Using Everything in the Country Music Arsenal to Woo You Into Total Submission
Scanning through my ‘to do’ list the name jumped out me; and sure enough Stephen Flatt actually is related to Lester Flatt, he of Flatt & Scruggs; and yep ……. he’s actually a long lost Great Nephew; but that matters not a jot here, as he is very much his own ‘man’ without ever really drawing on that legacy, no matter how tenuous. Stephen’s rich and expressive baritone comes at you like a ‘sucker punch’ on opening track Brother. Even the first time you hear this song you will imagine a sepia tinted video with a homestead, a sunset and a beat up old wagon somewhere ‘in shot’; but don’t think that this is Country by Numbers; far, far from it ….. Flatt uses that template exceptionally well; but isn’t afraid to ‘colour outside the lines’ when necessary. I’m smiling as I type; because to me, this is Good Ole Country Music, the type you want to hear on the car stereo or on a Thursday night at a Roadhouse on the edge of town; before the big hitters come in on the weekend ….. it sure ain’t what you will hear or see on the Awards Programmes. The pedal-steel cuts through many songs like metaphor for a knife carving out a still beating broken heart; none more so than when Flatt’s voice sounds like it’s on the edge of breaking during Logan Creek; not your ordinary heartbreaker; but one with a delicious twist that slowly unfurls. Oddly enough, there is a good ole Bluegrass toe-tapper here; White County Shine; and it’s really rather bodacious and I imagine it will come late in the set when played live; as it’s a sure fire floor filler. The more I’ve played this album; the more I feel that Stephen Flatt sounds and writes a bit like a young Vince Gill; while no doppelganger the Master’s fans are going to love One More Time (based on the moonshine theme, updated to reflect running meth when “the boy’s got a batch cooked” to finance a better life.), Gone Away and the rather swoonsome Hold You Tonight; so if you know a Gill fan …… give them a nudge in this direction. Like so many of his generation, Stephen has a musical background outside the Country Music world; but he’s finally been drawn into the fold; and to some extent it takes a life of experiences to be able to write a song like Talking Like The Devil and deliver it in a way that makes the listener think …… “We have all been there!!!! “ That song is probably the most commercial here; but I’ve decided to go in a different direction for my actual Favourite Track; it although the judicious use of fiddle and mandolin means El Camino (1965) usually means that the its a Bluegrass tune; which is probably where it started ….. but it builds and builds until it’s nothing short of being a Honky-Tonking, Country and Western song that uses every thing in the arsenal to dance you into total submission ….. and I absolutely love it. To some greater level; this is a solo album where Stephen Flatt is finding his feet; but none the less it’s a cracker and well worth checking out.
Sturgill Simpson Cutting Grass Vol 2: The Cowboy Arms Sessions High Top Mountain Records
A Reworked Collection That Deserves Mainstream Radio Play
After the success of the first volume in the series, Sturgill Simpson returns to his own back catalogue once more; and re-envisages it through a bluegrass glass. Again, the personnel on the recordings is stellar – Mike Bub, Stuart Duncan, Sierra Hull and Tim O’Brien are just four names that are all over this. As might be expected the playing and recording quality are top notch. This time, the choice of cuts from Simpson’s back catalogue are generally a little deeper, but that doesn’t affect the quality of what’s on offer. Things are kicked off with the rapid “Call to Arms”, played at a pace that could give Trampled by Turtles a run for their money. “Brace for Impact (Live a Little)” is taken at a more reflective pace and its atypical (for traditional Bluegrass) chord changes keep it melodically interesting. “Oh Sarah” is straight out catchy and has great crossover potential too – definitely ‘Mainstream’ radio friendly. “Sea Stories” starts with old-timey fiddle and is Sturgill Simpson framed in a similarly styled melodic singalong, whereas “Hero” is of a similar pace and there’s also a tuneful sensibility about it that makes it eminently hummable. The oddly titled “Welcome to Earth (Pollywog)”starts in reflective mode and then kicks off at the midway point – this version is to these ears, is much more affecting and tender than the original. From a song about his son, to the son of God, the next track “Jesus Boogie” is an old Sunday Valley song but is miles away in tone from the original cow-punk thrash, starting as an acoustic slow-picked gospel tinted rendition, this time around before becoming a rumbling banjo and flat-picked guitar workout. “Keep it Between the Lines” is an early 70s Dylanesque take with a stop-start Bluesy edge. The tempo picks up again on “You Can Have the Crown” which lyrically plays to the “Old and in The Way” bluegrass-jam band crossover crowd with its name dropping of “I’ve been spending all my money on weed and pills;” and its ages old hard luck-hard life story. “Tennessee” is a full on “get your lighter out” tune – its insistent lilting rhythm and insistent chorus creates a (near) sentimentality that doesn’t cloy. Penultimate track “Some Days” is pure singalong, whereas album closer “Hobo Cartoon” strips the tune right down to acoustic guitar strums, vocals and occasional interventions from a plaintive fiddle.
Before reviewing this volume 2, I did wonder how it would be different from Volume 1 – upon reflection, Volume 1 is the one that makes a great festival set, whereas Volume 2 is a collection that deserves – because of the song choice and prominence of melody over genre stylings -to be played to a much wider audience. Sturgill Simpson has gotten even closer to the bullseye with this release.
Sturgill Simpson Cuttin’ Grass Vol. 1: The Butcher Shoppe Sessions High Top Mountain Records (via Thirty Tigers)
Simpson’s Back Catalogue Revisited and Re-Imagined in (almost) Traditional Style
Described in some quarters as a “surprise” Bluegrass album, the only surprise actually comes from the unexpected timing of the release; and Simpson’s timely decision to revisit a great deal of prior material, and less from the fact that Simpson is putting out as a Bluegrass album. Simpson’s first band Sunday Valley exhibited many features of the genre (Check out their 2011 take on “Sometimes Wine” on YouTube which involves frenetic electric flatpicking and Bluegrass structures and chords almost turned into Cowpunk – https://youtu.be/LcVdCI84tFI ) – only to reappear here in a more traditional form. Assembling an absolutely top-notch cast of players (Sierra Hull, Tim O’Brien, Mike Bub and Stuart Duncan to name but four) the quality of playing is absolutely stellar as might be expected. What is there to gain from doing this then? Well, apart from the musicians having a great time, this release places the songs to the fore – and to my ears, is all the better for the back to basics approach as I sometimes struggle with some of Simpson’s more far-out experimental moments. That’s not to say that this is a firmly Traditional approach – Sierra Hull’s soaring reverby backing vocals on “Breakers Roar” and the out of tune/in tune slidey fiddle intro to “Just Let Go” are two of many little moments where Bluegrass forms are adapted and played with, but fully in support of the song – and there’s actual percussion on the album too – on a Bluegrass album! “Life of Sin” from “Metamodern Sounds in Country Music” comes across as a timeless Classic Bluegrass tune and “Turtles All The Way Down” now has the feel of JD Crowe and the New South with Waylon Jennings fronting them. “Railroad of Sin” with its Bob Wills cattle calls turns into a frantic stomper and Scott Vestal’s banjo drives along “Sitting Here Without You” and many uptempo others. Of the slower, mid-tempo numbers “Time After All” originally on “High Top Mountain” now allows space for more delicate leads and breaks and philosophical lyricism “..it’s only time after all…” whereas “Voices” comes across as a dark old-timey narrative ballad (with the longest gradual fade you’ll hear in ages) – as on a lot of these reimagined songs, Sturgill’s lyricism now has more room to come to the fore. By utilising more formal-traditional musical structures, the listener’s emphasis (well this listener anyway) is the voice and its message rather than the shock of the metamodern (sic)…Country Music. Big credit to producer David Ferguson too, for constructing a dynamic and varied soundscape throughout with instruments appearing in and out against a solid rhythmic mix. If you’re a Sturgill Simpson fan, then I can’t see how you can’t but love this take on his back catalogue – and there’ll be many who’ll prefer some of these versions to the originals (me!). If you’re a Traditional Bluegrass fan and Sturgill Simpson wasn’t on your radar (unlikely I know) then this release might seem like the Next Big Thing in Bluegrass; in a fairly conservative musical form in many ways, this takes enough risks while maintaining sufficient respect allied to Simpson’s trademarked strong songwriting. A win-win for Mr Simpson on all counts.
Sparkling, Luscious and Mature Country/Bluegrass/Folk Hybrid.
Back in those heady days when I reviewed for an actual paper Magazine; I penned loving words for the first two albums by sisters Laura and Lydia; and it appears was contrary to popular opinion I actually liked that second release. What else I remember from that period was that there was a slew of predominantly female sibling harmony acts; with each having their own distinctive styles; and most have subsequently fallen by the wayside. The Secret Sisters themselves have had their own problems which must have made them consider ‘giving up’ …….. but, under the wing of Brandi Carlisle re-entered the fray in 2017 with You Don’t Own Me Anymore. Then there is this; the sister’s fourth album and again recorded at Brandi Carlisle’s studio in Seattle. I think most people who read my reviews will genuinely appreciate the beautiful harmonies that come from siblings; and here Laura and Lydia sing ‘as one’ to create a sound that actually sparkles on opening song Silver; which sets the tone for the Country/Bluegrass/Folk musical hybrid that follows. A lot has happened to the sisters over the last 10 years; in and out of the Music Industry; but ‘what doesn’t kill you, makes you stronger’ comes through loud and clear in the mature writing within these songs. It’s all too easy to lose yourself in their harmonies and the luscious production; but if you scratch the surface there are some wonderful stories here; Hand Over My Heart and Cabin instantly spring to mind as they straddle many musical fences; while Water Witch is something I’d love to write the storyboard for a video, then Direct it too. I’m a nightmare for separating albums into pigeon-holes to suit my moods; but here I’ve found myself becoming totally immersed in the mellow ballads Healer in the Sky and Hold You Dear late at night with the lights way down low; but when turned up to 8 in the car they work just as well; but in that circumstance the brooding Tin Can Angel and Cabin come into their very own. Perhaps the Secret Sisters and I have matured alongside each other over the last ten years; but I’ve found a glorious simpatico with just about every track here; but none more so than the marvelous Late Bloomer, which is both deep and meaningful and very easy on the ear ……. and the chorus is something I intend preaching to my Grandchildren; “It doesn’t matter when you bloom It just matters that you do.“ I can’t think of a better mantra for the next generation to take from ‘our music.’ I wasn’t sure if she would like this album; as it can be a bit dark and deep at times; but Mrs. Magpie now has this CD in her car and when prompted said ‘she liked it’ ……… which is far stronger praise than anything a music snob like me can ever muster.
Pete Seeger and Roger McGuinn AT THE BOTTOM LINE (1994) The Bottom Line Archive.
A Masterclass In Songwriting From Teacher and Pupil.
This is a fascinating series of releases from the Bottom Line Archive; often bringing our ‘back pages’ into sparkling life again; and for younger listeners not just a window into the soul of what has become known as Americana Music; but in many cases a Masterclass in the oeuvre too. If you are in any shape or form, a Folk music fan, if Vin Scelsa’s introduction to Pete Seeger doesn’t move you into settling back for what is to follow, then this website and review ain’t really for you, is it? Even without me telling you about the songs here; you just know that listening to Pete Seeger and his protege, Roger McGuinn telling stories and singing songs on stage has to be a history lesson in itself, and well worth your time, doesn’t it? In themselves, not every song here has stood the test of time, but there are more than enough nuggets that are genuine magical moments that will make you smile and sigh at the same time, to make it all worthwhile. Personally I’m not really a ‘fan’ of Pete Seeger’s style of Folk Music; but listening to his story of building his first house, which leads into If I Had a Hammer is absolutely spellbinding; and made me incredibly jealous of the couple of hundred people crammed into the Bottom Line hearing this story first hand. But; I am a fan of Roger McGuinn (don’t get me started on the night I met him for a cup of tea!); and you have to put into perspective where he was in his career that night, as he had recently left the Byrds and had just been part of Dylan’s Rolling Thunder Review, and was about to embark on the solo career that still fills halls today, yet still found the time to sit mesmerised at the feet of his mentor, Pete Seeger. If you were in a Record Store, a cursory look at the track listing would or should make you want to hear Roger’s story behind The Ballad of Easy Rider, Eight Miles High, and Chestnut Mare; and his heartfelt singing of each; but ……… hearing Pete talk about Woody Guthrie and Alan Lomax brought tears to my eyes; and will you too. On a charming double album it’s kinda difficult to pick out a Favourite Track for you. Roger talking about writing You Showed Me with Gene Clark then singing it, has to be a highlight; but Pete’s stories are all genuinely enthralling and need to be heard by everyone who has the audacity to think they too are a singer-songwriter; but I will point you to Where Have All The Flowers Gone ….. it’s just as important today in 2020 as it was 60 years ago! But; I’m going with Roger who writes that singing Bells of Rhymney alongside Pete was and is still one of the highlights of his well documented career; and I can’t disagree with that, now can I? This remarkable album is as much a historical document, as it is anything else and I urge you to buy two copies; as you will want one for yourself and if you know any aspiring singer-songwriter, give them the other copy to hear two Masters of the genre oozing love and class in abundance!
