AROOJ AFTAB – Bird Under Water (own label)

Bird Under Water“World Ambient Music” is not a label calculated to set the pulse racing and it has been applied – or perhaps misapplied – to this album. There is a mesmeric quality to the rolling guitar patterns of Ali Farka Touré and the solo kora of Toumani Diabaté but I suggest that anyone who labels them “ambient” is betraying a lack of understanding of the cultures from which the music sprang.

Arooj Aftab is a singer from Lahore, now living in New York, who wrote or co-wrote with guitarist Bhrigu Sahni the five tracks on her debut album. While it is rooted in Pakistan’s traditional music, Bird Under Water also displays its western influences. There are drums, electric guitar, accordion and a trumpet and occidental melodies cropping up in such songs as ‘Lullaby’. There is also a sitar and the beautiful sound of a bansuri on the opening ‘Man Kunto Maula’. There are also sudden changes of style within a track so that ‘Aey Na Balam’, for example, allows the sub-continental instruments free rein for a minute before Arooj’s voice and Bhrigu’s acoustic guitar gather the track together.

Arooj’s style is reminiscent of Sheila Chandra but without, on this evidence at least, Sheila’s remarkable vocal power. Bird Under Water is, however, a beautiful record full of musical twists and turns and an imaginative mix of musical cultures.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website:

This is an old video of a track from Bird Under Water, ‘Aey Na Balam’:


BStJOften described as obscure yet she worked with John Martyn, Mike Oldfield, Kevin Ayers, and Mike Chapman, championed by John Peel (as the leading female singer-songwriter) and even Terry Wogan, during four well-received albums. And that was just in the 1970s. It’s interesting—and crucial regarding career—that Bridget St John was Dandelion Records first-ever signing and release, when folk’s second wave was rolling via Island in England and (Dandelion’s distributor) Elektra in USA. If Dandelion evolved around their first signing, hindsight and eclecticism suggest differently. The DJ said that “the main reason why we started the label was nobody else was going to record her stuff” – not Elektra, Island, or even the fledgling Apple?

Dandelion was a co-operative where artists had creative control, but when it folded in 1973 (“like a family break-up” St John recalled) the ethos was rare and tastes mutating. There was no Plan B. After John Peel’s death this has been accentuated by the sale of their publishing to a conglomerate, against Dandelion’s principles and a nightmare for those of its roster still active. (It would be even worse if Cherry Red Records didn’t exist.) These origins have put a particular spin on their careers, perhaps contributing to major labels’ lack of keenness and thus the obscurity tag.

Her first demo was made at Al Stewart’s home, thanks to her guitar mentor John Martyn. A boyfriend gave it to Peel at a gig, and within three weeks debuted on Night Ride in August ’68. That distant session is on this box-set at an almost-equally amazing budget price. The three LPs are on replica-label discs, plus singles, Montreux 1972, and a CD of (mostly wiped) BBC sessions 1968-1972. The latter was on a double some years ago, as was Montreux (on Thank You For…also from Cherry Red), but are here in context. It was this radio material, based on solid albums and gigging—like the Dandelion Euro tour sponsored by Polydor with Medicine Head, Beau and Kevin Coyne—that attracted a loyal following.

In a cover reminiscent of legendary folk labels—minimalist but evocative with her picture when a baby – Ask Me No Questions (1969) was produced by Peel in one ten-hour session at CBS Studios with Simon Stable on bongos, John Martyn and Richard Sanders on guitars. The seven-minute title track in doubled vocals of “Ask me no questions, tells me no lies”, with Peel ransacking the library for bird song and bells, is pure Dandelion and ’69. Still played live connecting her to the Dandelion people she says, it was one of the first tunings learned from Martyn. It opens with her recent debut single, the bass-string driven ‘To B Without A Hitch’ about France while enjoying “buttercup sandwiches”.  ‘Autumn Lullaby’ lilts through childhood memories of Richmond Park, ‘Curl Your Toes’ tells a by-the-fireside tale, ‘Barefoot And Hot Pavements’ about city wandering, and among the twin guitars one of her most beautiful songs, ‘Hello Again (Of Course)’. There’s even psych without the electricity, a plucking delight (‘The Curious Crystals Of Unusual Purity’). Appended from 45s are Cohen’s ‘Suzanne’ and ‘The Road Was Lonely’, a hypnotic ballad with rare backing harmony.

Peel called her voice and songs “full of woods and hedgerows, startled deer and hedgehogs”, and the rustic imagery and free-wheeling acoustic dexterity is a timeless debut. Songs For The Gentle Man (1971) came from November-December sessions costing £2,000 at Sound Techniques, also used by Fairport Convention and Drake. Produced by Ron Geesin, fresh from Pink Floyd’s Atom Heart Mother, he contributed organ (for Martyn’s ‘Back To Stay’), Sanders returning on guitar, with a chamber ensemble including brass giving a lusher effect. Looking more like an Edwardian muse than a hippy in Kensington Gardens with the photographer’s hound on the gatefold, scenes are woven tapestry-like from another mansion room: ‘A Day A Way’ with jangly guitar/flute/oboe about a seaside day trip, subtle echo-reverb (‘Early Morning Song’), while Donovan’s ‘The Pebble And The Man’ sounds like her own. Absences of people and places, time shared or alone, but it’s not melancholy (the closer’s 40 seconds is about growing into the loved person). Politics are outside her remit but it’s her most confessional LP. Some were ready for her debut as they’re on her January 1969 radio session.

The third disc mirrors Cherry Red’s 2005 release of Thank You For… (July 1972) with a full April ’72 Swiss concert. Here reprised is the MCA 1973 A-side ‘Passing Thru’ (from Leonard Cohen’s own cover on his first live LP), produced by Mike Chapman but uncredited when he rescued its shambolic session. (She guests on his Deal Gone Down the next year.) The Beeb played it a couple of times then decided it was too depressing! With Jerry Boys for co-production, the folk-rock sports the impressive cast of Tim Renwick and Quiver, Andy Roberts (Liverpool Scene, Plainsong, uncredited Beatles sessions), Gordon Huntley (Matthews Southern Comfort), Pip Pyle, Dave Mattacks, Rick Kemp, Sanders, and Martyn. Hand-picked for each song, a spontaneous spark with very few overdubs shines through. ‘Nice’ was on Polydor b/w ‘Goodbaby Goodbye’ about a break-up “at the end of time”; ‘Every Day’ is Buddy Holly with a missing chord! The anti-lynching ‘Lazarus’ (still played with added guitar-thumping) is from early influence Buffy St. Marie’s Many A Mile, and a dreamier version of Dylan’s ‘Love Minus Zero/No Limit’. ‘Fly High’ should’ve charted with its big production, ironically about the music biz (“So please remember all you have and not what you might lose, it isn’t always easy but is better when you do”).

The Montreux concert with Sanders features live premieres of the album, introduced in fluent French, including a hypnotic ‘Fly High’, and a faster ‘Ask Me No Questions’. A visual example is on YouTube from French TV in May 1970. The 19-track BBC disc has an amusing/awful interview with Peel, covers of Martyn, sitar-style guitar Donovan, Joni Mitchell, unreleased songs, and a 1971 In Concert duet with the late Kevin Ayers from their unfinished children’s songs. Her 1970 B-side of his ‘Yep’ is oddly omitted. She contributed to his Shooting At The Moon (1970) with Mike Oldfield (she’s on his Ommadawn and Amarok), and The Unfairground (2007).

After Chrysalis stymied Jumble Queen 1974 (reissued by Beat Goes On), when a ‘Melody Maker’ poll that year rated her fifth best female singer (Maggie Bell was number 1, Shirley Bassey number 9), she emigrated to Greenwich Village where she lives today. From buttercup sandwiches to fast food, it seems a little ironical as she never saw herself in England’s folk scene. A rare recent glimpse is an interview/performance on the excellent TV station of Cherry Red who also released a 19-track sampler (2010, CDMRED440).

“I’m not a narrative songwriter, I don’t sit down to write stories, I just write feelings out,” getting “high off people, ideas and things”. Voice, instrument and lyric allow a place and air for later listening. It doesn’t date, a beguiling delivery of observation and experience tinged with her favourite autumn and nostalgia-driven Englishness swirls like labelmate Beau with a pinch of John Martyn and dash of Donovan. Narrowly missing fame, this is supplanted by cult status more suiting her low profile. This box-set brings dispatches from a more innocent age, when communication meant exactly that and not technology, a time not just to listen but hear. Once heard, never forgotten.

Brian R Banks

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‘Nice’ – The Old Grey Whistle Test.

Asleep at the Wheel – Still the King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Wills and His Texas Playboys (Proper)

Asleep2Willie Nelson, Brad Paisley, Jamey Johnson, George Strait, and Lyle Lovett are just some of the guest artists on Asleep At The Wheel’s soon-to-be-released album Still the King: Celebrating The Music Of Bob Wills And His Texas Playboys.

Clearly, leader Ray Benson has some friends who respect his talent.

And why not? Ever since 1970, when Benson formed the now Austin, Texas-based group in Paw, Paw, Virginia, it’s preserved the Western Swing tradition of Bob Wills. This latest recording is the nine-time Grammy Award winning group’s third tribute to Wills.

But don’t let all the fancy, arena-filling names fool you into thinking that the music is anything but Western Swing at its finest.

It’s not a stretch to hear Merle Haggard’s distinctive vocals wrap smoothly around those of Asleep at the Wheel’s Emily Gimble on ‘Keeper of My Heart.’ They’re as natural as hearing Del McCoury – whose vocals enchanted everyone from Bruce Springsteen to the late Jerry Garcia – and his band perform ‘Silver Dew on the Bluegrass Tonight’ or Nelson joining the Quebe Sisters for a stunning performance of ‘Navajo Trail.’

Those songs and the others are brilliant and bewitching.

The real stand-out songs, though, are those where younger performers – including Brad Paisley, who lends virtuosic guitar work and vocals to ‘My Window Faces the South,’ and the Avett Brothers’ elegant performance on ‘The Girl I Left Behind,” – bolsters belief that Western Swing and its fans won’t fade away anytime soon.

Asleep At The Wheel doesn’t currently have any U.K. concert dates set, but this March 3 release is a terrific placeholder until they make their way back.

Nancy Dunham

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‘San Antonio Rose’ live:

CHIP TAYLOR – The Little Prayers Trilogy (Trainwreck)

chipAsk the average person who Chip Taylor is and, if they’ve heard of him at all, most will likely know him as the writer of ‘Wild Thing’ and, possibly, ‘Angel of the Morning’. The more media-savvy may also be aware that he’s Angelina Jolie’s uncle while pop trivia buffs might recall him as the writer of The Hollies hits ‘I Can’t Let Go’, ‘The Baby’ ‘and ‘Son Of A Rotten Gambler’. However, any self-respecting Americana devotee will know he’s much more than that.

Born James Wesley Voight, he released his first single in 1958 under the name Wes Voight as the only white artist to be signed to R&B label King Records, the home of James Brown, switching name and labels in 1959 and briefly becoming a professional golfer before joining forces with Al Gorgoni in 1965 as Just Us, expanding to add Trade Martin as Gorgoni, Martin and Taylor Martin in 1971 and releasing the first of their two albums, the same year as his own solo album debut, ‘Gasoline’. Between then and 1979 he released a further five solo records, including the seminal ‘This Side of the Big River’, before dropping out of the business again, this time to pursue a career as a professional gambler.

He resumed music in 1996, but it would be a further three years before the release of comeback album, ‘Seven Days In May’. Two years later came the remarkable ‘Black & Blue America’ with its title track memoir of America between 1955 and 1966 and two numbers featuring Lucinda Williams. That year he also met Carrie Rodriguez, leading to a writing and recording partnership that would produce three studio albums over the course of the next four years before Taylor resumed his solo work in 2006 with ‘Unglorious Hallelujah’, following up with ‘New Songs of Freedom’ and 2011 Grammy nominee ‘Yonkers NY’. That year also saw ‘Rock n Roll Joe’, a tribute to the genre’s unsung heroes in collaboration with John Platania and Kendal Carson, while his most recent and fifteenth studio album (including one with his granddaughters and a fund raiser for Austin’s Cactus Café) was 2013’s ‘Block Out The Sirens Of This Lonely World’.

Now comes this latest set, a hushed, intimate collection that started out as a set of demos, became a single album project and then grew into three and has, in perhaps something of an overstatement, seen him being tagged country’s answer to Leonard Cohen. One thing they do have in common, other than a tendency to draw upon their extensive and often troubled love lives, is that neither actually “sing” as such. Even back in the day, although Taylor was known to rock it up now and them, for the most part he had a hushed, semi-spoken style reminiscent of a narcotic Willie Nelson. These days, his voice varies between a grizzled burr and a gravelly whisper, more or less narrating the lyrics in a manner that veers between naked confessional and simmering anger. The backing on all three discs is barely there, usually just a muted piano or quiet acoustic guitar, which reinforces the nature of the material. The subject matter on the first disc, Behind The Iron Door,  is heavily veined with social and political comment, but always comes from a very personal place, in terms of either the narrator or the protagonist.

Unquestionably, the standout here is ‘Sleep With Open Windows’, the first of two duets with Lucinda Williams, backed by pump organ and achingly sung in the persona of a convict’s longing. Indeed, as the title hints, incarceration looms large throughout, the universally-themed opening number, ‘He’s A Good Guy (As Well You Know)’ with its mournful flugelhorn, asking not to pre-judge ex-cons while ‘Solitary’ addresses a more specific subject, the cases of Albert Woodfox, Thomas Silverstein and the late Herman Wallace who, between them, have spent 112 years in solitary confinement. Both numbers reappear on disc 3, ‘Little Prayers’, in even sparser form, alongside the soberly poignant ‘I Wish I Could Die Just One More Time’, inspired by the last words of a man on death row and, ‘The Supreme Court’ serves reminder that it is sworn to be the lighthouse to the weak and those who lack justice

He also recognises that imprisonment isn’t only about being locked up, but also about being locked in, about trying to escape who you are and become who you want to be, a theme that informs the second stunning Williams duet, ‘I’ll Only Be Me Once’ and, on disc 2, ‘Love and Pain’, ‘Nothin’ Comin’ Out Of Me That I Like’ and the waltzing shuffle ‘Hold It Right There’.

There’s other specific stories, a restrained anthem with a twangy guitar, ‘Nine Soldiers In Baltimore’ is an inspirational account of the nine Catholic activists who, in 1968, burned 378 draft files in a parking lot to protest the Vietnam War while ‘Ontario Crimes’ is sung in the voice of a witness to the religious feuds between Irish immigrants in Biddulph, Ontario that , in 1880, led to the massacre of the Donnelly family by an armed mob for which no one was ever convicted.

Likewise, ‘Ted Williams’ talks of freedom and America, referencing the Mexican-heritage baseball player of the title, blind Chinese human rights activist Chen Guangcheng and Pedro Gonzalez, a Mexican telegraph operator for Pancho Villa who became a hugely and popular LA radio personality in the mid 30s who, the authorities scare d of his influence among the Hispanic community, was sentenced to 50 years in a trumped up rape charge, was subsequently deported to Tijuana and only allowed back into America when he was 78 (90 according to Taylor).

Elsewhere he talks of battling segregation and racism (‘Used To Be A White Boy’, a tribute to his father Elmer), the family’s heritage and universalism in ‘Czechoslovakian Heaven’ and throws out a plea for kindness and fellowship in an age where there seems far too little to go round with ‘Merry F’n’ Christmas with its gospel female chorus.

It’s not all so serious, on the lighter Love And Pain set (which features Platania on guitar), ‘Bardot’ (where the Cohen comparison does stand), is a cautionary tale about the supposed corrupting influence of the mass media, like naked women in National Geographic, ‘Track 224’ is a late night jazzy prowl through love’s minefield while ‘Girl & Boy Thing’, ‘Joan’s Song’ and ‘The Same Way’ are all warm, fuzzy avowals of love for his first (and following divorce and later remarriage) current wife, Joan.

It may not make him any more familiar to the man in the street and it’s probably not the one you’d recommend as a first listen for the uninitiated, but for those who know his work and for those prepared to listen, much is up there with his and Americana’s very best. Amen, indeed.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website:

My sort of Christmas song:

WES MCGHEE – Bead Mountain, Bad Roads & Borders (Terrapin TRP3CD1714)

wesBorn in Leicestershire, following a seven year contractual battle with a record company that did not warm to his notion of fusing psychedelic rock and country, McGhee finally gained his artistic freedom, formed his own label and, in 1978, released his debut album, Long Nights And Banjo Music. Over the next eight years he released a further five albums via Terrapin, Airmail, Landing Lights, Thanks For The Chicken, a live recording that featured long time collaborator Kimmie Rhodes as well as accordion legend Ponty Bone, and 1987’s Zacatecas, a title that reinforced McGhee’s affinity with the TexMex or Border Music being made by the likes of Ry Cooder, Butch Hancock and Tom Russell.

During this period, a time when Americana (as it was not yet termed) had still not found any real foothold in the UK, McGhee, now largely based in Austin, was an early homegrown practitioner of what was then being tagged alt-country and at the forefront of the imminent roots music explosion, to the extent of becoming the first non-Texan to be awarded a Songwriter’s Recognition Night by the Austin Chronicle at Austin’s Soap Creek Saloon and the first non-US national to be signed to the country’s leading publishing company, Bug Music.

Putting Terrapin into cold storage for a while, McGhee’s next album, Neon and Dust, emerged in 1990 on Minidoka to be followed by three released via Road Goes On Forever before resurrecting Terrapin in 2000 for Alcazar, an instrumental album combining Spanish guitar and oud, released under the name of Joaquin Romas, to be followed by 2003’s Mexico and, two years later, Blue Blue Night.

At this point, fate, and, I suspect a few too many packs of cigarettes, he was diagnosed with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease (COPD), an affliction of the lungs and airways which, as you might imagine, makes singing none too easy. However, following an operation to bring it relatively under control, he’s picking up where he left off, with a new album due sometime this year. Before then, however, by way of both a retrospective and, for many, an introduction, he’s put together this 3-CD set, a 46 track set drawn from his previous releases, variously remastered, remixed or, in some cases, re-recorded, along with a booklet containing background notes and full track credits.

Given the number of songs included, it’s hard to know where to start and impossible to mention them all, especially in any sort of career timeline given they follow no chronological track listings. However, the first disc kicks off with the twangy resonant guitar instrumental ‘Bead Mountain, Valera’, taken from 1985’s Heartache Avenue, before heading into ‘ Texas #1’, the first of several numbers in praise of the state (and state of mind) he calls a second home. That’s from Airmail, which also provides ‘How Do We Get There From Here’, an early introduction to McGhee’s affection for Border Music, while this first disc also includes such classics as ‘No Angel On My Wing’ (with Patty Vetta on harmonies), telecaster led waltzer ‘Cheater’s Own Blues’, brass embellished slow burn blues ‘Heartache Avenue’ and, with Bone on accordion, Lloyd Maines on pedal steel and Rhodes, Vetta and Jimmie Dale Gilmore among the backing vocals, the six minute ‘Neon and Dust’ from Landing Lights.

Landing Lights also provides the opening cut on Disc 2 with the reflective regret-stained (‘They Used To Say) Train Time’ and, heavily TexMex flavoured, unfolds to include seven and a half minute seminal border ballad ‘Monterrey’, the Mexican-sung ‘El Sol Que Tu Eres’ with McGhee, on bajo sexton and sharing vocals with Vetta, ‘Drink Your Dreams Away’, the Russell-like ‘Ciadad Acuna’, a waltzing ‘Ghost of Dale Watkins’ and even a taste of ‘Alcazar’ with the evocative ‘Ghazal #3’, before closing up with a reprise of ‘Bead Mountain’ (think David Lynch meets Johnny Cash) and the thirteen-minute epic elegy ‘Texas #2 Parts 1 and 2’ featuring the voices of the late Roxy Gordon and Grandma Sarah Bodell.

The third disc is a bonus selection gathered together under the title Scars, Bars & Red Guitars , a collection of largely uptempo songs reflecting McGhee and the band’s countless live shows and arranged as a set list, bookended by ‘Endless Road’ and ‘Moon on the Brazos’ from Mexico and taking in early nuggets ‘Long Nights & Banjo Music’ and the George Jones-like honky-tonker ‘Whisky Is My Driver’, the latter featuring Kimmie Rhodes on harmony, as do the brassy swing ‘Get Your Feet From Under My Table’ and honky-tonk waltzer ‘I Wouldn’t Think Twice’ while   ‘1000 Ways To Be Bad’ is a fully-fledged duet.

There is a minor niggle in that there’s no indication which tracks have been re-recorded or remixed or, given that some of the songs have featured on more than one album, which version is included here, but otherwise this is a very welcome reminder of a somewhat overlooked pioneer of the alt-country/Americana movement and the many great songs he has contributed to the genre. Long may he continue to do so.

Mike Davies

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From 2008, ‘Monterrey’ live at The Mean Fiddler:

The April Maze – new single and album


Released 4th May 2015 by MGM.

Photograph by Lilli Waters
Photograph by Lilli Waters

Beloved indie duo The April Maze launch 2015 with their highly anticipated new studio album Sleeping Storm. Steeped in their signature haunting harmonies, masterful cello/vocal hybrid and vintage 60s/70s vibe, Sleeping Storm is an album for the lost, the disenfranchised, and the lovelorn.

Whilst still firmly grounded in their folk roots, this new offering moves toward a more prog folk- rock sound, bent in the spirit of Mumford and Sons with a dreamy darkness akin to Fleet Foxes and First Aid Kit. The album opens with the hushed Sleeping Storm where banjo, cello and Sivan Agam’s honeyed vocals rise, fall and intertwine, followed by the lyrical melancholy of I’ve Seen the Rain, dedicated to the sudden death of a friend at sea; and Scout Hall, which narrates the origins of the duo’s hearts-on-their-sleeve love that they are so adored for. Anthemic folk-rock stomps punch through with Don’t Let the Bastards Bring You Down (about bullying), anti-coal-seam gas protest song Leave it in the Ground and The Bishop Who Ate His Boots (a quirky true story about Todd’s great-grandfather).

The April Maze are duo Todd Mayhew and Sivan Agam who formed 7 years ago in Melbourne and leapt into the spotlight in 2012 when their second album, an intimate stripped-back covers album Two went global. Capturing over 70,000 plays in the first week of release, Two featured in the top 100 favourite new releases of the world’s biggest music streaming service Spotify alongside Lana Del Ray & Birdy.

Now fresh off winning the hearts of the British with rave reviews, national airplay, sell out shows and securing London management, The April Maze are taking their music to the next level. With Agam’s soul-folk vocals likened to Cass Elliott accompanied by her ‘growling cello’ combined with Mayhew’s impassioned vocals and spirited banjo and guitar playing, their music glows with the streets of 70s San Francisco.

Sleeping Storm was produced by Tim Carr (Matt Corby, Gurrumul, Mark Ronson, JayZ, Flea) at 301 Studios Sydney and was crowd funded by dedicated fans of the duo. The April Maze’s essence is best caught live – their warm, intimate show will have you firmly addicted. With spectral dustbowl blues, vengeful hoedowns and pared back swoon songs The April Maze’s sound is for all-weather – to curl up with on rainy days, to hold fast to in inclement weather, or to dance to in a sun-soaked summer.

“Indie alt-folk, much influenced by the sound (and fashions) of 70s San Francisco, Agam’s voice a rich cocktail of dark molasses and sweet honey”

Quirky, endearing and engaging, their songs are delicately sparse, with room to breathe and expand, an impression augmented by only sparing use of percussion” The Oxford Times.

If you would like to order a copy of an album (CD or Vinyl format), download a copy or just listen to snippets of selected tracks then click below to be taken to our associated partner Amazon’s website (use the left and right arrows below to scroll along or back to see the full selection).

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“An originality that is exciting and inspiring to experience live…with their rich, human vocals, the live show has an amazingly full and deep sound” The AU Review

 Hear the single, ‘I’ve Seen The Rain’: