Sure, the melodies and the arrangements are important; they must be if Neilson Hubbard and Will Kimbrough are involved, but with Rod Picott, the stories are always front and centre. “Out Past the Wires” is no exception, in fact it takes the narratives a step further. In addition to the album, Rod’s also publishing a book exploring the stories of some of the characters that appear on the album. Listen to the beautifully-crafted vignettes studded through the twenty-two songs (that’s right twenty-two songs; hope you brought a packed lunch for this one) and you feel that you’re just scratching the surface of their lives. The ageing racer in “Primer Gray”, the teen queen in “Hard Luck Baby”, the struggling musician in “Straight Job” and the labourer in “Store Bought”; you really want to know the back story, or where they move on to outside this particular moment. Listen to the album(s) and it all makes perfect sense.

Credit where it’s due to the other musicians on the album as well (Lex Price, Evan Hutchings and Kris Donegan) for creating settings that allow the songs to sparkle and shine, whether they’re sprinkled with underplayed atmospherics or a full-on, full-band workout. Whether the backing is a gently finger-picked acoustic, intertwined electric guitars, Lennonesque harmonica or a brooding rock feel with heavily-reverbed guitar. And then there’s Rod Picott’s voice, weaving its raw fibres through the fabric of the songs to conjure up passion, pain and even aspiration. He even manages to ease back to mellow with a touch of falsetto on “Blanket of Stars”.

At a time when ten-song albums are becoming increasingly common and EP or double EP is rearing its ugly head, it’s an utterly audacious move to release a double album, but it works. The standard of the songs is uniformly high across he two discs, but I’m going to hit you with a few that caught my personal sweet spot. “Primer Gray” evokes “Nebraska”/”The River” era Springsteen with the battered car symbolising the central character, “Hard Luck Baby” spins the downward spiral from teen beauty into drudgery and “The Shape of You” is a lovely poetic take on the void left in a life when a relationship ends. Listen for yourself; the choice is huge and I won’t be offended if you disagree with my choices.

“Out Past the Wires” is released on Friday February 16th on Welding Rod Records (CD, LP or download).

If you want to see Rod live, he’s touring Europe and the UK from March.

Here’s a little taster for you:

It’s about time we had a new album from Dean Owens, isn’t it? It’s been two and a half years since “Into the Sea”, not that he’s been resting on his considerable laurels, that’s not his style. He’s been involved in production, collaboration and loads of touring and somehow managed to fit the “Southern Wind” sessions in to the mix. Although the album’s released under Dean’s name, it’s fair to say that it’s more of a collaboration with his guitar-slinger of choice (and mine), Will Kimbrough. The musicians and production team are Dean’s regular Nashville crew and they all do the usual superb job, but the creative thread running through the centre is “Southern Wind” is the Owens/Kimbrough partnership.

They bonded over, among other things, a mutual love of Ronnie Lane and that’s the starting point for the album. “Last Song”, the album’s opener, wouldn’t feel out of place on any of the Faces albums with its loose rock feel and characteristic melodic basslines. It’s an homage and a tribute and it’s loads of fun; proof that Dean and Will can write an upbeat song (and it’s not the only one on the album).

Although the title track and “No Way Around It” have a slightly menacing Delta feel, “Southern Wind” still has very strong sense of time and place in twenty-first century Scotland and the stories of its inhabitants in difficult social and personal circumstances. “Elvis Was my Brother”, “When the Whisky’s not Enough” and “Bad News” all fit into this category, while “Famous Last Words” is a typical Dean Owens slant on the longest day of the year; that things can only get worse from here on in. Nights are fair drawin’ in, eh? “Anything Helps”, another Will Kimbrough co-write, fits neatly in to this little group with its Ronnie Lane solo era stylings and one of the album’s greatest lines ‘Took a swing at life and missed’.

There’s a place here for the intensely personal as well; the gorgeous “Madeira Street” looks back to more innocent times through a prism of grief and celebration, while “Louisville Lip” celebrates the life of Dean’s hero Muhammad Ali. “Mother” is a light-hearted sixties pastiche (just imagine it on the soundtrack to “Inspector George Gently” or “Call the Midwife”) with clipped guitar and a hint of Phil and Don, while “Love Prevails”, closing the album, channels The Chordettes’ “Born to be With You”, particularly in Will Kimbrough’s laid-back solo.

Dean Owens has that rare poetic ability to fashion perfect songs from life’s everyday stories and the ability to deliver powerful, plaintive performances of those songs. On this album, the partnership with Will Kimbrough and producer Neilson Hubbard has created perfect settings for both the melancholy and the upbeat songs. ”Southern Wind” is a fine piece of work from one of Scotland’s finest songwriters.

“Southern Wind” is released on Friday February 16 on At the Helm Records.

 And here’s a special little treat for you:

Let’s start 2018 in the traditional way by dusting off the Riot Squad crystal ball and having a peek into the next few months to see what we have to look forward to. As always, in no particular order.

After an absence of a couple of years to deal with serious health issues, Phil Burdett’s back in business again and firing out creative sparks in all directions. The action starts on Saturday January 27th at The Dickens in Southend with the launch gig for Phil’s latest album, “Psychopastoral”. He’ll be backed by the sublime Phil Burdett Group and the support band will be Winter. But that’s just the start; Phil has big plans for the rest of the year, including recording a double album of the songs written while he was in hospital, working on an art/film project and completing a book of poetry and a novel. We’ve got an interview with him coming up in the near future, so just watch this space. (Breaking news on this, Phil’s currently looking for a new venue for the gig on the 27th after The Dickens closed down over Christmas).

 

While we’re on the subject of grand ambitions, let me tell you about Martin Harley. He’s doing a three week tour of the UK with upright bass player extraordinaire Daniel Kimbro. They work together perfectly as a duo, both live and in the studio. The songwriting’s first class, the playing’s perfect and the harmonies are superb; even the chat between songs is interesting and often hilarious. Anyway, one of Martin’s ambitions is to play the Union Chapel in Islington, so he’s booked it for the last night of the tour on Saturday March 10th and he’s promoting the gig himself. It’s the perfect venue for Martin’s music and the Riot Squad will be out in force to support such a brave venture.

 

Another musical partnership we’ve been following for some time is Dean Owens and Will Kimbrough. Will’s guitar playing is in high demand; I lost count of the albums I reviewed in 2017 that featured Will’s playing, but he’s built a special relationship with Dean that’s led to a full-scale collaboration on their latest album “Southern Wind”. We’ve had some sneak previews here and we’ll be reviewing it in the next couple of weeks ahead of the official release date of Friday February 16 on At The Helm Records. You’ll love it.

 

2017 saw the release of the ‘lost’ PP Arnold album and the announcement she’s going to be making an album this year at Paul Weller’s Black Barn studio. It’s fantastic that “The Turning Tide” has finally been found, but even better that Pat is actually making original music again. And there’s plenty of speculation round the water cooler here at Riot towers about possible guest appearances and collaborations on the new album.

 

Finally, and this is specifically a London thing for the moment, late January will see the launch of Talentbanq, the latest venture for Ray Jones. Ray, former Development Director at Time Out has a passion for music that would shame most journalists and he’s always been willing to put a lot of time and effort into promoting new talent. Now that he’s no longer at Time Out he’s focussing his energies on promoting up-and-coming artists with Talentbanq. We’re still waiting for more details, but we do know that it’s going to be an interesting ride.

 

We’ve been keeping Allan really busy this year forcing him to go and listen to loads of live music and take pictures of musicians. We really don’t know why he puts up with it. To show how grateful he is, he’s put together a highlights package of his favourite gigs this yeqr, in no particular order. We think it’s a sneaky way of shoehorning more of his photos in.

Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro at Camden Forge – I’ve seen Martin Harley and Daniel Kimbro before. They’re stunningly good individually, but more so as a team; the two voices, Daniel’s upright bass and Martin’s acoustic guitar and Weissenborn are a perfect combination. Even the verbal sparring between songs adds to the entertainment. As an added bonus, The Forge has a gallery overlooking the stage that they allow polite photographers to use, which gives a unique view of instruments played on the lap. The two sets flew by as the moved seamlessly from originals like “Winter Coat” to energetic covers like “Nobody’s Fault but Mine” and Tom Waits’ “Chocolate Jesus”. I knew it was special when I looked at my gig-buddy Paul and saw him staring in awe during one of Martin’s solos – he’s not easily impressed and that’s high praise indeed. Great songs and great performances.

Martin Harley

 

Hannah Aldridge and Dana Immanuel & The Stolen Band @What’s Cookin’ – It’s an interesting venue in a room above a working men’s club in Leytonstone, but it’s only a bus ride away from home, so it’s a no-brainer. Now, I take every opportunity to see Hannah Aldridge. She’s a gifted songwriter with a powerful Southern rock voice and she’s someone I love to photograph because she has a different visual image every time. The night looked even better when I discovered that the headliners hadn’t turned up and the short-notice replacement was Dana Immanuel. Hannah did a great job, picking songs from her latest album “Gold Rush” and a few old favourites to win over the crowd and even managed to fit in a bit of audience participation during “Burning Down Birmingham” and then it was time for Dana Immanuel. The instrumentation of the all-female line-up gives a hint of the eclecticism to come – cajon, electric guitar, banjo, fiddle and upright bass. It’s part country, part klezmer, part pop, part rock – you name it. Dana’s own songs have a very original voice and she doesn’t mind throwing in a cover or two including a mad closing version of “Viva Las Vegas” and “Chocolate Jesus” (again). The band was so good, I booked them to play at my birthday party.

Hannah Aldridge

Michael McDermott & Heather Horton @Water Rats – You can find Michael McDermott’s history online; it’s worth reading because it gives some clues about the origins of his most recent songs. The two albums he released in 2016 are superb, one focussing on prison, addiction and the road to recovery, the other dealing more with life in the present as a sober father and husband. I’d seen Michael before playing a solo show, but this was great opportunity to see him with his wife Heather, who also did a support set. The addition of Heather’s vocals and fiddle to Michael’s vocals, piano and guitar added another dimension to the songs adding poignancy to “Shadow in the Window” energy to “Stolen Car” and joy and exuberance to “Willie Rain”. Michael’s a great songwriter in the mould of Dylan and Springsteen (with a bit of the Boss’s penchant for the wide screen) and working with Heather he creates a very intense performance. I’m guessing he’ll be back in the UK in 2018; you really should make the effort to see him.

Michael McDermott

Brigitte DeMeyer & Will Kimbrough with Dean Owens @Green Note – A big night out for the Riot Squad, this one. Brigitte and Will are long-time songwriting partners and Dean and Will have collaborated on an album to be released in 2018. For fans of trivia and connections, Will also played on Michael McDermott’s Westies album “Six on the Out”. Dean played his usual excellent set with a little help from the headliners before Will and Brigitte did their thing. Will’s known as an extraordinary guitar player with a huge list of session credits, but he also has a great line in high harmonies – I’ve been lucky with the talented partnerships I’ve seen this year. The set featured mainly songs from the latest album and was a masterclass in understated delivery of great songs, particularly when they were joined by Dean for some beautiful three-part harmonies. Absolutely gorgeous.

Brigitte DeMeyer

Henrik Freischlader @The Borderline – This was the second time in a year I had seen Henrik, and it was very different. Earlier in the year it was as part of a trio playing some intense blues rock as a tribute to Gary Moore, this time it was as part of an eight-piece band out to have a good time, play a few originals, a lot of covers and generally take the focus away from Henrik by giving the whole band a little bit of the limelight. Every band member was either given an extended solo or featured vocal and a chance to show what they could really do, and they each grabbed it with both hands. It was one of those gigs where everyone, band and audience, could do nothing but grin all the way home. A pretty good result considering the band couldn’t get their gear truck into the load in, had to hire equipment locally and didn’t get a soundcheck. That’s how the pros deals with setbacks.

Editor’s note – Martin Harley has booked The Union Chapel to promote his own gig on Saturday March 10th. He’s taking a huge risk to play a venue he’s always wanted to play and we think he deserves some support. The Riot Squad will be there, we’re hoping you will too.

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.

4PAN1TI’m not going to keep you in suspense; I love this album, it’s a very beautiful piece of work. It’s eleven very special songs (more about that later) interpreted by some very gifted musicians that we’ve reviewed over the last few years here (how about Will Kimbrough, Neilson Hubbard and Telisha Williams for starters, not forgetting Carrie’s husband Danny Schmidt). “The Penny Collector” is a set of songs created during a pivotal period for Carrie Elkin that focus on the circle of life; birth, childhood, adolescence (and rebellion), adulthood and death. It’s built around some of popular culture’s timeless themes; family, nature, love and loss and framed by some of the most gorgeous musical settings you’ll hear this year (or possibly any other). There’s a huge variety of musical stylings across the album, pulled together by the quality of the songs and Carrie’s wonderful voice.

The album opens with some atmospheric, almost Ennio Morricone, ambient guitar noises (Will Kimbrough would be my guess) leading into “New Mexico” where the playing is quiet and delicate but the mix is loud; it’s minimal and intimate but in your face at the same time. It’s an indication that you might have to forget about conventions; “The Penny Collector” doesn’t play to any recognised rules.

Throughout the album, Carrie’s vocals are closely-miked and placed right up front and centre; it’s a technique that works when the singer has perfect control, which Carrie has, totally and utterly. There’s a rich poetical seam running through the album (with references to nature, particularly birds), and it’s particularly evident in the adolescent rebellion song “Live Wire” with the line ‘A life half-empty is a life half-spilled’. There’s plenty more to discover but I don’t want to spoil it for you.

As for the musical settings, “Always on the Run” builds up to a Spectoresque climax, the melancholy “Crying Out” is played out over a string section and perfect layers of vocal harmonies and the album’s finale “Lamp of the Body” is a heavily reverbed mixture of mandolin, over-driven guitar and counterpoint vocals creating a sound that’s menacing and gospel-tinged in equal measures.

“The Penny Collector” is a potent mix of Southern American poetry, perfectly subverted musical settings and beautifully controlled vocals. It’ll make you reflect on your own life; the choices you made, the experiences you had, and the support you had from your family and friends. It’s a gorgeous album.

“The Penny Collector” is released on Friday April 7th (CECD07).

Mockingbird Soul ScrollerApparently they’ve worked together and been friends for years, Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer, and their first duo album “Mockingbird Soul” was the logical place for that friendship and working partnership to go. As a duo, they’re a formidable force; both have outstanding voices and long pedigrees as songwriters and Will Kimbrough has a reputation as a master of pretty much any fretted instrument. If he played fiddle, we’d be comparing him to David Lindley (or maybe he does and he’s kept it quiet). That’s an awful lot of talent shared between just two people. And shared is exactly the right word; the songwriting’s shared in all sorts of combinations (with the exception of the Incredible String Band cover, “October Song”) and the lead vocals are shared. Did I mention the harmonies? They’re gorgeous.

With a few exceptions here and there, this is just about two voices and Will Kimbrough’s array of stringed instruments and harmonica (did I forget to mention that?). It’s not a big production number, it’s all about capturing the magic of two artists working together, doing what they do best and having fun. Brigitte’s the acknowledged singer of the pair and takes most of the lead vocals, sounding equally at home with the gospel feel of the title track and raw acoustic country/soul hybrid of “Rainy Day” which is part Bobbie Gentry/part Dusty Springfield.

The duets, including the opener “Everything”, are close harmony at its very best; the two voices apparently locked together through the melodic twists and turns. The lovely “I Can Hear Your Voice” is a perfect example, the harmonies emphasising the song’s message of wisdom passed on from generation to generation. And there are a couple of Will Kimbrough lead vocals as well, just to show that it’s not just about guitars and harmonies. He has a strong voice in the high tenor range, which has more than a hint of Randy Meisner and works perfectly on the country rock of “Broken Fences” and swamp ragtime of “Running Round”.

The album’s a great demonstration of everything that Will Kimbrough and Brigitte DeMeyer do so well; strong songs across a variety of roots styles, outstanding vocal performances and playing that’s often understated but always superb. Predictably, I’m going to say that you should see them live, and you’re lucky because they’re in the UK to support the album in March and they’ll be playing these dates:

Thursday March 23                         The Kenlis Arms, Barnacre, near Garstang

Friday March 24                               The Argyll Hotel, Glasgow

Saturday March 25                         Haile Village, Cumbria

Monday March 27                          Green Note, Camden

Tuesday March 28                          Kingsmead House Concerts, High Wycombe

Wednesday March 29                    St John’s Church Music Club, Farncombe, Surrey

Friday March 31                              St George’s Hall, Bewdley, Worcestershire

“Mockingbird Soul” is released in the UK on Friday February 17 on BDM Music.

02) Dean OwensOne 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:

Willow Springs ScrollerIt’s only a few weeks since I was raving about the latest album from Michael McDermott’s band The Westies and he’s now releasing an album under his own name using most of the same musicians that played on The Westies album. Let me just cut straight to the chase here and say that “Willow Springs” is every bit as good as “Six on the Out”. It’s packed with powerful songs and creative but unfussy playing from Heather Horton, Will Kimbrough and John Deaderick; it’s every bit as powerful as “Six on the Out”, but “Willow Springs” is a very different musical approach to similar themes.

