Campfire Tales: March 2015
What has been an excellent year for genre music so far continues into the third month, with a mix of traditional and new really showing the finest of both worlds. After February’s strong country leaning March brings folk into focus, and adds a little soul, a few troubadours, and pinch of Western swing.
The latest in a recent line of Americana troubadours, mostly coming from the Loose Music stable, Joe Pug’s first official UK release is a peach. Falling on the right side of happy melancholia with ‘Bright Beginnings’ and harmonica-supported wistfulness on ‘Veteran Fighter’, the centrepiece is ‘Great Hosanas’, built of seemingly mundane, fragmented phrases (“Silent partners / Business ventures” and “Rolex watches / Walkin closets”). Almost spoken word, it’s totally beautiful and affecting. There’s a gentleness to Pug’s music that can’t hide the truth of his lyrics and story. Having nearly given up on music around 18 months ago this is some return, with not a weak song on the record it’s an introduction to the wider audience the Maryland-born singer deserves.
Billed as the UK’s finest banjo player, Dan Walsh has created his ode to the mini-guitar with Incidents & Accidents. The Staffordshire strummer brings a modern style to some classical sounding tunes ranging from the basic, but foot tapping, ‘Time To Stay’ to the folky ‘Hermit Of Gully Lake’, taking in some mystical Middle Eastern influence on ‘Whiplash Reel’. The truth is Walsh is a mightily talented clawhammer twanger - ‘Lost Rambler’ and ‘Wobbly Trolley’ shows great skill and understanding of his chosen tool - and while limiting the sound mainly to one instrument might have meant his sound was a little, well, limited, the reality is that he shows off the versatility of the banjo. In shorter bursts there is much to like about both Walsh and the album; if you’re unsure of the banjo as an instrument this is as good a place as any to start adjusting your views.
Taking things back to the old world is Still The King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys, a record of Western swing that has been put together by Asleep At The Wheel and a roster of guests. Originating in the fantastically named American town of Paw Paw, West Virginia, the band have been releasing records for over forty years. Still The King… is their tribute to Bob Willis, aka the King of Western swing. His founding of many of the basics of modern country music is recognised by artists from Brad Paisley, Jamey Johnson (with Ray Benson on highlight ‘Brain Cloudy Blues’), the Avett Brothers on the jaunty ‘The Girl I Left Behind Me’. Most are a great fit, some like Pokey LaFarge sound uncannily like the original. The collection works as a lesson in country music history, and as a contemporary tribute to one of the true pioneers of the genre.
After a tough period Allison Moorer has come out all guns blazing with Down To Believing. Having been through a separation (from Steve Earle) and the diagnosis of her son as having autism (dealt with on the deceptively upbeat ‘Mama Let The Wolf In’’) Moorer is letting it all out in a whirlwind of truth and rock music. From the fiery opener ‘Like It Used To Be’ to the touching sadness of the title track and the painful honesty of ‘If I Were Stronger’, this is a personal record that confronts the challenges of a marriage breakdown head on (“I guess it comes down to believin’ / And whether we do or we don’t / I guess it comes down to stayin’ / And whether we will or we won’t”). Things brighten up on ‘I’m Doing Fine’ and the Alabama singer has a straightforward use of language that really enhances the impact of her words. Despite being dressed up in Americana clothing this may well be the most genuine and heartbreaking record this year; it’s certainly standing out as one of the best.
In a strong month for strong women, Esme Patterson’s Woman To Woman fits perfectly. After Hurray For The Riff Raff responded to decade's worth of murder ballads with the exceptional ‘The Body Electric’, Patterson delivers a concept album that pulls together responses from women who don’t have a voice in the original song. It sounds convoluted but works. If you’ve ever wondered what Billie Jean might have said about Michael Jackson’s behaviour in the song of the same name, wonder no more as the questioning, juddering ‘What Do You Call A Woman’ is her response; ditto the slide guitar of ‘Never Chase A Man’, a response to ‘Jolene’. If you recognise the voice it’s due to Patterson’s appearance on Shakey Graves' 2014 record; that’s more of a roots album where Woman To Woman uses more indie-pop staples, heard most clearly on ‘Tumbleweed’. Forgetting the concept for a moment, this is still a strong collection of tunes; add the feminist angle and you’ve got a more than interesting statement that doesn’t dilute the quality at all.
Doing someone else’s thing her own way is Mahalia Barnes who takes the songs of Betty Davis and applies her massive voice to them on Ooh Yea: The Betty Davis Songbook. And make no mistake, she’s not holding back as proven by the heavy riffing, deep grooving, brown sugar voiced opener ‘If I’m In Luck I Might Get Picked Up’. That track sets the tone; Barnes is smoother in sound than Davis, the guitars are more gutsy, the organ way down in the mix - and that’s the recipe right there. It’s successful in its own way, doing just enough to justify an album of covers with Joe Bonamassa drafted in to add the odd bit of patented guitar virtuosity to the mix. He sometimes dominates - ‘In The Meantime’ for example - but for the most part he doesn’t crowd Barnes and her band, The Soul Mates. One of the main achievements of the album is that Barnes is reminding people of the mostly underrated quality of Davis; classics like ‘He Was A Big Freak’ (raunchy, and controversial, as hell back in 1974 and still surprising now), ‘Shoo-B-Doop and Cop Him’ are brilliantly funky and extroverted. The Australian singer, daughter of Jimmy Barnes, more than does the original music justice, using the hefty imprint of her voice and their unmistakable funk rhythms to enhance rather than overwhelm.
Kimmie Rhodes flies the closest to pure country this month. There’s certainly plenty of twang, cleverly blended with the sounds of the singers youth in the 60’s and 70’s. Rhodes has been prolific over the last decade or so and Cowboy Boudoir carries on where previous record Covers left off, though with originals this time round. Tracks like ‘Don’t Leave Me Like This’ are nice, but that’s maybe the thing here, it’s all just nice. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, but in a strong month of releases you need more than that to stand out.
There’s a certain expectation that comes with being named BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer Of The Year 2014. If you’re Bella Hardy the first thing you do is defy those expectations and open with ‘’The Only Thing To Do’, a mix of dubstep and trumpet led folk. Though the trumpet is a constant presence throughout, the banjo steps up on ‘First Light Of The Morning’ where it starts a process that builds layers of beauty over the next four minutes, adding flecks of snare drum and plaintive brass section. Traditional folk is a strong presence and the basis for most of Hardy’s music, songs like ‘Jolly Good Luck To The Girl That Loves A Soldier’ play with those concepts to offer something fresh, while the delicacy of ‘You Don’t Have To Change (But You Have To Choose)’ and sparse beginning of ‘Lullaby For A Grieving Man’ epitomise the care the Derbyshire singer takes over her music, both in the dynamic of the song and meaning in the lyrics. Hardy has thrown a wonderful curveball into the sometimes stagnant waters of British folk, bending and warping the boundaries of the genre. Long may she continue to be so brave and exciting.
Joe Pug - Windfall 8/10
Esme Patterson - Woman To Woman 8/10
Mahalia Barnes & the Soul Mates - Ooh Yea The Betty Davis Songbook 7/10
Asleep At The Wheel (& guests) - Still The King: Celebrating the Music of Bob Willis and His Texas Playboys 8/10
Allison Moorer - Down To Believing 9/10
Bella Hardy - With The Dawn 9/10
Dan Walsh - Incidents & Accidents 8/10
Kimmie Rhodes - Cowboy Boudoir 6/10