Big Dave McLean is that rare thing – a prophet that is actually recognised in his country. In the same week that Southside Johnny was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, it’s been announced that Dave will receive an appointment to the Order of Canada. The comparison with Southside Johnny isn’t just plucked out of the air; they’re both people who are passionate about their music, they both love their blues and they both came to recording significant numbers of their own songs late in their careers. Dave has nine of his own compositions on “Pocket Full of Nothin’” alongside three covers and all of the originals have all earned their place. So you take all of that and add Black Hen’s Steve Dawson as player and producer and you already have something a bit special, but there’s a little bit more.

Not only was the band fully tooled-up for country and urban blues, but the addition of a horn section and Hammond added more of a Stax feel as well (I’m trying not to labour this, but hints of Southside Johnny again) and they were ready for the big one. You’ve got the songs, you’ve got the chemistry, why not just do the show right here kids? And they did; most of “Pocket Full of Nothin’” was recorded live on the studio floor over a few days, and because of that, it sounds fresh, almost raw, and dynamic. The arrangements sometimes feel a bit unusual (you don’t often hear resonators and horns together) but Dave’s raw country blues shouter voice pulls all of the elements together perfectly for this bunch of songs that takes the blues idiom as its jumping-off point on “Songs of the Blues” with a fairly smooth twelve-bar arrangement filled out with the horn section, contrasting with Dave’s rough-hewn voice. The styles pan out across the blues spectrum from the swampy Southern groove of “Don’t Be Layin’ That Stuff on Me” to the good time jump blues of “All-Day Party” and the raw country blues of “Pocket Full of Nothin’”.

Which is what you would expect from a lifelong blues player, except there’s a bit more. The album’s two closing songs, “Manitoba Mud”, in praise of the literal and metaphorical mud that pulls people to the city and keeps them there and the simple gospel-tinged optimism of “There Will Always Be a Change” bringing the album to a hopeful end.

This album moves Big Dave McLean from the role of respected bluesman to genuine songwriting talent.

“Pocket Full of Nothin’” is out now in the UK on Black Hen Music (BHCD0091).

If you’re looking for a reliable way of identifying quality roots and Americana, you could try looking for Black Hen Music or the name Steve Dawson on the label. Please don’t tell me you won’t get this information because you don’t buy music in physical formats; we might fall out. Kat Danser’s fifth album scores on both of these counts and, of course, it’s a cracking good listen. It’s an interesting mix of half uptempo electric songs and half in a more contemplative style with a huge variety of stylistic influences. Kat’s an academic ethnomusicologist (Dr Kat Danser, no less), but the approach to the material on this album is practical and pragmatic.

Each of the songs on the album sounds like it was intended to be played live. There’s very little in the way of studio trickery, just great arrangements and even better playing. It’s noticeable that each song has at least one solo and some have several. It’s a great way of keeping really good musicians motivated; play the meat and potatoes stuff and you get the opportunity to improvise and play your solos as well.

The album splits broadly into two halves; the first half uptempo and ranging across rockabilly, country, blues and Southern swamp grooves, while the second half is generally slower and with more of an introspective singer/songwriter feel. It’s also interesting that the first half is generally about movement, featuring trains and cars (OK, I know “Train I Ride” is in the second half of the album), while the second half deals with standing still, establishing roots and telling home truths about “My Town”.

There’s absolutely no shortage of great songs on “Goin’ Gone”; “Train I Ride” menaces with a “Smokestack Lightning” feel to the guitar riff and some close-miked saxophone, “Kansas City Blues” makes a nod in the direction of Chris Izaak, but the icing on the cake is “Memphis, Tennessee”, a swampy twelve-bar love song to the city that references the fabulous Mavis Staples. It doesn’t get a lot better than this.

“Goin’ Gone” is released on Friday October 12th on Black Hen Music (BHCD0087).

4panel_2halfmoonPockets_EcoWalletIt’s hard to reconcile the fourth Christa Couture album with its accompanying press release; if you’ve read about her personal history and you know that this is a break-up album, then you could be forgiven for expecting Leonard Cohen meets Jackson Browne, but “Long Time Leaving” certainly doesn’t fit that mould. Lyrically, it’s a very honest portrayal of a breakup, tapping in to all aspects of the end of a relationship, including the opportunities for experimentation presented to the newly-uncoupled. Even when a song’s subject matter’s dark, the musical arrangements can be quite upbeat, even jaunty, with an eclectic mix of musical stylings and a clear, intimate vocal hinting at early Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos.

The musicianship is superb throughout the album; Gary Craig (drums) and John Dymond (basses) along with producer Steve Dawson (guitars and keys) with a guest appearance from renowned Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplin, shift seamlessly from style to style as they build an evocative backdrop for Christa’s vocals. “Zookeeper” is a perfect example of this; the arrangement builds around a heavily reverbed guitar to create a dramatic, doom-laden setting for a song portraying a couple’s counsellor as a zookeeper forcing them to face up to the wild animals that symbolise the reasons for their breakup.

Alone in This” is pure Nashville, with pedal steel throughout, topped off with a beautiful solo, while “Lovely Like You” bounces along with help of Fats Kaplin’s fiddle fills and the call and response between fiddle, vocals and slide resonator. These are all elements that you wouldn’t be surprised to find on any Americana record, but there’s a joker in the pack as well. There are occasional flashes of musical theatre breaking through in the instrumental arrangements and the vocal delivery. In the lines ‘The hallways are lined with boxes neatly stacked/this is what eight years looks like packed’ that open “Separation/Agreement”, there’s a one-beat pause before ‘packed’ that’s pure theatre, and it’s perfect.

“Long Time Leaving” pulls together widely varying musical styles linked by Christa Couture’s fluty voice, inventive lyrics and tales of the aftermath of a breakup. One of her aims was to make an album to accompany doing housework and she’s actually managed to make it work. With a few exceptions, the music is catchy, packed with hooks and upbeat, while Christa avoids the obvious pitfalls of the subject matter by steering clear of the blame culture and exploring areas like binge drinking and sexual experimentation. It’s an intriguing roller-coaster of an album and when you step off at the end of the ride, you’ll feel exhilarated and uplifted. You’ll probably get through the ironing twice as quickly as well.

Long Time Leaving” is released on Black Hen Music (BHCD0079) on Friday May 20th.