One of our Riot Squad favourites has been incredibly busy this year. Dean Owens has playing gigs around the country, solo and with his band The Whisky Hearts, but that’s just the start of it. He’s been in Nashville recording a new album with his old collaborators Will Kimbrough and Neilson Hubbard and playing some gigs. The album’s well on the way to being ready and he’s launched a crowdfunding appeal on GoFundMe to cover the costs of travel, recording and accommodation costs. Have a look at the GoFundMe page and see if you think you can pitch in with a few quid; every bit makes a difference.
But that’s not all. He’s been producing the second album for his Drumfire Records label-mate Ags Connolly (who hasn’t exactly had a quiet year himself) and putting together a deluxe edition of his previous album “Into the Sea”, with four new songs, “Alison Wonderland”, “Cotton Snow”, “Forgotten Shadows” and “Keep Me in Your Heart”. And still only a tenner.
You can catch him live before the end of the year in the following places:
Sunday October 30 Green Note, London
Friday November 18 The Live Room, Saltaire
Sunday November 20 The Maze, Nottingham
Friday November 25 Drygate Brewing Company, Glasgow, (with The Whisky Hearts)
Friday December 2 The Tolbooth, Stirling
Saturday December 3 The Weem Inn, Aberfeldy
Monday December 12 Traverse, Edinburgh (with The Whisky Hearts)
And there’s a new single, “Virginia Street”, out at the moment:
It’s not a great time to be involved in the arts at the moment, particularly if you’re hoping to make a living out of it but, somehow, people just keep on plugging away at it, grabbing any opportunity that comes along to create something that will enrich the lives of people who see, hear, read or touch it. Dean Owens is one of those artists; constantly touring, recording, promoting and generally getting his songs out there. He knows that you have to take every opportunity that comes along and that’s why a breakfast in a Nashville greasy spoon with guitarist/producer Dave Coleman led to his latest single.
Breakfast led to a quick visit to Dave’s home studio, swapping a few ideas and Dave creating a moody and magnificent backing track featuring drum loops, live drums, bass and an eclectic guitar arrangement which Dean completed with vocals recorded in Edinburgh. Dean’s always been a superb chronicler of emotions and personal history, but recently he’s built a few songs around historical events, particularly on his EP “No Man’s Land” and “Cotton Snow” is a song in that vein, telling the story of a soldier realising the futility of the Civil War, or any war. And cotton snow? When the cotton gins and fields were bombed, the cotton fell back to earth like snow. It’s a sombre and beautiful piece of work that enhances his growing reputation.
If you want to see Dean live, he’s taking part in a fabulous event called The Men from Leith on Friday May 6 at The Queen’s Hall in Edinburgh featuring Dick Gaughan, Blue Rose Code and Dean with his band The Whisky Hearts.
“Cotton Snow” is out on Drumfire Records on Friday April 15th.
And just as a wee treat, here’s the video:
A long time ago, I really struggled with the musical concept that the most important thing wasn’t the notes, but the space between the notes. I was a bit literal and musically unsophisticated at that time, but I managed to get my head around the idea before it got me into any arguments. The reason I’m inviting you to have a laugh at my expense here is that Phil Burdett’s album “Humble Ardour Refrains” has some wonderful examples of using the space between the notes to create atmosphere and emotion. This is one of two albums that Phil’s releasing simultaneously on Drumfire Records (you can read about “Shaky Path to Arcadia” here) and if you take the two albums together, it’s an extraordinary achievement.
He’s used the same musicians (with the addition of flute and sax on this album from Paula Borrell) to produce two very different albums; musically, “Humble Ardour Refrains” has a more acoustic, folky vibe and there’s a much more confessional, intimate feel to the autobiographical material. I’m sure that everyone listening to this will pick out different songs that they love, but my instant favourite was “A Kind of Chalkwell Station Blue”; Russ Strothard’s melodic bass line works perfectly with John Bennett’s clipped guitar and Jack Corder’s congas to create a backing that rolls along seemingly effortlessly under Phil’s sub-apocalyptic vision of Southend and Canvey. When you add Paula Borrell’s meandering flute, the result is sublime. It’s a song that took me back to John Martyn at this very best.
If we’re talking comparisons (and we are), Tom Waits would be proud of the lo-fi stomp of “Jackleg Preacher” with its ‘ruffian choir’ and yuppie-vilifying lyrics; the band can do subtle, but they can also crank it up like a bar band. I should really mention “Chickenwire” as well; I can’t think of any other songwriter who can write a love song (unusual in itself for Phil) that includes the lines ‘This sick life worships morning tide & Satan’s sleeping on the shore, He’ll leave his bitter truths behind – callous, cruel & raw’.
As always, the metaphors range far and wide, from The Bible to French literature with musical references from Dexys to Dylan and Songdog dropped into the mix as well. “Humble Ardour Refrains” is a very personal album exploring childhood and lost innocence, London, absent friends (“Likes of Us”), some very dark times and the mental and physical place that Phil finds himself in at the moment.
Even if you ignore the simultaneous release of “Shaky Path to Arcadia”, this is an astonishingly good album from an artist who really should be much better known than he is. I can’t even choose between the two albums; you should just give yourself a treat and buy both.
“Humble Ardour Refrains” and “Shaky Path to Arcadia” are both out on January 29 on Drumfire Records.
Every time I hear some delusional, no-talent wannabe on a TV talent show (not often, I admit) it should make me despair for music in the twenty-first century. The reason it doesn’t is that I know about people like Phil Burdett, a genuine visionary who’s about as far as it’s possible to get from the epicentre of what masquerades as the music business today. When I interviewed Phil about eighteen months ago in downtown Leigh-on-Sea, he told me that he was working an album to follow “Dunfearing and the West Country High” as the second part of the “Secular Mystic Trilogy”. Not only that but he was also working on another trilogy that would begin with “Humble Ardour Refrains”. So, on a budget of threepence-halfpenny and some lollipop sticks, he’s recorded two albums for Drumfire Records with some fabulous musicians from the Southend and Canvey area (more about the musicians later) and he’s releasing both of them at the same time.
“Shaky Path to Arcadia” carries on where its predecessor left off, looking west towards the USA from Cornwall, but it’s a metaphorical and musical destination and it’s not the only direction the album goes in, geographically or temporally, before returning to Cornwall to complete the cycle. Without slipping in to ‘sixth-form-literary-criticism’ mode, I’m going to say that there’s a lot going on lyrically and the deeper you dig, the more precious stones you’ll unearth. The lyrics are strewn with references to American music and culture; there’s no mistaking the reference point for “Christmas in Casablanca”, but elsewhere there are references to Joe Hill, Billie Holiday, Dylan, Little Richard and many, many more. There are Dadaist references, travel references (trains, boats and buses and almost a plane) and if you look really closely, a lot of references to Basildon. There’s a lot of autobiography in there, but you need to know where and how to look.
Even without the lyrical content, you could listen to the album and be enthralled by Phil’s rich, powerful vocals and the performances of the band over a wide range of styles. From the mainly acoustic opening song, “Returning to Earth” to the counterpoint vocals in the coda of the album’s closer “I Dreamed I Saw Carl Wilson Last Night”, the band sounds superb. It’s ensemble playing at its finest; particularly on “Hellbound & Innocent” where a melodic bass line from Russ Strothard, an insanely catchy clipped John Bennett guitar hook and Jack Corder’s drums recreate the clickety-clack of the train on the track to perfection. Dee Hunter’s piano is the perfect foil for Phil’s voice on the haunting “Christmas in Casablanca” while Steve Stott’s fiddle on “Come Out Without a Hat (It’s Bound to Rain)” and “New Greyhound Rag” give an authentic country/bluegrass feel to the songs. And let’s not forget Colleen McCarthy’s lovely backing vocals and producer Mark Elliott’s esoteric samples.
“Shaky Path to Arcadia” is an example of how good an album can be when it’s put together by people who love what they do and they do it very, very well. Put the players together with another superb set of songs from the polymath poet of Westcliff-on-Sea and you’ve got a very fine album indeed. Any proper record collection should have some Phil Burdett in it and this is as good a place as any to start. “Humble Ardour Refrains” coming soon.
“Shaky Path to Arcadia” and “Humble Ardour Refrains” are both available to pre-order now from Drumfire Records.
Phil Penman is the MD of the independent label, Drumfire Records, and all-round good bloke with years of experience in the music business. We were really pleased that he was able to contribute to this year’s High Fives and we’re happy to say that he’s going to double Drumfire’s 2015 output very early in 2016; we’ll be bringing you some news about that in the very near future. It’s just possible that Phil Burdett could be involved.
In the literal sense Dean Owens’ “Into the Sea” was my album of the year because it was the one and only release on my label Drumfire Records. It occupied my time, endeavour and thoughts for much of the time, but most importantly of all, it is indeed a great album – Dean’s best to date – and due to his indefatigable manager Morag Neil and my own efforts as well as Dean’s, he’s had a really good year, including supporting Rosanne Cash at London’s Union Chapel, a Bob Harris Country session, 3 consecutive BBC Radio Scotland playlists, and now deserved appearances in a slew of end-of-year best-of lists.
Last year in this category I talked about how proud I was of my work on the first box set by The Sound. Volume 2 followed and was equally brilliant. I worked on a number of special projects, but the one I would call a labour of love is the 6 CD boxset “The Complete Collection” by my wonderful friends Darts. I managed to bring together all their released recordings for Magnet Records, alongside their self-released Choice Cuts records, and dozens of unreleased studio recordings. Huge Fun.
Every year I trawl around trying to hear something new; something different; something exciting; something challenging. I am always dismayed by the endless stream of predictability and mediocrity in so-called ‘new’ music. I had resisted listening to this band, convinced by their name, image, and hype, that I wouldn’t like them. Controversial choice I’m sure, but when I finally stopped to listen to Sleaford Mods, I was hit in the face with the stark aggression, simplistic beats and total listenability. Honourable mention here also to the folk band Stick in the Wheel for doing it their way.
One nomination for this category of mine this year. I met the lovely Hannah Rose Platt in 2014, and in 2015 she released her debut album “Portraits” and we were delighted to welcome her in Twickenham as support for a show we hosted with Martin Stephenson. Her album is well worth getting a copy of. Oh yes, and she also got married this year.
Several albums that I enjoyed this year were I thought not quite as good as previous releases: John Grant, Jason Isbell, Ron Sexsmith, Patty Griffin – all very good but just a little disappointing. The one I saw as a return to form was Death Cab for Cutie’s “Kintsugi”.
We’re officially giving a big thank you to Phil Burdett for this contribution. Phil should have been playing a launch gig for his two (yes, two) new Drumfire Records albums tonight, but he’s spent a few days in hospital this week and he’s at home now recovering. Despite that, he still managed to write about his five favourite things this year for us; we salute you Mr Burdett and we hope that your recovery is swift and complete.
The fabulous set of out-takes from the Zimmerman back catalogue is a fascinating peek through the studio door as his muse churns & twists words & phrases to fit the evolving music. A must for any Bobcats still stuck in his anorak pocket.
A new breath of fresh air that I only got into after going on a local radio show during which they played me songs I’d probably hate to get me to slag them off. I did and got banned but this one I liked. Has a DIY, Rough Trade, shouty, 1978 kinda vibe & I’m into that kinda vibe, y’know?
Somewhere at a party thrown by Roky Erikson through amps designed by Neil Young, the bastard child of Captain Beefheart & a tequila-wrecked lay preacher from San Jose testifies…strictly late 2014 but I missed it.
Grumbly little shards of country lo-fi that either intrigue or delight in equal measure, both of which are fine by me.
Bunch of so called experts judging people who are only in it for how much money they’re gonna make…Mind you, that X Factor’s just as bad…
The next contributor to 2015’s High Fives is on one of my favourite independent UK labels, Drumfire Records, along with Dean Owens and Phil Burdett. Ags Connolly has had a pretty good year as word has spread about his 2014 debut “How About Now” and he’s played just about everywhere. As Ags hasn’t said anything about this in his contribution, I’ll just mention that he supported Rosanne Cash and John Leventhal in Leeds earlier this year.
I’d already been enjoying Doug’s album “Down to The River’” so I was glad to see his UK debut would be at Southern Fried, a few hours after my set opening for Dean Owens. Doug’s live show was, in my view, even better than his star-heavy, Nashville-produced album. An interesting line-up of bass, drums and fiddle behind vocal and guitar gave a surprisingly big sound and Doug’s vocals were excellent. Doug is absolutely huge in Sweden and I tried to persuade him and the band to try the rest of the UK soon. Let’s hope they do.
I’ve been aware of John Moreland since his album “In the Throes” began to bubble under in 2013. He is easily one of the best new songwriters I’ve heard in years. I was excited to hear his new effort, “High on Tulsa Heat” and it didn’t disappoint. It’s filled with strong melodies and excellent lyrics. I do think his previous album was marginally better, but that’s a bit like comparing a massive box of sweets with another massive box of sweets. Looking forward to seeing John open for Jason Isbell over here in January.
In February I made my first trip to the Grand Ole Opry and I picked a pretty good date. A country radio seminar was keeping a lot of the more modern acts busy that week so we were treated to a show including older legends such as Ralph Stanley, Vince Gill, Ricky Skaggs, John Conlee, Bill Anderson, The Oak Ridge Boys and Jim Lauderdale. It was a very enjoyable experience and showed, reassuringly, that country music as we used to know it is still alive in some corners of Nashville.
Justin Trevino – “Sings Johnny Bush”
If you put a gun to my head and asked me to name the best traditional country singer alive today I’d say Justin Trevino. I’d probably say it without the gun, to be honest. This new album of him singing songs he learned from his hero, Texas legend Johnny Bush, is possibly his best. The opening track is the self-penned “One Night at a Johnny Bush Dance” and it fits perfectly with classics like “Whiskey River”. Trevino is about as staunchly traditional as you can get, and this album is one of my favourites this year.
This October I had the pleasure of hosting and playing two shows with Ohio/Kentucky artists Jeremy Pinnell and Max Fender (lead singer of the band Alone at 3am) on their UK and Europe tour. I was already a fan of both guys but seeing them live was special. Jeremy reminded me of Guy Clark while Max was somewhere between Jon Dee Graham and REM. Both deserve a wider audience and I hope they make it back soon: credit to their road manager and label owner Mike Montgomery for getting them over here this time.
So, on to the second part of our mid-term report, and it kicks off with a band that the Riot Squad saw live a couple of times last year. Federal Charm released their debut album in 2013 and have been on the circuit trying to reach as many people as possible with their melodic blues/rock. This year they’ve also been recording their second album which is ready for release in the Autumn to coincide with a major support tour with Joanne Shaw Taylor in September and October. We’re looking forward to reviewing the new album and the live shows will definitely be worth seeing.
Phil Burdett’s album “Dunfearing and the West Country High” (again from Drumfire Records) was another MusicRiot favourite last year. It was the first part of Phil’s “Secular Mystic” trilogy, and a work of rare beauty. The second part of the trilogy, “Shaky Path to Arcadia”, is due to be released in late summer/autumn 2015 and based on the songs that the Riot Squad have heard so far at a couple of gigs in Southend and Leigh-on-Sea, this is shaping up to be another classic. There’s also the first part of an acoustic trilogy which may be released later this year, but we’ll tell you more about that later.
Did we feature anyone from New Jersey? We did? Now that’s a surprise. Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes have a new album which should be released later this year and that’s always something we look forward to here at Riot Towers. The album’s called “Soultime!” and the band has been previewing some of the songs at shows over the summer in the States; apparently they’re sounding pretty good. The one snippet we’ve heard from the live shows, “Spinning”, sounds like The Jukes at their very best with the band cooking on gas and the horns blowing up an absolute storm.
Bob Malone’s also from New Jersey, although he lives in California these days. We reviewed the “Mojo EP”, which was a sampler for his “Mojo Deluxe” album, last year. After a year of touring the States with John Fogerty and Europe with his own band, “Mojo Deluxe” is just about ready to go and he’ll be touring the UK later this year in support of the album. If the album lives up to the standards set by the EP, it should be a little bit special. As for the live shows, you really should get along to see one of those; we’ll give you some dates later in the year.
That’s it for the bands we featured in the predictions for 2015 and so far it’s looking pretty good for all of our selections. In the third and final part of the report, we’ll bring you up to speed with some of the great bands and artists we’ve seen for the first time this year who we think you’ll be hearing a lot more of.
It’s unbelievable, really. We’re already halfway through 2015; how did that happen? Well, however it happened, there’s been an awful lot of it. At the start of the year, we made a few predictions about bands and artists to keep an eye on in 2015 and this seems like a pretty good time to have a look at how they’re getting on and maybe add a few more to the mix. So why don’t we start at the beginning because, apparently, that’s a very good place to start.
The first of our hot picks to shake some action in 2015 was the Billy Walton Band with “Wish for what You Want”, their first release on American independent label Vizztone in February 2015 after a series of self-released albums. We’ve been watching Billy Walton live since 2010 and he’s been steadily edging up the rankings. The band’s increased in size as well, from a power trio to a six-piece on the latest UK tour and the addition of sax, trombone and keyboards has emphasised their awesome live power while allowing them to move in new directions. Like his fellow New Jersey artists Springsteen and Southside Johnny (Billy has toured as an Asbury Juke in the UK a couple of times), Billy’s fond of taking the show in unexpected directions and these guys are easily good enough to follow him. They should be back in the UK later in the year, so watch out for them in your area.
Dean Owens is another artist the Riot Squad has been following for some time; well since the release of his 2012 album “New York Hummingbird” anyway. Dean has deservedly been acclaimed by those in the know (including Irvine Welsh) for some time now as a singer/songwriter but hasn’t ever managed to get the wider attention he really deserves; it looks like his 2015 album “Into the Sea” on Drumfire Records may have changed that. It’s generated a huge amount of media attention including a Bob Harris interview and live session for Radio 2 and an appearance on the cult BBC Radio Scotland football show “Off the Ball” presented by Stuart Cosgrove and Tam Cowan. The album’s probably his best yet with some highly personal lyrics and memorable melodies backed up by a great group of Nashville musicians.
Next up was The Kennedys; Maura and Pete Kennedy are also from the East coast of the USA; New York City is their adopted home. They decided to celebrate their twentieth anniversary by releasing not one, not two, but three albums this year and to tour in support of the albums. Two of the albums have already been released, The Kennedys album “West” and Maura’s solo album (with lyrics from poet B.D. Love), “Villanelle” and they’re both exceptionally beautiful pieces of work. Still to come (in September) is Pete’s long-awaited solo piece “Heart of Gotham” a suite of songs inspired by New York City and its inhabitants. Pete’s poetic sensibilities, huge knowledge of the history of American music and quiet mastery of his instrument (or more accurately, instruments) make this another one to look out for.
Well that’s the story so far, but there’s more to come later in the year. Stone Foundation were obviously on the way up in 2014 when we reviewed their album “To Find the Spirit”, but 2015 has seen them providing the title track for the wonderful short film “Beverley”, trekking across Europe, signing record deals in Japan and the USA and recording the superb “A Life Unlimited” album which is released in the UK on August 7 this year. There’s a UK tour to promote the album, followed by a Japanese tour and some festival appearances over the summer. Pre-sales on the album have been very impressive and this looks like the year that Stone Foundation finally become an overnight success. Keeping the faith seems to finally be paying dividends.
Part Two coming soon…
It’s always been a bit of a mystery to me why Dean Owens hasn’t been more widely recognised as an outstanding British singer-songwriter. Despite a career with his band The Felsons and several solo albums which provided a couple of classic additions to the Scottish songbook (“Raining in Glasgow” and “Man from Leith”), before the release of his new album “Into the Sea”, Dean still wasn’t widely known, even in Scotland. It looks like this is the album to change that. In the run-up to the album’s release Dean has had well-deserved coverage across the media in Scotland and, to a lesser extent, in England.
Maybe there’s a bit of truth in the cliché about suffering for your art; 2014 was a difficult year for Dean for a variety of reasons but he’s used his work to weave the pain, the joy and the memories into an album packed with songs of love and loss; the stories of the people lost forever and the ones who are lost but still with us. “Into the Sea” is the work of a songwriter with experience of real life looking backwards to help make sense of the present, creating a lasting work of art as a result.
Some of the album’s reminiscences are triggered by objects, while others are triggered by events. The opening track, “Dora” is rooted in a family tree and a circus poster and tells the story of Dean’s grandmother and her circus background; “Closer to Home” was inspired by a letter written by a soldier on the way home from The Great War and “Kids (1979)”, a poignant story of diverging paths, is kicked off by an old photo of a school football team, while “Evergreen” starts from a holiday photo. All four songs are mixtures of happiness and sadness, reflecting the lives that most of us live.
The majority of the album’s songs are inspired by situations; “The Only One” (with Will Kimbrough’s vocal harmonies creating a nice Everly Brothers feel) and “Days Without You” both relate to the terminal illness of a friend’s partner, while “Sally’s Song (I Dreamed of Michael Marra)” combines teenage memories with a tribute to one of Scotland’s greatest songwriters. “Virginia Street” is the story of a friend’s nostalgia for happier days while “Valentine’s Day in New York” is an autobiographical piece dealing with the loneliness of spending time away from loved ones. “It Could be Worse” was the album’s problem child, coming together at the last possible moment with a bit of help from Will Kimbrough and also features as an instrumental reprise. The album’s final song (or special bonus track) is a duet with Suzy Bogguss on “I’m Pretending I Don’t Love You Anymore” featuring a bit of whistling from Dean and a nice Roy Orbison “Blue Bayou” feel.
It’s easy to underestimate the quality of an artist’s work when you see and hear a lot of them (and the Riot Squad have seen and heard a lot of Dean Owens over the last few years) so “Into the Sea”, as the first album of original material since 2012’s “New York Hummingbird” was an opportunity to take a step back and refresh the perspective. The songs tap into a rich seam of melancholy memories which work perfectly for Dean’s voice; the lyrics tug at the heartstrings while the band (Will Kimbrough, Evan Hutchings, Neilson Hubbard, Jen Gunderman, Michael Renne, David Henry, Eamon McLoughlin, Joshua Britt, Suzy Bogguss, Kim Richey and Heather Donegan) provide varied and sympathetic settings throughout. This album, for me, is the most complete and rounded piece of work that Dean Owens has produced and should be a part of any music-lover’s collection.
If you’re in the South of England and you want to see Dean playing songs from the new album, he’ll be playing at these venues in June/July:
Monday June 29 The Greys, Brighton
Wednesday July 1 Green Note, Camden
Thursday July 2 Green Note, Camden
Friday July 3 Venue TBC, Twickenham
Saturday July 4 The Hat Club, Beaconsfield
If you can’t get along to any of these gigs and still want to support Dean, why not have a look at the Kickstarter campaign for the video for his next single “Up on the Hill”? There are loads of ways to contribute and lots of goodies available.
“Into the Sea” is out now on Drumfire Records.