Lowlands and Friends
Play Townes Van Zandt’s Last Set.
A Wonderful Homage To A Legendary Evening.
Townes Van Zandt didn’t really find fame, nor certainly fortune during his lifetime; but his influence and shadow can be heard and felt in a lot of what we now call Americana Music.
He played his last ever set at The Borderline in London on Tuesday 3rd December 1996; and as was common at the time only hardcore fans were there to witness a shambling set, with the singer the worse for ‘a life well lived.’
Twenty years later Songwriter, producer and leader of Lowlands Edward Abbiati has lovingly recreated the complete set-list in chronological order with the help of numerous friends from today’s wacky world of Roots music, in bars, garages, bedrooms and wherever across the globe.
Each song is introduced in the style of a radio presenter by narrator Barry Marshall-Everett who was there that night.
First song, Lightning Hopkins’ My Starter Won’t Start is a low down dirty Country Blues, featuring Shinyribs/Gourds frontman the inimitable Kevin Russell alongside the Gnola Blues Band; and boy does it inhabit the soul of not just the song; but Townes himself.
There are Townes’ songs here that I’d forgot about; and some I plain didn’t know and the way some of bands and singers explore the depths of his words are at times overwhelming.
Dollar Bill Blues I did recognise; but Italian Rock band Cheap Wine turn the volume up and create a dirty Grunge meets Alt. Country rocker of the highest quality.
Just like that track there are surprises, and always pleasant surprises around every corner…..with new names to me like Will T Massey and Australian Tim Rogers reinventing Marie and A Song For respectively.
Then there are RMHQ favourites Sid Griffin and Rod Picott to talk about; with Sid, Michele Gazrich and a band we’d nearly forgot about, The Lucky Strikes combining to bring an extra spark to Pancho & Lefty; making it sound not unlike The Band; although Michele Gazich’s ‘fiddle-extreme’ really does cut through everything like a freshly sharpened Bowie knife.
Rod makes two appearances; one alongside a host of other great voices on an almost psychedelic version of Sanatorium Blues; then on the much easier on the ear Tecumseh Valley/Dead Flowers hybrid; which was an early contender for the ‘favourite song’ accolade.
That in fact goes to the stunning Waiting Around To Die; with Chris Cacavas from the legendary Green on Red on Vocals fronting an intensely tight band of fine musicians, which leaves me breathless every time I hear it.
This would have been a fascinating project even if it had only been one singer re-enacting the concert; but by featuring such a variety of bands, singers and musicians to cover each song in their own inimitable way is very nearly genius; and every one concerned, especially Edward Abbiati should be incredibly proud of themselves.
Released February 10th 2017
The Writer (EP)
Beauteous, Brittle and Atmospheric Americana Inspired Lo-Fi From Finland.
A few years ago Son #1 who lives in Finland was taken on a date to see a Finnish Folk-Rock band called Ochre Room, and halfway through the gig he thought ‘My Dad will love these!’ and much to the young lady’s horror (Finnish people are notoriously shy) he introduced himself to the singer at the end of the gig and explained that his Dad was a writer for Maverick magazine in the UK…..they were impressed and gave him a copy of their CD.
A year later I actually interviewed the band for said magazine and stardom surely beckoned….alas not. and like so many other young bands they appeared to have just fizzled out.
Then; totally out of the blue I revived an e-mail yesterday from the singer Lauri Myllymäki who has now formed a new group called Bone Moon, and attached a link to their debut EP.
To some degree starting where Ochre Room left off, opening song The Writer is stunning in its complexity; as one voice, a guitar, a banjo and something called a jouhikko combine to create a haunting slice of Arcadian Americana that you would normally associate with the likes of Fleet Foxes or Cowboy Junkies, not three young people from rural Finland.
Track #2 Bone Moon; is full of shimmering cymbals, plucked banjo and cello (?) as well as some almost Classical guitar alongside Myllymäki’s ethereal voice on a song that is as deep and dark as it is mysterious and will stay in your memory bank long after the record has stopped.
