“Great Shakes” – Session Americana with Jefferson Hamer

4 stars (out of 5)

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session-americana-with-jefferson-hamer-great-shakes-scrollerReview this album in one word? Gorgeous; ten beautifully-crafted and perfectly-arranged songs, six highly-gifted players and vocal harmonies to die for. If you’re looking for reference points, most of the songs here sound like they could have come from the late sixties/early seventies country-rock scene with understated playing, crystal clear production and those heavenly harmonies. “Great Shakes” is a perfect demonstration of the chemistry that great musicians can create when the stars are perfectly aligned. The album isn’t about the individual musicians, it’s about the contributions they make towards creating the best possible version of each song; in those terms, it’s a complete success, with each instrumental fill making each song that little bit more memorable.

The members of Session Americana are Billy Beard (drums), Ry Cavanaugh (guitar), Kimon Kirk (bass), Jim Fitting (harmonica), Dinty Child (multi-instrumentalist) and Jefferson Hamer (guitar) and this is their seventh album as a collective, although it has a coherence that suggests a long-established band, rather than occasional collaborators. The album opens with the delicate country-rock feel of “One Skinner”, a story of a long-standing friendship with a musical setting featuring pedal steel and harmonica and a lead vocal with a vulnerability that suggests Neil Young or Iain Matthews and blossoms out into a hugely varied set of songs with subjects as varied as American history (“Great Western Rail”) and an umbrella (“Bumbershoot”). Five of the members contribute songs in different styles but always of the highest quality and usually with an interesting twist.

There isn’t a bad or even indifferent song on the album and there are a few that stand out. “Big Mill in Bogalusa” is a bluesy shuffle with some raw harmonica and harmonies from the whole band; it’s catchy and full of the feelgood. “Mississippi Mud” is a historical Southern story built around an over-driven guitar riff which morphs into an Allman Brothers boogie in the choruses and it leads into the album’s most poignant song, “One Good Rain”, with the message that every relationship, no matter how strong, can be vulnerable. Just the line ‘One good rain is all it takes to break the dam that love can make’ is one of the saddest things I’ve heard this year.

This album will wrap itself around you like a comfortable jumper on a winter night. It will make you smile at times and it might even make you cry, but you’ll certainly feel uplifted and full of admiration for the quality of the playing.

“Great Shakes” is released on October 14th.