The album has a more intimate feel than the companion piece by The Westies; the album credits don’t list a drummer and although “Let A Little Light In” has all the punch of a mid-eighties Springsteen anthem, it’s not typical of the album. There’s a lot of acoustic guitar, banjo, fiddle and harmonica, but also some subversive touches like adding synth pads to fill out the sound. There’s a desire not to be stereotyped and packaged, which is explicit in “Folksinger” particularly.

“Willow Springs” is, more than anything else, a deeply personal album, springing from a turbulent period around the death of Michael McDermott’s father. There are references to his heritage on “Six on the Out”, but here it’s right out in the open. “Shadow in the Window” is a painful look at the death of a parent and the soul-searching that follows in its wake. The song ends with the keening repetition of ‘I Love you’ gradually fading and slowing before “Willie Rain” opens with the spoken ‘I love you Daddy’ leading in to a relentlessly upbeat stringband arrangement of a song about his daughter. Placing the two songs together demonstrates the circle of life and the ultimately uplifting feel of the album. There are sombre tales, plumbing the depths of addiction (“Butterfly”) and small-time larceny (“Getaway Car”), but the final two songs of the album both look to the future with optimism.

It’s almost inevitable that Michael McDermott will be compared with Dylan, Springsteen and others; maybe that’s flattering but it’s not the whole picture. When he writes, sometimes in a very matter-of-fact way about gangsters, prison and drugs, you know it’s coming from first-hand experience. “Willow Springs” is the sound of that experience being processed and used up before moving on to the next stage; it never sounds less than authentic. Maybe the time has come for the next American songwriter.

“Willow Springs” is released on Friday July 22nd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records. Michael McDermott will be touring the UK later this year.

And if you won’t take my word for it, have a look at the video for the title track:

The Westies - 'Six On The Out' - cover (300dpi)It might be a bit premature to say this in May, but “Six on the Out” is already a strong candidate for my album of the year. Michael McDermott’s dark urban poetry of the dispossessed, the dying and the damned is big and ambitious piece of work. The characters that inhabit the songs live in a twilight zone where ‘The flawed and the favoured, the outlaws, the saviours, all work both sides of the line’ and there’s always a risk of paying with your liberty or your life. There are elements of autobiography, but they’re used as jumping-off points to create alternative pasts and futures where single decisions change the course of many lives. It’s harrowing and the pathos is almost unbearable at times; it’s the work of someone who’s been there and lived to tell the tale.

If you want to know where he’s been, have a look at the bio page on his website and you’ll start to get some idea. The core of The Westies is Michael McDermott and his wife Heather Horton, who plays fiddle and takes the lead vocal on the beautiful, sixties-sounding, “Like You Used To” which is immediately answered by McDermott’s exhilarating, Dylan-channelling “Everything is All I Want for You”. Along with the folky ballad “Henry McCarty”, McDermott’s take on the Billy the Kid story, the three songs in the middle of the album are an interlude offering a contrast with the despair of opening and closing songs.

The album opens with “If I Had a Gun”; subtly menacing acoustic and slide guitars create a brooding atmosphere for the first of several takes on the prisoner returning to society (“Parolee”, “Once Upon a Time”, “This I Know” and “Sirens” all explore different aspects of the same theme). It sets the tone for the album; you can deal with it, but you have to make the right choices. It’s only on the album’s bleak closer “Sirens” that McDermott allows the despair to triumph, but it’s only one of the possible outcomes of life in the margins; you can choose but the consequences are with you forever.

The musical stylings range from the full-band sound of “Pauper’s Sky” and “Santa Fe”, with drums and pounding bass evoking eighties American rock, to the lilting Celtic folk of the waltz-time “The Gang’s All Here” and the dovetail perfectly with the lyrical themes. Michael McDermott’s influences illuminate the album but he’s taken those and his own experiences to create a powerful piece of work that tells of desperate times and people without either condemning or praising. It’s not comfortable, and you’ll feel wrung out by the time “Sirens” ends but you’ll want to hear it again.

“Six on the Out” is released on June 3rd 2016 on Pauper Sky Records.

Michael McDermott will touring in the UK later in the year.