Lady Noon; is the type of cryptic love song that music fans have tried to unravel for decades; but I chose to just let it wash over me like a velvet fog; and yet again Lauri’s voice just melts into your heart.
This far too short EP closes with False Fires, the closest thing here to ‘commercial Folk music’; the sort that I would listen to by Nick Drake or John Martyn with the lights off as I wondered if I would ever find love…..you know the type of song; and Bone Moon capture that feeling better than anyone I’ve listened to in many a year.
What more can I say? I was probably pre-destined to like anything which featured Lauri Myllymäki singing; but these four songs have far exceeded my expectations and I can’t wait to actually see and hear these songs played live either in the UK or Finland.
Released March 10th 2017.
Bill Kirchen & Austin de Lone
Proper Music/The Last Music Co.
The Titan and The Godfather of Pub Rock Rip It Up In The Lounge.
If you already know these two names you will buy this ‘historic’ album anyways; and if you don’t I think you are on the wrong the website!
Bill co-founded Commander Cody nearly 100 years ago; even before Country Rock was born, never mind Alt. Country and Austin de Lone goes down in British music history as a member of Eggs Over Easy who were the founders of Pub Rock, which begat…….you do the Googling.
As friends and colleagues since those heady days in the 70’s Bill and Austin have played together on stage and in the studio many times; but never actually made an album together…..that wrong is righted here.
TRANSATLANTICANA couldn’t open with anything other than a gorgeous slice of trademark Bill Kirchen. Quirky, funny and intelligent lyrics, tipping a hat towards Merle and Company on top of some of the sweetest Telecaster and Baritone geetar your ears will ever hear.
Kirchen takes the lead again on the following track Wine, Wine, Wine only this time Bobby Black compliments the sad song with some sweet pedal steel alongside Bill’s trademark guitar sound, while De Lone comes and goes at ease on the piano in the corner.
As expected the ‘Country Rockers’ come thick and fast; with Butch Hancock’s Oxblood giving Austin the opportunity to happily punch the piano keys through to the floor as Kirchen and Hancock trade words and licks like feisty teenagers.
If I didn’t know any better I’d have thought All Tore Up was a Rockabilly classic, but it’s not it’s from the pen of Austin De Lone and allows him to take lead on vocals and piano and the world is a whole better place for it!
While I love the fast paced tracks with all of my heart; my soul keeps making me go back to the slow and tender ‘lounge’ songs that are included; not just because I wasn’t expecting them (which I wasn’t) but because each one is staggeringly sad and beautiful.
On Losing Hand De Lone and Kirchen sound like the house band at midnight in a run down club in the dangerous part of Vegas; singing to and for all the losers and hustlers cradling their last drink of the evening. Tucked away towards the end the duo tear up Dylan’s hoary old The Times They Are a Changing; filling it with the bile and fire first associated with it nearly 50 years ago; but sadly missing from most interpretations.
Warm and Tender Love is a serious contender for ‘favourite track’ especially as it has the warmth and depth of something Nick Lowe would sing; but has the fragility of Goffin and King too.
Another could be the Country-Gospel Somebody’s Going Home too; but my heart and soul concur that Back in The Day ticks every box there is in Country Music.
Written by Kirchen’s wife Louise; the singer looks back on those hazy, crazy days of 1969 when they all had flowers in their hair but ‘they had tear gas and guns’ as they sang ‘we shall overcome’…..sadly this song is all too appropriate for 2017, and the doleful way Kirchen uses his voice; as the band create a tension that is nearly frightening make for a song that deserves to be heard by Politicians and their volatile supporters of all hues around the world.
If you are lucky as me, your copy will include the bonus tracks No Need For Knocking and the legendary Smoke, Smoke, Smoke that Cigarette too.
Baring in mind this album was recorded in several sessions across several cities on both sides of the Atlantic, Malcolm Mills production and the razor sharp editing come together to create an album that sounds like it was recorded in one glorious session that went on late into the night.
I’ve seen Bill Kirchen play live many times over the years; and for once he doesn’t try to recapture that magic on disc. This is an ‘actual album’ full of songs and immaculate playing by musicians who are all at the top of their game; recreating this sound on stage will be a problem for another day.
Released March 3rd 2017
Landmark Album For Country’s Wagonmaster.
While I wouldn’t say I was a ‘fan’ of Jim Lauderdale, I do own three albums that I still play occasionally and when I had my radio show would play the occasional track, and at least twice as the subject of requests; so I was thrilled last week when this, his latest release dropped onto the hall carpet.
Opening track Sweet Time is a delightful Country shuffle in the mode of someone like Charly Pride or Vince Gill; and it wouldn’t take too much of a leap to imagine any of today’s ‘Hat Acts’ covering in a bid to add authenticity to an album. The title London Southern comes from Lauderdale recording he disc in the Goldstar Studios in London, England with his friend Nick Lowe’s band and when you know that; you can hear a slightly different tone to Lauderdale’s regular approach on songs like the stunning Different Kind of Groove Sometimes and Mrs. Magpie’s favourite song here, What Have You Got to Lose with its sumptuous background harmonies.
Tucked away towards the end of the album is deep and meaningful song; when Jim gives us a full throated Country warble, along with some Memphis style soulful trumpet and sax…..I Can’t Do Without You is trademark Lauderdale but somehow as fresh as a daisy too.
The Twangtastic Don’t Shut Me Down and You Came to Get Me will both make feet all around the world get the urge to dance, and show that Lauderdale can still write great songs in any style he desires.
It’s fascinating to realise that this songwriters-songwriter isn’t afraid of a challenge; as shown by the choice of co-writers on a couple of songs included here, not only has he wrote two with the legendary Dan Penn but another pair with the ‘Blue Eyed Soul’ star John Oates and it’s one of those If I Can’t Resist; which reminded me of Wicked Game by Chris Isaak; and certainly wouldn’t sound out of place on a Quentin Tarantino soundtrack.
Love songs come at you from all directions on this record; but the late night piano, heart stopping double bass and sweeping strings that accompanying a crooning Jim Lauderdale on I Love You More just melted my heart the first time I heard it and there’s been a tiny tear in the corner of my eye each subsequent play. I’m not aux fait with every song he has ever written; but I doubt he’s ever written one more beautiful, making this easily my favourite song here.
It’s shameful to discover that after 27 previous albums and too many hits for other stars too numerous to mention spread over a career spanning 27+ years that legendary songwriter Jim Lauderdale’s solo albums have only ever troubled the Country Music Charts twice; and then only at #47 & #67!
Will London Southern fare any better? Who knows; but if I’m any judge I’m pretty sure it will go Top 10 in the UK AMA Charts pretty damn soon after release; showing what great taste British Country Music fans have 😉
Released February 3rd 2017
The Hornet’s Nest
A Late Night, Avant Garde Approach to Alt. Country.
Earlier this year I had been really looking forward to Curtis McMurtry’s first appearance at the Jumping Hot Club but had to cancel at the last minute due to ‘work commitments’. Talking to friends in the following weeks drew interesting comments; with no one going as far to say that ‘they had actually enjoyed’ the night, which made reviewing this, his second album even more ‘exciting’ for me.
First of all Curtis McMurtry’s approach to what we know and love as Americana/Alt. Country/Roots music is certainly ‘different’…..left-field, if you will.
Hard Blue Stones which opens the disc is a raw folk song played out against a brittle sounding banjo, and isn’t always easy on the ear.
Smooth as Thorns which follows, isn’t a million miles away in ‘feel’ but the addition of some finely textured cello shadowing his voice, plus a trumpet from the Chet Baker School of trumpet playing makes for an interesting juxtaposition of styles.
There are left turns at every juncture, with the almost romantically Latin flavoured Wrong Inflection being sandwiched between the Western Swing of Loves Me More and the Spanish guitar on the traditional Folk ballad Coward. Yet; it works …..I don’t know why; but it does.
The ukulele makes an entrance alongside Nathan Calzada’s sweet trumpet on the sweet sounding lullaby Together For Now; but listen more than twice and you will find a heartbreaking story that will bring a tear to your eye.
Tracker is as interesting as it is puzzling; reminding me at times of David Olney’s excursions into Film Noir a couple of years ago but also conjuring up mad thoughts of what Scott Walker might sound like if he made a Rootsy album. A dark, gloomy and ultimately a beautiful song.
I get the feeling that Curtis McMurtry would be devastated to know I was going to pick a ‘favourite’ here; as The Hornet’s Nest appears to be a ‘complete work’ in the mode of a theatrical story; not necessarily telling a story; but all of the narratives coming together to create a ‘mood’; but I feel the need to point you towards the pensive Shot At The Title or Rebecca as snapshots of what lies around them.
Everything here, from the delicate balance of the instrumentation through to McMurtry’s intelligently barbed lyrics are challenging; and they are meant to be; with McMurtry’s delightful voice being the singular constant that holds everything together.
As my knowledgeable friends intimated, The Hornets Nest won’t appeal to everyone; but fans of the Handsome Family, Scott Walker and Leonard Cohen will probably be attracted to the dark delights that abound here.
Released 24th February 2017
Chilli Willi & The Red Hot Peppers
British Pub Rock Really Did Invent Alt. Country!
From the 60’s we have always had our own Blues infused Pub Rock scene in the NE; but in the mid 70’s London developed it’s now legendary Pub Rock scene. Every Thursday I would look enviously at the pages of Melody Maker and see exotically named bands like Eggs Over Easy, Ducks Deluxe, Brinsley Schwarz, Bees Make Honey and of course Chilli Willi and the Red Hot Peppers, but because of my tender age and that there London being 300 miles away I never actually got to see them.
Over the years I’ve collected a few VA albums featuring these bands; but very few of their actual LP releases have been transferred to the new fangled Compact Disc format; which is why this release has really excited me.
Let’s start with the album sleeve…..OOHEEE! A Barney Bubbles image on the outer sleeve is certainly eye catching; and the accompanying 24 page booklet really does capture a ‘moment in time’ and kept me enthralled all last night.
For Chilli aficionados this release is made up of both LP releases, Kings of the Robot Rhythm and Bongos Over Balham plus the I’ll Be Home Sessions and live recordings plus one unreleased track.
For the rest of us…..here goes….
CD 1, the Kings of Robot Rhythm plus some demos open with Living Out of My Suitcase; a luscious slice of what we now know as Americana but must have been mind-blowing in 1972, when Buffalo Springfield and CSN&Y albums were out of the reach of the average man in the street.
The fiddle and harmonies on Window Pane sound rudimentary today must have been groundbreaking back then; certainly I wouldn’t have heard anything like it at the time. Nashville Rag still stands up today; and I love the way they turn That’s Alright Mama into a bit of a Country Reel.
With this re-release I’d love to hear one of the New Wave of British Country bands have a go at recording Drunken Sunken Redneck Blues and/or the closing track from the debut album A Page in History. Both are still relevant in 2017.
Friday Song was recorded as a single but didn’t get released; which is a bit of a shame as it’s a glorious concoction of Hall & Oats, Gram Parsons and Poco all rolled into one magic carpet ride.
Of the demos, several went on to be included on Bongos, but the delightful Don’t Hurt The One You Love appears to have been lost in the mist of time until now; and the world is a better place for it.
CD 2 is the second album Bongos Over Balham plus some outtakes and live tracks from that era.
The very first song shows a radical change in direction by opening with a rip-snortin version of the Jive classic Choo Choo Ch’ Boogie, and then Desert Island Woman sounding like something you would have heard on Miami Vice.
As you would expect after 40 years, not everything has stood the test of time; but plenty have with Jesse Winchester’s Midnight Bus appealing to me on a personal level and Truck Driving Girl is a joy from start to finish, plus All In a Dream and 9-5 Songwriting Man, while harking back to the first album, show a maturity in the actual songwriting.
This disc is then made up of ‘other sessions’ demos and live versions’ of more or less the same songs, with only Fire On The Mountain, which out fiddles The Charlie Daniels Band, the Rockabilly swing of Pinball Boogie and the new song Papa and Mama Had The Blues baring repeated listening; and I will repeatedly listen to them!
Then of course we have their ‘signature tune’ and title of the best compilation from this era, Goodbye Nashville (Hello Camden Town) which is one of those songs that every songwriter must wish they had written.
At 44 songs in total this could have easily been edited into a tip-top Best Of; but obviously REAL SHARP is aimed at ‘collectors’ while priced to attract casual music fans like me; so works on every level.
RELEASED 24th February 2017
Bare Along the Branches
BLACK DUST RECORDS
Classy Contemporary Folk Songs That Transcend Boundaries and Borders.
I loved; and still love Norrie McCulloch’s last album These Mountain Blues released less than a year ago so was very surprised when this ‘follow up’ album arrived in late January.
So, it was with a modicum of trepidation that I slid the shiny disc into the office hi-fi and sat back cradling a piping hot cup of tea.
It took less than two minutes of opening track Shutter for a smile to break out and I breathed a sigh of relief. Norrie’s voice sounds even warmer and more ’rounded’ than on the previous album; and the ‘sound’ that surrounds a delightfully brittle bittersweet love song obviously comes from a band of musicians who know each others strengths intimately and gel like a well oiled machine.
Historically I steer away from the F Word; but this is Folk Music Jim; just not as we know it.
McCulloch’s voice is definitely Scottish; but to the uninitiated…. quintessentially ‘Celtic;’ and songs like Safe Keeping and Around The Bend are from the Folk idiom; but just like his heroes Guy Clark and Bobby Dylan the way McCulloch interprates his own lyrics is way beyond the ‘finger in the ear’ ballads and shanties that still get played in Folk Clubs around the world.
McCulloch is obviously well travelled; and he has picked up ideas for stories and songs along the way; making Frozen River and Little Boat just as relevant in Australia, Appalachia and Airdrie…..which is quite some feat, in my humble opinion.
Dig deep here and you will find the Lo-Fi dark delights of Beggars Woods and Turn To Dust; written shortly after the death of his Mother and are both as Southern Gothic as they are Scottish Presbyterian in essence.
Then, just when I thought I had a handle on Norrie’s ‘new direction’ he throws a couple of left-field curve balls with the ‘Folk Rockers’ Never Leave You Behind (featuring some sublime pedal-steel from Mr Ian Sloan) and Lonely Boy.
Like all of the best singer-songwriter albums through the ages, Bare Along The Ashes is best listened to alone, preferably with the lights down low and a refreshing brew to hand; which brings me to my two stand out tracks…….the stark and brooding piano led This Time is absolutely spellbinding but the one I keep going back to; and the one ‘shuffle’ on my I-pod keeps playing is Safe Keeping. A very simple melody masking a very complex and timeless song that could be about my own life in a ‘small town’ and looking for a road out.
This is Norrie McCulloch’s third album in as many years; and for such a prolific songwriter there’s not a weak song here and the self-confidence in his storytelling and way with words is quite astonishing really.
If you like quality songwriters like Guy Clark, Richard Thompson and the like I’m pretty sure you will love this album by this proud son of Scotland too.
Released February 24th 2017
Blackie & The Rodeo Kings (featuring Rodney Crowell)
LIVE BY THE SONG
from the new album Kings & Kings…….featuring RMHQ favourites Eric Church, Bruce Cockburn, Rodney Crowell, Vince Gill, Jason Isbell, Nick Lowe, Raul Malo, Buddy Miller and Keb Mo!
Album Review to follow ASAP!
Yep Roc Records
A Grunge Infused Alt. Country Album That Will Blow Your Mind!
For no apparent reason I don’t actually own any of the Sadies previous 9 albums, but have seen them play live…..a show that is in my Top 10 of all time and sticks in my mind because the Good Brothers took to the stage in pale blue Nudie suits and proceeded to blow the roof of the Cluny.
My ears nearly exploded and my eyes nearly popped out of head halfway through opening track Riverview Mirror.
The rolling ‘twang’ of the guitars aligned to some luscious harmonies instantly took me back to those heady days when I first discovered Buffalo Springfield, The Byrds and of course Gram Parsons esq.
Things hot up on the following track Another Season Again; which is a tightly coiled slice of Garage-Punk but still stays stoutly within Alt. Country territory and had me clenching my fists and headbanging along to the beat…maaaan! Something I haven’t done for many a year.
Honestly; by track #5 The Elements Song, where the guitars tentatively enter ‘psychedelic’ territory; I was smiling like a ninny and furiously scribbling down notes so as not to miss any of my initial feelings.
As Above, So Below features some delicious 12 string guitar picking and again the Byrds and Buffalo Springfield spring to mind; but this is very much The Sadies in 2017 and not a homage to the 60’s in any shape or form.
There is the feeling of unbridled freedom in the playing and lyrics throughout Northern Passages; especially on songs like Questions I Never Asked and There Are No Words, which is chock full of fuzzy guitars and a drum beat straight from the pits of Hell.
Selecting a favourite track hasn’t been easy as each song has it’s own merits; but I will point you to either God Bless The Infidels, with its Urban-Hillbilly Swing or the Country-Grunge of It’s Easy (Like Walking) featuring Kurt Vile on guest vocals; but you could stick a pin in and find your very favourite song of all time and I wouldn’t disagree with you.
I first received this disc two months ago and have been sitting on it like a man with a secret; desperate to let the world know of its existence; but had too many other albums to review near their deadlines; but The Sadies have been my palette cleanser in between; playing this album loudly in the car (first thing in the morning and late at night) as well as ‘for pleasure’ while reading a magazine or the newspaper…..and it works well in every setting.
Released February 10th 2017
I’ll Make The Most of My Sins
At The Helm/Last Chance Records
Compelling and Introspective Lo-Fi Alt. Country Meets Folk.
For the third time in as many weeks I have to write ‘this wasn’t what I was expecting’.
Rob Vincent has sort of been on my radar for a couple of years now, with several friends raving about him and telling me ‘you will love his music.’ Yet I somehow totally missed his debut album, Life In Easy Steps and his high profile support slots for James Blunt, Squeeze and Paul Carrack among others.
It doesn’t matter what I was actually expecting; because opening song Mobius knocked me sideways right from the moody almost classical opening few bars and right through a gut wrenching love story which is both articulate and intelligently written. Plus the inclusion of some sweetly ragged harmonica is always going to catch my attention.
A beautiful and well written song, So In Love captures the very essence of the sort of nail-biting dark and broody Alt. Country I’ve loved since I first discovered the likes of Cowboy Junkies many years ago.
A week after playing this album 2 or 3 times a day I can now see why my friends would think I would like Rob Vincent.
The Liverpudlian writes from the very bottom of his heart, Time Won’t Wait and Denial are the type of songs you would normally associate with Master Craftsman singer-songwriters from the Americas, not a young man from Liverpool still beginning his career.
I absolutely love it when a songwriter I’ve never met somehow manages to put my own idiosyncratic feelings into words. All Of You; about a man willing to change his ways for the love of another is just such a song; and will touch most of the people who ever hear it.
The title track is quite staggering in its complexity, yet still manages to be accessible for the average listener like me . Almost poetic in the way Dylan and Townes Van Zandt could mould the two idioms into one I’ll Make The Most of My Sins finds Vincent singing in an almost Gospel manner as the band swoop and soar behind him in minor keys. Lo-Fi at its absolute finest!
Which brings us to the ‘RM Favourite Track’ accolade…..Dancing With Devils. Another song that will make you think it’s about you, and you alone. Vincent obviously has his own demons; which he writes about here, but they are a lot more common than most of us are prepared to admit and the young man captures them in intimate detail and sings them over a gloriously uptight tune that showcases a superb band.
Easily sliding between lonely singer-songwriter mode to a full band profile, Robert Vincent has managed to create a bunch of songs that will be listened to late at night when all alone and lonely; but will just as easily be transferred to the stage and create a great evenings entertainment. Quite some feat.
Released January 27th 2017