You can’t deny that the last couple of years have been difficult times for musicians, but the creative impulse won’t be stifled. Artists will take the clay that’s available and use it to fashion their creations. The Trump years spawned many memorable albums, then musicians found different ways of working through a pandemic with very little personal interaction to help the process. Steve Dawson’s raw material for “At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” came from a different place. Following a family tragedy, he took an extended sabbatical to decide whether he wanted to continue writing and performing. A songwriting retreat with Richard Thompson and Patty Griffin gave him the answer he needed and he found his clay (mainly) in his own personal experiences.

The album’s quite unusual in that it’s almost entirely the work of Steve Dawson; there are no co-writes or covers and only three other musicians make cameo appearances. Apart from Alton Smith’s piano on a couple of songs, Michael Miles’ banjo on “The Spaces In Between” and a Diane Christiansen vocal on “We Are Walking in a Forest”, every hook, lick and vocal is Steve Dawson. Quite apart from the instrumental versatility, showcases Steve’s vocal range from the easy, languid tenor into high falsetto. Steve’s voice evokes the classic American west coast country rock bands, sounding at times like Don Henley or Randy Meisner and there’s the occasional nod in the direction of Jackson Browne as the album pulls off the trick of sounding vaguely familiar while constantly introducing new ideas and sounds.

The settings for the songs are pretty laid-back, with nods towards sixties/seventies soul in “This Is All There Is”, psychedelia in “Beautiful Mathematics”, Crazy Horse in the title track and Jackson Browne on “Hard Time Friend”, which has a breakdown and restart two-thirds of the way through that feels a lot like the last section of JB’s “The Late Show” (one of Springsteen’s favourite recorded moments). The musical settings are incredibly varied, with some interesting keyboard instruments appearing (mellotron and dulcimer for a start), creating the perfect ambience for each of the songs.

The album could easily have been a fairly depressing experience, with songs about COVID deaths and forced positivity (“This Is All There Is”), dysfunctional families (“She Knew”) and the limitations of the forgiving gesture (“Forgiveness is Nothing Like I thought it Would Be”), but Steve leavens the mixture with the resoundingly upbeat “22 Rubber Bands”, a song about his love for his daughter, and “Hard Time Friend”, dedicated to his friend Diane Christiansen, celebrating the friends who are with us through times that are good or bad, happy or sad. There are two bonus CD and download songs which didn’t make the vinyl cut for reasons that have nothing to do with quality; “You’re Trying Too Hard”, which nails fake authenticity, and “However Long it Takes”, a reminder that we can always choose to see the good things in the world rather than the negativity which so often surrounds us.

Twelve tracks, fourteen if you buy the CD or download, and each one with an interesting arrangement and lyrics conveying ideas that are important to Steve Dawson, as they should be to all of us. It’s ironic to think that this bunch of songs were created by someone who had started to doubt his creative abilities.

“At the Bottom of a Canyon in the Branches of a Tree” is released on Pravda Records (PR6419) on Friday July 16th.

Here’s the animated video for “22 Rubber Bands”:

It’s drizzling, freezing and absolutely miserable in the UK at the moment, so that would be the perfect time to listen to an album straight out of 1970s Laurel Canyon via 2020s British Columbia. There are more influences on the album than the Jackson Browne/Eagles/Linda Ronstadt coterie but the album still glows with sunshine of The Golden State, even though its creators Heather Read and Jonny Miller have fairly nebulous Californian connections but, hey, the first two Eagles albums were produced by Glyn Johns at Olympic Studios in London, while Peach & Quiet’s “Just Beyond the Shine” was put together with the help of producer and multi-instrumentalist Steve Dawson in Nashville, Toronto, Vancouver and Victoria. All of the songs are written by Heather, Jonny or both apart from the album’s closer, “Seven Daffodils”, written by Lee Hays and Fran Moseley.

The sun breaks through from the opening notes of the Byrds/Tom Petty-inflected opener, “Empty to Fill” and its poetic exploration of the contradictions and complexity of human beings. From there it’s almost constant Oakley and Ray-Ban stuff, with the exception of the slightly menacing Southern-influenced “Shoreline After A Storm” likening a bad relationship to a storm – they can both inflict terrible damage and leave a messy aftermath. There’s a little hint of “I Put A Spell on You” in there as well.

The songwriting is superb throughout, from the fairly straightforward love song “There’s A Very Good Chance” with its lovely Everlys harmonies to the more complex “Flowers”, which is based on the children’s book “Mr Cat and the Little Girl” which deals with love and loss which has a folky Byrds styling with a relatively complex arrangement that even features a bit of glockenspiel, courtesy of Steve Dawson.

There are themes running though the album; lyrically it’s all about love, whether it’s love for a partner who’s on stage every night (“Lucky in Love”) or for a place (“California Way”). The song arrangements are in the Eagles/Linda Ronstadt mode with layers of electric and acoustic guitars and some absolutely gorgeous harmonies, either as duets or as multi-tracked layers. There’s absolutely nothing out of place on this album.

And, as I finish this review, there’s no rain, and the sun is shining; that was pretty impressive work, guys. This album’s combination of superbly-crafted songs and subtle Laurel Canyon-era  arrangements is the perfect antidote to winter on either side of the Atlantic.

“Just Beyond the Shine” is released on January 15th 2012 on Peach & Quiet Music (P&QCD001).

Here’s the video for “Empty to Fill”:

 

The Kennet and Avon Canal might not be the Mississippi Delta but Devizes, one of the towns it passes through, is the home of Joe Edwards, and its café and bar scene gave Joe the chance to develop his intimate style and delivery. My notes for this album use the word intimate a lot; actually, I use it an awful lot, because it sounds like it was recorded in an empty basement bar. The actual recording was tracked live over a period of ten days with Canadian guitarist and producer Steve Dawson adding various slide instruments to the mix. The album’s mostly blues-based, although the uplifting title song is closer to uptempo country with a full band including organ and pedal steel.

The stripped-back and laid-back production and tasteful playing might not be to everyone’s taste, but there’s no doubt about the quality of the playing on “Keep On Running”,  and Joe’s vocals are strong and distinctive on both the slow and the uptempo songs. On a couple of songs on the album, particularly “Trouble”, Joe sounds a lot like Gerry Rafferty on the “City to City” album. If your thing is bluesy songs played with lots of feel and no grandstanding, then this album should be just right for you.

“Keep On Running” is released in the UK on Tiny Mountain Records (TMRCD101) on May 22nd.

This album is like a sea-breeze on a hot summer’s day; it’s cooling and soothing, and once it starts, you don’t want it to stop. Canadian Maya Rae isn’t eighteen yet and she’s already been singing professionally for six years. Six years! She recorded her first album of jazz covers at the age of thirteen, but this is an entirely different beast; it’s a batch of songs co-written with her brother Evan that display a remarkable maturity while still retaining a sense of wonder and innocence. They’re delivered by a set of highly-accomplished musicians, and the end of result is my favourite new album of the year so far. If your interest has been piqued by what you’ve read so far, check out some of the Spotify song links as well. If you want a few quick and easy reference points, try early Joni Mitchell, Norah Jones and maybe even (completely coincidentally) the first Corinne Bailey Rae album.

You would expect someone who’s been singing professionally since the age of twelve to have a good voice and you won’t be disappointed. Maya’s voice is rich and clear, and she has an impressive range as well. We all know that often that isn’t enough; you need the right team and usually you need a good throw of the dice at some point.

This album came about as a result of Maya sending a demo to Canadian uber-producer Steve Dawson, who managed to pull a bunch of musicians together in Nashville to record the album in just three days. The result sounds anything but rushed; it all fits into place perfectly and the arrangements create the perfect picture-frame for all of the delicately-crafted songs. And there are so many insidious hooks. Whether they’re the work of Steve Dawson or the musicians involved in the project, I don’t know, but each one pulls you in to the song, and they come from all directions, violin, guitar, organ, synthesiser; you name it.

I recommend that you give the entire album a listen, but if you twisted my arm, my favourites would be the incredibly catchy opener “Can You See Me”, which talks about the masks we wear to hide our true selves, the optimistic “The Sun Will Come Out Again” and the sinuously funky, Bill Withers-esque, groove of “New to Me”. I could go on, but I really want you to listen to the whole album and then buy it. This classy bunch of songs, beautifully interpreted, and sung with such clarity and precision, is something your collection needs.

“Can You See Me?” is out now on Black Hen Records (BHCD0092).

Well, 2019 is certainly going out with a bang. In a period that’s normally characterised by back catalogue compilations and TV stars covering standards, the roots and Americana scene is still alive and kicking, particularly on Steve Dawson’s Black Hen label. “If Wishes Were Horses” is Alberta-based Matt Patershuk’s fourth album and it’s a very fine piece of work indeed. At first glance it appears to weigh in as a bit of a heavyweight with fifteen tracks, but it features four short instrumental fragments with the same leitmotif (more about that later), giving the album a fairly standard twelve-song running time.

Matt’s songs tend to simplicity on the surface, while tapping into universal truths about life, love, work and loss, but he likes to look at things through a different lens, lyrically and musically, creating a patchwork quality to the album, which is knitted together by the four short instrumental fragments (titled “Horses” and representing wishes). Each of these fragments weaves a different arrangement around a common melody; all are atmospheric with a cinematic quality using a variety of instruments and textures to create the links pulling the album together. “Horse 1 (For Bravery and Good Fortune)” is an interesting mix of Dick Dale and Ennio Morricone topped off with some very Sixties-sounding organ lines; the other wishes are equally enigmatic.

The album is packed with intriguing and memorable songs across a range of styles from old country to sweaty blues and it’s difficult to pick favourites, but let’s give it a try. The two songs telling stories of Ernest Tubb and Albert King (“Ernest Tubb had Fuzzy Slippers” and “Velvet Bulldozer”) are beautifully-drawn evocations of different stages in the musician’s journey. “Alberta Waltz” highlights the contrast between what people do to live and how they escape from it – ‘Dancing is for dreamers and lovers and fools’, while “Circus” describes a world where the everyday routine is grotesque and fantastical, but people still fall in love and get married. And let’s not forget “Let’s Give This Bottle A Black Eye”, which could only ever be a country song in the Merle Haggard vein.

“If Wishes Were Horses” is a satisfying complete album, featuring a great bunch of songs, superb arrangements and a voice that works perfectly across a range from slow country ballads to greasy Southern Blues. Matt Patershuk deserves to be much more widely known.

The album is released in the UK on Friday November 29th on Black Hen Music (BHMCD0090). In the meantime have a quick look at these videos:

Big Dave McLean is that rare thing – a prophet that is actually recognised in his country. In the same week that Southside Johnny was inducted into the New Jersey Hall of Fame, it’s been announced that Dave will receive an appointment to the Order of Canada. The comparison with Southside Johnny isn’t just plucked out of the air; they’re both people who are passionate about their music, they both love their blues and they both came to recording significant numbers of their own songs late in their careers. Dave has nine of his own compositions on “Pocket Full of Nothin’” alongside three covers and all of the originals have all earned their place. So you take all of that and add Black Hen’s Steve Dawson as player and producer and you already have something a bit special, but there’s a little bit more.

Not only was the band fully tooled-up for country and urban blues, but the addition of a horn section and Hammond added more of a Stax feel as well (I’m trying not to labour this, but hints of Southside Johnny again) and they were ready for the big one. You’ve got the songs, you’ve got the chemistry, why not just do the show right here kids? And they did; most of “Pocket Full of Nothin’” was recorded live on the studio floor over a few days, and because of that, it sounds fresh, almost raw, and dynamic. The arrangements sometimes feel a bit unusual (you don’t often hear resonators and horns together) but Dave’s raw country blues shouter voice pulls all of the elements together perfectly for this bunch of songs that takes the blues idiom as its jumping-off point on “Songs of the Blues” with a fairly smooth twelve-bar arrangement filled out with the horn section, contrasting with Dave’s rough-hewn voice. The styles pan out across the blues spectrum from the swampy Southern groove of “Don’t Be Layin’ That Stuff on Me” to the good time jump blues of “All-Day Party” and the raw country blues of “Pocket Full of Nothin’”.

Which is what you would expect from a lifelong blues player, except there’s a bit more. The album’s two closing songs, “Manitoba Mud”, in praise of the literal and metaphorical mud that pulls people to the city and keeps them there and the simple gospel-tinged optimism of “There Will Always Be a Change” bringing the album to a hopeful end.

This album moves Big Dave McLean from the role of respected bluesman to genuine songwriting talent.

“Pocket Full of Nothin’” is out now in the UK on Black Hen Music (BHCD0091).

If you’re looking for a reliable way of identifying quality roots and Americana, you could try looking for Black Hen Music or the name Steve Dawson on the label. Please don’t tell me you won’t get this information because you don’t buy music in physical formats; we might fall out. Kat Danser’s fifth album scores on both of these counts and, of course, it’s a cracking good listen. It’s an interesting mix of half uptempo electric songs and half in a more contemplative style with a huge variety of stylistic influences. Kat’s an academic ethnomusicologist (Dr Kat Danser, no less), but the approach to the material on this album is practical and pragmatic.

Each of the songs on the album sounds like it was intended to be played live. There’s very little in the way of studio trickery, just great arrangements and even better playing. It’s noticeable that each song has at least one solo and some have several. It’s a great way of keeping really good musicians motivated; play the meat and potatoes stuff and you get the opportunity to improvise and play your solos as well.

The album splits broadly into two halves; the first half uptempo and ranging across rockabilly, country, blues and Southern swamp grooves, while the second half is generally slower and with more of an introspective singer/songwriter feel. It’s also interesting that the first half is generally about movement, featuring trains and cars (OK, I know “Train I Ride” is in the second half of the album), while the second half deals with standing still, establishing roots and telling home truths about “My Town”.

There’s absolutely no shortage of great songs on “Goin’ Gone”; “Train I Ride” menaces with a “Smokestack Lightning” feel to the guitar riff and some close-miked saxophone, “Kansas City Blues” makes a nod in the direction of Chris Izaak, but the icing on the cake is “Memphis, Tennessee”, a swampy twelve-bar love song to the city that references the fabulous Mavis Staples. It doesn’t get a lot better than this.

“Goin’ Gone” is released on Friday October 12th on Black Hen Music (BHCD0087).

4panel_2halfmoonPockets_EcoWalletIt’s hard to reconcile the fourth Christa Couture album with its accompanying press release; if you’ve read about her personal history and you know that this is a break-up album, then you could be forgiven for expecting Leonard Cohen meets Jackson Browne, but “Long Time Leaving” certainly doesn’t fit that mould. Lyrically, it’s a very honest portrayal of a breakup, tapping in to all aspects of the end of a relationship, including the opportunities for experimentation presented to the newly-uncoupled. Even when a song’s subject matter’s dark, the musical arrangements can be quite upbeat, even jaunty, with an eclectic mix of musical stylings and a clear, intimate vocal hinting at early Joni Mitchell and Tori Amos.

The musicianship is superb throughout the album; Gary Craig (drums) and John Dymond (basses) along with producer Steve Dawson (guitars and keys) with a guest appearance from renowned Nashville fiddler Fats Kaplin, shift seamlessly from style to style as they build an evocative backdrop for Christa’s vocals. “Zookeeper” is a perfect example of this; the arrangement builds around a heavily reverbed guitar to create a dramatic, doom-laden setting for a song portraying a couple’s counsellor as a zookeeper forcing them to face up to the wild animals that symbolise the reasons for their breakup.

Alone in This” is pure Nashville, with pedal steel throughout, topped off with a beautiful solo, while “Lovely Like You” bounces along with help of Fats Kaplin’s fiddle fills and the call and response between fiddle, vocals and slide resonator. These are all elements that you wouldn’t be surprised to find on any Americana record, but there’s a joker in the pack as well. There are occasional flashes of musical theatre breaking through in the instrumental arrangements and the vocal delivery. In the lines ‘The hallways are lined with boxes neatly stacked/this is what eight years looks like packed’ that open “Separation/Agreement”, there’s a one-beat pause before ‘packed’ that’s pure theatre, and it’s perfect.

“Long Time Leaving” pulls together widely varying musical styles linked by Christa Couture’s fluty voice, inventive lyrics and tales of the aftermath of a breakup. One of her aims was to make an album to accompany doing housework and she’s actually managed to make it work. With a few exceptions, the music is catchy, packed with hooks and upbeat, while Christa avoids the obvious pitfalls of the subject matter by steering clear of the blame culture and exploring areas like binge drinking and sexual experimentation. It’s an intriguing roller-coaster of an album and when you step off at the end of the ride, you’ll feel exhilarated and uplifted. You’ll probably get through the ironing twice as quickly as well.

Long Time Leaving” is released on Black Hen Music (BHCD0079) on Friday May 20th.