If anyone asks, I’ll always identify as Scottish. In terms of music, it’s a heritage that I tap into. There’s a Celtic feel to many Scottish writers and performers that strikes a chord and I guess it’s because of shared cultural references (it applies to books as well; I love Ian Rankin’s novels, among others). But enough about me; this is all about Dean Owens and his latest album, a greatest hits package titled “The Man from Leith”. Many of the themes of the songs are universal, but there’s also a clear Scottish theme that runs through the album (the title might be a giveaway).

Dean’s been releasing work as a solo artist for about twenty years now and, with a release about every three or four years (not including collaborations and side projects), that’s a substantial back catalogue. Although Dean’s an album, more than a singles, artist, there are still standout songs that have been tried and tested live and are consistently popular. These are the songs that Dean has played solo, as a duo with various guitar players and with various band configurations (with some incredible musicians) and they’ve been thoroughly road-tested; they’re all great songs.

Dean imbues his songs with a very clear sense of place, whether it’s Scotland or the arid desert of Arizona and he loves to tell a story. More than half of the songs on “The Man from Leith” are set in Scotland, particularly Edinburgh (with the obvious exception of “Raining in Glasgow”) and Dean has a genuine appreciation of Scottish songwriters who paved the way for the latest generation and might not be particularly famous outside Scotland (including luminaries like Rab Noakes and Michael Marra).

“The Man from Leith” is seventeen songs spanning Dean’s solo career, demonstrating the range of his songwriting skills from the intensely autobiographical (“Man from Leith” about Dean’s dad and “Baby Fireworks” about his daughter) to the anthemic Ronnie Lane/Ian McLagan tribute “The Last Song”, co-written with Will Kimbrough. If you’re not moved by those songs, your heart is a swinging brick and you shouldn’t even be reading this. And “Lost Time”, which closes the album, is a poignant reminder that we don’t get a second chance at life; make the most of it while you can. In fact the album closes with a run of three songs, “Raining in Glasgow”, “The Last Song” and “Lost Time” that bears comparison with any closing trilogy I’ve heard.

While I’m on the subject of song themes, not all songs are written in the first person; I’ve seen one review of this album get that really badly wrong. Great songwriters pull out themes from their own lives but also the lives of their friends and from stuff that they see on the news or in the papers; don’t make the assumption that everything’s autobiographical, there’s much more to songwriting than that. If you see Dean live, chances are he’ll tell you the stories behind the songs. That’s the best way to get an insight and you’ll probably get a laugh as well; Dean’s songs might be somewhere between melancholy and miserable but he has a wicked, dry sense of humour that you can only appreciate if you see him live.

So, is “The Man from Leith” the best of Dean Owens? It captures the breadth and depth of Dean’s songwriting from the autobiographical “Raining in Glasgow” to the historical WW1 song “Closer to Home” and everything else in between. There isn’t anything even resembling a mediocre song here, and I haven’t even mentioned the award-winning “Southern Wind” (co-written with Will Kimbrough) yet. Die-hard fans might pick out other songs that they think should be included, but this is a pretty good selection. If someone gave me this album and I hadn’t heard any of the songs previously, I’d be really chuffed. Is that good enough for you?

If I’ve met you at a gig, I might have mentioned that “The Last Song” is an absolute anthem; I’m more convinced of that every time I hear it live. Things aren’t looking too good for live music at the moment, but this will certainly give a good impression of what a Dean Owens gig sounds like.

“The Man from Leith” is available on CD and vinyl on Eel Pie Records from 20th March 2020.

Humour me for a minute. Every so often, a piece of work like this comes along (it’s not just an album it’s a project, maybe even a concept) where every aspect and detail is absolutely perfect. The humouring bit concerns my particular slant on the project. MusicRiot’s gig team, The Riot Squad, are big fans of Dean Owens, the UK representative on the project, so forgive me if I spend a bit of time on Dean’s contribution. It’s fair to say that Dean’s solo material has a strong sense of location; he writes about the area and the people he knows, just like Ian Rankin and Irvine Welsh in their novels and short stories. It’s also fair to say that he’s always been willing to push the boundaries in his collaborations, spreading out into traditional Scottish folk ballads as Redwood Mountain with Amy Geddes, rockier material with his occasional band Deer Lake and his consistently excellent work with Will Kimbrough (more about that later).

Buffalo Blood is something else indeed. Dean teamed up with his Nashville friends and collaborators Neilson Hubbard, Audrey Spillman and Joshua Britt, along with sound engineer and photographer Jim DeMain to spend two weeks deep in the New Mexico desert feeling the forces of previous lives played out there while writing and recording  fifteen songs that tap into the echoes of centuries of betrayal, exploitation and alienation of the Native American peoples. And it’s not just the songs; there’s video and photography as well. The incredibly ambitious aim of the project is to immerse the listener in five hundred years of Native American experience. What’s truly incredible is that they actually succeeded. “Buffalo Blood” is an album that will entrance you, engage you and enrage you; maybe it will even make you take a serious look at the history of the indigenous peoples of the American continent. That’s what can happen when creative artists follow their instincts and beliefs and just create; I can’t imagine any of the major music providers bankrolling this project, but I believe “Buffalo Blood” has a real shot at commercial success; it’s that powerful.

The songs were recorded live outdoors in the desert, the wind and animal noises contributing to the feeling of immersion in an environment that retains echoes of centuries of struggle. The quality of the songwriting is consistently high across the album as Celtic, European and Native American influences combine to create a perfect musical backdrop for a message that is still relevant (Standing Rock ring any bells?).

The album has a narrative flow; it moves from the original contact with European settlers through time to the closing lament “Vanishing World”, which is perfectly suited to Dean Owens’ plaintive voice. This album is a classic, carrying a very potent message through the medium of haunting melodies and flawless performances; get it on your wishlist.

If you needed the album to be ground-breaking in any more ways, it’s the first UK release on the Eel Pie Records label and it’s available as a vinyl gatefold double album or digitally from Friday February 15 (EPRLP001)

Breaking news – Dean Owens won UK Song of the Year at the UK Americana Awards 2019 for the title track from his 2018 “Southern Wind” collaboration with Will Kimbrough. And that’s not the only good news from the Buffalo Blood camp; Neilson Hubbard produced “Southern Wind” and also Ben Glover’s “Shorebound” (UK Album of the Year winner) and “Rifles and Rosary Beads” for Mary Gauthier, who won International Artist of the Year and is up for a Grammy this year. Not a bad haul, and that’s before “Buffalo Blood” is released.

If you need any more recommendations for Buffalo Blood, try this: