Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Legendary Shack Shakers 'The Southern Surreal' - Alternative Tentacles

They’re back and they mean business. Following two albums with the Dirt Daubers and the last Shack Shakers album Agri-dustrial (which was released in 2010) the J.D. Wilkes led band return to the fray on a new label. They are now working with Jello Biafra’s Alternative Tentacles label (also home to Slim Cessna’s Auto Club). On the last album guitar duties were handled by Jesus Lizard guitarist Duane Denison. He guests here, but the main guitarist is now Rod Hamdallah who played and toured previously with the Dirt Daubers. Powerhouse drummer Brett Whitacre returns, as does longtime member, co-founder and the album’s co-producer, upright bassist Mark Robertson. Other guests include Fats Kaplin on violin and Ralph Carney on sax and horns.

The Southern Surreal continues the band’s exploration of the cultural mores and eccentricities of the region that is their home country. It is somewhat more considered than the music played in their early days. There are also some tangents to the sound like The Dog was Dead, a distinctly very un-Old Shep tale of the demise of an injured dog delivered with the distinctive vocal tone of its writer, Billy Bob Thornton. Aside from that it’s the Colonel on the microphone. The album opens with a thirty second snippet of ambient guitar and drum noise before starting properly with Mud, which takes a similar stance but immediately lets you know you’re in familiar territory with an original song. From then on you are taken on a rollercoaster ride with songs likeMisAmericaDead Bury The Dead and The One that Got Away that show how well this band has gelled and how their music has grown  and been honed and sharpened like a primal pitchfork. The latter song one of the most overtly catchy songs they have so far produced. The Wilkes/Robertson production team has delivered a powerful sound that is full of subtlety and solid ability.

The other diversions on the musical menu include The Grinning Man, a short found vocal, while Fool’s Tooth is another concise, at under a minute, harmonica-fronted instrumental. From then on the band explores various roots elements that have been incorporated into their sound from the start, especially their individual take on the blues. To underline this, the album closes with Born under a Bad Sign, a song that explores the lyrical theme of hard times and bad luck over a fragmented sound collage underpinned by abstract percussion and rumbling bass. It is a fitting close to a welcome return that finds the band celebrating its twentieth year with renewed energy and a readiness to look to the next twenty years where their legendaryness can be assured.

Barrence Whitfield & the Savages 'Under The Savage Sky' - Bloodshot

This is the second album on Chicago’s Bloodshot label for rockin’ soul man Barrence Whitfield and his band, and it is every bit as explosive and high energy as his previous one. There’s little here that could be classed as country, but it fits loosely under the wide Americana umbrella. Whitfield has a demented but soulful voice and he is a dynamo backed by a rhythmically tight and forceful rock band. They sound as if the inmates have taken over the asylum and decided to throw a punk party and it follows on from where 2012 Dig My Savage Soul left off. Guitarist and writer Peter Greenberg again produces and he knows exactly the perfect sound for these 12 songs; this time out he has tightened the bolts and hardened the exterior to keep the core intensity intact.

There are moments where the bands sounds like Little Richard fronting The Stooges of  the Fun House era. The band is Greenberg, long time bassist Phil Lenker, drummer Andy Jody, Tom Quartulli on raging saxophone and keyboard player Ricky Nye and they do a sterling job of delivering some controlled mayhem. Upfront it is Whitfield leading the charge on a bunch of fast paced original songs and covers like the ‘70s soul song I’m a Full Grown Man which declares manhood as a method of madness, a subject returned to again in I’m A Good Man. This is a very specific sound that is a continuation of what Barrence Whitfield has done in the past and as such will doubtless please the faithful, while others may need oven gloves to handle the heat.

The songs like The Claw and Rock and Roll Baby declares a new dance of derangement and delight. But on occasion they take things a little slower at his declaration that he is a simple man but also a cursed one on Adjunct Street. Full Moon tn The Daylight Sky rounds off the album at less frantic pace and asks the unanswerable question “why must I lie?” about a man who is unsure of his intentions maybe, but one who takes action none-the-less. It has the unsettling quality of a Hitchcock film, something that is reflected in Katherine Coffey’s The Birds and Vertigo inspired cover.  

Peter Berwick 'The Legend of Tyler Doohan' - Little Class 

Peter Berwick is rough-voiced singer/songwriter who is more mid-period Steve Earle than Bruce Springsteen. He is happy to be called a ‘cowpunk’ pioneer. That may be where he is best placed on this thirteen track album of unsophisticated rough and ready roots rock. His lived-in voice tears up these self-written songs with an abandonment and menace, but he also takes a more relaxed approach on songs like Cried my Last Tear and the acoustic Check-Out Time and Wait. Ain’t Goin’ Back to Memphis and See You in Hell are pure cowpunk in attitude. Between those two points you get a bunch of stories that deal with life in the raw.

The title track is a song based on the true story of a nine year old youngster who lost his life rescuing his family in a trailer park fire. The Legend of Tyler Doohan is not pretty or polite as befits the nature of such a harrowing tale. Small Town Blues is a self-explanatory slice of reality that is delivered with sadness in Berwick’s sandpaper voice of the ages. Everything’s Waiting takes a more hopeful view while listing the nature of empty dreams, but implore that everything is waiting for those who can hang on to those dreams. The album is subtitled Other Tales of Victory and Defeat and seems full of the latter, with a little of the former to keep thinks hopeful.

Producer Drew Burasco has given the album a live feel that allows the band free rein to give the songs some energy that is a far cry from the polished sounds emanating from Nashville. In a live situation Berwick is the kind of performer who is likely to give his all and he does so here. The result is not going to be for everyone, but for many who yearn for the early days of insurgent country, then this is an album that should be on your horizon. 

Mike Barth 'Dance This!' - Self Release

Barth is a member of the bands The Polkats and The Stone Hill Allstars. Barth’s solo album is, as it title suggests, something that aims to get the feet moving. A mix of roots, pop, folk, reggae and more, it is a pretty uplifting affair. Members of the Allstars join him on this outing of original songs, bar his version of Buddy Holly’s Words of Love and one other song, A Thousand Times written by Polecats member John Shock.

One of the songs is an ode to cooked chicken called, not unsurprisingly, Big Piece Of Chicken which features guest vocals from Linda Nelson. This song kind of gives you an idea of the over all brightness of the album. Barth delivers a nice version of Words of Love that sits somewhere between the Holly version and that of the Beatles who could be said to be an influence here in their period up to Revolver. Energy called Love has the feel of commercial reggae. But there are moments when the subject gets a little darker, when our man has women troubles and is wrapped up tight in a Blanket of Misery. But if you didn’t listen too closely the overall tone is still quite chirpy.

Drink it All Day is a fast paced train-rhythm song that has a rootsy feel. The OWS and Me is about a man working at the railroad yard and has a fact effective guitar break. Grease Step, takes a different approach, but still has a smile on its face. The album closes with the aforementioned A Thousand Times which is about reaching the end of your tether with someone you care for but still find yourself reaching break point with. It is effective in its simple guitar and voice delivery, which contrasts nicely with the more arranged and produced songs that precede it. This is Barth’s baby - with his songs, his production and his direction and its versatility reminds of an album that a band like 10cc might have done, not so much in actual sound but more in overall feel. Dance This! Is clever, but not overly so, and an album that somewhere along its course will set your toes tapping and maybe put a smile on your face.



Reviews By Paul McGee

John Neilson  Tomorrow comes the Spring  Lounge Side 

On his two previous releases, If By Chance (2005) and 4TH Street Sessions (2011), John Neilson writes songs that are honest, pure, and from the heart. Neilson now lives in Austin, Texas and has quickly made a reputation as a singer-songwriter of real talent who has already had success with his songs finding their way to both TV & film soundtracks.

Jim Wirt produced this record and also plays a variety of instruments on the 11 tracks. The arrangements are varied, with the opener Fall coming out of the blocks at a real driving pace, only to be followed by Lights of Los Angeles, a slow burner that is full of atmosphere sung with a weary vocal delivery, reminiscent of early Steve Earle.

Shape I’m In, Coming Home and Take a Shot are all examples of Nielson’s impressive musical variety and the production is both sharp and full of colour. End of the Road and Walk Away point to a future that will continue to fast track this artist with an acoustic guitar and a hope for wider recognition.

Grant Dermody  Sun Might Shine On Me  Self Release

Harmonica virtuoso Grant Dermody is firmly based in the blues with two previous solo releases, Crossing That River (2003) and Lay Down My Burden (2010), plus numerous guest slots on other artists’ releases, including Jim Page and Eric Bibb.  As a lifelong student of the harmonica and acoustic blues, Grant’s latest release delivers 15 tracks that include traditional arrangements mixed with original songs and covers, all displaying his pioneering approach and a commitment to the timeless traditions of the blues.

Beyond the blues, Grant is also passionate about old-time music. He sees the harmonica as the most vibrant instrument connecting the mouth and the power of the breath in a pure way that no other musical instrument can achieve. Playing with five other musicians on drums, guitar, piano banjo, mandolin, Dobro and fiddle sees this release capture the true essence of organic music and the joys of self-expression.

It is unfair to single out any specific tracks, but the groove of Easy Down and the laid back tempo of Sun Might Shine take some beating. Traditional tunes, Reuben’s Train and Sail Away Ladies are wonderful examples of what can be achieved by this talented ensemble. At the end of the day it is the joy throughout the project that leaves you feeling uplifted. Compelling.

Vincent Cross A Town Called Normal  Self Release

 Cross was born in Dublin, raised in Australia and is now based in New York City. With one previous release, Home Away from Home (2008), he could not be accused of being prolific, but his second album has now been unveiled. On 12 tracks Vincent Cross displays a strong playing style on guitar, mandolin and harmonica, supported by a variety of musicians who colour the songs with a light touch on bass, banjo and occasional drums. His style is very much folk-based and the lyrics appear to be of a personal nature with many of the themes visiting the past (Childish Things), regrets (Cursed), lack of brotherhood (A Town Called Normal) and the need to keep personal demons down (Walking on the Outside).

Relationships are focussed on in tracks like Trouble Being There, that looks at a broken situation where one partner cannot commit. My Love and Wrack & Ruin display a questioning of the loyalty involved in staying together and the changing feelings that we all have. The closing track, Sometimes, asks whether it is better to take the road you are on or to go back again; perhaps the answer to the question lies in the knowledge that you can never really go back. This is a solid release that boasts strong arrangements and excellent musicianship.      

The Slocan Ramblers Coffee Creek Self Release

 This is a bluegrass band from Toronto, Canada that has been together for 4 years and made their debut, Shaking down the Acorns, in 2013. This new release was recorded in a live-in-the-studio setting and captures the energy of the band’s live performances. The four musicians are certainly very talented and display their dextrous abilities on banjos, guitars, mandolin and acoustic bass.

All music is arranged by the band and there is a sense of listening to old standards which speaks volumes for the craft and care taken in putting these 13 tracks together into a cohesive whole.  The singing style of Frank Evans adds to this sense of tradition and sounds like it comes from a body much older than his. Pastures of Plenty/Honey Babe and Galilee are instantly rewarding with Elk River and Angeline close on their heels. The instrumentals Lone Pine, The Back 40 and April’s Waltz are a delight; however all the songs bounce out of the speakers and leave a smile as they finish.

Harmonies are vital in bluegrass and the music is elevated by these four voices in unison. If you are a fan of this genre, then the Slocan Ramblers are a welcome addition to the new ranks of musicians who are breaking through.

Dave Desmelik We Don’t Want a Dying Flame Self Release

This is the ninth solo release from Desmelik, an independent artist who performs, records and writes for the genuine love of the song-writing craft and the therapeutic value that it brings. Based in North Carolina, this fine singer-songwriter/ instrumentalist has produced a collection of heartfelt songs, full of emotion, from the opening instrumental Hyper Fatigue to the rueful warning of Destruction and the fear that we ‘are digging our own graves’ in the way we abuse the environment.  

L-I-F-E is another instrumental that has a background of children laughing and talking and the impact is really effective against the gentle strum of an acoustic guitar.  Red Collar and Two Gifts are both further examples of this seasoned musician’s excellent guitar virtuosity.

On the 13 tracks included here, the gentle arrangements (Sand Toe) are followed by insightful perspective;  ‘drown yourself in drinking and wait for what comes next’ / ‘you make your excuses, you make your own bed’ in On the Clock . Desmelik is a prime example of the endless stream of talent that is creating vibrant and vital music that needs greater exposure. 

Paper Moon Shiners Self-titled Self Release

This duo from Austin, Texas specialize in vintage songs and originals inspired by American music from the early twentieth century. Their old time sensibility and vaudeville arrangements command attention and the 12 songs included on this debut release come alive with  blues, vintage jazz, swing, ragtime, Americana roots and folk.

Elena Antinelli sings like she means every last vocal inflection and trill, while her musical and life partner, Frank Meyer, adds plenty of character with his gravel voice and easy playing style on guitar, Dobro, ukulele and steel body resonator guitar. Their music is a step back in time to the days of Prohibition and juke joints with plenty of character and colourful delivery in Who’s that Knockin’? (Trad), Come on in My Kitchen (Robert Johnson) and Carolina Moon (Joe Burke & Benny Davis) stealing the spotlight. However the seven songs written by this unique duo can stand up against such competition with both Space and Same Thang particularly prominent. 

Brock Zeman Pulling Your Sword out of The Devil’s Back Busted Flat 

This is the 11th release from Ottawa Valley singer-songwriter Brock Zeman. His songs are very much in the contemporary country arena of storytelling narratives and a sound that is based on strong song hooks and great melody.  This is a self-produced effort and comes across with a swagger and a strut in the ten songs featured. The observations and words are the sure sign of a mature artist who has found his groove and the musicians that are employed here really play their part in what is a very impressive collection. Blair Hogan on guitar, organ, piano, and mandolin is a real virtuoso and fills out the sound in an understated manner but always right on the money. Brock Zeman is no slouch either when it comes to playing around the song tempos and his guitar work is supported by synth pads and sequencing. He sings with a voice that is full of character and personality.

The song-writing road is littered with lots of bodies, but this level of talent is on a fast-track to increased exposure, should he decide to start gigging outside of his Canadian territory. There are no weak tracks here and the subject matter shifts from relationship reflections (Don’t Think About You Anymore, Little Details) to musing on the lives we lead (Walking in the Dark, Some Things Stay). Many of the tunes are catchy enough to fit nicely on radio (Sweat, Drop Your Bucket, Dead Man’s Shoes) but an artist like this is too far under the radar to get that type of attention. More is the pity as the quality of music here deserves an international audience.

The track Ten Year Fight is a movie script all rolled up into five minutes of sublime storytelling, whether sourced from reality or imagination. It visits a broken relationship through the eyes of the writer who sees the father of his past lover and reflects on the bumps along their road which led to damage for all concerned. It is a wonderful song and beautifully constructed. The title song gives early notice of the talent at play here with lyrics such as ‘I live in a house of ghosts that just won’t let me be; I let them in myself and now they just won’t leave’. I cannot recommend this artist highly enough and wish I had been graced by his music long before now. 

Eight O’Five Jive  Too Many Men  Red Rudy Too Tunes

Jump blues and retro swing are alive and well as long as bands such as Eight O’Five Jive continue to hold a torch for the classic era of the late 1940s to the late 1950s, when jump jive defined an exciting era of music and dance. What defines the Eight O’Five Jive sound is the tight ensemble playing of Patrick Mosser (Sax), Duane Spencer (Drums), Andy Scheinman (Guitar), Bill Bois (Bass) and Lee Shropshire on vocals.

There are nine songs from the past that are reworked into the band’s sound, which is based around the great rhythm section and the duelling sax and guitar breaks that allow Lee Shropshire to sing on top of the arrangements with a strong vocal and plenty of wry humour. Titles such as Have Mercy Baby, You Was Right Baby, Market Place and Drunk give a sense of the ‘dust yourself down and get on with life’ attitude that prevails here. Misery Loves Company, written by Lee herself,  stands shoulder to shoulder with the timeless originals as does her second song, Young Enough To Be My Son.

Eight O’Five Jive redefines this essential genre and helps to keep it alive and vibrant. It stands as wonderful music for dinner and cocktails, eminently suitable for lively dance lovers and delightfully immune to passing time.



Reviews By Stephen Rapid

The Rizdales  Blue Ain’t the Word: A Tribute to the Music of Ray Price - Self Releas

Canadian band the Rizdales have made  a wonderful tribute for the singer many consider to be arguably country music’s finest vocalist. Price’s passing has been largely ignored in mainstream Nashville, which makes this collection doubly better. What is even more rewarding is that the Rizdales have not attempted to duplicate his sound, rather they take some of his better known as well as some lesser known songs and recorded them as if they were their own songs, giving them the Rizdales honky-tonk treatment. Tara and Tom Dunphy are the band’s mainstays and they are joined by Steven Crew on drums, Blair Heddle on guitars and Oscar Macedo on upright bass with Burke Carroll on steel guitar and Michael Bonnell on piano among the musical guests. This is essentially the same team who made their last album, the equally worth hearing, How the Marriage Ended.

There is no doubting their love of Ray Price, and traditional country in general, and they bring songs from the early, more honky-tonk, part of Price’s career which fit easily alongside later countrypolitan hits like For the Good Times and Night Life. And they do so with great energy and style. The Dunphys share the vocal leads and this give some of the songs an unusual female perspective. Both Tom and Tara excel in the vocal department and considering that they are inviting direct comparison to a master,  give highly credible performances, as does the assembled team of musicians. Again the decision to record them with their sound is part of what makes the album work not only as a tribute but as a piece in its own right.

The playing is tight and effective and Tara is also a fine fiddle player as well as vocalist, while Tom holds his own on acoustic guitar. All of which makes the Rizdales a band who keep a notable tradition alive and bring some fresh energy to something more timeless.

The fourteen songs include such strong numbers as Bill Anderson’s City Lights,  the Kris Kristofferson classic For the Good Times and My Shoes Keep Walking Back To You written by Bob Wills and Lee Ross. These are songs that were well crafted and have more than stood the test of time. The Dunphys are the producers and directors here and have made an album will doubtless be rank as one of the best tributes around. Maybe blue ain’t the word; “hot” may be a better one.

Sam Lewis Waiting On You - Brash

There is a t-shirt on Lewis’ site that says, above and below his name, the words ‘country’ and ‘soul’ which, in so many ways, sums up the direction that Sam Lewis is heading. Both Leon Russell and Willie Nelson have been cited as a reference points and Lewis has said that he sees himself following the path of observational troubadours like John Prine and Fred Eaglesmith, an interesting combination. With his second album Lewis finds himself in good company who help him on the way to achieving his vision of that classic combination.

Producer Oliver Wood, Wood Brothers band, helmed a 3 day live-in-the-studio session at Southern Ground Studios in Nashville.  Players such as Mickey Raphael, Darrell Scott, Kenny Vaughan, Will Kimbrough and the McCrary Sisters all took part in the recording. The songs, the voice and the aspirations were all Lewis’. He has a warm, full voice which is effortlessly comfortable in the place he finds himself. Lewis fronts the band with authority and while his voice may not yet be immediately identifiable, it is quality. There is a relaxed feel across the grooves, which, given the nature of the recording may not be how Lewis felt, but it didn’t let it show in his assured delivery.

The songs have a confessional aspect that is exemplified in Love Me Again or in the heavier beat of Things Will Never Be The Same. Place is the subject, in one way or the other, in Texas and Virginia Avenue. The former is a salutary piece that features Raphael’s emotive harmonica. The latter is a folk song that reminisces about growing up. It is stripped back to voice and resonator and acoustic guitar and underscores the strength of Lewis’ songwriting and voice by bringing it back to a simple place that gives the song great resonance. The twelve song album closes with I’m Coming Home, a song that starts with the same stripped back approach but slowly builds up by adding piano over the rhythm section of JT Cure and Derek Mixon before finishing with testifying background vocals reinforcing the sentiment of the title and the both spiritual and geographic nature of that promise. Whether full on or back to basics Waiting On You is a tasty album to enjoy at length and Lewis is an artist who gives you so much to savour. 

Tom Van Stockum Self-Titled - Self Release

Growing up playing in his father’s band in Louisville, Kentucky gave Tom Van Stockum a taste for the likes of J. D. Crowe as well as for the wordsmith magic of such craftsmen as John Prine. Now based in New York, Van Stockum has released his debut EP, six song original songs that have a harder edge than his initial influences might suggest.

The traditional sounding ’Til the Ohio Don’t Flow is a strong song that considers that the  protagonist will persist until he achieves his objectives or the titular river ceases its function. He is nicely balanced on the song vocally by his wife Brittany. Other songs that are notable are Closer to the Ground, an uptempo guitar-driven tale of a high flying lady. The sound is an Americana blend of alt, folk, rock and roots, nothing that you haven’t heard before but delivered with enough heart to make it worth hearing in its own right.

Van Stockum covers all this and more on the tracks here, but manages to make it all sound cohesive and captivating. The band of players that join him give him solid support with some brass added by Peter Ecklund to good effect as required. This is a real foundation of bass and drums with both piano and guitar adding to the overall detail of the individual song structures. Producer Alex P. Wernquest gives the sound a robust clarity that serves the music well. Von Stockum is a part of a thriving DIY scene that is making music to be heard but, perhaps, more crucially, for their own satisfaction (and sanity). Everyone who makes music wants it to be heard but if it doesn’t come from within then we can usually do without.

This six song set has enough variety that it allows Van Stockum plenty of scope to develop his songs and sound. There are a couple of stand-out here that indicate that he is a performer who will develop and hone his influences and writing as he play more shows and gains the life experiences that will filter into his songs to give them a sense of unvarnished truth - with three chords or even more. In the end Tom Van Stockum has made an impressiver first mark on his way to reaching a wider world.

Martha L. Healy Better Days - Self Release

Glasgow girl goes to Nashville and records an album. That’s the story of Better Days. Healy grew up listening to Dolly Parton, Patsy Cline and the blues/rock tones of Bonnie Raitt and the Eagles. She absorbed those sources of inspiration and a whole lot more, I’m sure, while others around her were into the pop and rap of the day. She obviously learned from these acts and soon began writing her own songs and has a credit on seven of the eleven songs here. Phil Ferns, a fellow Glaswegian and the album’s executive producer, co-wrote some with her and two on his own. Too Much Vodka is one of the more buoyant tracks, a ‘girlfriends get wild’ type of song. By way of contrast there is the more acoustic setting of Nobody’s Dead, a mandolin and fiddle-based song about being apart from a loved one.

The influences mentioned above neglect to include her Celtic influences, which are very apparent in the song Burtonport which is a tribute to her family. The CD booklet includes pictures of a visit there and a picture of her grandparents’ wedding, as well as a photo of her own. These show a sense of family and location and could easily have come from a country and Irish album. It is also the closest her voice moves away from more universal phrasing on the other songs.

You can’t discount that she has a strong voice and inhabits these songs which touch on several aspects of a broad country palate. The album was mostly recorded in Nashville with bassist David Spicher. He has played with a range of artists such as Lorrie Morgan at the Grand Ole Opry and Sarah Gayle Meech in a Lower Broadway club. Spicher has brought in some like minded players who gave the music the range that it requires from Buddy Spicher’s fiddle to Tommy Hannum’s pedal steel. Some additional recording also took place in Glasgow including keyboards, banjo, fiddle and backing vocal overdubs. Songs like the title track, which has harmonica and Cajun tinges has an upbeat feel. The declaration of fidelity in The Lovin’ Kind, has an accordion which takes the song to an altogether different place.

Healy joins the growing number of artists making credible country music of many hues in the UK and Ireland. She is writing her own songs, exploring the music she makes and makes sure what she records sounds the way she wants to which is to be applauded. Where her ambitions are going to depend on circumstances that are not always under her control, but on the strength of Better Days she has a future, but a limited one perhaps. However doing it the way she wants will lead to better days and already has, if the smile on her face on the cover is anything to go by.

Light Over There Self Titled - Self Release

This is the debut five track release for an Irish American duo, Aileen Henderson and Rex Habeman, who stuck up a friendship and began this recording project via the internet. The backing tracks were recorded in the U.S. and the vocal track in Ireland. The producers for each part were John Richardson and Ray Diamond. Henderson and Habeman has written all five songs. The sound is roots rock with solid bass and drums, over which either takes the lead vocal and the middle is filled with keyboard, mandolin and rockin’ guitar; witness She Cries to You. There is a strong sense of melody that has seen comparison with Fleetwood Mac. This is not surprising as Habeman has a rock background.

Perhaps more surprising is that they will meet in person for the first time to prepare for the first gigs together. For all that, it sounds cohesive and when they join together vocally, as in I Ain’t that Bad, you sense that a common goal has been achieved and that it is a testament to how distance and age is no real barrier to making music these days.

The song Where Memories Live deals with dementia, something that was personal to Habeman as a close relation suffered from Alzheimers. The music overall is focused roots rock that never overwhelms the vocals but is far removed from the acoustic guitar bedroom demos that Henderson had posted on her YouTube channel.

All in all this is an auspicious start that could lead to interesting things on a full album recorded when both are together in the studio. The combination of different backgrounds, age and experiences could well create something vital. For now these five songs are enough to be going on with and to warrant further investigation and illumination.

Bumper Jacksons Too Big World  - Self Release

The first song, Coffee Mama, opens in 30’s jazz style with clarinet and trombone prominent and then the steel guitar takes us to the dance halls of 50s. This mix of jazz, country and more, is neither new or unique, but the way it is delivered here is justified by the exuberance with which it is played by the band. The vocals are ably handled by the two vocalists, Jess Eliot Myhre and Chris Ousley. Both have a presence which holds your attention and give the songs both focus and gravitas. The songs are a mix of traditional and well chosen covers. The “and more” comment is readily apparent in the version of Satan, Your Kingdom Must Come Down, which opens with a dynamic vocal from Myhre over a syncopated rhythm and trombone, only to be offset by an off-kilter, but oh so right bluesy guitar solo!

Bumper Jacksons (which also includes Alex Lacquement on upright bass, Brian Priebe on trombone, Dan Cohen playing suitcase percussion and Dave Hadley on pedal steel) are a forceful, inventive combo who balance the quieter songs with up-tempo, old-timey exhilaration. Adventure Story, I learned I was Wrong and Jubilee all dial it down to slow, soulful mediations. The latter with the two voices in duet mode has some effective fiddle playing (from guest Anna Roberts Gevalt) that sets it more as a folk ballad that the jazz inflections of some of the other material. The include a healthy 16 tracks and a near hour running time, but because there is such a wide ranging approach to style and tempo the album never overstays it’s welcome.

The final track is from the pen of singer and guitarist Chris Ousley and show that their original songs can fit with the other, older material. This is something that will enable them to develop as a band and tailor their sound with their own songs. Hell is Hot is a goodtime New Orleans styled slice of fun that caps off an entertaining and heartwarming album. The band are currently based in the Washington DC area, which has had a thriving roots scene for some time now. They have made their mark there, winning music awards. But they deserve a wider recognition and as the likes of Pokey Lafarge make international inroads, the Bumper Jacksons might find the world big but also quite appreciative. 

The Grahams Glory Bound - 12 South

The Grahams are a husband and wife duo who have been making music together since their teens. This, their second album, is a lively and dynamic set of songs written by the duo with Bryan McCann. It was produced by Wes Sharon and recorded in a studio in Norman, Oklahoma with a set of musicians that included the producer on bass as well as the likes of Byron Berline on fiddle and mandolin, John Fulbright on piano and Ryan Engleman on guitar and pedal steel. Sharon has previously worked with notable artists John Fulbright and Parker Millsap. He has delivered a concise, big sounding album of country roots music that centres around the duo’s vocals and memorable songs. Alyssa Graham has a particularly forceful and assertive vocal that has both power and passion and is the perfect focal point for their music. Douglas Graham handles the back-up vocals and harmonies, alongside Camille Harp, as well as playing guitar and Dobro.

The end result is one that immediately appeals as a strong slice of Americana that won’t fail to get toes tapping and engage the listener. Just listen to Kansas Cit,y  with it’s driving fiddle and twangy guitar or the opening song Glory Bound with it’s reflection of time of misspent youth. Not that they can’t take their collective foots off the throttle when required, as on the more acoustic sounding (and suggestive) Biscuits.  Blow Wind Blow is a song which fits the general theme of travel and times gone by, and with having to deal with the consequences of earlier actions. It is a particularly poignant consideration of the sometimes debilitating effects of loneliness.

The Grahams have delivered a set of songs that will, doubtless, find favour with a varied set of listeners, as there are many memorable moments. The lasting impression is of the duo’s vocal prowess and their well-constructed material They have also been involved in a new documentary, directed by the Mississippi Allstars’ Cody Dickinson, titled Rattle The Hocks (a trailer can be viewed online on their website); it follows their train travels and the influence of that mode of transport on American roots music. In their current endeavours they appear to be moving on down a very productive and pleasing line. 




Reviews by Paul McGee


Casey Weston Young Heart - Self Release

Nashville-based singer-songwriter Casey Weston is originally from Naples, Florida where she played the coffee shop and honkytonk open mic circuit to learn the ropes and hone her craft. Her sound is based in commercial country with a strong Dixie Chicks and Shania Twain influence.

The eight co-writes here are evenly split between slow melodies and energetic pop-inspired grooves. With a self-titled debut EP followed by an album Find the Moon, this artist is on a fast track to radio friendly country hitsville and there is no reason why she shouldn’t get there. Never Come Back has hit single written all over it and falls into Carrie Underwood territory. Little Bit of Everything is another strong contender for radio and Lock & Key is the most accomplished song here. The production is impressive on all tracks, with bright arrangements and room for the vocals to shine through. Watch this artist grow.

Erik Sitbon and the Ghost Band - Self Release

With four previous releases, Erik Sitbon produces music that is a mixture of rock and country. He formed the Ghost Band in 2012 and the six-piece went on to release Lost and Found. A double album, Acoustic Sessions/ Electric Sessions released that year as was Back to the Roots – a Great Sun Session was recorded in the legendary Sun Studio in Memphis, Tennessee. In 2013, the double album received two CMA Awards France for  Best Male Artist  and  Best French Country Music album.

Despite his French origins, songs like My Demon Down, Your Lies, Mary Go Round, Down the River and Back to the Roots are decent examples of the genre and could comfortably hold their own on other country releases.

Annie Gallup Ghost - Gallway Bay

Ghost is the tenth solo recording in a career that has seen Annie Gallup achieve huge recognition among her peers for her song-writing and authentic playing. With this release she has chosen a  string band which includes Gabe Witcher on fiddle, and David West  on Dobro and mandolin, Peter Gallway on string bass/ backing vocals and Anna Abbey on backing vocals.

Gallup’s recent releases include Little Five Points which Annie calls "conversations in a quiet room" and Weather a prior to that. A project that features Annie's voice with a string quartet and award winning composer Asia Mei. Annie has been on the road performing throughout North America since 1994, touring solo and as the duo, Hat Check Girl, with Peter Gallway.

The 11 songs featured here are a tribute to the versatility and dexterous playing of the ensemble. The ‘less is more’ approach adds an authentic air to the recording process and titles such as Diamond Ring, Battle of Brooklyn, Raised By Wolves and West Memphis Arkansas sound like old standards from years gone by. There is a beautiful arrangement of the Davey MacLean classic Caledonia and the track A Loves B is a clever insight on the dynamic of a love triangle and cheating as a compulsion. Sounding not unlike Emmylou, the vocal delivery of Annie Gallup is always engaging and on Weapon of Choice she delivers a haunting performance. Impressive.

Jami Lynn  Fall is a Good Time to Die - Self Release

This is an acoustic introduction to the landscapes, animals, and people that inhabit the South Dakota plains and the Black Hills. Jami Lynn is a real treasure and a very accomplished musician and her music has been described as plainsfolk. Her previous releases include Dreamers, Sodbusters and Cluck & Croon. She began performing folk and bluegrass music at the age of thirteen and by the age of sixteen was writing her own music. She has an awareness of her deep connection to the landscape and culture of the Upper Midwest.

Tracks like Red Fox, Wolf, Coyote why ya Lookin’ so Thin? and God Out on the Plains are full of understated beauty with lots of space in the arrangements. The musicians adding their talents to the album, apart from  Jami  on vocals, banjo and guitar, are Dalton Coffey, Dobro, mandolin and guitar and Andrew Reinartz on upright bass with Eddie Faris playing mandolin on Red Fox.

The playing is just a joy to hear as the musicians come together and solo on top of the melodies in a restrained dynamic that heightens the tunes. Jami sings beautifully in a very clear and strong voice and this has to be one of the best American folk releases of the year, with not a weak track among the 10 on offer here

Vanish Valley  Queen of the Concert - Self release

With two previous releases under the belt, Get Good and eponymous debut Vanish Valley return with a cohesive release of twelve tracks that deliver a melodic, psychedelic folk-rock groove. This LA based 4-piece deserve kudos in the fact that the tracks were recorded in just 6 days and the live feel to the arrangements gives the tracks an immediate and vibrant quality. Singer/guitarist Andrew McAllister is the main influence, but he is well supported by Alex Owen on guitar and keyboards, Guy Christiano on bass and drummer Daniel Goldblatt.

Recorded with Grammy Award winning Engineer David Bianco (Bob Dylan/Tom Petty/Teenage Fan Club), the new album has a sound that is not a million miles removed from the Cars meets early Counting Crows. McAllister’s hoarse vocal style makes for an entertaining listen with tracks like Lookout Mountain, Golden Tape and Drifter’s Eyes providing upbeat workouts. Harmonica is used with great effect by McAllister and the track Cowboy Store has a nice contemporary country style to it. The title song is a fine acoustic reflective slice of Americana to end proceedings with.

Richard Schumacher   I’ll be Honest Withya - Self release 

There is a strong Johnny Cash quality to the vocal delivery of Richard Schumacher, a singer-songwriter from Southern California. This is his debut release and employs the considerable talents of a handful of LA's top country session players.  They encouraged Richard to enter a recording studio having seen him at local talent nights and open mic invites for many years. Of the nine musicians used here, the ensemble playing is of a high standard with the production by Chad Watson perfectly capturing the mood of these country blues songs.

Chad Watson has a key influence on proceedings, not just as producer, but with contributions on bass, guitar, piano, mandolin and trombone. The electric guitar work of Vern Monnet is also very prominent, especially on Cattle Drivers and the very tasty Lady on the Platform. There is a nice groove to the overall sound with plenty of references to drinking;  Melancholy Whiskey, which boasts some nice harmonica and slide guitar, Twelve Years Down, Occasionally Sober, The Party’s Over, Too Late For the Lovin’ and This Town’s Gone to Hell. Perhaps this indicates some dubious recreational habits but they certainly have not had a detrimental effect on the music.

D.R. Roberts  Down and Out in Gospel Oak -  Self Release

Down and Out in Gospel Oak is the debut album from UK singer/songwriter and multi- instrumentalist D.R. Roberts. There is a hint of a young David Bowie in his vocal delivery and the opening  Heavy Weather Girl has an Albert Hammond influenced guitar melody (It Never Rains in California).

This is English contemporary music that borders on folk,  with some nice guitar work, especially on Calm on the Other Side and the closing title track. The piano based Beach Roses and Fifteen Years deal with loss and the disappointment of shattered dreams while the feel of The Dragging Yourself Down Blues and Knocking on the Door of the Deaf hint at former struggles to make a mark in the music business, while keeping a sense of self from eroding.  Down and Out in Gospel Oak is musically sound and hints at greater things to come.


Reviews by Sandy Harsch