At the start of this year Allan reviewed KB Bayley’s album “Little Thunderstorms”; he loved it. We’re a bit hesitant to give his ego any additional boosts but KB has been very flattering about the review and he’s put together a really interesting and moving contribution to High Fives 2021.

Photo by Rob Blackham

2021 was a strange old year. The complex and confused younger brother of 2020, who had made no secret of his cruel intentions. But amidst a sea of uncertainty, a real 2021 highlight for me was when Allan McKay reviewed my new album ‘Little Thunderstorms’ – to receive praise from someone who knows and loves music like Allan does was a shining light in a post-lockdown wasteland… so I was very chuffed to be asked to offer up my High Fives for the year.

There are recurring themes: lockdowns, live music, Weissenborns, albums.

Best Virtual Gig

Who remembers the first lockdown of Spring 2020? Hot sun, deserted roads. It seemed like the whole world was taking a breath, doing yoga, learning Ukrainian. I recorded my ‘Little Thunderstorms’ album in a back room at home, in between rediscovering long-forgotten records and learning about 1950s valve mics. By early 2021 and the third lockdown all that had changed. If you were like me, you were inhaling family packs of Hula Hoops and bingeing Line of Duty (“Jesus, Mary and The Wee Donkey, can we just move this thing along?”)  Spring arrived, but London remained empty and freezing, a dystopian gig-less wasteland. It was one Sunday afternoon in early spring when I stumbled across the two hours that restarted my year. I got an alert about a livestream show from Nashville, performed by Gretchen Peters – one of my favourite songwriters on this exhausted virus-ridden little planet. More than that, she was being joined by Ben Glover; a wonderful human being and another songwriting hero of mine. Ben had done me the honour of singing on track 4 of ‘Little Thunderstorms’, a song called ‘Blood Red Lullaby.’  I poured a beer, logged on and suddenly the world just tilted back into place. With the inimitable Barry Walsh on piano, Gretchen’s beautifully self-deprecating reminders that they hadn’t performed in front of an audience for some while reminded us all where we’d been. Then the opening chords of another classic would come chiming out of her guitar (accompanied by Ben’s Hummingbird), and I remembered why I loved songs and songwriting so much.

The Towpath Album For reasons I’ll explain in No. 5, I walked a lot at the start of 2021. I normally work in London, where the roar of the traffic fights daily with the rumble of the trains. In early 2021 I had rediscovered a towpath near my home where I could walk for four hours with only the canal boats and magpies for company; a time for reflection and emotion. I first saw Kelly Joe Phelps in Camden in 2000, and it remains one of the best gigs I’ve ever seen; emotional intensity, authenticity, humility, virtuosity and humour right there.  (“I’m gonna take a break now, get high, then come back on and play the same songs to you again”.) I knew every note and syllable of ‘Shine-Eyed Mr Zen.’ Shamefully, ‘Lead Me On’ had slipped under my radar.

This 1994 record became my towpath soundtrack. The breathtakingly fluid lap style playing, the raw intimate vocals, the themes of confession and redemption. Kelly Joe was my saviour and my travelling companion on that muddy path past the canal boats and their straggle-haired inhabitants.

One day I was lost in ‘I’d Be A Rich Man’ and a frantic woman told me her boyfriend was trying to kill her;  the next day it was ‘Black Crow Flying’ and she waved at me from their boat as they danced together clutching a bottle of red wine, their raggedy little dog snapping at my heels.

Best Guitar Workshop

By early summer my ‘Little Thunderstorms’ album had made its way into the world, like a baby crawling towards a shaft of sunlight through a door. I talked about the record online and on radio, to a variety of passionate and patient commentators. I read the reviews too – positive words brought a warm grateful glow, the occasional challenge always raised a smile. (This from Italy: “KB says he’s inspired by Kelly Joe Phelps, but he sounds nothing like him.” Hard to argue…  Making a record is fun; so is talking about it. But it was time to get back to the musical lathe and actually play some stuff.  

A brief origin story: I’ve been playing acoustic fingerstyle guitar since I could walk. I got into slide blues in my teens – a tough call on the punk-dominated 70s South Coast – then played in a series of badly-behaved electric blues bands. Weissenborn playing came much later in life – discovering in enthusiastic middle age the unique joy of a guitar that sits on your lap while the steel bar in your left hand slides out the melody. I tell myself my innocent lack of virtuosity allows my songs to thrive, unfettered by too much performance (but we’ll let the audience decide).  With the album out in the world and a few years of lap slide apprenticeship under my belt, in July 2021 I drove from Watford to Bradford and back in a day. Only one thing would truly coax me to do that; a Thomas Buchanan Koa Weissenborn. I walked into Tom’s Cleckheaton workshop and for a passionate guitar nerd like me – a truth since the age of 4 –  it was a magical grotto of delights. Beautiful woods were everywhere, shaped into different stages of instrumental evolution. Tom has the quiet confidence of a master craftsman; an alchemist who combines wood, steel and bone to create gold. I walked out of his workshop with a Koa Style 4, and I know that instrument will be with me until I check out. His words rang in my ears as I left: “I think you’ll find the instrument will tell you how it wants to be played.”

First Gig Back

So you’ve got an album out, twin Weissenborns sitting in a guitar rack and a folder full of solid reviews. Can you still play live?

I consoled myself with the thought that I probably wasn’t the only muso thinking that in 2021. But there were still butterflies as I arrived at The Star in Guildford on August 3rd 2021. I’d been invited to join a bill with two shining young southern talents, Leoni Jane Kennedy and Lifelike Charlie; those two plus a bloke older than the Prime Minister playing guitars designed in the 1920s.  

It was a glorious night. It was strange at first to stand at the back as the crowd filtered in and assembled in front of the stage; there were beautifully familiar faces from the the thriving local live music community, all engaged in that strange clumsy dance of ‘do we hug, punch or knock elbows?’ Even stranger to sit on stage for the first time since February 2020; surrounded by cables, monitors, mic stands; the soft glow of my kitchen at home replaced by the burn of stage lights on my hands. Could I still play and sing? Yup, it seemed so. (In truth, once Line of Duty had ended I’d been practising every night.) Could I remember the titles of my own songs? Not a chance. “This next one is called…. Sh*t no it isn’t, sorry.”  I could still play songs. I’d forgotten how to talk to other people.

Favourite Album Cover

‘Little Thunderstorms’ was a record all about stuff that happens to us; small, seismic, tragic, mundane. At the start of 2020 it was a scratchy collection of phone demos, with just a rough idea of how it would sound. As a family, we had been battling our own Event. My wonderful nephew Will – then 19 – had been fighting a rare cancer since 2017. He had stared it in the face, beaten it back, taken all it could throw it at him and come out standing tall. He’d given radio interviews where the DJ had been rendered speechless by his courage and honesty. Will was a scientist, a poet, and a gifted artist. I needed an album cover, and I asked him to create one for me at the start of 2020. All I had was the title – Little Thunderstorms – and a rough idea that the record was going to sound acoustic and homemade (if only I’d known just how much…..) He made me the first draft of a cover. It was beautiful – but it was too ‘big’; more like something for a stadium band, not an introspective troubadour questioning the world. With a maturity that I still don’t have, he called me and asked me to describe exactly what I wanted; the next day I received the original artwork for the album. It never changed throughout all the development of the record. Like his courage and his beautiful soul, Will’s art remained constant.

The album came out and the original cover artwork received so much love. In early 2021 I gave Will his vinyl copy of the record; his beaming smile was a tiny shard of joy amongst the sea of pain that came from knowing his time with us would soon end. In the final few weeks of his life I hope and believe that Will got some happiness from knowing that his uncle’s record had gone to all corners of the world, with his beautiful artwork on it. For every glowing review from a Music Riot or Americana UK, there was an Italian critic slagging off KB’s singing. He loved that.

Will left us in February 2021. Whenever I talked to people about the album I never mentioned his story. His contribution to it wasn’t about being a cancer patient, or a hero, or someone who finally ‘lost a battle.’ He was an artist.

The album that kicked started the year here at MusicRiot was “Carnival of Hopes” by Jane Kramer. We loved it at the time and we still love it, so we were delighted when Jane made a contribution to keep the High Fives train a-rollin’ for another day, and give Malcolm Holcombe his third mention in the feature this year. Read about her top five gigs here.

I’m honored to be included in this wonderful list! I’m sharing with you the top 5 live shows that I’ve attended this year that a.) Made me want to keep writing better, deeper, braver songs. b.) Made me glad to be alive and wearing skin and c.) Knocked me on my bum and helped me realize that music is more powerful; it’s bigger than all of us. It’s a language we mustn’t be afraid to speak and share.

Three Women and the Truth at the Altamont Theatre in Asheville, NC

three-women-and-the-truthThis tour consists of…wait for it…Mary Gauthier (a friend and mentor of mine), Eliza Gilkyson AND Gretchen Peters. Three of the most brave, unabashed, TALENTED, accomplished, truth-telling songwriters that live. They are each so passionately authentic and so advanced and graceful in their craft. Besides the fact that each of their songs floor me, they have a wonderful friendship and their shows together are full of hilarious, witty banter and stories. The reverence they have for each other’s art is also very moving and the amount of talent on the one stage is staggering. I loved watching Mary’s face when she was moved by certain lines in her peers’ songs, and I loved the way they would chime in on harmonies for one another off the cuff because they were moved to and didn’t worry if it was polished or perfect. Mary put me on the guest list for the show, and I hung out in the green room with the ladies before they performed. They were just as authentic and warm as their songs. The venue has wonderful sound and only seats 150, so it was nice and intimate. I left so humbled and inspired!

Malcolm Holcombe at the Grey Eagle in Asheville, NC

malcolm-holcombeMalcolm is the real, raw, gruff yet shiny, deal. I’ve spent almost 20 years now in this little corner of the world; the Blue Ridge Mountains of western North Carolina, and Malcolm (a local fixture here who is also known internationally) and his songs represent home to me. Like, if you could bottle up the wild woods here and the divey bar rooms and the rivers and the hollers and the way the blueish mountains make you yearn, it would look and sound like one of Malcolm’s songs. I remember going to see him at the Town Pump, a serious dive bar, when I was in college. I was floored. I was a young songwriter and knew I was in the presence of greatness. He gave no sh*ts about the audience or social conventions. He smoked his cigarettes and his dentures would fly out of his mouth sometimes while he was singing. His eyes flutter-rolled into the back of his head while he sang and played like he was in some kind of snake-charmer trance. I remember thinking: “This is how it’s supposed to be. He is not playing us his songs, he IS his songs.” It was very formative for me.

I even got to sing a duet with him once and it was a crowning moment in my career. I have loved keeping up with Malcolm over the years and never miss an opportunity to see him play. This show at the Grey Eagle was intimate and perfect. Just Malcolm, his fierce finger picking and beautiful growling vocals and poetry, and he had a great dobro player accompanying him. It was, apparently, a release show for his new album, but you never would have known it from him – he never mentioned it. The only story he told was about a dog. He just kept the songs of life hard-lived and hard-loved rolling and he was authentically himself and the crowd drank him in with reverence. I was so happy to be there. I never want him to stop.

Akira Satake in his pottery studio in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC

akira-satakeAkira, in my opinion, is one of those humans who got ALL the GREAT genes. He is brilliant. He is a mind-blowing potter. He is an exquisite banjo player. He’s produced records for Tim O’Brien. He grew up in Osaka, Japan and discovered the banjo and mountain music from his brother’s Flatt and Scruggs albums. He’s become a master of shamisen (Japanese banjo) and played all over the world. He has a pottery studio in the River Arts District of Asheville, NC, and his pieces look just like his banjo playing sounds: earthy, wild, sturdy; a mystical fusion of the sounds of Japan and the sounds of the old-time mountain music of this region. It’s really something. I haven’t made it to a formal Akira concert yet, but I stumbled into his pottery studio on an open-gallery Sunday and there he was,

sitting at a little table in his studio (that also houses an adorable tiny cafe that his wife operates), and he was casually playing his banjo with his Altoid Mints box full of picks open in front of him. I have never in my life heard anything like it. It was effortless and every note showed how dear these two disparate lands: Japan and the NC Mountains, are to him, and filled the gaps between them. Pure magic.

Shovels and Rope at the Reeb Ranch (Hendersonville, NC)

shovels-and-ropeWhat a breath of fresh air these saucy, raspy, young southern rabble-rousers are. How can you even begin to not love a young woman who belts out soulful poetry in harmony with her husband WHILE banging on the drums?! These guys are on the rise for a good reason. They are the whole package: songwriting, musicianship, unique voices and humility. I got to see them in a lovely festival setting, under the stars, cuddled up on a blanket with my honey. Doesn’t get much better than that. They were gracious and funny with the crowd, and gave such fire in their performance. They walked on and off stage holding hands and somehow manage to play and tour and do business together and still be in love. I’m in awe. They closed with the song “Birmingham”, tender and achey and one of my favorites.

Darrell Scott at the Altamont Theatre, Asheville NC

darrellscott32I never miss a chance to hear Darrell perform. I even was so lucky as to be his student in a songwriting intensive workshop a few years back. With the heartbreaking loss of so many of the masters of the songwriting craft over the last few years: Guy Clark, Merle Haggard, Leonard Cohen, to name a few, I believe that songwriters such as Darrell Scott are carrying their torch forward. Not only is he an exquisite songwriter; he is an incredibly accomplished guitar player and an amazing vocalist. The full package. He commands the stage with quiet grace, and seeing him in this intimate venue was beautifully special. His son’s band, ‘A Boy Named Banjo’ opened for him, and it was incredibly sweet to see Darrell swell with pride for his bass-playing son. They did some numbers together and I loved watching Darrell be the band leader in such a paternal (but not patronizing) way. He would gently nod to each boy, trusting them to solo, and nod again as if to say “you got this. Play out!”

Darrell was reflective and well-spoken and performed a staggeringly beautiful version of his dear, departed friend Guy Clark’s “Desperados Waiting for a Train”. I left with quiet resolve to write a song of my own that I’d be proud to share with Darrell.