We’ve all been reminded over the last year that music is a social phenomenon. Musicians love to work together, in the same room, face to face. Most of them love to interact with audiences in the same way, up close and personal and we’ve missed out on that over the last ten months in the UK. But life goes on and we adapt; the conditions aren’t ideal but musicians are collaborating online and still producing great albums and singles. Rick Shea’s twelfth album “Love & Desperation” is one of those collaborations, started under fairly normal conditions in 2019 and completed under COVID conditions in 2020.

The playing throughout is subtle and understated; the album relies more on subtlety and nuance than technical wizardry for its impact (that and a tidy selection of songs across a range of styles, with a few little surprises thrown in) and some interesting song pairings across the album. The fact that Rick has a voice that bears comparison with Merle Haggard might also help a bit. There’s also a suggestion that, after forty years as a musician, Rick might be thinking about his legacy; there’s a hint of that with the inclusion of the moody and atmospheric Mexican noir story “Texas Lawyer”, which closes the album, which appears for the third time on one of Rick’s albums.

So, how about those pairs of songs? Well, “(Down at the Bar at) Gypsy Sally’s” (taking its title from Townes Van Zandt’s “Tecumseh Valley”) and “She Sang of the Earth” look at different diversions, one physical, the other spiritual, but equally temporary. The arrangements echo the themes for each song with a gentle country feel for “She Sang of the Earth” and a more sinister guitar and accordion-led styling for “Gipsy Sally’s”, which instantly evokes the Doors’ “People Are Strange”; and that’s appropriate given the list of characters that populate the song.

“Gipsy Sally’s” neatly ties in with “The World’s Gone Crazy”, tying in the Doors instrumental style to the lyrical style and structure of a gospel song; it’s another example of the album’s eclecticism, from the standard slow blues of “Blues at Midnight” to the mariachi polka of “Juanita (Why Are You So Mean?)”. The musical variety of the songs is matched by the range of lyrical themes from the album. There’s the love song “A Tenderhearted Love”, which Rick felt he owed his wife, the references to the harshness of Nashville in the title song “Nashville Blues”, and the environmental and social concerns of ”Big Rain is Comin’ Mama”.

There’s plenty of love running through this album; love for music, love for family and love for the world and, honestly, very little desperation. If this is Rick Shea’s shot at a career-defining album, then it might just have done the trick.

“Love & Desperation” is released in the UK on Friday February 12th on Tres Pescadores Records (TPCD-12).

Here’s the video for “The World’s Gone Crazy”:

Keegan McInroe ScrollerKeegan McInroe seems pretty relaxed about the whole process of touring, in fact he seems pretty relaxed all round. If you listen to his latest album, “Uncouth Pilgrims”, you’ll know that he’s travelled extensively and used his experiences to create some great songs. It’s obvious from the moment you open the door of The Lighthouse on Battersea Park Road that it’s not the ideal gig for a singer/songwriter. It’s Friday night, noisy and full of the ‘few beers after work’ crowd, but Keegan doesn’t seem too bothered; it’s a gig he’s done since his first tour here in 2004 even though the pub has changed hands and function since then. Having a quick chat before the gig, he’s remarkably unfazed by the audience, explaining that he’ll just play a few more covers than usual and some of the songs from the new album.

And that’s just what he did. His own material, mainly from the new album, was slotted fairly evenly into the two sets and included “Lumberjack Blues”, “Give Me the Rain”, “I Got Trouble”, “Flower Song for Barefoot Dancers”, “Nikolina” and “Lay Down”. The stripped-down versions worked beautifully live and the audience didn’t distract too much; there was even a fair smattering of applause around the room.

As for the covers, well, he didn’t put a foot wrong; he even played a couple of unexpected old favourites of mine. There were songs by the songwriting giants (Tom Waits, Townes Van Zandt, Willie Nelson, Neil Young and a tribute to Merle Haggard) and a few less predictable choices. Only three songs in, he made the brave choice of tackling Hoagy Carmichael’s “Georgia” and, despite a fairly noisy crowd, he made it work. The more esoteric song choices added the spice that made the evening unique; Stevie Ray Vaughan’s “Life by the Drop” and Warren Zevon’s “Carmelita” (both stories of addiction) introduced an element of pathos, while Muddy Waters’ “Champagne and Reefer” and Elmore James’ “Dust My Broom” (which closed the second set) gave Keegan the chance to demonstrate his blues licks.

If this gig had been in an established ‘listening room’, the audience chatter would have been hugely distracting, but it was a free gig in a local pub and Keegan took a pragmatic view of the situation, playing to the people who were interested and tuning out those who weren’t. His own songs are well crafted and worked perfectly in the stripped-down format. He’s also a really nice guy.

Uncouth Pilgrims” is released on Friday May 27th