its own.

With his songwriting credentials pretty much confirmed via his tenure with Lone Justice Etzioni has at least one stone cold bona fide classic here with Lay It On The Table. A tear jerking duet with Lucinda Williams and weeping pedal steel from Greg Leisz you should be hearing it over any decent airwaves very soon. You Possess Me, the opening song and another duet (with Maria McKee this time) is almost as good. However any notion gained from the curtain raiser that we’re in for some sweet modern country is dispelled by the following song, The Grapes of Wrath. John Doe takes the vocal duties here on a turbo charged rocker that sounds like vintage Dylan delivered by a souped up Chuck Prophet with a great big fat guitar sound that humbbucks like hell. Speaking of Dylan Etzioni proclaims Bob Dylan Is Dead on a tremendous acoustic thrash that is exhilarating in its iconoclasm and clever in the allusions within the lyrics. Etzioni throws up several other tremendous songs throughout the album such as the Cash like A Man Without A Country and the country punk Living Like a Hobo while You are The Light with vocal accompaniment from The Dixie Hummingbirds is simply superb. If all of the above were to constitute the album then it would be highly recommended but there is more, so much more, to hear on the second disc. Much of the delight in listening to this is in the rollercoaster feel of lurching from thrash to country to gospel to folk but on disc two (or side three if you do get the vinyl) Etzioni throws a fine curveball with a suite of what might be best called “oddball” songs. Where’s Your Analog Spirit? is a synth drenched protest song reminiscent of Roger McGuinn’s space rock. Etzioni plays around with sound samples on Gram Revisited, a primitive sounding tribute to Parsons and the goofy sounding What’s Patsy Cline Doing these Days? He then slips in anther cracking song with Hard to Build a Home which could not only end up as a country classic but also refers back to a song on the first disc, Son of a Carpenter. Aside from any biblical possibilities this is just more evidence of the very keen mind that made this album. The run up to the end of the album is packed with gems. The guitar solo in the bluesy Trouble Holding Back (by Trevor Meanor) is audacious and ridiculously spellbinding while the mournful horns of There’s A Train is one of the album’s highlights. The simple God’s Little mansion could be an old Carter Family homily.
We haven’t even mentioned the fine lazy cajun Richard Thompson vehicle It Don’t Cost Much and Gurf Morlix’s turn on Son of a Carpenter but if we were to go on this review would never end. Suffice to say that this album sits up there with the likes of Terry Allen’s superb Lubbock (On Everything) as a great example of left field maverick Americana. In order to try and offer a sense of its reach there are two samples below which demonstrate the breadth of the album.

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The Grapes of Wrath

What’s Patsy Cline Doing These Days? Pt. 1