Last we heard from Betse Ellis, the firecracker fiddle player of The Wilders, was on her fine solo album High Moon Order (which we reviewed here ), an album that portrayed her very fine skills in the world of traditional American music while dipping its toes into more contemporary waters as on her cover of The Clash’s Straight To Hell. On River Still Rise she’s teamed up with banjo player Clarke Wyatt for an entertaining journey of sorts through traditional and old time songs and tunes, their band name and the album title deliberately recalling the exploring duo of Lewis & Clark as the duo carry out their own explorations.
With Ellis on fiddle, viola and vocals and Wyatt on banjos and cello they provide a conduit to the past, the music here (aside from three originals) plucked from a canon that includes the Child Ballads, Charlie Poole, Clarence Ashley and the still with us centenarian Violet Hensley. These old songs and tunes are rearranged by Ellis and Wyatt with brio, there’s a vitality and a sense of fun that prevents the album from becoming a history lesson although part of the enjoyment here is in actually reading the history of the songs and to this end there are extensive notes on the selections available here . While the pair can easily let loose on songs such as Diamond Joe, Take A Drink On Me and the rollicking Rolling River (with Betse’s vocals whoopin’ away) elsewhere there’s an elegiac grandeur, a reverential nod to those pioneers who created such great music in such hard times. This is probably most evident on the pair of tunes associated with Ms. Hensley, Jericho and Fill My Way With Love, the former almost a chamber piece, delicate and awe inspiring.
There are pieces which will be familiar to folk such as Fair and Tender Ladies, Requiem For Little Sadie and the John Hartford inspired The Quail Is A Pretty Bird, others much more obscure but each and all a delight. With occasional support on upright bass and guitar from the band Brushy Creek Betse & Clarke sail through the album with aplomb, keeping tradition alive. Overall the album is an essential purchase for anyone interested in old time mountain (and river) music.
River Still Rise is available now and Betse & Clarke are currently on tour in Ireland, dates here.
Anyone who’s seen The Wilders will know Betse Ellis, the pint sized ball of energy who wields her mean fiddle for the Kansas City quartet. Well the Wilders have been quiet of late and Betse has gone and made her own album and a fine beast it is. A mixture of her own songs, some traditional tunes and a few covers it features several fine fiddle tunes such as Dry and Dusty, Elk River Blues, Stamper and Long Time To Get There where Ellis displays her undoubted prowess on the old bow and is ably supported by guitar and banjo. Her fiddle features alone on the traditional Queen of the Earth and Child of the Skies which has Celtic roots but sounds as if its roiling out of the mountain mists of the Ozarks while When Sorrows Encompass Me ‘Round will remind listeners of her solo slots on Wilders gigs as she sings heartily while accompanying herself on fiddle and again it spookily sounds as if it was summoned from the past. No surprise really as Ellis has studied traditional folk and country sounds for the past twenty years gaining the ability to sound as old as the hills. What is surprising is the contemporary sound of many of the remaining songs which feature a full band sound with bass, electric and lap steel guitars and percussion played by several of her Kansas City peers.
Opening song The Traveller breezes in like a light zephyr with rippling guitars and banjo although there is an instrumental overkill as Ellis weighs in with violin, viola and massed cellos on the chorus. No such problem on the following Golden Road which has Ellis on guitar and vocal along with her compadres. With some excellent lap steel playing from Michael Stover Ellis and the band deliver a traditional sounding (although penned by Ellis) song that captures perfectly the stoical religious beliefs of worn out rural workers from way back in the last century. The Collector has some crunchy electric guitar as Ellis takes us on a slow jaunt through her past as she sings about the hold old music has on her and the band almost falls into a waltz, lovely stuff indeed. Question to Lay Your Burdon Down is full blown country rock as Ellis sings a song she describes as a response to a song by Trouble In Mind, a Missouri band who kick-started a local “rural grit” movement several years ago and whose Mark Smeltzer sings on here. Ellis digs deep here and delivers her most soulful vocals of the album while the band whip up a fine dust storm.
The most surprising inclusion on the album is a cover of The Clash’s Straight To Hell and on first seeing this on the album cover we have to admit to some trepidation as to how this would work out. However as Ellis points out on her album notes Joe Strummer was a folk singer and she grew up with this song and she gives it a good go. The drums and Ellis’ incessant and throbbing fiddle give the song impetus and her impassioned vocals capture some of Strummer’s anger and angst and while it’s not as successful as Rachid Taha’s reworking of Rock The Casbah it does pack a powerful punch. Also packing a punch but perhaps somewhat out of place here is the ferocious two minute thrash of The Complainer. It is a cowpunk belter that comes screaming out of the speakers but ultimately disturbs the overall sense of the album, perhaps best shifted to a bonus “secret” track to be accessed only by those who reckon Betse could have been in The Ramones.
It was Neil Young who sang “ Homegrown is the way it should be. Homegrown is a good thing. Plant that bell and let it ring.” Old Neil might have been singing about something else altogether (answers on a postcard!) but it’s gratifying to find that there’s a good deal of homegrown bands and songsters in the best wee nation in the world who can take on Americana type music and deliver their own take on it with a degree of authenticity but more importantly portraying their feeling and affection for the genre.
Bands such as The Wyntown Marshals, Dropkick, The Ballchulish Hellhounds and the late lamented Southpaw are all fine examples of Scots bands who can deliver the real thing and the list can be expanded almost ad infinitum if one looks at the likes of Teenage Fanclub and The Vaselines who exported the proverbial coals to Newcastle.
Old Dollar Bill are a grand addition to the local canon of Scots combos who can summon up a genuine feel for American music. In their case it’s old time good time stringband hoe-downs and rollicking country songs. Their debut album was as fine a piece of Scots Americana as we’ve heard in a long time and now on their second release Lucky From Kentucky they consolidate their sound, relying less on their undoubted instrumental prowess with the inclusion of several fine songs that broaden their appeal.
Comprised of Stephen Clark (guitar, mandolin, banjo and Dobro) and Ed Henry (Cajon, drums and percussion) (supplemented by Edinburgh musicians Martyn McQuade on double bass, Neil Pearlman, piano, Tom McAweaney, fiddle, Owen McAlpine, harmonica and Gill Swan, harmony vocals on various cuts) Old Dollar Bill cut a fine cloth with ten songs all self written that range from the swamp blues of My Love She Did Wear A Disguise to the triumphant closing good time swing of Lucky From Kentucky. My Love she Did Wear A Disguise is a great opener with Clark snarling a tale of betrayal that cleaves to a folk tradition but with the menacing Dobro and clattering percussion relocates it to a swamp ridden murky voodoo land. One More Shot To Kill The Pain is a straightforward country stomp with fine harp and piano playing with the lyrics appearing to portray a typical Edinburgh bar although there’s no hard drinking “Rebus” type detective propping up the bar along with the unemployed graduate and the war veteran. The Man With The Hurtin’ Smile slinks along gracefully with some nice Dobro and mandolin fills while McQuade’s bass burbles along nicely. Henry takes over the vocals on the heartworn tale of a John fleeced by a pretty girl and excusing her as he says “I see the pain in her eyes/where she’s cut off social ties/she doesn’t look too well/she’s living in her own little hell.” This is a great little song with expressive harmonica, intricate percussion and excellent guitar, Dobro and mandolin; it’s reminiscent of The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band circa Hollywood Dream which is no bad thing. The Place is another roustabout country ditty while Hey Y’all plants the fiddle firmly in the foreground for what is a fiercely danceable hoe-down. Clark returns to the fore vocally on the fine This Feeling with his mandolin propelling the band as Henry’s percussion adds to the drive. The Last Good Time is a departure of sorts for the band as they rein in the toe tapping vibes and deliver an emotive ballad that has rippling piano and female harmony vocals. It comes across almost like a Bruce Cockburn type song, plaintive and affecting it sounds great here. Home Lovin’ Man which follows seems to be another attempt to add an extra dimension to the band. A pared back stumble with emotive harmonica it has a fine lazy feel but the intrusive finger clicks that feature throughout are somewhat distracting. They close the album with the title song (aided and abetted by Woody Pines and members of The Wilders). Lucky From Kentucky is a barnstorming closer that must go down a storm live with its opportunities for the singers and instrumentalists to add to the energy that is already present on the recorded version. Old Dollar Bill play regularly in the drinking dens of Edinburgh and on the strength of this should be seen well before any ghost tours.
Blabber’n’Smoke first came across this young band from the Borders when they supported The Wilders back in May of last year. Since then they’ve been to the States and now unveil their debut album to coincide with their slots at Celtic Connections. Nailing their colours firmly to the mast Americana music is their thing with bluegrass and string band playing well to the fore. It’s to their credit however that they’ve populated the album with nine originals and not an American song in sight. The one cover is the title song which was written by the late Peebles artist Bryan Begg and it’s of note that this is the second release in the recent past we’ve come across which has been dedicated to his memory (the other being Old Dollar Bill’s Across The Tracks EP).
Much in the way of Old Dollar Bill The Dirty Beggars have drunk from the well of traditional American music to the extent that they can regurgitate songs that sound as if they were whittled out of experience and hard living in the Appalachians and frontier towns. They can deliver lighting fast string driven hoedowns and wearied ballads although they shine best on the latter. Tunnel Light in particular is a splendidly nimble and poignant song with some fine playing and wise words from such a young band. Nashville Wave Goodbye is a great cautionary tale of a would be musician’s life lost in the drinking dens of Music City. With a great chorus and splendid harmonies this could be a hit in that titular town if anyone would listen. Underneath The Sky captures the band playing at their best with all the elements coalescing into a classic song.
Of the faster songs Too Tired (To Work That Farm Today) has a charming country bumpkin lift to it while When The Cockerel Crows skitters along with zest. The band cap the album with a fine and tender rendition of the Beggs’ song Bite The Bullet, a sombre note perhaps but a fine end to what is an excellent introduction to this fine young band.
The Dirty Beggars play Celtic Connections today. There’s a fine interview with them here.
Nashville wave Goodbye
When I wrote about the latest Wilders’ gig in Glasgow I noted that they had appeared here so often recently they were becoming akin to locals. Interesting then that they have indulged in a spot of musical miscegenation, teaming up with Edinburgh duo Old Dollar Bill for this release. Furthermore it’s a bit of a menage a trois as another popular visitor, namely Woody Pines is also involved.
Before we get too confused what we have here is a one track CD single, the title song from the forthcoming Old Dollar Bill album, their second. Before you ask “why should I buy a single with one song that’s going to be on the album anyway?” I’d point out that, in this day and age of digital downloads it’s an actual physical artefact and comes with some very attractive packaging and for the price of a pint is well worth getting.
As for the song itself Old Dollar Bill and the tourists (as they’re described in the notes) spend almost six minutes on a splendidly loose limbed picaresque tale of a “whisky drinking, finger pickin’ bluegrass man.” The bass playing of Nate Gawron and Dobro from Phil Wade certainly fill out Old Dollar Bill’s sound. Woody Pines introduces the song and Stephen Clark and Ike Sheldon swap vocals. Like Hank Williams without the heartbreak it’s good time music and it sounds as if they had a whale of a time recording it. The enthusiasm certainly spills out of the speakers. It’s a tremendous performance and akin to having a jam session in your room.
Available at gigs and here it’s a great opportunity for fans of all three bands involved to get a piece of the action. You can hear it on the Old Dollar Bill MySpace page.
Kansas City band The Wilders are becoming such frequent visitors to Glasgow that going to see them has become almost akin to popping down to your local to see the resident band on a weekend. This was the fourth time this reviewer has seen them in the space of around 18 months and looking around at the audience there were several others obviously in the same boat. Having said that each show has had its own character with the one constant being the fire and occasional ferocity with which they deliver their set. Their last appearance here was at Celtic Connections playing to around a thousand folk in the Old Fruitmarket. Tonight their audience numbered in the one hundred plus but there was no difference in their approach or delivery and the intimacy of the smaller venue added to the connection that many of the audience have with this fine band.
With a new album on the shelves (review following soon) there was a slew of new songs, some of which were previewed at the Celtic Connections show. Having heard the album however one was struck by the impact the live delivery has with a song like L.A., a frenzied enough song on the album delivered in a maelstrom with fiddler Betse Ellis in particular screeching like the proverbial devil’s elbow.
In fact all of the songs from the new album gained impressively tonight, partly perhaps from only a slight listening to the CD but there is no doubt that the Wilders thrive on the stage. Whether delivering tender folk songs such as singer Ike Sheldon’s acclaimed Hi Little Darlin’ and the new album’s bitter sweet This Old Town, the honky tonk reveries penned by Phil Wade or the muscular roots rock from bassist Nate Gawron the difference is akin to that of seeing a favourite movie in high definition for the first time. Spectacular.
Highlights of the show included an inspired rendition of My Final Plea where the band conjured up the ghost of Hank Williams and several “shitkickin” (Ike’s description) hoedowns including their always crowd pleasing Keep my Skillet Good and Greasy.
To encore The Wilders invited the support band, The Dirty Beggars, a fine young crew from Peebles who played a rousing set earlier, to stand in front of the stage and deliver an Old Crow Medicine show song, Wagon Wheel which ultimately was a fine end to a fine night.
This debut album from the Edinburgh based country duo, Old Dollar Bill is a definite progression from their EP Cheap But Sweet released last year. While the EP was composed of Steve Earle covers and songs lifted from Springsteen’s Seeger project here we have a collection of songs all composed by the band themselves. While the Earle influence remains evident (on Friendly Fire for example) they can hold their head high with this offering. For a two-man band (with additional support on piano, accordion and fiddle from friends) they can certainly whip up a storm, guitars, mandolins and banjos whip and flail throughout. Clark carries most of the vocals in a convincing manner while Henry adds just the right touch of percussion with one track in particular, the instrumental Bill’s Ruckus where he thunders away to great effect using a Brazilian Surdo drum and 2 or 3 bass drums.
While there are obvious debts to the likes of Ry Cooder and the Band (Levon Helm in particular) the songs in the main stand up to scrutiny. Romance, booze, the Devil and booze again all feature. Of the drinking songs Me And My Wine is a wonderful boozy waltz while Drink With Me is a particularly tuneful country pop song that one can imagine Gram Parsons could have crooned. Clark’s vocals almost match some of Parsons’ southern nuance with a hint of the Stones’ country leanings and the piano playing (by Neil Pearlman) adds a wonderful honky tonk feel. I Swear I Killed My Liver (Over You), apart from earning points for its wonderful title is a classic country drinking song delivered with gusto. Befitting their urban hillbilly attitude Cousin Kelly is chock full of tasty licks and feisty fiddle playing while Henry’s vocals capture the housing scheme day time TV attitude perfectly. Caroline (The Devil’s Bride) is a tale of a young man humbled when the tables are turned and he feels used and abused by a flighty female. On a lighter note there is the sweet and sour tale of the singer’s admiration for a waitress on Tables For You while the final song Throw in The Towel fires on all cylinders. Clark spits out the words while his mandolin and Dobro spark against each other in a song that the Pogues might have been proud to have penned.
Old Dollar Bill appear regularly in Edinburgh, hopefully they will be over here in the west to see if they can carry these songs off as successfully as they do on the album. Check out Ike Sheldon of The Wilders endorsement on the image above, just about says it all I reckon.
Listen to Drink With Me