Easter Roundup: Snaarmaarwaar, Walter Parks, The Lowland Brothers

Morsels we mislaid earlier…..

Considering music is said to be a redundant life force and that sales are a supposedly stagnating cesspit, how is it that so much good stuff is being made, produced and marketed, and across such a wide expanse of genres? This I don’t know the answer to, but, as with Chris Farlowe and, before him, Dave Swarbrick, rumours of the demise of music are far from fully formed. Which, at this Eastertime, has ATB singing hallelujah!

Here’s a trio of offerings we missed earlier:

Snaarmaarwaar: Lys (Trad Records)

Big in Belgium may not be the tagline to strive for, but it isn’t a bad place to start. Especially if that’s your home. Which it is to this trio, new to ATB, but they have been filling concert halls and dance floors from Bruges to Ghent for nigh on 20 years, and are a power trio based on acoustic guitar, mandola and mandolin. With the record named after the river that rolls through the Belgian countryside, something you all knew, I’m sure, this is a back-to-basics celebration of their art. With the three musicians, all grouped around a single microphone, they come across like a more baroque version of the missing-in-action and much-missed Spiro and that can’t be bad. (Plus, should a further plus be needed, the great Sam Kelly has worked alongside them.)

All instrumental, here are nine tracks that scattergun aspects of any number of styles and genres. For instance, Black Frost, which opens proceedings, starts with heavy, if acoustic, riffing, ahead a tinkling melody of mandolin and mandola, sweeping in together. Jeroen Geerinck keeps it interesting, mind, with some bluesy guitar countercurrents to his bandmates’ more Renaissance feel. Ward Dhoore’s mandolin brings back the Flemish vibe, awaiting the mandola of Maarten Decombel to pick sides. It is great, packing also a punch of Pentangle at their instrumental finest. Planchemouton continues in a similarly muscular vein, again the guitar adding modern structure to the centuries-old features of the melody. With the mandolin positively chiming, almost like a keyboard, Fleur De Lys is a more respectful slow air and, rendered without the polyrhythms, is a delight.

Kopstekker reintroduces the funky backbeat to underpin another courtly-sounding dance tune. I am assuming that the majority of the tunes are composed by the band, this being their usual MO, with Decombel often responsible for the lion’s share. I have seen it argued the band may be better suited to the kitchen sink approach of earlier albums, where they augment (themselves, multi-tracking) with squeezebox and keyboards, and the percussive pulse of bodhran. On balance I disagree, finding the complex simplicity here enticing. (Or is that simple complexity?) This is borne out by Dubio, another slower tune, with plain and unadorned scratchy strums of guitar enough to give balance to the higher-toned instruments weaving around it. Julos starts as if to beg Robert Plant to come gently crooning in. OK only for a moment but it lingers, ahead the tune progressing into a fugue-like rotation. Nomis too might be an alternate stairway to heaven, once more sidelined by tinkling mandolin/mandola, first singly, and then in uplifting union.

Divina Flor carries a near flamenco edge to it, robust strumming and robust picking, finding a touch of gypsy jazz syncopation in there too. Which leaves only Fuguenzo to wrap up the whole, the title perhaps a clue as to what to expect. A round robin of a tune, it has enough olde worlde charm to grace a crumhorn-free Gryphon. I like these guys, never having heard (of) them before, and there is a hole in the panoply of current styles and options into which they are the perfect size and shape. A credit to the record label, Trad Records, of Belgium, who tend to specialise in modern European folk music we might otherwise miss on these shores. Conveniently(!) run by Snaamaarwaar’s mandolin man, Ward Dhoores, here is a link to their roster.

And here’s the lively opening track:

Snaarmaarwaar online: website / Facebook

Walter Parks & The Unlawful Assembly : Shoulder It (CRS Records)

Who? Yeah, me too, but, on listening, how the heck why? No tender young greenhorn, Parks has a long track record, stretching back over decades, encompassing pop, rock, roots and jazz, culminating in a decade-long gig as Richie Haven’s guitarist and right-hand man. Originally from Florida, his journeys have taken him from New York and the northeast seafront to, now, Louisiana. That journey has included a spell in a Buddhist retreat, but it is now a different Lord he serves, his music a deep rich broth of gospelly blues and spiritual soul, reeking of New Orleans and the swamplands that abound it. A deep and well-lived voice evokes a mix between Solomon Burke and the Holmes Brothers, no bad place to be.

This set, astonishingly, is mostly covers. And not covers of any old song, but covers all of old time spirituals, something I only suddenly clicked as the unmistakable melody of Amazing Grace broke out, more than midway. He also does a mean old line in secular song, but this is reserved for his other band, Swamp Cabbage, who offer, his word, ‘swampalachian’ adventures. The Unlawful Assembly are strictly God-fearing, but in such a way, presented and played, as to be in the ear of the beholder. If you want to just hear good ol’ Louisiana blues, that’s fine.

Opening with the title track, it is a classic construction of clipped and picked electric guitar, with shimmery organ, a warm soak in goodness already, even before his sweet gravelly tones chime in. The bass and drums just do their job, no show or ceremony, seamlessly holding it together. Backing vocals are appropriately sweet ‘n’ sassy southern soul, courtesy Ada Dyer. This one is an original and is a co-write with no less than Stan Lynch, drummer and sometime Heartbreaker with Tom Petty. Wade In The Water is then a sidestep into the bayou, gritty guitar growling alongside even deeper pitched vocals. Michael Bellar’s organ glides in, and it is a murky, muddy treat, with a pleasingly anything but predictable guitar solo showing no constraint to the stylistic expectations. Dyer hollers beside him, their voices the contrast of burnt embers and paraffin.

Steal Away is the first overt mention of Jesus, but is one of those hokey old numbers that translate so well to a full electric church band, walking bass from Paul Frazier, the whole held together by the metronome of Steven Williams, who as well as occupying the drumseat, is Parks’ main collaborator and produced the album. Another gloriously wonky guitar solo and suddenly their secret weapon unleashes. Secret weapon? Andrae Murchison’s trombone, his tone a wondrous western swing-infused parp, redolent of Norton Buffalo’s work with Commander Cody. Old Blind Barnabus is another clap hands and point the sky type celebration that would, were it not so carefully held in check by the tight arrangement, seem a little corny, falling just on the right side of not. Normally deeply suspicious of such, I am finding myself convinced. Which is when a skewed guitar intro beckons in the instant recognition of Amazing Grace, Dyer taking the first verse, before sparring with Parks thereafter. A full on chapel version, my agnosticism is being tested strongly here; not so much my beliefs, but, hell, if I can say that, I’d go to church to hear it. Otherwise fairly straight, the guitar once more shows Parks idiosyncratic mastery of the instrument. It is as if he hits a note, any note, deciding to se where he can go with it, without losing sight of the end destination. It is hypnotically effective.

Early In The Morning occupies a more sleazy southern rock position, with vocals and backing vocals over a slow backbeaten guitar motif that, gulp, sounds like the Alabama 3, so much is it in the style they ape. The trombone is beautifully off-piste, and it is maybe more in the bag of a reborn (both sorts) Mac Rebennack, but I can’t get that Alabama 3 vision out of my ear. I don’t know what a drinking gourd might be, but Follow The Drinking Gourd abruptly again changes direction, and is in, initially, the style of a country ballad. Until, that is, the engine room of Williams and Frazier kick in, with a full on funky fusillade. Parks sings here more like huskier Neil Diamond, but, in too deep here, I can’t even dislike that semblance. A relentless choogle of a song, it is a high water mark, the horn coda especially riveting.

Georgia Rice is the second original, based on an Okefinokee Swamp folk fable, it says here. With unearthly falsetto moans to start, it is a more laid-back finger-picked number. The first verse is in his comfortable bass, the later verses having him jump an octave into a smoky Kenny Rogers register. Bellar can’t keep out of it, his swirls giving all the textures you want. It’s a grower, leaving you wanting more, and the realisation that Down By The Riverside is the last song making it all seem far too short. Which track brings back the Alabama 3 spectre, with burbling and distorted tones over the organ and clavinet, feedback then ushering in the steady rhythm, it is a shock to realise it is that Riverside, a song that would have me normally running for the hills. But he carries it off with aplomb, the versions by Taj Mahal and Van Morrison clearly more the template than Peter, Paul and Mary or the Seekers. The sour tang of another metallically spare guitar solo also adds to the overall vote of confidence, as does the ‘bone solo over a double tracked ‘bone chorale. Wonderful and praise be!

Looking like a bespectacled old testament prophet and sounding like a soul man, this might take some hunting. It’s his second disc in this project. Let’s hope it isn’t his last.

Here’s Wade In The Water:

Walter Parks online: website / Facebook / instagram

Lowland Brothers : Lowland Brothers (Wica Records)

Another new name, these brothers “from different mothers” are a French band from Nantes, big on the Gallic blues circuit and with a well-honed harness on the musical tropes of the US southern states, with echoes of soul and blues permeating their guitar rock. It all sends whiffs of the old Capricorn Records label, back when the south was set to rise again, very late sixties into seventies. Whilst this engaging release is actually, in their homeland, two years old, it is only now, this March that they have embraced a wider platform. I’m glad they did. It is true some of the titles and lyrics are irrevocably of English as a second language, and are culled from the “”language” of rock in the last century, but, given that is their specialist subject, fair play.

A lonesome twang kicks it all off, ahead the rhythm section cranking in on a slow-burning sway, Sunburns in December. Singer Nico Duportal has all the come hither charm of an open-shirted medallioned frontman, playing also additional guitar. It works a charm in the old time machine, as does the sweeping organ of Matthieu Bergot, with the meat holding the veg, managed by the guitar of Hugo Deviers. Present and so correct as to be assumed are the rhythm section, Max Genouel on bass and Fabrice Bessouat on drums. A sound start that keeps you engaged, whilst the dugga dugga dugga riff of Two Pounds Of Loaded Steel keeps on spot, as sway becomes swagger. A proggy middle eight adds to the cocktail and, quite probably, they’ve got you, as you try not to play air guitar. A song called Melania can’t, can it, be about that Melania? Is it the tale of their courtship, as remembered by the “Duc de L’Orange”? I jest, it can’t be, but it is a pleasing country noir cum 12-bar slow shuffle. Great baritone guitar.

Driftin’ then has an Angiesque Stonesy vibe, if a little psyched up, little skiddles of guitar sending in added value. Dated as hell, sure, but that’s the appeal, especially as the girlie vocals slot in. Share Your Load might smack a little of spot the reference, but it is a favourite, resonating of Free, albeit with a Stuart Staples, after speech therapy, on vocals. Love it! The electric piano is pure vintage gold. Love Reigns Over Me isn’t the one it could be, but these garcons don’t do covers, here at least. A blue-eyed corker, it seeps of that period when rock bands were playing with soul, trying to get on the AWB bandwagon. (AWB? Check out the bvs!) It is neither big or clever, but I defy you not to sing along.

Things we used to do ups the Gram/Stones country ante, and, if a little generic, it is a good generic, with the guitar figure “shaking all over”, if you will. Given there isn’t really much wholly original in this world, if you are going to show your roots so clearly, make ’em good. And they do. All too short, the album closes with High And Lonesome, infusing more mystique into the song than the title deserves. A slow country blues, it has the greatest guitar sound; remember Pusher Man by Steppenwolf? It’s that tone, but the song is a lot more, the Hammond organ a pleasure to behold.

First time around I felt this so-so, the second a work of wonder. Further listens take up on that latter feeling, and, if ever in need of a retro fix, these guys have it, à la pelle.

Here’s Sunburns In December:

Lowland Brothers online: website / Facebook / instagram

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