Texas music, like Texas oil, is the result of sedimentary processes. Laid down over time, the constituent parts undergo a transformation, occasionally bubbling up to the surface or bursting forth as something potent, part of the landscape .
Think of the music of Lightnin' Hopkins, ZZ Top, Townes Van Zandt, Buddy Holly, 13th Floor Elevators or Willie Nelson; they're all different, all hugely influential, and yet all totally Texan. Quaker City Night Hawks, hailing from the Lone Star city of Fort Worth, started out as another talented and entertaining country rock band. Then, after a couple of low-key releases, something special happened. With their first recording for Nashville’s independent Lighting Rod records, El Astronauta, a damn-near perfect album, the band added to their mix a slew of 70's influences, including the funky rock of Aerosmith, the heads-down boogie of ZZ Top and the expansive psychedelia of Pink Floyd. Eschewing the traditional tropes of country rock lyrics, they embraced sci-fi themes and other-worldly tales, creating what is probably my favourite album of 2016. Now it's 2019, and the band are back with their new album, QCNH. So where to next for our intrepid explorers?
With QCNH, Quaker City Night Hawks once again deliver a fine collection of songs, building on their earlier sound, but expanding their colour palate even further. Things kick off with Better In The Morning, with its catchy, swinging, loose-rolling rhythm and a nagging hook that recalls the J Geils Band. There’s a lyrical nod to the supernatural subject matter of the previous album, but this time it is vampires frequenting the dive bar on the corner, "where the whiskey makes the blood so thin". Then things get decidedly funky with the strutting Suit In The Back - imagine Lynyrd Skynyrd down the disco, if you can - with Sam Anderson’s falsetto vocals occasionally edging towards modern R'n'B, it's got style and it's self-assured. The following track, Colorado, sees the vocals delivered by main QCNY singer David Matsler, taking us back to more familiar territory, but the music here might be associate more with the West Coast sound, rather than the Rocky Mountain state of the title. It's the kind of hazy, lazy sound that Californian studio maverick and uber-hippy Jonathan Wilson conjures up, with a lilting guitar line that could have been gently wept by George Harrison himself. More Californian influences are up next on Pay To Play, where Aaron Haynes’ intriguing drum-intro gives way to tight Eagles-like harmonies. It's a shiny, sun drenched sound that producer, ex-White Demin guitarist Austin Jenkins, conjured up with the band at his studio, Niles City Sound, and this tune wouldn't be out of place in a Balearic DJ set.
If all this sounds like the Night Hawks have left their rockin' roots far behind, fear not. In fact, they've brought some of them along from a previous album. Fox In the Henhouse was one of stand out tracks on an earlier album, Honcho. Clearly the band felt they had unfinished business with this one, but the newer version is not a million miles away from the one laid down in 2013, still greasy and ragged but sounding like it has been schooled by a million miles on the road. The rock is ratcheted up another notch with Hunters Moon, the heaviest track here. A headbanging gallop with Sabbath-style drums and swirling Hammond organ, this one would tick most boxes on any stoner rock fans check list. It would be nice to think that it takes some influence from original Fort Worth proto-metal act, Bloodrock.
A tongue-in-cheek nod to the lyrics from the Rolling Stones’ Sympathy For the Devil starts the cautionary tale of messianic war veteran Elijah Ramsey, although the music itself is more akin to the Chris Robinson Brotherhood, or late-era Black Crowes’ mellower moments. You can almost smell the joss sticks and incense burning as the track eventually gives way to a creeping analogue synthesiser arpeggio, leading into yet more psychedelia and atmospheric drums in the form of Grackle King. Unlike previous records, this album definitely feels like the band have been paying attention to some of their contemporaries. Jonathan Wilson is recalled once more, as well as Nashville psyche-rockers All Them Witches, and even fellow Texans, Midlake. Possibly, the only misstep on QCNH is the track Tired Of You Leaving, not a bad song in itself, with its intricate drum pattern and Sly Stone licks, but there's something about the overall sound that is too akin to the Acid Jazz vibe of the early 90s, and that just feels out of place in this selection of songs. The band gets back on track immediately, though, with the albums closer. Freedom is a stomper with a Pump-It-Up rhythm and the kind of bluster that reminds us how exciting the Kings Of Leon sounded, back before they were jaded by their own success.
All in all, then, this may not be as definitive or bold a creation as their last album, El Astronauta, with its laser-focused sound, but QCNH is packed full of great songs and is clearly the statement of a band still hungry and full of desire, needing to explore boundaries, drilling down deep, looking for that next oil strike.
Betty's Midwestern Magick Blends Vol. 4
There are two bands it's hard not to mention when talking about the Chris Robinson Brotherhood. One is, of course, the Black Crowes, the group Chris Robinson formed with his brother Rich, a band that brought some much-needed roll to the 90's rock scene before their volatile relationship and sibling rivalry finally became too much for both to continue in the same outfit. The other is the Grateful Dead, who's example of constant touring, while changing the set list every night for their travelling fans, and then releasing those shows on a multitude of live recording, seems to have been taken as an instruction manual of how a modern band can not only survive, but prosper on their own terms in this age of something-for-nothing streaming services.
The Grateful Dead references don't end there, either. This live recording, and several others CRB have released on their own label, Silver Arrow, since 2013, was captured by the legendary Betty Cantor-Jackson, a recording engineer who taped hundreds of Grateful Dead concerts during Garcia & co.'s peak years. Her ability to capture the magic(k) of a band in full flight has certainly not faded with time.
This set kicks off with rolling ivories, heralding Forever As The Moon, a keyboard line that bares more than a passing resemblance to the intro of the Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker). The snaking slide guitar of Neal Casal that soon accompanies the piano vamp does nothing to dispel the Stones comparisons, although the lyrical poetry owes more to Dylan than Jagger in this instance. In fact, most of the tracks selected here represent the more rootsy side of CRB's recent output. Psychedelic interludes and flourishes still remain, though, and the bands ability to stretch out and jam is shown off to fine effect, especially on the barnstorming 11-minute version of the Jerry Leiber-penned, southern soul hit, Down Home Girl, originally recorded by Alvin Robinson. Peppered with some deliciously funky Sly Stone clavinet, it would almost be worth the price of the concert ticket just to see this performed live. The yearning cowboy melodies of Shadow Cosmos follows, then lead on to possibly their biggest song yet, the epic Narcissus Soaking Wet. A-10 minute monster jam that definitively answers the question "What would it have sounded like if Pink Floyd and Stevie Wonder had got it together in their mid-70's pomp. Robinson spits out a couple of bad-ass honking harmonica solos before Neal Casal lets rip with a stratospheric guitar solo.
Casal originally started off playing for Rickey Medlockes' southern rockers Blackfoot, before making a name for himself in Ryan Adams backing band the Cardinals. Apart from his role in CRB, he also currently plays with Hard Working Americans, The Skiffle Players and Circles Around the Sun. His quality guitar playing and song writing always add a real touch of class to every project he's involved in. But back to the gig, and the soul/prog experiments continue on Precious Precious. originally a hit for Jacksonville soul diva Jackie Moore and here featuring a mammoth Moog solo that I'm certain was never envisioned by the writers when the song was first composed. For Black Crowes fans yet to experience Chris Robinsons current direction, the most Marmite aspect will most likely be those keyboards. The bending analogue sythesizer lines of Adam McDougall play a prominent role in much of the music made here, which can be a shock to those used to the Humble Pie / Faces grittiness of those early Crowes releases. There can certainly be a fine line between the Mothership funk of Bernie Worrell and the theme from Grange Hill and, although the combination of sounds at first seemed like very odd bedfellows to me, I have really grown to love the qualities that sound brings. Quite often it's the grit in the oyster that elevates the CRB output into something truly unique. Another cover follows in the form of Magic Carpet Ride, a faithful, if more fleet-of-foot, rendition than the Steppenwolf original. Those feet well and truly leave the ground when the band ignite their rocket boots and launch into full wig out mode (twice!). Then it's back to the original compositions with the desert blues of Somewhere Past the Sunset, recalling Texan guitar god Joe Ely, amongst others. This is followed by a magnificent version of one of my favourite CRB tunes, New Cannonball Rag, which, at nearly 13-minutes, takes the Deadhead boogie of the studio version right out to the edge of the Solar System and back.
Robinson’s vocal dexterity is on fine display all throughout these recordings, but especially during It's All Over Now, Baby Blue. Most of Dylans' compositions have been covered several times and this one is no exception, yet despite the rarified company, Chris more than holds his own, as the band add shades of Leon Russell to this spin on this old classic. I've always been a big fan of Robinson’s delivery, right back from when I got to see them in Manchester on their first UK tour waaay back in 1990. Considering his herbal requirements and his relentless touring schedule, his voice has survived remarkably well in a way that belies his age. The register is maybe a fraction deeper and the edges a little more grizzled, but he was, and remains, a rock singer of unique quality and soul. Backed by a band that plays with all the assurance of The Band, the audacity of the Allmans and is free of the shackles of expectation that comes with having to play songs you first wrote nearly 30 years ago, you can just tell that Robinson is right where he needs to be at this point in his career, and enjoying every minute of it. You can hear it in the assured delivery of the last two CRB compositions, Ain't It Hard But Fair and California Hymn, and, as if to silence those blinkered old Black Crowes fans who just won't be happy unless Chris Robinson is shaking his moneymaker to a Stones back-beat, this quality collection finishes with a dynamite rendition of Let It Bleed that could only come from that wily old Crowe.
Sometimes Dogs Bark At Nothing
I’ve been a JP Harris fan for some time now. I was lucky to spin a handful tunes at a gig he played in Brighton a few of years back. I picked up his two albums and soon started playing Gear Jammin Daddy (form the JP Harris and the Tough Choices album I’ll Keep Calling, 2012) in our Whiskey Preachin DJ sets. When, soon after that gig, we started the Whiskey Preachin Radio Show, Gear Jammin Daddy took pole position as the opening tune on the first show.
Released on Maryland’s Free Dirt records (who also brought us top notch albums form Western Centuries, The Hackensaw Boys and Porky LaFarge, among others), Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing was always going to be of interest to the WP ears, naturally. It was only a matter of seconds after the first track started that I knew it was going to have to open one of our shows (it’s the first track on the September 2018 Pt.2 show, there’s a link at the bottom of the page).
JP’s Florida Blues #1 opens the album, riding an organ groove and insistent drums, with backing singers reminiscent of an Elvis comeback show and lyrics that should draw attention form FHP. JPH spins a tale of losing his mind out on the highway, when it’s 85 degrees and snowing. This one is guaranteed to be heard in WP sets for years to come. In fact, there are several track from this fine album that are sure to be getting plenty of WP attention, including Hard Road and Jimmy’s Dead and Gone (both up-tempo numbers suited to our favourite Friday night whiskey joint) as well as Runaway (a dobro-drenched head-nodder) and When I Quit Drinking (a lovely slice of mid-tempo honky tonk).The dobro forms the backbone of the title track as well, allowing Harris to show of his singer-songwriter credentials, while I Only Drink Alone drops the lights and the tempo for a gently swinging honky tonk lament.
Now based in Music City, Harris is originally from Montgomery, Alabama, one of the few cities in AL I am lucky to have visited, where Hank Williams is buried and where, 28 years before Harris was born, Rosa Parks refused to sit at the back of the bus. In his decade-long career as a country singer (outside of his day job as a sought-after carpenter), Harris has released three fine albums and the Why Don’t We Duet In The Road EP (which features Nikki Lane, Kristina Murray (whose recent album Southern Ambrosia has been playing on the WP show), Kelsey Waldon and Leigh Nash. Harris’s performance at the 2018 Americanfest in Nashville was well received by the critics, as was his choice to work with a slew of talented female country artist, when female artists seem to have been overlooked somewhat in the awards themselves. At the Sunday Morning Coming Down party that he hosted at the end of the festival (which I would love to have been able to attend), Harris shared the stage with Elizabeth Cook, The Watson Twins, Erin Rae and Kristina Murray. Fair play, although I find it odd that this should be the exception. Why wouldn’t a talented male artist want to share the stage with a bunch of talented female artists? He got to hang out with female artists he clearly respects and made himself look good into the bargain. Surely that’s a win-win?
Sometimes Dogs Bark at Nothing should certainly see JP Harris reaching a broader audience. This album provides the latest example of just how good today’s country music can be. First rate stuff, all we need now is some UK tour dates, please, hopefully at a slightly bigger venue.
“Bang Bang! There’s trouble in America” shouts Alejandro Escovedo on Fury and Fire, a blast of angry 21st century rock and roll protest, a stand-out lyric from The Crossing. A concept album built on the story of Salvo and Diego, two kids, Italian and Mexican respectively, who meet in Texas and decide to start a band, to make music just like the great records that started them on their separate crossings to the USA. As our two protagonists travel further into America, dreams are shattered by experiences as the harsh reality of America bleeds in. Fertile ground, indeed, for a song writer of Mexican-American heritage such as Escovedo, whom No Depression magazine have already declared artist of the decade. No pressure, then. I was weary when I approached the album for my first listen.
Alejandro Escovedo has had a diverse career since he first appeared as a founding member of the San Francisco punk band The Nuns, back in 1975. Prior to his recordings under his own name in a more alt.country style, Escovedo wielded his guitar for several notable bands, including Austin Cowpunk pioneers Rank and File, and The True Believers. Never one to be pinned down by musical borders, Escovedo is not easy to fence in.
Having already played the lead single, Sonica USA, featuring the guitar work of MC5’s Wayne Kramer, on the Whiskey Preachin radio show several months prior to the albums release, I had been expectantly waiting to hear the full work. Reviews I had read in the intervening months had been unanimous in putting the album on a pedestal, using words like “cinematic” and “masterwork”, describing Escovedo as one of the great songwriters of our time, in a genre of his own. I’d learnt that, alongside MC5’s Kramer, James Williamson of The Stooges also plays on one track, Teenage Luggage, that Joe Ely appears on two tracks, writing one of them, as does Richmond Fontaine’s Willy Vlautin. With such a build-up, I was worried that I wouldn’t like it, that maybe the artfulness and the concept would get in the way of the listen. There was no need to worry. On first listen, it was clear we were dealing with a very fine album indeed.
From a Whiskey Preachin perspective, there are a handful of tracks on The Crossing that we might choose to play in DJ set, more that would work well on the radio show. Outlaw for You is a tune that occupies a space in the musical Venn diagram where Whiskey Preachin and our friends Stay Sick could happily co-habit without squabbling over the stereo, a slice of classic garage rock Americana, like a cross between The Sir Douglas Quintet and ? and The Mysterians. Brilliant. The Aforementioned Sonica USA is all driving rock and roll, as is Fury and Fire, full of anger and political angst that many of us are feeling, no matter where we live. One of the strongest tracks comes towards the end of the album, the penultimate tune, MC Overlord, a mightily impressive No Wave post-punk workout.
The album’s slower tracks are where many of the guest singers appear and, if anything, give the album the structure necessary to navigate the story around the bigger, brasher rock and roll numbers. Joe Ely, who’s song Fingernails turned Joe Strummer onto Texas music, contributes the song Silver City, adding a touch of classic Texas songwriter to the sprawling kaleidoscope of musical influences and styles displayed on The Crossing. Ely returns to voice the spoken-word title track, The Crossing, closing out the album with a lament for broken dreams and broken lives, scorched along the Mexican border.
“The border crossed me, I didn’t cross it. If you really want to think of it, you’re the wetback, coming across the Atlantic”. Rio Navidad is another track where the story is exposited in spoken-work, this time written by Willy Vlautin (Richmond Fontaine, The Delines) and spoken by fellow Richmond Fontaine member, Freddy Trujillo, taking the reins to expound Diego’s story in Vlautin’s words. Another highlight of the album is the wonderful instrumental, Amor Puro, which opens with an almost Casio keyboard-style bossa groove before expanding into the sort of sleazy popcorn joint Calexico might bring to the party, if they had just come back form a desert surfing holiday.
The Crossing was recorded in Italy with Antonio Gramentieri and his band Don Antonio. Gramentieri is also credited with having written much of the album with Escovedo. The two travelled between Italy and Texas for their writing sessions, to soak up the atmosphere of both locations, home landscapes of the two characters in The Crossing. After all, the essence of south Tejas will always be Mexican. Gramentieri’s previous band, Sacri Cuori (Sacred Hearts), created music influenced and inspired by Italian film scores, having written music for film themselves. On The Crossing, it feels as if the soundtrack influence allowed for the diversity of styles to hang together as a single album. The very idea of a concept album could almost be imagined as a film made in music, so a group of musicians with experience in soundtracks makes perfect sense. There is something about The Crossing that made me think of the soundtrack created by Frank Black for a 1920s silent film called The Golem. For those of you with an interest in reading sleeve notes, Gramentieri also played guitar on Giant Sand’s 2015 album Heartbreak Pass.
The Crossing is a big album, seventeen tracks, covering lots of ground, myriad styles and influences; punk, rock and roll, Americana, ballads, spoken-word, surf and twang. It’s an ambitious work that shouldn’t really hang together as well as it does. It’s a melting pot of sounds and styles, just like the man whose name is on the sleeve.
Baby You Win
We are lucky today to be in a world where quality independent country music is the strongest it has been for decades, possibly ever. Whether you lean towards outlaw, cosmic, countrypolitan or singer-songwriter, honky tonk or bluegrass, there’s something out there for everyone. You can add Cliff Westfall’s album, Baby You Win, to that list. Packed with classic honky tonk sounds, with a production that manages to fell fresh and bygone at the same time, Baby You Win is reverential without falling into the trap of pastiche. Westfall’s lyrics are finely honed, at times wonderfully humorous, at others heart breaking, as only real a country songs can be. The press release helpfully prompts the busy reviewer that they should make some time for this album if they like Dwight Yoakam, Robbie Fulks or Rodney Crowell, and these are certainly good markers. Baby You Win does remind me of Fulks’s Georgia Hard album and Yoakam’s Guitars, Cadillacs, Etc., Etc., both albums I have gone back to time and time again, so I didn’t need much convincing.
Westfall is a son of the south, hailing from Kentucky, the bluegrass state, although he calls New York home now. His band boasts so much experience, it’s no wonder they make such a fine sound together. The roll call of artists that members of the band have played with is impressive, if not daunting; Shooter Jennings, Norah Jones, Valerie June, Laura Cantrell, Ronnie Spector, Danger Mouse, Bruce Springsteen. Add to that producer Bryce Goggin, who has worked with The Ramones, Pavement and Antony and The Johnsons, and you have some serious talent in the studio.
When deciding if an album should be reviewed here, the main considerations is whether it would fit in a Whiskey Preachin DJ set, or on the radio show. So, with that in mind, I was keen to find out if Westfall would deliver on our terms. The album gets off to a good start with a chirpy bopper, It Hurt Her to Hurt Me, followed by the twanging rock & roll of the title track, no surprise that Westfall cites Chuck Berry as a big influence. Till the Right One Comes Along drops to a shuffle, with a piano sound that brings to mind Patsy Cline, or Charlie Rich. So far, so good, all sounding very nice. I could play a lot of this on the radio, or when DJing in support of a band, but I’m not sure any of it would work in a full-on Whiskey Preachin DJ set. The next track, More and More, firms up my resolve that, while this is a solid, nice album, I won’t be needing to splash out on a vinyl copy.
Just as I think I’ve got this one pegged, the next track, Off the Wagon, kicks in. A lovely funky twang is soon under-pinned by a rolling train shuffle and an infectious guitar line that pricks my ears up immediately. As the lyrics unwind themselves, I can’t keep my smile under control, I know I’ve found a WP winner. Then the lead guitar does its thing and the steel rips it up and I’m gone. No more evidence, your honour. A couple of tunes later, I’ll Play the Fool pulls a similar stunt on me, and I’m starting to hope that this album is being pressed up on vinyl, after all. Two sure fire WP tunes earns an album a place in the record box. I’m sold, even before a third winner, The End of the Line, kicks in to make this a three-spin album, making it all but essential.
There are still two more songs to go, but, frankly, I’m happy for this baby to coast out, nice and easy, after all the hard work that has been presented so far. Well, I should know better by now, of course. Westfall closes out the twelve tracks of Baby You Win with a lovely drop of country funk, titled The Odds Were Good. That makes four solid Whiskey Preachin spins on a single album, and a body count that high raises a few eyebrows around here. But don’t get me wrong, just because there are four tracks that could happily grace any WP set, that’s not to say the rest of the album is a slouch. Far from it, this baby is packed with honky tonk goodness, from the first note to the last. Baby, we’re all winners here.
I Travel On
Old Guitar Records
A Jason Eady album is always easy on the ear and I Travel On is no different. You don’t get a huge amount of grit or rough edges from him, just well written tunes and cleverly constructed lyrics. In fact, his voice and songwriting style reminds me of early 90’s country star Clint Black, and that’s no bad thing.
If you’re new to Eady, 2014’s Daylight & Dark is especially worth checking out, a nice mix of honky tonk stormers and late-night laments, but this album takes a slight detour from his previous outings. Eady's earlier sound was fairly well set in the country-hony tonk arena, with a backbone of thoughtful acoustic tunes. ‘I Travel On’ has a more bluegrass feel to it, with a few swampy, bluesy tracks thrown in to mix it up. In fact, a couple of the songs have a Tony Joe White groove about them. Now or Never and That’s Alright especially. The more ‘present’ sound of the band also makes this feel different. In the past, Eady has sometimes felt like a solo artist working with backing musicians who are almost incidental, as if the songs were more important than the delivery. Here it sounds like a true ‘band’ effort, and adding a couple of bluegrass musicians, Grammy-nominated Rob Ickes and Trey Hensley, has also made a big impact.
The fact that the songs were captured live in one take shows the cohesiveness and skill of all concerned. The opener, Lost My Mind in Carolina, sets its stall out pretty quickly, with a melange of bluegrassy licks before Eady’s distinctive vocals kick in. It’s a lively, driving tune that leads into the swampy grind of Now or Never, with its unusual, picked-out, twangy refrain.
Eady’s wife, Courtney Patton - a brilliant songwriter and singer in her own right - joins in on backing vocals on a couple of tunes, while the band proves its credentials with some lovely licks and solos to fill out the sound. Everything flows nicely, with ballads leading into country shuffles and bluesy grooves. Below the Waterline stands out a little from the rest, with its feel of a more traditional folk song, its pace and atmosphere acting as a nice palate cleanser. Your sensibilities now soothed, you’re headed straight into the frenetic Pretty when I die, which has the energy and thrust of a full-throttle Turnpike Troubadours track.
Jason Eady delivers with a conviction and authority that has you believing that his tales are based on personal experiences. A great example of this is She had to Run, which has the feel of a more countrified Jason Isbell ballad. Eady is one of those guys who seems to just get better and better, and this album gets better each time you hear it. I Travel On offers a slightly different flavour to Eady's usual output, but one that really tickles the taste buds, for sure. Get it on the menu at your local honky tonk today.
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning
Shotgun House Records
I love music that keeps me coming back, that makes me want to understand where it’s coming from, to see the recipe between my ears. Where are these guys coming from? What have they been getting up to? What made them concoct a sound like this? I remember the first time I put the needle on a Doug Sahm record, how I was transported to the Texas boarderlands, by way of Haight Ashbury. Sahm’s band, The Sir Douglas Qunitet, mixed the influences they heard around them in San Antonio, Texas, blending the local honky tonk and Chicano conjunto with rhythm and blues, rolling it all up and setting light to it. I took a deep breath, the sound was intoxicating.
DT Buffkin has a lot in common with Doug Sahm, including his home town, some of his fellow musicians, and his proclivity for melting cultural influences together in a way that would seem to be a hallmark of San Antone music. Augie Meyers, original founding member of The Sir Douglas Quintet, plays organ on the song Houston St. on Buffkin’s album, a gentle, rolling rumba that might conjure up thoughts of old Havana, possibly even Parisian boulevards, as much as it does south Texas. You can see Meyers playing organ with Buffkin on his righteous cover of the Sir Douglas Quintet hit She’s About a Mover, backed by Garrett T Capps on drums and Flaco Jimenez on accordion. Buffkin is label mates with Capps, both calling Shotgun House Records home. In fact, if you are lucky enough to own the excellent 7” version of Capps’s Born in San Antone, you will already have a DT Buffkin track on the other side.
Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is a slow-burner of an album. Allow yourself to wallow in these songs and you will soon find that they have crept inside your consciousness. It’s an album for the elegantly disheveled, for those who know what it is to have lost love, for the no-account boozers and the can’t-help-but losers. It’s an album for poets and dropouts, for smoky late nights and rainy-day mornings, for the coming down that probably wasn’t worth the going up, for those of us resigned to reaching for the bottle after the horse has bolted. If you want touchstones, you can take your pick, but, suffice it to say, not one of these artist sounds like DT Buffkin. They are all reference points I stumbled upon while trying to place Buffkin’s music: early Willie Nelson, The Shirells, Billie Holiday, Nashville Skyline-era Dylan, Howe Gelb, even Amy Winehouse, if she had been born male and in Texas. I guess you could argue that Charlie Crockett is a fair comparison from today, but, to these ears, Buffkin is making music that will weather the vagaries of time far better. This album is already timeless, where as Crockett’s latest sounds like it has been produces for today’s market. I know which album I’m more likely to return to in ten years.
Some reviews naturally take longer to write than others. Maybe this is down to struggling to find an in, a hook to hang it all on, the right words. Perhaps, you think, one more listen will help you do justice to the artist whose work you are toying with, one more spin to see what comes to mind this time. Saturday Night, Sunday Morning is a case in point. The subtlety of the playing, the world-weary lyrics, the soulful melancholy of the vocal delivery, the aching resignation at the core of every song, combine to produce an ethereal haze around the music that makes it difficult to recall when the album ends, in a way that bothers you until you play it again. There is much beauty here, and it is through the acceptance of life’s little tragedies that it is revealed.
That Santa Fe Channel
Looks can be deceptive. Cordovas have the rough and ready look of a bunch of prospectors from the California gold rush, but while they rock that 49er chic, there's a real sophistication to their classy take on the Americana sound. Bandleader Joe Firstman's previous experience, as musical director on NBC's late-night show Last Call with Carson Daly, has certainly stood him in good stead. Performing nightly alongside first-rate musicians, such as Thundercat and Kamasi Washington, can only create the highest of standards, and Firstman has corralled a crack troupe of musicians, capable of delivering a tune as slick and polished as any pop act, but never sounding plastic.
This is real, heartfelt roots music, never overblown but, despite its confidence, often displaying a certain fragility. Expertly captured by producer Kenneth Pattengale. opening track This Town's A Drag is a case in point. Many touring bands have written about killing time while stuck in Anytown, USA, but few manage to convey the feelings of yearning and resignation as eloquently as Cordovas. It's also one hell of an earworm. Check out the footage of them performing the track live at Toe Rag studios, when they were last in London. Selfish Loner is a tale of a charming lowlife sleaze accompanied with quicksilver slick pedal steel and angelic three-part vocal harmonies. In fact, the vocal harmonies really are key to the success of this album. Firstman insisted that all vocal parts be recorded at the same time, until the perfect take was achieved, and it pays off, embellishing every track, from the funky roots-rock of Talk to Me to the soulful Santa Fe, with a quality few acts can manage.
Of course, there are influences here, too, with a nod to the Allmans on occasion, and I had to check that I'm The One That Needs You Tonight wasn't an obscure Dylan composition I was yet to discover. The album is also infused with a world-weary tenderness, recalling Gram Parsons solo recordings, but it's really The Band and Little Feat that are the most obvious comparisons, not only in the songwriting but also the sheer quality of musicianship.
Although Cordovas eponymous debut album was released in the UK in the last couple of years, it was actually recorded six years ago, and a couple of its strongest compositions make a reappearance on That Santa Fe Channel. Standing on the Porch originally had more of a stomping beat, but here it has a skip in its step that allows it to swing and shay in a more danceable way, while Step Back Red, previously heavily indebted to The Band and still containing Robbie Robertson's DNA, has been embellished with playful jazzy elements after years of jamming on the road. Still love that original version though.
If you get a kick form seeing talented, tried and true musicians performing first class, original material with a passion and verve that ignites an enthusiastic sympathy in the audience; if you like songs to be crafted and honed, to be worth the time it takes to write them, not just to listen; and if you like your country music filtered through the musical strata of the decades, lightly wearing influences from old time mountain harmonies to classic California country-rock; if you like the sound of a band that might make you think of Little Feat, The Band, Steely Dan, even, at times, White Denim, then you need to check out Cordovas.
A few years ago, I was trawling YouTube for some country music and came across a track called Dwight Yoakam. The video was a black and white, homemade-looking affair of a dishevelled, possibly drunk, probably hungover girl who belted out the first line of the song in a throaty, yodely draw “I’m drinking water tonight cos I drank all the whisky this morning…”. I was hooked. Now, a few years later, Sarah Shook & the Disarmers have released their second long-player, Years.
Years treads a similar path to that first album, Sidelong, which was a raucous affair of fuck-ups, one-night stands who sound like Dwight Yoakam, and redemption through rye whisky. This latest effort, though, has a slightly less desperate air about it. It’s still a breaking-up-moving-on-unlucky-in-love-get-me-a-drink-quick affair, but Sarah seems more in control of her demons. The songs are more rounded and less edgy than before; with the writing and lyrical wordplay undeniably living in the world of country, they have that quality of sounding familiar the first time you hear them. The band deliver a fuller sound too, with the not-too-overdone solos giving the tunes a nicely balanced feel. The Disarmers sound like they’ve travelled thousands of highway miles together.
A rockabilly beat flavours a couple of the tracks, especially ‘Damned if I do…’, and there are a couple of down-beat, tears-in-your-beer tunes thrown in for good measure - ‘Parting words’ and ’Heartache in Hell’ - but generally this album whips along. Sarah’s smoky, hillbilly drawl is truly distinct and adds a level of authenticity to her tales of all-night drinking and all-day heartache, differentiating her from the retro-hued tones of Margo Price or Nikki Lane. You tend to believe the tales she’s telling, but, o be honest, it sounds like she doesn’t really care if you believe her or no - no apologies are offered or accepted.
The noir-esque ‘The bottle never lets me down’ sets this unapologetic tone, preferring the company of the always reliable bottle to her obviously not very reliable, soon to be ex. How very country. The final track, ’Years’, is the stand-out for me, a plaintive tale, regretting how the good times were over before the protagonists even realised.
If you like your country full of hungover heartache, with regrets thrown out like yesterday’s empties, then this may be the album for you. I suggest you check out Sarah Shook’s first album, ‘Sidelong’, as well. In my opinion, it grabs you that little bit harder than its slightly more polished, younger sibling. If ‘Sidelong’ was drinking straight from the bottle, ‘Years’ has opted for the slightly more refined, but equally as effective shot glass. Cheers.
Now we’re talkin’! Another great self-released country album, the sort of record that takes you by surprise, barrelling around a dangerous curve at 100 mph. There’s so much to like on Jesse Daniel’s eponymous debut; the songs are strong, the production has just the right amount of grit and the vibe’s up-beat, like a Saturday night in a California roadhouse, with lashings of electric twang, witty lyrics and a real good thump to the drums. With titles like Hell Bent and Comin’ Down Again, it’s not difficult to imagine what this album has in store. That said, few new artists can tell it as straight and true as Jesse Daniel does on Soft Spot (for the Hard Stuff), a confessional of sorts. Daniel’s story of substance abuse is no mere lyrical conjuring of romantic fantasy, rather a first-hand expression of a life he has thankfully managed to escape.
Starting out as a drummer for several punk bands around his home in Ben Lomand, California (north of Santa Cruz), Daniel found himself on the road and increasingly out of his head on various substances, graduating to the queen of the main line. Life followed a pick-n-mix of rehab, jail and homelessness. Daniel’s story of how he found his path to becoming a country musician is almost prophetic. Passing by a thrift shop on his way back to a motel room for a fix, he saw a group of homeless watching a TV in the window. Stopping to see what they were watching, he heard one of the men exclaim “hey, they’re pretty good”, before realising that one of the musicians on screen was his own father. Jesse and the other men went off to fix up in another motel room, where there was a TV set in the corner playing Buck Owens singing Act Naturally. Jesse Daniel hadn’t exactly seen the light, but the seeds of his redemption had been sewn.
A few years later, while in rehab in Oakland, Jesse heard the strum and twang of someone playing a Hank Williams tune in the next room. Wandering in to investigate, he sat to listen, later making his mind up to kick his habit, lay down the needle in favour of the guitar. Daniel hdd found his path at last, eventually managing to get on his feet, save $50 to buy a battered old Fender and start writing songs.
Soft Spot (for the Hard Stuff) doesn’t pull any punches in the story it tells, as the protagonist packs his life into a glass pipe and burns it down to the ground, all to a solid outlaw groove that adds the song extra credence. It’s a sure-fire Whiskey Preachin winner, as is SR-22 Blues, an up-tempo romp of a tale of a guy who has lost his driving licence for DUI and now walks twenty miles to his SR-22, the light aircraft that has replaced his car! The Banker is another highlight on this gem of an album, like a modern-day remake of Chuck Berry’s You Never Can Tell, spinning the yarn of as banker who has been run over, resulting in thousands of dollars blowing down the street from his busted briefcase. If only…
Jessie Daniel has released a record that I expect will be at the front of the Whiskey Preachin record box for years to come. My LP copy can’t turn up soon enough.
It's been a long, strange trip for Canadian band The Sheepdogs. After a succession of self-released records in the late noughties, in 2011 they became the first unsigned band ever to make the cover of Rolling Stone, consequently scooping a deal with Atlantic Records, releasing the Five Easy Pieces EP and a self-titled album, both produced by Black Keys drummer Patrick Carney. They hit the road far and wide, getting to support one of their all-time heroes, John Fogerty, in the process (the tour later described by drummer, Sam Corbett, as "probably the cushiest ever for us"). Following the departure of guitarist Leot Hanson, friend-of-the-band Rusty Matyas stepped into the breach, eventually joining as a full-time member in 2014.
The Sheepdogs' fifth studio album, Future Nostalgia, came out in October 2015 on the independent label Dine Alone Records and Warner Music Canada, and shortly after they changed line up once again, this time picking up award-winning blues guitarist Jimmy Bowskill from Ontario, really moved things up a notch. By this point, the Sheepdogs were already a road-hardened act who knew how to write a mean tune and rock a sweaty room, over time their tastes having broadened to include more country, folk and blues, even elements of jazz into their classic rock mix. The addition of Bowskill was akin to adding a turbocharger to their engine power. Things feel like they have been leading to this point.
The first three tracks of Changing Colours sock you right on the jaw with a robust, punchy production courtesy of Thomas D'Arcy. Opening salvo Nobody is a CCR-style feelgood radio hit with added Allman Bros. licks and some exquisite slide guitar, setting the tone for the next 50 minutes of music. Hot on its heels is Hole Where My Heart Should Be, and it boogies like Skynyrd tangoing with the Hoodoo Rhythm Devils. On record it rocks hard enough, but after witnessing it live I can honestly say it was one of the highlights of this year’s Black Deer festival. In a blink of an eye we're into Saturday Night, driven along by relentless piano and slashing guitar chords that recalls Joe Walsh in his prime. Its super catchy chorus, sang by Ewan Currie, is laid back yet to the point, with minimum gravel and plenty of melody, very much like Steve Miller's vocal delivery style.
After the opening trio of big-hitters, it's almost a relief when the band ease their foot off the gas for the sweet country-pop singalong Let It Roll, and the Steely Dan/Santana smooth groove-athon The Big Nowhere, layers of Hammond organ and brass supplied by the younger Currie brother, Shamus. The self-effacing I Ain't Cool and the mean and moody glam chug of You Gotta Be A Man then leads us back into the more Latin-tinged rhythms of Cool Down, with lashings of Doorsy rhodes piano liberally sprinkled over Ryan Gullen's delicate bass lines.
The Sheepdogs ace in the hole, though, is their precision-tooled twin guitar harmonies. Duane and Dickey set the template for this style of guitar playing, but Ewan and Jimmy have picked up the ball and they’ve ran with it. It's a sound very few bands attempt these days. Maybe that’s because it takes a hell of a lot of practice to develop such a telepathic sounding synchronicity, flitting from hard and tight riffs to jazzier motifs in a flourish, such as on Kiss the Brass Ring. Cherries Jubilee is short and sweet and supplies a celebration of country funk as juicy as the name suggests. The weirdest left field turn on the album is I'm Just Waiting for My Time, in some ways the most affected, yet affecting, song on the whole album. Changing Colours is a record steeped in the sounds of America, but this one track stands alone with a vibe that comes from the other side of the pond; psychedelic British blues channelled with the Celtic spirit of Rory Gallagher.
The album finishes with a six-song medley, kicking off with the plucked banjo intro of Born a Restless Man, before leading to an explosion of big southern harmonies. The Bailie Turnaround has classy country guitar licks straight out of the Clarence White playbook, while Up in Canada could be the alternative Canuck national anthem, especially since the country has just decided to legalise the use of pot. In fact, I can see Jimmy Bowskill standing on the roof of the Canadian parliament in his bright yellow hemp leaf cowboy suit playing this now, (sure beats Brian May on the roof of Buckingham Palace, anyway, someone should start a petition). HMS Buffalo rolls into Esprit Des Corps, bringing more Allman style twin guitar lines, surfing a waterfall of ivory tickling. Finally, the journey ends with the Latinate yacht rock of Run Baby Run, which could have slotted in seamlessly on Stephen Stills’ Manassas album. Yes, The Sheepdogs wear their influences on their sleeves boldly, but they also bring plenty to the party themselves, playing their music with such aplomb that few, if any, contemporary bands can beat them in the good time rock'n'roll stakes. This big-hearted record can't help but bring a smile to your face.
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