Entries in Michael McDermott (2)


Reviews by Stephen Rapid

Leslie Tom Ain’t It Something, Hank Williams Coastal Bend

Perhaps using the life and songs of Hank Williams as a roadmap may seem like an odd direction to follow given how that turned out for him. However, here, Texas born singer Leslie Tom has taken the spirit of Williams’ template of love, heartbreak and loss as the heartbeat of her latest release, a 10 track tribute to Hank that combines 6 original songs with covers of William's originals - Hey Good Lookin’, Honky Tonkin’, I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry and the somewhat lesser known Angel Of Death. All are delivered with a passion that makes them worthy of attention despite the fact that they have been, in the main, recorded many times before. Part of that is due to the skill of Tom’s assembled band and John Macy’s production. Both are respectful while also rejuvenating the songs and sound in a style that is fluent and fresh. Those who like to read credits and have done so through the years will recognise the names of steel guitarist Lloyd Green and guitarist Chris Leuzinger among the talented players involved (who also included Andy Hall on dobro - for Angel Of Death - from the Infamous Stringdusters). The album was recorded in Nashville’s Cinderella Sound Studios but is a far cry of from much that emerges from via the studios of Music City these days.

The original songs are both lyrically clever and emotionally concise and incorporate some of Williams’ spirit and synergy, but do so from a defiantly female perspective. Still Love You (Audrey’s Song) is written from the perspective of Hank’s wife and their troubled relationship that was still imbued with an underlying love for each other. Born Too Late offers the “if only” theory that he was born too late and she was born too soon. Mr Williams is a precis of his life and relationship with Audrey that uses some of Hank’s lyrics intertwined with Tom’s own incisive writing. The final track Hank You Very Much (listed as a “bonus track” as it appeared on a previous release) takes this even further by using many of Williams’ song lines in its verses. It features vocals from Larry Nix who adds harmony throughout the album. Another guest on a song he co-writes with Tom is Dean Miller and  their Are You Ready For Some Hanky Panky? is a joyful and up tempo realisation that we are all ready for some of the music of Mr. Williams.

Although Tom is a multi-instrumentalist here she concentrates on delivering some powerful and impassioned vocals that do justice to all the material on the album. An album that covers a range of moods, tempos and tempestuousness that places here in the forefront of traditionally-minded singers who don’t feel the need to court the temptation of crossover commerciality. Leslie Tom has combined her considerable talents and those of her players to produce a statement of intent that surely points to some equally potent (and likely original) music in the future. Ain’t that something to look forward to?

Sir Canyon Ventura Skies Self Release

Singer and writer Noah Lamberth is the central figure being behind Sir Canyon. He is a part of the revived and resolute California country music scene. He uses d his music as means to deal with some emotional hurt and loss that he had encountered in his life. He is a film and documentary maker in his other life and previously played in a band, Hank Floyd. He also played steel guitar for the likes of Katy Perry. Lamberth played some of his home demos to his friend, producer Andy Davis, who was impressed enough to begin recording the songs with a serious intent to bring his self described country/surf/mariachi/desert rock sound to another level

Indeed, even though there is pedal steel, twanging guitars and more, the end result is neither traditional country nor mainstream crossover country pop/rock. Rather, it evokes some earlier exponents of California country, without ever sounding like such icons as Glen Campbell, Gram Parsons or the many exponents of the Bakersfield Sound; as well as that of those who made their home and music there - like Neil Young - another influence on these sounds. Even though there are elements of all of these in Sir Canyon’s music there is also the cinematic aura of the soundtracks that are part and parcel of the music inherent in California’s film industry, especially those that deal with the landscape of the American West.

The opening track (and video) Angeleno Daydream looks to the sense of mythology that is central to Los Angeles as a city of dream and reality. The good and the bad that both draws people in looking for fame and fortune as much as it is a catalyst to move out and on. The song opens with three music components that are pivotal to the overall sound. They are strummed acoustic guitar, deep baritone guitar and ethereal pedal steel guitar. These three elements are soon enhanced by the full band utilising an understated rhythm section and Lamberth’s considered indie styled vocals. There is a dream-like quality at times that befits their self-described “cosmic Americana” sound. It is a blend of influences that takes some of the principles that Gram Parsons based his musical ideology on without sounding like a rehash of that man’s oeuvre.

