It’s easy to see why Malcolm Holcombe is admired by so many songwriters. His lyrics are economical, perhaps even terse at times, conveying ideas and stories by hints and allusions rather than as a simple narrative and creating rhythmic textures with his finger-picking style. The album’s a two-hander with Jared Tyler supplying tonal colours to Malcolm’s songs (as he has for nearly twenty-five years) with a wide variety of instruments including dobro, lap steel, baritone guitar, tenor banjo, mandola and percussion. Malcolm’s finger-picking and Jared’s backing and fills give the songs a rhythmic complexity that emphasises the starkness of the lyrics.

‘Bits & Pieces’ is an album where Malcolm takes a long look in the rear-view mirror at the times he’s enjoyed and the times he’s survived; there’s a reason for this. Malcolm was diagnosed with cancer in 2022 and decided to record these songs straight away because of the uncertain future. He’s now a cancer survivor as well and this is referenced in ‘Bootstraps’ with the lines “blood bleedin’ in your stomach, saline flowin’ your veins”. Malcolm’s lyrics can be oblique, leaving you wondering whether you’re chasing the right reference, although it’s clear that ‘Eye of the Needle’, ‘Rubbin’ Elbows’ (with the COVID reference) and ‘Another Sweet Deal’ are talking about hucksters and grifters and possibly even the Trump family. You can find a few religious references in there as well, in ‘Eye of the Needle’ mentioned above, ‘Bring to Fly’ and ‘Conscience of Man’. Sometimes you need to delve a little to unpick the references, but it’s always worth the effort.

There are a couple of standouts for me and they’re side by side on the album. ‘The Wind Doesn’t Know You’ takes a whistle-stop tour through Malcolm’s past (‘lock the doors and windows turn the music up louder, from the eighties to the nineties from the pills to the powder’) before acknowledging that in the grand scheme of things, we play a very small part. ‘Conscience of Man’ hints at the early Eagles albums in its arrangements and harmonies as it rails at the American right wing before admitting that redemption might just be possible. And the theme of redemption suffuses the album’s closer ‘Bring to Fly’ to end the album on a positive note.

If you already know Malcolm Holcombe’s work, you’ll find this a very satisfying album. If you don’t know his work, then this is a pretty good place to start.

‘Bits & Pieces’ is out now on Proper Music/Need To Know.

Here’s the lyric video for the album’s title song:

It’s always nice when someone gets in touch and offers you an unsolicited review of a gig or album. Graham Jackson works in artist services, looking after artists touring the UK among other things. He’s also a very interesting guy to chat with – he has a few stories. This is his take on Isabella Coulstock supporting The Jools Holland Rhythm and Blues Orchestra at Warwick Arts Centre.

Photo Copyright Allan McKay

21st May 2023 – Warwick Arts Centre – Jools Holland with support by Isabella Coulstock

A reflection on a first visit to the impressive 1,450 capacity Warwick Arts Centre that is modern, spacious, scrupulously clean with facilities including a bar/restaurant to match.

The auditorium itself is wonderful. Despite its sizeable capacity, there is a feel of intimacy as the balconies wrap themselves around itself even going behind the stage area.

The time for the opening artist, Isabella Coulstock, is approaching and so refreshing to see the auditorium is near full in anticipation of the show, the Jools Holland audience showing a respect and interest in the support artist, perhaps with some naivety and curiosity.

The scene is set. The lights dim except for the one white spotlight, the announcement made, “Ladies and Gentleman, please welcome Isabella Coulstock” and as she walks on with her guitar, the audience breaks into spontaneous applause. Then silence as Isabella prepares herself.

With confidence and a big smile, Isabella starts her set with ‘Nice Just Ain’t A Good Colour’ which serves to give an immediate impact and connection with the audience. They are listening and listening with genuine interest, impressed from what they are seeing and hearing. It works – rapturous applause.

A set of six self-penned songs, from the very first written ‘Crazy Cowboy’ to the brand new ‘Riverside’, each appealing to the audience whatever the tempo, ultimately finishing with some audience participation which they duly join in singing and clapping to ‘Honky Tonk Beer’.

Isabella’s wonderful pitch-perfect vocals and accurate guitar play were ‘talking’ to and enchanting the audience, interspersed with short song introductions and thanks to Jools Holland and his team. It was the audience that was thankful, mutterings heard through the show such as “wow, what a voice” and “she is something else”, even comments after saying “the new KT Tunstall”.

Isabella Coulstock is like one of those rare beautiful orchids that takes time to develop and when the time and conditions are right, it blooms into a wonderful show of colour and panache – the show proved that the time and conditions are right for Isabella.

Full Set List:

  • Nice Just Ain’t A Good Colour
  • Borderline
  • Broken
  • Riverside
  • Crazy Cowboy
  • Honky Tonk Beer

The pandemic hit the music business hard. It had a particularly had a massive impact on bands whose bread and butter is playing live. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes is one of those bands. They’re back out on the road in the US now and, after a gap of over four years they’re about to return to the UK for a date at Shepherd’s Bush Empire on Friday July 7th. If you’re based in Holland, they all have dates at The Paradiso in Amsterdam on the 8th and Bospop Festival on the 9th. So it’s a perfect time for us to have a chat with Johnny to find out what he’s been up to during and after the pandemic. It’s a transatlantic phone interview, so expect a few pauses. There’s also a bit of shared working space noise at the end. So let’s cut to the chase. Just click on play for a few insights from Southside Johnny:

One of the many things I love about Bob Bradshaw is that he still firmly believes in the idea of the album; twelve songs (give or take one or two) chosen because they fit together and sequenced in a way that’s pleasing to the ear. Another thing I love is that he always likes to throw a few curveballs; just when you think you’re listening to an album of straight-ahead rock or Americana, he throws in something that stops you in your tracks. It can be an unexpected musical styling or an unusual melodic shift, or something else entirely.