AMA UK Showcase Festival various Venues Hackney London January 27th-29th 2020
As is ever the case with these things, you can’t see everything, so this is just what I saw across the three nights. Plus, the night prior to the event itself, Oslo Hackney hosted a charity fundraiser entitled “Americana Clash” – with the likes of Danny Champ, Elles Bailey, Terra Lightfoot, Judy Blank, Lady Nade, Kyshona, Irish Mythen, Felix from Curse of Lono, Michele Stodart (who was also bassist in the superb house band) Austin Lucas and Frank Turner provided a fun, exuberant opening, covering songs from The Clash. Special props to guitarist Jim Maving, who was every inch the rock star and filled Mick Jones’ boots superbly.
First night proper and I began in Night Tales – a frigid warehouse converted into a nightclub where Austin Lucas, who ended last year’s festival with a dramatic performance at Paper Dress Vintage continued where he’d left off – in the live setting, Lucas is adept at creating intimacy and engagement and produced another dynamic performance.
A trip across the road to Oslo for Pete Gow and the Siren Strings was next on the schedule – whose songs which had grown slowly on me on record, lifted and soared in the context of a live performance. Echoes of Richard Hawley, The Walker Brothers and Warren Zevon (There was a cover of “Lawyers, Guns and Money”) created a truly majestic experience. Unmissable.
Back across two pedestrian crossings and up the stairs into Paper Dress Vintage to catch Malin Pettersen. On this occasion Malin was backed by Darling West and so there was a much greater jangle than twang in her sound than I’d previously heard – she’s an artiste growing tremendously in confidence from when I first saw her a couple of years back; and her experimentation and willingness to take chances and diversify in her sound is only to be praised.
Next it was back to Night Tales and Amy LaVere, joined by her husband Will Sexton – Amy was clad in Gothic black lace; the noir-ish lighting suited her Twang and melodious dry humour. Amy’s got a new album “Painting Blue” coming out soon – it’s going to be worth finding, if not for her superb cover of John Martyn’s “I Don’t Wanna Know” alone.
Sam Baker has only ever been on the periphery of my listening habits, but his short set was one of those where an artist, seen in the live setting, suddenly makes complete sense. Razor-sharp human(e) storytelling silenced a rowdy bar. Lovely bloke too.
I was then followed by the awful choice of deciding between Robert Vincent and Amy Speace who were on at the same time at opposite ends of Mare Street. As I’ll be seeing Mr Vincent a couple of times later in the year, I stayed put and went for The Amy Speace option and wasn’t disappointed. Accompanied by the ever-fantastic and humble CJ Hillman on pedal steel and guitar as well as Ali Sperry and Kyshona on backing vocals for a couple of songs, this was a much bigger performance than the Empire Bar could contain. Epic balladry, heartfelt emotion and sharp wit provided an excellent conclusion to my first night’s listening and viewing.
Day two began with a non-festival bonus – Gill Landry and Malin Pettersen played half hour slots at Rough Trade East in the early afternoon. In the solo situation, the voice of Malin Pettersen is as pure a country instrument as you could wish for. Take away a band and all she needs is the acoustic guitar to frame the strength and melody in her delivery – her cover of George Jones’ “Take Me” was the icing on the cake. Gill Landry who followed is a Waits-ian storyteller who delivered enough intriguing tracks from his new album “Skeleton At The Banquet” to encourage further investigation.
The showcase Day 2 officially began in earnest for me by watching Croydon (Yes, Croydon) bluegrass band The Vanguards at the Empire Bar – credit to them for writing their own material and delivering it with enthusiasm.
I stayed in the Empire bar, (much to the annoyance of my Apple watch fitness reminders) for Dean Owens and the Southerners. Ably accompanied by Jim Maving and Tom Collison (who played keyboards and bass – at the same time…!). Dean featured songs from his forthcoming “Best of” release and lyrically and musically referenced the likes of the Faces in an enjoyable set.
A couple of hundred yards down the road to Oslo and up three flights of stairs to catch the two discoveries, for me, of the festival. I wandered into Oslo just as Jonah Tolchin was kicking off his set. Accompanied by Joe Harvey-Whyte on psychedelic, yet bluesy and subtle pedal steel, the two complemented each other in delivering a set with lyrical and musical depth containing shades of old blues and American folk-country.
Mapache were not on my radar at all – if the Louvin Brothers had been played by Bill and Ted, that might give you some idea – glorious harmonies around a single mic, flitting across a variety of west-coast styles, dude. They opened with a cover of New Riders of the Purple Sage “Lonesome LA Cowboy”, sang beautifully in Spanish and covered several Laurel Canyon bases inbetween. I’d downloaded everything I could find them before the end of the night. Hopefully they’ll be back soon…
I stayed in Oslo for the third gig in a row and this time it was Michaela Anne, who’d played the festival last year, but this year was brought in under the Yep Roc umbrella. With a crack transatlantic band, Michaela’s voice was appropriately high in the mix – pure country that could and should be massive, the set focused around “Desert Dove”, she’s another artiste who I’ve seen a few times over the last couple of years who’s really developing in the live arena.
I last saw Chatham County Line about ten years ago and in that time they’ve lost Chandler Holt to retirement, but the remaining trio have added drums to their touring line-up – it works well – they still have the killer harmonies and melodies, but with added punch. Playing a set that featured tracks from their “Shaking the Covers” release, they utilised their half-hour showcase slot wisely with a set that contained a lot of audience friendly material.
Last show of the day and of the festival for me was back along the length of Mare Street to the Empire bar to see Rob Heron & the Teapad Orchestra at the Empire Bar – reliable and as rambunctious as ever, they delivered a set of crowd pleasers (My French friend from Marseilles was particularly taken with ‘Une Bouteille De Beaujolais’). Somebody please put these guys on a chat show or in a sitcom!
All in all, a hectic but interesting three days – well done once more to all at the AMA UK. As ever, disappointed that I’m still not able to clone myself and see everything, but pleased that I saw as much good stuff as I did – and as a bonus, I broke my exercise records on the Apple watch!
DH Lawrence and the Vaudeville Skiffle Show are no more ….. all hail Lawrence County their new moniker! We’ve been fans of and friends with this ensemble from the Bagthorpe Delta of Nottinghamshire for quite a few years; and love their ‘special’ take on Roots and especially Americana Music….. Fiddles, banjos, raggedy choruses & accordions …. What’s not to like? We carelessly missed out on the last single; THIS IS THE END OF IT ALL which was released to coincide with the recent (heartbreaking) General Election because of work and family commitments; but we is bang on the money for this one …… BYE BYE AMERICAE which is also from the forthcoming album ‘The Frailty Of Humans’ (Released March 2020). Released just before Christmas 2019 to ‘celebrate’ the impeachment of the 45th President of the United States,, Donald John Trump.
Rev. Freakchild ROAD DOG DHARMA Treated and Released Records
A Totally Bonkers Mix of Outtakes, Radio Interviews and Amazing Cover Versions.
It’s fair to say Reverend Freakchild is ‘left of centre’ with his music; which sort of straddles the Blues, Rock and possibly even the Folk fences with a Zappa like arrogance; and so much so that even I’ve struggled to get my head around his work. So much so; that when I reviewed his Hillbilly Zen-Punk Blues album for No Depression I received copious hate mail from his fans! Which brings me to his latest release, a left of Left of Centre mixture of outtakes and live tracks interspersed with snippets of radio interviews from across the US of A. I rather like the way the album starts with someone dialling in the radio station followed by a fragment of The Reverend singing before the dial gets switched again! This is followed by someone called Cornel on WNCD out of Youngstown Ohio;who has a voice so deep, it sounds like a stereotype DJ that turned up on Happy Days or the American Pie albums; interviewing our man. While all of these interviews are at the least, ‘interesting’; I just love the way The Reverend tends to ignore the inane questioning and, like a politician just goes off on his own merry way to get his message across at 100 mph, whether that be an album or local live date. While I’m on the subject; who knew that there really are American DJ’s called Wildman, The Bluesman and even Big D? The first song on the album; Roadtrance starts like any other, then ……. well, it sparks off into half a dozen different directions all at once but based around a psychedelia-Folk riff and wanders off for over 7 minutes. Then, not long afterwards he delivers pretty straight version of JJ Cale’s Call Me The Breeze which made my reconsider my previous thoughts on his oeuvre. Freakchild shows what great taste he has by his choice of covers that are included and when he turns ZZ Top’s Jesus Just Left Chicago into a slow and moody Field Blues, or the straighter than straight, back to raw basics version of Rollin’ and Tumblin’ he more than makes up for the wacky interview tracks that are on offer here too. Obviously not the easiest compilation to select a Favourite Track from; but it’s always going to be a pleasure hearing someone cover Townes’ White Freightliner Blues but to merge it with a folk version of the Beatles’ Tomorrow Never Knows; just might be the mark of a Genius (as his fans referred to him in the green ink mail); and Hippie Bluesman Blues (Alt. Country remix) is another contender; but I’m going to throw caution to the wind and select the Rocktastic All Across America as the RMHQ Favourite Song here as it’s a bit of a keeper; and shows what this Cat can do when he really puts his mind to it. Regardless of whether I ever play this album or not ever again; I love being part of a World where The Reverend Freakchild not only exists but is adored by countless fans all over the world; and that’s exactly the world I want to live in.
Judy Collins & Jonas Fjeld WINTER STORIES Wildflower Records/Cleopatra Records
A Magical Folk Music Marriage Made in Heaven.
2019 celebrates Judy Collins being one of Folk Music’s finest interpreter of song for 60 years ……… yes, you read that correctly SIXTY YEARS! In that time she’s recorded some of the genres most succesful songs and albums, plus not just received an Academy Award nomination but in 2017 her rendition of Amazing Grace was preserved in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant” ! Not too shabby, eh? Even without such knowledge any release of hers was going to be of interest here at RMHQ. Her latest release is alongside the dark baritone of Norwegian Folk Singer Jonas Fjeld; and the combination of voices is a marriage made in Musical Heaven; and then of course, the Gusts Chatham County Line add their own magic dust in the background too. The beautiful collaboration between the duo with Chatham County Line; North West Passage opens the record in the most gloriously haunting fashion; with the combined harmonies shrouding the individual lead singers voices in a shimmering veil; and when John Teer’s stark fiddle playing enters the frey, you know you are listening to a very special song indeed. In these days of never ending sub-categories in music genres; WINTER STORIES is unashamedly American Folk Music from start to finish; dabbling with modern contemporary phrasing and melody that Fjeld brings to Angels in The Snow and Frozen North; but even then never really straying far from the 1960’s template we all grew up with. The collection of songs really is exemplary with individual songs like Sweet Refrain and the title track itself, Winter Stories being perfect for snuggling up with a hot chocolate and a good book on any dark night between November and the end of February. Chatham County Line make another appearance up front, on the jaunty and frenetic Bury Me With My Guitar, which is a Bluegrass tune at heart and it’s story could easily be adapted into just about any other singers repertoire; as it will resonate with musicians of all ilks across the universe. While the complete album is simply charming from start to finish and Jonas Fjeld’s voice has been a fabulous discovery for me; I simply have to select something by Judy herself at the helm as my Favourite Track. There are two songs in particular that I can hardly slide a cigarette paper between; The River is as cool as it is charming, and the inclusion of piano and mandolin alongside the melancholic vocal performance will gain it many fans in it’s own rite; but The Blizzard, which closes the record is almost as epic as Folk Music ever gets; and the way this song has been constructed around Ms. Collins and some near Classical piano and strings, make the images that are created very cinematic to this particular listener …… so the accolade goes to The Blizzard. I find it staggering to think that Judy’s voice is still so crystal clear in her xxth year (a gentleman never divulges a lady’s age!); but it is and will be there to hear without the aid of a safety net when she tours in early 2020.
Scott H. Biram Sold Out to the Devil: A Collection of Gospel Cuts by the Rev. Scott H. Biram Bloodshot Records
A Hellfire and Brimstone Gospelish Compilation For Rock and Roll Sinners Everywhere!
I’ve only ever seen Scott H Biram play live once and it was so intense it was very nearly an epiphany for me. That night I doubt there were more than 30 in the Hall; but every single one of us stood enthralled and spell bound for nigh on two hours transfixed at the performance that we witnessed. That said, even though I’ve loved his last two albums I find them difficult to listen to as ‘entertainment’ ….. and that’s true of this amazing compendium of his ‘Religious’ songs too, but in the name of research I’ve persevered….. just for you. A crackling old radio starts track #1 Get Me Religion (Preachin’ the Blues) and when Biram and his guitar come into play you know you are in the presence of someone very special indeed. For an acoustic guitar Scott H Biram makes it sound louder and meaner than Tony Iommi ever managed in Black Sabbath! And, the song itself really does open the floodgates for what is to follow as Biram re-invents himself as travelling preacher from the 1920’s transported forward 100 years to deliver his Message to unbelievers and sinners like you and I. There’s a timeless quality to this collection, which crosses his 20 year recorded career and is aimed squarely at the members of “The First Church of The Ultimate Fanaticism”. Several years ago, when I had a radio show I actually received a letter of complaint after playing Biram’s John The Revelator; and I’m still staggered as to what any God Fearing person was doing listening to my show anyway; but if I had my time again I would play this power-hymn a second time just to really scare the bejaysus out of my angry listener! Now I think about it; it may have been Biram’s ‘crackling radio intros’ to songs like True Religion and Been Down Too Long that inspired me to do the same on other songs on that show; not that these two actually need any frivolities to catch your attention as Biram’s robust delivery and fascinating lyrics are more than enough in themselves to please the average fan. The nearest to a ‘commercial song’ here is probably Gotta Get to Heaven and the Bluegrass tinged Broadminded; although the lyrics are still so sharp and edgy enough to keep it off national radio …… more’s the pity. Choosing a Favourite Song here is always going to be based on my mood at a particular time; as two nights ago I was driving home in a storm when I See The Light/What’s His Name came on my i-phone and I automatically cranked the car stereo up to 11 and I felt like a character in Grapes of Wrath driving to the promised land. Then, of course there’s Biram’s definitive version of Amazing Grace sung in what sounds like pouring rain, which closes the album; and being the contrary curmudgeon I am, I could be tempted to put this on my ‘funeral list’ …… or perhaps not. But this morning, God Don’t Work (Like a Natural Man) sounds like the pivot that everything else sparks off; with Biram using his trademarked foot-stomps, assorted clicks, growls, screeches and a wheezy harmonica to fight the demons away and boy does the passion come out of the speakers in a way normally unknown in the world of Rock & Roll; so this wins the accolade. As a concept this compilation works a treat; although I doubt it will make its way into many Christmas stockings but fully paid up members of Scott H Biram’s “The First Church of The Ultimate Fanaticism” will scoop it up like manner from Heaven.