A new Rod Picott album is always something to look forward to. He’s an exceptional songwriter and his voice is a very effective vehicle for delivering those songs. It’s a voice that’s frayed around the edges and at times crackles with emotion. On “Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil”, Rod has stripped his delivery back to just guitar, harmonica and voice; oh, and the songs. Just to give this some context, the album was recorded after a health scare Rod had over the last winter (although not all of the songs are contemporary) and has a stark, sometimes brooding, feel mingled, unsurprisingly, with intimations of mortality, including the opening song “Ghost”, a brutally honest assessment of Rod’s current situation, and that of many others in similar positions. Confessional, hard-hitting singer-songwriter isn’t a particularly lucrative career path these days.

Rod recorded the entire album alone, without an engineer, before handing the tapes over to Neilson Hubbard (you might remember him if you’re a MusicRiot regular) for final production. If you want a benchmark, the finished article has the same feel as The Boss’s “Nebraska” and has similar lyrical themes of family, poverty and alienation. The result of this method is that the songs are stripped to their very essence with no distractions, emphasising the stories they have to tell and, as always with Rod Picott, they’re striking and memorable stories.

As a writer, Rod likes a metaphor; the murder ballad “Too Much Rain” uses a barren landscape to represent the failure of a marriage to blossom, while “Bailing” uses the idea of bailing literally and metaphorically, referring back to a flooded childhood cellar as a metaphor for the futility of activity that only serves to keep us in the same place. Rod also likes to bring a bit of autobiography into the mix; “Mark” is the story of an unexplained teenage suicide, while “Spartan Hotel” is that bar in any town where anything goes if you can pay the price. And don’t forget the social comment; “A Beautiful Light” aims straight the heart of those songwriters who try to glamourise the drudgery of blue-collar life as a means of social control.

This is the third Rod Picott album we’ve reviewed here and they’re consistently powerful pieces of work blending punchy stories of small-time America with haunting melodies in a voice that is both emotive and vulnerable. It’s probably the most personal of his recent albums and well worth a listen.

“Tell the Truth and Shame the Devil” is out now Welding Rod Records and Rod will be touring the UK in October.

It gets kind of personal here. I first heard of Michael McDermott in 2016, just before the release of “Six on the Out”. I was at a bit of a professional low point and I was blown away by the searing honesty of Michael’s songs. And where do you go from a low point? Well, obviously, it’s upwards and I’m pleased to be moving in the same direction as Michael McDermott. And that album as The Westies wasn’t Michael’s only release that year; he released the more contemplative solo piece “Willow Springs” a couple of months later. I’ve been passionate about music for a long time now and I don’t think I’ve ever heard two albums from one artist that were so complete released within two months of each other.

Three years on, Michael McDermott’s creative flame still burns magnesium-bright; the proof is in “Orphans”, Michael’s latest album. Songwriters don’t like to let anything go to waste, and this is a bunch of songs that didn’t quite fit on “Six on the Out”, “Willow Springs” or the equally-superb “Out from Under”. Doesn’t mean they’re not good songs; Southside Johnny’s first three albums, “I Don’t to Go Home”, “This Time It’s for Real” and “Hearts of Stone” are laced with stunningly-good Springsteen songs that wouldn’t have worked on “Born to Run” or “Badlands”. And I’ll seriously fall out with anyone who says that “The Fever”, “Talk to Me” and “Hearts of Stone” aren’t classic examples of the songwriter’s art.

But back to Michael McDermott (although The Boss isn’t an inappropriate reference to throw in here); the songs on “Orphans” are the niggling doubts; those songs that just wouldn’t let go, even after the albums were out there. These songs are seeing the light of day because they deserve to, and because they complete the picture painted by “Six on the Out”, “Willow Springs” and “Out from Under”.

“Orphans” pulls in elements from all three of those albums. These aren’t out-takes; these are great songs that refused to die. The album opens with “Tell Tale Heart”, a song that, in one line, made me question my orthodox view of British socio-political history; that’s not a bad start to an album. Of the remaining eleven songs, there isn’t a bad one and “Sometimes When it Rains in Memphis”,Full Moon Goodbye” and “Los Angeles a Lifetime Ago” would grace any album. And these are the songs that didn’t make the original cut.

“Orphans” is the missing piece in the jigsaw of the three previous albums, completing the journey from success through degradation to redemption and it’s absolutely essential. It’s out now on Pauper Sky Records and Michael will be in London in early May to launch the album. In the meantime, just have a look at this:

 

As ever; songs, not singles. These songs are all from albums that we’ve reviewed this year (that’s Stone Foundation ruled out again – sorry guys). There’s something else, apart from greatness, that links all these choices; they’re not the only songs from the albums they feature on that could have made this list. The albums are all wonderful pieces of work taken as a whole, but they all feature at least two standout tracks that would have been seen as singles in a different musical era. There were difficult choices but ultimately it had to be whittled down to five songs. In no particular order, here are Allan’s favourite five songs of the year; the songs that made his heart soar or made him cry, but definitely made him hit the repeat button.

 

“The Last Song” – Dean Owens

Just to be contrary, it’s actually the first song on the album, ”Southern Wind”, which was a collaboration with Will Kimbrough. One of the things Dean and Will bonded over was their love of Ronnie Lane, whose influence is all over this one. Having heard it live a few times, where it tends to appear towards the end of the set, confirms the power of the song and allows Dean to riff on repeated choruses by throwing in lines from, for example, “Ooh La La”. It’s fun and it’s memorable; if you don’t love this, you’ve got icicles for ventricles.

 

“Love in Wartime” – Birds of Chicago

Absolutely gorgeous. This clocks in at about the six minute mark but you just want it to keep going. It’s one of those that seduces you in with a gentle intro then builds and builds to the first chorus. And by that time, you’re hooked; you’re there for the duration. Maybe there’s a nostalgia thing there; the feel, the chord progressions are a lot like classic mid-seventies era Bob Seger. The melody’s hummable, the harmonies are superb and it’s hugely uplifting. I dare you not to be moved by this.

 

“Out from Under” – Michael McDermott

This is a song where you just have to accept the Bruce Springsteen comparison because this is a stadium rocker in the mould of “Born to Run”. It’s a monstrous ‘wall of sound’ production driving along by pounding, relentless floor toms and a huge full band arrangement. In the context of the album, it’s the song that represents the start of the upward turn in Michael’s rehabilitation and the uplifting lyrical message is carried along on the tide of a widescreen musical setting. Taken out of the context of the album, it’s a song that FM radio in the States would have been all over in the 80s – not just a powerhouse arrangement, a potent message as well.

 

“Son of an Immigrant” – Gerry Spehar

A perfect example of the song that leads you in a certain direction before pulling the rug from under you and twisting the point of the narrative. It’s not just an example of a clever narrative trick; like the rest of the album, this is a powerful commentary on the current state of the USA, and its current leader. The song has a very clear message; if you go back far enough almost everyone’s an immigrant in the land of the free. Like “Out from Under”, it sits perfectly within the context of the album without needing that context to shine as a great song.

 

“The Shape of You” – Rod Picott

Sometimes a song just needs to find the point in your life where it fits. This one happened for me on the Tube on the way back from a gig at Green Note. I’d already heard it a few times but this time it suddenly hit home. It’s about the realisation that someone has become a part of you. In this case because that person has gone, but I guess the image works if they’re still around. The song opens with the image in the title, then develops that image. It’s a really simple idea but beautifully effective. The arrangement’s sparse, with mainly acoustic guitar and vocal with some very subtle Will Kimbrough guitar atmospherics just lurking in the background. Delicate and gorgeous.

There are many other songs that could have been on this list; there’s so much incredible music out there, but these were the ones that were buzzing around my consciousness when I put this together. Have a listen, and I hope you enjoy.

Just imagine a world where everyone placed a value on music – let’s go the whole hog; all of the arts. A world where everyone was willing to pay for the privilege of listening to music that was lovingly crafted by gifted individuals. A world where ‘making it’ isn’t about being the least mediocre Whitney wannabe on a Saturday evening TV show before milking your fifteen minutes (which has probably been devalued to about six and a half minutes now). In that world Joe Francis would be playing packed-out stadium gigs with a ten-piece band and selling albums by the container-load. But that’s not where we are

Where we are is the last knockings of 2018 in the basement of The Slaughtered Lamb in Clerkenwell. Joe’s stripped back the Winter Mountain song arrangements to a duo format and he’s accompanied by Cornish guitar virtuoso Sam BF. But I’m getting a little bit ahead of myself now, before the Winter Mountain duo do their thing, we have not one but two support artists, Kira Mac and Polly Money.

Kira’s a country singer-songwriter from Manchester; she’s completely engaging live, combining originals and covers. “My Tiny Town” and “Bad News” hold their own against Dolly Parton, Katy Perry and Fleetwood Mac covers. Apparently her band doesn’t like the new song “Bad News”; ignore them Kira, it’s a great song.

Polly Money, from Cornwall apparently, delivers something completely different. While Kira’s backing was acoustic guitar, Polly (dressed in all white) wields a white Strat and weaves some lovely picking through her beautifully soulful vocal lines. The guitar sound is gorgeous, clean and thickened up with a chorus pedal; can you imagine the guitar of John Martyn and the vocal of Corinne Bailey Rae? That’s as close as I can get. And on to Joe.

From the opening notes of the Springsteenesque “Sunlight, Good Roads”, it’s a blast. This is the real thing, the genuine article. With Joe’s powerful rhythm guitar and Sam BF’s hooks, fills and solos. In a small venue like this, who needs drums and bass? And what about Joe’s voice? It’s powerful and impassioned; sometimes you can hear Mike Scott, sometimes you can hear Bruce Springsteen but mostly you can hear Joe Francis. What you always hear is total commitment.

It’s not just a runthrough of Winter Mountain greatest hits; Joe loves to wing it and throw in the unexpected. Alongside “Girl in the Coffee House”, “Banba’s Crown”, “The January Stars”, “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” and “Kissing in the Rain” (all classic songs), he throws in the Paul Simon classic “Diamonds on the Soles of her Shoes” and quick references to the Bruces, Springsteen and Hornsby (oh, and Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog”). It’s powerful, emotional and cathartic; you really should really try to catch Joe live whether it’s solo, duo or with the full band.

How elated was I after the gig? I swear I flew.

The difficulty is knowing where to start here. Michael McDermott’s output over the last two years as The Westies and a solo artist has been prolific and profound. Making up for lost time; who knows? Michael’s four years clean and sober; 2016’s “Six on the Out” and “Willow Springs” made references to his lost years, while “Out from Under” tells the whole story from degradation through rehabilitation to redemption, pivoting around the album’s central song “Out from Under” and the decision to take responsibility for his life.

“Out from Under” isn’t just about the personal narrative; Michael’s been influenced by many different styles of American music and many of those influences surface on this musical journey. This is Michael’s story channelled through the American songbook. With a project this ambitious, you need a great team and it doesn’t get much better than Heather Horton on violin and vocals and Will Kimbrough on, well, anything with strings really.

The album opens with the brooding, menacing “Cal-Sag Road”; it’s about as low as you can get, a tale of drunkenness, sex and murder. It’s underpinned by Will Kimbrough’s atmospheric, ambient guitar sounds and the darkness of the arrangement mirrors the subject matter perfectly. The first half of the album runs through the ragtime resonator and banjo arrangement of “Gotta Go to Work”, the Southern boogie and “Sympathy For the Devil”-like backing vocals of “Knocked Down” to the Tom Petty-esque “Sad Songs”, depicting the malaise and lassitude of the music business. And then you hit the bottom.

“This World Will Break your Heart” is a pathos-packed series of vignettes pulling in dropouts, miscarriages and loneliness in old age. It’s the most heart-breaking song on the album and you know that things have to brighten up from here on in. And they do; It’s big, it’s anthemic and it has a hint of Springsteen. “Out from Under” is a floor-tom-driven monster of a song that’s as uplifting as anything you’ll hear this year. It’s the way forward, pointing the way for the second half of the album beginning with the idyll of “The Celtic Sea” where a sea voyage serves as a metaphor for the beginning of a redemptive relationship; it’s turbulent at first, but the crew pull together and the voyage looks set to succeed.

The three songs which follow are pure, joyous, celebration of love. “Rubber Band Ring” is a horns and Hammond Motown-style stomper, “Never Goin’ Down Again” sets a commitment to reform against a stadium rock background, while “Sideways” combines gorgeous Stax stylings with a lyrical style that leans towards Dylan or early Springsteen. And then you have the gentle acceptance of a new life in “God Help Us”.

“Out from Under” is a hugely ambitious album that follows Michael McDermott’s personal narrative and succeeds in combining an exploration of the highways and byways of American popular music with creative and poetic lyrics. I haven’t heard anything better this year.

“Out from Under” is released in the UK on Friday May 18, 2018.

Don’t take my word for it, listen to it here and then buy a copy.

Sure, the melodies and the arrangements are important; they must be if Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough are involved, but with Rod Picott, the stories are always front and centre. “Out Past the Wires” is no exception, in fact it takes the narratives a step further. In addition to the album, Rod’s also publishing a book exploring the stories of some of the characters that appear on the album. Listen to the beautifully-crafted vignettes studded through the twenty-two songs (that’s right twenty-two songs; hope you brought a packed lunch for this one) and you feel that you’re just scratching the surface of their lives. The ageing racer in “Primer Gray”, the teen queen in “Hard Luck Baby”, the struggling musician in “Straight Job” and the labourer in “Store Bought”; you really want to know the back story, or where they move on to outside this particular moment. Listen to the album(s) and it all makes perfect sense.

Credit where it’s due to the other musicians on the album as well (Lex Price, Evan Hutchings and Kris Donegan) for creating settings that allow the songs to sparkle and shine, whether they’re sprinkled with underplayed atmospherics or a full-on, full-band workout. Whether the backing is a gently finger-picked acoustic, intertwined electric guitars, Lennonesque harmonica or a brooding rock feel with heavily-reverbed guitar. And then there’s Rod Picott’s voice, weaving its raw fibres through the fabric of the songs to conjure up passion, pain and even aspiration. He even manages to ease back to mellow with a touch of falsetto on “Blanket of Stars”.

At a time when ten-song albums are becoming increasingly common and EP or double EP is rearing its ugly head, it’s an utterly audacious move to release a double album, but it works. The standard of the songs is uniformly high across he two discs, but I’m going to hit you with a few that caught my personal sweet spot. “Primer Gray” evokes “Nebraska”/”The River” era Springsteen with the battered car symbolising the central character, “Hard Luck Baby” spins the downward spiral from teen beauty into drudgery and “The Shape of You” is a lovely poetic take on the void left in a life when a relationship ends. Listen for yourself; the choice is huge and I won’t be offended if you disagree with my choices.

“Out Past the Wires” is released on Friday February 16th on Welding Rod Records (CD, LP or download).

If you want to see Rod live, he’s touring Europe and the UK from March.

Here’s a little taster for you:

After his outstanding debut “American Life” in 2015, this must be that difficult second album for Ed Dupas. However difficult its conception (and it sounds like there were a few painful moments), the end result is a fulfilling follow-up to his debut. It’s a progression of course; at times Ed puts his acoustic to one side to add a second over-driven electric to the guitar attack, creating a big widescreen sound that brings to mind early Bruce Hornsby and maybe even “Darkness”-era Springsteen.

And that’s the way the album opens; “Too Big to Fail” is a rocker packed with big, loud guitars delivering Ed’s perfectly crafted song. His lyrics are clever and subtle, combining the “too big to fail” business/sports franchise mantra with subtle allusions to the state of contemporary America; it doesn’t matter how bad things are, ‘love’s too big to fail’. I really hope so. The album’s second song, “Two Wrongs”, continues the two guitar attack with lyrics seamlessly interweaving the increasing isolation of rural America with a short-term, unwise, dalliance; real life might look simple on the surface, but it’s usually messy underneath.

The remainder of the album mixes country and rock stylings to great effect, combining the two perfectly in the title track, which takes up the themes of “The Wild Side of Life” and “Bright Lights, Big City” while giving the story a happy ending (well, maybe). The album’s closer “Hold Me Tight” has echoes of Bob Seger’s acoustic side (well, Ed is based in Ann Arbor) and neatly finishes the journey from the opening rockers to the closing mixture of regret and nostalgia.

I’m rapidly becoming a big fan of Ed Dupas; the delivery is impossible to fault and his songs are superbly crafted with the emphasis on subtle allusion rather than declamation. It’s difficult not to admire a songwriter that trusts his audience to think and interpret for itself and put in a little effort to appreciate the songs.