Crucial to the album is the input of producer Andy Davis and mixer John Rausch who have worked with Lamberth’s song writing to bring a quality to the overall project that makes for an end to end listening experience that works on a number of levels. As band leader Lamberth not only is vocalist but also plays pedal steel and guitar on the album. Joey Esquibel and John Moreau are the rhythm section. Producer Davis plays keyboards and adds background vocals. Martin Saavedra plays effective trumpet on Cindy Come Over. This team took it’s time to produce and album that they were proud of. It shows and while if you’re a hard-core honky-tonk fan it may not appeal, it is an album that is a welcome addition to the cannon of recent work from L.A. based artists, such as Sam Outlaw, that is a worthy antidote to much of the output from Nashville.

Michael McDermott Out From Under Pauper Sky

As the title suggest this is an album about taking hold of your life and looking toward the better things. Things that really mean something. His story is one of excess and extremes. Being signed to a major label at an age where nothing else seems to matter and when that falters and fails resorting to finding things to blot out that lack of self worth. McDermott has now, over his last few albums, both solo and with The Westies found himself dedicating his life to creating work that he can be proud of as well as realising the strengths and support that his wife and daughter bring to his life.

However, it is also true that these negative tendencies have given him the opportunity to look at the good and the bad things that life has to offer. The songs here look at both sides, but end up being imbued with positivity and understanding that sees the cycles of life, death and everything in between as an opportunity to learn and grow as a human being. Given also that McDermott is a dynamic and riveting live performer as well as an accomplished artist in the studio his music is underrated and worthy of greater attention. He has already been praised, in the past, by Stephen King, amongst others, for his song writing ability. This album brings his work to a whole other level. His experiences have galvanised him to create something with a more resonant meaning that in the past.

McDermott produced the album and in doing so has delivered an album that he is central to, as a player contributing guitar, bass and keyboards. His wife Heather sang back-up and played fiddle on the album (she is a performer in her own right and recently released a fine album). He also included some of The Westies (such a long-time bass player Lex Price) and other players who either came to the studio or contributed remotely. His studio is in Willow Springs, Illinois and working there gives him the freedom to create in his own time. He even added one song The World Will Break Your Heart when the album was ostensibly done. It was a song he felt needed to be on the record as it in some ways serves as a cautionary tale for less worldly artists. The eleven songs here clock in with a time of over 45 minutes allowing the songs the time they need to tell their stories. God Help Us is an ambiguous plea for the understanding of faith. Lack of faith in one’s self is apparent in the opening Cal-Sar Road. A location where one might score and then try removing pain through narcotics. He is well placed to tell this fictional tale of murder and mayhem. As he is in many of the other songs on the album. Sad Songs is a full-blooded rock song that sees him wanting to move away from that subject to something more positive.

In overall terms this is an album that should appeal to his hard core fans as well as those who like their songwriters to be able to deal in truth in a musically varied and interesting setting. One that allows the layers to emerge slowly with each listen. McDermott has clearly come out from under and emerged into the light with an album that is arguably the best of his career and one that I can wholeheartedly recommend.

Sam Morrow Concrete And Mud Forty Below

This album opens with Morrow giving a deep soulful vocal over a strong full sounding track with edgy guitar. Heartbreak Man has a little of Waylon in its DNA (as do many of the other tracks) and it is a good start to what is an album that fits in well with the current idea of what outlaw is right now. His is a blend of Texas dance floor country, some Southern Rock and a soupcon of Memphis country funk. His deep baritone voice sits atop a live, in the studio, sound that producer Eric Corne captured on a vintage Neve desk. From then on, the playing adds much to the overall feel with Hammond styling, mixed with bluesy slide, twanging’ Telecaster and layered vocals. San Fernando Sunshine exemplifies this. While the up tempo Good Ole Days moves along at a pace with some nods to his native Texas and some fine guitar playing which again blends with the swirling full bodied keyboards.

Skinny Elvis features duet vocals from his label mate Jamie Wyatt (as do two other tracks where she joins him on backing vocals). It also features a notable turn from Jay Dee Maness on pedal steel. An instrument that is also central to the equally effective Coming Home. The guitar and keyboard blend is prominent on the standout ballad Weight Of A Stone which has a compelling and telling vocal from Morrow. One that should easily find him favour with Chris Stapelton fans and marks Morrow out as a real contender. Cigarettes has a touch of Little Feet in its loose, rootsy funkiness and bolstered by some judicious Moog bass. There is some fiddle that works well on the closing song Mississippi River.

Morrow is the assumed writer of the songs here, working with Eric Corne (individual writing details are not credited on the promo sleeve). The latter is also the label owner and has played a large part in bring some diversity to Morrow’s country funk amalgamation. Something off an abiding trend these days but one that Morrow and Corne have pulled off with style giving the listener an album that works on many levels. Never quite fitting easily in either the country rock or country soul categories but rather offering a blurring of the lines that makes Concrete And Mud, as the title might suggest, both hard edged and loose. So, while it may not be everyone’s side of a honky-toning night out, it is music that the 27 year old Texan can put out there knowing that he’s tried to make the best album he can at this time - and it is an album for these times.

The Lynnes Heartbreak Song For The Radio Self Release

These two Canadian artists have worked together previously but this is the first album that Lynne Hanson and Lynn Miles have released together. They have written all the songs together (with one being a co-write) and co-produced the album. Miles plays acoustic and electric guitar and piano while Hanson also adds acoustic and electric guitars. They are joined by a full band that includes Kevin Breit on guitars, Dave Draves on keyboards Keith Glass plays baritone guitar and Don Cummings plays the B3. The rhythm section is Peter Von Althen and Steve Clark. The all do a great job as this is an excellent album on all levels - great vocals, memorable songs and engaging playing.

Most of the songs are song by both vocalists together or with one thing taking the lead and the other adding harmony. Either way the vocals are a foremost part of the overall presence of the album. Those songs, as the title suggests, deal with failed and unresolved relationships. The closet to positivity is Halfway To Happy (well as a title at least). Other than that, these titles tell a story in themselves: Cost So Much, Recipe For Disaster, Dark Waltz, Blame It On The Devil and Heavy Lifting. The thing is, despite the lyrically directions, this is an energetic, uplifting and rewarding recording.

They each have a strong turn of phrase and the lyrics are well written; being emotive, gritty and revealing as befits artists who have had life experiences and lived to tell the tales. It has been said that individually there are both compelling but together they excel. Heartbreak Song For The Radio is ready testament to that. The songs are not without balls. These are not delicate folk songs but rather move from the more reflective tone of Blue Tattoo to at the harder edges of Halfway To Happy. Throughout, the harmonies are enchantingand it is an example of two artist totally in synch with each other, their band and the songs. One could only wish to hear more of their brand of patented heartbreak on the radio.

Mojo Monkeys Swerve On Medikull

A California based trio who have lent their considerable talents to a great number of musical endeavours not least acting as sidemen to such luminaries as Lucinda Williams, Dwight Yoakam, Richard Thompson, Keith Richards and Eric Burden. They are bassist/vocalist Taras Prodaniuk, drummer and vocalist David Raven and guitarist/vocalist Billy Watts. This new album, their third, displays their individual and collective skills on 10 self written songs and one cover; Allen Toussaint’s Ride Your Pony. The opening song Tuscaloosa Maybe has a Western Swing feel and features some alluring pedal steel from Marty Rifkin. Rifkin also joins them for the next song, Two Shots. Both are somewhat different in style from what follows on with nods to soul, rock and blues - a California filtered selection of roots oriented moods – giving both diversity and dance floor vibes throughout. If I Were Gone, All The Wrong Things and Beat Bus Driver are just three of the titles that show why these three work so well together.

There are hooks a-plenty that these guys can play, as well as write and they appear to be having fun throughout. They have been compared to ZZ Top and that comparison is understandable but these monkeys have their own tales and their collective experiences on display here and it shows you why they are in demand as players. There’s nothing particularly new on offer on Swerve On, other than good music that is easy to enjoy and get in the groove to.


Reviews by Stephen Rapid


TWO FROM CANADA: A hotbed of some traditionally orientated country music

Ginger St. James One for the Money Busted Flat 

St. James is a Canadian singer and songwriter who has a passion for traditional country, rockabilly and blues. You can add the word rowdy to this description to help sum up her sassy attitude which may spring from her previous involvement in the burlesque scene. This 9 track album also has some more thoughtful and quieter moments like Honeymoon Stage, Best Of Me and You and Somebody Shot Me alongside the more up-tempo stompers like Train Whistle and the hard rockin’ Hair of the Blackdog

St. James has a commanding voice as well as a way with words that suits her chosen musical path. She is accompanied by a band of players including longtime guitarist Snowheel Slim and pianist Chris Altman, who join her on the credits for the mostly self-written songs. The set was produced by James McKenty and it is a step up from her previous entertaining EP release Spank, Sparkle & Growl, recorded with her previous band, The Grinders. One for the Money affirms that St. James is developing her craft in what might be considered a segment of the musical spectrum that is under represented. This is one for the moment.  

Eli Barsi Portrait of a Cowgirl Red Truck Int.

Barsi is an artist with a string of releases under her (cowgirl) belt and one I have not encountered previously. The Canadian roots/country scene is full of artists who tend not to receive much recognition outside their homeland. Barsi’s experience and talents shine on this album, which deals with themes related to farm and ranch life. She also touches on the more personal aspects of relationships such as He’ll be Back Again and I See You Everywhere.  

Barsi’s sound is a fairly satisfying blend of traditional and contemporary. A solid rhythm section gives a radio friendly base under the banjo, fiddle and steel guitar embellishments. Add keyboards and electric and acoustic guitars and you have a layered sound that isn’t retro, but stays within what can be rightly credited as country music. 

She has written all the songs here and the sound has a wide ranging appeal. Perhaps she should be considered as a parallel to singers like Joni Harms and Wylie Gustafson. They all come from a background rooted in the land, horses and a western lifestyle. Indeed Barsi has a number of “western” albums to her credit and Portrait of a Cowgirl fits well, as it is a musical evocation of an attitude and ethos that is fast disappearing, one which many are attracted to but don’t have the opportunity to live. This is something that Barsi considers (as have others) in Big Hat, No Cattle, but in the end the song Country Music Was Made for Saturday Night sums up the letting off steam, end of the week release that country music seems well suited for.

TWO COVERS ALBUMS: Two artists offering their choice of favourite songs - with the mixed reaction that that often entails.

Karl Blau Introducing Karl Blau Bella Union 

This album from Blau is far from an introduction; it is more an introduction to some of his favourites and is being presented as a country/soul album. This is a combination that is big buzz word right now. A look at Blau’s discography on his website highlights some of the numerous releases he has made over a 20 year recording career. 

There are twelve songs on this album which opens with the oft recorded That’s How I Got to Memphis. The sound is, in truth, not overtly country in a sense that fans of honky-tonk or Texas dance floor might imagine. Rather it is a blend of smooth delivery with soulful overtones that allows Blau’s warm, rich, deep vocal to sit front and centre. However, a little against type, there is little brass featured. Strings and keyboards feature with acoustic, electric and pedal steel guitars.

The overall feel is perhaps a take on the more refined countrypolitan Nashville melodious sounds of the 60s and 70s. Producer Tucker Martine gathers together a set of players who clearly understand what the songs need to give them a makeover. How successful this is, and indeed, any cover is, depends on your relationship to the original or best known version. I’m curious as to how many of these songs Blau’s audience would have encountered previously. 

Woman (Sensuous Woman) was recorded by Don Gibson, No Regrets was written by Tom Rush and recorded by the Walker Brothers (amongst others). If I Needed You is perhaps Townes Van Zandt’s best know song. Dreaming My Dreams was written for Waylon Jennings, was a hit in Ireland when covered by Marianne Faithfull and was also covered by Patty Loveless. To Love Somebody is a Bee Gees song that has been recorded by a number of roots/country artists such as Blue Rodeo. The first single from the album is a compelling version of Fallin’ Rain, written by Link Wray. 

There is plenty here to both admire and enjoy and the album may serve as an introduction to Karl Blau’s broader musical world. It might even get some indie fans to explore the richness of country music’s past and in turn open the minds of some usually more strictly focused country fans. In the endit is down to the performance, the singer and the songs. Here the match is good enough to hold attention and to reassess the songs that Blau has chosen. He’s the one wearing the cowboy hat and embroidered jacket on the cover and this gives you a clue as to where he’s coming from this time.

Robert Rex Waller Jr. Fancy Free Western Seeds

Waller fronted the band I See Hawks in LA for some years now before deciding to release this solo outing, funded by Kickstarter. Divided into Side A and Side B, the first song from Side A is his take on Walking through your Town in the Snow and it is a good opening choice as it highlights Waller’s deep baritone voice. Written by Bruce Utah Philips the song sets you up for the Americana that follows, including a melancholic, but uplifting take on Neil Young’s Albuquerque.  From then on there are versions of songs from Ray Davies (Waterloo Sunset), Albert Hammond (The Air That I Breathe) and Dylan’s She Belongs to Me, which features an extended guitar outro. There are also lesser known songs such as the title track or Mike Stinson’s Counting My Lucky Stars. There is also a short piano and vocal version of Amazing Grace 

Each listener will find their own loves and loathes, although nothing here should deserve the latter opinion. Waller has produced the album with Marc Doten and they ring the changes across the songs; some are stripped back while others offer a more cosmic sound. The version of the Doors The Crystal Ship fits that particular sonic sound well.

Doten is at the heart of the sound, playing keyboards, guitar and bass and he is joined by drums, guitar and violin. The album takes each song on its own terms and as such is difficult to pin down to any one single genre direction. Which, if you are listening without a particular preconception, offer a wide ranging listening experience.

With I See Hawks in LA Waller sings original song. Here he is given the freedom to interpret songs that have entered his consciousness in an individual, stylised way that makes the most of his voice and their musical settings. Enjoyment will depend largely on how willing you are to follow him down a winding path.

TWO FROM THE PAST: Two artists offering popular songs, with the mixed reaction that often entails.

Billy ‘Crash’ Craddock Mr Country Rock Humphead

Craddock is a singer whose recordings on this 2CD collection go from 1978 to 1986. He was a vocal stylist rather than a songwriter, recording songs that had a solid enough country backing, but were in many ways more associated with rock and pop. The set opens somewhat ominously with Knock Three Times which was a big country hit for him. After that we get 49 other songs including Dream Lover, You Better Move On, Come a Little Closer, Slippin’ and Slidin’, Think I’ll Go Somewhere (and Cry Myself To Sleep), Sea Cruise and a live version of Whole Lot of Shakin’ Goin’ On. Starting out as a rock ’n’ roll/rockabilly singer Craddock released records and toured in the 50’s before taking a career break. After that he returned as a country singer and it is from this period that these recording come.

There is a certain nostalgia about these songs that are largely inoffensive and inessential. They are not without a certain charm and highlight Craddock’s serviceable voice that owes a little to Elvis Presley in tone. The production makes the best of the backing musicians who include Lloyd Green on steel and there is enough variety in the tempo and tone to ensure a solid listenable experience. The penultimate track She Belongs to Me is not the Bob Dylan song but an unrelated, uncredited one. By this time, as exemplified by the final track I Didn’t Hear The Thunder, things had moved on as it is a largely keyboard-based song with backing vocals that is neither rock nor country. Billy “Crash’ Craddock is an performer who largely changed with the times and this compilation misses his early rock phase and goes from country to something more middle of the road.

Dave Dudley Truck Drivin’ Son-of-a-Gun Humphead

Humphead put together these two CD collections and, depending on individual preferences, some hit the spot more than others. This collection spans recordings from 1965 through to 1977, so the production from each period changes the sound and the musical backing styles. The difference between tracks 5 and 6 (You’ve Got to Cry Girl and What We’re Fighting For) is quite wide apart from Dudley’s voice. It is the earlier recordings that largely hit home the most for me.  

The version of Six Days on the Road is not the original version from 1963 but a later recording from 1975. The subject matter Dudley’s best known for are those that dealing with the trucking fraternity. Songs like the aforementioned signature songs along with Me and Ole C.B., Farewell to the Road, Trucker’s Prayer, Truckin’ Dad and the title track. There are also a wide variety of relationships that were also a staple of any singer’s repertoire. You Got to Cry Girl, a song he co-wrote in 1972, sounds like mainstream crooner pop to me. 

The majority of the songs are more about relationships than on the road themes. What is apparent throughout is the strength of Dave Dudley’s deep baritone vocals. He seems at home with the choices that the producers made to keep the songs relevant with radio styles when these songs were recorded. One writer Dudley turned to was Tom T Hall who provides some 14 of the songs - two co-written with Dudley and one, Day Drinkin’, on which Hall and Dudley duet on a song illustrating the title.

There is no getting away from the period sound of the production on these tracks, but that is part and parcel of the appeal. Dudley’s voice was suitable for this material, but he is most fondly remembered for the truckin’ songs. However there is enough here to show that Dudley loved what he did.

TWO FROM THE SAME SOURCE: Michel McDermott is the primary songwriter for both of these albums.

The Westies Six on the Out Pauper Sky

On this second Westies album the band continue in the vein that they set up on their fine debut release. The band is fronted by Michael McDermott and Heather Horton with five other players including guitarist Will Kimbrough and bassist Lex Price, who also produced and mixed the album. For the uninitiated there are some comparisons to the writing and sounds of Dylan, Springsteen and Elliott Murphy in the mix, but the Westies stand on their own feet and make a sound that will appeal to fans of certain periods of those other artist’s work.

McDermott is the writer and main singer here and the songs are dark and dirty and deal with the lives of those who exist in shadows and on the margins of a largely uncaring society. The songs tell truths and have undoubted passion and understanding for those who inhabit these songs. The Gang’s All Here is a strong ballad with tin-whistle that suggests a certain Irishness in ethos and community. Like You Used To is another ballad, sung this time by Horton, that seeks love from another in a way that may have been lost over time. Love is something that these characters seek and other songs here look for the meaning of that. Everything is All I Want for You and This I Know are declarations of hard won solace.

The opening If I Had a Gun pulls no punches in that the lethal weapon could either be “pointed back at me” or equally used to “blow them all to hell” and the sense of desperation is palpable. Henry McCarty is the tale of an Irish-American outlaw better known as Billy the Kid. It tells his tale, one often told before, in a way that has an understanding for who and how he became that legend. Sirens is the about murder and the deep devastating loss that results from loss of family. These may be not the stuff of mainstream music, but the performances here make these songs stand up and fight for themselves and they put up a good fight.

Michael McDermott Willow Springs Pauper Sky

Ostensibly this is a solo album from Westies frontman Michael McDermott, although the cast of players has names common to this album and Six on The Out. McDermott sits in the production chair this time, and while the Westies recorded their album in Nashville, this album was recorded in the titular Willow Springs in Illinois. McDermott started out as a lauded songwriter and singer and released his debut album 620 W. Surf  in 1991. Stephen King called him “one of the greatest songwriters in the world.” Indeed his Irish heritage has given him the gift of storytelling.

This album seems a little more oriented around an acoustic guitar, folkish approach, though the full band is present throughout to fill out the melodies and add a texture to the sound palate. The songs take a similar approach to those on the Westies album in that they are considered and concerned tales of the lives of everyday working or unemployed folk. 

A wider audience has so far eluded McDermott and that may be due to a superficial comparison to Bruce Springsteen’s work. That may be something initially obvious, but there are songs her that I’m sure the Boss would have been proud to have penned. Both men come from the “Judas” tradition of amped up electric folk rock in any case. This is something McDermott addresses in Folksinger. “I don’t wanna be a folksinger anymore, I wanna hear some big guitars.” In truth though he may always be a folksinger at heart , though one who also rocks hard.

There is a strong sense of melody and lyricism on display throughout the album. Soldiers of the Same War notes that man has been “fighting for a thousand years” and that war and all it brings is a constant, something we never seems to learn from. From reading the lyrics in the booklet one gets a sense of an overall despair and downbeat hearts. The feeling that a person who is a half empty guy who if he “wasn’t laughing … you could bet that he would cry”. But that would deny the positivity that is inherent in McDermott’s music and life. He has been through bad times and has come out the other side. In Let a Little Light In and Shadow in the Window, he underlines a need and search for love, both to give and to receive. 

I would place him along side Elliott Murphy as singer/songwriters who plows their own furrow, who continue to write songs that are relevant and real. They are artists who exist outside mainstream commercial success but who may be the better for it in terms of their artistic endeavours. Willow Springs is an album to savour, one to admire and one that salutes the human heart for all its frailties, faults and fervour.