INNES WATSON’S GUITAR COLLOQUIUM – Guitar Colloquium (ISLE Music Scotland ISLE06)

Guitar ColloquiumI’m a little late with this one, for various reasons: Innes Watson’s CD Innes Watson’s Guitar Colloquium was due to be released on the 13th January 2019. However, now I’ve finally caught up with it, it’s too good not to review. Innes Watson is a multi-instrumentalist from Glasgow. It tells us on his website that he’s “A composer of fiddle tunes, string arrangements, guitar music, songs and much more“, and those talents are well displayed on this CD. He’s supported on this set of instrumentals by a variety of other guitarists playing acoustic, electric, tenor, electric tenor and bass guitars, as well as two drummers, two fiddle players, and a cello player, all well-known on the Scottish contemporary music scene.

Here’s the track list – all titles are credited to Innes Watson except as specified below.

  1. ‘Prelude For Sandy’ arranges the heck out of a simple chord sequence.
  2. ‘Doo Da’ is based around a sprightly tune with a structural resemblance to ‘The Little Beggarman’: coincidental, no doubt, since the explanation for the title in the notes makes no reference to Auld Johnny Doo. Nice instrumental harmonies and a tasty acoustic guitar break.
  3. ‘Feds’ (traditional arranged by Jack Evans and Innes Watson) is a variation on a tune often called ‘Waiting For The Federals’ (among many other names, including ‘Seneca Square Dance’). It’s not very danceable in this form, but it is very listenable, moving from a repetitive first section to a more literal but relaxed reading of a tune, to a slower, jazzy electric guitar noodle, and back down the list. Very nice.
  4. ‘Mando Endo’ is described in the notes as “a slow air subjected to the mandolin“, though I don’t hear anything recognizable as a mandolin here. I do hear some very nice Celtic-ish guitar, however, which seques abruptly into the next track.
  5. ‘Udon Noodle’ is altogether funkier. A noodle it may be, but it’s suitably nourishing to the ears.
  6. ‘Stubbs’ apparently takes its name from Stubbington in the South of England, but combines some funky riffing with a tune that would be quite at home in a ceilidh. It even got close to getting me dancing, even though I realized long ago that I perform better in the band than on the dance floor.
  7. ‘Waste Not’ starts with a jazzy chord sequence and then evolves into a guitar-dominated minor theme that segues into the next track.
  8. ‘Waste’ is, by contrast, a brisk piece that nevertheless echoes the previous track in places.
  9. ‘Misty The Cat’ (Paul Jennings, arranged by Innes Watson) starts with Celtic-ish guitar but picks up other instruments as it goes. Fun.
  10. ‘For Queen Nell’ is an intriguing tune: I particularly like the way the counterpoint bass and the distorted electric guitar on the playout.
  11. ‘Wee Dafty’ is described in the sleeve notes as “my attempt at writing a filthy chic hornpipe…” I have to say that the explanations of how the titles came about on this record are almost as entertaining as the tunes themselves. It takes a while to get to the hornpipe section, but it’s worth waiting for. Perhaps it’s as well that no words made it to this cut, though.
  12. ‘Roger’ is an attractive, deceptively simple piece apparently named for Roger Bucknall of Fylde Guitars.
  13. Fiddles and cello add depth to the guitars in the gently flowing ‘Cowboy & The Pussycat’.
  14. ‘Glasgow Guitar Colloquium’ (Innes Watson, arranged by Andrea Gobbi, Barry Reid, Innes Watson) features pretty much the whole band making whoopee over a repetitive riff, building up to some hysterical fiddlework. I have to admit that I had almost as much fun listening as they seemed to have recording it.

This is a hard album to classify. It has elements of folk and even folk-rock; some pieces are decidedly jazzy and even have elements of jazz-funk, though most of it seems closely and carefully arranged rather than improvisational. But who says it needs to be classified anyway? There is a great deal of flawlessly played and beautifully orchestrated guitar that transcends musical barriers, with solid support from a group of very sound musicians, and I think it will appeal to many people as much as it does me. And I like it very much.

David Harley

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Artist’s website: inneswatson.co.uk/

Promo video:

STEVE GARRETT – Discover And Endure (Alt Mor Records ALT-MOR2)

Diiscover And EndureSteve Garrett’s Discover And Endure consists of solo electric guitar pieces, “inspired by stories and experience of landscape, exploration and human endurance.” On this CD his Gibson ES-335 is sparingly augmented with some minimal but effective looping/drone and percussive effects by way of an Electro-Harmonix Freeze pedal, and a sub-octave pedal (an EH Octave Multiplexer perhaps?). While you may associate solo electric guitar with jazz – and Steve is clearly at home in that genre – some of the source material here is actually quite folky, and there’s also an ambitious take on a musical gem by Gustav Holst.

Here’s the track listing:

  1. ‘Discover And Endure’ was composed by Steve Garrett, taking its inspiration from the RRS Discovery expedition to the Antarctic between 1901 and 1904. Conceptually, it could be described as the centrepiece of the CD, in that the team at RRS Discovery have played a large part in the project and the forthcoming launch event. Indeed, the accompanying booklet includes a number of photographs of Steve’s own Antarctic landscape watercolours. Though it’s not the longest track on the CD, it packs a wide range of dynamic and musical variation into its four minutes and 43 seconds.
  2. ‘Summer River’ is another Steve Garrett composition, representing sunlight shimmering on water. It features melodic lead voicings over an arpeggiated loop, and certainly offers a relaxed ambience to match the experience it represents.
  3. ‘Lament For The Children’ takes as its starting point a heartfelt 17th century tune by Padruig Mor MacCrimmon “from the piobaireachd tradition … Dedicated to those who have endured the loss of a child.” (MacCrimmon himself lost seven of his eight sons within the space of a year.) While Steve sets parts of the tune against a drone, much of this rendition is chordal, giving it a very different feel to the same tune played on the pipes, as do the very clean tone of the guitar and the freer (presumably improvised) mid-section. What matters, though, is that it somehow maintains both the beauty of the melody and its intrinsic melancholy.
  4. ‘Midwinter Gathering’ is another of Steve Garrett’s compositions. Percussion effects recalling a rather muffled bodhrán (though actually meant to represent “the chaotic footfall of ceilidh dancers” are set against a sprightly reel in the first section, followed by ‘A folk-rock jam section‘. Almost a sub-polar, instrumental counterpart to Bill Caddick’s ‘Winter Fair’. I particularly like this one.
  5. ‘Egdon Heath’ adapts Holst’s underrated composition, originally dedicated to Thomas Hardy. (Egdon Heath is the fictitious area of Wessex which is the setting for The Return Of The Native and features in a number of Hardy’s other stories.) While the intrinsic nature of the instrument is inevitably unable to match the range of instrumental colour and dynamics we hear in an orchestral rendition, this adaptation does capture much of the atmosphere of the piece, and the restrained use of a drone effect adds a richness that would be hard to achieve in a purely acoustic transcription.
  6. ‘Lassie Lie Near Me’ (Roud B44150) is a folk song well-known in association with a lyric collected and adapted by Robert Burns, and a melody sometimes attributed to Thomas Blacklock. This version is faster and freer than I’ve heard in most vocal versions, but it makes an attractive solo piece.
  7. ‘Clifftop Storm’ is another piece by Steve, which he describes as “Variations on a theme by Dave Grohl over a desert drumbeat.” I can’t comment on its resemblance to anything by Foo Fighters, but it seemed eerily appropriate on my iPod when caught in a rainstorm while hillwalking in Cornwall. The section with single string work over a drone is jazzier, and contrasts with the more chordal sections that precede and follow it.
  8. The CD finishes with Steve’s ‘Black Sail Hut’, inspired by a stay at the very remote hostel at the head of the Ennerdale valley, in the Lake District. It’s a gentle, jazz-accented piece that reminded me a little of John Martyn’s ‘Small Hours’, in atmosphere if not in melodic content. Lovely.

While some of Steve Garrett’s admirers have emphasised the serenity and tranquillity of his performances, don’t mistake this for ambient music of the aural wallpaper persuasion. Behind that cool, clear single-string work and those unaggressively jazzy chords, there’s sensitivity as well as technique, and musicality that goes far beyond easy listening. While I can’t altogether like the tone of the percussive effects, the CD as a whole certainly had me reaching for my Les Paul…

Fittingly, the album will be launched on April 5th at 19:30, at RRS (Royal Research Ship) Discovery, the ship that carried the Discovery Expedition (a.k.a. British National Antarctic Expedition) and now a visitor attraction at Discovery Quay, in Dundee.

David Harley

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Not from this album, but recommended:

MARK MANDEVILLE & RAIANNE RICHARDS – Live In Manitoba (Nobody’s Favourite Records NFR041)

Live In ManitobaMark Mandeville and Raianne Richards are well known on the East coast of the US and Canada, and their latest CD, Live In Manitoba, features a classy selection of live performances from their thirteen date house concert tour in Canada back in 2017.

The songs feature intelligent lyrics set against attractive and uncomplicated folk-y melodies in the best tradition of Americana, accompanied by unpretentiously accomplished acoustic guitar and a variety of instruments including harmonica, ukulele, clarinet, whistle and bass. I’m not generally fond of the ukulele unless it’s played extremely well: here, though, it generally works very well, with arpeggio and single-string work that sometimes gives it a tone reminiscent of mandolin. In general, the instrumental work is effective without being flashy. However, it’s the vocal work that lingers in the ears here: if ever two voices were meant to harmonize, it’s these two.

All but two of the songs here are by Mark and Raianne. As you might expect, there are plenty of songs here from the studio albums Hard Times & Woes (2014) and Grain By Grain (2016). Five of the tracks (those preceded by “Prelude: ” in the title) are introductions to the following song, and range from the short and factual introduction to ‘Hand I Hold’ to the lengthier banter of ‘Prelude: Why Are They Talking Again’ and an explanation of their Massachusetts Walking Tour, combining free concerts with raising awareness of the state’s trails and greenways.

Here’s the track listing.

  1. ‘Prelude: “Why are they talking again?”’
  2. ‘Hang On To The Day’ features a nice balance of uke arpeggios and fingerstyle guitar.
  3. ‘Loose Stones In The Gravel’ reminds me a little of ‘Tomorrow Is A Long Time’ melodically, but great words, and with characteristically strong harmonies.
  4. ‘That’s The Way It Goes’ has a nice pace-y feel bolstered by bass guitar.
  5. Raianne takes lead vocals on ‘Don’t Ever Stop Believing’: some interesting chord changes here.
  6. ‘Prelude: “Love Song”’
  7. ‘Hand I Hold’ is introduced by Mark as ‘a love song I wrote for Raianne’. And very pretty it is too.
  8. ‘Grain By Grain’ alternates simple-but-effective clarinet with some adventurous harmony from Raianne: I rather like the contrast of the clarinet and Neil Young-ish harmonica on the break, too.
  9. ‘That Old Machine’
  10. ‘Walls’ is a song by Tom Petty, released as a single with The Heartbreakers in 1996. For me, the harmonies here lift this version well above the original.
  11. ‘Prelude: “It’s the only exercise we get all year”’
  12. ‘One More Mile’ is inspired by the Massachusetts Walking Tour, as explained in the preceding “prelude”.
  13. ‘Prelude: “It didn’t even sound like a furnace”’ You need to listen to the first “prelude” to get the reference here.
  14. ‘It Won’t Be Written On My Grave’ is a catchy, singalong-y song, well worth a listen, even though the whistle and guitar are slightly out of tune with each other.
  15. ‘If Someone Will Come With Me I’ll Go’ is probably my favourite song on the CD at the moment.
  16. ‘As Long As It Takes’ – like ‘Hand I Hold’, this is a previously unrecorded song.
  17. ‘Prelude: “The decisions that we make do affect other people”’ is a long introduction citing the issues address in the next track.
  18. ‘Last Tree Standing’ is a powerful if pessimistic song – “If you were the last tree standing, there’d be someone to cut you down…” – counterpointed by the clarinet’s very apposite quoting of ‘John Brown’s Body’.
  19. ‘Unknown Legend’ is a song by Neil Young, and this treatment does it full justice, and makes a satisfying end to the CD.

Some excellent songs, exceptionally well sung. Recommended.

David Harley

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‘Last Tree Standing’ – live:

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

We have set up a new UK & U.S Storefront for brand new CD/Vinyl/Download releases recently featured together with a search facility for older stuff. The link for the folking store is: https://folking.com/folking-store/

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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: