JIMMY LaFAVE – Peace Town (Music Road Records MRR CD030)

Peace TownA leading light of the Red Dirt country movement, LaFave succumbed to cancer last year, but not before laying down a 100 or so recordings over a three-day period. Twenty of them form Peace Town,  a double set worth of material. Both covers and three self-penned numbers, all recorded live and mostly first and only takes with very little by way of overdubs and reworkings.

It opens in unlikely form with his slowed down country strummed and organ accompanied take of Pete Townshend’s ‘Let My Love Open The Door’ proceeding to the first original with the soulful ‘Minstrel Boy Howling At The Moon’ followed by the swayalong title track, his setting of words by Woody Guthrie. It’s one of three, the others, over on the other disc, being the bluesy, organ-backed ‘Salvation Train’ and ‘Sideline Woman’.

Of the other LaFave credits, ‘Untitled’ and ‘A Thousand By My Side’ are both instrumentals while ‘Ramblin’ Sky’ is a mortality-themed Dylan-ish barrelhouse blues. Dylan himself gets three credits, a reflective ‘What Good Am I?’ a near seven-minute world-weary slow, piano-backed version of ‘My Back Pages’ and a no less melancholic ‘You’re Gonna Make Me Lonesome When You Go’ that take on an added resonance given that he was dying at the time.

There’s also a Dylan link opening Disc 2 with a soulful hurt-infused cover of Robbie Robertson’s ‘It Makes No Difference’, while other iconic names come with a late night bluesy interpretation of Leon Russell’s ‘Help Me Through The Day’, JJ Cale’s ‘Don’t Go To Strangers’, a jangly acoustic ‘Already Gone’ by Butch Hancock and, showing he could still rock it up despite his windpipe being pushed over, a romp through Chuck Berry’s ‘Promised Land’.

Elsewhere, lesser known titles and credits come with an equally rock ‘n’ rolling groove through Bob McDill’s singularly appropriate country boogie ‘I May Be Used (But I Ain’t Used Up)’, David Ball’s wistful strings-backed ballad ‘When The Thought Of You Catches Up With Me’, Bill Cunningham’s jaunty hillbilly stomp ‘My Oklahoma Home (It Blowed Away)’ and, closing everything on a lyrically poignant, but musically upbeat note of farewell, Tim Easton’s ‘Goodbye Amsterdam’. “I didn’t want to leave just yet”, he sings here, but, as his nephew, Jesse, points out, knowing he was going to go, he was going to go out on a high. Mission accomplished, Jimmy.

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: https://redhouserecords.com/artists/jimmy-lafave/

‘When The Thought Of You Catches Up With Me’ – live:

JIMMY LAFAVE – The Night Tribe (Music Road Records MRR CD023)

The-Night-TribeHis first release since resurfacing in 2012 with Depending On The Distance after a five year absence finds the Oklahoma-Texas singer-songwriter’s mellow nasal drawl in fine form for an album of which all but two numbers are self-penned. The title refers not just to the name of his band (which features a six piece string section, harp included), but also, he says, the ‘after hours’ people in whom he finds inspiration for his music.

Well, them and God. Spotlighting Radoslav Lorkovic on organ, the album opens with ‘The Beauty Of You’, a soulful Van-styled number celebrating pantheism, though it works equally as a love song. And there’s certainly a fair few of those here, musically ranging from the guitar jangling, cascading chords of the Pettyesque ‘Maybe’ and the bluesy Texan barroom groove of ‘Trying To Get Back To You’ to the tender apology of ‘Smile’. Not all matters of the heart end well, with both dreamy ballad Island and the catchy mid-tempo country rock ‘Never Came Back to Memphis’ with its female gospel backing singers talking of being left alone while the soulful ‘It’s Not On Me’ sees him telling his latest flame to keep on driving out of his life “because I’m not in love now and I cannot lie.”

The sometimes fleeting nature of relationships and letting those close go to seek their destiny (“in the click of a photograph, it all passes way too fast and when your part is cast there’s no time to rehearse”) provides the heart of the slow fellow-travellers soul-blues ‘The Roads Of The Earth’, whereas there’s an aching sense of loss, here through death, to the gorgeous, strings and piano-backed Kelcy Warren co-write ballad, ‘Talk To An Angel’.

Although the liner notes mention the Kerouac characters that populate his songs, they actually only surface on two here. They are, however, pretty potent; the throaty guitar chugging swamp blues ‘Dust Bowl Okies’ and the title track itself, a suitably after hours musician’s blues about living in “the neon glow of perpetual sin” and “standing at the crossroads with your amp turned to ten.”

As mentioned, there’s also two covers included, both nods to his long-standing influences. The first is a reflective and resigned gospel-stained version of Neil Young’s ‘Journey Through The Past’ and the other a now obligatory Dylan nugget, this time round ‘Queen Jane Approximately’ from Highway 61 Revisited, opening with just stripped back acoustic and Lorkovic’s organ behind LaFave’s weary voice before plugging in the electric guitar and building to an impassioned swelling finale of string and backing vocals. Musically and stylistically, there’s nothing here that LaFave hasn’t been doing since his first self–produced tape, Highway Angels…Full Moon Rain, in 1988. But when you find something that works that well, why on earth would you want to bend it into a different shape?

Mike Davies

Artist’s website: https://redhouserecords.com/artists/jimmy-lafave/

‘The Beauty Of You’ – official video:

TOM RUSSELL – The Rose Of Roscrae (Proper Records PRPCD130)

RofRThe term “ballad opera” isn’t heard much these days but that is exactly what we have here. There are fifty-two tracks divided into two acts on two discs; some are song length, others are mere vignettes linking them. There are guest appearances from Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Eliza Gilkyson, Getchen Peters, Ian Tyson. Jimmy LaFave, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott and even Bert Lloyd among many others. Some are playing roles, others providing background colour and some are old recordings co-opted for the show.

The basic package doesn’t offer much in the way of clues except for a quote taken from the narration which is spoken over the overture in which Russell explains that it begins with a hanging – which actually occurs in the middle of the story. Actually, there is a sixty page booklet with annotated lyrics but that’s not for the likes of humble reviewers. The story elements are not necessarily arranged chronologically so it can be confusing but we can say with some certainty that Russell plays an Irish kid called John Sutton who left Tipperary in the 1880s but he has several aliases and as many adventures.

Russell’s original songs tend towards solid country rock, a solid framework on which to hang the story. Except for the narrative pieces like ‘The Last Running’, of course. Other artists do their own thing, so there’s a gorgeous version of ‘Ain’t No More Cane On The Brazos’ by LaFave and Peters and a rocking take on ‘Jesus Met The Woman At The Well’ with Gilkyson joining Russell. Some songs appear more than once in very different guises. Augie Myers, aka Augie Blood, does strange things to ‘A Closer Walk With Thee’ and ‘He’ll Be Dead Before He Hits The Ground’ and the concept of the last frontier are recurring threads.

The second act finds our hero in the guise of Spanish Johnny somewhere around the Mexican border but it begins briefly in Ireland and frequently takes the point of view of the women in John’s life. Some of this section is rather puzzling. ‘Damien’ mentions Belgium and Bergen for reasons which aren’t quite clear but ‘Gallo Del Cielo’, the story of a stolen fighting cock, leads neatly on to memories of Pancho Villa before one of our heroes is ‘Doin’ Hard Time In Texas’ – an excuse to include a Lead Belly song.

The Rose Of Roscrae is a wide-ranging, one might almost say sprawling, story – a collage of music and lives. At first sight it looks like a folly but it’s a glorious one.

Dai Jeffries

Artist’s website: http://www.tomrussell.com/

Tom Russell – The Rose Of Roscrae


Double CD album out 13th April 2015 on Proper Records

Tom Russell’s ambitious new double-album The Rose of Roscrae takes a fascinating look at the history of the American West and traditional cowboy and folk music, through the story of an Irish kid who travels to the United States in the late 1880s to become a cowboy.

Produced by Tom Russell and Barry Walsh, The Rose of Roscrae features a who’s who of legendary Americana icons including: Jimmie Dale Gilmore, David Olney, Johnny Cash, Joe Ely, Augie Meyers, Fats Kaplin, Barry Walsh, Jimmy LaFave, Gretchen Peters, Ramblin’ Jack Elliott, Walt Whitman, Moses “Clear Rock” Platt, Jack Hardy, David Massengill, A.L. “Bert” Lloyd, Finbar Furey, Sourdough Slim, Blackie Farrell, Tex Ritter, Glen Orhlin, Pat Russell, John Trudell, Henry Real Bird, Thad Beckman, Maura O’Connell, Eliza Gilkyson, The McCrary Sisters, Ian Tyson, Bonnie Dobson, Lead Belly, Guy Clark, Dan Penn, Gurf Morlix, and Pat Manske. The album’s overture is performed by the Norwegian Wind Ensemble, arranged by Mats Hålling, composed by Tom Russell.

For over four decades and 28 album releases Tom Russell has continued to live up to his status as “one of the best singer-songwriters of our time” (Washington Post). His previous two  studio releases, Blood and Candle Smoke (2009) and Mesabi (2011), are considered his strongest composed works yet and were, in part, recorded with the groundbreaking roots band Calexico. In the 1990s, Russell and Dave Alvin were hailed as the architects of what came to be known as “Americana” music after their Merle Haggard tribute, Tulare Dust, initiated the Americana charts in the U.S. and remained number one for a year. Russell’s previous release, Aztec Jazz (2013), moved Americana into a new realm and his acclaimed song catalogue into uncharted territory.

Tom Russell’s songs have been recorded by Johnny Cash, Doug Sahm, Nanci Griffith, Lawrence Ferlinghetti, Dave Alvin, Joe Ely, and others. The Rose of Roscrae is his third in a series of acclaimed folk operas, following The Man From God Knows Where (1999) and Hotwalker (2005). Russell has also composed movie scores, including songs for the Monte Hellman movie The Road To Nowhere and published five books, most recently 120 Songs of Tom Russell. An accomplished fine artist, Russell’s paintings are featured in: Blue Horse/Red Desert: The Art of Tom Russell.

Artist’s website: http://www.tomrussell.com/

‘The Rose Of Roscrae’ trailer video:

Gretchen Peters announces new album

Gretchen PetersFresh off her induction into the prestigious Nashville Songwriters Hall of Fame, Gretchen Peters has confirmed the 9th February release of her new album Blackbirds. Co-produced with Doug Lancio and Barry Walsh and recorded in Nashville, the album features a who’s who of modern American roots music: Jerry Douglas, Jason Isbell, Jimmy LaFave, Will Kimbrough, Kim Richey, Suzy Bogguss and more. But it’s not the guests that make Blackbirds the most poignant and moving album of the GRAMMY-nominee’s storied career; it’s the impeccable craftsmanship, her ability to capture the kind of complex, conflicting, and overwhelming emotional moments we might otherwise try to hide and instead shine a light of truth and understanding onto them.

The eleven tracks on Blackbirds face down death with a dark grit and delicate beauty.

“During the summer of 2013 when I began writing songs for Blackbirds, there was one week when I went to three memorial services and a wedding,” remembers Peters. “It dawned on me that this is the way it goes as you get older – the memorial services start coming with alarming frequency and the weddings are infrequent and thus somehow more moving.”

She found herself drawn to artists courageous enough to face their own aging and mortality in their work (Leonard Cohen, Paul Simon, Bruce Springsteen, Nick Lowe), but noticed all the material was coming from a male perspective. “As brave an artistic risk as it may be for a man, it’s much riskier for a woman to speak about it,” says Peters, whose incredible catalogue of songs—including ‘Independence Day’ and ‘On A Bus To St. Cloud’ — have been recorded by everyone from Martina McBride and Neil Diamond to Etta James and Trisha Yearwood. “Aging seems to be a taboo subject for female singer-songwriters, in part because our value has depended so much on our youth and sexuality. I want to write about that stuff because it’s real, it’s there, and so few women seem to be talking about it.”

In an atypical and unexpectedly rewarding move, Peters teamed with frequent tour-mate Ben Glover to co-write several tunes on the new album, which evokes the kind of 1970’s folk rock of Neil Young, David Crosby, and Joni Mitchell that Peters grew up on, albeit with a more haunted, country-noir vibe simmering just below the surface.

Geographically, the album leaps around the country, with particularly heartrending stops in southern Louisiana at the scene of a crime (‘Blackbirds’), Pelham, New York, where Peters probes the hidden darkness of the leafy suburbia in which she grew up (‘The House On Auburn Street’), and the waters of the Gulf of Mexico, where a fisherman lays his wife to rest after losing everything in the BP oil spill (‘Black Ribbons’). ‘When All You Got Is A Hammer’ is the story of a veteran struggling to adjust to life at home after fighting overseas, while ‘The Cure For The Pain’ takes place in the waning days of illness in a hospital, and ‘Nashville’ brings us back to Peters’ adopted hometown.

Despite the varied locations, the songs on Blackbirds are all inextricably tied together through their characters, whom Peters paints with extraordinary empathy and vivid detail. Blackbirds follows Peters’ 2012 album Hello Cruel World, which NPR called “the album of her career” and Uncut said “establishes her as the natural successor to Lucinda Williams.” If anything, though, Blackbirds truly establishes Peters as a one-of-a-kind singer and songwriter, one in possession of a fearless and endlessly creative voice.

Blackbirds Tracklisting:

1. Blackbirds
2. Pretty Things
3. When All You Got Is A Hammer
4. Everything Falls Away
5. The House on Auburn Street
6. When You Comin’ Home
7. Jubilee
8. Black Ribbons
9. Nashville
10. The Cure For The Pain
11. Blackbirds (reprise)

Artist’s website: www.gretchenpeters.com