Sam Baker Land of Doubt ScrollerStraight up front, you need to know; this album won’t be for everyone. I have a strong suspicion that this is deep into Marmite territory, that it’s an acquired taste. Texan Sam Baker is one of those songwriters who is revered by his peers (Malcolm Holcombe’s another) who understand the journey he’s on and appreciate the craft involved in his work. One of his aims with “Land of Doubt” is to tell the stories or convey the feelings to his listeners in the most economic way possible without losing any of the nuances. Stripping back music usually involves leaving out instruments that add texture to arrangements, keys, horns, even electric guitar and bass. The approach Sam Baker has taken is to work out the minimum of sounds necessary to create the feeling he wants to evoke and to add nothing extraneous to it.

The economy isn’t just applied to the instrumentation. The melodies and the rhythms are kept sparse and simple and even the number of words is restricted, a bit like applying the haiku discipline to every aspect of making an album. Producer and drummer Neilson Hubbard, guitar player Will Kimbrough and cool jazz trumpeter Don Mitchell create perfect minimalist arrangements that allow the songs plenty of space; each of the elements is honed to perfection like a setting designed to emphasise a perfect gemstone, but not to overpower. There isn’t a hint of a standard format or template here. Each song gets exactly the instrumentation it needs; nothing more, nothing less. The percussion ranges from the almost non-existent on the country waltz “Love is Patient” to loud drums competing with the vocal on the swampy “Moses in the Reeds” and the military beat of “Some Kind of Blue”, telling the story of a Vietnam veteran who looks back to the war as the happiest time of his life.

At first glance, the track listing seems a little long, but ten songs are interspersed with five instrumental interludes that help to alleviate the sombre mood of the songs while additional colour and texture come in the form of Will Kimbrough’s ambient atmospherics, some piano and harmonium and some deft Chet Baker-style trumpet from Don Mitchell, particularly on “Say the Right Words”, the story of parents who disapprove of their daughter’s choice of partner but are too scared or smart (you decide) to tackle the matter head-on. One of Sam Baker’s strengths is in picking out these little tragedies from the background noise we’re surrounded and showing us the importance they have to the protagonists. It’s not always comfortable, but you can’t stop listening.

As I said at the top of this piece, it won’t be for everyone, but if you like the craft of the songwriter and the arranger, then you won’t be disappointed.

“Land of Doubt” is released on Friday June 16.

Malcolm Holcombe - 'Pretty Little Troubles' - cover (300dpi)“Pretty Little Troubles”; it’s a lovely example of irony. Malcolm Holcombe’s troubles are never little and they’re rarely pretty. The subjects of his songs may be everyday events, but they have huge significance to the protagonists. It’s fair to say that he’s revered by fellow artists and songwriters for both live and recorded work and this album’s another demonstration of the passion and unshowy skill of his songs. His style is firmly in the country/Americana tradition with hints of other roots showing through occasionally in the lilting Celtic- styled “The Eyes O’ Josephine” where the bass doubles up the guitar riff and the song’s completed with a penny whistle solo and the European-influenced story of an encounter with a female busker playing a concertina, “South Hampton Street”. Both songs evoke the setting perfectly without tipping over into pastiche. 

The transatlantic folk/roots community has almost unanimously distanced itself from the alt-right and Malcolm Holcombe’s affirmation of that stance comes in “Yours No More”, a hymn of praise to the immigrants that helped to build America. It’s not in-your-face radicalism, it’s a gentle reminder that we can all use a bit of historical perspective at times. His rough-hewn, two-packs-a-day voice rasps through the rockier numbers, but adds pathos to the more contemplative stories of the numbing grind of everyday existence, such as “Damn Weeds” and the album’s closer “We Struggle”; the problems may be small in the grand scheme of things, but they can seem like insurmountable objects when you get right up close and personal. 

There area couple of great turnaround songs on the album as well. The uptempo “Good Old Days” feels like a nostalgic romp until the lyrics turn to exploitation, disease , alcohol and dead babies and “Bury England” paints a stark picture of life as a travelling musician, depicting all the minor frustrations (terrible coffee) which are displaced by hearing great music on the house PA (in memory of Guy Clark) then going on to play a great gig with Jared Tyler. Malcolm Holcombe has the songwriter’s skill of creating a perfect vignette from a seemingly mundane series of events and even the title is an ironic play on the phrase ‘Merry England’. 

It’s raw at times, but “Pretty Little Troubles” is packed with lovingly-crafted and passionate songs played in atmospheric and uncluttered settings. It’s a lovely piece of work. 

“Pretty Little Troubles” is released on Friday May 26 on Gypsy Eyes Music.

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.

Molly Rose Reed is one third of Underhill Rose, who featured in an album review on MusicRiot this year, and also played one of the most amazing gigs we saw this year when they ignored a power cut in Camden and played a completely acoustic set in a candlelit Green Note; if you saw it, you’ll never forget it. Molly’s sharing her favourite gigs with us (plus a few near misses).

malcolm-holcombeMalcolm Holcombe at the Sunflower Public House, Cathedral Quarter Arts Festival, Belfast, Ireland

It was a rainy and unseasonably cold day in May, and nearing the end of Underhill Rose’s first tour to the UK. The band had the afternoon off, so we put on our coats and drove to Belfast. While holding a cup of warm coffee, sitting on a small stool to the right of the stage, I was bathed in the richness of Malcolm’s songwriting. Jared Tyler perfectly accompanied Malcolm’s dynamic guitar playing on lap steel and backing vocals. Hearing Malcolm play on the small stage to a crowded bar of intent listeners brought me home to the Swannanoa Valley of North Carolina, where Malcolm is from and also where I went to college with my bandmate Eleanor. There is nothing like being reminded of home when you are on the road.

lori-mckennaLori McKenna at 12th and Porter, Americana Music Festival, Nashville, TN

Her album, The Bird and the Rifle, was my introduction to this wonderful songwriter. Mostly writing hits for pop country greats like Tim McGraw, Lori McKenna’s album touched me with it’s feeling of authenticity. I could tell from the record that she feels her songs, sings from her heart and ain’t got nothin’ to prove. Seeing her live was 10 times better than the record!

 

jonas-and-janeJonas & Jane, opening for Underhill Rose at the Stables, Milton Keynes, England

I admit to my bias on this Top 5 pick, but Katherine Marsh (aka Jane) and Charlie Jonas are the real deal. They sing into one microphone, and Charlie’s picking on mandolin/guitar and singing beautifully compliments Katherine’s pure voice. Their harmonies are tenderly worked and perfectly executed, and their songs will take you on a journey back in time.

BW ScrollerBrian Wilson performing Pet Sounds at Thomas Wolfe Auditorium, Asheville, NC

This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and worth every penny (and it was a lot of them)! I can’t even remember how many harmony parts I heard in one song. It was truly a magical night to hear the full orchestration of a work of genius.

chantae-cannChantae Cann at my wedding, Black Mountain, NC

I had to put this one on the list, because this is one of the most memorable days of my life! Chantae is an amazing jazz singer from my hometown of Atlanta, GA. She performs her original tunes but learned “At Last” for our first dance. My family and friends danced and danced to her amazing quartet. You can see her singing with grammy-award-winning Snarky Puppy here .

 

Honorable Mentions:

John Paul White at the Grey Eagle, Asheville, NC

Dylan LeBlanc at the Mothlight, Asheville, NC

The Broadcast at Rockwood Music Hall, New York, NY

Malcolm Holcombe scrollerFrom close up you can see that Malcolm Holcombe’s life has been an eventful journey. While he’s offstage he looks frail, tired and just about holding things together; when he picks up a guitar and sits in front of a microphone, there’s a complete transformation. It’s impossible to tell if he’s just conserving all of his energy for those two forty-five minute slots or there’s some mojo that he can only call on while he’s playing and singing, illuminating him from within and creating an almost impossible level of intensity. Even the way he attacks the opening set, running songs into each other without a pause of even a fraction of a second to allow a bit of audience appreciation has the feel of a man on a mission. It’s powerful, intense and unpredictable but, like great art, it isn’t always comfortable.

On this tour, Malcolm has been joined by slide resonator player Jared Tyler, whose pure clear harmonies contrast perfectly with Malcolm’s forty-Marlboro-a-day, rusty razor wire baritone. His slide playing creates fills and additional backing for Malcolm’s style of picking and thumb-strumming; it’s a really effective combination of two voices and two instruments. The onstage chat between songs is inconsequential, bordering on random, but the audience isn’t there to hear chat; they want to hear the songs.

The focus is on the latest album, “Another Black Hole” with more than half of the album’s songs featuring on the night. The title track, “Sweet Georgia”, “Way Behind”, and “Leavin’ Anna” all get an enthusiastic response, but the biggest cheer of the night is for the storming “Papermill Man” towards the end of the first set. There’s a fair amount of older material as well, including “Sparrows and Sparrows”, “Down the River” and “Savannah Blues” (featuring some lovely ebow guitar from Jared) and even a version of the Maura O’Connell song “A Far Cry”. It’s a great bunch of songs and the new material is as good as anything he’s ever done.

If you’ve heard any of the songs before you can guess that Malcolm’s a man who’s had battles with his demons and it’s difficult to say who won (maybe he’ll be happy to last the full fifteen rounds). At times onstage he’s struggling for breath and you’re just willing him to make it to the end of the song, never mind the evening, but there’s a fire burning inside that won’t be easily quenched. It’s not for the faint-hearted, but Malcolm Holcombe live is an experience you won’t forget in a hurry.

 

Another Black Hole scrollerIt’s just over six months since Malcolm Holcombe’s last album “The RCA Sessions” was released, so he’s obviously not spinning his wheels at the moment. “The RCA Sessions” was a retrospective with a twist, while “Another Black Hole” is ten new songs in the inimitable Malcolm Holcombe style. If your idea of a great voice is the kind of sanitised autotuned pap that you hear all over the radio, then we’d better say goodbye right here. Malcolm Holcombe has a voice that’s full of rugged character, matching the themes of his songs to perfection. As he sings in the title song, ‘The radio plays for the happy go lucky, that ain’t my set o’ wheels’.

Throughout “Another Black Hole”, most of the usual collaborators are present, including Jared Tyler, David Roe and Ken Coomer and there are a couple of guest appearances from the legendary Tony Joe White, notably on the album’s rockiest song “Papermill Man”, which combines the themes of nostalgia and life at the bottom of the ladder that run through the album with a raucous, rambunctious musical romp.

The language and imagery are more measured, but this album reminds me of Springsteen’s “Wrecking Ball”, contrasting the Carveresque characters of the songs with the ‘suits and ties in the cubicles’ (“To Get By”) and the Vanderbilts who ‘hold the keys to the city’ (“Papermill Man”). If there was any doubt about where Malcolm Holcombe’s sympathies lie, “Don’t Play Around” nails it with the line ‘fuckin’ damn frackin’ and backroom stabbin’ knocks me down on my knees’. This is the ordinary, everyday Joe sitting in a bar and venting his anger over a beer before going outside to smoke a cigarette (and he makes it clear where that highway’s always going to end).

Malcolm’s voice may be a taste that you need to acquire, but the songs on “Another Black Hole” are beautifully-crafted vignettes of American life on the other side of the tracks, just out east of Eden. The playing’s perfect throughout, matching the music to the lyrical themes, without ever becoming overcooked. What more do you need?

Out now on Gypsy Eyes Music.

 

C1026OK, let me say this right up front; this album isn’t for everyone, but you could say that about Tom Waits, Neil Young and Bob Dylan and it hasn’t done them any harm. Malcolm Holcombe’s voice is an acquired taste but if you already have a taste for anyone mentioned above then it wouldn’t take a lot of acquisition. It’s the voice of a man who’s lived a life and seen a lot of dark sides; it’s the voice of a man who gargles with gravel, spits sparks and tells stories of how life is, not how you think it should be. His music has roots in blues, folk and country but it’s not really any of these; it’s a strand of Americana which weaves in all of these influences without falling neatly into any of them.

The RCA Sessions” is a retrospective with a difference. Malcolm Holcombe has picked out sixteen songs from the period 1994-2014 and re-recorded the lot live in the RCA Studios in Nashville, while filming the process for a CD/DVD package. The band for the sessions was Jared Tyler (dobro, electric guitar, lap steel and vocals), Dave Roe (upright bass and arco), Tammy Rogers (fiddle, mandolin and vocals), Ken Coomer (drums and percussion) Jelly Roll Johnson (harmonica) and Siobhan Maher-Kennedy (vocals), all regular contributors to Malcolm’s work, plus Maura O’Connell who duets on the final track, “A Far Cry from Here”.

This collection weaves its way through various instrumental settings, from the intimate Malcolm Holcombe/Jared Tyler configuration on “Doncha Miss that Water” (with a hint of Jackson Browne and David Lindley) to the full country band sound of “My Ol’ Radio”, the riff-based country rock of “To Drink the Rain” and the two songs featuring Jelly Roll Johnson’s harmonica, “Mister in Morgantown” and “Mouth Harp Man”.

There’s a melancholy lyrical feel to most of the album, from the mournful mood of “The Empty Jar” to the world-weary nostalgia of “Early Mornin’” and “Goin’ Home”. There’s a bit of social comment (“Down the River”) and even a parable (“I Call the Shots”), showing a wide range of subjects and lyrical styles. The imagery is never ornate or flowery; this is the poetry of everyday (and sometimes bone-grindingly hard) life; warts ‘n’ all with no airbrushing, but also incredibly powerful, honest and moving.

The songs on “The RCA Sessions”, selected from the work of twenty years, are strong, potent and evocative and paint a picture of someone who’s lived a life and just managed to survive it. At times you feel he squeezes so much of himself into the songs, you wonder if he can make it to the bridge, never mind to the end of the song, but you could often say that about Neil Young, Tom Waits and Bob Dylan as well. Anyway, Lucinda Williams and Justin Townes Earle are fans and I’m sure their recommendation counts for a lot more than mine.

“The RCA Sessions” is out on June 22 on Singular Recordings/Gypsy Eyes Music.