andrewcferguson

writer, performer, musician, wine drinker

New Collaborations

I written before about creative collaborations, and how, basically, I’m a bit of a slut when it comes to them. I’ve never really seen writing or making music as a solo activity – especially the latter; and some of the things I’m proudest of in my output have happened that way: for example, the poetry pamphlet I did with Jane McKie, Head to Head, back in 2008.

Now I’m pretty much set on a musical journey (apart, perhaps, from more novels and a travel book) collaboration comes more naturally. Playing in bands kind of means you have to work as part of a team, and I never weary of hearing any song – but especially one of my own – tried out for the first time, and, sometimes on the first, the second, or maybe the third run through, something clicks, you reach the end, and you look at each other with that look that says, we had something there!

Recording is a different process from rehearsing or playing live, of course. I’m really looking forward to finalising the tracks I’ve been working on with Mark for the Isaac Brutal acoustic EP, of which more soon. But when it comes to solo work, up to now the collaborations have been few and far between.

And then two come along at once. I’m very chuffed indeed to have been asked to play guitar on a track by a new friend, Audrey Russell – let’s hope my playing is up to it! No such anxieties, however, with Norman Lamont‘s abilities. He came over recently, brought his electric guitar and effects pedals, and within the space of a brief evening, had laid down a beautiful, haunting contribution to a track I’ve had on the blocks for quite some time.

Here’s the result. It’s definitely going into my next solo album, although by the time I get that finished I may have tweaked it. If I do, it certainly won’t be to take out Norman’s contribution!

In the meantime, as with all my solo work, it’s free to download, but if you do, please think about donating to a refugee charity.

 

(Incidentally, if you haven’t heard Norman’s music before, you’re in for a treat – and he offers free stuff on his site)

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Anything below this is wordpress advertising. And almost definitely won’t feature Norman’s guitar playing.

Preface: the best barbecue outside of Malaga

…and after the epilogue of this travel book on Spain I might be writing, here’s the prologue…

Here’s something to do if you’re in Malaga on a sunny day: do as the locals do and get the hell out of Malaga.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s a lot to see and do in that fine city, and we’ll come to some of that presently. But for now, get yourself down to the great broad boulevard that runs along its shoreline, and is called variously Alameda Principal and Paseo del Parque, and take a number 3, 11 or a 34 to Pedregalejo.

Any of these is an ordinary service bus, and don’t bother with all that ida y vuelta stuff from the phrasebook: it’s single only, and costs 3 euros at the last count.

Stay on it as it rattles past the nearest beaches, takes a left inland, then right again. Don’t panic, just look out for Calle Vicente Espinel or Calle Pina Dominguez, and ping the bell to get off as nonchalantly as you can manage it.

You emerge to what looks like a fairly well-to-do suburb, with high walls guarding the occupants’ castles from the likes of you. Ignore them and head towards the sea, through well-kept streets and lanes until, just as you reach the last street of any note, you see ahead of you a line of blocky, low houses, with narrow defiles between them.

Through them, and you’ll find yourself on a boardwalk, stretching round the crescent of the bay, with the best fish restaurants you’ll possibly ever find. Prepare yourself, then, to be initiated into the mysteries of espeto.

Actually, it’s not much of a mystery. Sit yourself down at one of the white tablecloth restaurants on the landward side, and a waiter will bustle up, checking you’ve got the right amount of sun, dishing out menus and a carta de vinos, and before you know it a plate of olives will appear, inevitably. Ask him ‘Que hay al espeto?’ and he’ll answer, almost certainly, ‘sardinhas,’ and my personal favourite, dorada, or sea bream.

Order one of these, plus a beer, a vino rosado maybe, or, if you insist, a mineral water or a Fanta, and prepare for a decent wait.

Your man will shortly reappear with the (uncooked) fish of your choice, and head out of the restaurant, across the boardwalk, and onto the beach. The more observant of you will have noticed, directly across from the restaurant, a much less fancy barbecue-cum-shack affair on the sand, with a grizzled old punter giving the flames an occasional poke.

This Hemingwayesque figure is your Master of the Espeto. As I’ve said, there’s no great mystery to the cooking process: the Master takes the fish from the white-jacketed waiter, sticks it on a skewer, and shoves it on the barbie. They’ll have given you some bread to stock up on while the fish cooks, and it’ll feel like forever, as the smell of the barbecuing fish wafts across the sand at you.

Eventually, the old guy grunts or inclines his head, and the waiter brings the cooked fish back past your nostrils, expertly breaking any despairing hunger-induced rugby tackles you make on him, before reappearing finally with the fish dressed with something as simple as salt, some potatoes, and a bit of salad. That’s all it’ll need, believe me, because that poor sucker was swimming about just the thing a few hours before without a care in the world beyond what was on offer for its lunch a link or so down the food chain.

Seriously. If you go to Malaga, you should do this, before it gets all touristy and they start sending the coach tours along there. It may already be too late, but in 2014, at least, you could sit there and enjoy dorada al espeto surrounded by Malagueños doing the exact same thing.

If you’ve clicked on this blog in the hope of insider info like this, then the good news is there’s more of it to come: tips on roads slightly less travelled, how to travel them, and what to do when you get there.

The bad news is, these bits are interspersed with lots of other stuff: soliloquies on Spanish wine, stories of near-hostage taking, snippets of poetry, shovelfuls of information ‘borrowed’ from fellow travellers, and shedloads of asides about the food, the wine (again),  and most of all eating and drinking habits, cultural predilections and linguistic niceties of that alluring, irresistibly charming, and only ever occasionally baffling race, the Spanish.

So if all you’re after is a step by step guide on how to get to Zaragoza and where to eat and stay when you get there, this may not do it for you. Lonely Planet or Fodor’s will give you practical advice, and of course there’s always the sheer weight of numbers and opinions that TripAdvisor can command. I do mention Zaragoza, having been there twice, but more in the context of the near hostage situation I mentioned earlier: I’ll lob in some recommendations, but I’ll have had to update them and cross check with other sources, so that not may be as fresh a set of suggestions as, say, Madrid, where we’ve been more recently.

You should probably see this more as a series of dinner party stories, bolted together with some (reasonably) well checked hard fact. The advantages over real dinner party anecdotes being that you can dip in and out of them at your leisure, without having to put your interested face on; and if you get bored, you can always update Facebook or whatever on your phone instead without breaking whatever shreds of dinner party etiquette remain these days. If indeed, dinner parties remain these days. Frankly I’m hazy on that one.

However, if you’re up for it, let’s get started, and see where we get to, eh?

Brasas para preparar sardinas al peto en Pedregalejo en Málaga

Marlene Dietrich, me and Camille: a review

The Famous Spiegeltent is a portable device, a bit like the Tardis, that appears magically to host performances of all kinds in all sorts of places. Built in 1920, it apparently, in the 1930s, hosted Marlene Dietrich singing ‘Falling in Love Again.’ A few years ago, when I was still doing a mix of spoken word and music, I was lucky enough to perform in it in three separate years as part of the Edinburgh International Book Festival’s evening series, Unbound. Then it disappeared.

Well, not really. It was still somewhere in this space-time continuum, hosting great performances. However, it wasn’t in Edinburgh’s Charlotte Square, because the owners of the gardens which the Book Festival took over every August (no doubt for a fee) had decided having all these common people tramping over their grass and enjoying themselves was de trop and banned the Spiegeltent.

Yeah, I know. I’ve still to go to the Book Festival (that’s next weekend) and see what, if anything, has been allowed in Charlotte Square or if it’s restored to its rest-of-the year humdrum nature in full – there’s talk of most, if not all of the EIBF events being staged along nearby George Street.

Image result for charlotte square edinburghCharlotte Square, sans book festival

However, in the meantime, good news! The Spiegeltent has beamed down to the Meadows, that fine piece of common ground on the south side of Edinburgh’s city centre. And, in keeping with its tradition of hosting brilliant chanteuses (I’m definitely thinking Dietrich here, not yours truly) it’s the venue for Camille O’Sullivan‘s latest show, Where Are We Now?

SpiegeltentThe Spiegeltent empty

Saturday night was Camille’s second performance of a run that goes on until 24th August, and, in recognition of this, it and the night before were cheaper. However, any glitches in the performance were due, not to Camille or her excellent three-piece band of guitar, keyboards/piano and drums, but to the nature of the venue and its surrounds.

The Spiegeltent is a fantastic space to perform, or watch a performance, in. I must admit I’m glad now I didn’t know quite how historic it was when I did my shows in it, or I’d have dropped my guitar at the prospect. However, it does have one drawback – despite all the wood, mirrors and brocade, it is, when all’s said and done, a tent. And that means sound bleed.

When it was located in Charlotte Square, that wasn’t such a problem – any book festival events still ongoing are some distance away and tend to be just authors droning on about their stuff. The only thing we had to try to do was time the half way break to cope with the fireworks at the Castle which signalled the end of the Military Tattoo (of which more later). In comparison, in the Meadows, the Spiegeltent has a bustling inter-venue bar outside, and a big blue circus tent type affair with other music shows ongoing about fifty metres away.

That might not be a problem for some shows. However, Camille’s performances range from full-on rockers to, to take an example from this set, an a capella version of a Jacques Brel song. She is a dramatic, dynamic, performer, who takes you on a musical odyssey through the full gamut of emotions with carefully-chosen dark materials from some of the great songwriters of the last 70 years or so. In other words, the perfect performer in many ways for the Spiegeltent – if it wasn’t for the sound bleed.

As it was, O’Sullivan spent much of the early part of the show making a single-finger gesture at the back of the audience – a plea for the sound guy to turn her monitor, the guitar, the keyboard, everything, up. It was a pity, because the performance was otherwise up to her usual brilliant standard (this was the third time I’d seen her). However, the best  songs were, inevitably, the louder ones. Bowie dominated the early part of the set, and there was a great version of ‘Rock n’ Roll Suicide; Nick Cave’s ‘Mercy Seat’ got a barn – or tent – storming interpretation too.

Good as those were, my personal favourites were The Leonard Cohen covers she did towards the end: opening with a snatch of ‘You Want It Darker,’ from the master’s eponymous final album, she segued into ‘The Future,’ an older song apposite for our troubled times. My absolute favourite, though, was Cohen’s ‘Anthem,’ a fitting, uplifting, closer to a musical commentary on where we are now: ‘There is a crack, a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in…’

Not even the post-Tattoo fireworks (which seemed to have more than one go) could interrupt. A two-song encore, including old favourite, Nick Cave’s ‘Ship Song,’ and she was gone into the night. Camille will have less distracted performances than this: but the material is strong, and her performances of it as incendiary as ever.

Next time, just cancel the fireworks and beam the Spiegeltent to our back garden, eh? The neighbours are really quiet.

Image result for camille o'sullivan

Léon at last

This is a bit backside forward, as we say round these parts. It’s the story of our most recent trip, but it’s planned as an epilogue to a book about Spain that I might get around to writing some time relatively soon. If I did, would you read it?

Long years have passed since our first encounter with a bottle of Léon, the cheap Asda wine that (in part, at least) inspired us to set off on our travels round Spain. In the meantime, we’d brought Daughter and Heiress into the world, I’d learnt passable Spanish, and the world had changed around us. By the time, this year, we prepared to finally take a trip to the city where the wine (at least for marketing purposes) came from, a majority of those qualified to vote in the United Kingdom on the matter had elected to take us out of Europe.

To be fair, that had happened the previous year, before our 2016 trip to Salamanca. However, by July 2017, the relevant notice to quit the Continent had been served, and a bizarre (at least to me) series of exploratory talks had taken place amongst the politicians.

This piece isn’t going to go into the politics of it – for any number of reasons, the simplest of which is you can read much better analyses elsewhere – but it did feel a bit odd, travelling in Europe when the UK government was essentially negotiating a divorce from a community of nations that, of course, included the country we were travelling in. Especially when, at the same time, the central government in Spain was grappling with the problem of the Catalans having decided to hold a referendum on October 1st to secede from the rest of the country – a referendum, one suspects, which many Castilian Spanish would feel was only encouraged by the Scottish independence referendum of 2014.

Leaving all that aside, it was the first trip to Spain we’d taken since Daughter and Heiress had gone off to university, and, as any parents of adult children will know, whether said children will continue to travel with you is dependent on a complex set of interrelated factors such as said adult child’s relationship status, alternative options involving mates, and the basic economics of a potential free holiday courtesy of the old folks.

Fortunately, the stars were all aligned in favour of her coming with us this time, but we knew that it might be the last time. Indeed, if all goes according to plan, our next trip might involve us visiting her on placement in Seville, but that’s another story.

If the planets were in the right configuration for D & H’s company, however, they seemed initially firmly set against us making it to Léon. We’d arranged to fly out on the Sunday morning red-eye to Madrid, only to be rudely awakened from our early night by a text from Easyjet telling us our flight had been cancelled. Out of internet range in our flat, we had to wait till the morning to go home and look up alternatives, convinced that by then they’d all be gone.

It made me remember how we’d got as close to Léon as Logroño, many years ago, only to fail to find a bus to the place: it started to feel as if we’d never get there, in the depths of that sleep-deprived night.

Fortunately, although Queasy’s flights were booked up for the next four days, we managed to grab a place on an Iberia Express flight the next day, and, despite increased anxiety levels brought on by the change of plan, found ourselves in Léon by nightfall that same day.

The first thing to say about Léon is that its wine shops and bars held no evidence of a wine of the same name. There is a nearby wine growing region, and you can certainly get the local stuff, but it goes by the name of the local grape – Prieto Picudo. More on wine (and food) presently, but a pause to say thanks to whoever in Asda’s wine labelling department, all those years ago, came up with the wheeze of calling a decently drinkable plonk after such a fine city, and giving us something to aim at.

Because Léon is more than worth a visit. About as northerly as you get before leaving Castile for good, it has the feeling of a hill town: not in the sense of being built on one, but more in the way its rustic charm references the cordilleras to the north. There is lots of evidence of wooden beams holding up ceilings and walls, a bit like the quasi-mock Tudor we’d encountered in the hills beyond Salamanca, the previous year; lots, too, of references in the menus and delis to produce ‘de la montaña.’

Another self-conscious touch of rusticity was in the hotels and hostals, many of whom choose, like our accommodation, to style themselves ‘posadas,’ or inns. In the case of the one we stayed at, La Posada Regia, (Regidores, 9 – 11 24003 – Léon; www.regialeon.com) this meant wooden floors in the rooms, oak beams on the roof, and a general décor that Hemingway would have expected to come across on one of those fishing trips of his.

I mean that in a good way, by the way. Located near the action but in a (relatively) quiet street on the edge of the old town, the two rooms we stayed in were absolutely gorgeous – roomy, with modern bathrooms and all the facilities D & H in particular craved, like wi-fi: it had pleasant, multilingual staff and a friendly, inn-like ambience. Some of the otherwise positive reviews on TripAdvisor had moaned about noise, but although our second floor windows looked out onto the main street and a courtyard restaurant, the windows were modern and shut out any disturbance.

I suppose the only criticism might be that there wasn’t air conditioning, and we arrived in the middle of a heatwave, but hell, I’d put up with sweating the night away in return for all the other good things this place offered at a more than reasonable price.

Léon Cathedral

So far as attractions are concerned, Léon has, of course, the obligatory cathedral plus a few extra chapels and other religious buildings, so if you’re into that sort of thing, you can knock yourself out. The other main building to visit of note is Casa Botines, built by a young Gaudi on a rare excursion from his native Barcelona. This is worth a visit, and by the time you get there might be even more so, because it had only opened earlier in 2017 when we went, and was still a work in progress.

If you do go, drop the few extra euros for the guided tour version, because you won’t get much otherwise – a static exhibition about how and why and for which bozos the building was built, a couple of examples of its life as a textile warehouse and a bank, and a basement gallery, which at the time of our visit, was to be fair hosting a fairly startling set of Goya’s etchings.

The guided tour, however, takes you up to the third floor, where there are not only more significant artworks from contemporaries of Gaudi, but examples of flats on the upper floors that the master architect had designed himself, right down to the window openings and the door handles.

Casa Botines, Gaudi’s Léon masterpiece

Apart from that, there’s not much in the way of things to go and gawp at in Léon. There are some caves, but you’d need a car to get there. Ditto any vineyards, although they’re pushing the nearby wine regions hard at you, along with the gastronomy. The other big tourist magnet for them, of course, is the city’s being on the Camino de Santiago, so they’re used to feeding and watering hungry and thirsty pilgrims.

And that’s where Léon really scored for us. It has all the usual favourites of Castilian cookery – its own version of cocido, all sorts of stews including carrillada, the ever-present fish dishes like tuna, bonito, and gambas, and good local tatties to go into things like the patatas bravas/con alioli you’d get most other places.

Add to that, though, the local specialities. They have their own version of morcilla, which, visually, doesn’t look much (blood sausage usually ends up as, well, some sort of sausage, but here is served up as a sort of black slurry) but is well worth a try. They’re proud of their cecina, a cured, smoked beef, and of course the poor old piggie has ended up in local versions of chorizo, jamón, and so on. The local manchego’s good, too, although be warned – when they say it’s curado, it’s had a proper length of time to sit down and think about what it’s done, so it’s plenty strong.

And the wine? Well, it’s a tale of two halves for me, because there are two regions which Léon lays claim to: the wines from the immediate area, Tierra de Léon, and the denominación of Bierzo, still within Léon province, but off to the west. To me, on an admittedly limited (no, really, we were only there for five nights, remember?) amount of research, the stuff from Bierzo won hands down.

Having said that, in the wider wine territory of Castilla y Leon, bear in mind there’s Ribera del Duero and even the eastern edge of Rioja, so you won’t peg out from lack of good red wine in the bars round town. The wider Tierra also includes the area known as Rueda, and I had three of the best glasses of Spanish white wine I’d ever had, on consecutive nights here.

As for where to eat and drink this stuff, again, you’re spoilt for choice. The old town isn’t perhaps as historic-looking as some other cities we’ve been to, but there are plenty of narrow streets opening into squares with tapas bars and restaurants ready to serve you at the drop of a napkin.

Key hunting grounds are the areas marked on the street plan as Santa Marina and San Martín and the usual rules of good tapas hunting apply: the closer to the cathedral, the main drag (the imaginatively named Calle Ancha, or Broad Street) or in the Plaza Mayor, the higher the prices and lesser the value.

In passing, Léon’s is the only tourist street map I’ve ever been handed which carries an advert for a brothel: we decided ‘Latin Lover’  – Avenida Alcalde Miguel Castaño, 114, if you’re interested – wasn’t for us. So we never found out what tu copa … tu ambiente …  meant in that context. You can probably get it on TripAdvisor though.

Sticking to food and drink, you could have a very fancy meal at Mercado (Las Varillas, 3) – a very imaginative twist on the traditional stuff, if that’s your kind of thing. However, we found the traditional much more to our taste in places like Plaza de San Martín, which is next door to the Plaza Mayor, but much, much livelier and more atmospheric. Do go to the main square for the market on Thursdays, though.

Going a little bit more off-piste, you can eat and drink where the locals do in Plaza Santa María del Camino. A slightly rough and ready looking place with cobbles with grass growing through them rather than the usual spotless flagstones, this square hosts three bars in opposite corners, none of them with any airs and graces or translated menus, but some of the best food and drink we had in our five nights there.

Plaza Santa María del Camino

If the mention of brothels and rough and ready bars puts you off, though, don’t be. There was no red light district we ever came across, and we ranged pretty widely across the centre of town; and we felt as safe in Plaza Santa María del Camino as we’d done in any other Spanish city. Which is to say, very safe.

To sum up, Léon was well worth the wait and the fractured travel arrangements. Despite being on the Camino de Santiago, it’s pretty well off the beaten tourist track: apart from the occasional northern European types we’d see striding purposefully along the Calle Ancha of a morning, walking stick (or is it pole?) in hand, one more cathedral ticked off their list, the only other Anglophone person we regularly encountered was a stressed Irishwoman who seemed to be spending her entire holiday taking her children to the local branch of chocolatier Valor to shout at them.

That may make it more the thing for us, (the lack of tourists, I mean, not the shouty Irishwoman) but it is, be warned, less geared up for non-Spanish speakers than the bigger cities like Barcelona and, now, Madrid. When we stayed there, in July, it was at the edge of a heatwave affecting the whole peninsula, and temperatures were in the mid thirties. However, that was, we were told, unusual, and I suspect it might well be a chilly place still most springs.

However, as part of a tour of northern Castile, it would be a pity to leave out Léon. In a longer trip I would probably combine it with a visit to one of our favourite places, Salamanca, contrasting its more rustic (that word again) charms with the dreaming-spires opulence of Spain’s Oxford.

All things must pass. The bottle of plonk that inspired our journey has long faded into Asda’s back catalogue, overtaken by rebranding and the supermarkets’ relentless search to bring us cheap wine at least cost to their profit margins. Daughter and Heiress has grown from a tiny infant, to a cheery blonde tot the Spanish waiting staff doted on, to a self-possessed, green-eyed young woman with her own ideas and an amused tolerance for her eccentric mop n’ pop (at least, I think so).

Spain, having endured its share of terrorist atrocities both from ETA and Islamic extremists, now faces constitutional issues of its own, not to mention the continuing economic woes that have dogged the western world since the bankers we trusted our money with blew half of it away on dodgy deals. The United Kingdom, having set itself on a path to divorce from the rest of the EU, remains mired in a set of problems that none of the politicians seem to have seen coming, or now to know what to do about.

For the Redoubtable Mrs F and me, the only constant is likely to be change: our little one having left the nest, our respective day jobs starting to bank round in the long approach to retirement, a house move at some point on the cards. With all of that going on, there’s only one sure thing: as long as we can, we’re going to keep exploring the Spanish mainland. Cadiz is definitely on the radar, and the trip to Léon gave me the beginnings of a plan: a heretic’s journey, going backwards from Santiago de Compostela against the tide of conventional pilgrims.

Destination? I’ll come back to you on that one, but you can bet your bottom euro it’ll be somewhere in Spain, and food, wine and a damned good time will be involved.

Daughter and Heiress

Journeys Deep in the Land of Bruce: a review of Cory Branan’s Adios

I’ve not listened to nearly enough music in my near 55 years on Earth. I mean, even my CD collection – which seemed at one point big enough to cause stress on the house foundations, or at least make an indelible dent in the carpet – is a tiny, tiny, fraction of the rock, country, soul, blues and what d’you may call it committed to tape since I was old enough to know there was something rum about Gary Glitter.

And in case I didn’t realise how ignorant I was, there are magazines like Mojo and Uncut to rub my nose in my own vacuity. Here’s a typical example of the type of review I read as I attempt to navigate my way through the roiling rapids of new music, and pick out something I might drop a few quid on and actually listen to:

‘David Barbe is best known as a producer for the Drive-By Truckers, Deerhunter and other local and national acts… “Why You Gotta Make It So Hard?” recalls the weirdo pop of the Elephant 6 Collective…’

Ok. I know Drive-By Truckers: that’s who Jason Isbell used to be with, and I’ve even heard a couple of their tracks. Deerhunter? I feel I should have heard of them. I’m sure I’ve read about them, in Mojo and Uncut. Elephant 6 Collective? Nope. No clue.

I know. I should be ashamed of myself. To be fair, most of the time, I will have heard of the bands these reviews reference. It’s just that, were I put in front of a firing squad of musos and told to whistle one of their greatest hits, I might be hard pushed to even make a start before the vinyl collectors pulled the trigger.

So this review is proceeding from a state of ignorant, if not bliss, acceptance that I will never, ever, be able to reference someone obscure. Full many a flower may, indeed, be born to blush unseen, musically speaking, and, as a matter of empirical fact, waste its sweetness on the desert air. I’m afraid my time to surf Youtube for all these mute inglorious Miltons is, well, pretty limited by other stuff.

So I’ll come right out and say it. Jason Isbell and Cory Branan sound a lot to me like Bruce Springsteen.

To be fair, I’m not the only one to make the connection. Isbell was described as ‘Springsteen-endorsed,’ in his recent interview with Acoustic Guitar; Uncut’s review of Branan’s new album, Adios, explicitly references the Boss.

Let’s start with Branan. I first heard a song of his a couple of years ago, as the standout track on one of the taster CDs of new music you get with these music zines. It was called ‘Survivor Blues’ and there was one line in particular, ‘leaned, and lit a cigarette,’ that I especially liked for its economy. I then promptly failed to put in the hard yards online to hear more of his stuff.

It was only recently, when I saw the review of Adios, that I got my act together and ordered up a copy online.

For me, it’s a truly great album in the fine traditions of the best work of Bruce Springsteen. Some things are obvious musical Springsteen references: the honking sax on ‘Imogene,’ for example; the pounded piano at the start of ‘Blacksburg,’ or the Roy Bittan-like keyboard sounds on ‘You Got Through.’

The Uncut review specifically compares Branan’s style to Springsteen’s 1980 classic ‘The River,’ and the musical similarities are there for all to see. The meld of soul, folk and early rock n’ roll (‘Only I Know,’ for example, with its Buddy Holly-style chord progressions) has the same roots as the Sage of New Jersey.

There’s another link, which only became obvious when the recent reissue of ‘The River’ sent Brucie on the interview trail: country. Springsteen described listening to the likes of Hank Williams to get that sense of ‘three chords and the truth’ into his songwriting.

Now, I’ve described before how I came to country late. When I was a teenager, that whole glitzy, teeth n’ sequins commercialism seemed alien to me, a kid from a place where (arguably too much the other way) the emphasis was on telling things as they really were, no matter how grittily depressing that might be.

(I’ve never thought of the connection up to now, but you could say that as much about the traditional Scottish folk songs as you could about punk. The guitars are different, obviously.)

It was only as I grew older that I realised that country was exactly about telling things as they were, and the plastic smiles and rhinestones of the big country stars that reached our TV were a long way from Nashville’s darker heart, and the likes of Willie Nelson. I still can’t stand that production line alternating bass figure you get on a lot of Johnny Cash songs, and too much plaintive pedal steel turns me off, but I get it, I really do.

Apart from the ones previously mentioned, there are three particular favourites for me. ‘Don’t Go,’ a story of a life long love ending up with the wife’s death, walks the fine line between mawkishness and tugging at the heart strings and, for me at least, makes it to the other side of that canyon unscathed. ‘My Father was an Accordion Player,’ is another (it would seem) personal family tale of a father-son relationship which is bittersweet but funny. My favourite of all of them, though, is ‘The Vow,’ a tribute to Branan’s late father that combines affection with realism in a truly touching way.

Branan is his own man so far as lyrics go, and all the better for it. Take these lines from ‘the Vow,’ as an example:

‘I said, well I just thought, and he cut me off, and said that’s what you get for thinking,

I remember thinking, that’s probably not the best lesson for a kid,

And although that was just something he said,

And when I see where I get with my thinking,

I get to thinking that there may have been some kind of genius in the effortless way

He just did…’

I’ve not even mentioned some of the other superb songs on this album: the bluesy ‘Cold Blue Moonlight;’ the protest song against the shooting of black civilians by police, ‘Another Nightmare in America,’ the rambunctious ‘Visiting Hours.’ I have listened to this album again and again, and got new pleasures from it each time.

As for Isbell, well, I’ll keep it short, as I’ve already headed north of a thousand words and tried your patience. In addition, I’m hoping for a guest review of his latest offering ‘the Nashville Sound,’ shortly, so we’ll see then whether his run of solo work starting with ‘South Eastern,’ and moving through ‘Something More Than Free,’ continues at the same level or not.

So for the sake of brevity I’ll offer as evidence of Springsteen influence just one track from the latter album, and that’s ‘Speed Trap Town.’ Protagonist with a conflicted relationship with his father? Check. Reference to State Trooper? Check. Storyline involving busting out of small town, and driving till the sun comes up? You bet. Moral complexity? Spades of it.

I appreciate this type of music won’t be for everyone: any synths in evidence are strictly in service of the guitars, and there is no word, anywhere, of whether or not it’s a rainy day in Manchester. The guitars are crisp, and generally, undistorted. Many of the songs extend past the three minute mark. Despite all that, it behoves you to listen.

Unless you’re way too busy with the Mute Inglorious Miltons’ back catalogue, of course. In which case, crack on, and do come back to me with the highlights.

Leonard, the Donald, and that difficult second album

A lot happened in early November 2016. The main headline news, of course, was that Donald Trump was elected President of the United States, against all predictions, polls, the Washington establishment’s expectations and, frankly, the hopes and dreams of most of the rest of the world. Including, frankly, me. I don’t suppose that comes as a massive surprise to anyone that even half knows me.

Another significant event for me in that period, though, was the death of Leonard Cohen. Somewhat oddly, his passing was announced on November 10th, a day after it became clear that Trump had won the election, so that, briefly, I entertained the idea that Leonard, hearing the news of who had won the Presidency, had simply turned his head to the wall and left us. The truth was more prosaic: he’d died in his sleep, following a fall, three days before.

I’ve posted before about Leonard Cohen, about why I came to him late, and took great pleasure in hearing his late flowering period albums Old Ideas, Popular Problems, and You Want It Darker. The last of these, released three weeks before his death, is truly dark. Listening to it in full for the first time, driving into Edinburgh one night in March, I own that there were tears in my eyes as I heard the final track, ‘String Reprise/Treaty,’ which took the theme from an earlier track about the singer wishing he could conclude a treaty ‘between your love and mine,’ and embellished it with the saddest strings ever. It’s an album that isn’t easy listening, but more than worthy of your attention nevertheless.

It was like Leonard’s last words to us. In the weeks and months that followed, however, the little orange notebook I keep for lyrical and other ideas began to fill with lines that were, in spirit if not in quality, decidedly Cohenesque. Some of these were translated into ‘Song for Leonard,’ which might yet gain traction as a Venus Carmichael song. However, the lines kept coming.

Which is by way of explaining ‘Final Days,’ which might well be the first completed track of my as-yet-untitled second solo album, to follow Songs in a Scottish Accent. I finished the first draft of it in February or March this year, but certain other commitments, not least the day job, meant it took until this month to record it.

Releasing it now, I’m a bit conflicted, because I’m concerned people might feel it’s some sort of facile reflection on the most recent awful events to hit us here in the UK. Politics aside, we’ve had terrorist atrocities in Manchester and London (twice) as well as the awful sight of a tower block full of (mainly immigrant) families go up in a ball of flame, all in a matter of weeks.

All of the above, especially the last of them, might make you feel that this song is meant to be contemporary. It is, in the sense that Trump’s election might well mean that we’re now living in the final days. On the other hand, there will always be wars and rumours of wars, and the song’s black humour consciously references the type of songs that Leonard Cohen was writing in the 70s, 80s, and 90s. In other words, it’s written with current events in mind, but not exclusively so. Nor is it meant to be some sort of pastiche: it’s Cohenesque, I can’t hide that, but the words and sentiments are my own as much as my accent. Consider an affectionate tribute.

Like Songs in a Scottish Accent, I’ve made the track free to download. However, if you do, please consider giving a donation to some sort of refugee charity, or one of the ones that’s been set up to look after the survivors of the Glenfell flats fire.

You Should Totally … a (p)review of various things

Drink South African

South African red wine’s a bit of an enigma for me. Every so often I come across one that’s a cracker: and then I can never find it again. The Holy Grail for me is the wine region of Robertson, which I’ve never had a bad bottle from.

However, most South African supermarket reds in this country seem a bit, well, so-so. Not bad, but not outstanding. Unfortunately, the recent triallists aren’t breaking that trend for me, but they’re worth a try – and not just because the Proteas are over here to give the Poms a damn good thrashing in the Tests. Although that’s as good an excuse as any.

Both wines are from Morrison’s: first up, Beyerskloof Pinotage Reserve, reduced to £6.50 from £9. A hefty beast, this, that went particularly well with curry. I wouldn’t pay full price for it.

Maybe a bit more accessible is Leopard’s Leap Cabernet Sauvignon, currently £5 down from £6.50. This is a long term favourite, and well worth snapping up for its damsony, blackberryish fruit (woah, just went a bit Jancis Robinson on you there!)

Image result for beyerskloof pinotageImage result for leopard's leap cabernet sauvignon 2015

Read Mac Logan and Kevin Scott

I’ve just read the first of Mac Logan’s Angel’s Share thrillers, Angels’ Cut. It’s a tense, pacy thriller with a sympathetic hero. I’m looking forward to the next one.

Angels' Cut (The Angels' Share series Book 1) by [Logan, Mac]

Also well worth a read: my Thunderpoint stablemate Kevin Scott’s first novel, Dead Cat Bounce. Two brothers with very different life trajectories, one a charming loser, the other a seemingly successful London futures trader, have to combine to find a missing coffin, the one with their late stepbrother in it. This being Glasgow, there’s gangsters and black humour involved, but Scott cleverly subverts the more obvious tropes and comes up with a surprising conclusion.

Dead Cat Bounce by [Scott, Kevin]

Listen to Cory Branan

A more extensive review coming, but Branan’s latest, Adios, is just great. Here’s a taster, one of my favourites from the album, Imogene.

 

Have been at the Voodoo Rooms to see Callaghan/Jesse Terry

Where were you all a couple of weekends back? Edinburgh’s inaptly named Voodoo Rooms (they’re about as voodoo as a palatial, slightly glacial, Victorian drinking salon can get, I guess, unless they mean the dark magic used to spirit your money away with frankly supernatural bar prices) was half empty to hear these guys. Jesse Terry is a fine, mainly acoustic-guitar-based singer-songwriter: his cover version was Don McLean’s ‘Vincent,’ which fitted well with his own material. He is also, as I discovered when I went back to chat to him after his set, a really nice bloke worthy of your attention.

As for Callaghan, I’ve blogged about her and her ability with a good tune and a great voice before. Her covers on the night were The Drifters standard,  ‘Stand By Me,’ John Denver’s ‘Annie’s Song,’ and, as an encore, ‘Over the Rainbow.’ I know, right? Not exactly my natural musical habitat, either, and my heart sank when she announced the last one as her encore. And then she sang it.

Oh. My. Actual. [insert appropriate deity]. What a set of pipes that woman has. I mean, I knew her voice was special, even when put through the digital music equivalent of a meatgrinder that goes to produce the universal burger we call an mp3. But live? Just stunning. Stunning. She could sing ‘Baa baa black sheep’ and I’d still turn out to see her. If the angels in heaven sing half as well, it might be worth me thinking about giving up all this sinning stuff after all.

Image result for callaghan singer

Go see Martin McGroarty

My friend, colleague and fellow musical traveller Martin McGroarty is pretty much gaining the reputation round here of hardest working man in show business. We saw him at the Ship Tavern in Anstruther at the end of May, and the only thing wrong with the gig was we’d committed the schoolboy error of being the closest to sober in the whole place.

But boy, did he get the joint a’jumpin’ – and he now has such a following, any pub booking him can be guaranteed people travelling from as far away as, say, Dundee to see him! I see that he’s due to play there again on Saturday, June 24th, and I know it’s one of his favourite venues.

For a list of his gigs after that, go to his site.

That’s all for now, folks – more detailed musical recommendations coming soon!

Going Against the Grain: a Preview of Callaghan in Concert

As you’d expect from a guy who’s spent most of his adult life scribbling words down in various formats, my taste in what used to be called Rock and Pop (and still is in some of those rare beasts we used to call record shops) tends towards the lyrical. If I was asked, off the top of my head, to list my favourite artists over the past few decades, it would probably run something like:

BobDylanBruceSpringsteenElvisCostelloNickLoweSuzanneVegaStoneRosesReginaSpektorJasonIsbellCoryBranan… (continue ad nauseam)

In other words, a lot of songwriters noted for their words as much as their music. More, by the way, on the last of those two, in a future post.

However, if you asked me to name my favourite all time song, whilst those guys (and yes, I do note they’re mostly guys) would feature strongly, others might include ‘Go Your Own Way,’ by Fleetwood Mac. Best lyrics ever? Hardly. Despite it being a definite contender for my favourite song ever, I couldn’t sing you it – there’s something about shacking up which apparently continues to annoy Stevie Nicks, (yes, this was Lindsay Buckingham’s break up song about their relationship that she’s since had to do backing vocals to, more or less continuously, ever since) and then the chorus: ‘You can go your own wayyyyy, go your own way…’ etc. And that fretboard-melting guitar solo.

But I’m also a sucker for a piano-led tune with a soulful female voice. Two from ‘Tapestry,’ as written and sung by Carole King, would be ‘Natural Woman,’ and ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’ – and yes, I mean her versions. The lyrics are deceptively simple, direct, and personal – and, allied to stunning vocal performances and a great understated arrangement, they get me every time. Which brings me to Callaghan.

I can’t remember exactly how I first heard this British-based but frequently US touring singer: it was through one or other form of social media. Inevitably, there was a free EP to be had, and the song I’ve linked in below was on it: ‘Green Eyes.’ The lyrics are simple,and direct, about someone with green eyes. That works for me: both my wife and daughter have green eyes, so depending on my mood and circumstances, the words can mean different things to me. But, as with Carole King, it’s the music that moves me more.

First off, it’s Callaghan, and that gorgeous voice of hers, accompanying herself on the piano. It’s a great melody, and then the music builds: at a crucial point, the Hammond B3 takes it to church with that spiralling, gospelly chorus, and finally the guitarist brings it on home with a solo so good you could swear he’s has been touched by the guitar-playing hand of an angel. The first time I heard it, I thought it must be a studio crafted track, right up until the applause started at the end, the band is so tight.

And the best news? I missed Callaghan last time she came past, but this time, I’m going to see her, at Edinburgh’s Voodoo Rooms, on Sunday. I cannot wait: and the good news is, there are tickets left, there and elsewhere on her tour.

I just hope she plays this song.

 

Get Past The Python – “The Wrong Box” book review

First review (other than 4 stars on Amazon!) now in…

Manic Pop Thrills

Writing about friends’ creative endeavours is always a tricky business. Simply put, there’s the risk that someone gives you their treasured piece of work, generated by much blood, sweat and tear, … and you don’t like it. So what does a cowardly blogger do? Ignore it? Be excessively honest?

Over the years I’ve been given plenty of records but, thankfully, the fact that I simply don’t have the time to write about everything I hear is a perfect (and entirely true) excuse. Even if sometimes it IS an excuse. (Which, of course, doesn’t automatically mean that if I haven’t written about something, I don’t like it!)

But no-one’s ever given me a book before, certainly not a published novel, at any rate. And the notion of me writing about a proper writer’s work gives me the cold sweats.

All of which makes ‘The Wrong Box’ by Andrew C. Ferguson a potentially troublesome prospect, all…

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Here is my interview with Andrew C Ferguson

A lengthy interview – everything you ever wanted to know about me and writing!

authorsinterviews

Name Andrew C Ferguson

Age 54

Where are you from

I was brought up in Glenrothes, in Fife; escaped to Edinburgh for five years; and ended up back in Glenrothes where I’m a Council lawyer by day. I’m married, with an 18 year old daughter.

Fiona: Tell us your latest news?

That would be the publication of my novel, The Wrong Box, by Thunderpoint.

Paperback: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wrong-Box-Andrew-C-Ferguson/dp/1910946141/ref=sr_1_1?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493705727&sr=1-1&keywords=andrew+c+ferguson

Kindle: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Wrong-Box-Andrew-C-Ferguson-ebook/dp/B06VTVR6NX/ref=sr_1_1_twi_kin_2?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1493705865&sr=1-1&keywords=the+wrong+box

Amazon Author page: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Andrew-C-Ferguson/e/B06XCZWFVH/ref=dp_byline_cont_book_1


Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?

I started as a teenager. Why’s a good question! I guess it was something I was told I was good at – I had an inspirational English teacher, my father was also a writer in his spare time, so maybe it was a way of getting approval too.

As life went on, my motivations changed, I guess – it was an escape from the day job, and, when I started…

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