PAUL COWLEY – [Just What I Know] (Lou B Music LBM 005 2018)

Just What I KnowIn the notes that arrived with Paul Cowley’s third solo CD [Just What I Know], he explains the album’s title by quoting the Reverend Gary Davis as say “…play just what you know…

It turns out that what Paul Cowley knows is country blues, and he really does know his subject, with influences including Robert Johnson, Mississippi John Hurt et al. This CD features eleven songs: five of them are his own, and the rest are from classic blues artists like Memphis Minnie and Furry Lewis. The CD mostly features Paul’s own guitar and slide guitar, percussion and vocals, but Pascal Ferrari contributes bass and percussion, and also mixed and mastered Paul’s original recordings.

There is a hint of a regional theme to this CD in that several of the artists whose songs are represented here were active around Memphis and/or North Mississippi in the early-ish 20th century. The main exceptions being Blind Willie McTell (who was largely active around Atlanta, Georgia) and Paul himself, who is originally from Birmingham in the UK and now lives in Brittany. While his own songs here don’t conform to a strict 8/12/16-bar or I-IV-V format, they combine blues-soaked guitar and vocal work with a sophisticated urban lyricism, informed by country blues but not dictated by a need to imitate it.

  1. ‘New Bumble Bee no2’ was one of Memphis Minnie’s most popular songs – indeed, she recorded several versions of it. Paul makes it own with some tasteful slide and a vocal that reminds me a little of Peter Green in acoustic mode.
  2. ‘I’ll Go With Her’, recorded in 1930 by Robert Wilkins, forgoes the discreet sassiness of the first track for a more funereal theme: “I’ll go with her, I’ll follow her, I will, to her buryin’ place“, though this is a bluesier song than the gospel blues of the Reverend Wilkins’ later years. In tempo and vocal delivery, this version is fairly close to the original, though with more light and shade in the guitar work.
  3. ‘Penny For Mine Penny For Yours’ is the first of Paul Cowley’s own songs, beginning with slightly jazzy guitar and moving into a smoky vocal supported by an understated but effective accompaniment including Pascal Ferrari’s sympathetic bass work. (It turns out that the sleeve notes are slightly adrift on this point: Pascal plays bass on tracks 3 and 8, not on 5 and 10.)
  4. ‘Red Fence’ is another of Paul’s own songs: a pleasantly summery sound.
  5. ‘Memphis Jug Blues’ was written by Will Shade for the Memphis Jug Band. Rather than try for a jug band feel, this version has sprightly acoustic guitar that reminds me a little of the Reverend Gary Davis, and it works very well.
  6. On Blind Willy McTell’s ‘I Got To Cross That River Of Jordan’ has a similar feel to McTell’s 12-string slide, but the slower pace, different tuning, and elaborate vocal lines, also reminded me of Blind Willie Johnson. And that’s not a bad thing either.
  7. ‘Summer Breeze’ is another Cowley song: if the title reminds you of Seal and Crofts, don’t let it trick you into expecting a similarly smooth delivery. This is far gutsier.
  8. Paul’s ‘Dollar & A Lie’ has more upfront slide: while the structure is about as simple as it gets, the combination of boogie feel and cynical lyric is attractive.
  9. ‘Hiver Dur’, the last Cowley song on the CD, paints (as you might expect from the title) a dramatic picture of a hard winter. At the moment this is my favourite track.
  10. ‘Judge Harsh Blues’ is a song by Furry Lewis, structurally not unlike Robert Wilkins’ ‘Prodigal Son’, but tells quite a different story. Paul takes it more slowly than either of the Furry Lewis versions I’ve heard, but it works very nicely.
  11. ‘Roll & Tumble’ is a version of ‘Roll And Tumble Blues’, probably first recorded by Hambone Willie Newbern in 1928. Not much is known about Newbern, but the song has been recorded and reworked many times over the years, not only by other blues artists but by rock acts including Cream, Captain Beefheart, and the Grateful Dead. This stripped-down version is closer to its roots, though, enlivened by the addition of a one string diddley bow.

This is an excellent CD: good songs combining authentic blues and gritty contemporary songs with a strong blues flavour, played and sung well. I look forward to hearing what else Paul Cowley knows.

David Harley

Artist’s website:

‘Bumble Bee’ – home video:

RAB NOAKES – Welcome To Anniversaryville (Neon Records NEONCD021)

AnniversaryvilleI was delighted to receive a review copy of the new Rab Noakes CD Welcome To Anniversaryville – scheduled for release on the 13th July 2018 – especially as I had previously reviewed and enjoyed his EP The Treatment Tapes. I mention the earlier EP because it was released in the wake of his recovery from tonsillar cancer. It’s good to hear him again sounding so comfortable with his own voice performing an outstanding collection of songs, in the company of a fine assortment of players and singers. The recording session followed his 70/50 in 2017 concert in Glasgow, using the songs and the band from that concert as the jumping-off point for the album.

  1. Rab’s ‘Let The Show Begin’, with its line “there’s no stoppin’ now“, is described as “a remnant reference” to the previous CD: I have to agree that it makes a perfect start to the CD.
  2. ‘It All Joins Up (In The End)’ is appropriately described in the booklet as “a celebration of a ‘Rock ‘n’ Roll lifespan’“, despite having its origins in that slightly dizzying moment when you realize that you’re older than your father was when he died. (Yes, I know that one…) A fine example of Rab’s ability to generate a positive experience from what in other hands might be steeped in sadness.
  3. This new recording of ‘Together Forever’ may bring back happy memories of Lindisfarne, champions of Rab’s songs in the 70s. But if you don’t remember the song from that era, you have a treat in store.
  4. ‘Gently Does It’ is Rab’s song from 1985, a tribute to Alex Campbell, by then a “shadow of his former, formidable self“, urging him to slow down. (Sadly, Alex died a couple of years later.)
  5. ‘Oh Me, Oh My’ recalls (perhaps deliberately) the folk/country crossover feel of later Rick Nelson.
  6. Though a prolific and talented songwriter in his own right, Rab has never been reluctant to cast his nets wider than his own work. In the first few tracks, we see this in the references to ‘We Can Work It Out’ in the second track or to Alex Campbell’s ‘Been On The Road’ in the fourth track, but there are also a few cover versions in this set. ‘Just One Look’ was a 60s hit for co-writer and well-known session singer Doris Troy, though UK readers may remember it better as a hit for the Hollies, among others. Nice backup harmonies here.
  7. ‘TCB (Working Man And Working Woman’ takes a sideswipe at class-ridden British society, recalling the theme of the last verse of his 1970s song ‘Turn A Deaf Ear’ (not included here): “Every peg into its own hole was what he seemed to say/And that no one should go looking for a better place to stay“.
  8. ‘The Handwash Feein’ Market’ also essays a little social content, inspired by the resemblance of the hiring process at his local carwash to the agricultural feeing markets of yesteryear.
  9. ‘Long Black Veil’ is the country ballad first recorded by Lefty Frizzell in the 50s and subsequently recorded by Joan Baez, Johnny Cash and many others.
  10. ‘The Twa Corbies/An Dà Fheammaog’ is a fascinating meld of an ancient and chilling Scots ballad – with Rab singing lead – and a version translated into Scots Gaelic by Seonaidh MacIlleathain, sung by Kathleen MacInnes.
  11. ‘Tramps And Immigrants’ is also performed as a medley of ‘Tramps And Hawkers’ and Dylan’s melodically very similar ‘I Pity The Poor Immigrant’. It works rather well.
  12. ‘Still In Town’ is a classic country song recorded at least twice by Johnny Cash.
  13. ‘A Voice Over My Shoulder’ is another of Rab’s own songs, apparently in remembrance of long-time musical associate Robin McKidd.
  14. ‘Jackson Greyhound’ is a bluesy reminiscence of a 2013 road-trip in the US.
  15. Rab’s song ‘London Town’ rings quite a few bells with me, having lived in and enjoyed a love/hate relationship with the city for some 25 years. However, for me it’s better revisited in song than in person at this point…
  16. ‘Anniversary Song’ is the song by Al Jolson and Saul Chaplin you may know better from its first line, “Oh how we danced on the night we were wed“.
  17. Kathleen MacInnes takes lead vocals on the country classic ‘Tennessee Waltz’: this was the encore at the concert, and is, as Rab notes, “the ideal way to close this album.

While his vocals here are not as strong as I remember from the 70s, this is an excellent album. After all, any album that includes Rab Noakes songs is fine by me, and the covers have their usual idiosyncratic charm. And the band is very good indeed: not in terms of show-stopping ‘look-at-me’ solos, but exactly the right vocal and instrumental support for a fine and varied selection of songs.

David Harley

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Artist’s website:

‘Together Forever’ – live but not too long ago:

VARIOUS ARTISTS – Destination (Fellside Recordings FECD282)

Fellside RecordingsThe Fellside Recording label has been a major force in independent folk music recording for 42 years and has over 600 albums to its credit, many by some very big names in the genre. Now, Paul and Linda Adams have decided to slow down, and though the label remains in business, it will have a lower profile and won’t be taking on new artists. The end of an era, but by no means the end of the story. Destination is a mighty collection of tracks – three CDs worth – specially recorded by some of the many fine artists who’ve been associated with the label, plus some archive material.

The material here covers the spectrum from dance tunes to modern songs by treasured artists like Peter Bellamy (two of his Kipling settings are provided here, one sung by Terry Docherty) and Alex Glasgow, to a wide selection of traditional songs (even the occasional Child ballad). Well over half the tracks here have not been released previously. Given the calibre of the musicians here, that alone has to make it worth buying. There are also a handful of unusual jazz performances from Fellside’s sibling label Lake.

Because of the sheer number of tracks provided here (64!), my usual practice of including a full track listing didn’t seem altogether appropriate. Here are just a few more of the performers and writers who are represented in this collection, which may be enough to persuade you to take a closer look: Jez Lowe, Bram Taylor, Steve Turner, Pete Morton, Bobby Eaglesham, Sara Grey, Alistair Anderson, Paul Metsers, Brian Dewhurst, Bob Davenport…

Here are few tracks that stand out for me personally, but there’s such a wide range of artists here that your personal highlights might be quite different

  • Maddy Prior’s unaccompanied ‘Sheepcrook And Black Dog’, proving that Steeleye Span maybe always needed her more than she needed them. (Not that I didn’t like the Steeleye version.)
  • Swan Arcade’s stunning version of Sting’s ‘We Work The Black Seam’.
  • The much-missed Vin Garbutt singing ‘Boulavogue’.
  • Hedy West singing ‘Little Sadie’ – as Pete Seeger said when she sang it on his Rainbow Quest series in the ’60s, “That’s the real thing…
  • Peggy Seeger’s exquisite ‘Single Girl’ – if my ears don’t fail me, from a 1958 recording with Guy Carawan.
  • Diz Disley and friends in full Django/Hot Club mode on ‘Shine’.
  • Marilyn Middleton-Pollock’s version of ‘Melancholy Blues’, recorded long ago by Louis Armstrong and Johnny Dodds.
  • Bob Fox’s version of Alex Glasgow’s ‘Standing At The Door’. A fine performance from someone who’s no mean songwriter himself.
  • Tom Kitching & Gren Bartley with a blistering performance of ‘Whisky Head’.

But there are too many classy tracks here to list all the ones I can imagine myself listening to for a long time yet.

Buy it. You’ll certainly find enough tracks to make it worth your while.

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).

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‘Single Girl’ – Peggy Seeger and Guy Carawan

DÓNAL CLANCY – On The Lonesome Plain (Proper/Copperplate DCLPCD16)

Lonesome PlainDónal Clancy is the son of Liam Clancy, and comes highly recommended by the likes of Archie Fisher and Martin Simpson. His forthcoming album On The Lonesome Plain has already garnered praise from such publications as fROOTS both for his singing and for his Celtic-styled guitar. Deservedly so. His singing is unassuming but engaging, and entirely suited to his material, which to some extent reflects his focus on preserving the family repertoire but with an emphasis on the guitar that I don’t remember from the work of the Clancy Brothers or Clancy & Makem. That said, his guitar work shows abundant technique but technique never overshadows the integrity of the tune, or the vocal, or the lyrics. Nor does the familiarity of some of the songs compromise the effectiveness of the set: songs like these don’t date, at any rate when they’re this well performed.

Aside from track four, the performances here feature Dónal on a variety of acoustic guitars, discreetly augmented in places by a second guitar part using a Bourgeois OM through a Baggs M1 pickup. (Which sounds great: I think I may have to augment my own collection of pickups and transducers with an M1!). On tracks 4 and 12 he also adds a Kala Fretless U-Bass.

  1. ‘The Lowlands of Holland’ uses a fairly well-known tune, but the words are quite specifically Irish in some of the lines and closer to the full story than some better-known versions.
  2. The second track consists of an instrumental version of the Irish emigration ballad ‘The Green Fields of Canada’ followed by Dónal’s own tune ‘Máirseáil na Conrach’ (which according to Google Translate means March of the Coral, but I’ve had to use GT too often to trust it completely!). Beautiful guitar work.
  3. ‘Drill, Ye Tarriers’ was much heard in folk clubs in the ’60s and ’70s, perhaps as a result of exposure to versions by the Weavers, Chad Mitchell Trio and such. This is rather an effective version of a song from the late 19th century that his father Liam also performed with Tommy Makem, and a salutary reminder that even a song so well-known is capable of revealing new depths (and even a last verse I don’t remember hearing before).
  4. I remember Archie Fisher’s ‘Open the Door Softly’ (a traditional song with some added words) from his 1968 album, and it’s a hard act to follow. But this version is very effective, and I love the additional flute and whistle from Ciarán Somers and David Power respectively. I don’t hate their vocal harmonies, either.
  5. ‘The Honorable Thomas Burke’ is Dónal’s classic arrangement of a piece by the harpist Turlough O’Carolan (1670-1738).
  6. Next comes a sprightly version of ‘The Waterford Waltz’: a fine version of a fine tune, benefiting from some unobtrusive overdubbed guitar.
  7. ‘Reynardine’ is a song that has haunted me for decades. Who is Reynardine? An outlaw, a Bluebeard, a werefox? While the song is sometimes heard put to a fairly bouncy major tune, Dónal uses the haunting, more modal melody as recorded by so many of the big hitters in the folk community, and the words as (more or less) published by A.L. Lloyd. This version is straightforward, letting the understated mystery of the lyric speak for itself, but by no means simplistic: there’ve been many fine versions over the years, but this one more than holds its own.
  8. The generically titled ‘Fling’ seems familiar to me, but I can’t recall a specific name for it. Anyway, more fine guitar work.
  9. ‘Blackwater Side’ is a song that has attracted some classic performances in the past, but this is well worth hearing in its own right.
  10. ‘Whiskey, You’re the Divil’ is another song you may have heard in folk clubs and sessions, but probably not played as well.
  11. ‘Miss McDermott’ is a well-known piece also credited to O’Carolan, benefiting from a second guitar part that may remind you of some of John Renbourn’s recordings around the end of the ’70s. Well, it does me.
  12. Dónal’s own song ‘Strike for Victory’ commemorates the 1916 Easter Rising “and is based on the 1916 Proclamation of Independence.” A rousing tune, beautifully played.
  13. ‘Idir Áird Mhór is Eochaill’ (Between Ardmore and Youghal) is an air from County Waterford (I think) which Dónal plays here as an instrumental.

There’s something timeless about this set. Dónal tells us that at the time he put it together, he’d been listening to some classic records by the like of “Anne Briggs, Martin Carthy, Shirley Collins and Davey Graham“, and it fits well with the work of that generation of musicians, but also with a long line of Irish musicians, especially players of fretted instruments. I expect to continue to listen to it long after this review is completed, and if he ever records a set of O’Carolan pieces, I’ll be at the front of the queue.

David Harley

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‘Drill Ye Tarriers’ – live:

Ó CONAILL FAMILY AND FRIENDS – Let’s Have Another Gan Ainm (Digital release)

Let's Have Another Gan Ainm

I’m not sure I should be writing this review: while I’ve played guitar in many ceilidh bands over the years, I don’t claim any in-depth knowledge of the tradition from which Let’s Have Another Gan Ainm – due for digital-only release on July 1st 2018 – springs. Yet it’s such a delightful album, I can’t resist telling you the little I know about it.

First, that title. Gan Ainm simply means “no name”, and if you’ve skipped ahead to the track list below you’ll have noticed that every track includes at least one tune called Gan Ainm. This reflects the fact that Dónal Ó Conaill of Roscommon, who passed away in 2003, was a notable collector of local tunes without names, and passed them on to his family. Since his passing, the family has grown and spread to other parts of Ireland and the UK.

However, in the summer of 2017 three generations of the Ó Conaill family returned to the family home in Roscommon, along with some family friends to pay tribute to his life and legacy by recording “the best of these tunes, along with some of Dónal’s personal favourites.” And a fine collection of beautifully-played tunes it is. While it includes some well-known titles such as ‘Lord Mayo’, ‘The Blackbird’ and ‘Toss The Feathers (II)’ (the last so called to distinguish it from another reel similarly named), the unnamed jigs, reels and airs here thoroughly deserve their inclusion.

Here’s that track listing:

1 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Gan Ainm’

2 – ‘The Drunken Landlady’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Gan Ainm’

3 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Gan Ainm’

4 – ‘Battle Of Aughrim’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Lord Mayo’

5 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Tom Billy’s’

6 – ‘Girls Of Banbridge’, ‘Gallowglass’, ‘Gan Ainm’

7 – ‘The Blackbird’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Mrs Galvin’s’

8 – ‘Gan Ainm’

9 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Bunch of Green Rushes’, ‘Gan Ainm’

10 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Anthony Frowley’s’

11 – ‘Gan Ainm’, ‘Toss the Feathers II’, ‘Gan Ainm’

Caitlín and Ùna Ó Conaill and her families and friends have done lovers of Irish traditional music an immense favour by allowing us this snapshot of a family reuniting to make delightful music, and I feel privileged to have been able to experience it. It’s good to know that while such a gathering at the family home may be a rare event, Dónal Ó Conaill’s legacy will continue to be enjoyed in the world beyond Roscommon.

David Harley

Artist’s website:

GARETH OWEN – Rolling By (own label)

Rollng ByWhen I first moved to South Shropshire a few years ago, I found myself living just a couple of doors away from writer and broadcaster Gareth Owen. And then I realized that I was also living by country legend-in-his-own-mind Virg Clenthills, Gareth’s country-singing alter ego. I even played guitar for Virg occasionally, and even acting as body double – well, picking-hand double –on a Virg video. So when Gareth’s CD Rolling By rolled by my mailbox, I was expecting at the very least a collection of excellent songs, and I wasn’t disappointed.

All the songs and lead vocals here are Gareth’s, ably backed by producer Ed Begley on keyboards and backing vocals, Ruby Turner on backing vocals, James Kitchman on guitars, Matt Park on pedal steel, Ruth Goller on basses and backing vocals, and Tony Bianco on drums and percussion.

  1. ‘Lady Whiskey’ is a desperate story of a man in the process of losing everything to alcoholism.
  2. ‘Ashes And Diamonds’ is a quintessential country and western ballad. Nicely done.
  3. Perhaps it’s because I’ve recently reviewed Forever Words that ‘Nowhere’ reminds me a little of Johnny Cash, both the song and the delivery. But it’s an excellent song and performance in its own right.
  4. ‘Walk Out The Door’ has some of the feel of early country/rock and roll crossover songs like Hank Williams’s ‘Move It On Over’. I particularly like the pedal steel here.
  5. ‘Jesse James And The Barber’ is very much in the Virg Clenthills mould, quirky and facetious, much of it spoken rather than sung. Thematically it might remind you of ‘I’ve Danced With A Man Who’s Danced With A Girl, Who’s Danced With The Prince Of Wales’, yet it has a serious undertone that Farjeon’s 1927 song never aspired to.
  6. ‘Nothing Better To Do’ is one of those femme fatale/Jezebel/devil-woman songs, performed effectively enough.
  7. ‘Dream River’ is another heart-tugging country ballad.
  8. ‘Telling Lies Like This’ is a little rockier, a little reminiscent of Dylan on recent albums like Together Through Life.
  9. ‘Before I Get To Heaven’ is, for me, the best song on the CD, telling the story of the last hours of Hank Williams set against sparse keyboards and acoustic bass.
  10. ‘Rolling By’ is a song of reminiscence with a catchy chorus. A good end to the album.

It’s no surprise that one of Gareth’s influences was Tom T. Hall, a country singer noted for his storytelling in song. That said, some of his lighter material – such as ‘Jesse James And The Barber’ here – is also somewhat reminiscent of Shel Silverstein, though Gareth’s vocals are nearer to a lighter-toned Johnny Cash than Silverstein’s off-the-wall vocalizing.

While the CD is issued under Gareth’s real name, there’s a lot of Virg here, in both the repertoire and the vocal delivery. Without Virg’s patter, the darkness behind some of these stories has more of the impact they deserve. Perhaps the slightly OTT vocal delivery here and there hints at the parodic drama that makes Gareth’s alter ego’s stagecraft so entertaining, though. Which makes me wonder whether Virg should get a CD of his own, rather than selfie-bombing Gareth’s. Nevertheless, this would be a worthy souvenir of a Virg/Gareth gig. And a wider range of country lovers might be enthralled to hear what sometimes comes out of the hills of South Shropshire.

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).

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Artist’s website:

It’s hard to find videos of Gareth so here’s Virg Clenthills with ‘A Song For Hank Williams’: