Nathaniel Rateliff And It’s Still Alright Stax Records/Concord Music
Putting Plenty of Heartbreaking Soul Into Country Folk.
Straight from the opening acoustic guitar chords on What a Drag, you know this is very, very, very different from Nate Rateliff’s previous albums with the Night Sweats. While there were sad ballads on those albums they sure weren’t nothing like this …….. a deceptively beautiful, thoughtful and haunting song of loss and then hope. I think it’s fair to say ……… Stax Records ain’t ever released an album like this before! And they should be proud of themselves for doing so. Singer-Songwriter’s always write from the heart and generally deliver deeply personal works; and that’s exactly what you get on this album, which shouldn’t have but has still managed to surprise me in every groove and stanza. Rateliff certainly has a distinctive voice; one that still oozes S.O.U.L even in this Country-Folk format; with Expecting To Lose and Mavis both threatening to break into becoming Power Ballad; but Rateliff shows great restraint; holding back from the brink to leave the listener gasping for breath. But the all encompassing beauty of Rateliff’s kind words and deep storytelling shine brightly in Time Stands and You Need Me; with his Folk Roots showing like a ‘Bottle Blonde’ in the third week of the month on All Or Nothing and the tragically beautiful Kissing Our Friends which has been a contender for Favourite Song Status for several days now. Apparently these songs began poring from his pencil in 2017 as a long-term relationship unravelled just as his career began to peak; then a year later his friend and Producer of The Night Sweats albums Richard Swift died; taking Nathaniel into a ‘dark place’ from which he wrote the title track And It’s Still Alright; which is as pertinent a song as you’ll hear on the subject of losing someone close to you; and you know what …….. it will make you smile. Two songs really stand out; the finale the dark and brooding Rush On and the one that quite rightfully takes the RMHQ Accolade of Favourite Song; the absolutely wonderful All or Nothing on which the singer sounds uncannily like Harry Nilsson! As something of a Night Sweats ‘fan and although I was aware of the laid-back Acoustic format this album would take; but it’s still been surprise after surprise as the singer uses his magnificent voice in a manner that has no right to be succesful; and the songs themselves? Boy oh Boy; can he right something touching, eloquent and eminently touching again and again.
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!
Blackie and The Rodeo Kings KING OF THIS TOWN File Under Music
The Kings of Canada Take Americana to Infinity and Beyond.
While I’ve dipped in and out of the Rodeo Kings back catalogue over the years; it wasn’t until the Kings and Queens album that I really began to see why they are Superstars in their native Canada. Then, of course their are the burgeoning solo careers of founder members Tom Wilson, Colin Linden and Stephen Fearing who all feature prominently in the RMHQ Back Pages. Originally formed way back in 1996 this is the band’s 10th album; and #Spoiler Alert ….. is quite ‘The Zinger’ in many ways, corralling many and various forms of what we know as Rootsy Americana and adding their very own special blend of Canadian Rock and Roll to give us something quite extraordinary in a very ordinary genre. The album starts with Hard Town, a Blues/Gospel hybrid which appears to tap into the current socio-political zeitgeist in a beautifully dark and moody manner. Cold 100, which follows is more like what we would expect, a claustrophobic ‘driving song’; but with extra grit and robustness that features some sublime bottle-neck guitar (from Colin Linden). It would be foolish to describe every single song; but there’s no filler here; every song is a stone cold killer; with the band switching track and mood with the greatest of ease. There’s even a hint of Tex-Mex and Mariachi on the eminently danceable Kick My Heart Around; and the lyrics themselves ain’t too shabby either. World Gone Mad is the type of Alt. Rocker that I love; a tightly packed melody, with everyone in the collective adding tiny bits to create a great big racket that needs turning up to 10 to get the best out of it. As I wasn’t sent a Press Release (#sigh) I’m afraid to tell you who sings what for fear of making a mistake; but it’s evident all three take turns at the mic and each singer brings his very own strengths to proceedings. Even though they have a Rock & Roll heart, every song here is carefully and calculatedly created to perfection; with the gently introspective Walking On Our Graves sung by Stephen Fearing still managing to have the power to surprise after all these years; as does the jangly Canadiacana of Medicine Hat which has some fabulous guitar breaks that reminded me of Duanne Eddy in his pomp. With three Award Winning singer-songwriters at their core, Blackie and the Rodeo Kings songs are always not just articulate and grown-up; but accessible too ……. these chaps are educated to to the hilt; but ain’t no smart asses! Selecting a Favourite Track certainly isn’t easy here; as every single song has it’s own merits that have touched me in one way or another in the last couple of days; but by today I’ve pressed ‘repeat’ a couple of times on two particular songs; Stephen singing the tender Grace is as good as anything on his recent solo albums (which I absolutely adore); and the addition of harmonica makes it sound like they’re sitting around a camp fire thinking of home. The other is the title track King of This Town which just about shades the award of Favourite Track as it’s a collective effort and has a beat that will have you putting just a little too much pressure on the accelerator pedal when you hear it in the car. Think Tom Petty fronting The Band singing an old Neil Young song and you will be halfway there. It’s still only January and I’ve already heard some great Roots Music, but it’s going to take something really, really special to arrive at RMHQ for this album not to be my Album of 2020. In fact I’ll tell you how much I like it …….. I’ve actually bought a copy with my own money!
What is the difference between Folk/Alt Folk/Americana/Blues Rock etc? I had seen The Lone Bellow at the Sage Americana Festival so they have to be easy to class as ‘Americana’ don’t they?…… but that was before I listened to this album! Zachary Williams, Brian Elmquist and Kanene Pipkin; under the excellent production of The National’s Aaron Dressner in his NY studio have produced in HALF MOON LIGHT an album to match their initial offering a few years ago. I Can Feel You Dancing could have come from a Bears Den album as the brass section slides into the middle of a very softly sung opener to reveal the first of their intricate harmonies. An especially song is the poignant August; a nod to Frightened Rabbit’s Scott Hutchinson after his very sad death following a bout of depression; yet only months earlier I had seen him lead a superb set – a very good reminder to a much missed singer. Having originally ‘filed’ this under Americana, there are clear signs of a gospel and almost evangelical leaning on several tracks just to demonstrate the ‘genre’ concerns I have and are still there after a few listens. Zach’s very powerful voice comes to the fore on Count On Me, with the harmonies I mentioned earlier coming in on Was It Clean; and Kanene makes the most of a fine drum backing on Just Enough To Get By. Favourites for me are the opener Can Feel You Dancing and Illegal Immigrants where Kanene dragged me into believing I had come across a Phoebe Bridgers track by mistake, but in all honesty I could probably have picked at least another couple to earn the Best Track accolade. On first listening this was a 7 but after listening to it during my daily morning walks (no interruptions) it has to be a very solid 8/10. I would have loved to hear Kanene Pipkin taking a major role on more tracks, but if that’s my only gripe I can’t complain; although it would have been nice to see them on a longer UK Tour to accompany this.
Review courtesy the ‘Original Rocking Magpie’; Bill Redhead.
Grown-Up Poptastic Anglo-Americana Never Sounded Better.
Anyone who follows us on The Twitter will be aware of the Hoo Haa it took to get a review copy of this release …….. thankfully ‘that squabble’ is over with; but had been any other artist in the world but Pete Molinari, I would have given up weeks ago. Anyways; we have it now and…. well……. it’s taken some ‘getting into’; as like all his previous releases; apart from his very unique voice, it’s very different from what has preceded it. Which is a good thing; because I love it when songwriters grow and develop; moving on ‘in a good way’ …… which has always been the Molinari Ethos. First song Goodbye Baby Jane actually illicited an OOH! The first time I played it …….. by Pete’s standards it’s a big old Alt. Rock sound, albeit with a cool melody and almost Glam Rock chorus; yep the title did remind me of Slade and to some degree that ‘memory’ carries on throughout the song too. Pete sounds like he’s been listening to a lot of different bands in the years he’s been off the radar, with several influences coming through songs like the psychedelic No Ordinary Girl where he sounds a bit like Liam Gallagher; but with typical Molinari chutzpah; ‘this is how you should have done it!’ And he’s right; it’s the finest song Oasis never recorded. Fear not; this is 100% a Pete Molinari album through and through; and the most commercial thing he’s ever released with Radio Friendly songs bouncing out of the speakers every couple of minutes. There’s never been a time in history when the World wouldn’t have been a better place for the grungy Garage Song, I’ll Take You There or his quintessentially English Pop Song, Please Mrs Jones coming out of the radio and defying you not to sing along. Obviously there’s not a bad song here; and I’m impressed that there’s a a distinct flow, taking you on a Kiddy Rollercoaster of highs and lows, with absolutely no peril involved at all. Pete still slides a couple of his trademark melodious Folk-Rock songs ; like the deep and meaningful Absolute Zero and then there’s the title track Just Like Achilles and Born To Be Blue with their jaunty tunes that gives them the capacity to make you sit back and listen to his wise words of wisdom, while shuffling to the beat. Selecting a Favourite Song here is a bit like standing in an orphanage and looking at all the cute and longing faces; knowing full well you are going to break a lot of hearts with those you leave behind. The singer’s love for all things Americana come through loud and clear on Waiting For a Train, and then Colour My Love is a doozy with a big ole Philles Records production and the piano led ballad Steal The Night is as good a song as Molinari has ever recorded and perhaps the whole album actually spins off this magical three minutes; but; and this is controversial ….. I’m going for …… cue drum roll ……….. You’ve Got The Fever; a delicious slice of moody Alt. Country flavoured Americana but with a Molinari cherry on top. What’s not to like? I’m no lover of the hype that accompanies Vinyl releases; but maybe ten years ago Pete Molinari was an Early Adopter releasing LP’s and 45RPM singles to an adoring fan base; but for the time being and for fiscal reasons, Just Like Achilles is a Download/Streaming only release; yet these songs just cry out to be played in that format, where the listener has to choose the time to invest in listening to music; and boy will you ‘listen’ to these songs when you get the chance.
Milk Carton Kids & Ryan Bingham Tine Theatre and Opera House NEWCASTLE January 29th 2020
I’m a fan of Texan singer-songwriter Ryan Bingham; but The Milk Carton Kids have passed me by; with their reviews being handled by the Legendary Roy Peak in Americae for us. So, with both acts on this double bill being popular on RMHQ I was pretty excited to attend tonight; especially as it was going to be in one of my favourite; if under used venues in the City Centre. Baring in mind how ‘popular’ Milk Carton Kids are; I was disappointed to see a few empty seats in the downstairs area; especially as there were a couple of dozen people sitting in the balcony; but perhaps they got a better view up there. Bingham came on stage to muted applause; but that was more to do with the house lights still being on rather than any slight; as the raucous applause and cheering that followed many of his songs would prove. His opening song; The Poet set the tone for his 50 minute set; slow, moody and deeply personal with his grizzled voice and nippy guitar picking settling the crowd down very quickly. As he re-tuned his guitar he told a delightful story about how his Mother had initially instilled a love of music in him as a child and also bought him his *first guitar. This led into the deeply personal Tell My Mother (I Miss Her So) which brought the loudest applause for a support act’s song than I’ve heard in years.
For a young man; Bingham has packed a lot into his years; which tends to end up in his songs, which come from the ‘Sing About What You Know’ guide book; and with songs as diverse as Jingle and Go, Broken Heart Tattoos and Crazy Heart in the locker; he’s a welcome torchbearer for the legendary Texan Songwriter Troubadours who came before him His first *guitar got another mention later when he told us about the first tune he ever learnt to play; which I’m not going to spoil as it’s a key part of his set; but it got both chuckles and ‘aaahhs’ from the receptive crowd. The final two songs; South Side of Heaven and Crazy Heart itself felt like an encore; especially as their introductions received loud hoots, hollers and applause before Ryan’s world weary voice once again sang about his world weary wisdom, in a way that belies him not actually headlining. *Disclaimer The next part of the evening is being written an hour after a ‘Twitter Spat’ with both the band and some fans (most who weren’t at the gig!) regarding an incident that I will talk about later. I will try not to let this ‘colour my words’ and just refer to my notes. During the interval there was a distinct buzz of anticipation in the bar; and I’m pleased to report that there was a very diverse mix of ages in attendance; which makes a nice change for Roots gigs in Newcastle. The dapperly dressed duo arrived on stage to tumultuous applause and whistles which stopped in the blink of an eye as they stood by the single microphone and went into the winsome Younger Years (?) which was full of delicious harmonies and sublime finger picked guitar from both chaps; reminding me of those early Simon and Garfunkel records. With a smile and a nod to acknowledge the applause Kenneth Pattengale and Joey Ryan regaled the adoring masses with a masterful A Sea of Roses; and as it ended the long haired Pattengale ‘complained about the clicking from a/the photographer’s cameras’ and instead of the ‘first three songs’ being allowed for photographs he requested they cease immediatly. At this stage I was already back in my seat after realising that the act was going to remain stood at the mic for the rest of the gig; and I saw one other making his way to the back; which left the third of our infernal trio; who began packing his cameras away (out of view …. or so he thought). Had events stopped there; all would have been fine and dandy; but our friend Kenneth got his eye on him; and taking on the guise of Sheldon Cooper from Big Bang Theory began to make fun, nay torment this chap …… to the amusement of several in the audience. This went on for nearly five minutes, with Joey Ryan trying to mediate and get the gig back on track; but ‘Sheldon’ wouldn’t let it lie and kept interjecting. Eventually sanity was restored and the concert continued; with a rather nippy Bluegrass song; that really emphasised their dexterity on guitar but their wondrous harmonies too. Seeing how ‘judgmental’ their fans are; I’m not going to guess at the song titles in my notes; and very few were introduced in the traditional manner; although I did recognise Broken Headlights and it’s whispered harmonies; Maybe It’s Time and New York; which was a definite highlight for me. Perhaps I’m not bright enough or perhaps even educated enough to ‘get’ Pattengale’s wacky sense of humour (I think the woman behind me was in danger of peeing herself at one stage; she was laughing so much); but he was easily distracted from the job in hand………. teasing Ryan about a song ‘written for a funeral’ and ‘hearing Ryan sing a particular song for the first time’ …. then deliberately putting him off by pretending to waltz to the off-beat. Then there was the obligatory gag about accents when someone called out a request (The Only Ones btw; and rather splendid it was too as they sung it ‘off mic’); and again; he just didn’t know when to pull up the metaphorical drawbridge. Although 70% of the audience seemed genuinely surprised; the duo came back for the contractually obliged encores; Hope of a Lifetime and The As and Clay followed by a very slow and wearisome Michigan; when the night was crying out for something up-tempo (they must know a feisty Bluegrass song that would fit the bill; or at least Wake Up Little Suzie!) As we all know music is very subjective; and we all like different things in different ways. Tonight Milk Carton Kids were technically exceptional; and their harmonies are up there with the very best of all time; but if you didn’t know individual songs in advance (as my brother didn’t) nothing really stood out of the pack. If it hadn’t been for the Twitter spat/attack this morning towards my alter-ego I probably wouldn’t have spent the last two hours writing this review.
The Most Powerful and Important Rock & Roll Record of the Decade.
Who knew the nascent Drive-By Truckers were originally formed in 1996? 1996? Seriously? 24 years ago? I guess they first crossed my path with A Blessing and a Curse; then I suppose I became a ‘fan’ with GO-GO BOOTS ……. which is still a ‘go to’ album every now and again. I’ve never seen the band play live; but did once see Patterson Hood on a rare solo foray to the North East of England. With such a rarified and even exalted history; Hood, Cooley & Co could be forgiven for coasting at this stage of their career; but HELL NO they still have fire in their belly’s! With so much going on in the US of A these days the songs on this album must have almost written themselves! You are almost lulled into a false sense of security with opening track Rosemary with a Bible and a Gun; if it weren’t for the title itself. A brooding orchestral back-fill behind a haunting piano builds and builds as Patterson takes us on a dark road trip that will eventually send a shiver down your spine with the pay off. Maybe I’m wrong but I can’t remember a Truckers song anything quite like it. That sentiment isn’t true of the next song; Armageddon’s Back In Town which is fire and brimstone fuelled Southern Rock Deluxe; and needs to be played as loud as possible with the car windows wound down and the pedal pushed right down to the floor. Deep metaphors, a melody worthy of Bernstein and choruses that will have audiences braying along with gusto combine to really get your adrenaline flowing like nobody’s business. That same high tempo and spirited Rock sound follows with Slow Ride Argument; only with Mike Cooley now at the mic; and on most albums would be My Favourite Track; but trails way, way behind the leaders here …….. as Drive-By Truckers deliver one of the most important albums of not just the year; but the whole decade. I must now jump to the final two tracks, Grievance Merchants and Awaiting Resurrection as they are imminently just as good as Slow Ride; and again on most other albums would be genuine highlights; but with such powerful songs like what I’m about to describe that come in between them; many will miss those three out …… but I urge you to listen intently and cherish them just as much. Now; sit back and get comfortable. I’m the King of Hyperbole when it comes to describing songs and albums; but the four songs that make up the middle of this album just ‘speak for themselves’ and prove that Patterson Hood is one of the Greatest songwriters of his generation. *Thoughts and Prayers is absolutely stunning and captures the current zeitgeist perfectly as he taunts our politicians and Social Commentators unmercifully ……. esp the line: “Stick it up your ass With your useless Thoughts and Prayers.” …….. and so say all of us! There’s an almost jaunty beat to 21st Century (USA) which comes up next and is a sparkling insight into Smalltown America or indeed anywhere in the UK pre and most likely post-Brexit. Okay; it’s the type of song Bruce has written over the years; but this is razor sharp and a damn sight more believable and fits in perfectly on this album. Next up, Heroin Again is probably the sort of feisty Alt-Rocker ‘with a message’ that I may have expected in advance; but when you really listen to the lyrics (beneath those searing guitars) it’s a very personal story about someone close to the writer and will bring a tear to a glass eye. Then there is just one more song to mention ……. Babies in Cages. Is it right to make such a horrible song my Favourite? Although ‘Favourite’ is probably the wrong description; but it is such an important song that I need to push it clear of everything else and let it breathe on its own. The title says it all; but the imagery and articulate way the singer describes the horrific scenes that befall our World in the 21st Century are absolutely mind boggling. “I bang my head against it Smash guitars and scream and shout Standing on the beach watching the tide go out Babies in cages Standing in the darkness to answer for our sins Children changing each others diapers in a pen Babies in cages.“ It’s the song that you hoped Bob, Bruce or Neil would write for us; but their day has gone …… all Hail Drive-By Truckers for keeping these stories in the public eye. “It’s Only Rock & Roll” the Rolling Stones once sang; but that’s the medium that has always spoke to and for my generation; and on this album Drive-By Truckers have used the power of song to not just touch our hearts and make us actually think about the world around us in many different forms; but somehow managed to do it without ever sounding worthy or patronising while entertaining us too ……. which is a helluva clever thing to do.
*For the geeks out there Thoughts and Prayers. – Patterson Hood – Baxendale Acoustic (Capo’d to G) Awaiting Resurrection – Brad Morgan – Drums and Grunts, Patterson Hood – Gibson SG, Lead Vocal and Heavy Breathing (2nd Solo), Mike Cooley – Electric Slide Guitar (1st and 3rd solos.)
Laid Back LA Country Rock With a Seattle Post-Punk Edge To It.
YAY! What a way to start a New Year! I actually received this album just before Christmas; and while I had promised myself (at Mrs. Magpie’s suggestion!) that I would not listen to any new music over the holidays I sneaked it onto my i-phone for a secret listening session in the car. (Such hi-jinks is how many marriages break up, I’m assured). Well ……. these self-confessed Country Rockers ‘blew me away’ as quickly as opening track Best Lonesome Friend; an intense alt-love song sung via a breathy rasping voice that sounds like the singer could break into tears at any second; which is always a winning combination around these here parts. While everything revolves around the songs from singer Andy McAllister; you can’t forget the meticulous time keeping from drummer Ryan Wykert and bass player Ben Coil, or indeed guitar player extraordinaire Henry Derek Elis; who hides in the shadows throwing out musical laser beams with the greatest of ease too; all together reminding me of bands like Crazy Horse and the early Heartbreakers too. A good solid band is only one part of the equation; for me it’s ‘the songs’ that separates the wheat from the chaff; and Cave Flowers have songs enough to satisfy even a weary old soak like me. Friendly Reminders is a dashingly fine laid-back Country song, in the vein of Poco but with a massive sting in the tail when you listen closely to the lyrics; and it’s a similar story with Midnight Movie; which sounds like it was written after McAllister had immersed himself in the the Eagles first album for two days solid. There’s plenty here for Americana fans to enjoy; with the imagery the band conjure up in Hideaways and The Stranger conjuring up their very own videos if you have even the lightest imagination in the world …… the pictures just unravel automatically as the words ooze out of the speakers. Although this sounds like ‘Classic’ Country Rock or Americana; McAllister slips in some social commentary into Little Worries and the impassioned Renters Life, both of which are well worth hunting out in their own individual rite. By the very nature of the band forming in LA there’s a refreshing laid back feel to the way these songs are delivered; but McAllister’s native Seattle post-industrial background sneak out in his songwriting; most especially in The Stranger and the ‘pedal to the metal’ Country Thrash of Great Hits too. Then; as is my won’t I must choose a Favourite Song; and while this is a complete Album; ‘all killer – no filler’ three songs really do stand out; and bode well for a healthy future for Cave Flowers. The magnificent Upper Hand has an unexpected dark crunch; but a very welcome one, plus it’s full of some clever wordery in the songwriting too. Track #3 Country Fan is a real ole Doozy and is set certain to be a fan favourite when played live; and I’m sure there are still enough Internet Radio Shows out there brave enough to give it a play or two. Then there is my absolute Favourite Song here; Trick Tears. Turn the lights down low, sit back and let Cave Flowers take you into a beautiful stratosphere inhabited by Eleanor Rigby and all of the other lonely people ….. tragically beautiful sums it up. From start to finish this is the type of Good Ole Country Rock that has you tapping your fingers on the steering wheel as you mouth the words in a vacuous attempt at harmonising.
The Best of American Music That Evolved Into Americana.
Even in these days of information overload on the World Wide Web and most probably Social Media, I’m still a great believer in ‘word of mouth’ when it comes to discovering good music; as that’s the format I hope RMHQ can still be in 2020. Which brings me to this album by Boston sexagenarian Vance Gilbert, who via ‘word of mouth’, recently came to the attention of Cary Baker at Conqueroo; one of our industries most illustrious PR companies; and has passed it on to us simply because he knows our eclectic tastes, and ‘he wants the world to find out about Gilbert!’ A brief look at Gilbert’s bio shows a man who treads a very singular path regardless of the financial consequences …… something of a ‘musicians musician’? Opening track Pie and Whiskey is a delightfully laid-back acoustic Americana-Folk song that reminds me of James Taylor AND Keb Mo! That’s the beauty of this album; Gilbert’s bizarre ‘influences’ come together to create what is almost pure Americana Music, as it gathers together Folk, Country, Blues, Soul and even dashes of Jazz to generate simple songs that are incredibly complex yet always easy on the ear. The Soulful title track Good Good Man slides in at #2 and feels like you are listening to a smooth 21st Century ballad singer in the mould of Brook Benton, but who can write a razor sharp song. Gilbert’s Jazz roots shine brightly on the humorous Zombie Pattycake and again on the slightly more rocky Trust; then he casually enters Randy Newman territory on the haunting Cousin Shelly’s Stationwagon; which kinda defies genrefacation. It’s a personal thing of course; but I love it when a musician can dip in and out of genres at will; and use their distinctive vocals to thread them altogether; and Vance Gilbert is a Master Craftsman in this sphere. The autobiographical Hitman and the beautiful love song Sunflower are the type of songs that we associate with those ‘coffee shop’ legends of the 1960’s but are also as contemporary as anything you are going to hear on College Radio today. As a ‘man of a certain age’ myself; two particular songs here felt like Gilbert was singing about me; and me alone …….. although they are probably very personal to him, himself. There’s a quaint false start to the jaunty Gospel-Folk of Another Good Day Above Ground (Lord) which is pretty much what it ‘says on the tin’ but very thoughtful too; and there’s a similar vein to the awesome When I Cross Over; which has some incredible lines tucked away that it’s easy to miss if you’re not careful. “When I cross over I’ll ask forgiveness Because I walk uncertain I walk on his shoulder My burning question about Heaven’s perfection Why can’t we have that Right here on Earth?”
That’s the joy in this great discovery; not just has Vance Gilbert got an amazing and very distinctive voice; but he can write a mighty powerful song too. Then there is the song that tightened my chest and made me forget to breathe for a few seconds. Wildflower. Yet again, it sounds like no other song here; yet somehow fits in quite perfectly. Part history lesson, part love song and part poetry Wildflower is as timeless as Americana and American Folk Music gets; harking back to the early 1960’s while evoking many happy memories of the 1970’s bed-sit singer songwriters I still adore; yet somehow still managing to sound as fresh as anything Ed Sheeran or Adele will produce this decade. I alluded earlier to Gilbert’s songwriting having poetic qualities; and that comes to fruition on the final track The Day Before November which is a fearsome Beat Poem about Gilbert’s childhood with more detail in every line than Scorsese manages in thew whole of The Irishman! Vance Gilbert has been around the scene in Boston and Philadelphia for a very long time, gigging, touring, supporting many, many ‘stars’ and releasing several previous albums; but this release is stunning from start to finish and really does deserve to bring him to a much wider audience across the globe!
I love this quote: “If Joni Mitchell and Richie Havens had a love child, with Rodney Dangerfield as the midwife, the results might have been something close to the great Vance Gilbert.” As the above quote from Richmond magazine suggests, Vance Gilbert defies stereotypes. It’s little wonder then that he also exceeds expectations. In this case, those two qualities go hand in hand.
“I’m black, I sing, I play an acoustic guitar, and I don’t play the blues,” Gilbert insists. That may be a broad statement, but it rings with truth.
Carman AD aka Drew Carman originally from Athens GA and once a regular on the Austin ‘scene’ is finally back after a musical hiatus, working a ‘real day job’ and raising a family, when the original ‘dream’ faded away. To some degree the adage ‘what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ applies here; as Drew’s ‘comeback’ record is mature, articulate and most of all melodious; neatly combining Classic Honky-Tonk with a razor sharp Americana edge to it. Opening track Diesel Engine Noises is a real Ear-Catcher as my friend Ritchie would say. If it came on the radio or better still; a juke box you couldn’t stop your toes from tapping and your fingers nonchalantly picking on an air-guitar. Then when you get home and listen to his words, you will realise what a sharp wordsmith this young man is. Wilderness follows and the mood certainly dips; but the use of an emotional sounding pedal-steel makes this tale of lost love almost mystical and certainly timeless. As we all know and discuss at length; ‘Americana’ comes in many shapes and forms; but the articulate way Carman conjures up the romantic imagery of Changed and most notably the rocky 89 Johnstown can only be described as ‘Americana’; as it couldn’t come from or be about anywhere other than Americae. The all too short EP closes with OUTRO- Well Wishes From Chester B; which sounds like a Radio DJ set to a sweet dance tune. Cute; but even better if I knew who Chester B was. Then there is Birds Sing; by far and away my Favourite Song here; and the type of slow Country Ballad I dream of hearing on Country Hits radio. There’s a delightful swing to the way Carman delivers his charming words; and the addition of a pedal-steel and wailing harmonica alongside a guitar player from the Vince Gill school of ‘less is more’ does it no harm at all. Who knows if those years away from the music world has helped rekindled a fire in Carman AD; but I thank the Lord he’s here to enrich my life.
Released January 10th 2020 carmanadmusic.com/music