Ben Glover. The Emigrant. Proper Records


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).



Blue Rose Code. And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing


The third instalment of Ross Wilson’s testament to the glories of life and living, And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is a magnificent listen; a collection of songs with a beating heart, flurries of melodies with Wilson’s voice an instrument in itself. There is hurt and heartbreak, emotions that give the album some of its most affecting moments, but above all there’s a sense of celebration, a celebration of just being alive, of seizing the moment. The album title (from The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam), a reminder that life is fleeting so be grateful for each day. Wilson and his cast of supremely talented musicians have crafted an album that dips and soars like a murmuration of starlings offering the listener a myriad of delights.

There’s an organic flow to the album, the songs almost weeping into each other, the opening glimpse of the majestic single, Grateful, here in an abridged state, setting out Wilson’s agenda. Thereafter it’s a thrilling ride through folk and jazz tinged celebrations and wallows, the sinewy bass note that opens the free flowing box of memories that is Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails returning later on the free form closing moments of In The Morning Parts 1 & 2, a nod perhaps to one of Wilson’s heroes John Martyn and his experimentation on songs such as Bless The Weather. In The Morning returns in the guise of Part 3 as the closing song here, this time with Colin Steele’s trumpet leading into Wilson’s closing remarks which are blessed with harmonies from The McCrary Sisters, the Gospel troupe who raised Grateful from the great to the magnificent. There’s a thread here. Musically it’s Wilson’s debt to Martyn and Van Morrison (and if anything there are moments here which recall Veedon Fleece) while lyrically Wilson takes us from his first moments of recovery into his marital breakup and his current sense of purpose.

The billowing breeze of Brave Cedars & Pied Wagtails leads into the confessional My Heart, The Sun, a false dawn of hope, the gentle pummel of percussion and lonely trumpet harbingers of what is to come. Rebecca is a spritely love song with some fine guitar work from Wild Watt Wyatt, a respite of sorts as Wilson then heads into the brokedown palace of Pokesdown Waltz, his naked exploration of his marriage ending, a song that bursts with regret, the words so emotive, the delivery stunning. Steele’s lonesome trumpet and Danny Thompson’s burbling bass introduce the centrepiece of the album, Glasgow Rain, an impressionistic journey though the West End as desolate as watching rivulets of rain running down a window as a storm lashes around you. Here Wilson unleashes his love of jazz and experimental music, trumpet, double bass and piano delicately tracing his voice before swelling into a mild cacophony as John Lowrie’s scattered percussion and Lauren MacColl’s violin join in, a ghostly spoken part here delivered by actor, Ewan McGregor. The music then gradually subsiding into rain swept sound effects with a final farewell from the bass and piano washed away like chalk on a pavement. A song of misery and self loathing with Wilson pleading “I try and I try and I try but I told you darling, I’m no good” it’s elevated into a thing of beauty as his voice trembles and pleads, the repetition and phrasing recalling Van Morrison on classics such as Listen To The Lion and Linden Arden Stole The Highlights. Aside from Morrison the song recalls the work of Robert Wyatt and his collaborations with Michael Mantler and Carla Bley while its rain swept Glasgow vista will also beg comparisons to The Blue Nile.

It’s truly a testament to the wonder of this album that even after the emotional blitz and sonic adventure of Glasgow Rain the listener can be transfixed by the following songs. In The Morning Parts 1 & 2 returns to the spritely breeze of Brave Cedars and Rebecca, the band skipping along with a refreshing spring in their step as Wilson and Wrenne and The McCrary Sisters celebrate a new dawn, the words uplifting as Wilson describes a rebirth of sorts. It’s a joyous song and as it heads towards its dissolution in a welter of bowed bass, skittering keyboards and gliding pedal steel, the vocals just peeking through, there’s an undeniable sense of willing Wilson on,  urging him to carry on and cast his demons aside. The following track, Love, alleviates this concern as he delivers a most tender and affecting paean to Cupid’s arrow, the mournful, almost brass band opening giving way to a song that most recalls the late John Martyn with Wilson sounding at his most vulnerable. The chorus with Wrenne wrapping herself around Wilson’s voice like a bountiful siren is just gorgeous, the band’s playing hypnotic, a song to savour. Favourite Boy is an almost playful aside, a Harry Nilsson like ballad balancing shadow and light, hopeful for the future but with a sense of gloom ever present. Again The McCrary’s are on hand to enhance the song. The curtain draws with the closing In The Morning Part 3, Steele’s trumpet coolly recalling the likes of Miles Davis before Wilson looks to the future over a lonesome picked guitar, the band gradually joining in, fiddle to the fore and The McCrary’s back in the fold for the blossoming swell at the end. The words here, as throughout the album are poetic and inspiring, indeed, had we quoted some of the gems from the album this review would be twice as long. Suffice to say that Wilson here sings, My best days they still lie before me, a sentiment that his very dedicated following will surely subscribe to.

And Lo! The Bird Is On The Wing is an album of import, a personal statement from Ross Wilson which is suffused with a humanity and grace that one generally attributes to a great novelist. Wilson is a rare animal these days, his music vibrates with a life-force sadly missing in much of the music offered to us. On stage he has an uncanny ability to draw an audience into his world, an Odyssey of loss and redemption and the album does capture that. A definite contender here for album of the year.


Paul Brady. The Vicar Street Sessions, Vol. 1. Proper Records

Back in October 2001 acclaimed Irish singer/songwriter Paul Brady managed the amazing feat of selling out a full month of shows in the one venue, Dublin’s Vicar Street. Designed to showcase his career and back catalogue Brady opened up his “little telephone book” and invited some of his showbiz pals to join him with the aim to have at least one guest per night, unbilled. A mark of his standing in the music community the guests included Van Morrison, Mark Knopfler, Bonnie Raitt, Gavin Friday, Sinead O’Connor and a host of others.
14 years later and we have a selection of songs recorded during this auspicious venture with promises of further volumes to come. Volume 1 comprises of 13 songs recorded on various nights, nine of them featuring guest spots. While it was Brady’s show several of the guests perform their own songs with Brady and band backing them while others cover the man’s songs. In such exalted company Brady acquits himself well with the opening I Want You To Want Me expertly performed and a fine example of his song writing which some folk place on a par with Richard Thompson and John Martyn. He closes the album with a fine rendition of Dylan’s Forever Young sharing the vocals with Mary Black, Moya Brennan and Maura O’Connell and eventually the full hall who join in the refrain with the recording actually carrying some of the passion of the night.
As for the guests, Van Morrison, whose announcement is greeted heartily by the audience, sings Irish Heartbeat trading vocals with Brady with the song beefed up by a horn arrangement and ending with some fine scatting from Morrison. Mark Knopfler gets all J J Cale on his slinky and sinister Baloney Again and Bonnie Raitt is on fine form vocally on two Brady songs, Not The Only One and The World Is What You Make It with her slide guitar kicking the band into Little Feat territory on the latter. Curtis Stigers blows into view on his song Don’t Go Far (co-written with Beth Neilsen Chapman) while Ronan Keating (of Irish boy band Boyzone!) appears on The Long Goodbye which fits into the overall sense of capturing the occasion but despite repeated listening it’s a song I could live without, coming across as somewhat bloated in comparison to its surroundings.
There are some intimate moments. Sinead O’Connor’s In This Heart is delivered a cappella with Brady singing along, her reedy warble supported by his slight brogue. It’s the most traditional sounding song on the album reminding us that Brady was once in the forefront of Irish folk music. Similarly stripped back is Eleanor McEvoy’s tale of a missing girl, Last Seen October 9th, with Brady on piano and backing vocals, a chilling song. Top of the class however are Gavin Friday and Maurice Seezer who transform Brady’s Nobody Knows into a twilight zone inhabited by Lou Reed and Nick Cave.
Brady sold around 17 thousand tickets for his month long sojourn and it’s a fair bet that this belated release (and others to come) will be snatched up by a good many of those who attended. With a great live sound the album is engaging throughout and well worth a punt for those who admire Brady or have an interest in the Irish music scene. We’ll certainly be looking out to see what gems are unveiled on Volume 2.


Echo Bloom. Blue

Echo Bloom is a vehicle for Brooklyn based songwriter Kyle Evans whose previous releases have featured an album inspired by German photographer August Sanders. Blue is the first of an intended trilogy described by Evans as “chamber pop (Blue), another country/shoegaze (Red), and classic pop (Green).” The songs on Blue are basically acoustic songs performed on guitar and variously feature bass, piano, organ, banjo, mandolin, glockenspiel, autoharp and percussion. The chamber element consists of arrangements featuring cello, violin, viola and French horn which adorn several songs. Most striking however are the vocals as Evans possesses a potentially great voice, cracked and rough hewn, stuffed full of emotion it can be tender or tough. He surrounds this rough diamond of a voice with a brace of singers who offer a choral accompaniment or duet with him and the end result is sometimes spectacular.
Added to this Evans turns out to be a very fine songwriter and some of the moments approach the summit of the likes of Van Morrison at his best. The lyrics of Firecracker are brief but encapsulate a moment so well as he sings
“On the streets of the Capitol the fireworks echo and bloom flowering down into red and then green and then blue and for a second I could see your face near In that moment of light I saw a tear on the side of your cheek you leaned you head onto my shoulder and whispered to me “How’s life so beautiful, and yet so brief?””
Evans surrounds these words with a great arrangement that swirls and eddies under the vocals, a piano plays a stately solo and he ends up scatting just as Morrison might do if this were on Veedon Fleece. It’s not an isolated moment as all of the nine songs here all have flashes of brilliance to them. The opener Annunciation is done acapella and introduces us to Evans’ voice and those of his fine collaborators ( Aviva Jaye, Zachary Stains, Brian Mummert, Steve Sasso, Monica Jo Montany and Kate Vargas). Cedar Beach is a fantasy encounter with a ghost from the sea with bucolic strings and wind and on listening to this I was reminded of the recent album by Birds of Chicago as vocally they inhabit similar territory. Water and the elements feature heavily in many of the songs and The Flood adds an almost biblical dimension while The Returning Of The Doves has allusions to the Noah myth. A remarkable song Doves starts with an acoustic guitar before the band kick in and build to a climax with apocalyptic electric guitar thrashing standing in for a furious mother nature.
Having heard this I really can’t wait to hear the rest of this proposed trilogy and I’d suggest that you grab the opportunity to listen to and download some of the songs the band offer for free on their website before you are compelled to buy the album. On a local note we were impressed that the video for Fireworks was shot on Bute. Hopefully they’ll visit Scotland again sometime soon.


Echo Bloom – Fireworks from Echo Bloom on Vimeo.

Kevin Doherty. Seeing Things

A member of exuberant Irish folk group Four Men & A Dog, Kevin Doherty has had a fertile solo career running in tandem with his band work. He’s recorded with Levon Helm and Rick Danko and been described as a “Donegal Leonard Cohen.” Seeing Things is his fourth solo affair and immediately one can hear the reason for the Cohen comparison on the opening song, To Begin and on the excellent I’m Going Now which begs comparison with Cohen circa New Skin For The Old Ceremony. However it’s unfair to labour this point as throughout the album Doherty shows kinship with such excellent tunesmiths as Harry Nilsson, Paul McCartney, Randy Newman and, going back a century and a half, Stephen Foster. Although there’s a slight brogue in his voice there’s little to suggest that this is the work of an Irishman (musically I mean, lyrically it’s loaded with the Emerald Isle) and there’s nary a sight nor sound of a fiddle, banjo or bodhran. In their place we get a suite of intimate songs which drizzle out of the speakers like snowflakes, gently fluttering and caressing as they fall. With some excellent string arrangements by Michael Heaney the album is bare boned with guitar, piano and occasional accordion the primary instruments while Doherty’s fine vocals are supported on two of the songs by Charley Webb (of the Webb Sisters) and Lise O’Neill. As for the words Doherty is a great writer with a poet’s touch and almost every song has an arresting or striking lyric contained within it while there are nods and allusions to Dylan Thomas, John Donne, James Joyce, Paul Bowles and in the title song Seamus Heaney. Doherty’s online notes on the songs are especially worth reading.

With the exception of I Wish I Was On A Train which sounds somewhat underdeveloped all of the songs here are almost perfect examples of the songwriter’s craft. The miniature morning song of To Begin, the tender Latin American tinged Esplendido Corazon, the Cohanesque (sorry) Rambling Irishman would deserve attention anywhere. Doherty however excels himself on two songs that elevate the album into a contender for the annual best of lists at the end of the year. The title song Seeing Things opens with the arresting line “We’re slamming through clouds in a loud piece of shining steel” as Doherty slides into a wine fuelled reverie on a flight. The baleful horn and gentle backing support the song like billowing clouds. New York City (Going Back) has a subtle laid back organ groove with some muted horn and is an impressionistic report on meetings and encounters in the Big Apple with Philip Roth and John Henry offered walk on parts. So far we’ve avoided mentioning Van Morrison but Doherty’s vocal manner and lyrics here recall Morrison’s as Doherty slips oh so easily into the big feller’s stream. A magnificent song.

The Chilli Dogs. “On A Roll”

There was a movie years ago called “Support Your Local Sheriff” and I’m sure that over the years there have been numerous “support your local band” slogans thrown around. Well, here’s our turn to hold that banner high. While gig going and seeing your heroes on stage is as fine a thrill as can be had there’s much to be said for having a local band that you can drop in on and depend on for a fine night of well played and well selected songs. Cover versions perhaps but played with dexterity and a finely honed sense of homage to the masters. Best heard in a bar, an indulgence for the band (who probably all have day jobs) and for the audience (for whom beers will flow) but ultimately all part of the musical mindscape that folk who read blogs like this inhabit.
The Chilli Dogs are one such conglomeration. They dwell on the classic Americana songbook (folk, blues, jazz, country, singer songwriter, L.A. canyon rock and all points between) and can usually be seen and heard in the folk and drinking dens of Edinburgh. Back in the days they would be so local as to be only available to local folk but due to the wonders of digital recording they’ve unveiled an album that shamelessly exposes them to the wider world, to their credit they avoid blushes and display their wares with a flourish.
Recorded in a living room the album features ten Chilli Dogs in various permutations on 15 songs written by artists as varied as Lowell George, Blind Blake, The Grateful Dead, John Prine and Sonny Boy Williamson. The basic sound is acoustic, string based music although there is some fine electric guitar from Jonathon Hearn. Fiddles blaze, guitars resonate and slide, accordions wheeze and over all this lead vocals are swapped from song to song. In fact the varied menu does its best to approximate a gig set list so that one minute you’re in Louisiana Cajun country and the next grooving to a nasty Chicago blues groove. With the opportunity to flesh out the bones of their acoustic pub sets there are some fine touches such as the organ on Help Me and the revivalist tent sounds on The Old Purple Tin, a tremendous demon drink sound (originally by The Alabama 3). With the majority of the songs covered here familiar to anyone with a decent record collection The Chilli Dogs don’t claim to improve on the originals but there’s no denying the sense of fun and joy they’ve had recording this. Songs like Before I Grow too Old, a Fats Domino song but here using the Tommy McLain arrangement from the tremendous Charlie Gillet compilation Another Saturday Night, show that they know their stuff. The best is the closing arrangement of No More Cane on the Brazos where the whole ensemble join in the singing bringing a fine little album to a fine end.
The album is a perfect souvenir for anyone who catches the band live and in the spirit of the opening sentence above well recommended for anyone wanting to support some local musicians. The album is available at their gigs, the next one at the Royal Oak this Thursday. Alternatively you can download it

No More Cane On The Brazos

Ciara Sidine. Shadow Road Shining

Dublin songwriter Ciara Sidine’s debut album Shadow Road Shining is a fine example of a writer taking a genre, in this case Americana (a broad church I’ll admit), and adding some local colour. Here the colour is undoubtedly of a Celtic hue. Aided and abetted by a crew of Irish session players including Steve Wickham (Waterboys, violin) and Justin Carroll (Van Morrison, keyboards) her songs are for the most part warm and comforting, cosseted by Carroll’s Hammond organ while Wickham’s violin adds a folky tilt best heard on the lilting The Arms of Summer. The folk roots are well displayed again on Constellations High where she duets with Jack Lukeman on a maritime tale. The meat of the album however resides in the songs which delve into the American south with the Muscle Shoals sound appearing to be an influence typified by the slow burning keyboards and guitar playing of Connor Brady. Mercy Moon has an earthy feel with churning guitar and even a hint of Fleetwood Mac’s Christine McVie. Hollow the Breeze is less successful in its attempt to capture that southern feel but all is redeemed by Sweet Breath On A Lonesome Flame. Here Sidine succeeds admirably in marrying her folk side to a southern groove, a beautiful song.

Sweet Breath On A Lonesome Flame