Photo by Jen Squires

We reviewed Stephen Fearing’s thirteenth album, “The Unconquerable Past” earlier this year, during the period when live music was still happening and COVID was a tiny cloud on the horizon. It feels like we were in a different universe. Anyway, we loved the album and we were really pleased when Stephen agreed to make a contribution to this year’s High Fives feature at the end of a difficult year for anyone involved in the world of music. Like many musicians, Stephen has retained his optimism and belief that however bad things get, music can always help you to get through the day.

 

Life is What Happens To You While You’re Busy Making Other Plans.” — John Lennon

 

I’ll be honest and say that I am STILL struggling to fully “come to grips” with this year. As ever, there are so many things to be grateful for amidst the tatter of what was “supposed to be”, and I’m happy to report that the glass is definitely half-full and even possibly topping itself back up (Biden/Harris and news of “The Vaccine” seem to have arrived at the party together).

However, my high fives will all go to music, the touchstone that has always been my bedrock and this insane year is no different. 2020 – Music saved my soul.

 

1            Nashville – “ On The Road Again ” -Willie Nelson. The year started out with a bang as I travelled south to Nashville to appear with my hairy brethren – Blackie and The Rodeo Kings – at The Bluebird Cafe and The Grand Ole Opry (at The Ryman ).

Coincidentally, I was working my way through Ken Burns “Country Music” documentary which just made walking out onto that stage even more magical and surreal. This was a hell of a way to start what was shaping up to be my busiest year of music making, with a solo release (The Unconquerable Past) and Blackie’s new Warner Bros. 25th anniversary release ( “King of This Town” ). I was looking to log some serious air miles and play my face off.

2            Europe – “On The Road Again ” -Willie Nelson.

By the middle of February I was in Europe finishing up some solo dates and a series of much-anticipated shows with my Danish pals – The Sentimentals. I met these fantastic humans two years ago through our mutual friend Jonathan Byrd who generously shared their contact with me when I enquired about his “Scandinavian connection”. What started in 2018 with some shows in Denmark grew into this 2020 tour with performances in Denmark, The UK, Holland and Germany. Here we are backstage at Meneer Frits in Eindhoven – The “greenroom” is off the kitchen… One of my projects this winter is to mix and edit the show we filmed and recorded that night. Stay tuned.

3            “No one lives forever Who would want to

But you’re too soon gone

Too soon gone” – Jules Shear and Stan Szelest

My Mother warned me that there would come a day when I would see my heroes begin to “shuffle off this mortal coil”. The 2020 list of those who have left us is  staggering – Vera Lynn, David Olney (who doesn’t want to go out like David Olney?), Lyle Mays, Little Richard, Helen Reddy, Charlie Daniels, Bonnie Pointer, Toots Hibbert, Jerry Jeff Walker, McCoy Tyner, Eddie Van Halen, Justin Townes Earl, John Prine… The loss is poignant but the point is just how much each of these great artists left behind for us to cherish.

Early in March when things were just starting fall apart, I went for a drive with my daughter (16) and had the pleasure of introducing her to the music of Bill Withers – she is surrounded by music and had heard some of his classic tunes but hadn’t fully joined the dots so to speak. Watching her really feel the pocket on tunes like “Who Is He (And What Is He To You)” or “Keep On Using Me” was a great feeling. Bill Withers’ has always been like comfort food to me and as a white-on-white kid living in Ireland, his music taught me a great deal about honesty, compassion and things like how Black Lives Matter. Such a generous spirit – Lean on me, when you’re not strong, I’ll be your friend, I’ll help you carry on…

4            – “My hands are turning numb But I still gotta strum

My Velvet guitar” – Alejandro Escovedo

2019 was the year that legendary Canadian luthier Linda Manzer presented me with my new Manzer “Cowpoke”, the sister to the guitar I have been playing (almost daily) for the past 30 years. It’s a long story, but way back in 2006, a man named Gerry Hayes (Gerry and I had become pals when he came to gigs in the Ottawa Valley region) passed away suddenly and left me his beloved ’79 Manzer. If you want to know the whole story, watch my conversation with Linda entitled “30 Year Cowpoke” on YouTube, but to cut to the chase, that gift from Gerry started the ball rolling on a gorgeous new instrument which I received late last year. A new hand-built guitar requires significant break-in time and the silver lining for me in my “lockdown” has been to play the Cowpoke daily and hear how slowly but surely, the new sister surpasses the old. #bittersweet

5            “I’m stuck in Folsom Prison

And time keeps draggin’ on” – Johnny Cash

OK, I know I’m about as lucky as one can get in these pandemic- lockdown times. I live in “The Garden City,” on an island in The Pacific, in a country where our Govt. has seen fit to provide supplementary income for almost all of us… so I’ve really got nothing to complain about and I do my best not to. Instead, I dug into live-streaming early on but am now devoting my time to sharpening my skills, writing, playing, taking online courses for recording + video-editing software and trying to knock things off the endless list of fix-or-build DIY.

Around our old queen of a house (oh and I really got into the sourdough bread thing). I know how lucky I am and though I struggle with bouts of depression, it’s mostly a passing thing. However, so many in my industry are in dire straits, struggling to keep their heads above water. I am most grateful for my audience and feel privileged to be a part of this great music biz family… mostly I just want to help any way I can. So earlier this year, I created a video with some pals to try and funnel some much needed $$ to an organization dedicated to helping Canadians in the biz. I urge you to go find a similar group in your neck of the woods and see what you can do to help.

For it won’t be long ’til I’m gonna need Somebody to lean on.

This album is like a sea-breeze on a hot summer’s day; it’s cooling and soothing, and once it starts, you don’t want it to stop. Canadian Maya Rae isn’t eighteen yet and she’s already been singing professionally for six years. Six years! She recorded her first album of jazz covers at the age of thirteen, but this is an entirely different beast; it’s a batch of songs co-written with her brother Evan that display a remarkable maturity while still retaining a sense of wonder and innocence. They’re delivered by a set of highly-accomplished musicians, and the end of result is my favourite new album of the year so far. If your interest has been piqued by what you’ve read so far, check out some of the Spotify song links as well. If you want a few quick and easy reference points, try early Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones and maybe even (completely coincidentally) the first Corinne Bailey Rae album.

You would expect someone who’s been singing professionally since the age of twelve to have a good voice and you won’t be disappointed. Maya’s voice is rich and clear, and she has an impressive range as well. We all know that often that isn’t enough; you need the right team and usually you need a good throw of the dice at some point.

This album came about as a result of Maya sending a demo to Canadian uber-producer Steve Dawson, who managed to pull a bunch of musicians together in Nashville to record the album in just three days. The result sounds anything but rushed; it all fits into place perfectly and the arrangements create the perfect picture-frame for all of the delicately-crafted songs. And there are so many insidious hooks. Whether they’re the work of Steve Dawson or the musicians involved in the project, I don’t know, but each one pulls you in to the song, and they come from all directions, violin, guitar, organ, synthesiser; you name it.

I recommend that you give the entire album a listen, but if you twisted my arm, my favourites would be the incredibly catchy opener “Can You See Me”, which talks about the masks we wear to hide our true selves, the optimistic “The Sun Will Come Out Again” and the sinuously funky, Bill Withers-esque, groove of “New to Me”. I could go on, but I really want you to listen to the whole album and then buy it. This classy bunch of songs, beautifully interpreted, and sung with such clarity and precision, is something your collection needs.

“Can You See Me?” is out now on Black Hen Records (BHCD0092).

The Storm ScrollerIt’s an EP. You’ve got six songs to let the world know how good you are, so you have to grab the listener right from the start and that’s exactly what Velvet & Stone have done here. The first song, “Fisherman’s Blues”, opens with a combination of fiddle and Dave Gilmour-like electric guitar before settling into a more reflective verse pushed along by the bass line and decorated with a descending piano line that could have come from “Riders on the Storm”. But I suppose you want to know about Velvet and Stone. OK, here we go.

Lara Snowdon, Holly Jo Gilbert-West and Kathryn Tremlett met in a Devon pub less than two years ago (what is it about Devon at the moment?) and within a very short time won a recording session at the wonderful Convent studio and venue complex as a prize in a singer-songwriter competition. And that’s where they recorded the six songs on this EP, with some help from Ben Nicholls and Andrew Tween (bass and drums) and producer Jack Henderson (also playing guitar and keyboards). The additional musicians have added some deft touches, embellishing without overpowering and leaving the songs plenty of room to breathe.

Lara and Holly have the classic mix of voices, one pure and clear the other slightly more unconventional with a hint of Bjork, and have a folk background in common, while Kat brings her classical influences to the mix: someone also managed to sneak a bit of jazz in there as well. Despite the variety of instruments on the EP, the songs never sound cluttered and the vocals are always allowed to shine through, creating ethereal musical dramas.

Forget About the Rain” has a hypnotic Celtic feel with some very melancholy violin, “Patchwork” contrasts an almost military drumbeat with piano and violin fills and ethereal vocals and “Same Old Record” has a gypsy jazz feel emphasised by the walking bass and violin while “That Road”, backed mainly by acoustic guitar evokes the Bill Withers classic “Ain’t No Sunshine” taken at a slower pace. The title song builds gradually with rolling piano thunder and swirling violin rain before reaching its peak and slowly fading away; it’s about a real storm, but it’s a metaphor for something on a more personal level as well.

As a sampler, this ticks all the boxes. There are six strong songs, the stylings are varied and the two voices are excellent whether they’re singing together or solo; you can’t ask for much more than that.

And the Devon thing? Velvet & Stone have already supported those Riot Squad favourites Sound of the Sirens this year and it looks like it might be their turn to break out now.

“The Storm” is released nationally in the UK on Friday April 18th.

As a special bonus, here’s a live clip from The Convent: