Blues through a varied focus, where the campfire burns brightest.
Release date: 29th April 2022
Label: Grow Vision
Format: CD / digital
British blues is so much more than shaggy-haired 60s’s guitar slingers with drug and alcohol issues, however much that is the traditional image evoked, in the same way blues itself is so much more than cliches around Chicago or sharecropping. A broad church, often it is on the fringes that the best work is discovered. Ian Siegal has been ploughing his version over a fifteen-plus year period, or should I say versions, as he has explored many if not most of the nooks and crannies of this expansive genre. And if you have heard of him and still thought him American, well, you wouldn’t be alone, such is the stellar company he has often been found in the company of. Go witness 2012’s Candy Store Kids, credited to he and the Mississippi Mudbloods, produced by Cody Dickinson, and featuring Siegal alongside such second generation greats such as Luther Dickinson, Alvin Youngblood Hart, Duane Betts and Gary Burnside.(Oh, and for good measure, Welshman Carwyn Ellis, bassist extraordinaire to Edwin Collins and a current Pretender.) Here his confederates are varied, as per the needs of the song, but centre around Robin Davey (percussion, guitars, bass and backing vocals) and Greta Valenti (percussion and backing vocals), who also produced the album and are the team behind the Grow Vision label and recording studios, where the album was made. Other guests include Jimmie Wood, on mouth harp and vocals, Jimbo Mathus, on mandolin and vocals, J.J. Holiday (aka Jeff Poskin), on guitar, and no less than the current queen of US blues vocalists, Shemekia Copeland.
Working On A Building opens with extraneous background studio noise before kicking into rhythm, Siegal growling over a swampy N’Awlins stomp, harp and guitars to the fore, the song not a million miles from Lee Dorsey’s Working In A Coalmine, the comparison possibly deliberate. Extraneous studio asides continue to litter the mix, the mood being set, I guess, rather than it meaning to be any great statement. Nice slide here from, presumably, Holiday/Poskin. Thus bedded in, the stage is ready for some real class, as Ms. Copeland enters, channeling any of her forbears, from Etta James to Aretha, for a tremendous duet, in a walking blues gospel hybrid. If Siegal’s vocals are strong and confident, Copeland is just wondrous, a smoothly dipping, diving moan. Called Hand In Hand, it is also Siegal’s turn to show off his exemplary picking, on what sounds like a resonator guitar. Davey then slots in some complementary slide, the parts all lifting the whole.
So far, so good, so, when The Fear kicks off, all acoustic picking and deadpan vocal, it is almost a surprise, if a delightful one. Perhaps more Townes Van Zandt in style and substance, it is stunning, a mournful lament of self-pity. A gruffer and deeper vocal presence, the picking of the guitar is pure Townes, the lonesome whistle of harp perfect. I’m in.
I’m The Shit may not be the most promising of titles: “There’s some shit going on and I’m the shit”, but it’s better than that suggests, coming on like a pottier-mouthed Louis Jordan, even down to the croony b.v.s, as the bass propels the swagger and strut along with aplomb. Under the surface there is some exquisitely understated mandolin-like guitar play, jousting with yet more sterling slide from Davey. Psycho is a song by Leon Payne, truly shocking in its 1968 day, when performed by C&W footnote, Eddie Noack, with deathly dark lyrics, all passive aggressive serial killer and some. You’ll maybe know Elvis Costello’s version on the extended version of Almost Blue. Siegal strips back the razzmatazz of 60’s Nashville and the smoother Costello version, giving an even chillier acoustic vibe, invoking almost compassion rather than plain fear. Oo-ee-oo. “If you think I’m psycho, Mama, you’d better let them lock me up……”
KK’s Blues is another spare acoustic folk-blues, penned by Mathus, who accompanies Siegal’s guitar with his own. Dark lyrics unveil a trailer trash tale of disquiet, the song, lyrically, a close neighbour of Louise, the Paul Siebel song best known in Bonnie Raitt’s version, if this time more in the voice of her erstwhile “guests”, a tinge of regret in the yelping delivery. Two-thirds in the song ends, firing up then into a quieter and even more fragile coda, provided, I suspect, by Mathus alone. More oo-ee-oo. The pair then reconvene for a co-write, Gathering Deep, singing together in ragged harmony, Mathus’s wayward higher patch barely keeping pace with Siegal’s more solid presence. Still in the wasteland, where country, blues and folk meet, Mathus plays some lovely mandolin. This Heart continues this mellower trajectory of a quiet desperation, an even more TVZ song: “no answers in a bottle, no answers on a spoon”. The Capella ending adds extra goosebumps.
Needing a lift? Monday Saw certainly changes tack, being, literally, a foot stomper, stamping boots providing much the propulsion, and is a loose and ragged relative of Lido Shuffle. Bafflingly, as guitar enters, so the song leaves. Holler then reminds us that, nominally, if never stated in the credits, this is a blues album, a song that is Siegal alone, his heel for rhythm, his voice, well, a holler. But it is his guitar that here stands out, a textbook example of acoustic blue guitar, with some mannered asymmetric syncopations. Think Crawling King Snake.
Uncertain how this slightly disparate record would end, with a stomper, a juke joint number or a campfire tearjerker, Onwards And Upwards is none of these, if the campfire remains the setting. However, this time, to give your wrists a rest, it is a song of hope and uplift, a hymn to the grafters and grifters. Quite a magical song, actually, with even a closing whistling section to leave you with a smile. A good choice.
As stated, sometimes this recording runs in different directions. Most, not all, but most the highs come from the simpler and sparer song, hints of Americana and country blues more successful than the city-based electric music that feature more at the beginning. I would love a set entirely of this material. If Siegal is known, and he is, for his barnstorming live shows, it is this more introspective persona I would more like to meet.
Here’s a studio performance of Psycho: