FEATURED SONG OF THE WEEK
She Sang Songs: Track Dogs
Acoustic roots band Track Dogs have named She Sang Songs as one of their favourites on their latest album Where To Now? It’s one of ours too, and Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. ‘In spilling her heart, she filled up mine’ is such a compelling line to conclude an uplifting chorus.
The Madrid-based quartet hail from Ireland, England and the US, their name deriving from the maintenance crews on the New York subway. The source of the song on their seventh studio album (ninth if you include their early offerings as The Garrett Wall Band) is ‘the archetypal muse who brings inspiration and solace, a voice in the darkness to lift our spirits and give us purpose’.
An homage to ghosts. The liner notes add: ‘It was also inspired by the countless female singer-songwriters whose guitars and notebooks lie forgotten, unplayed and unopened, gathering dust in rooms from times past, when culture and society wasn't open to such voices or expression.’
The wonderful video above was created by film-maker Peter Domankiewicz, a friend and follower of the band since the early days. ‘She Sang Songs is something really exceptional,’ he says. ‘It carried me away to a dream state, redolent with the creativity, mystery and transformative power of women… I also study the earliest days of cinema, so in that dream state I started picturing images of extraordinary, even mythical, women from some of those earliest films. People always think of early films as being monochrome, but in fact they were often coloured right from the start – by hand, via tinting, and with stencils... This unreal colouring makes these fragile remnants of decaying nitrate film even more magical.’
She Sang Songs is a dream of a song, an irresistible blend of melody, vocals, eloquent lyric and musicianship that invites us to hum and sway along, Howard Brown’s wonderfully expressive trumpet transporting us to a higher plane with help from the guest strings of Chris Demetriou (violin) and Adrianne Wininsky (cello), who are a delight throughout. The harmonies are gorgeous as singer-guitarist Wall, on a track typically credited to all four musicians, plucks the heart strings:
She sang songs of a different time
Pictured faces long left behind
She used words I could never find
In spilling her heart, she filled up mine
The Four Madrileños – Wall, who also plays piano and ukulele, Brown, Dave Mooney (bass and mandolin) and Robbie K Jones – are renowned for their exuberant ‘live’ shows, Brown’s trumpet preferred to electric guitar and Jones’s cajón flamenco making him a box-seat percussionist.
The feel is generally joyous – never more so than their lively cover of James Taylor’s Carolina In My Mind which drew plaudits from the man himself – but the themes are often dark. Ballads such as Meet Me In The Middle and At A Time Like This, moving takes on the pain of the pandemic, and the Latin-infused tale of conquistadors and El Dorado futility, River Of Gold, inspired by the family of Wall’s wife who live in Extremadura, reveal a remarkable versatility.
Track Dogs have always been prodigious collaborators. Remember the timelessly relevant Love & War on 2019’s Fire On The Rails album? That sumptuous track benefited from the fiddle wizardry of Phil Beer, Lisa Gutkin and Fergal Scahill and Nashville guru Eli Bishop’s arrangement. On Where To Now? – again produced and recorded in Madrid by Germán Gutiérrez – they combine with Bishop on Every Dog’s Day and River Of Gold, Dervish’s Cathy Jordan, co-writer Delories Dunn and Banter on the rumbustious Donna Lola, fiddler Kate Moran (exquisite on Less Than Equal) and The Potato Monsters on Empty Tracks. Folk, jazz, bluegrass, Americana; no genre is left unturned.
Their short tour of the UK is just finishing; be sure to catch them next time around. Meanwhile, she who sang songs will continue to do so.
Use Me: Valerie June
American roots artist Valerie June is celebrating International Women’s Month with a new single, Use Me, our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. A message of hope and a heavenly postscript to her last album, described here as astral soul.
It’s the Memphis-born, Brooklyn-based singer-songwriter’s first recording since last year’s highly acclaimed album The Moon And Stars: Prescriptions For Dreamers. Cast in the same celestial groove, it sounds like an out-take. The multi-instrumentalist has timed its release for the start of her US spring tour.
The song was co-written by producer Jennifer Decilveo, who has worked with Miley Cyrus, Demi Lovato and Andra Day. ‘I’m thrilled to release it in celebration of International Women’s Month because it was my first time working with a female producer,’ June says. ‘They are not easy to come by in the music industry so this collaboration was extra special.’
‘We’ve made a sphere from a circle unbroken/ We’ve got true love, not just three words spoken,’ she sings joyously in a video shot in Arizona that honours native American ancestral lands. ‘So why don’t you use me/ When you’re feeling low and can’t carry on/ Why don’t you use me/ When the world is doing you wrong.’
June expanded on her thinking behind the track: ‘As a bridge between modern music and traditional songs, Use Me vacillates between upbeat pop and weaves in the old, familiar hymn, Will The Circle Be Unbroken. Coming full circle, this represents multiple layers of how through love, families and communities, whether publicly or personally, in life and beyond death, we can use each other to create gorgeously positive changes. Oftentimes the voices of encouragement are from the women in our lives. We use the guidance of mothers, sisters, aunts, and daughters.’
Why The Bright Stars Glow from The Moon And Stars is a former Song Of The Week here. We spoke of her ‘embarking on a dreamer’s journey in search of enduring beauty, her instantly recognisable vocal suitably ethereal’. She said then: ‘When we allow ourselves to dream like we did when we were kids, it ignites the light that we all have within us and helps us to have a sort of magic about the way we live.’ Her fifth studio album was described by Uncut Magazine as ‘elegantly subversive, a psychedelic tour de force that mixes folk, soul and spiritual Van Morrison-style hymns into a delirious, unique whole’.
In late January June released a deluxe edition, with six of the original 14 tracks reworked in a stripped-down, acoustic setting and three covers as bonus tracks: Nick Drake’s Pink Moon, John Lennon’s Imagine and Stephen Foster’s Beautiful Dreamer. The reimagined Why The Bright Stars Glow features a cameo from Mavis Staples. ‘Listening to the original album versions alongside these acoustic arrangements shows the life of each song and how they can be appreciated both with luscious layers and in their simplest forms. Songs are living entities, and it’s always lovely to watch how a song with a huge arrangement can still touch a listener even in its simplicity.’
June’s music is simply otherworldly.
Suitcase: Karine Polwart (with Steven Polwart and Inge Thomson)
Some songs are both of their time and ahead of it. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Suitcase by Scottish folk innovator Karine Polwart whose beguiling vocal and empathy with the displaced and desperate will touch Ukrainian hearts.
Suitcase, co-written with Lau’s Martin Green, appears on her 2018 album Laws Of Motion, a collaboration with guitarist brother Steven Polwart and Green’s partner Inge Thomson (accordion, electronics and perscussion). Polwart tells the story of the thousands of children, mostly Jewish, safely moved from Nazi Europe via the Kinder-transport scheme on the eve of the Second World War. Green’s grandparents fled Austria for London as children in the 1930s; his great-grandfather left first, ending up in a Jewish ghetto in Shanghai.
From one refugee crisis to another, from one global threat to another. Polwart has a gift for personalising history and getting to the heartbreak of the matter. The song is told from the viewpoint of an older man travelling by train with a boy, contemplating a future of constant escape: ‘The suitcase in the lobby is always packed and ready… In his dream no final destination, everyone on board grows old.’ You are left haunted by the pounding of the insistent line: ‘And he still holds his father’s hand.’
2018’s BBC Radio 2 Folk Singer of the Year dedicated the song to ‘all those who still flee, because they have to’. Ukrainian families torn apart by conflict can find some comfort in the playlists that soundtrack their plight. If only a certain government had shown the same compassion as the songwriters and unconditional support for those in dire need instead of erecting bureaucratic barriers, now thankfully being eased.
Migration is a heartfelt theme for Polwart and Green whose exceptional 2016 album Flit, a thought-provoking multi-media project and theatrical song cycle (‘first-hand stories of human movement across the world’), included both The Suitcase and Laws Of Motion, two of four Polwart-Green compositions, with Adam Holmes, Becky Unthank and John Smith providing impassioned vocals.
Polwart’s version of Suitcase (dropping the definite article) features on a Spotify playlist assembled by Folk For Refugees; accordionist Green is also represented by the gorgeous Roll Away, co-written by Anaïs Mitchell and notable for Holmes’ honeyed baritone, and by the Lau gem Ghosts, beautifully delivered by Kris Drever. There are compelling contributions from Eliza Carthy & The Wayward Band (You Know Me) and Jacob & Drinkwater (There’s A Shadow On The Sun). The latter reflects on the war in Syria but could easily apply to the Ukraine catastrophe.
In May Eliza Carthy and friends will take part in Folk For Refugees’ The Long Walk Home – ‘from somewhere to Robin Hood’s Bay’ – to raise money for the DEC Ukraine Appeal. ‘The desperate families walking at this very moment are hoping for home, and carrying their culture with them even as someone tries to put it down,’ Carthy says. ‘We’ll walk and sing and play in solidarity with them, doing our very small part to highlight their troubles and hopefully make our people in power realise that our home can be theirs too, for as long as they need it.’
The closing track on Polwart’s Laws Of Motion, Cassiopeia, presents the unthinkable spectre of a nuclear attack, referencing the infamous government Protect and Survive advice of the Cold War era. Chillingly familiar. Back in 2015 Polwart was among a group of 10 Scottish and English musicians who gathered on the Isle of Eigg to create the magnificent opus Songs Of Separation, aimed at breaking down divisions. Her recent alliance with a host of fine musicians on the two-album labour of love Spell Songs confirms her reputation as an inventive lyricist and musician – sample the delightful Thrift (Dig In, Dig In). Collaboration is what the world needs now.
Esteemed American songwriters Gretchen Peters and Mary Gauthier remarked on the prescience of great songs during an on-line show in aid of Ukraine’s Voices Of Children Foundation. ‘How did it know?’ said Peters about a song’s enduring capacity to remain relevant in different times of turbulence. She could have been referring to her own Idlewild or Gauthier’s Mercy Now. Just like Suitcase, which has never resonated as loudly as now.
Made Up Mind: Bonnie Raitt
It’s official: the great Bonnie Raitt is an ‘icon’, something her fans could have told you many bluesy moons ago. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is her new single, Mind Made Up. Quality undiminished.
The track is a first taste of her 21st album, Just Like That, set for release on April 22. Raitt, 72 years young and about to embark on an eight-month US tour with guests Lucinda Williams and Mavis Staples, was made a Women In Music Icon by Billboard last week, accepting the award from friend and fellow songwriter Jackson Browne on behalf of ‘badass women around the world’.
The song, not the Tedeschi Trucks Band track, is a cover of The Bros. Landreth slow-burning rocker about a relationship turned toxic, from their 2015 Let It Lie album. It is achingly sung, proving that Raitt’s soulful alto has lost none of its intoxicating power, her trademark sinuous slide guitar trading licks with Kenny Greenberg’s stylish lead.
The Canadian brothers, Joey and David, might have written the track with Bonnie in mind. As Billboard says, she is not only an exquisite interpreter of songs, she inhabits them. Her phrasing is immaculate and the way she pauses before the word ‘heart’ during the chorus emphasises the anguish she is singing about.
Pretty soon the melody is like a rainstorm tin roof symphony...
It always ends on a bad note
If you could dance at all you'd dance alone
It goes on and on
The quiet behind the slamming door
The break of a heart that won’t break no more
Getaway wheels in a straight line
Serenade of a made-up mind
The Californian, who recorded the album in Sausalito last summer on the 50th anniversary of her first self-titled album, says: ‘On this record I wanted to stretch. I always want to find songs that excite me, and what’s different this time is I’ve tried some styles and topics I haven’t touched before.’
The daughter of a Broadway song and dance man, Raitt has oozed the blues since following the path of her idols Son House, Mississippi Fred McDowell, Muddy Waters and Sippie Wallace and fronting her own band, a rarity in the early Seventies. She told Billboard: ‘It was an unusual thing to have a white woman – any woman – playing country-blues. I know having the chops of playing blues guitar got my foot in the door. I think I bypassed having to prove myself.’
Raitt produced the album herself with help from engineer Ryan Freeland, who had worked on 2016’s Dig In Deep and the Grammy-decorated Slipstream four years earlier. ‘I’m really aware of how lucky I am and I feel like it’s my responsibility to get out there and say something fresh and new – for me and the fans. But I need to have something to say or I won’t put out a record.’
Four of the tracks on Just Like That are her own, including the title track and Livin’ For The Ones, co-written by long-time bandmate George Marinelli, who contributes accomplished guitar and backing vocals. The other musicians are James ‘Hutch’ Hutchinson (bass), Ricky Fataar (drums), Glenn Patscha (keyboards) and Greenberg.
At the Los Angeles ceremony Raitt, before playing an acoustic rendition of her celebrated cover of John Prine’s moving Angel From Montgomery, dedicated her award to a nation in need. Her mind was made up. ‘My heart is heavy for the people of Ukraine, and I know the Russian people are not in agreement – so many of them – with what’s being done. I pray for all the people who are working hard for peace, including the man who started the war. May he have a transformation.’
Broken Barricades: Procol Harum
Procol Harum’s Broken Barricades, which should appear on a soundtrack to these perilous times, is our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. It also serves as an homage to the sublime, soulful voice of Gary Brooker, who has died aged 76.
Brooker composed the title track of their 1971 album with lyricist and poet in residence Keith Reid, who was considered a band member despite his non-performing role. They could never escape the global fame of the Bach-influenced A Whiter Shade Of Pale during a long writing association but their legacy should extend far beyond their anthem for the ages that was covered more than a thousand times.
The dark, ‘just ghostly’ tone of Reid’s lyrics is partly explained by his background as the Jewish grandson of Holocaust victims. His father, a Viennese lawyer, was released from Dachau after agreeing to leave the country and fled to heavily-bombed east London where son Keith would later team up with Hackney-born Brooker whose family had moved to Southend in the mid-Fifties.
The trippy, surreal words to their first hit A Whiter Shade Of Pale in 1967 were more informed by the painters and art-house films enjoyed by Reid who pointed out he was driven by ‘books, not drugs’. Broken Barricades was written against a backdrop of conflict – Vietnam, the Irish Troubles, industrial disputes and student protests – although the biblical imagery invites multiple interpretations. Lyricists usually prefer to preserve the mystique of their songs. Some critics complained that some of Reid’s lyrics were wilfully obscure; they must have been alluding to Luskus Delph. Similar barbs were aimed at one of his heroes, Bob Dylan.
Brooker was asked for his take on Broken Bones: ‘I’m not quite sure. It conjures up the feeling of a ruined planet. Yet it is more about a personal relationship, if you look more deeply. I just imagine it as environmental. I don’t know why. It can mean whatever you want. It could be about a personal relationship or about the world falling apart.’
It was all once bright jewels
And glittering sand
The oceans have ravaged
And strangled the land
Waste fills the temples
Dead daughters are born
The presses are empty
The editors torn
Whose husband was the first to fall?
Who died the worst death of them all?
How many splinters in each separate band?
How many stations in the final hand?
The two friends, their working method similar to that of Elton John and Bernie Taupin, wrote together from 1967 to 1977 when the band broke up, but there were reunion records in 1991 (The Prodigal Stranger) and 2003 (The Well’s On Fire). Brooker felt that they had turned full circle, that with the emergence of punk and disco, there was less space for a so-called progressive or classical rock band. But their popularity would shine on brightly. Film director Martin Scorsese referred to their ‘magisterial melodies and teasing, enigmatic lyrics you could invest with your own fantasies’ in the foreword to Henry Scott-Irvine’s 2012 book about the band.
Reid, now 75, once said of their alliance: ‘Gary never asked me what any of the words meant, and that may have been the secret of our success.’ He picked out two lines from Grand Hotel as among his favourite musings: ‘Dover sole and oeufs mornay/ Profiteroles and peach flambé.’ Procol’s 12th and final recording in 2017, Novum, marking their 50th anniversary, was the only album not to feature Reid’s erudite input, the Jack Bruce collaborator Pete Brown taking on the role.
In 2008, having moved to New York in 1986, Reid released the album The Common Thread under the banner The Keith Reid Project for which he gathered eight singer-musicians, including John Waite, Chris Thompson and Southside Johnny, to convey his words. He told Songfacts: ‘I started to write more directly, using less imagery and trying to write more simply. This is a process which took years… I thought, Why don’t I make my own movie? Kind of like a filmmaker, really. I’ll write the songs and I’ll cast the singers who suit the different songs.’ There was a sequel, In My Head, in 2018.
Brooker’s soaring vocal, his hypnotic electric piano arpeggio, BJ Wilson’s superb drumming and the lengthy synth fade combine with a typically enigmatic lyric to make Broken Barricades one of the band’s most memorable songs. ‘Everywhere you look things are hysterical… I think that people know they are more than machines but everything around them convinces them that that is all they are,’ Reid told Beat Instrumental in 1971.
The album was the last to feature guitarist Robin Trower, a bandmate of Brooker’s in The Paramounts during the early Sixties, who was keen to fulfil his own Jimi Hendrix-fuelled ambitions. Procol continued to tour and record until the pandemic struck, their final gig being in Switzerland in 2019. As the band’s statement read: ‘Gary’s voice and piano were the single defining constant of Procol’s 50-year international concert career. Without any stage antics or other gimmicks, he was invariably the most watchable musician in the show.’
That soundtrack to the worst of times could also include Procol Harum’s As Strong As Samson, written in the wake of the Yom Kippur war, from 1974’s Exotic Birds And Fruit. This was far from a one-song band, a view reinforced by Broken Barricades, Shine On Brightly, Salad Days (Are Here Again), Homburg, Conquistador, Grand Hotel, Pandora’s Box and the delicious A Rum Tale (‘She’s fuddled my fancy, she’s muddled me good’). However, it is difficult to challenge the contention of my colleague Phil Shaw that the band’s magnum opus is not A Whiter Shade Of Pale but A Salty Dog. We bow to their majesty. Still the crowd call out for more. RIP Gary Brooker.
The Hopeless Ghosts: Dean Owens (featuring Grant-Lee Phillips)
A chance meeting between Scottish songwriter Dean Owens and Joey Burns of US indie band Calexico is the back story to our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. The Hopeless Ghosts features the harmonies of his Californian friend Grant-Lee Phillips and the eerie trumpet of Jacob Valenzuela. Welcome to Celtic mariachi.
The track is from Owens’ latest album Sinner’s Shrine, inspired by visits to Burns’ native Tucson, Arizona, where the pair first met three years ago. The Leith troubadour’s thoughtful songs are enhanced by Calexico’s distinctive sound, often dubbed desert noir and evocative of Ennio Morricone’s spaghetti westerns.
Owens, described by novelist Irvine Welsh as ‘the pulse of our lives’, sings of a restless spirit in the borderlands:
There’s no town that feels like home
There’s no town that feels like home
This wilderness I wander alone
My destination unknown
A vagabond for beauty I may be
I wander in the footsteps of the hopeless ghosts
Home is the road I’m on
Home is the road
The late Townes Van Zandt influenced the title. When asked why his songs were so sad he replied that he had a few that weren’t sad, and they were just hopeless, about hopeless situations. ‘It was an idea that really stuck with me,’ says the Scot. The mythology of the American Southwest fired his imagination.
The Sinner’s Shrine, known as El Tiradito (The Castaway), is in Tucson’s old Barrio Viejo and first referenced in the opening track Arizona. One of the only shrines to a transgressor on unconsecrated ground in the States, it fascinated Owens who uses it as a metaphor for ‘saints and sinners, the lost and found, love and lust, religion and passion, ideas that inspired many of the songs’.
The Barbed Wire’s Still Weeping is another standout track, dark, dissident and cinematic, about the plight of immigrants and in the shadow of Donald Trump’s cruel wall, led by Owens’ impressive whistling. New Mexico, from his first solo album, is reworked and given fresh lustre by guitarist Burns and drummer John Convertino and their Calexico amigos Valenzuela, Sergio Mendoza (keyboards and percussion), Paul Niehaus (pedal steel) and Tom Hagerman (accordion and string arrangements).
The album was recorded in Tucson two years ago but delayed by Covid, although certain tracks were released on Owens’ Desert Trilogy EPs last year. Owens is no stranger to collaboration: in 2019 he teamed up with producer-songwriter Neilson Hubbard and his Orphan Brigade cohorts Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman for Buffalo Blood, a collection of songs written after a tour of sacred Native American lands in the New Mexico desert. ‘It’s a vanishing world.’
Calexico have an album of their own scheduled for April, El Mirador, billed as ‘a blast of danceable optimism’ after the pandemic gloom. Burns, who is as interested in Celtic music as Owens is in thrall to Tex-Mex, told Americana UK that Sinner’s Shrine was the last music recorded by Calexico before the world shut down. ‘It’s like the last train ride or the last time you ride on the world’s best rollercoaster. I’ll never forget it.’
Owens won’t either: ‘When I was writing the songs I had some ideas, a trumpet part here and there and some guitar parts, but essentially I’m a guy who sings and strums. Joey and John took that on board and really brought the songs to life. As soon as I heard John on the drum kit and Joey behind the double bass, right from the first song my anxieties were eased.’
The delicious Land Of The Hummingbird is a duet with Guatemalan singer Gaby Moreno, Mendoza’s piano style echoing the Buena Vista Social Club, while the lovely lament Compañera is elevated by the ubiquitous Valenzuela and guest Antonio Pró’s guitarron. After The Rain dates back to Owens’ band days with The Felsons in Edinburgh and was included at Burns’ insistence. The ghosts may be hopeless but they can still haunt.
A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey: Leyla McCalla
Leyla McCalla’s haunting song inspired by her Haitian heritage, A Day For The Hunter, A Day For The Prey, was a high point of the Transatlantic Sessions show at London’s Festival Hall. It’s our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. A lament for lost refugees.
New Orleans-based McCalla, whose thought-provoking music we have enjoyed from her Carolina Chocolate Drops days with Rhiannon Giddens to more recently Our Native Daughters, again with Giddens, drummed her cello with the bow throughout as she sang soulfully:
If they take me away
I want you to pray
Not for me
For the souls who have been taken like me before
What made the song joyously different from the stripped-down original, the title track of McCalla’s 2016 album, was the Jerry Douglas dobro-led house band’s accompaniment which swirled in and out of an Irish jig, enhancing rather than competing with the African rhythms.
The song, based on a Haitian proverb, tells of boat people trying to escape the misery of oppression for the US but resonates with other victims of a global crisis exacerbated by Covid. Classically-trained McCalla, born in New York to human rights activist parents, sings in English, French and Haitian Creole and plays banjo and guitar as well as cello. She releases Breaking The Thermometer, an album of stories, memory and ancestry, in May, treating us to an advance single, Vini Wè, and a video about the story behind the song.
McCalla told NPR Music: ‘The proverb really captures the essence of the Haitian spirit which is linked to the struggle for human rights and political sovereignty, The story of Haiti’s independence and how it was won is so intertwined with the legacy of slavery and had an incredible ripple effect on the major colonial powers.
‘The struggle for independence was extremely violent and I suspect this is why it’s not spoken about much. With all of this complex history my own identity as a Haitian-American growing up in the US has been full of confusion. I’ve come to realise this as a strength. Music is transformative and has great healing power.’
The whole evening seemed like a healing process. Irish legend Paul Brady, still in excellent voice at 74, entertained with his satirical song about the wealthy young whining over the 2008 financial crash, Money To Burn. McCalla’s The Capitalist Blues would have dovetailed nicely here.
Brady joined forces with Scottish singer-songwriter Siobhan Miller for a pleasing rendition of The Cocks Are Crowing before Miller invited the audience to join in on her own While The Whole World Sleeps, from her 2020 album All Is Not Forgotten. Written before the pandemic but touchingly relevant, it stresses the need to stay connected. Celtic connections are what the Transatlantic Sessions are all about.
It was good to welcome back this celebration of folk from both sides of the pond after a two-year absence. We still miss the BBC Transatlantic Sessions series which ran from 1995 to 2013. You can still access them via iPlayer and marvel at Brady’s earlier contributions which peaked memorably with The Lakes Of Pontchartrain. Meanwhile, Brady’s 1976 masterpiece of an album with Andy Irvine, recorded after the demise of their Irish folk supergroup Planxty, has been remastered for a special edition reissue in March, including a booklet with interviews about the making of the record. It features Arthur McBride And The Sergeant which Bob Dylan notably covered, abbreviating its title.
It was lovely to hear Dirk Powell reprising Waterbound. The multi-instrumentalist from Ohio via Kentucky, a leading exponent of Appalachian and Cajun music, is always at home with the house band who, though missing the indisposed fiddle maestro Aly Bain, still retained that back-porch feel. The warmth of accordionist Phil Cunningham’s dry repartee and the exuberance of fiddler John McCusker’s dancing feet heighten the feelgood factor. McCalla tweeted: ‘In the past couple of days I’ve acquired many new friends and at least three new Scottish and Irish uncles.’
Powell’s Walking Through Clay was a moving tale about his own relatives, his great-great-grandmother fleeing Confederate soldiers and walking a 100 miles before giving birth to his great grandfather and settling in Clay County, Kentucky. Echoes of Levon Helm and The Band from the man who co-produced Our Native Daughters’ debut album with Giddens.
The Texas-born Sarah Jarosz, a member of trio I’m With Her, provided further standout moments with the gorgeous Orange And Blue, from her Grammy-winning album World On The Ground, a former Song Of The Week here, and the poignant Blue Heron. Jarosz is adept at using the personal to develop universal themes.
It is part of a song cycle entitled Blue Heron Suite, a commission she received in 2017 from the FreshGrass Foundation. Jarosz recalls childhood trips from Wimberley to Port Aransas ob the Gulf Coast with her mother, who has battled through serious illness, and sightings of those beautiful good-omen birds, symbols of peace in turbulent times. Good omens are just what we need right now.
Poor Wayfaring Stranger: Eliza Carthy & Norma Waterson
To celebrate the musical life of Norma Waterson, who has died at the age of 82, we have chosen Poor Wayfaring Stranger as our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. It’s from an album entitled Gift. That’s what she was and will continue to be.
The traditional American spiritual, dating back to the early 19th century, is a beautifully sung lament to life’s passing, as is the other standout track on the album released by Waterson and her daughter Eliza Carthy in 2010: their interpretation of Longfellow’s stirring poem Psalm Of Life.
Hull-born Norma was the matriarch of the Waterson-Carthy dynasty that spearheaded the British folk revival in the Sixties. She was brought up by her grandmother, who was partly of Irish Gypsy descent, after her parents had died when she was young. Music-hall and parlour songs were the order of the day for her, brother Mike and sister Lal who formed a band in the skiffle era called the Mariners which later became the Watersons. Her embrace of other genres, from pop to jazz, earned her a wide following. She was in her 70th year when she and Eliza recorded as a duo for the first time.
There’s a rich strength in Norma’s vocal and a quiet majesty in the harmonies of her daughter and niece Marry Waterson. The musicianship is exquisite, from Aidan Curran’s guitar and Danny Thompson’s double bass on Poor Wayfaring Stranger to Eliza's fiddle playing elsewhere, her father Martin Carthy’s fretwork, Saul Rose’s melodeon, Roger Williams’ trombone, Oliver Knight’s cello and Martin Simpson’s banjo. As Eliza explains in the liner notes: ‘Aidan led the arrangement right down to trying to tell Danny what to play without being too scared.’
Her 1996 self-titled solo album, which included her own Hard Times Heart as well as songs by the Grateful Dead and Elvis Costello, very nearly earned a Mercury prize but it was pipped by Pulp’s Different Class. Norma, who received a BBC Folk Awards lifetime achievement award in later joked she wanted to adopt Jarvis Cocker. A personal favourite is her superb soulful vocal on Red Wine And Promises, written by her sister, from Lal and Mike Waterson’s remarkable 1972 album Bright Phoebus: ‘I don’t need nobody helping me/ I don’t need no bugger’s arm around me.’
Norma’s final album Anchor in 2018, recorded in her home town of Robin Hood's Bay with Eliza and the Gift Band, was typically eclectic with a jazz-infused cover of Tom Waits’ Strange Weather and a lovely reworking of Nick Lowe’s The Beast In Me.
Gift was Album of the Year at the 2011 BBC Folk Awards with Poor Wayfaring Stranger named best traditional track. The song has been reimagined by so many, from Burl Ives, Bill Monroe and Johnny Cash to Emmylou Harris, Eva Cassidy, Jack White and Rhiannon Giddens. Historians differ over its derivation. Some say it originates from mountain folk in Appalachia, others believe it was sung by enslaved African-Americans.
The album cover photo of mother and daughter’s clasped, bangled hands seems to symbolise the passing of family traditions from generation to generation; the baton is in Eliza’s loving care now. ‘I’ll soon be free from every trial.’ A gifted one has gone but her legacy will keep on giving.
Little Big Girl: Anaïs Mitchell
It’s not yet February and we’ve already heard a strong contender for album of the year, Anaïs Mitchell’s self-titled release a decade on from her last solo work. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is the perceptive Little Big Girl.
It is a wistful, nostalgic album, musing on the passage of time, and Little Big Girl reconnects with younger versions of herself as she grapples with the tensions of her Vermont homecoming…
No one ever told you it would be like this
That you keep on getting older, but you feel just like a kid Now they treat you like a lady
Sometimes all you want is to cry like a baby
In your mama’s arms
Hold on, little big girl, hold on…
Standing in the kitchen with a ticking clock
You catch your reflection in a window in the dark
And for a moment it’s your mama coming home from work
Tell her you love her
Tell her you’re her
Yearning melodies abound in the 10 songs Mitchell wrote after relocating from her New York base to her grandparents’ old farmhouse in Vermont with the birth of her second child imminent at the start of the pandemic. In the sharply observed Revenant she sifts through her grandparents’ letters, diaries and personal memorabilia: ‘In a box under the stairs/ Found a lock of a child’s hair… We’re as young as we’ll ever be/ Old as we’ve ever been.’ The work of a formidable lyricist who makes us almost feel the dust and sense the sepia.
The album, with key changes that surprise and delight, was produced by her Bonny Light Horseman bandmate Josh Kaufman who adds accomplished guitar. There are contributions from The National’s Aaron Dessner whose Big Red Machine project with Justin Vernon was adorned by Mitchell’s beguiling, breathy vocal. Taylor Swift’s frequent pianist Thomas Bartlett, Bon Iver’s Michael Lewis (bass and sax), Nico Muhly (orchestral arrangements) and Big Red Machine drummer JT Bates complete the backing line-up.
‘There’s something in the way her ideas connect and always come back around,’ Kaufman told the New York Times. ‘She has a very lived-in knowledge of traditional music and folk songs. But as a human she’s also incredibly in-the-moment, which allows her to anchor everything in the present.’
Mitchell, now 40, is relieved to be moving away from the all-consuming success story of Hadestown which began as a small stage show in Vermont in 2006 and was adapted for a concept album four years later. Off Broadway and then full-on Broadway beckoned for her interpretation of the Orpheus myth transported to Depression-era America. When the show opened at the Walter Kerr Theatre in 2019, taking over from Springsteen On Broadway, she became only the fourth woman to compose the music, lyrics and book of a Broadway musical.
We have another Bonny Light Horseman album to look forward to this year but for now we can bask in the warmth of a more personal, intimate form of storytelling, created in her rural retreat after Covid closed Broadway. ‘These songs are all me, the stories are my stories. It feels very different,’ she said.
We enjoyed album teasers late last year: the glittering Bright Star was a recent Song Of The Week here and the beautiful Brooklyn Bridge featured in colleague Phil Shaw’s Top 20 songs of 2021. Little Big Girl maintains the stellar standard.
Under The Milky Way: Emily Barker and Lukas Drinkwater
Most artists have produced new work in isolation during the pandemic but few as resourcefully as Emily Barker and Lukas Drinkwater, quarantined in a hotel room. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Under The Milky Way from their absorbing new album Room 822.
The couple, visiting Barker’s family in her native Perth in October before embarking on a Covid-hit tour which was partially cancelled then somehow rescued, were forced to isolate for two weeks amid the state’s tight restrictions, luckily in a five-star hotel. Barker had planned an album of covers of her favourite Australian songs, so what better opportunity. First problem: reducing a long list to 10.
It helped having a producer on hand in multi-instrumentalist Drinkwater who performed technical wonders in dampening noises off: a humming fridge, sirens outside their city hotel, helicopters landing on the roof of the hospital opposite, room service intrusions and the swish of a rowing machine in the room above.
They had packed as many instruments as possible, and additional gear was dropped off at the hotel. Production by necessity had to be sparse, no bad thing. Under The Milky Way is one of many songs to have inspired Barker as she grew up. Released in 1988, it was described as an accidental hit for a Sydney-based new wave band The Church (admire those mullets in the video).
Lead singer and bassist Steve Kilbey, who wrote the song with Karin Jansson, wasn't sure what it was about; a special cigarette may have been involved. ‘Perhaps I looked up at the wonderful glittering heavens and was inspired – I don't know.’ He told Guardian Australia in 2014: ‘Like all my songs, it’s a portal into your own mind where I give you a guided meditation. It’s a blank, abstract canvas for people to lose themselves in.’ The record became something of a curse, overshadowing the band’s other offerings, although Kilbey admitted it has been a good earner.
Its anthemic chorus – ‘Wish I knew what you were looking for, might have known what you would find’ – became a soundtrack for so many Australian lives as wedding or funeral songs, for school choirs and symphony orchestras. Barker and Drinkwater stripped it down and turned up the subtlety courtesy of Emily’s alluring vocal, Lukas’s wondrous bowed double bass and guest Aussie songwriter Fanny Lumsden’s harmonies.
‘I found myself gravitating towards songs that meant a lot to me in my late teens growing up in WA – songs I would put on the tape deck of my yellow VW Beetle while driving to the coast with the windows down, singing at the top of my lungs,’ says Barker on bandcamp.com. ‘Fighting through the fog of jet lag, we started recording on day two. Lukas, with bags of studio engineering experience and immense patience, overcame the setbacks and the days ticked by as he captured our performances. By day 12, we had recorded 10 songs by some of Australia’s finest songwriters and Lukas mixed the album over the final two days of a somewhat surreal, but productive stay.’
We love their covers of The Waifs’ charming hymn to homesickness London Still, Silverchair’s Tomorrow, Nick Cave’s Push The Sky Away, Stella Donnelly’s devastating Boys Will Be Boys and Paul Kelly’s climate change wake-up call Sleep Australia Sleep. But Under The Milky Way is on repeat here, its air of mystery quietly and beautifully magnified by the couple in Room 822.
I Lied: Lord Huron (with Allison Ponthier)
‘I Lied’ – the political declaration we would all like to hear – is also the title of a beautiful song by Los Angeles-based indie rock band Lord Huron and our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com. Ben Schneider plays the love cheat and Allison Ponthier the victim.
The track appears on the band’s fourth album Long Lost, released last year, and was written by Schneider, their founder and creative force. The singer-guitarist delivers the first two verses, an admission of betrayal to his partner in a doomed relationship: ‘I bore a flame that burned a thousand suns for you but it died/ Told you I could never love somebody else but I lied.’
Ponthier’s crystalline vocal responds to Schneider’s Ricky Nelson balladry: ‘I read your letter in the morning by the lake and I cried/ They were tears of joy, my chains are finally broken.’ Lap steel heightens the haunting quality of this heart-tugging waltz. We won’t spoil it by reprising the final cutting couplet.
Lord Huron began as a solo project in 2010, named after one of the Great Lakes near Schneider’s birthplace in Michigan. He was later joined by Mark Barry (drums), Miguel Briseño (bass/keyboards) and guitarist Tom Renaud. The swelling of strings gives the music a dreamy, retro feel.
I Lied is our second choice drawn from Long Lost, one of our 30 favourite albums of 2021. ‘As though Roy Orbison and Ennio Morricone had got round to collaborating,’ the blurb said of the title track. ‘The Big O meets The Big Valley’ was our description. Much of the album is cinematic with its sweeping sonic landscape and spaghetti western twang, ‘the perfect soundtrack for a road trip to nowhere’, as one critic put it.
‘We wanted it to feel like you were coming upon a long lost classic,’ Schneider told Atwood Magazine. ‘To feel like you discovered some album you somehow missed from a time period you can’t quite figure out. It’s nostalgic, and the tones and the way it’s recorded, the song structures, and some of the rhythms and melodies remind you of something, but… you can’t define it.’
Ponthier’s guest appearance preceded her debut EP, Faking My Own Death, which included the heavenly Hell Is A Crowded Room, co-written by Rick Nowels. She wrote her breakthrough song Cowboy after moving to New York in 2017 and revealing her sexual orientation. ‘I guess it was time to live my truth as a gay cowboy,’ she told American Songwriter.
The Texas-born singer toured with Lord Huron in North America in September; sadly, due to Covid the band had to cancel next month’s dates in the UK and Europe. NPR Music’s Ann Powers commented: ‘Ponthier invokes Chris Isaak invoking Roy Orbison, Cat Power invoking Peggy Lee, Lana Del Rey invoking every singer David Lynch ever ushered on to the stage of Twin Peaks’ Bang Bang Bar.’ The latter part of that sentiment could apply to Lord Huron too.
Song Of The Seasons: Neil Young & Crazy Horse
Neil Young is well into his 70s and still evoking the Seventies. Our Song Of The Week at herecomesthesong.com is Song Of The Seasons, opening track of his latest album with Crazy Horse, Barn. True to himself, ever melodic and defiantly relevant.
The title refers to the converted recording studio high in the Rockies in Colorado where the Canadian-born American songwriter has made his home. Prolific seems an understatement to describe Young’s output. This is the 41st studio album of his career, the 14th with Crazy Horse and most consistent of the five currently occupying places in the UK Americana Top 40 charts.
In Song Of The Seasons Young’s weathered, high-register voice weaves his favourite themes of love, nostalgia and protection of the planet, his harmonica interplaying gorgeously with Nils Lofgren’s accordion. ‘In the colors of the falling leaves/ I see nature makes no mistake… Song of the seasons coming through me now/ Like the wind in your hair.’
Like most of the tracks that follow, it feels like a first or second take, as if it’s being composed on the hoof. Apparently, that was the case. There are reflections of past London visits (‘I see the palace where the queen still reigns/ Behind her walls and lonesome gates’) and allusions to the disturbing present (‘Masked people walking everywhere’). We’ve heard these melodies before but there is comfort in familiarity.
Young, who keeps himself busy curating and expanding his impressive Archives, explained the organic process to Rolling Stone: ‘I don’t sit and play the guitar and sing the song. I might sing one verse, or think it while I’m playing, maybe humming or something. Then I write all the words out and I try to never do it again until it’s being recorded with the band. Right before we do it, I’ll show the band the changes and I’ll let them play for a few minutes. Then I just start.’
The attraction of Young’s music is its rugged, sometimes ragged glory, whether he’s playing plaintive ballads such as Tumblin’ Thru The Years, the mysterious minor-key They Might Be Lost, the long, slow-smoking standout Welcome Back or barn-burning grunge like Heading West and the angry Human Race (a new anthem for climate change activists?).
In Canerican Young celebrates his recently gained right to vote in the US, for Joe Biden of course: ‘I am all colors, all colors is what I am/ Stand beside my brother for freedom in this land.’ As always with Young, the personal links arms with the political. The pursuit of change for the better has been a constant companion for this grizzled romantic. ‘Yeh, I’m older now, but I’m still dreaming,’ he sings in Shape Of You.
In the absence of retired guitarist Frank ‘Poncho’ Sampredo, Lofgren takes time out from Springsteen duties to provide distinctive fretwork and multi-instrumental flourishes as he reunites with rhythm section buddies Ralph Molina (drums) and Billy Talbot (bass) who summon ghostly CSN&Y harmonies.
Sometimes one wishes Young had invested more time in sharpening his lyrics and refining guitar licks but the intention here was ‘feel’ and raw immediacy; that aim was achieved. Barn, its cover photo taken by his long-time partner and actress Daryl Hannah who produced the accompanying documentary, is deliberately loose, recorded largely live beneath a full moon, like a jam between old friends.
The seminal Harvest was recorded in a barn too, 50 years ago, and will be commemorated soon but this Barn is more Harvest Moon. I can’t be the only one who began to strum a guitar more seriously after hearing Heart Of Gold. Young gave many of us a soundtrack to our formative years. To quote a contemporary, perhaps he’s trying to keep us forever Young.
Didn’t We Have A Time: North Mississippi Allstars (featuring Lamar Williams Jr)
New music for a new year: the bittersweet Didn’t We Have A Time by the US Southern roots band North Mississippi Allstars is our first Song Of The Week of 2022 at herecomesthesong.com. The Dickinson brothers, Luther and Cody, present the honey-coated voice of Lamar Williams Jr.
The track, cast in a bluesy Ry Cooder groove, will appear on Set Sail, the band’s 13th album, to be launched late January, a little over two years since the critically acclaimed Up And Rolling. Throughout their 25-year voyage the siblings have been prolific collaborators, this time enlisting Lamar Jr, son of the late Allman Brothers and Sea Level bassist Lamar Sr, on vocals and Jesse Williams (no relation) on bass, who co-wrote the song with the Dickinsons.
Sons of renowned Memphis producer Jim, who played piano on the Rolling Stones’ Sticky Fingers, the Dickinsons describe their music as primitive modernism. They blend the new and sometimes futuristic with the traditional to produce variegated roots music that showcases Luther’s guitar wizardry and Cody’s multi-tasking on drums and various keyboards. The family accent is sweetened by the harmonies of Luther’s daughters Lucia and Isla.
‘The chemistry we have with this line-up is powerful,’ says Luther. ‘We are all second-generation musicians and share a telepathic, relaxed ease about creating and performing. I believe music is a form of communion with our loved ones and conjuring this vibe with members of musical families can be inspirational.’
Production values are in their blood too. Luther and Cody handle the dials for their Allstars project as The Dickinson Brothers. Separately, clients have included Samantha Fish, RL Boyce, Lucero, Amy LaVere, Birds Of Chicago, Ian Siegal and the late Otha Turner. ‘We learned an enormous amount from our father,’ says Luther. ‘Cody and I made mistakes, but we’ve always believed in ourselves, and we had to learn for ourselves. Rock ‘n’ roll is self-taught. Each generation has to reinvent itself and shed the skin of the elders.
‘On Set Sail, we feel as if we’ve once again broken the code, and know what we want and how to get it. We’ve been fortunate to play music with Mavis Staples, Phil Lesh, William Bell, John Hiatt and Blind Boys of Alabama and we strive to live up to their example. We have to prove to the elders that their fight will carry on and pass through future generations.’
Didn’t We Have A Time is the album’s third teaser following the funky soul of Set Sail Part I (Part II will follow) and See The Moon in which Sharisse Norman joins Lamar at the mic and Luther excels with imaginatively phrased fretwork. The new song is a Cody favourite: ‘Hearing my nieces was a high point. It was meaningful, deep and beautifully sad, but also hopeful.’
The nostalgic song, like the title track, suggests impending doom (climate change if not the pandemic) but there’s a glimpse of light:
I’ll see you on the other side of the end
Our friendship will transcend
Meet me on the tree that we rise in the wind
We’ll ride again, my friend
And if tonight we’re blinded by the final white light
Of our last call
Didn’t we have a time
We had a ball
The Dickinsons first met Lamar (Les Brers, Revival) at the Allman Betts Band Family Revival and quickly became friends. ‘Lamar and I are like-minded,’ says Luther. ‘He has a true-blue quality in his musicality that will pull you in and break your heart. At the same time, Jesse grew up playing music with his brothers and his father – as did we. He plays like a sibling.’ Soulmates and ties that bind.
Here Comes The Song 2021 playlist on Spotify (10 hours of music at ‘neilmorto’)