Mean Mary, or Mary James if you like, is a whole bunch of interesting characters. There’s Mary James the multi-instrumentalist (with banjo at the forefront), Mary James the singer-songwriter and Mary James the author, just for a start. She’s also the sister of gifted twelve-string guitar player Frank James and daughter of author and songwriter Jean James. All of these facets of Mary James are pulled together in ‘Portrait of a Woman (Part 1)’, which should be followed by Part 2 in September 2023. The first part highlights Mary’s many talents, featuring banjo and violin instrumentals (‘Merry Eyes and ‘Butterfly Sky’), songs that tell stories, songs of life as a touring musician and a few songs that hint at some kind of supernatural menace. It’s a pretty comprehensive package.

The album opens with a powerful display of Mary’s strengths; it’s a full band piece featuring Mary’s vocals, guitar and banjo, Frank’s twelve-string and vocals and it’s a co-write with Mary’s mum. ‘Cranberry Gown’ is a story song set in a traditional folk styling, telling a tale of one important symbol that can make a world of difference to a life of drudgery. The song is circular; the gown is lost and then found again, and self-esteem is restored. The album’s second song ‘Bridge Out’ is a humorous take on life on the road, bringing out the interaction that characterises Mary and Frank’s live performances, with Frank cast as the gloomy, unrecognised sideman. It’s a bit of fun underpinned by some serious observations about the pressures of life as a touring musician.

The touring musician theme reappears on ‘Big Tour Bus’ , featured on Mary’s 2020 album, ‘Alone’, which takes a more serious look at the pressures on travelling musicians from a female point of view. If you’ve heard solo female musicians talk or sing about life on the road, you’ll recognise the story Mary tells. It’s not just difficult, it can be dangerous out there.

Of the remaining songs, there are a few personal standouts. ‘Bette Come Back’ is a real story-teller’s song, building up a brooding intensity about the whereabouts of Bette, who has disappeared during a storm. The turnaround is that Bette is a cat frightened by the thunder who has hidden under the bed. The traditional, folky, ‘Old Banjo’ is on the same theme as ‘Cranberry Gown’; everything will be all right as long as the banjo is there. ‘Only Time to Pray’ conveys a sense of menace from the bowed upright bass notes of the intro, while the album’s closing song ‘Clouds Roll By’ displays Mary’s vocal range in a love and escape song that gently evokes The Band.

This album gives a good idea of the breadth of Mary’s talents, from the breath-taking banjo playing, through the vocal versatility to the quality of the songs she creates on her own and with her mother Jean. Give it a listen and try to catch her live if you can.

‘Portrait of A Woman (Part 1)’ is out now on Woodrock Records (WDRK-4303).

Here’s the video for ‘Cranberry Gown’:

Michael McDermott isn’t making life easy – every year he releases an album (sometimes even two) that grabs your attention immediately with quality of the songwriting, the quality of the playing and arrangements, and the sheer variety of influences from the classic American pop/rock songbook. The difficulty lies in trying to think of something new to say about this steady sequence of excellence. There are some easy comparisons to make, but when all of those have already been made, it’s a challenge to know where to go next. I guess it’s safe to say that ‘St Paul’s Boulevard’ is a continuation of the winning sequence; it’s a classic album that would be huge if we still had a significant market for albums.

There’s a narrative running through Michael’s work since The Westies ‘Six on the Out’ of degradation, recovery and redemption. ‘St Paul’s Boulevard’ feels like a postscript to that narrative, looking back to the lowest of times with clear-eyed detachment and looking forward to the future with technicolour optimism. As you would expect from a Michael McDermott album, ‘St Paul’s Boulevard’ is packed with historical, geographical, mythological, literary, biblical and popular culture references, particularly ‘Marlowe’ which is a nod in the direction of Deacon Blue’s ‘Real Gone Kid’ and a tribute to Raymond Chandler’s sleuth Philip Marlowe.

The arrangement of title song is a slow builder; the ambient intro with slide and piano gradually fills out into a full band sound as the various characters in the story make their brief appearance. The Boulevard is that place we have in our history that’s full of possibility for triumph or tragedy; the place where we met characters that would have positive and negative impacts on our lives. There are a few references to heroes on the album and the most telling is probably in this song: “None of the heroes around here have capes, they’re just talking in taverns and on fire escapes”.

Michael McDermott isn’t afraid of throwing in musical or lyrical references; ‘Where the Light Gets In” has a hint of Coldplay’s ‘Higher Power” and the obvious Leonard Cohen reference, while there’s plenty of chiming guitar in Byrds/Tom Petty/Flaming Groovies style. While we’re on the subject of guitars, a true master of the fretted stringed instrument plays on the album and any project featuring Will Kimbrough is going to be good; he plays guitar, mandolin and banjo across the album.

‘St Paul’s Boulevard’ is another powerful Michael McDermott album that blends musical references from folk, soul, country, rock and other areas to produce an album that looks back to difficult times but also looks forward with optimism (“Peace, lave and brilliant colours to you all”). It’s a celebration of this moment and the moments to come.

‘St Paul’s Boulevard’ is out now on Pauper Sky Records (PSR010).

Here’s the video for the album’s final track, ‘Paris’:

Just in case you missed this particular piece of news, the wonderful Rachael Sage is back in the UK for a summer tour this year. Rachael’s a fascinating singer-songwriter who combines very danceable songs in a style that she defines as “colourful chamber pop” with darker, more melancholic and introspective material drawing on her experience of New York life and pulling in references to her heritage and experiences. She’s an incredibly interesting and engaging performer. I’m always happy to go to a Rachael Sage gig, wherever she plays. As an added bonus, Rachael’s joined on this tour by violin player and long-time collaborator Kelly Halloran, who adds an extra dimension to Rachael’s performances both musically and visually. They’re a stunning combination.

For anyone in London, Rachael plays the legendary Troubadour on Wednesday July 6th as the second date of her UK tour and you can get tickets here. See you there.

Here’s the tour schedule:

And, as a bonus, here’s a photo of Kelly Halloran playing when Rachael supported Howard Jones at Union Chapel in 2017:

Here’s a strange coincidence for you. A couple of weeks ago I was talking to a couple of ex-members of Curse of Lono at a gig they were playing and we got to talking about the tour they did in support of Southside Johnny in 2019 and how much they were impressed by the band. Fast forward two weeks and I get press release telling me that the latest Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes album debuted at No. 5 in the Billboard Blues Chart. It may be the latest album, but ‘Southside Johnny and the Asbury Jukes Live in Cleveland ‘77’ was actually recorded forty-five years ago live at The Agora Ballroom and Theatre in Cleveland, Ohio, at a time when Cleveland was a major centre for rock music and The Jukes were on the up after two albums on Epic and a helpful Asbury Park association with Bruce Springsteen.

The album’s a fascinating snapshot of a band that was probably hitting its peak (and still has a loyal following to this day). The sound is big, with the full rock band augmented by a horn section packing a mighty punch and a singer with the voice to cut through the tight arrangements. It was a sound that you couldn’t ignore, combining elements of rock and soul and delivered with style and swagger. The opening song on the album, ‘This Time It’s for Real’ is a perfect example of the sound and the energy of The Jukes at that time. Have a listen:

The set on the night was a typical mixture of Jukes originals (mainly written by Steve van Zandt and Bruce Springsteen) and well-chosen covers including a version of Billy Joel’s ‘Goodbye to Hollywood’ featuring Ronnie Spector (who had featured on the Jukes’ first album ‘I Don’t Want to Go Home’). The album’s a great example of how a live album should sound and captures the energy and raw power of a big band at the top of their game. It’s a pity it took so long to unearth, but it’s a rare gem for Jukes fans and maybe it can bring a few more into the fold.

If you want to buy this classic live album, you can find the CD it on Cleveland International Records or Amazon and the vinyl will be available later in the year.

And meanwhile, The Jukes carry on the good work. There’s only Johnny left from the original line-up, but the current band has been together for about ten years and they’re still an awesome live experience. Here’s a shot of Johnny from a London gig at Kentish Town Forum almost exactly five years ago:

Copyright Allan McKay