JOHN MAYALL– Nobody Told Me (Forty Below Records FBR 022)

Nobody Told MeEven before I started to become aware of the blues in the mid-1960s, John Mayall was already a veteran of the British blues scene (though by the end of the 60s he had moved to the US, where he’s lived ever since). In fact, his 1967 album The Blues Alone, on which he played all the instruments apart from some drumming contributed by Keef Hartley, was one of the first albums in the idiom to find its way into my record collection. More than 50 years later, with innumerable albums and induction into the Blues Hall Of Fame under his belt, he’s back with another album for Forty Below Records – Nobody Told Me – and it’s very much the quality item you’d expect.

While he toured for a while in 2016-17 as a trio – ie. without a lead guitarist – those of us who’ve admired his ability to attract fine guitarists from Eric Clapton, Mick Taylor and Peter Green to Buddy Whittington and Rocky Athas by way of the underrated acoustic guitarist Jon Mark will be reassured to note that the album features a long list of classy guest guitarists as well as Billy Watts (rhythm guitar) Greg Rzab (bass guitar), Jay Davenport (drums) and his regular horn section.

Unfortunately, the promo copy and info sheets I received don’t tell me which guitarist played on which track(s), or indeed whether all the compositions are Mayall’s own. (Though apparently ‘Distant Lonesome Train’ was co-written with Joe Bonamassa, so Bonamassa presumably contributed the slide on that track.) But the other guest guitarists include Todd Rundgren, Steven Van Zandt (long associated with Springsteen’s E Street Band), Alex Lifeson (Rush), Larry McCray and Carolyn Wonderland (who recently joined his touring band).

Here’s the track listing:

  1. ‘What Have I Done Wrong’
  2. ‘The Moon Is Full’
  3. ‘Evil And Here To Stay’
  4. ‘That’s What Love Will Make You Do’
  5. ‘Distant Lonesome Train’
  6. ‘Delta Hurricane’
  7. ‘The Hurt Inside’
  8. ‘It’s So Tough’
  9. ‘Like It Like You Do’
  10. ‘Nobody Told Me’

Mayall was never my favourite blues vocalist, but the years seem to have been kind to him: there’s a gravitas to some of his singing here that I don’t remember from his earlier recordings. His piano, organ and harmonica are fairly laid back here, though there’s a typically Mayall organ break in ‘Delta Hurricane’ that I rather like. The songs are all solidly rooted in blues forms, and while I didn’t notice a classic like ‘Broken Wings’ or ‘Crawling Up A Hill’ or even ‘Walking On Sunset’ or ‘No Reply’, hard-core Mayall fans won’t be disappointed. My guess is that plenty of other people will be attracted by the line-up of guest guitarists, and if electric blues guitar is your thing, there’s plenty to enjoy here.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.johnmayall.com/

A very recent live performance by John and his band:

TOWNES VAN ZANDT – Down Home & Abroad (Retroworld FLOATD6377)

Down Home & AbroadIt’s hard to believe that Townes Van Zandt has been gone for more than 20 years, leaving behind some fine songs and memories of some uneven performances, in which his problems with addiction and bipolar disorder were no doubt played their part. The live double album Down Home & Abroad features performances from two pretty good nights. Disc 1 was recorded at The Down Home, Johnson City, Tennessee in 1985, and Disc 2 at The Tavastia in Helsinki, Finland in 1993. Inevitably, some of the songs occur on both CDs, but if, like me, you can never hear too much of ‘Pancho And Lefty’ or the somewhat-traditional-sounding ‘Dollar Bill’, you’ll probably enjoy comparing these two readings. (The other songs that are included in both sets are ‘If I Needed You’ and ‘Don’t You Take It Too Bad’, both fine songs.)

Here’s the listing for both CDs: while I’ve chosen not to comment on all the songs in this review, that doesn’t mean they’re less than interesting. I’m not sure Van Zandt knew how to write a bad song.

Disc 1 –Tennessee 1985. With musical support from Mickey White (guitar) and Donny Silverman (flute and sax). This set includes a couple of Van Zandt’s early excursions into talking blues, with a biting humour that is less upfront in his later material.

  1. ‘Intro’ Just a spoken introduction.
  2. ‘Dollar Bill Blues’
  3. ‘Pancho And Lefty’ is described as ‘a medley of my hit’, which I suppose is commercially all too true. Actually, while that’s an old joke that I’ve actually used myself, it’s typical of the wry asides that Townes throws in between songs, and they certainly don’t detract from the interest of the performances.
  4. ‘Buckskin Stallion Blues’
  5. ‘No Place To Fall’
  6. ‘Talking Thunderbird Blues’
  7. ‘Mr Gold And Mr Mud’ – Van Zandt was sometimes mentioned as both influenced by and an influence on Dylan: this one might remind you, lyrically, of ‘Lily, Rosemary and the Jack of Hearts’ – well, it did me…
  8. ‘If I Needed You’
  9. ‘Snowing On Raton’ is one of many songs in this collection I hadn’t come across before. It’s probably my current favourite.
  10. ‘To Live Is To Fly’
  11. ‘Don’t You Take It Too Bad’
  12. ‘Snake Mountain Blues’
  13. ‘Rake’
  14. ‘Fraternity Blues’
  15. ‘Colorado Girl’/’Just Like Tom Thumb’s Blues’ merges Van Zandt’s own song with a Dylan song from Highway 61 Revisited. Unexpected, but I rather like it.

Disc 2 –Finland 1993. The spoken introductions to the songs tend to be a bit rambling compared to the earlier set, and the set as a whole is a little less polished, and the overall tone darker.

  1. ‘Dollar Bill Blues’
  2. ‘Pancho And Lefty’
  3. ‘Brand New Companion’
  4. ‘Two Girls’
  5. ‘Lungs’
  6. ‘Rex’s Blues’
  7. ‘Nothin”
  8. ‘The Ribbons of Love’
  9. ‘Kathleen’
  10. ‘The Cuckoo’ is closely related to ‘The Coo Coo Bird’ as sung by Clarence ‘Tom’ Ashley, though Van Zandt includes verses I haven’t heard from recordings of Ashley. There are better TVZ performances available of the same song, but it’s still a powerful reading.
  11. ‘Brother Flower’ is a Van Zandt original: unfortunately (it’s really rather a pretty song), he apparently hadn’t sung it for a while, and was unable to get past the first verse: he apologized and went into the well-known track that follows (and which also features on the first CD).
  12. ‘If I Needed You’
  13. ‘Pinball Machine (1st Verse)’ is just an unaccompanied fragment of a very sad song credited by Van Zandt to Patrick Sky. However, on Sky’s Photographs the song is (correctly, I think) credited to Lonnie Irving.
  14. ‘Tecumseh Valley’
  15. ‘Flyin’ Shoes’
  16. ‘Don’t You Take It Too Bad’

The music of Townes Van Zandt belongs, I guess, in that broad area of Americana somewhere between folk and country: if you haven’t heard him before, you may want to draw comparisons with Woody Guthrie, Bob Dylan, John Prine, Joe Ely, Guy Clark and Steve Earle, as well as more mainstream country artists like Hank Williams, or Willie Nelson and Merle Haggard, who had a number one country hit with their duet version of ‘Pancho And Lefty’. But he had a voice and poetic sensibility all his own, drawing on influences ranging from Shakespeare to the blues, and some of the best songs in the rather broad singer/songwriter idiom are his. If you aren’t familiar with his studio work, this is a good introduction to his songs: if you know and love his work already but don’t have these sets, you’ll certainly want to add this to your collection.

David Harley

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).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: townesvanzandt.com/

It has to be ‘Pancho And Lefty’ – live on TV:

GARETH OWEN – I’m Out Of This Place (own label)

I'm Out Of This PlaceSix months or so after the release of his Rolling By CD, Gareth Owen’s new album I’m Out Of This Place is released on November 23rd 2018. Again, it’s a collection of story songs, all written by Gareth, very much in the Americana/country idiom. Gareth takes lead vocals, ably supported by Matt Park (pedal steel, bass, banjo, percussion, backing vocals), Lincoln Grounds (acoustic and baritone guitars, backing vocals), Rob Kelly (bass guitar), Paddy Milner (piano) and SJ Mortimer (backing vocals).

Here’s the track list:

  1. ‘Waltzing Kid Pt 1’
  2. ‘Ribbon Of Sky-Blue Lace’
  3. ‘Julie’
  4. ‘The Preacher’
  5. ‘Marie’
  6. ‘Waltzing Kid Pt 2’
  7. ‘Rosalita’
  8. ‘Out Of This Place’
  9. ‘Waltzing Kid’/’Raise A Glass’
  10. ‘Happy With That’

The prevailing tone on this album is of quintessentially country laidback melancholia, but there are moments here that hint at something more adventurous: for instance, the brief introduction to ‘Waltzing Kid Pt 1’, the dissonant piano linking the last verse of ‘Waltzing Kid’ and ‘Raise A Glass’, and even the biting wordplay in ‘Happy With That’.

Gareth Owen brings the same writing skills to his songs that he does to his verse and prose. His world-weary vocals are exquisitely suited to this material, and the supporting vocals and instrumental backing are always sympathetic: the pedal steel intro to ‘Marie’ is particularly attractive. SJ Mortimer’s vocals are more restrained than the backing vocals on the earlier album, and to my ear more suited to these songs.

The gunfighter ballad ‘Waltzing Kid Pt 1′ is spread across three tracks in a manner that might remind you of the Eagles’ variations on ‘Doolin-Dalton’ and ‘Desperado’ on the underrated Desperado album. This does allow the listener to focus on different elements of the story, with enough changes in instrumentation and delivery to hold interest, especially with the segue into ‘Raise A Glass’ in track 9. I applaud Gareth’s decision to sing this expanded version of the song straight: if you’ve previously heard it as performed by Gareth’s OTT alter ego Virg Clenthills, you might be surprised at how affecting it is.

‘The Preacher’ picks up the pace a little with a story song that might have appealed to Frankie Laine or Marty Robbins, benefiting from a full production dominated by pedal steel (nicely played), and deep-throated guitar somewhat reminiscent of Duane Eddy. ‘Rosalita’ benefits from a tinge of 60s/70s country rock.

While most of the songs here will be familiar to fans of Gareth’s alter ego, ‘Happy With That’ is the only track where Virg manages to make his presence felt, both in the spoken introduction and in the sardonic lyrics that characterize this insight into a seriously dysfunctional family. It makes a nice upbeat (in a black sort of way) ending to a fairly low-key selection of songs. If I have a reservation about this set, it’s that – in the absence of Virg’s onstage patter – it might have benefited from the insertion of one or two of Gareth’s more lyrically and/or rhythmically upbeat songs. However, it’s still a good snapshot of his songwriting skills, and any one of these songs represent a creditable performance.

David Harley

Artist’s website: www.garethowen.com

‘Marie’ – the Virg Clenthills’ version:

KARINE POLWART – Laws Of Motion (Hudson Records HUD014)

Laws Of MotionKarine Polwart’s latest CD – Laws Of Motion, released on 19th October 2018 – is her seventh release. It is co-produced by Karine with Inge Thomson (who, along with Karine’s brother Steven Polwart, seems to have provided most of the additional instrumentation for the album) and Stuart Hamilton, and it’s one of the best albums I’ve heard this year.

The CD came as a promo copy without a lyric sheet and composer credits, but from the publicity sheet I received I gather that some of the songs were co-written with Lau’s Martin Green, while there’s one I know to be a cover version. I guess the others are Karine’s own. She says “I didn’t set out to write songs on a unified theme – they’ve just landed that way. Perhaps that’s no surprise, given the times we’re in.” And in fact the themes of migration and war seem to predominate here.

  1. ‘Ophelia’ is an atmospheric song with a setting far removed from Hamlet’s Denmark. Australia, I guess, with its references to desert wind and eucalyptus? Perhaps it’s just that other songs here reflect the fear of nuclear apocalypse, but for some reason it suddenly reminded me of Neville Shute’s On The Beach.
  2. ‘Laws of Motion’, co-written with Martin Green, movingly observes the plight of the migrant.
  3. ‘I Burn But I Am Not Consumed’ is an epic mixture of spoken and sung lyric that addresses the 45th President of the US with the voice of “the ancient rock beneath the Isle of Lewis, birthplace of Trump’s mother, Mary Ann Macleod.” My guess is that Mr T. will not appreciate its pitiless analysis and reminder of his immigrant roots, if he ever hears it. But I do, very much.
  4. ‘Suitcase’ further develops the theme of migration, being about the Kindertransport, the rescue initiative that brought so many (mostly Jewish) children to the UK between Kristallnacht and 1940. The shadow of the death camps lies heavy on this intense lyric.
  5. ‘Cornerstone’ instructs us to “Tread lightly as you pass on by, and listen” – and yes, I think you should.
  6. Shinzaburo Matsuo sailed to Scotland after losing his family in Japan’s 1923 earthquake, and tended Isabella Christie’s celebrated Japanese garden until his death in 1937. The story is told in the beautiful ‘Matsuo’s Welcome To Muckhart’.
  7. I’m not sure what story lies behind the landscapes of ‘Young Man On A Mountain’ but it doesn’t seem to matter: the evocative lyric is carried perfectly by the melody and arrangement.
  8. ‘Crow On The Cradle’ will be familiar to old folkies: it’s Sidney Carter’s anti-war song, and well worth revisiting. Especially when it’s as beautifully performed as this, with some twists of melody and lyric that would somehow make it uniquely Karine’s own, even without the startling harmonies of the final bars.
  9. ‘The Robin’ takes a deceptively gentle melodic approach to a thoughtful lyric.
  10. The stunning ‘Cassiopeia’ takes much of its power from the contrast of spoken extracts from the 1979 leaflet Protect And Surviveissued by the Home Office during the Cold War with the fearful, unanswerable questions of a 9-year old“. One reviewer has dismissed the track as “perhaps fighting yesterday’s battles“, but I’m not sure we should be assuming now that “we are going to be survivors” any more than we should have done then. Strangely, the juxtaposition of speech and synth reminded me a little of Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds, but that doesn’t in any way reduce its impact.

Though Karine’s vocals and the instrumental work here are never less than perfect, this isn’t, perhaps, easy listening. Not, at any rate, if you pay attention to the words (as you should), though there are some fine melodies here. But Laws Of Motion is a CD that will repay close attention and repeated plays.

David Harley

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).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artist’s website: www.karinepolwart.com/

‘Ophelia’ – official video:

GILMORE & ROBERTS – A Problem Of Our Kind (GR! GRR08)

A Problem Of Our KindGilmore & Roberts are Katriona Gilmore (vocals, fiddle, viola, B3 organ and mandolin) and Jamie Roberts (vocals, guitar, percussion). Their album A Problem Of Our Kind, due for release on 12th October 2018, benefits from additional instrumental support from Fred Claridge (drums and percussion), Matt Downer (double bass), Sarah Smout (cello), Ben Savage (Dobro) and Matt Crum (melodeon). And an excellent album it is, too. Of the ten tracks on the album, five were written by Katriona, four by Jamie, and the final track is a traditional tune arranged and played by Jamie.

  1. Katriona’s ‘Gauntlet’ is a kind of murder ballad (or at least a “did he really do it?” ballad): Katriona’s fiddle adds a slightly old-timey feel, but the story concerns an English court case of 1818 whereby Abraham Thornton was acquitted of a charge of murder when the victim’s brother declined the offer of ‘trial by battle’. A fascinating story, and a very effective arrangement arrangement.
  2. Jamie’s ‘The Philanthropist (Take It From Me)’ is based on the life of entrepreneur/philanthropist Laurie Marsh. It’s an attractive song that displays his vocal and fretting talents.
  3. Katriona’s ‘Things You Left Behind’ has a more personal theme about the loss of a family member. It’s a lovely song with slightly country-ish Dobro and fiddle, and it suits her voice very well.
  4. ‘The Smile & The Fury (Jamie Roberts) is based “…on the powerful viral photograph of a young woman calmly smiling in the face of an angry far-right protester…” This is what I’d like to have heard more of in the 70s: rock music giving more than a nod to traditional music and instrumentation but not afraid to use contemporary material to address current issues.
  5. ‘Bone Cupboard’ (Katriona Gilmore) is a sinister song accompanied only by the barest minimum of clapping and percussion. That’s OK, I can appreciate sinister.
  6. ‘On The Line’ (Jamie Roberts) considers the not-always-sympathetic reaction of the traveller delayed by “a body on the line“. An awkward subject sensitively handled, with an ending that hints at a wider social issue.
  7. In contrast, for me, ‘Average Joe’ (Jamie Roberts) is lyrically a bit too reminiscent of the ‘plastic people/protest’ songs of the 1960s: I guess it’s not that easy to write sympathetically about the plight of the commuting classes and avoid a superior tone. Still, musically it’s an assured performance, very much in the folk-rock vein.
  8. ‘All The Way To Rome’ (Katriona Gilmore) is, according to the booklet, inspired by “two characters in the second series of the TV show American Horror Story.” Which means nothing to me, but it’s still an appealing song.
  9. ‘Just A Piece Of Wood’ (Katriona Gilmore) is a bit country/pop-ish, with prominent fiddle, as befits the subject – the relationship between a musician and her instrument. Nice.
  10. ‘From Night Til Morn’ is a traditional tune, beautifully arranged for guitar by Jamie Roberts. It may seem perverse to say so, given all the fine original material on this album, but this is currently my favourite track.

While there’s a definite tinge of folk-rock to this collection, it certainly doesn’t mean that there’s anything dated about it. By any standards, these are fine contemporary songs, very capably performed and produced. Recommended.

David Harley

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).

Buying through Amazon on folking.com helps us to recover a small part of our running costs, so please order anything you need as every little purchase helps us.

Artists’ website: www.gilmoreroberts.co.uk/

‘Gauntlet’ – official video:

Burning Salt’s “love letter” to Holloway Women’s Prison

Burning Salt

Burning Salt – Hannah Hull (vocals, guitar, piano), Bobby Williams (electric guitar) and John Parker (double bass) – base their music on Hannah’s distinctive voice and sometimes painfully direct songs. Among other things, Hannah is resident artist on Islington Museum’s Echoes of Holloway Prison project, focused on oral histories from Holloway Prison, which closed in 2016. She has used some of those transcripts, from ex-prisoners, prison officers and other staff, as inspiration for a number of songs to be released on the EP Dirt, for release on the 7th September 2018.

Hannah says:

“Many of the stories left me in tears. Not just because of the horror contained within them, but also the strength. I wanted to provide a platform for the stories and themes contained within them to be heard, listened to, connected with. These stories complicate the issue of prisons. They demand empathy, and confuse narratives of punishment.”

“I think this was probably the most surprising theme found within the oral history transcripts: love. Love for the prison, love for the prisoners, love despite the prison environment, love despite the incredible scale of pain and loss suffered by the women who end up in prison.”

As you might tell from the above, the six songs on the EP deal with difficult topics: not just suffering and loss, but the cycle of abuse, suicide and self-harm, cleaning up after dirty protests, and closes with an ambivalent “love letter” to the prison – ‘The Worst Place I Was Ever Scared Of’. In combination with Hannah’s unusual low-register vocals, understated yet with an extraordinary underlying intensity, this may not suit those who prefer their listening easy, but an exceptional recording that demands and deserves close attention. It may change the way you think about the prison system: it might even change your life a little. In any case, it’s an important release from a major talent.

Dirt will be publicly available on all major streaming platforms, and for digital download via www.burningsalt.com from 7 September 2018.

Burning Salt will perform the songs at a launch event on 7 September 2018 from 8pm to 10.30pm at the New Unity Chapel, 39A Newington Green, London N16 9PR. The £12 ticket price includes a special edition digital download of the EP and a poetry booklet.

David Harley

Tickets: https://dirtep.eventbrite.co.uk

Artist’s website: www.burningsalt.com

‘The Worst Place I Was Ever Scared Of’ – official video: