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Tag: will scott music

Blues Guitar Maven Will Scott Makes His Way Back to His Old Brooklyn Stomping Ground

Will Scott was in goodnatured entertainer mode yesterday evening at this year’s Brooklyn Americana Festival, staged in Brooklyn Bridge Park by 68 Jay Street Bar impresario and distinctive British-American folk song stylist Jan Bell. “I’m the only guy who ever left Brooklyn for Indiana and lost weight,” he joked. Which is funnier than you might think, considering that his rangy build never seems to have felt the effect of all those late-night whiskeys during the weekly residency he held for years up the block at 68 Jay. This one of a handful of return shows over the past year was especially fun since he was playing solo acoustic – he’s always been more of a band guy. For another, he got to air out just about every one of his many blues styles: swooping, animated Robert Johnson-style slides; intricate fingerpicking; purist delta blues, and Bible Belt gothic gospel. And lots of grim fire-and-brimstone biblical imagery, and one absolutely sizzling, shredding display of tremolopicking where he really took his time chainsawing all the way to the top of the fretboard. The one style he didn’t show off, one that he’s exceptionally good at, was hypnotic Mississippi hill country blues. But you can only fit so much stylistic cliff-jumping into a 45-minute set.

Scott explained that Gnawbone – the raw, roughhewn title track from his 2009 electric blues album – was named for a town in his home state. “They wanted to name it after Narbonne, in France,” Scott explained, “But the best the hoosiers could do was Gnawbone. I figured I’d name my album that since there was no way I’d ever end up playing there,” he explained. He paused. “Well…I just did.” Apparently the people in town didn’t take offense.

Scott eventually brought up Bell, his longtime collaborator and partner for some harmony vocals on a high-energy, anthemic take of See That My Grave Is Kept Clean, which turned out to be pretty amazing. See, most backup singers will go way up high and wail around on the blue notes. Bell did the opposite: if memory serves right, she went up an octave above the fifth and then made her way down. The effect was as original as it was unselfconsciously chilling: somebody transcribe that so other singers can do that too! And it’s worth mentioning that they way they did the song, looking back toward gospel rather than the Blind Lemon Jefferson recording that Dylan based his on, harked back to a very early version better known as One Kind Favor.

The festival winds up today, September 27 with a ton of music, starting at eleven in the morning at Superfine in Dumbo with the mando and guitar-driven Demolition String Band, eclectic retro Americana/doo-wop singer Willy Gantrim, and honkytonk bandleader/bassist Abby Hollander. Then at 4 PM there’s a rare solo vocals-and-accordion set by charismatic Romany chanteuse and song reinventor Eva Salina followed by the Jack Grace Band playing their boisterously funny oldschool 60s C&W and brooding southwestern gothic, under the archway below the Manhattan Bridge: if you’re in the neighborhood, you’ll hear it. And Scott makes a fond return appearance at 68 Jay at 7 PM.

Fred Gillen Jr. Makes Yet Another Good Record

It’s hard to believe that Fred Gillen Jr. has been making albums for almost 20 years now. His latest, Silence of the Night is one of his best, and arguably his most tuneful, a mix of acerbically lyrical, Americana-flavored janglerock and grittier electric songs that stand up alongside Steve Earle’s louder stuff. In a style of music that’s all too often drenched in obviousness and cliche, Gillen doesn’t go there: he has a bloodhound’s nose for a catchy hook, he tells a good story and he’s never sung better than he does here. There isn’t a hint of fakeness, or affectation in his casual, intimate vocals, or for that matter in his songwriting either. Although there isn’t as much of an overtly political stance to these songs as in his past work – during the Bush regime, Gillen was one of the most insightfully enraged voices of reason around – his songs still have a penetrating social consciousness. As someone who long ago adopted Woody Guthrie’s “this guitar kills fascists” for his six-string, Gillen keeps a close eye on the world outside and its most telling details. All seventeen tracks on the album are streaming at his Bandcamp site.

The opening cut, Morphine Angel offers a somber elegy for an addict, “blinded by your own sun’s dying light” – it wouldn’t be out of place in the BoDeans catalog. Later on, he revisits that theme – it’s a familiar one in his repertoire – with a more broad appraisal of the price of addiction in a dead-end town. The album’s surprisingly bouncy title cut looks at love as “a dockside shanty, lit by Christmas lights, painted like a carnival against the endless silence of the night.” Gillen follows that with Vanity and its casual country-rock sway, a vivid cautionary tale (and good advice) for these Orwellian times.

Find a Rodeo, a country ballad, laments the loss of good songs on the radio, among other things. One of the album’s strongest tracks, the Springsteen-ish Halloween Day at the VA leaves a chilling trail of images, a litany of damage and lost hope, among them the Afghan war vet who returns home too messed up to restart his old Kiss cover band. The growling, bluesy, metaphorically-charged Black Butterflies goes back to roaring Americana rock, something akin to Will Scott relocated to the Hudson Valley.

Shotgun contrasts a catchy janglerock tune with a brooding lyric that examines the consequences of getting married too soon, followed by the powerful Walking That Line, an abortion chronicle that makes a worthy sequel to Graham Parker’s You Can’t Be Too Strong. Only Sky ponders how possible it is to make a genuine escape, followed by the nonchalant come-on ballad Lean on Me.

A couple of tracks veer toward the sentimental, but they’re not throwaways. This Old Car, complete with fuzzy dice and air freshener, makes an apt flipside to Everclear’s Thousand Dollar Car. Sappy as the lyrics are, This Town Is Our Song has an irresistibly tasty acoustic guitar hook. There’s also Dinosaur Bones, a creepy, apocalyptic voice-and-drums number as well as a tantalizingly brief, bristling twangrock instrumental and an attempt to end the album on a lighthearted note. It’s another solid chapter in the career of a songwriter who’s not unknown – his recent collaborations with Pete Seeger have received well-deserved praise – but whose work would enrich the lives of a wider audience than it probably has. Fans of John Prine, Steve Earle, Townes Van Zandt and the rest of the Americana songwriting pantheon ought to get to know him.

Beautiful, Haunting, Evocative Mining Songs from Jan Bell

Jan Bell has one of the most distinctive and beautiful voices in any style of music. She’s never sung or written more vividly or poignantly than she does on her new concept album Dream of the Miner’s Child. A miner’s granddaughter, she traces the seam of coal that runs under the Atlantic from Wales to the Carolinas to make connection between the traditional songs of the Yorkshire mining country where she grew up, and the Appalachian ballads of her adopted land. A small ocean liner’s worth of Americana talent, including her bandmates from the acclaimed all-female Maybelles, joins her on this virtually all-acoustic collection recorded at various stops around the world. Soaring with vocal harmonies and prominent violin, it’s a richly purist, gorgeously subtle album, much of it propelled with a casually expert country swing by bassist Tim Luntzel and drummer Brian Geltner.

It opens with a briskly plaintive version of Jean Ritchie’s The L and N Don’t Stop Here Anymore (referring to a railroad rather than a New York subway line), Bell’s honey-and-nettle vocals contrasting with an austerely soaring Rima Fand violin solo. Yorkshire Water, an elegant chamber pop-flavored original, sets nuanced harmonies from Melissa Carper and the Be Good Tanyas‘ Samantha Parton over spare lines from Truckstop Honeymoon guitarist Mike West and pianist Katie Euliss.

Bell does Trixie Smith’s oldtime Mining Camp Blues closer to Davis Sisters-style country, joining harmonies with Alice Gerrard, Megan Palmer supplying rustic fiddle ambience. The title track, a wistful duet with Jolie Holland, looks back both to the 1925 Vernon Dalhart version as well as the original 1907 Welsh mining disaster ballad. Ewan MacColl’s Dirty Old Town, a duet with Will Scott, is considerably more subtle – and strangely evocative – than the haphazard Pogues version.

Another Bell original, Elsecar Grace aka John Willliams, carries a cruelly ironic narrative with a vintage soul/gospel melody. Her midtempo take on Darrell Scott’s haunting You’ll Never Leave Harlan Alive is nonchalantly chilling, while Juliet Russell adds her voice to an absolutely otherworldly a-cappella duet on Brian O’Higgins A Stor Mo Chroi.

M Shanghai String Band’s Philippa Thompson and Hilary Hawke join Bell on her Maybelles bandmate Karen Dahlstrom’s The Miner’s Bride, a brooding tale of a mail-order marriage in the old west made even more ominous by Thompson’s ghostly singing saw. Casey Neill shares vocals and adds electric guitar on a gently insistent, impactful take of Billy Bragg’s workingman’s anthem Between the Wars. Bell follows that with a Woody Guthrie lyric, Union Sea and makes ragtime-tinged antique pop out of it.

The catchiest of the originals here is Aunt Molly Jackson, the Carper Family (Melissa Carper, Beth Chrisman, Jenn Miori and Brennen Leigh) adding rich harmonies to this brisk oldschool C&W number. The most British of the tracks here is Carried by the Wind, Bell joined by Salty Pink’s Amelia Sauter and  Leah Houghtaling. Bell and Palmer end the album with an a-cappella take of the traditional Irish ballad Factory Girl. Life in mining country on both sides of the Atlantic was hard; Bell and her all-star cast deliver these songs with a potent bittersweetness that reflects both the hopes and grim realities of the people who created them, at the same time adding memorably to the repertoire. It’s not a stretch to imagine future generations of Americana musicians referencing the Jan Bell versions of many of these songs: this album secures her place among the finest and most individualistic musicians in that world. Bell plays the album release show at Barbes at 8 PM this Friday, Dec 14; high-voltage Balkan band Sherita (a Raya Brass Band spinoff) kicks off the evening at 7.