National Award for Scottish Singer Songwriter Dean Owens

Dean Owens with Graham Gouldman - AMA-UK 2019Last week The Americana Music Association UK (AMA-UK) held it’s fourth annual  awards ceremony.  Over those four years it’s become a big deal attracting stars such as Robert Plant, John Oates, and the recipient of this years Lifetime Achievement award, Graham Nash. The MC for the occasion was the “godfather” of UK Americana and country, Whisperin’ Bob Harris. So it’s great to relate that the winner of the UK Song of the Year was Scotland’s very own Dean Owens, a lad from Leith who is now the owner of a much coveted “Woody,” a handcrafted wooden facsimile of a 7″ disc, commemorating his win.

The song in question was the title number of his Southern Wind album (reviewed here) which Owens co-wrote with Will Kimbrough in Nashville. Commenting on the award Owens had this to say, “ I’m delighted, it was a complete surprise. As the first Scot to receive an award from AMA-UK, it feels really special, and a huge honour to bring this back to Scotland. Apart from a cup for being Boxer of the Year as a kid, this is the only award I’ve ever won. I’m still in shock to be honest!”

His co-writer chimed in from Nashville to add this regarding the song, “Dean and I wrote Southern Wind in a flurry of creativity. Ideas were flying. I am from so far south that Nashville is eight hours north. Dean is more of a northern man. My Southern Wind calls me to a long left behind home; I like to think that Dean’s Southern Wind calls him South to create in Nashville. The lure of home. The lure of the muse. Both romantic and hard to reach. That’s Southern Wind.”

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The award was presented to Owens at the star studded ceremony in London by Graham Gouldman, a founder of 10CC and writer of some of the most memorable songs of the sixties including Bus Stop which of course, was a hit for Graham Nash back when he was in The Hollies.

The Americana Music Association UK (AMA-UK) is a professional trade association representing and advocating for the voice of American roots music in the UK. Its membership comprises musicians, from the UK and overseas, plus professionals from all sectors of the music industry. https://theamauk.org/Nominees-2019

 

 

Dean Owens. Southern Wind. At The Helm Records

sw-front-coverLaunched at a fabulous live gig at the tail end of Celtic Connections and officially released last week, Southern Wind is the latest instalment in Dean Owens steady rise towards the top echelons of Scots musicians. As with 2015’s Into The Sea, Owens offers up a robust and perfectly formed album, the songs memorable and excellently played, the mix of punchy rock numbers and more introspective ballads over the course of its length finely balanced. And again, as on Into The Sea, Owens delves into his memories and his family for several of the songs while elsewhere he celebrates the joy of rock’n’roll and, significantly, mines the rich seam of Southern music from the States.

Recorded in the same Nashville studio as Into The Sea with the same team on board (Neilson Hubbard, producer and percussion plus bass, piano and “various bits & pieces, Will Kimbrough, guitars banjo, mandolin and Evan Hutchings, drums along with Dean Marold on bass) there’s one change from Owens’ usual habits in that several of the songs are co-written with Kimbrough and, as Owens recently told Blabber’n’Smoke, “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 so they have that sound in their veins.” It’s recognisably a Dean Owens album but that Mississippi mud can’t help but seep into several of the numbers here.

The album opens with Owens’ clarion call to some musical heroes including Ronnie Lane, Ian McLagen, B. B. King and The Waterboys on The Last Song.  Given a delirious folk stomp and sounding like The Faces playing a particularly raucous pub gig it’s a delicious opener and acts almost as a bridge from the last album to the present one. There’s a further reflection of the previous album on Madeira Street, written (as was Evergreen) for Owens’ late sister, another example of how he can vividly cast his memories into song and, going further back, he finally offers his mother her own song, a counterpoint to his salute to his dad on Man From Leith, with Mother, a song co-written with Danny Wilson (from Danny & The Champs) and given a lilting, almost calypso beat along with an early sixties teen crooner charm, a rare ray of light in an album that at times is densely populated with loss and regret. Famous Last Words for example is a love song about the end of love while When The Whisky’s Not Enough is a fine addition to the canon of songs about being in your cups but still feeling pain, a real downer, it’s enlivened with zinging slide work from Kimbrough. Bad News is a slow burner with creeping organ and ominous guitars as Owens warns a woman not to go back to an abusive husband.

Owens has written songs inspired by his friends before but probably none as successful as Elvis Was My Brother where he takes on the words from a friend’s letter which explained that his transient childhood only had one true touchstone which was the Memphis Flash. Here, Owens and the band really excel, the song a wonderfully upbeat slice of rootsy pop with curling guitars and a rhythmic groove which recalls the splendid John Hiatt album, Bring The Family.  Owens was in Amarillo when he heard the news that Muhammad Ali had died. A hero of his since boyhood, he wrote Louisville Lip that night hunkered in his hotel room. The barest song here, just guitar and a mournful trumpet,  it pulls together Owens’ memories of watching Ali on the telly as a kid, an experience which led him to pulling on the gloves in his teens. Sentimental but the sentiment is heartfelt,  here Owens avoids any schmaltz with the song quite tugging actually.

Finally, there’s the Southern issue. The album is replete with swampy keyboards and Kimbrough’s snakelike guitar but Owens really dives into the Kudzu ridden culture on three songs here. Love Prevails, which closes the album, is loosely aligned with Rodney Crowell’s memoir, Chinaberry Sidewalks, as Owens summons up a Waltons’ in reverse, a family who fight and squabble but who are held together by their common bond – a universal theme perhaps but dignified by Kimbrough’s guitar licks and the mournful organ – the end result almost hymnal. His deepest delve into the South finds Owens accompanied by the powerful voice of Kira Small whose magnificent wailing elevates two songs here. The title song opens in a portentous manner with Owens evoking nature over interweaving guitars before thunderous tribal drums approach and Kimbrough unleashes his evil guitar sound. The song thrashes on with the guitar like a twister destroying all in its path until Owens, Small (and The Worry Dolls who were passing by) indulge in an orgy of shamanistic wailing. No Way Round It is prefaced by a very brief snatch of slide guitar and moaning (recalling Ry Cooder’s work in Performance) before its strident riff gets into its stride, pulsing like a heart about to burst as it progresses from a banjo driven skip to full throated guitar solo with Owens a lone soul wailing against nature’s barriers aided and abetted by Small’s magnificent voice which plays a similar role to that of Merry Clayton on The Stones’ Gimme Shelter. It’s an absolute belter of a song with Kimbrough’s guitar solo frenzied and outrageous while the dynamics of the song, the shifts from the banjo motif to squalls of sound are just superb. And, having seen Owens play this live with his Whisky Hearts band, we can confirm that it’s just as thrilling if not more so in a live setting.

Southern Wind finds Owens still proud of his roots in Leith but becoming more adventurous in his exploration of American music. That he can tie both ends of this transatlantic bridge with such confidence and, at times, swagger, is testament to his skill and to his ongoing relationship with his extremely talented American friends. We do look forward to the next instalment.

Website

Rod Picott. Out Past The Wires. Welding Rod Records

12IN_GATEFOLD_JKT_2PKTWhetting our appetite for his upcoming tour of the UK, Rod Picott releases his most ambitious album yet, the sprawling double disc (on CD and also on vinyl!) Out Past The Wires, 22 songs carved from his usual cast of blue collar workers, hard luck losers and folk living on the edge. Picott seems to have been extraordinarily prolific in the last year, the songs on the album whittled down from a long list of 78 to 32 serviceable ones, the ten spare songs expected to surface at some point. In addition he has released a collection of his poetry (God in His Slippers) and is preparing a book of short stories which will expand on some of the characters in the songs here.

Produced by Neilson Hubbard, the album features Picott backed by a studio band which includes Hubbard on percussion along with Will Kimbrough, Evan Hutchings, Lee Price and Kris Donegan with Picott recording his voice and guitar initially before the band set to backing them allowing the fuller band arrangements to rock out with some finesse, a finely nuanced balance of loose limbed spontaneity and excellent playing. There are moments here when they sound like The Faces with the slide guitars on A Better Man particularly reminiscent of Ronnie Wood slashing away while Better Than I Did opens with a Lennon like harmonica trill before the band head into Basement Tapes territory.

With Picott’s more sensitive songs, featuring just him and his guitar with some minimal backing, scattered throughout the two discs, mingling with the full on band songs, there’s no dichotomy between the discs here and, somewhat rare for a double album, no sense that Out Past The Wires would work better as a single disc. Instead it’s a double dose of good medicine with no slump in quality control in sight. He’s by turn joyous and morose, optimistic and pessimistic, angry and resigned. Blanket Of Stars is a beautifully delivered tender song sung by an outsider who’s mother was a teenage bride, his daddy a little bit drunk while Holding On ruminates in a similar manner with Picott in solo folksinger mode, the song grabbing one’s attention just as much as the rockier items here. Dead Reckoning is a perfectly realised love song as is The Shape Of You although here the love is in the past and the singer is drinking away his memories. Alcohol is the devil in Bottom Of The Well, a stark and astute portrait of a descent into addiction but this despair is somewhat redeemed by the following We All Live On, a rare note of optimism from Picott.

It’s a joy to hear Picott and the band gel on songs such as Take Home Pay (one of four co-writes with his buddy, Slaid Cleaves) and Coal which burns with a slowly seething sense of injustice along with a Southern rock swamp vibe while Hard Luck Baby is a rocker in the Mellencamp camp. But the 22 songs here run through a gamut of styles with the common denominator being Picott’s finger on the pulse of today’s America with Hard Luck Baby coming across like a condensed and updated version of The Grapes of Wrath. Overall the album is a triumph with Picott stepping up to the mark throughout and it certainly sets the barrier high for his upcoming shows, a barrier we are sure he will surmount as he’s a seasoned and exceptionally good performer. In addition he’s preparing the companion book with a first sneak peek available here as he fills in the background to Take Home Pay.

Rod tours the UK in March, all dates here

Website

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.

 

 

 

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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Carrie Elkin. The Penny Collector.

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Carrie Elkin’s first solo album since 2011’s Call It My Garden is as diametrically opposed to its predecessor as one could possibly imagine. While Call It My Garden was full of chuckles and the sheer joy of playing The Penny Collector is a sometimes sombre affair. Written within a tumultuous year that encompassed the joyful delivery of her first child and the sorrowful passing of her father Elkin has delivered a meditative collection of songs with a wonderful production from Neilson Hubbard. Paying tribute to her father on several songs along with ruminations and memories, pain and loss and joy intermingled, the album gives full rein to Elkin’s glorious voice while red dirt Austin country gives way at times to an almost chamber folk sound filled with cello, violin and viola. The arrangements throughout are excellent as are the players. Producer Hubbard wields drums and percussion to great effect while Will Kimbrough on guitar is at times spectacular. There’s a heady mix of yearning ballads (at times reminiscent of Emmylou Harris’ best work), evocative American vistas and in the midst of these some sparkling, invigorating and punchy rock.

The album opens with the impressionistic Americana of New Mexico as a plaintive acoustic guitar is enhanced by Kimbrough’s atmospheric sunset squalls, the stage set for Elkins to embark on her voyage from birth to death as she sings, “I can feel the heart beat in everything around me,” her voice echoed by the harmony vocals of her husband Danny Schimdt. There’s a circle of sorts as Elkin closes the album with a similar sonic feel on the crepuscular Lamp Of The Body , the guitars again ethereal and the voices almost hymnal. In between Elkin revisits her youth on the excellent Tilt-A-Whirl which tilts indeed between quiet passages with Elkin recollecting the past and a defiant chorus suffused with the joy of youth. Live Wire is a tale of teenage rebellion with “daddy’s little girl” running off only to find it’s a wicked world and running back home. With an urgent pulse as the song progresses the band capture perfectly the restlessness and confusion of adolescence, the drums propelling the song, lyrical guitars slowing the flow mid song. My Brother Said rings with more confusion amidst an angry beat that is sweetened by a tremendous confection of keyboards and mandolin before a ferocious fuzz fuelled guitar erupts towards the end.

Elkin address directly the grim reaper on the sweeping ballad of And Then The Birds Came,  a song suffused with imagery that captures the emotions of bereavement, a moment of loss but also leaving space for those defiant saviours, memory and hope. It’s a sense that’s carried into the next song, Crying Out, which finds Elkin surveying her situation, hanging on to the blessings in her life, a man to hold, a baby on its way but still able to express her grief safely ensconced in her family.

The Penny Collector is an album of beauty. Wonderfully arranged and played, the songs nuanced, a mature reflection on the mortal coil. The album title came about as Elkin’s father was a coin collector and on his passing the family found his hoard of 600,000 pennies, all lovingly collected and preserved. As she says in the liner notes, “My dad had a way of finding value and delight in the tiny things that other people might walk past,” and Ms. Elkin has immortalised him with this excellent album.

Website

 

Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough. Mockingbird Soul.

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He may not be a household name but it’s a fair bet that most Blabber’n’Smoke readers will have several albums that have benefited from the presence of Will Kimbrough as a player or producer, often both. Included in his extensive CV are Brigitte DeMeyer’s last two albums and the pair have toured together extensively. It makes sense then that the pair have decided to record Mockingbird Soul, a set of songs written by the duo and set firmly in the Southern traditions of country, blues and soul. Their shared playing experience has certainly honed their harmonising with the duet’s singing throughout the album superb and they’ve had the good sense to keep it simple, the majority of the songs featuring Kimbrough’s guitar along with double bass (Chris Donohue) with spare percussion on the odd occasion. The result is an album that will surely delight followers of the likes of Mavis Staples and Ry Cooder along with anyone who is a sucker for well crafted male/female harmonies.

A couple of the songs are relatively straightforward retreads of familiar tropes. The Juke is a country blues number which allows Kimbrough plenty of space for his fine slide playing and excellent harmonica as DeMeyer comes across like an amalgam of Bonnie Raitt and Bobbie Gentry. Running Round is another country blues jaunt that recalls the likes of The Loving Spoonful or Taj Mahal while Honey Bee harks back to the days of innuendo laden viperish jazz torch songs (think of Betty Boop).  DeMeyer milks the song for all it’s worth as Kimbrough adds a wonderfully lazy backbeat. All three are excellent but they are but crumbs in comparison to the main course on offer here.

The album opens with Everything, Kimbrough’s delicate acoustic guitar leading into an enchanting song of enduring love that immediately showcases their vocal empathy. Broken Fences is more spirited with Kimbrough’s voice to the fore on a frontier number with gutsy guitar runs on a song that might have sprung from the pen of Steve Young. There’s some Dr. John like gumbo on the sultry Rainy Day (with Chris Woods taking on the double bass role here with some gusto) and speaking of Dr John New Orleans is the subject of one of the highlights here. An impressionistic take on the Crescent City with Kimbrough’s sole guitar strumming beneath the pair’s breathy vocals, Little Easy is suffused with sensations of the city, the shining stars, reflections on the water, muddy banks and a hot and heavy breeze. It’s a wonderful song and the pair match it with the snapshot of a street seller in Carpet Beggar’s Lullaby, again a song that is delicate and empathetic. The title track meanwhile is a soulful number with Kimbrough picking some fat and curly guitar like Pops Staples as DeMeyer testifies.

The album ends with a surprise as the pair tackle an old Incredible String Band Song from 1966, October Song. A Kimbrough suggestion apparently but one which reminded DeMeyer of Townes Van Zandt when she first heard the guitar part. It’s a breathtaking reinvention of the song transporting it from the cold climes of an Edinburgh winter high into the Appalachians. Kimbrough’s guitar cascades throughout with frills and runs as he and DeMeyer hit some high lonesome notes with their performance here rivalling the best of Gillian Welch and David Rawlings. It’s simply wonderful.

Mockingbird Soul is one of those albums that will surely grow in stature as word of its excellence spreads. Helping to spread the word Kimbrough and DeMeyer are touring the UK in March and the good news is that they visit Glasgow on 24th March for a Sounds In The Suburbs show at a new venue, the Fox Star Club in The Argyll Hotel, 973 Sauchiehall St. A gig not to be missed.

Will Kimbrough website

Brigitte DeMeyer website

 

The Westies/Michael McDermott

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The Westies, a Chicago based outfit fronted by husband and wife Michael McDermott and Heather Horton are named after an Irish affiliated New York gang of the ’60s and 70’s whose home turf was Hell’s Kitchen. Their debut album, released last year was a powerful package of bruised and gritty urban tales which recalled the likes of Springsteen and Willie Niles. Six On The Out very much continues in this vein with McDermott saying, “I was focused on the story, a second instalment. What happens next to these characters?” What happens next is more tales of urban struggle, the outsider trying to fit in, damaged characters with traumatic pasts, physically and emotionally wounded, McDermott gives voice to them all with a grim authority that is partly drawn from his own back story.

As in a Peckinpah movie there is violence galore here but it’s delivered with panache, the blood and guts offered an artistic out, in this case the craftsmanship and, at times, the sheer beauty of the lyrics and music. For the most part there’s a muscular drive to  the songs which vary from pained country styled ballads to blue collar rock, Horton’s fiddle as much to the fore as guest Will Kimbrough’s guitar. The opener If I Had A Gun is a fine scene setter, the protagonist just released from jail straight back into the scene’s that sent him there in the first place.  A sinister piece with lashes of guitar over a slow beat as McDermott huskily narrates it’s dramatic and somewhat unnerving and he repeats this on several other songs on the album with the closing song Sirens  a raw tale of childhood violence, drugs and jail and car wrecks, as dark as the darkest hardboiled American authors.

While the lyrical content is not much lighter the band offer up the Irish influenced The Gang’s All Here, head into Bruce territory on the driving Santa Fe and retell the tale of Billy The Kid on Henry McCarty  (the Kid’s real name). Horton gets to sing lead on Like You Used To Do, a wonderful broken down country waltz, her voice so evocative as she sings about a relationship shattered by her man’s drinking, her voice echoed by a hurting guitar solo. Is it fair to ask that McDermott and Horton consider doing more of this as an album of hurt Heather Horton songs could be a winner.

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In the meantime it’s McDermott who has released a solo album, Willow Springs. Apparently it’s his tenth effort after being signed to a major label back in the early nineties. His bio is refreshingly honest in that, alongside the initial hype of the times, he screwed up, succumbing to booze and drugs,  eventually kind of limping along until he achieved sobriety. A couple of years clean now and with a wife and baby daughter egging him on he is on a roll with two albums from The Westies (along with his wife Heather Horton) under his belt and now this solo album. In fact many of the names on The Westies’ album reappear including Horton, Will Kimbrough and Lex Price and the difference between the albums is at times paper thin. McDermott still reminds one of Springsteen although in this case it’s the Springsteen who reminded folk of Dylan way back in the seventies. Lyrically the albums do differ, Willow Springs still contains its fair share of stories but they’re more opaque than the blood spattered city street tales of Six On The Out and one gets the sense that the romantic losers and redeemed rebels sung about here are McDermott’s way of making sense of his own journey.

While Getaway Car and Half Empty Kinda Guy press the pedal on the E Street highway a little too enthusiastically the opening title song points the finger at Dylan as McDermott fires out the alliterative lyrics with machine gun rapidity as he travels down his own desolation row. The venom at the beginning of the song is eventually supplanted by a sense of hope and the album follows suit almost with its closing songs portraying a man more comfortable in his own skin and able to manage his emotions. In between there is confusion on the brisk These Last few Days, a rebel without a cause on Getaway Car and on the haunting Soldiers Of The Same War casualties build up as folk try to run from their past.

They say before you can get up you have to hit bottom and on Butterfly McDermott paints a grim picture of addiction before seeing a light at the end of the tunnel on Half Empty Kind Of Guy and trepidatiously allowing himself to feel again on One Minus One. On the self mocking Folksinger McDermott is in control and able to poke some fun at the thought of him and Bono sitting on top of their millions and there’s a genuine sense of joy and relief in the sweet and soulful Let A Little Light In, a song that recalls Danny and The Champs country soul with its backing horn section. In the notes for the album McDermott says that in his turbulent years he also had to endure the death of his father and Shadow In The Window is an affectionate tribute to the man who raised him. Switching generations Willie Rain is a delightful ditty dedicated to his daughter (which opens with her saying “I love you daddy”) and it’s delivered with a jaunty country lope. McDermott closes the album with the grand sweep of What Dreams May Come, a powerful and emotive song of hope and dreams that again centres on his father but which also looks to the future. Sung and played with a dignified restraint the song avoids mawkishness and is a fine closing statement on what is a very fine album.

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Rod Picott. Fortune. Welding Records

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Steadily Rod Picott has come up on the inner track to catch up with his better known peers in the school of hard knocks singer/songwriter stakes.  Welding Burns and Hang Your Hopes On A Crooked Nail were very fine albums, Picott weaving blue collar tales with a sense of grit and determination while able also to draw tender portraits of love gone wrong. Fortune builds on the strengths of those albums with Picott attempting to place more of himself into the songs as opposed to his snapshots of the current state of the ragged ass union. Fear not however, this is no exercise in navel gazing as several of the songs here maintain his ability to paint a vivid portrait as on the war widow’s farewell to her dead soldier on Jeremiah and the clattering tribute to the ‘ornery Uncle John.

Recorded quickly as Picott wanted to capture the immediacy of the performances in the studio the album seesaws between his gentler soloish performances and the gutsier band pieces. Here he’s ably assisted by the ubiquitous Will Kimborough on guitars (including oil can guitar!), Lex Price on bass and co-producer Neilson Hubbard (another name that is coming up increasingly) on drums. If there’s a theme to the album (and Picott says that the songs are about the sense of chance) then his view seems to be that we are playing with loaded dice as the players here all seem to be on the losing end. The suitor kneeling before his would be queen on the folky Maybe That’s What it Takes sees his dreams burned down while I was Not Worth Your Love is somewhat akin to a supplicant yelling I am not worthy before an idol not worthy of his praise. In a way Picott is furthering his broken love songs from the Crooked Nail album here, we mentioned back then that Roy Orbison seemed to inhabit the song All The Broken Parts and here Picott again plugs into that raw emotion on Secret Heart, his voice almost a crooner over his delicate guitar and Kimborough’s excellent and refrained shimmerings. Kimborough shines again on the wonderful closing song, Spare Change which, aside from the wonderful playing, captures Picott, the wordsmith, at his best.

There is some rollicking here and some humour. Uncle John “drinks his beer from a can cause bottles break/nine fingers from one mistake.” Elbow Grease has Picott mythologizing his life over a cracking country rock beat (with Kimborough again in fine form) as he recalls his failures and sings on the chorus “How’d a wreck like me even get this far/One more chance is all I need/I got a lucky charm and elbow grease.”  We get some soulful blues on the slinky Until I’m Satisfied and a tremendous rewrite of Hank Williams’ Ramblin’ Man on the apocalyptic and surreal Drunken Barber’s Hand that is somewhat fabulous.

Rod Picott is touring the UK in January and February with a Celtic Connections appearance on 25th January at The Royal Concert Hall. All dates here

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Sam Lewis. Waiting On you. Brash Music

2015 is shaping up to be a bumper year with numerous releases mentioned previously on Blabber’n’Smoke (have a look around, I’m not going to recite them again) looking to settle into the “classic” album status once the dust has settled. Well, here’s another one, a superb collection of soulful country cuts from North Carolina via Nashville musician Sam Lewis. Waiting On You is Lewis’ second album and is the latest chapter in what could be considered a dream come true for this young musician. Apparently he’s yet another of those discovered at an open mic night good luck stories with Nashville producer Matt Urmey spotting his potential a few years back and hooking him up for his first release. Talent will out and if the quality of the backing musicians here is any gauge then Lewis has it in spades.

The album is excellent from start to finish. Lewis flows from country to folk to Southern soul with ease, his voice is a warm honeyed balm, at times recalling the ease of Charley Pride then heading into Dylan Nashville Skyline crooning mode. He gathers up antecedents such as Van Morrison, The Band and Dan Penn with Spooner Oldham and pours them into the songs. His regular band, JT Cure on bass and Derek Mixon, drums are joined by luminaries Darrell Scott, Mickey Raphael, Will Kimbrough and The McCrary Sisters although these are merely the icing on the cake – Lewis and his songs are the stars here.

There are 12 songs and each one is special. There’s the country element, sad and forlorn on Texas which is adorned by Raphael’s signature harmonica sound, down home country blues on Little Time with Kristina Train on backing vocals and dusty honky tonk on I’m Coming Home. 3/4 Time is a jaunty quickstep that funnels Sturgill Simpson into Van Morrison Tupelo Honey territory with some Sun Records action thrown in. Hard to believe perhaps but when the cork was popped on the song these were the aromas that wafted out. Time here to mention the production (by Lewis and Oliver Wood) as the drums and bass are so crisp and there’s a fine snap to the backing vocals, overall the album just sounds great, warm and comfortable.
Lewis dips his toes into soul waters with Waiting On You which actually recalls James Taylor initially before Gabe Dixon’s Wurlitzer piano wades in and The McCrary Sisters envelop the song in a Gospel veil. The McCrary’s feature again on the sublime country soul of Love Me Again which flows wonderfully with a similarity to Dylan’s Tonight I’ll Be Staying Here With You and on the slow burn of Talk To Me while She’s A Friend drives straight to the heart of Muscle Shoals territory with some Stax thrown in for good measure. There’s some bare boned folk blues on Virginia Avenue which has Lewis backed by the nifty resonator guitar picking of Welsh wizard Martin Harley and to top it all there’s a roustabout rock’n’roll jaunt on Things Will Never Be The Same with Garth Hudson rinky dink organ swirlings from Dixon and killer guitar from producer Wood.

A great album, perfect from start to finish and obviously well recommended. Good news is that Lewis is touring the UK in October including a date for Glasgow Americana Festival. Dates are here.

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you can hear some songs from the album here and there’s an interview with the man here