BATHED IN COMFORT
Americana Labelled With Love From England and San Francisco.
The story begins the day after 43 year old Ex-Patriot Yorkshireman Steve saw Chuck Prophet in concert and began ruminating on some songs he had written and on a whim he forwarded them to Mr Prophet for his consideration. Much to the songwriter’s surprise Chuck responded by inviting him over to San Francisco to record said songs alongside the Mission Express…..yep; really.
Six of these songs were recorded over those few days with the intention of releasing them as an EP; but Chuck and the band liked them so much Steve was invited back in early 2016 to write and record a further 4 songs that would ultimately make up this album.
Intrigued? Well; read on……
At this point I desperately tried to forget the Chuck Prophet connection as opening song Rosalie bears no resemblance to anything I’ve heard from him……but why would I? This is Steve Gardner’s album and Prophet et al are just helping out in the background. This opening track conjures up memories of Chris Difford and Glenn Tilbrook’s post Squeeze solo outings; a quaint English Folk Rock/Americana hybrid that just oozes quality from every groove.
As everyone knows I’m a sucker for a good love song and quite a few are included here; the dark relationship breakdown of a torrid affair that is described in I Can’t Walk Away is truly heartbreaking and delicately told from the male protagonists point of view; and the dark Murder Ballad Take Me Down is worthy of Nick Cave.
What Would I Do is a bit ‘wordy’ at times, but on the other hand is a gorgeous love song shrouded in a velvet fog of longing for the woman he’s in danger of taking for granted…….a scenario many of us live out each day, and Steve Gardner puts the sentiment I feel so eloquently into words and music.
Who among us could resist a song called Peter The Astrophysicist? Hmm; so it’s just me is it? Well it’s certainly a bit quirky as Peter dances around the world looking ‘for a wife’ but hey…..we all need a little bit of quirkiness in our lives don’t we?
Back to Mr Prophet; it’s easy to see why this self-confessed lover of British music would fall in love with the 2 1/2 songs that tie for the title of RMHQ ‘Favourite Song’…….The Fall of Lance Gardino is a tale of a one time Rock Star now selling vinyl on a market stall and ‘Raising Hell on a Thursday at the karaoke/singing a selection of his own hits.’ Amazingly well constructed and the Mission Express do what they do better than most other musicians behind Gardner’s droll flat Northern vocals.
Two and a half ‘songs’ you ask…..well the other song appears twice; first as a traditional Pop-Rock toe-tapper and then at Chuck’s insistence in a Country guise…….The Day The The Aliens Saved The World is a wonderful tongue in cheek A-Political song that may or may not have a semi-religious sub-plot; or not as the case may be……but I bloody love both versions.
What more can I say; this has been joy from start to finish and owes a whole lot more to the likes of English Pop Royalty Squeeze, Prefab Sprout and especially Nick Lowe than it does our favourite San Franciscan and given a good tail wind I can imagine several of these songs being played on Radio 2 or any of the cooler TV 30 Something shows.
Released 20th May 2017
A Different Thread
HIGH TIME EP
Quintessential English Folk But With an Appalachian Heartbeat.
Yet again this is a release that has been sitting in the to-do queue for a few weeks and was brought to my attention via the ‘random button’ on my i-phone.
Thankfully that track wasn’t the actual first one on the CD, Banjo Tune because; and not for the first time……I’m currently suffering from ‘Banjo Fatigue’! With Americana music currently ‘on trend’ I receive a few albums that appear to be either Folk or even Rock; with a banjo welded onto the recording to give it ‘authenticity’ which doesn’t do my ears any favours.
While the banjo does feature strongly on the song of the same name; mercifully singer Robert Jackson’s richly distinctive voice carries a rather sweet song along a path normally trodden by one of my heroes Tom Paxton.
Very much on the Appalachian Folk end of the Americana Spectrum A Different Thread deliver a series of lovely and warm songs like Cherry Tree and Long In The Tooth which belies the trio’s distinctly Middle England roots.
With only 5 songs on this EP those previous three are each delightful in their own ways; but the other two songs stand out like poppies in a field of corn.
The first, High Time made me smile as soon as I saw the title because it’s the same as a favourite song in my teens by Detroit proto-punks The MC5; but this song is 359 degrees away from tat madness.
A gorgeously crafted and written song features some darkly melancholic cello by Isaac Collier and intricate guitar playing by Jackson himself while Alicia Best’s subtle fiddle playing will break the hardest of hearts.
Then it behoves me to say that they have kept the best until last; with the bittersweet love song Sweet Elizabeth. Like a fine red wine, it conjures up the heady flavours of Led Zeppelin and even the Allman Brothers (without the electric guitars or drums) as well as the rich aroma of Richard Thomson and my personal favourite Bert Jansch; while very much creating their own distinctive sound.
Whether in a club, pub or even your own home this is the type of music best heard with the lights down low and your hopes set high.
released 15th September 2017.
Bloodshot – 13 Days of Xmas (2017)
A Fairytale of Chicago With Extra Special Presents.
Discovering Bloodshot’s compilation albums 20 years or more ago was my gateway to what is now known as Americana Music; but back then was called Insurgent Country; and I still kinda like that name.
Never shy at celebrating Public Holidays with the release of a new record; this year they have pulled an oddball collection of Bloodshot acts and assorted friends together to celebrate Christmas and it’s as cool and crazy as you’d hope and expect.
I hadn’t checked the track list the first time I played this (a sunny November morning btw!) and I would have sworn opening track O Holy Night was the Pride of Sheffield Richard Hawley; such is the dry and droll way the vocalist delivers the words; but no…..it’s actually Murder by Death; and rather beautiful in a dark manner.
Track #2 was a giveaway as soon as I heard that sexy baritone declare “I’m Papa Barrence!” Who else could it be but the one and only Barrence Whitfield and the Savages; and it’s an absolute doozy.
Brand new Bloodshot signing Ruby Boots makes her label debut with a very sexy I Slept Through Christmas; and I now can’t wait for the release of her new album in the new year.
Old Bloodshot hands Jon Langford, Ha Ha Tonka, Dex Romweber and Devil in a Woodpile all make Seasonal appearances with a variety of attitudes towards the Festivities; but it’s the newcomers that have caught my attention.
James Elkington’s Christmas Is Now Drawing Near sounds like he’s been listening to a lot of John Martyn and Nick Drake; whereas Zach Schmidt goes for Country 1:01 with I’m Drunk Again This Christmas but the biggest surprise of all is Ron Gallo doing a straight version of White Christmas albeit with a pedal-steel in the background.
There are three serious contenders for the title of Favourite Song; could it be RMHQ darlings The Yawpers with Christmas in Oblivion; an almost Lo-Fi observation on the times we live in; or is it the prison melodrama How To Make Gravy from All Our Exes Live In Texas (who I REALLY need to hear more of) or will it be the woman I’ve had a crush on for 17 years? Yup…it’s Miss Kelly Hogan and the delicate Christmas love song, Blue Snowfall.
As you’d expect with a Compilation some songs work better than others; but sometimes it’s a matter of personal taste but the best of these tracks are among the very best Christmas songs you will hear this; or any other year.
Released November 17th 2017
PCP (Popa Chubby Productions).
Cool 21st Century Schizoid Blues From the Bronx.
Popa Chubby is one of those names that has skirted around my radar for several years now; but I don’t think I actually own a note of music by him; until now.
While intrigued, because I’ve read some very positive reviews of his previous albums by people I really respect; I was a bit nervous about what I would hear; as I held the Gangsta style cover in my hands.
Thankfully I needn’t have worried one iota as some very fluid Blues guitar poured from the speakers before Popa’s deep and Soulful voice soared behind it on the attention grabbing opening song It’s Alright.
Popa Chubby is certainly steeped in ‘The Blues’ but his references are a lot more modern with elements of Jimmy Vaughan coming through on Pre-Existing Condition and Chubby’s Boogie could easily be a great lost Freddie King tune; but what excites me most is the way Chubby channels the Funky ghosts of Hendrix and Prince without ever sounding like either on Me Won’t Back Down and the sultry instrumental Clayophus Dupree as well as the silky guitar licks on a couple of other tracks too.
But, first and foremost Popa Chubby is a 21st Century Bluesman with his own distinctive styling that can best be heard on Shakedown, Sam Lay’s Pistol and the title track Two Dogs which is as low down and dirty as the Blues gets without the Police being called.
Before I get to ‘my favourite track’ my copy of the album contains two fascinating Bonus Tracks; both recorded live and both covers and both show Popa Chubby’s great taste and love of good music rather than just retreading tired old staples; Sympathy For The Devil is so intense you fear it may snap in half; and the inclusion of a near 10 minute re-interpretation of Hallelujah is simply stunning from start to finish.
But we jump back to the beginning for my ‘Favourite Track,’ Rescue Me is a fairly simple and timeless ‘four to the floor’ Boogie-Stomp; but there is also something really special and magical about the dirty guitar and the way Chubby sings will really tear at your heartstrings.
So after all these years and numerous albums I’ve finally discovered the Musical Box of Delights that is Popa Chubby; and I’m now going to spend a fortune buying up his back catalogue!
Released 27th November 2017
Wow! By sheer coincidence I was bored and trolling through local venue What’s On guides when I saw the legendary Eric Burdon is playing our Hometown City Hall, Newcastle in June 2018 and within two clicks of my computer mouse I stumbled on this wonderful version of the Buffalo Springfield ‘classic’ For What It’s Worth……
Over to Eric……..
“The whole idea of recording this song came as a result of a conversation I had with a young fan backstage, when she asked me, “Where are the protest songs today?” Right then and there, I wanted to write something about the brutality that’s going on in the world today but I couldn’t find any better way to say it than Buffalo Springfield did in “For What It’s Worth”.
“The music I love was created by the sons and daughters of slaves. My life’s work has always been about honouring those people who suffered and thus, created a language of peace and salvation through music.”
“Everything we believed in during the ’60s, everything people fought and died for, is being jeopardised today”.
Deep, Dark and Often Poetic American Folk Songs.
Just like buying a house, the adage of “Location, location, location” can be used when discovering new music.
Last week Mrs. Magpie was seriously ill in hospital for over two weeks (out and recovering now btw) and on the third night it was cold, damp and very dark as I fired up the car for the journey home; and probably because the mono cover art was very dank and depressing I slid this disc into the car stereo.
As an almost Native American howl filtered out of the speakers I clipped the seat belt into place, and thirty minutes later I was still sitting in the car park almost breathless and with tears streaming down my face.
Obviously my circumstances that night dictated my mood; but the beautiful bleakness of the Winterlings latest album certainly played its part that night; and subsequent nights over the next week.
The duo of Wolff Bowden and Amanda Birdsall share vocal duties; and occasionally harmonise in a way I’ve not heard as good since I first discovered Handsome Family; but without the quirkiness.
Songs like Gold, Owl Mountain and Puget Sound have a distinctive cool and razor-sharp Canadian feel to them; which is where many of the songs here were written, but the couple are 100% USA with Bowden hailing from Florida, not that you would know it from the brittle way these songs are sung.
I guess the Winterlings are at the Folk end of the Americana spectrum; but it’s the end inhabited by the acoustic Neil Young, Gordon Lightfoot and Joni Mitchell in the way they too inhabit their songs with sincerity and emotionality; World To Change and Birthplace are prime examples of songwriters with a poets soul.
When it comes to choosing a favourite track for you, I have to jump back to the first two songs; the title track American Son which is simply stunning in the way its constructed, the subject matter and the mostly the way the couple weave their incredible voices together over an intense acoustic back beat.
But; and it’s actually an easy selection the accolade goes to that opening track which totally caught me unawares; The Ghost of Leonard; a tale of Bowden being visited by the Ghost of Leonard Cohen while deep in meditation…….. and I’m not sure I’m going to hear a more compelling opening line than “Lit my body like a cigarette/when I was young/and dreamed of death/your poems fell like ash.”
Much like the duos name, The Winterlings and AMERICAN SON is very much an album for the long, dark and dank nights of Winter and if like me you like the deeper and more ethereal end of Folk Music you will love this album.
Released November 1st 2017
IF ALL I WAS WAS BLACK
A 21st Century Soul Classic.
In the week my home city of Newcastle in NE England is celebrating a full year commemorating the Rev’d King being awarded the Freedom of our City 50 years ago in 1967; and a speech he made condemning the racism that blighted his home country, one of the most famous names in Soul Music Mavis Staples is releasing an album of powerfully political songs on the same heinous subject that still plagues America.
Is it wrong to use the word ‘beautiful’ to describe the opening song Little Bit? Possibly but it most certainly is beautiful, in a tragic way that Ms. Staples tells her tale of a young black person’s woes in travelling at night.
To some degree it’s difficult for me, as near 60 year old white man in the North of England to truly understand where the writer is coming from with songs like Peaceful Dream and the amazing title track If All I Was Was Black; but as a working class man with a Social and Socialist conscience I can sympathise and even empathise with every ounce of passion and indeed L-O-V-E that Mavis Staples oozes across every second.
There’s a restrained anger on more than a couple of songs, which is no surprise to anyone who has watched the TV News over the last couple of years; yet on Try Harder, No Time For Crying and especially Build a Bridge Mavis shows great compassion and hope for the future in a way that pulls at the heartstrings but makes you really, really think too.
It’s possibly because I’d been listening to this album on the day I visited 3 photography exhibitions as part of the Freedom City Celebrations; but one song here captured my attention above all others; Peaceful Dream is a Gospel infused acoustic Folk Song which paraphrases Dr. Kings most famous speech but is so damn infectious it had me shuffling my feet and desperately wanting to punch the air with a clenched fist!
I’ve no idea what’s happening in the Hip-Hop culture but this album and Otis Taylor’s Fantasizing About Being Black from earlier in 2017 both show there is a valid place in contemporary music for a Black Protest Album; especially when they are of the quality of these two.
Jeff Tweedy’s production is both flawless and sensitive throughout; turning a potentially ‘angry’ set of songs into a glorious rallying call for not just Social Change but Peace, Love and Understanding too.
Released November 17th 2017
The Vietnam War (Soundtrack)
A Snapshot Of a Time That Changed Our Lives and The World.
Does the world need another compilation of 60’s Rock and Pop music? Hardly; and much like you I probably already own 90% of the songs on this double album; so why bother RMHQ reviewing it?
Well; this album is the Soundtrack to Ken Burns and Lynn Novick’s amazing 10 part BBC documentary on the Vietnam War; starting with the build up and ending (I think) with the aftermath and re-building; and talking to people that were involved from every perceivable side and these songs are used to set the scene for some key parts.
With that in mind I’ve tried to clear my brain of any preconceptions and listen to the songs as if they were brand new to me; as they were to the teenagers in the 1960’s who were either being drafted and fighting a seemingly never ending war in a country they couldn’t find on a map; or the ones left at home in America protesting against it.
Put into that context Dylan’s A Hard Rain which opens proceedings on Side #1 is mind-blowing and when you listen carefully…..bloody hell……it’s still relevant in 2017!
This is followed by a Country song that I’d not heard before, Hello Vietnam written by Tom T Hall and sung by Johnnie Wright. WOAH……what a brave song to write and release in 1965; just two songs in and you realise that this compilation is really quite special.
Normally I would have expected to hear We’ve Gotta Get Outta This Place by the Animals; but here we get It’s My Life a far more intimate and intense song and is perfect for the portion of the film it’s included in.
An album like this is bound to have plenty of ‘obvious tracks’……but hearing the Staple Singers with Masters of War sent a tingle down my spine, and Nina Simone growling Backlash Blues is worth the entrance fee alone.
There are plenty of what went on to become Classic Rock tracks like Are You Experienced, Strange Brew, Piece of My Heart, Magic Carpet Ride and Gimmee Shelter; but when juxtaposed with Ain’t Too Proud to Beg, The Thrill is Gone and Otis smouldering with rage on Tell The Truth you get a whole new objective on what have become commercial pop songs on Gold Radio stations.
As well as the three Bob Dylan inclusions, a key part of the documentary is the recounting of the riot at Ohio State University and Ohio by CSN&Y is the actual cornerstone of this magical double album.
I will repeat myself by saying the difference between this release and all others is context; and the way the second album closes should and will bring a tear to your eyes and a shiver down your spine; as Ray Charles sings America The Beautiful followed by Marvin singing What’s Going On, then Simon & Garfunkel’ Bridge Over Troubled Water leads us into Let It Be by the Beatles.
For days now I wasn’t going to choose a ‘favourite song’ but I keep getting drawn back to Pete Seeger singing Waist Deep in the Big Muddy; which was surely never ever played on the wireless but must have struck a dark chord with American soldiers of all colours and religious persuasions.
Not only, but also the accompanying booklet is as fascinating as the music itself; and even though I am only half way through the actual series I can’t recommend it too highly; but I’ve learnt so much about the background to this key part to my life than I ever expected after all this time; and the music is well worth seeking out too.
PS There’s another double album out to run alongside this with the Original Score written and played by Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross too.
Released September 15th 2017
Rollin’ With It
This is the latest release from Australian John McNamara and is as fine a mix of contemporary blues and soul as you’ll find outside of any extensive Stax/ Motown collection.
It’s made up of Six John McNamara originals plus covers of songs you’ll be more familiar with by Little Willie John, Bobby Bland and Otis Redding.
First listen to tracks tells you that John McNamara is no newcomer. He’s played with the best of Australian musicians, not sure what that tells you but he’s also played to great acclaim across Europe, Japan and South-East Asia. On this particular outing he’s teamed up with the best that Memphis has to offer.
Wild Out There is a mid-paced romp through a ‘guy who’s done his girl wrong, A turns up on her door after the city has spat him out and reminds her it’s ‘Wild Out There’. There’s no mistaking his blues heritage in everything from his vocal phrasing through to his stinging guitar lines. Back this up with some crazy horn stabs and this could have come straight from any of my 60’s soul albums.
It’s a cover; but certainly none the worse for that, making it ‘nice’.
For the track Security I have to declare a personal interest. I have been an Otis Redding fan since I could shout R-E-S-P-E-C-T and normally head for the hills at the merest mention of a cover version of any track associated
with the great man; but, and it’s a big BUT, this is ok. I think there’s something in the ethos that you should only cover a song if you can bring something new to it, but sometimes, if it’s a real standard
like this, I like to hear a respectful version, and John McNamara does this in spades.
If he’s been saving this vocal performance for one song, he chose that right one. There are some covers that transcend the originals, think Wilson Picket’s Hey Jude! Al Green with To Sir With Love or Rod Stewart and Handbags &
If you’ve got Steve Potts (Booker T & The MG’s), Michael Toles (Bobby Bland, The Bar-Keys), Lester Snell (Albert King, Isaac Hayes) and the cream of Memphis soul/blues studio musicians you can reasonably expect a great album….and that’s what you get.
One for repeat plays.
Review by Tony Pearce
Released 21st May 2017
You’ve Been Away So Long
Boston singer/songwriter Alice Howe’s reference points lay in 60’s folk and 70’s Southern Californian style; not just her penmanship but also in her approach to her songs. Part Joan Baez and part Joni Mitchell (Blue period).
This 5 track EP showcases her wistful style with some fine songs. The title track You’ve Been Away So Long, as you might imagine, is a call to her ‘darling, who’s been away so long’. She avoids the obvious clichés of comparing a missed loved one with missed birthdays, summers alone or long walks alone and instead, talks of the shores and, mountains and how the trees have grown since her loved one has been gone. Special mention at this point goes to Jeff Fielder who is handling practically everything that is either plucked or strummed.
Homeland Blues is the track that is getting plenty of airplay at the moment; with that man Jeff Fielder providing some tasteful Dobro that supports Alice Howes finger-style acoustic playing. It’s a twist on the old “Woke up this morning, Grandmama had them too,” it’s a familiar story of someone looking forward to the day that they can book their ticket home, but with no mention of the person she’s singing to going with her. Are they coming with? Is it a single trip? The press release will tell you it’s a driving, fingerpicked blues, but it’s not. It’s a delightful variation on a straightforward 12 bar and all the better for it.
On Make A Fool Out Of Me Hard it’s hard not to warm to the opening lines “When you hit your stride on a Monday night at a half empty bar downtown”. It’s a gentle country waltz about arriving in the Hollywood hills with no prospects and no promises. It’s possibly this track that we best hear Jeff Fielders 1920 Gibson L-1 archtop providing the sweet picked lines, supporting and not intruding on the tale of lessons learned and experienced gained.
Courtesy or Guest Reviewer TONY PEARCE
Released 21 August 2017