PAXTON & MORRIS – Is It Safe Out There? (own label PCMCD001)

Is It Safe Out There?Is It Safe Out There? Well, is it safe out there? That’s a question we have all been asking for the past two years and here’s another. Why do Maggie Kenny and Drew Wegg call themselves Paxton & Morris? I had to ask and it transpires that Paxton and Morris were two cats now resident in moggy heaven. Maggie and Drew are amateur musicians of a superior sort and started this project as an EP during lockdown, recording some of their favourite songs. I’m a pushover for covers albums, particularly Bob Dylan covers, and sure enough here’s a Dylan song. I’d say that this is a selection of songs that you might hear around the clubs any day of the week – but it is better than that both in choice and execution.

Fortunately Maggie and Drew have some good friends including Joe Broughton who, being at a loose end like everyone else, brought his band along: Paloma Trigás, Tom Chapman and Dan Walsh together with Kevin Dempsey and long-time collaborator John Wallace and suddenly they had an album produced by Joe and called Is It Safe Out There?.

From my perspective there are enough familiar songs to pique my interest and several that I didn’t know to pique it further. Not being overly familiar with the work of Steve Earle I didn’t know ‘Devil’s Right Hand’, which opens the set, but it’s a cracking song that seeks to explain Americans’ love of guns. ‘I Cannot Keep From Cryin’ Sometimes’ is well-known as is ‘Crow On The Cradle’, an anti-war protest song written by Sydney Carter and most appropriate for these times.

‘The Ballad Of Henry Lee’ is a traditional murder ballad with a twist – she kills him! I hadn’t heard it before but this version probably comes via Nick Cave and PJ Harvey. ‘Silkie Lullaby’ is a modern retelling of the traditional song. It’s musically interesting but, storywise, it doesn’t add much to the original and some of the lyrics are a bit clunky. Their reading of ‘Silver Dagger’ is straightforward but lifted by Dan Walsh’s banjo and Maggie’s bass line.

Next comes ‘Crazy Man Michael’. This can be a dangerous choice – get it wrong and opprobrium will be heaped on you for the rest of time – but Drew and Maggie, supported by Paloma, Tom and Joe, do an excellent job and for some reason the story seems to hold together even better than the original version. It’s a bit of a triumph. Richard Shindell isn’t terribly well-known in the UK (or maybe that’s just me) but two of his songs are included here. The one I do know is his anti-war song, ‘Reunion Hill’, this version being built on banjo over guitar and mandocello. Fairport Convention have covered it – which is where I first heard it, I imagine – but it was written for Joan Baez.

The Dylan song is ‘Señor (Tales Of Yankee Power) which suits Drew and Maggie well as they round out some of the song’s extremities with subtle variations of the melody. Another song new to me is Alice In Chains’ ‘Nutshell’ somewhat pared back from even the band’s unplugged version but still punchy that’s to Kevin Dempsey’s lead guitar. Finally we get to the second Richard Shindell song, ‘Next Best Western’, a road song with the killer hook: “Lord deliver me to the next Best Western”, which brings the album to a close.

As always, I’ve enjoyed an album of covers, discovered some new songs and been surprised a couple of times. You can’t ask for much more.

Dai Jeffries

Artists’ website:

‘Reunion Hill’: