THE CLUTHA – Live From Harvard (own label CLUTHA2019CD)

Live From HarvardThe Clutha were a big deal in Scottish traditional music in the 1970s although not as well known down here in the south as such bands as Silly Wizard and The Boys Of The Lough who were following similar paths. Live From Harvard was recorded in 1981 with the band very much at the peak of their powers. It is very much a product of its time and if you were around back then you will be familiar with many of the songs but you won’t find the pyrotechnics of Treacherous Orchestra or The Peatbog Faeries. In some ways it’s charmingly old-fashioned.

Lead vocals are handled by Ronnie Alexander, Erlend Voy and, most especially, Gordeanna McCulloch who is rated alongside Jeannie Robertson and Belle Stewart – indeed she may be thought of as one of the last of the great traditional Scottish singers. Completing the band are Callum Allan on fiddle and piper Tom Johnstone. There is a great authenticity about the music so much that the first song, ‘Jock Hawk’s Adventures In Glasgow’ really requires the lyrics to understand what’s happening and although ‘Tam Bowie’ is marked for “advisory content” I suspect that you need to be fluent in Scots to find anything offensive. This is the only time I’ve heard Tarwathie (as in ‘Farewell  Tae Tarwathie’) pronounced with a short a.

There are a few songs which we soft southerners knew well. ‘Tramps And Hawkers’ is a rousing come-all-ye and ‘Twa Recruiting Sergeants’ would be heard most nights. ‘The 51st Highland Divison’s Farewell to Sicily’ is sung fairly straight but is enlivened by an up-tempo setting of the melody. ‘The Forrester’ and ‘The Cruel Mither’ are well-known and ‘Peer Rovin’ Lassie’ would seem to be a variant of ‘If I Were A Blackbird’. Meanwhile,  ‘The Deerness Ram’ is a version of ‘The Derby Ram’ from Orkney. How it got there is anyone’s guess. Tom Johnstone gets to star on two pipe sets, the second of which ends with ‘Banjo Breakdown’ which is one of the most extraordinary things you’ll have heard in a long time.

The Clutha are still in business despite the loss of both Gordeanna McCulloch who passed earlier this year and Ronnie Alexander who died in 2017. Live From Harvard turns the clock back to a time that some of us would regard as a golden age.

Dai Jeffries

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‘My Apron’ – the original studio version:

THEA GILMORE – Small World Turning (Shameless Records, SHAME19001)

Small World TurningIf you’ve ever wondered what the sound of a Small World Turning is, Thea Gilmore’s first album in two years has the answer. It’s furious, witty and socially astute. It’s maternally fierce, compassionate and tender. It’s a state of the nation address. It’s a call to arms.

A sense of urgency pervades the album, as darkness skulks around the periphery. The premature fade-out of an intimate, bathroom-echoey, a cappella rendition of traditional lullaby, ‘Mockingbird’, opens up an unsettling sensation of loss. Later, the intensely lovely, bittersweet piano ballad ‘Karl’s Lament’ confirms our fears, “somewhere there are crosshairs on a mockingbird”. Listener, there’s trouble at t’mill.

Fortunately, Gilmore’s songwriting is on searing form, tackling cultural commentary with biting precision. Oxford’s notorious ‘Cutteslowe Walls’ provide the perfect allegory for the country’s ever increasing rich/poor divide, ‘where there’s a line at the foodbank, where they’re handing soup to the boys on the floor, where sleeping bags are blocking doorways, you’ll see the shadow of the Cutteslowe walls”.

That song’s brightly toiling percussion, suggestive of the kind of manual labour seen in the area’s once-booming car industry, is typical of the glove-snug fit of the musical arrangements – with a generous roster of artists including Sam Lakeman and Ciaran Algar making significant contributions. This review copy is light on detail, but Seth Lakeman’s distinctive fiddle graces the ominous ‘The Loading Game’ and Cara Dillon’s Irish whistle coolly pierces the warmth of countryish ballad, ‘Don’t Dim Your Light For Anyone’.

Brimming with fury, the fiercely spat out, heavily sardonic ‘Glory’ condemns media manipulation and fake news with its “welcome to brand new history”, much as the skronky angularity of ‘The Revisionist’ takes angry aim at right wing ‘populists’ – whilst also perfectly demonstrating the power of a well-placed Oedipal insult.

Shuffling percussion and chain-gang vocalisations lead the bluesy, pro-migration ‘Shake Off Those Chains’. A mariachi-style trumpet might suggest Mexico, as might the border-crossing closer ‘Dreamers’. This final lullaby appears to bring the album full circle. But its melodic echoes of Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’ plus Egan Stonier’s lamenting, Irish-style fiddle make it more uncomfortable than comforting: more Cormac McCarthy than AA Milne.

Even the vibrant ‘The Fuse (Let It All Come Down)’ – perky tv-jingle meets the gleeful sensuality of Kate Bush’s ‘Eat The Music – bristles with uneasy tension. The Kinks-ish ‘Blowback’ swarms with suitably deceptive pubby jollity, as does the “the people’s reactionary”, a public-school educated millionaire faux ‘man of the people’. Insert name here.

‘Grandam Gold’ (a Chaucerian-era phrase for wealth hoarders) is the most obviously “folky” sounding, with Dillon and Gilmore’s harmonies sublimely delicious. But there’s no mistaking the message, “take up your arms and prepare for the fight, accept what is simple or defend what is right’. Pick your side.

This album turns an incisive female gaze on a small world that’s increasingly turning off-kilter. It walloped me right in the maternals and isn’t about to let go. A brilliant, necessary album for our times.

Su O’Brien

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Artist website: www.theagilmore.net

‘The Fuse’ – lyric video:

THE SCHMOOZENBERGS – Awaken (Schmusic Records SCHCD01)

AwakenThe Schmoozenbergs are essentially a Gypsy Jazz band who have recently released their second album Awaken – and it’s a gently lovely listen. The video below is the opening track on the album, ‘Cortisol Swing’. If you click through you’ll hear a track with various tune and tempo changes embellishing the main theme – and that’s also when you start to wonder how eight hands and twenty strings (bass, violin, two guitars – all acoustic) can be so accomplished.

Allow me a slight digression and I’ll return to the album directly in a paragraph. It’s been oft remarked that there is something different about having a twelve inch vinyl album, a stylish sleeve and photographs – a tactile, tangible difference in handling such an album – let alone the debate about analogue sound compared with digital reproduction of music. There is then something more solid, classy about the whole 12” experience. I mention this because I first listened to Awaken in the car – several times – and thought it was ‘OK’ but didn’t get a strong sense of the band and their music. Back home, however, on the hifi something much more ‘rounded’ came through. My experience then is that the better the sound system you have – just use it, sitting and listening will repay all the time you take out your day and give to the album.

That said, the tracks also make for a pretty good accompaniment to whatever else you may be doing. If you’ve listened to ‘Cortisol Swing’ it’s a good and representative introduction to the whole album. There are eleven tracks, of which I particularly like the slight eeriness at the beginning of ‘Charmed Snake’, the exuberance of the title track and the mingling of the multiple influences in ‘The Finale’.

As their website puts it “Conjuring up the mood of 1930s Paris, fused with flavours of Eastern Europe and the energy of a campfire jam session, The Schmoozenbergs’ uplifting music will put a smile on your face and a spring in your step”.

The band have a number of concerts from September 5th to the end of the year, mainly in Derbyshire and the south/south west of England.

Mike Wistow

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Artists’ website: http://schmusic.co.uk

‘Cortisol Swing’ – official live video:

CARLY DOW – Comet (own label CDOW-002)

CometHaving made a name for herself in her native Canada, the banjo-playing environmental scientist turned singer-songwriter’s second album, Comet, the follow-up to her impressive Ingrained debut, should further enhance her international profile.

She sets the sound and tone with the opening ‘Brightest Time Of The Year’, a steady slow walk rhythm and slightly spooked banjo offset by pedal steel, violin and cello as it introduces the nature-themed imagery that runs throughout the album. If there’s a hint of psychfolk mid-way here, the Dobro-coloured, mountain-air breathing ‘Sunlight Remembers’, another song about partings (“I won’t ask you if you need me / All I want is to see myself in your eyes / One more time before you go”), seems to be flirting with a mix of early Velvet Underground and Cowboy Junkies folk strum.

Another interesting relationship centred track (“We’ll talk our way into a bottle/And you won’t remember a thing I say”), the instantly infectious ‘Comet’ (Maria McKee by way of Tom Petty) itself shifts the tempo slightly, its walking beat gathering pace on the chorus and handclaps liberally scattered around. It’s back to backwoods banjo sound then for the clanging ‘Tiger’s Eye’, a swampy sounding number that bizarrely put me in mind of Creedence.

More of an alt-country persuasion, ‘Dreaming Of You’ finds Matt Filopoulos twanging the guitar as the track trots along with lyrics that are back in the hills with spruce and wolves, and from which it’s just a short step to ‘Like Coyotes’, Ashley Au’s Mo Tucker bassline providing the spine as Dow’s vocals further underscore the track’s strong Stevie Nicks flavours as she sings “Someday I’ll be running like the coyotes / Someday I’ll be running like the wolves / Wherever water guides me I will follow / Someday we’ll be free enough to grow”. It’s a comparison that returns later on the Rumours-inclined ‘Too Bright’.

Of the three remaining numbers, ‘Something Lost’ and ‘Constellations’ features her banjo skills, the former (a swings and roundabouts number) adding cello, violin, piano and upright bass, the latter (all should I go or should I stay with its “blow it down or stick it out”) featuring pedal steel and Logan McKillop on ‘howling’. With Jeremy Rusu on accordion, a similar sentiment of relationships in transition informs the melodically bright ‘Cut & Run’, though whether you see this as cutting your losses (“I should have loved you when I had the chance”) or getting out while there’s still a chance (“let’s drive till we can’t”) depends on how you see the glass. Judging by this terrific album, for Dow it’s positively overflowing.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.carlydowmusic.com

‘Cut & Run’ – official video:

MIKE VASS – The Four Pillars (Unroofed Records UR005CD)

The Four PillarsThe four pillars of traditional Scottish music are, as you know, the air, the march, the strathspey and the reel. With this in mind, Mike Vass wrote the suite of music that became The Four Pillars for the 2018 Scots Fiddle Festival. He’s not greedy, though, and the album features three other fiddlers with Tom Gibbs on piano, Iain Sandilands on vibes and percussion and a string quartet whose fiddlers both play violins, of course.

I probably wouldn’t have begun with the Air section which features Lauren MacColl. ‘After Years’ and ‘The Ancient Day’ are beautiful tunes but slow and quite long and they might have worked better as a change of pace after the Strathspey section. Mike himself takes charge of the marches. The first is another slow tune, ‘A Handful Of Dust’ featuring himself on two fiddles while ‘From Regions Far Apart’ features all the supporting musicians. Again, it’s rather slow and if you’re looking for funeral marches both would do very well, although the vibraphone part in the latter might be rather incongruous.

Patsy Reid takes charge of the strathspeys. The first, ‘Martial Tunes’, is also rather stately, in the traditional manner rather than as music for dancing. ‘Thrown Away’ picks up the pace a little and builds up quite a head of steam by the end. ‘Torrent Of A Thing’ open with pizzicato fiddle and pizzicato viola, if I’m not mistaken, and involves all the players. It feels as though it belongs in a grand salon.

The reels are the province of Jenna Reid. ‘Frenzy In The Coda’ and ‘Under These Notes’ again involve the whole ensemble. As with all these pieces, Mike has followed the musical ‘rules’ but has taken the forms a step away from their original functions. This is not a record to put on for a ceilidh.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: www.mikevass.com

‘After Years’:

ALICE HOWE – Visions (own label AH002)

VisionsIt’s just three years since the Boston-based Howe decided to make music a full-time career, the catalyst being meeting Bonnie Raitt’s legendary bassist, Freebo, at a folk music conference. He invited her to Bakersfield, offering to produce her debut album as well as co-writing several of the songs, channelling such diverse influence as Mitchell, Baez, Muddy Waters and Taj Mahal into a collection that pays homage but is never slave to the 60s and 70s folk and blues on which she was raised.

Working with a tight house band, Freebo on fretless bass, Visions is a mix of originals and well-chosen covers from her parents’ record collection, kicking off with the Howe/Freebo co-write ‘Twilight’, a waltzing, reflective rootsy number about choosing between a relationship that pins you down or following the road stretching before you that afford as an early taste of her pure and airily flowing mezzo-soprano voice.

The first of the covers comes with a soulful, relaxed interpretation of Taj Mahal’s ‘Lovin’ In My Baby’s Eyes’, electric guitar provided by Fuzbee Morse with Al Keith colouring the percussion on congas. It’s followed by another co-write, the folksy fingerpicked ‘Still On My Mind’ with its nature imagery lyrics that again talk of memoires but also the call of a life yet unexplored and a restlessness as she sings how “I sat down by the riverside/Fearing I could drink it dry/And still not be satisfied”.

The sole self-penned number, coloured by John JT Thomas on accordion, ‘What We Got Is Gold’ is a gentle acoustic love song about valuing a relationship, especially when the life of a travelling musician means you may be often parted. Next up is the second of the five covers, Sam Cooke’s classic ‘Bring It On Home To Me’, a slow soulful sway on which her crystal vocals are complemented by Morse’s guitar licks, Thomas’s bluesy electric piano and warm trumpet and sax from Lee Thornburg and Paul Perez, respectively.

Freebo gets to revisit his past with the folk-gospel ‘Too Long At The Fair’, a song previously recorded by Raitt on her 1972 Give It Up album on which he played, the version here fairly faithful to that although you might detect hints of Marvin Gaye’s cover of ‘Abraham, Martin and John’ to the musical texture.

She stays with the blues for a slow burn though Muddy Waters’ ‘Honey Bee’ before amping up the charge for the bluesy swing co-write ‘Getaway Car’ (another life on the road track) with Thomas letting rip on Hammond organ and a full blown brass section scratching that itch.

The final co-write, another travelling troubadour lyric, is a country waltzer ‘You Just Never Know’ that brings in Jeff Fielder on dobro and Geoff Goodhue on mandolin, the album closing with one last cover featuring just Howe and Freebo for a simple strummed, slower paced and more reflective reading of Dylan’s ‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’. One of the dictionary definitions of a vision is something beautiful. Seems appropriate.

Mike Davies

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Artist’s website: www.alicehowe.com

‘Don’t Think Twice, It’s Alright’ – live:

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