While I’ve got your attention, I’d just like to point you in the direction of a song from Ed’s 2015 debut album. “Flag” is a beautiful example of the songwriter’s craft and would move the hardest heart. Give it a listen and tell me I’m wrong. Now how about some UK appearances, Ed?

“Tennessee Night” is released in the UK on Friday July 28 on Road Trip Songs.

Johnny ScrollerNow listen up, because I’m only gonna say this once; well, this year anyway. You have one, and only one, chance to witness the musical phenomenon that is Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes live in the UK this year. Sorry to anyone living outside the home counties, but this one’s in London, at The Forum on Thursday June 22. Now, go on, ask me why you would want to see (and hear) Mr John Lyon and his soulful/bluesy/funky/rockin’ rebels? It’s easy; they are dynamite live, with years of experience behind them, and a lot more in front of them. But why are they so good? Well, it all dates back to the Jersey shore in the early seventies. If you’ve read Springsteen’s excellent autobiography, you might have noticed the name Southside Johnny crop up once or twice.

They played in the same bars on the Jersey shore and they learned the same lessons. You had to be good and you had to work hard; five sets a night wasn’t uncommon. It’s a philosophy Bruce, Johnny and Steven Van Zandt (Little Steven or Miami Steve) share; get the best musicians you can and work them hard every night. If you don’t, then good musicians get bored and fractious. So the E Street Band and The Jukes play long sets where the written setlist point roughly in the direction of the actual set. Both singers like to throw the band curve balls to make sure the attention doesn’t start to drift; Bruce picks requests from placards in the crowd and Johnny calls the tune that he thinks continues the journey best. With a huge back catalogue of great songs written by Springsteen, Little Steven and Johnny himself (along with keyboard player Jeff Kazee) and the odd cover, the band never plays the same set twice. You might get lucky on the night and hear an a cappella version of “Walk Away Renee” (or at least part of it) that will stop you in your tracks, or you might hear a horn solo suddenly morph into full-blown New Orleans jazz. You might hear bass player John Conte sing “Tutti Frutti”; you just never know.

And that’s why Southside Johnny still has a fanatical following in the UK; you go to a Jukes show with only two expectations; you’ll be entertained by great musicians and you won’t know what’s coming next. And those expectations will be met, and surpassed, every time. It’s real songs, real instruments, no autotune, no sneaky recorded fill-ins or ‘vocal reinforcement’; it’s for real. You can find out just how good they are at The Forum on June 22. See you down at the front.

And, in a bit of breaking news, Southside’s new vinyl EP “Live from E Street” made the Billboard Blues Album Chart last week at #10.

Winter Mountain Review scrollerWinter Mountain’s album “I Swear I Flew”, which was released in mid-November last year was one of those that worked perfectly as a coherent, self-contained project; you should really listen to it. It was also one of those that made you want to hear the songs played live. I got the chance to do that at 229 Venue 2 and I was absolutely right; it was exceptional, but not quite in the way I’d imagined. The album is mainly (but not completely) quiet and introspective but the live show was a very different beast.

Support on the night was Cornish singer-songwriter Josiah Mortimer, who warmed up a gradually-increasing crowd with a mix of the traditional (“Cadgwith Anthem”) and twenty-first century protest songs like “Build a Wall” – you can probably guess what that one’s about. With a decent voice, some interesting chat between songs and a playing style that uses a thumb instead of a pick (anyone remember Richie Havens?), Josiah got the audience onside and ready for the headliners.

Winter Mountain’s set opened with the wistful, impassioned romanticism of “Girl in the Coffee Shop”, a chance to set the tone for the evening, demonstrating Joe’s soulful voice and allowing the band to ease their way in before the Springsteenesque roar of “Sunlight, Good Roads”. Joe Francis has created a unique mixture with Winter Mountain, blending influences from the worlds of folk (mainly Gaelic), roots, country rock, southern boogie, straight ahead rock and many others. Springsteen aside, you can hear echoes of Hothouse Flowers, The Waterboys, Rob Thomas and Gin Blossoms (remember them?). The set had its quieter, more reflective, moments, particularly the (almost) solo interlude featuring “The Morning Bell”, the poignant “January Stars”, “Lucky Ones” and “Stronger When You Hold Me” but the set really caught fire when the band were playing full-tilt songs like “Things That I’ve Done Wrong” in balls-out Lynyrd Skynyrd mode as Joe started throwing lyrics from Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” into the mix. So hats off to Alik Peters-Deacon (guitar), Jake Galvin (bass) and Garry Kroll (drums) for a great, dynamic set and also to 229’s sound man, who did a lovely job in a venue that was barely half full.

Anything else you should know? The songs were split almost evenly between the first and second albums and the set ended with a Beatles cover, the early “Oh! Darling”. The audience was completely silent during the quiet songs and went bananas during the raucous ones. The band covered all the bases of the glorious musical mash-up perfectly, while Joe’s powerhouse voice left you in no doubt that he has a massive rock voice as well. It wasn’t quiet the night I‘d expected, but it was a belter; that’s the way to spend a Thursday night in London.

Coming to a festival near you soon, I imagine.

You can see some photos from the gig here.

Well, we’ve almost reached two weeks of High Fives and the juggernaut’s still rolling, although it was only a cinquecento when it started on this road trip. Joe Francis (Winter Mountain) has opted for the highways and the byways with his exploration of his favourite tour van music.

It’s more than just a car journey from A to B. Your vehicle is imbibed with a multiplicity of purposes, like the Tardis with a personality disorder. It becomes a diesel-powered bedroom on wheels, a dressing room, a hotel, a guesthouse, a calm port, a storage facility, a temple and a garbage bin. Its significance greater to a touring musician than any average road user may ever understand.

And so too are the songs you listen to on the road.

Free from distractions of everyday life, you’ve no option but to really listen. And because of this your choices matter. Selecting songs for a tour is not a casual thing. The tracks you listen to will help shape your experience and will take you back to there each time you hear them in the future. Here’s 5 songs that mean a lot to me…

peter-gabriel“Solsbury Hill” – Peter Gabriel 

You begin your tour full of optimism and hope, feeling vitalised by the promise of the dawning of a new musical era. Fewer songs capture the spirit and the sparkling, spiritual blue sky soul that surrounds this moment than PGs extraordinary 1977 classic ‘Solsbury Hill’. An exquisite riff that sounds like morning.

Best listened to when – The vans loaded? Gear, guys and girls all present and correct? Then start the engine and hit ‘play’.

 

bruce “Thunder Road” – Bruce Springsteen 

Too obvious? Yeah, totally. But for good reason. As a kid from a small village where nothing much seemed to be happening Springsteen’s 1975 track showed me there was real magic to be found in the mundane. It’s romantic and rocking and a poetically pure promise to aim for glory no matter the consequences. And ain’t that just like a musical life? ‘Have a little faith, there’s magic in the night…’

Best listened to when – The first few shows are under your belt and you’re loving it. The journey is well underway, the roads are clear…NOW!

 

ac-dc “Highway to Hell” – AC/DC 

Heavy, primitive, menacing, soulful and sexy. Sometimes basic is best. AC/DC’s behemoth will help you through the longest of journeys, through the worst of driving rain, damaged tyres and badly worn tarmac, when the van is straining under the weight of you and your gear. It’s devilish and dirty and after 3 weeks on the road you will be too.

Best listened to when – You’re two thirds of they way through the tour. The fatigue’s setting in and you need an injection of pure Taurine rock and roll to keep your stamina up and an anthemic sing along chorus to unify the weary musos.

 

joniAny track from “Blue” – Joni Mitchell

Transport yourself to a place of warmer climes, pretty people and free love. Check out any song from Joni’s beautiful folksy masterpiece and you’ll be smiling like a Californian under the summer stars within seconds.

Best listened to when – Traffic is at a standstill, the tour is nearly over, tensions a little high…

 

 

war-on-drugs“Lost in the Dream” – The War On Drugs 

Maybe the pace is going to get to you or the band need to get some shuteye to deal with the comedown before the next show and a little ethereal peace is in order? Stick on ‘Lost in the Dream’ by the War On Drugs and you’ll be floating through the early hours like a character from a stylish formulaic Netflix series about what it means to be young and on a comedown.

Best listened to when – It’s 3am on a post gig drive, through the French Alps, a silver cloak of moonlight laid over the mountains and lakes. The amber glow of a small village down in the valley below and way up ahead, a fire burns on a distant peak…