This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down
A sampling of reviews from the current issue
BELLOWHEAD Revival Island LC01846
Photo: Elly Lucas
The theory is if Bellowhead can coax 10,000 people into a crazed maelstrom of dance and song, then why not 100,000 or more? Bellowhead’s ambitions know no bounds. They’ve taken on the English folk flagship role with determined relish and certainly shouldn’t be pilloried for that. The tricky puzzle, however, has always been how to take the extraordinary impact of Bellowhead, the all-conquering stage act, into the studio and convert it into something capable of blowing the head off the unsuspecting Coldplay, Lana Del Rey or Ed Sheeran fan sitting quietly at home drinking a cup of tea and doing the crossword.
John Leckie went some way towards it with his production of Hedonism and Broadside and now they try a different tack, signing to Island, engaging Rupert Christie as knob twiddler, recording instrumental parts separately and treating Revival as an album born and bred in studio conditions rather than an extension of their live act.
In that sense it works, too. Christie has indeed captured a sound quality that in places lifts you off your seat – Roll Alabama is an anthemic blaze of colour and musical complexity that allows you to hear the incidental subtleties in a way they’ve never achieved before; the horns on Rosemary Lane sound like a particularly aggressive herd of marauding cattle; Jon Boden’s vocals are clear and urgent (really hitting the heights on Fine Sally); and the leering mischief of Gosport Nancy – huge choral chorus and all – is almost palpable.
No instrument is ever knowingly under-used and their whole canvas sounds somehow broader, even while the material occupies a narrower path. There’s none of the quirky idiosyncracy or liberal bouts of darkness which marked some of their earlier work (Matachin remains my favourite Bellowhead album for that reason) but their targets clearly now extend beyond the folk firmament and they must be accorded much credit for beckoning the mainstream without compromising their firm English traditional focus. That’s what you get from a band built around the artistic expertise, moral fibre and commitment to the cause of the likes of Jon Boden, John Spiers and Paul Sartin.
The brass section is certainly now firing on all cylinders, adding even more to their always formidable charge to counterpoint the more lyrical excursions of the string section and the ever-imaginative drumming of Pete Flood. The rhythmic emphasis they employ here – particularly on tracks like Greenwood Tree and Let Union Be – even conjure up scattered images of old school folk-rock underlined by a rare assault outside of the tradition, doffing their caps to their new Island home with a funky version of the Richard & Linda Thompson ‘hit’ I Want To See The Bright Lights Tonight. The joy of the song is somewhat lost down the line and the beauty of another sacred cow of the tradition Seeds Of Love, is obliterated amid the overloaded drama of the arrangement, but the upside is that they could be in line for the next Bond movie song if Moon Kittens is anything to go by.
Not my favourite Bellowhead album but when they really start motoring they are an irresistible force. Question is: are the great unwashed ready to embrace them?
• www.bellowhead.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
SMOKY BABE Way Back In The Country Blues Arhoolie
We’re used to country blues artists who made a few rare 78s back in the late 1920s being biographical mysteries and thus cult figures, but we don’t expect it of those who were recorded in 1960 at the age of 33. But in that very fact probably lie the seeds of the mystery of Smoky Babe. At that point in time, blueshounds were mainly interested in old performers, those who’d made records in the late 1920s rather than being born in 1927.
We know that Smoky Babe was born Robert Brown in Itta Bena, Mississippi and lived in Alabama before settling in Louisiana where he was recorded by Dr. Harry Oster. Oster released a trio of albums on his tiny independent Folk-Lyric label, but they went relatively unnoticed. At that time the folk blues world was getting very excited about the rediscovery of older artists like Son House, Skip James, Mississippi John Hurt, Bukka White and Sleepy John Estes, and these would be the performers invited up north for gigs in New York, Cambridge and the Newport Folk Festival. Very few ‘new’ names – Fred McDowell was an exception – got a look in.
Oster eventually sold his label to Arhoolie, but it was only after his death that the unissued tapes which make up this new album came to light. And what absolute gems they are. You can hear clear echoes of the guitar styles of John Lee Hooker, Bukka White, Big Joe Williams, the school of Fred McDowell (who, it must be remembered, was virtually unknown at the time of these recordings) and really strongly the ferocious Mississippi (later Chicago) bluesman Tommy McClennan. He’s got that fabulous driving pulse of McClennan (and McDowell), and the energy and clarity of a young man – he was after all much the same age as those ’20s/’30s legends were when they made their seminal recordings.
But how did he pick up those influences and mould them into his own personal style? Was it from live contact with other players or listening to records? Even Robert Johnson was clearly doing that back in the ’30s. There doesn’t seem to be much record of him playing live at all, but how does a singer/guitarist of such energy get – or need – such a large and well-formed repertoire if he was just a casual player. He sounds like somebody who has done a lot of playing.
But these records were made over 50 years ago now, and he was last heard of in 1972: he’d be 87 if still alive. So unless this album excites a new generation of blues Sherlocks into investigating the mysteries of artists from long ago – as happened with artists from a mere 35 years ago in the mid ’60s – we may never know.
And that would be a real shame because on the strength of this album Smoky Babe was a major find, and you’ll be lucky to hear a better ‘new’ country blues album this year. You can listen to the title track on this issue’s fRoots 50 Compilation.
• www.arhoolie.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
CUMBIA ALL STARS Tigres En Fuga World Village 450028
Cumbia All Stars
We’re talking twangy guitar-driven Peruvian cumbia here, the kind that’s sometimes referred to as chicha, was originally made back in the 1960s and ’70s in the Amazon jungle by local kids hyped up on trad tropical rhythms, Colombian sounds and US psychedelic rock, surf and soul, which has been more recently revived by New York’s Chicha Libre and London’s Los Chinches. Tigres En Fuga
is however a whole different kettle of ceviche to the works of the aforementioned revivalists (fine though those are). This is a new recording by the originals.
Cumbia All Stars feature eight singers and musicians who were all part of the groundbreaking Peruvian cumbia wave, performing in bands such as Los Diablos Rojas, Los Hijos Del Sol, Papo Y Su Combo (names which should be familiar to all who’ve enjoyed Barbes Records’ recent Roots Of Chicha compilations). By all accounts their showcase performance caused quite a stir at last year’s Womex and on the evidence of this album, it isn’t hard to see why. This is the real deal: eleven tracks of classic rolling cumbia, complete with call and response vocals, the hiss and scrape of tropical percussion and bucketloads of ringing guitar. People with deep roots playing them to perfection. They’re the Peruvian Watersons.
• www.cumbiaallstars.com | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
GREG RUSSELL & CIARAN ALGAR The Call Fellside FECD262
Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar
You can’t move these days for tedious hacks bleating on about how brilliant young musicians are and how annoying it is that they don’t do anything meaningful, different or original with all their copious talent. I should know – I’m one of those tedious hacks.
Not sure where that leaves Greg Russell and Ciaran Algar who are brilliant, aren’t doing anything desperately different or original with it, yet still sound… well… brilliant. They may not quite have captured the magic of their live set on this second album and there’s nothing remotely groundbreaking in a bunch of songs and tunes that might have come from any time across the last few decades. Yet Greg Russell’s voice has a rare sort of majesty, Algar’s fiddle is engagingly empathetic and honest with a lovely tone, the material is unhackneyed and well chosen, arrangements refreshingly simple and understated. These two surely are the real deal and this sounds like a timeless classic. Indeed, with Boden and Spiers vacating the premises, the path is surely open for them to fill the void and notch up a third BBC Folk Award next year, this time in the Big Boys’ section as Best Duo.
There’s something of Tim Van Eyken in Russell’s delivery, singing with a vulnerable clarity which, at its best, delivers an emotive ballad like Royal Comrade (as featured on this issue’s fRoots 50 compilation) or The Rose In June with a subtle, emotional kick. No artifice, no affectation, no false thrills, just honest to goodness spills and when the song is good enough, the delivery is right and the arrangement appropriate, that’s more than enough.
Some interesting choices of covers also make you sit up and take notice – Mick Ryan’s The Workhouse from his folk opera The Pauper’s Path; Phil Colclough’s misty-eyed The Call & Answer, with Russell’s nostalgic concertina even recalling the great Tony Rose; and a lovely bouzouki rhythm underpinning their confident delve into Americana with James Keelaghan’s heartbreaking story of the 1949 Mann Gulch fire, Cold Missouri Waters, a match for their previous show-stopper, The New Railroad. Throw in a couple of impressive songs by Ciaran’s dad Chris – Away From The Pits and A Season In Your Arms – plus the odd alluring harmony from Elly Lucas ad Jeana Leslie adding some genteel piano to Russell’s unaccompanied opening vocal on The Rose In June and you have a quiet, thoughtful but deeply impressive collection.
• www.russellalgar.co.uk | Buy from Amazon.co.uk
AND THE REST… The albums - good, adequate and plain bad - which didn't get the full-length treatment, contributed individually by a selection of our various reviewers cowering under the cloak of collective anonymity. For example…
Various Artists Classic African American Songsters (Smithsonian Folkways SFW 40211)
The latest in Smithsonian Folkways peerless Classic series. 21 quality tracks and a 40-page booklet packed with photographs and informative sleeve-notes. Pink Anderson, Mississippi John Hurt, Snooks Eaglin and Big Bill Broonzy among the artists. Fantastic stuff! www.folkways.si.edu
Admir Shkurtaj Feksin (AnimaMundi 29)
Albanian pianist adopted by Salento plays an invigorating set of quirky and sometimes free pieces based on Puglian traditions, somewhere between the jazz of Bojan Z and primitive. Intriguingly listenable if you’re in the mood. www.suonidalmondo.com
Caitríona O’Leary & Dúlra Sleepsongs (Heresy 014)
Subtitled “Irish Lullabies And Songs Of Sleep”. Well, I could possibly get the little blighter to nod off for a while if only she didn’t shriek so much. Shame, really, as the packaging is absolutely beautiful. www.heresyrecords.com
John Primer & The Teardrops You Can Make It If You Try (Wolf 120.833CD)
Chicago blues guitarist John Primer joined Magic Slim and the Teardrops back in 1982 and would always open a show with two or three numbers. These eleven tracks featuring just John and the band’s rhythm section prove that Primer has the guitar chops and vocal prowess to stand firmly as his own man. www.wolfrec.com
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This month’s issue •
Come Write Me Down