The Man From Leith Finds Himself in Muddy Waters – Dean Owens & Southern Wind

railway-pic-crop-3Dean Owens unveils his latest album, Southern Wind, at a showcase concert this Friday as part of Celtic Connections. Recorded in Nashville with a crack team of American musicians (including Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough, both part of The Orphan Brigade) the album is a bit of a departure for Owens. Many of the songs were co-written with Kimbrough and there’s a definite whiff of the deep South woven throughout. We spoke to Dean about its making and asked about several of the songs on it.

You’ve recorded several of your albums in Nashville but Southern Wind seems to be more rooted in an American sound as opposed to the Celtic Americana that characterised Into The Sea. While the opening number, The Last Song, sounds like it could have fitted easily into the last record with that freewheeling roustabout swing which is reminiscent of Ronnie Lane’s last Chance, the rest is quite different.

It was hard to follow up an album like into The Sea, a lot of folk really liked that and I think the best thing to do is to go down a different road and try not to repeat yourself. I’ve done that with all my albums I think. If you go back to my first album and follow them thorough I think they are all quite different. Last Song is probably a bit of a connection to the last album, when we sequenced the album we decided to kick off with that one and then head into a slightly different world.

The main difference from Into The Sea is that I wrote most of the songs with Will Kimbrough and he’s from the South and that brought a strong flavour into the album. I was talking to a friend the other night about this and he thought that Into The Sea, although I recorded it with some of the same musicians in Nashville, was much more about my background, looking at me growing up and with lots of family and friends references whereas on this one there are different characters and a different feeling. That has come about through writing with Will and also through spending more time over there. Since I recorded Into The Sea I’ve spent a lot of time over in Nashville and travelling about. Aside from Southern Wind I’ve also been recording this other project, Buffalo Blood  down in New Mexico and I think that, as an artist, you kind of soak up all that stuff.

The instrumental break on When The Whisky’s Not Enough and the opening slide guitar and bluesy moans of No Way Around It are particularly evocative of Southern music.

I’m really pleased with the way No Way Around It worked out. I wanted it to be a big sounding song and that take was the one and only time we played it in the studio. I think we really captured the vibe I was going for, the real spirit of the song and in bringing in Kira Small for the backing vocals, I really wanted to have a good soulful voice in there and she nailed it. I’d said to Neilson Hubbard, the producer, “I really want to make a swampy sounding record,” and that’s what he does really well. He’s from Mississippi and Will’s from Alabama as is Evan the drummer so they have that sound in their veins.

I really wanted  especially to feature Will’s guitar playing on the album and on The Last Song he’s actually playing guitar, bass and piano. He just had that Ronnie Lane type of bass sound on the demo so rather than have the regular bass player Dean Marold play, Will did it and he also played piano on it as he has that rollicking Faces’ like loose way of playing.

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You mentioned Kira Small and her voice on No Way Around It is spectacular. It reminds me of Merry Clayton’s singing on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter.

That’s exactly what I was thinking of when we were recording that, that Gimme Shelter type sound. I’d said to Neilson that I wanted a big soulful voice in there and right away he said that he knew exactly the woman who could that and it was Kira. That’s one of the great things about Nashville, I mean people ask me, “Why go to Nashville? There’s loads of great musicians here.” Well of course there are but in Nashville everything’s on your doorstep. You can say I want that voice or I want that instrument and you’re surrounded by some of the best players and singers who can just come in, almost at a minute’s notice for a session. Kira came in and nailed that on the first take. That’s one of the reasons I love working with Neilson, I trust him and he knows what I want and he knows how to get it.

Earlier you said that much of Into The Sea was informed by family memories but there are a couple of songs here that are also  about your family.

When Into The Sea was being recorded my sister was gravely ill and her passing was obviously a huge blow and although I don’t want to dwell on it, in a way I wanted to, as it were, put that part of me to rest. My sister will always be with me and that song, Madeira Street, is a memory but it’s also a way of moving on. It’s a situation that affects more and more people as we go along. I’ve realised that in the past few years that so many people I know have had similar situations so although the song is about me and my sister I hope that people can relate to it.

You also have a song about your mother.

Well, my parents try to come along to my shows whenever they can and one of my most popular songs is The Man From Leith which is of course about my father and my mum’s always been giving me a hard time about not writing a song for her. So I had started this song (Mother) a while back but I really didn’t know where it was going. I sang it to Will when we were doing a wee song writing session way before we started on the album and he helped me out with some of it. I still felt it needed something else however and when I was touring with Danny & The Champs I was playing it in the dressing room, just as a way of warming up, and Danny asked me what it was as he quite liked it. Anyway, I was staying with Danny the next day and we were messing about with it and I was telling him about my mum and some of the things she was always saying and he said, “That’s it, there’s your lyrics there,” and he helped me to piece it together and encouraged me to put it on the album. Fortunately she loves it, I sang it to her on Christmas Eve and by the time I was finished we all had a bit of a tear in our eyes.

There’s a great rockabilly punch on Elvis Was My Brother.

That’s the song that people seem to be picking up on so far. It was pretty much based on a letter a friend sent me and I asked him if I could use it and he said yes and he’s really happy with the way it turned out. Of course it’s about a huge Southern character, Elvis, so it fitted on the album along with my other song about another Southern hero, Louisville Lip, about Muhammad Ali. Aside from musicians one of my greatest heroes was Ali and although we’ve lost a great many musicians in the past couple of years his death was the one that really hit me. I’ve got some memories of sitting with my dad watching Ali fight Foreman when I was really young and although I’m not sure if it’s what really happened as I was so young, I think that I was mesmerised by this guy dancing around with these really cool white shorts on and I said to my dad that I wanted a pair of those. He said I could only get them if I became a boxer and so later I joined a boxing club and that was a huge part of my growing up.

I remember exactly where we were when we heard that Ali had died; we were in Amarillo, Texas, one of those names that certainly conjures up one particular song. We were in the van coming back from New Mexico when one of the guys read the news on his phone. And when we got back to Nashville I sat down and wrote the song and played it to Will and we decided it had to go on the album. Ali was just my hero and aside from his boxing prowess he was a huge figure in the South in the civil rights era so he deserved to be on the album.

The album launch is on Friday and you’ll be appearing with your own band, The Whisky Hearts. Given that the album was recorded with these American Southerners, how will The Whisky Hearts play the songs?

The songs will sound different when we play them. The Whisky Hearts are all brilliant Scottish musicians and while they’re not steeped in the South like Will and Neilson are, they’ll play the songs with their own passionate take on it. For example, there’s no fiddle on the album but we’ve got Amy Geddes on fiddle so it will sound different.  We did it with Into The Sea, we took the songs I had recorded in Nashville and brought them home and we’ll do the same here, the spirit of the record will shine through.

Dean Owens & The Whisky Hearts are appearing as part of Celtic Connections at the Drygate, Glasgow on Friday 2nd February. Southern Wind is officially released on 16th February with advance copies on sale at Friday’s concert. Dean will also be a guest of Celtic Music Radio‘s Mike Ritchie on Friday afternoon, 1-2pm, talking about the album and playing some songs in session.

 

 

 

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The Orphan Brigade. Heart Of The Cave. At The Helm Records

ath201317_cover_artTwo years ago Neilson Hubbard, Ben Glover and Josh Britt got together to record The Orphan Brigade – Soundtrack to a Ghost Story, an album recorded in a “haunted” antebellum mansion on a civil war battle site. Touring the album in Europe they landed in Osimo, Italy, a town with its own ghostly past and a warren of ancient caves under its streets to boot. Taken by the place they returned for a ten day stay later and recorded this album in those caves with Glover explaining, “I had a profound sense that we were stepping into the past, into a mysterious and ancient world.” As on the previous album the trio enlist assistance (Gretchen Peters, Barry Walsh, Kris & Heather Donegan, Dan Mitchell, Dean Marold, Will Kimbrough, Natalie Schabs, Eamon McLoughlin, Audrey Spillman and Kira Small) and while many of the songs relate directly to the history and myths of Osimo they retain their distinctly American sound that resonated throughout the earlier album. Mandolin and softly strummed guitars predominate although there are strings and horns and some wonderful vocal arrangements.

Although it opens with a brace of spritely numbers the album overall is dark and reflective.   The opening Pile Of Bones is a primeval workout, a chant over scrubbed instruments and a tribal thump as a massed chorus sings, “we ain’t leaving but a pile of bones” An invitation to reflect on our mortality and not dissimilar to Patti Smith’s Ghost Dance. Town Of A Hundred Churches is resolutely set in the Italian town they’re in but it swings with a fine mid western breeze and, as the notes state, could as easily have been written about Nashville. Similarly their song about a 17th century local mystic who could levitate, Flying Joe, is given a fine string band gospel arrangement. There’s a return to a primeval stomp on Alchemy but the remainder of the album is of a darker hue.

Osimo (Come To Life) has the pace of a funeral procession and is suffused with images of death being just a gateway to a new life with its final refrain a nod to the many carvings in the walls of the caves. Meanwhile Pain Is Gone, a hushed affair sung over a simple acoustic guitar for the most part, again delves into the mysteries of death. This flirtation with mortality might be partly explained by the fact that as the band were recording the album Italy suffered several earthquakes with loss of life. This may have informed the pair of songs, The Birds Are Silent and The Bells Are Ringing, that sit at the centre, the former has the earth shaking and urgent descriptions of people clawing at ruins looking for survivors in a chilling song that rattles along like a south western bandit ballad full of cinematic drama. The Bells Are Ringing, by contrast, is a firm rejoinder to celebrate the destructive power of nature and is given a rapturous delivery.

The album closes with four powerful songs. Sweet Cecilia is moored firmly in that dark Americana vein populated by ghosts and dead lovers while Meet Me in The Shadows is a dolorous affair, ghostly voices singing from Stygian depths.  That glimmer of hope that death is the not the end is revisited on There’s A Light That Never Goes Out, the one song here that sounds truly cavernous with the piano and percussion reverberating amidst ominous sound effects with the ghost of Leonard Cohen hovering somewhere nearby. Donna Sacra, with a wordless female voice, is a rapture of sorts. A close to the album emphasised by the final sound snippet of an Italian train service announcement as the band come back to the surface.

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Ben Glover. The Emigrant. Proper Records

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Although Blabber’n’Smoke hasn’t previously reviewed any of Ben Glover’s albums his is a name which has cropped up several times.  He co-wrote Gretchen Peters’ wonderful Blackbirds, winner of ‘International Song of The Year’ at the UK Americana Awards back in February and he was one third of The Orphan Brigade who released the very fine Soundtrack To A Ghost Story around a year ago.

An Irishman who has lived in Nashville since 2009 Glover was drawn to consider the theme of migration as he was going through the process of getting his Green Card. Of course Ireland has had waves of emigrations over the centuries but the current political climate, dominated by the plight of refugees across the globe and the ensuing backlash and rise of xenophobia assures that this resulting album has a topical purpose. For all that it’s far from a polemical album. Instead Glover has reached back to popular and traditional Irish songs that evoke feelings of displacement and exile  and to these he has added four songs, three co-written with Gretchen Peters, Mary Gauthier and Tony Kerr, the title song, commenced in Ireland and finished in collaboration with Peters being the starting block for the album.

Co produced with fellow Orphan Brigadier, Neilson Hubbard, the album stays close to its Irish roots, the instrumentation is spare; acoustic guitar, piano, fiddles, Uilleann pipes, whistles the primary instruments. Glover skilfully wrests the traditional and cover songs from any cosy sense of familiarity, the arrangements breathing new life into them while the presence of his own songs prevents the album from becoming a set of “well kent” Irish songs, the album as a whole a powerful listen.

Opening with a stirring rendition of The Parting Glass, the upbeat tempo belying the air of farewell within the song, Glover immediately takes us into an Irish heartland, a fiction perhaps of a jolly lot managing their loss through alcohol, oft posited by numerous screenplays. Aside from a slight return to a toe tapping moment on the traditional Moonshiner, another song with drink at its centre, the rest of the album is a more sombre affair, the reality of alienation and loss hitting hard. A Song Of Home, one of the originals is a magnificent effort, glover’s voice yearning, at times approaching Van Morrison’s stream of consciousness repetitions, the song celebrating the landscapes, mists and mysteries of a remembered homeland. The title song follows opening with plangent piano, a Tom Waits’ like moment considered perhaps but it then swells with Uillean pipes as Glover dissects with his poet’s scalpel the curse of the emigrant, “to be cut loose from all you knew, beyond the pale, beyond the blue…the restlessness, the discontent…” It’s a deeply moving song that stakes its claim immediately to be considered part of the folk canon. The co-write with Mary Gauthier, Heart In My Hand, is a roving fiddle fuelled ramble while Dreamers, Pilgrims, Strangers is a very brief reiteration of the lines inscribed within the album sleeve, Glover’s alternative to Emma Lazarus’ words welcoming emigrants to the USA.

Woven between these bitter pills are the familiars. Ralph McTell’s From Clare To Here, Glover more impassioned than McTell’s original, more bereft. The Auld Triangle wrings out all the emotion it can from this well travelled song with a touch of Shane McGowan to be sure in here. The Green Glens Of Antrim closes the album and again Glover summons up ghosts and memories, an emigrant looking back through rose tinted glasses, delivered here like a Hibernian Tom Waits. Finally Glover manages the almost impossible task of breathing new life into a song that through familiarity has somewhat lost its original impact. He tackles Eric Bogle’s And The Band Played Waltzing Matilda with a raw vocal and a tremendous arrangement, half Waits, half Weill as he snarls and rages, finally collapsing into a bereft croak, the band playing on.

It’s not that often that an album captures such a terrible zeitgeist but Glover here lays down a powerful challenge to those who just see immigrants taking up their council houses and jobs. Several of these songs should accompany news items but that’s too grand to ever happen. Still, there’s social media there to spread his message. On a more local level we should mention that Glover is appearing at next week’s Glasgow Americana Festival performing in the round with Boo Hewardine and Roddy Hart (information here).

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Dean Owens (with Dave Coleman). Cotton Snow. Single Release, Drumfire Records.

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With the best reviews of his career so far tucked in his pocket (for his acclaimed 2015 album Into The Sea), Dean Owens saw out last year on a roll and entered the new Year with a bang, supporting Patty Griffin at Celtic Connections. When Blabber’n’Smoke interviewed Owens for AmericanaUK he spoke of his plans for 2016 including a proposed project that reunites him with Neilson Hubbard and Joshua Britt, two thirds of the crew behind the magisterial American Civil War album, The Orphan Brigade (which we reviewed here ). That album was inspired by the history infused into an old plantation building in Franklin, Tennessee and it’s to the Civil War and Franklin that Owens pays attention on this single release which will be available from April 15th.

On a visit last year to the site of the battle of Franklin, one of the bloodiest of the war, Owens was taken by an image mentioned by a participant, Captain Tod Carter. The artillery laying waste to the cotton gins and cotton fields scattered the plant which fell like snow on the soldiers, Cotton Snow. The following day Owens was in Dave Coleman’s (of Nashville band The Coal Men) home studio in Nashville, tinkering around with this idea when Coleman suggesting recording a take on it. Couple of hours later there’s a rough mix, Coleman a one band on drums, tape loops, bass, guitars and pedal steel, Owens with the words down pat. Some transatlantic polishing later and here’s the end result.

It’s a great song and a great recording. Cotton Snow plays to Owens’ ability to invest a song with drama and emotion, to paint a picture with his words. The place names resonate, Chattanooga and Shiloh, previous battles for the progenitor who sees the soldiers, whether clad in grey or blue, inside all the same colour. The surreal image of the cotton snow is amplified by the musical setting, Coleman stirring a twang filled guitar soup that recalls the mystical Americana of Lee Hazlewood. And while Owens doesn’t have the gruff gravitas of Hazlewood here he sings wonderfully, close miked, a slight drawl and a fine giddy up exclamation escaping his lips just before the first guitar solo.  It’s a class act.

Anyway, you can listen to the song below and pre-order it here.

 

 

 

The Orphan Brigade. Soundtrack to a Ghost Story. Proper Records

Two Americans and an Irishman walk into a haunted house… No, it’s not the opening line of a joke but the punch line for the story behind The Orphan Brigade. The three (Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Ben Glover) have built an album around the tales and histories of characters from the Civil War period, notably Confederates housed in and around a plantation house named Octagon Hall in Franklin, Kentucky, sixty miles north of Nashville. The Hall still stands, spared from immolation by the Northern troops, an antebellum reminder of the horrors of war and slavery and reputed to be the “most haunted house in America.” With a wealth of historical documents to hand (letters, journals, poetry, some written by members of the titular Orphan Brigade, a nickname of the Confederate Army’s First Kentucky Brigade) the trio set up shop in the haunted house to write and record the album with assistance from Gretchen Peters, Kim Richey, Kris Donegan, Heather Donegan, Dean Marold, Eamon McLoughlin, Dan Mitchell, Barry Walsh, Carey Ott, Brad Talley, Zach Bevill, Jim DeMain and Ryan Beach.

It’s a fine back story and the cast tell tales of spooky happenings during the recording, much of it captured on a documentary directed by Hubbard and Britt. However, entertaining as this all is it’s much more than an Americana version of American Horror Story, the good news being that the album stands up to scrutiny whether the listener knows the origins or not. It’s not a retelling of the era in the vein of White Mansions although there are songs that refer directly to the experiences of the historical protagonists. Rather it’s an impressionistic capture of the spirit (sorry) of the times delivered in a variety of styles that gather in musical influences but are rooted in modern music. One could imagine that The Band or a solo Robbie Robertson might have made the album.

The war does loom large on the wheezy accordion tooled I’ve Seen The Elephant, the delicate harmonies of Last June Light and the martial numbers, The story You Tell Yourself, decorated with slight mandolin and throbbing guitar and We Were Marching On Christmas Day which captures excellently the tribulations of the foot soldier in a wintry waste. On a more optimistic note The Good Old Flag points to the reconciliation required after a bitter war and is delivered as an excellent mid tempo ballad buoyed on some fine guitar flourishes and sublime harmonies.

There’s a wealth of styles here, a sea shanty on Cursed Be The Wanderer, an Irish Lament with Paddy’s Lamentation and some slide driven Southern grit on Trouble My Heart (Oh Harriet). Whistling Walk appears at first to be an oddity, a whistled instrumental with a jazzy cornet and guitar it ambles into view with an unexpected jocularity but when one reads that it’s inspired by the fact that slaves carrying food from the kitchen to the table were ordered to whistle in order to prevent them eating any of the food then it falls into place.
As we said earlier, the album stands on its own two feet but there’s a wealth of information to be had for anyone wanting to delve, either into its making or the history it commemorates and is heartily recommended.

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And just because it’s Halloween