Reviews by Paul McGee


Ordinary Elephant Before I Go Berkalin

This acoustic folk duo is Crystal Hariu-Damore on guitar and vocals with husband Peter Damore on banjo, guitar and vocals. They have been performing together since 2011 and their debut release, Dusty Words & Cardboard Boxes appeared in 2013 and was well received at the time, This follow-up is a very strong statement of intent for the future. The harmony vocals are sweetly compelling in the 13 tracks and there is a hint of Natalie Merchant in Crystal’s phrasing.

Songs like Another Day and Can I Count on You? refer to the trials and tribulations of commitment and the routine of married life. Railroad Man is a fine tribute to a father and the values with which he was raised. Best of You speaks of not letting life get on top of our hopes and dreams and of turning hard times into positive experiences. Leaving Kerrville and Lady in the Elevator are two songs written from personal experience, one a near-fatal and life-changing road accident; the other a conversation in a hospital lift with a woman who was saying goodbye to her departing husband: ‘Too many machines sing their song around his bed; Too many words that she never said…’ . The Things He Saw is a powerful song that deals with Alzheimer’s in a moving and poignant lyric and highlights Ordinary Elephant’s great song craft and playing abilities.

Today Crystal and Peter call the road home, living full-time in a van and travel trailer with their dogs, exploring the country and creating music of real depth and dignity. Someone mentioned Rawlings and Welch in a review as a comparison and this is not wide of the mark when it comes to authentic, honest and heart-felt stories and character songs. This is a highly recommended release and the duo are ably supported by the subtle and understated playing of Jon Gaga on upright bass, Jason Crosby, fiddle & piano, Sharon Gilchrist on mandolin with Jono Manson, tenor guitar, David Berkeley, backing vocals and Mark Clark, brushes. 

Jennifer Cutting’s Ocean Orchestra Waves Sun Sign

Ocean Orchestra is a Celtic fusion band that reside on the American East Coast and comprise mostly of Jennifer Cutting on electronic keyboard and accordion, Lisa Moscatiello on vocals and whistle, Andrew Dodds on fiddle, Zan McLeod on bouzouki, mandolin, and electric guitar, Tim Carey on highland bagpipes, Steve Winick on vocals, Rico Petruccelli on electric bass and Robbie Magruder on drums. 

They are quite a fluid troupe and play in different ensembles and formats. Indeed, there is an impressive array of guest musicians and performers on this new release and all bring a rich tapestry to the overall results. The key inspiration comes from the creative talents of Cutting who is composer/arranger of considerable depth. She holds both Bachelor's and Master's degrees in music and is the artistic director behind this project, her third release.

I am reminded of Steeleye Span when listening to the 12 tracks here, nine written by Cutting, with the inclusion of three traditional airs. The eclectic mix of accordion, fiddle, bouzouki, flute, whistle, piccolo and highland bagpipes lead a celebratory sound that is vibrant and pleasant on the ear. Lark in the Clear Air is particularly striking with the strong vocals of Polly Bolton subtly supported by Troy Donockley on whistle and Jennifer Cutting on an antique pedal-powered reed organ. Crane and Tower is another stand-out, with a damning lyric against unchecked urban development at the expense of the countryside: “Build for Jesus, build for glory/Dwarf the acre where we stand/Profits in the sky, Hosanna/Build it anywhere you can”. Powerful.

Leaves of Autumn is a gentle ballad with the Celtic harp of Sue Richards adding a poignant mood to the wistful vocal of Lisa Moscatiello. Everything Glows is a really terrific example of fusing music from India with the unique sound of the bagpipes. It is a great workout, fuelled by Bollywood Shouters, the fine drum/bass combo of Steve Loecher and Rio Petruccelli and layered with tablas, bansuri, flute, fiddle and rich guitar/keyboard lines. She is a fine song which sees a welcome appearance of the great Clive Gregson on guitar, slide and harmony vocals to complement the lead vocal of Lisa Moscatiello.  

The sleeve notes say: File under ‘Folk-Rock/Celtic/World’, so not really in our usual or sought remit but a perfect description for this global mix of traditional tunes and musical influences.

Dave Vargo Burning Through Self Release

This excellent musician graduated from Berklee College of Music in Boston and went on to forge a very successful career as a touring artist and session player. He has worked with a number headline artists including Whitney Houston, Phoebe Snow and Vonda Shepard, but his talents as a songwriter have only been given the spotlight on this, his debut release as a solo performer. 

The eleven songs are written by Dave and co-produced with drummer Tim Pannella. Erik Romero plays bass and keys with Kim Boyko on backing vocas. The arrangements are all very impressive with fluid playing and a bright feel to the melody and rhythm. The commercial sound is perfectly captured on the opening song Come Take Me Home and the fluid guitar playing of Finding My Way to You, which captures a Hootie & the Blowfish vibe. 

Too Young To Be Broken slows things down with gentle acoustic guitar and a lyric about broken dreams and disillusionment. Waiting runs along similar reflective lines with a wistful look back at the past and regrets over choices made. The expressive vocals of Varo are perfectly complimented by the support cast and Don’t Think Twice is a fine example of the band in full unison and playing with a relaxed and loose tempo. Final track, Pieces of my Heart, is an up-tempo ending to what is a very strong debut release and one that comes highly recommended.  

Bill Jackson The Wayside Ballads Vol. 2 Laughing Outlaw

This release follows on from Volume 1, which was launched in 2015 and was an electric record, due to the group of songs chosen. This follow-up is a more acoustic approach with production by Thomm Jutz (Mary Gauthier, Nanci Griffith, Otis Gibbs etc.) in Nashville. 

The 11 new songs are mainly co-written by brothers Bill and Ross Jackson and the band is comprised of Pete Fidler on Dobro, Sierra Hull on mandolin, Justin Moses on banjo and fiddle, Daniel Kimbro on upright bass and Lynn Williams on drums and percussion. Bill Jackson plays acoustic guitar and sings, while producer Thomm Jutz contributes acoustic guitar, keyboards and backing vocals. Recorded ‘live’ in the studio and benefiting from an organic acoustic sound, the playing is understated, warm and welcoming. 

Songwriters occupy a crowded marketplace, but what can set them apart is a fine line between originality and simply being a copyist. The songs on this release are very authentic and have a feel of being around before. 

Story songs such as Gippsland Boy, Three China Ducks, Rollin’ Into Rosine, Time Will Judge and Pink Jesus ring true to life and carry the experiences and interpretations of everyman. Halfway House of the Broken and Every Day’s Drinkin’ Day  are two poignant songs that conjure up the  lives of the marginalised.The interplay between the musicians is a real joy and the entire project is dotted with little surprises and gentle grooves. This is roots music that will appeal to fans of folk and country ballads.

Bill Jackson’s previous releases include Diggin’ the Roots (2006), Steel & Bone (2008), Jerilderie (2011) which have been all well received in the media. He is a talented artist who is well worth checking out. 

Jeff Plankenhorn Soul Slide Lounge Side

Plank is a versatile musician who has been playing a variety of guitars for many years in Nashville and Austin, appearing on numerous records and releasing a batch of solo albums that have gained him an impressive reputation. This new release sees Brannen Temple on drums, Yoggie on bass, Dave Scher on guitar, piano, organ, Rami Jaffe on mellotron & Hammond organ, Peter Adams on clavichord, Hammond organ and Wurlitzer.  Ruthie Foster and Malford Milligan share both lead and background vocals and Miles Zuniga plays electric and acoustic guitars, piano and also sings backing vocals, completing an impressive line-up of players. There are other guests involved, namely his band associates in The Resentments and the overall impression is one of admiration for the musical depth and the range of skills on display.

Plank marries soulful vocals, with a touch of southern soul, a touch of funk coupled with country which all blend into an intoxicating sound.  However, it is the extraordinary guitar sound that carries the tunes from the opening Lose My Mind, through the slow blues of Trouble Find Me and on into the full throttle work-out of Like Flowers which sees Ruthie Foster singing her heart out.

Plank has played on records by Joe Ely, Ray Wylie, Slaid Cleaves, Eliza Gilkyson, Jimmy Lafave and many more.  All his experiences have led to standing dates with collaborative Austin bands, The Apostles of Manchaca, The Purgatory Players, and The Resentments. His Plank guitar is a creation that is stand-up lap steel guitar, which he picks with one hand and uses a slide with the other. The sound is down n’ dirty with plenty of emotive force and edge to the solos and riffs that he produces. Think Bonnie Raitt meets John Hiatt and Sonny Landreth and you have an idea of the quality and groove on offer here.

Dirty Floor is a stand-out with some really tasty guitar parts on top of a driving rhythm and Vagabond Moonlight is a slow country strum, while Mockingbird Blues is an acoustic blues. Headstrong is like a workout from the heady days of The Band and Live Today talks of making the most of the moment and forgetting the worries of tomorrow. This is a very fine release, most worthy of your attention.