‘Somebody Told Me a Lie’ is a perfect example; the theme of the song’s a cheating partner and it’s delivered with a crooner vocal and a Hawaiian shuffle setting with lap steel licks. The shock comes in the brief shift from common time to triple time to emphasise the line “While she was waltzin’ round the room”. It’s deliberately disorientating, emphasising the jolt of the realisation of infidelity. Bob does the straightforward rock stuff very well (the album’s opener ‘Waiting’ and the self-deprecatory ‘Hot in the Kitchen’ are conclusive proof of that) but he really shines as a storyteller, whether the stories are entirely fictional or based on reality, particularly when he tailors the musical stylings to the memorable subject matter.

Here’s a couple of examples for you. ‘The Silk Road Caravan’ is based around historical events while focussing on the story of the special partnership between man and horse. The arrangement reflects the geographical setting with a slightly Arabic and very percussive arrangement. An even better, and more harrowing example of this musical and lyrical synergy appears in ‘Rosa’ the story of a man attempting to break out across the Mexican border to start a new life before calling his sweetheart to join him. The song begins with a church bell and a flamenco guitar and builds through several sections until the panicked finale with squalling guitars and atonal trumpet (played by Calexico’s Jacob Valenzuela) indicating that the attempted breakout has failed disastrously. It’s a superb demonstration of the music playing a huge part in carrying the story forward.

There’s usually a bit of humour on a Bob Bradshaw album; ‘The Art of Feeling Blue’ is no exception. The title song is a slightly skewed, mocking take on melancholy, while ‘Thought I Had a Problem’ explores the characters that buy into the rock excess lifestyle, in this case “Weed and speed, moonshine, white wine and gin.” The cast of musicians is excellent as ever and a special mention goes to Kris Delmhorst (a hugely talented singer-songwriter in her own right) for her evocative backing vocals on seven of the twelve songs. There’s a huge amount of variety across the album as well as a sense that you’re never too far away from another pleasant surprise.

‘The Art of Feeling Blue’ is released in the UK on Friday June 16th on Fluke Records (FR12).

Here’s the video for ‘The Silk Road Caravan’:

Twenty-three albums in and still creating powerful and memorable songs; I guess most songwriters would be happy with that. What ‘55’ has in common with most of the albums reviewed here recently is the influence of the pandemic still looms large in the way the album came together and in the subject matter of some of the songs. The influence that Ellis Paul’s latest album doesn’t have in common with recent albums is that it was written and put together in the shadow of Ellis Paul’s diagnosis with Dupuytren’s Contracture which over a period of time pulls the fingers into a fist shape. There’s probably nothing more terrifying for a professional performing musician. One other thing, Ellis listened to The Beatles a lot during the making of ’55’ and happily admits to the influences of the Fab Four on the finished album.

The quality of the songs is superb throughout from the gentle, lilting opener ‘Cosmos’ with its bitter-sweet lyrical reference “And I used my hands till they turned to sand” to the closer ‘A Song to Say Goodbye’ telling the story of the start and finish of a romance. There’s a love song to his partner Laurie MacAllister (who delivers some stunning harmonies across the album), while ‘Be the Fire’ is advice from a father to a child.

The two songs showing the strongest Beatles influences are ‘The Gift’, a story of friendship that has a very George Harrison guitar sound while ‘Tattoo Lady’ has crowd noise and circus themes that reference ‘Sergeant Pepper’. And that’s all before we get to the three songs that push all of my buttons.

‘Holy’ is a fictitious tale of an Irish dreamer, Declan McClaren who wants to travel to America to reignite an old flame. As the arrangement builds, it adds more Celtic elements to the mix, evoking the feel of rushing ahead by train during Declan’s escape. The twist in the tale comes when we realise that the ship he’s boarding is The Titanic. The song’s ambiguous about the fate of the central character, but the records show that a man named McClaren did survive the disaster. ‘When Angels Fall’ is a song with a political message written after the Uvalde school shooting. It’s written from the shooter’s viewpoint, apart from the chorus, which has a clear message ‘Fight for your guns, or fight for your children’.

The album’s title song is a wistful look at surviving until the age of 55 in the time of pandemic. It’s a combination of nostalgia for the things superseded in our lifetimes, celebration of survival and a memorial for those we’ve lost; the death of John Prine gets a mention as well as the wholesale cancellation of gigs because of the pandemic. The twist comes in the tail again with the positive emphasis of Ellis’s daughter. These three songs alone make the album essential listening; add the remaining nine and you have a classic of its genre.

‘55’ is released in the UK on Friday June 9th on Rosella Records (ROSELLA002).

Here’s the official video for ‘Gold in California’ from the album: