Reviews by Paul McGee

Mean Mary Blazing Woodstock

This lady is a real talent and her back story is the stuff that makes a movie script seem far-fetched. Raised by a nomadic family, at times in the wilds and the woods, building their own log cabin and embracing a life of home schooling.

Mary James learned to play music at a very young age and is a novelist and a music producer, who has regularly appearared on Nashville TV shows, as well as running her own You Tube channel (35,000 subscribers). Her endorsing of Deering Banjos, an instrument on which she absolutely excels, is proof of her talents as a musician and her dexterity on fiddle and guitars is also most impressive.

Mean Mary is a performing name and whether touring solo or with her sometimes band, Mean Mary & the Contrarys, her musical strengths are always to the fore. While the banjo displays traditional bluegrass sounds, Mary plays the instrument in a way that makes it very melodic & tuneful.

Her brother Frank plays some excellent guitar and this project is a soundtrack to her latest book, Hell Is Naked, about a SWAT agent working undercover as a movie extra. The good thing is that the music stands up as a separate entity and it is not necessary to reference the book to enjoy the music that has been created as an accompaniment piece. 

Ten tracks and plenty of virtuoso playing from Mary & Frank James on banjo, 6 and 12-string guitars violin & percussion. Tracks like Rainy, Rock Of Ages, Lights, Gun, Action and the title track are all instrumentals and played with an elán and verve that is quite infectious. I Face Somewhere, Gone and Sugar Creek Mountain Rushare also expertly delivered. 

Her constant companion through much of this career activity is her Mother/author, Jean James. Some of their videos are a real joy to catch online and I would recommend a visit for a few giggles and to witness some fine musicianship into the bargain.

Mean Mary also peddles a sweet pickin’ balm as a sideline, aimed at all banjo players and beyond - a unique blend of natural plant oils infused with eight essential oils. These plant oils deeply moisturize sooth and protect your skin, keeping it supple for fast pickin’. 

Need I say any more…? Big smiles all round!

Spencer MacKenzie Cold November Self Release

Still in his teenage years, this young Canadian musician certainly knows his way around a fretboard. This is a second release and the quality of playing is very impressive indeed. There are hints of Stevie Ray Vaughan in the style with some excellent solo breaks and passionate Blues riffs. The future is certainly bright for this young player and already he is punching well above his tender years in terms of the quality of his sound and natural ability. 

The title track, Cold November, is a tribute to the families of the Paris attacks in 2015 and the studio musicians deliver consistently high standards across all ten songs (written by MacKenzie). Move On Down The Track; Haunt Me; Next Door Neighbour Blues and She Don’t Care are strong examples of the fine musicianship on display, with a horn section that impresses while the core band deliver a tight sound that allows MacKenzie to solo around the rhythm with an unrestrained joy. One to watch.

Steve Dawson Lucky Hand Black Hen 

This is Steve Dawson’s 8th album and his first record of instrumental music since Rattlesnake Cage appeared in 2014. A multiple Juno Award-winning producer, for this project he turned to long-time collaborator and friend, Jesse Zubot to assist in scoring and arranging the strings for five of the ten tracks included. 

With the Warehouse Studio in Vancouver providing the space required, Dawson recorded live with up to twelve microphones in various positions to capture the guitar and orchestration. Contributions from Peggy Lee (cello), Jesse Zubot and his brother Josh (violins) and John Kastelic (viola) create a rich tapestry of sound and the perfect back-drop for quiet days spent in contemplation or lazy evenings by the fireside with a favourite glass of wine, perhaps. Tracks such as The Circuit Rider Of Pigeon Forge; Bone Cave; Old Hickory Breakdown; Little Harpeth and Bugscuffle are worthy mentions across the project but really, there is not a weak track on display.

Playing a range of guitars – acoustic, 12-string, national tricone, weissenborn, ukulele – the depth of Dawson’s talent lies in the fact that the melodic progressions are seamless and give the impression of total fluidity and graceful ease. Joined also by Jeremy Berkman (trombone), Nick Anderson (french horn), Sam Davidson (clarinet), John Reischman (mandolin) and Charlie McCoy (harmonicas) on selected tracks, it all works as a composite whole & the fact that he has produced and/or played on more than 80 albums since the turn of the millennium says it all really and speaks volumes for the national treasure that he has become in his native Canada.

The Vagabond Something Wicked This Way Comes Eggsong

Based in Norfork, England this ensemble releases their third album of songs and their sound is very much based in the area of Folk/Roots with traces of a harder Rock edge sprinkled through a number of the ten tracks included here. The band is comprised of nine members, which I am sure makes touring something of a logistical challenge; all those hotel rooms & meals to cover and the practicalities of transportation and instrument space - glad I’m not the tour manager!

In any event, their excellent music is well worth investing in and the organic sound is a heady mixture of fiddles, mandolin, pedal steel, dobro, flute, clarinet, sax, trumpet, guitars, keyboards and the occasional kitchen sink thrown in for good measure! This raggle, taggle band of gypsies resemble a Fisherman’s Blues era of the Waterboys with elements of Dylan (title track), Randy Newman (Spiritual Man) and Three Dog Night (One For The Road). 

Tracks like Bright Are The Stars, Not My Day To Die and Zoetrope, are very melodic and overall, the celebratory sound is very appealing. The quality of musicianship and production from José McGill and Gregory Cook, both band members, is very clear and balanced to include all members in the mixing & mastering, so that none of the (many) instruments get drowned out. 

The Fretless Live from the Art Farm Self Release

The Fretless is a Canadian four piece from Toronto & Vancouver who play fiddle tunes and folk melodies that are intricate, sprinkled with high-energy performance and a vibrancy borne from years of playing together. The goal is to continually push traditional music as far as possible and to expand the rhythmic, harmonic and structured arrangement style of the many folk genres. 

They have won multiple Canadian Folk Music Awards and a JUNO Award for Instrumental Album of the Year. Trent Freeman (fiddle, viola), Karrnnel Sawitsky (fiddle, viola), Eric Wright (cello), Ben Plotnick (fiddle, viola). This Live project was recorded at the Artfarm recording studio in front of an audience to try and capture the dynamism of their live performances. The tracks are all traditional Irish tunes and they are a vibrant and tracks such as Jenny Welcome To Charlie/ Bear Island; Johnny O’Leary’s/The Miller’s Maggot/ The Sally Gardens; The Pipe On The Hob/Bixie’s Jig and the closer, The Star Of Munster are all fine examples of this fine band in full flight. 

Dana Cooper Incendiary Kid Travianna

Working with co-producer/guitarist Thomm Jutz, this is the 28th recording in a career that has seen this artist work through the vagaries of the music industry since the 1970’s when he first recorded with Shake Russell and with his own rock band, Dana Cooper's DC3.

Incendiary Kid is a cohesive album of ten songs that cover a whole gambut of emotions, from wanting an idyllic World where love gets its own reward (Flat Made Round), sharing the daily load by reaching out to another (Traveller Too), isolation (Bird Or a Fish, Maybe Tomorrow), disillusionment (My America), relationships (Summertime Woman, Song of the West) and corporate greed (Making a Killing). With a sound that is based in acoustic folk/rock, Cooper’s finger-picking guitar style is complimented by his rich vocals. 

He regularly visits Ireland and travels around the countryside with a bus of tourists in tow; acting as both guide and performer at various stop overs. This is an activity that other artists have been turning to in recent times as an idea to open additional income streams and to keep their core fan base interested in ongoing activities and projects.

Reviews by Declan Culliton

Travis Green A Little Too Late - Self Release

A blend of blues, country and rock from Austin-based singer songwriter Travis Green. The inspiration for many of the songs can be traced back to Green’s exposure as a young man to artists such as Chuck Berry and Muddy Waters yet the album also has nods towards Nashville.

Recorded in Greaseland Studios in San Jose, California the album features a host of renowned West Coast session players including Norwegian Kid Anderson, who produced and mixed the album together with contributing guitar. Other musicians include Randy Bermudes (bass), Jim Pugh (keyboards), Jason Hansen (drums), Nancy Wright (saxophone), Lisa Leuschner Anderson and Courtney Knott (vocals). 

The title track kicks the album off in fine style, a tale of lost love delivered in a country/rockabilly style and features some wonderful guitar licks by Anderson. Everybody Knows maintains a similar lyric theme of relationships going south ("Everybody Know you’re a bitch at heart"). Keep You Off My Mind has a lovely Dave Edmunds rockabilly feel. Damage Done could be drawn from the Dolly Parton songbook having a melody not a million miles away from Jolene. Caroline bounces along with ripping saxophone by Nancy Wright and pulsating keyboards by Jim Pugh dominating.

Very impressive album and a particularly easy and rewarding listen.

Locust Honey String Band Never Let Me Cross Your Mind – Self Release

Delightful rootsy Americana offering from the Nashville based bluegrass band. Originally from North Carolina, Locust Honey String Band celebrate traditional Southern music, intelligently mixing fiddle/banjo duets with heavenly harmonies and old time honky tonk.

Locust Honey String Band consists of Chloe Edmonstone (vocals, fiddle, guitar) and Meredith Watson (vocals, guitar). Hilary Hawke and Ariel Dixon play banjo on the album with bass duties carried out by Andy Deaver Edmonstone. 

Fourteen tracks in total including three originals credited to Chloe Edmonstone, two Carter Family songs (Lonesome Song, Righten That Wrong) and a fine execution of Nick Cave’s Henry Lee. Immaculate harmonies and elegant playing throughout combine to get the old boots stomping throughout this timeless offering.

Steve Dawson Solid States and Loose Ends – Black Hen Music

More often named on the inner sleeve of albums rather than the cover, Juno Award Winning producer, session player, multi-instrumentalist and solo artist Steve Dawson is one of the most respected artists on the Nashville music scene at present.

Solid States and Loose Ends is the eight studio album recorded by the Vancouver born Dawson and includes contributions by many of the artists that he has regularly worked with over the years. Regina and Ann Mc Crary add backing vocals, Fats Kaplin plays fiddle, Jim Hoke contributes saxophone and Gary Craig plays drums, to name a few.

Ten of the fourteen songs are penned by Dawson, a pulsating version of Joe Tex’s You Got What It Takes is also included together with the traditional Delia and Riley Puckett’s Monkey On My Back.

Dawson plays electric and acoustic guitar, steel guitar, chamberlain, mandotar and Weissenborn combined with a relaxed and effective vocal style throughout. Gid Tanner and The Skillet Lickers Henhouse Door (ironically Dawson’s recording studio is called Henhouse Studio) is the final cover, recorded acoustically with sublime slide guitar by Dawson. 

In contrast to his solo acoustic instrumental 2014 recording Rattlesnake Cage his latest album explores a much wider musical landscape embracing gospel, blues, country and beyond. As would be expected the production is immaculate throughout and strong comparisons could be made with the late 70’s early 80’s output of Ry Cooder. Loose Ends opens the album in style, a full rich bluesy sound with delightful backing vocals by the Mc Crary sisters. So much to savour on the album from the pulsating Driver’s Wheel, showcasing the wonderful fiddle playing of Fats Katlin to the laid back California Saviour which includes sweet steel guitar by Dawson.

All in all, a wonderful bluesy Americana album immaculately produced with masterful playing throughout. 

Rupert Wates Colorado Mornings (True Love Songs) – Bite Music

Eight solo recording from the London-born singer songwriter Rupert Wates. A professional songwriter since the late 1990’s when he was contracted by Eaton Music Limited to write music for a variety of musicians crossing a number of genres from folk right through to blues, Wates is very much a touring artist playing over 120 shows annually.

Dividing his time between New York and Colorado his latest offering is a collection of love songs based on the travels of two lovers through the state of Colorado in times long gone by. Understandably the album has quite a British Folk sound to it (The Green and Goody Valley) but also embraces jazz (Motorbike of Midnight Blue) and traditional folk.

The packaging and artwork on the album are delightful, striking photography depicting Wates and partner suitably clad in turn-of-the-century period costumes.

The Southern Fold A True Ascension from the Wayward Path – Self Release

The Southern Fold have been earning quite a reputation on the local live music circuit over the past eighteen months, well justified on the basis of this very impressive six track mini album.

The band is the brainchild of Kilkenny based singer songwriter Emlyn Holden and co-singer Laura Hand. They are joined by recent recruits Joe Maher (The Mariannes) on guitar and Frieda Freytag (Fox Owl Crow) on cello and piano. Recorded at Crossroads Recording in Kilkenny the album features four self writes by Holden, the most powerful being Romance in Morphine and Home From The War, together with two covers (Farther Along by Baxter/Stevens and Ledbetter’s Where Did You Sleep Last Night?).

The shared vocals and harmonies by Holden and Hand are the highlight of the album, no more so than on the aforementioned WWhere Did You Sleep Last Night?

The Southern Fold are one of an endless number of bands mixing country, folk and blues at present. I get the impression, listening to this album, that they have the potential to make a much more lasting impression than most. Credit must also go to Lorita Preiano for the beautiful cover photograph on the album.

Auburn Love & Promises – Scarlet Records

Originally formed by Liz Lenten in the UK back in 1999 Auburn recorded two very well received EP’S (Sweet Sebastian and For Life) before the release of their debut album Dreams in 2003.

They disbanded in 2005, regrouped in 2011 and have been particularly productive since then. Following a tour of the UK supporting Jefferson Starship they gained considerable industry acclaim with the release of their 2013 album Indian Summer which included a host of renowned guesting musicians including Eliza Carthy and Laura Vane. 

On a creative roll, the band followed in 2014 with Nashville, which explored country, jazz and southern blues and twelve months later released Mixed Feeling’s both produced by Thomm Jutz (Todd Snider, Sid Griffin, Nanci Griffith, and Lynn Marie Rink).

Love & Promises sees Auburn sticking with the same winning formula that worked on the previous album with Jutz again producing and contributing guitar, Jen Gunderman of Jayhawks fame on keyboards and accordion, Evan Hutchings on drums and Mark Fain on bass. Notwithstanding the excellent musicianship throughout its Lenten’s distinctive and sometimes strained vocals which standout on what is most likely the strongest work the band have recorded.

Probably the album’s standout track is the opener Asleep, with a nod towards Bonnie Raitt. Cross The Deep Atlantic features shared vocals with Austin based singer-songwriter Chet O’Keefe and If Everyone Was Listening simply cruises along beautifully.

The thirteen tracks on the album were produced by Jutz and mastered by Alex Mc Collough in Nashville with all songs written by Lenten with the exception of If Everyone Was Listening which was co-written with Mark Gustavina.

Without doubt well worth investing some time enjoying this very good album

Al Rose Spin Spin Dizzy – Self Release

"I’m a lazy fuck, a dedicated schmuch. I kick right back and I bank on luck" announces Al Rose in a Crazy Horse moment midway through his seventh studio release.

It’s business as usual from the Chicago resident. No frills blend of high octane country blues featuring Rose on electric and acoustic guitars accompanied by Steve Doyle on guitar, Steve Hashimoto on bass, and Lance Helgeson at the drum kit. Worse Came to Worse (I Feel Alright) simply rocks along, the title track Spin Spin Dizzy is gloriously bluesy and like much of the album sounds like a live recording.

It’s not all a hundred miles an hour though and Rose is more than capable of penning cry in your beer material as demonstrated with the delightful ballad Sweet Bouquet.

A satisfying blend of rock, roots, soul and no little humour, well worth a spin.

Blue Moon Marquee Gypsy Blues – Self Released

Forth offering from Rocky Mountain blues duo A.W.Cardinal and Jasmine Colette who perform as Blue Moon Marquee. It’s high energy, no frills blues from the opener Trickster Coyote to the closing title track. With all twelve songs written by the duo, Gypsy Blues does not attempt to reinvent the wheel but simply deliver a raw and retro sound covering expected themes of poverty, lost love, whiskey, loose and fearless women. The album was recorded at Afterlife Studios, Vancouver and engineered by Erik Nielson.