This week sees new releases from Kelly Joe Phelps, Sam Carter, Michael ‘Iron Man’ Burks and Kris Drever with Eamonn Coyne & Megan Henderson.
Kelly Joe Phelps – Brother Sinner & The Whale (Black Hen Music)
After his last rather outré offering Western Bell had baffled many, Kelly Joe Phelps realised it was time for a bit of a rethink. His attempts to push his guitar playing as far as possible had perhaps gone beyond their logical limit, Phelps concluded that technique as an end in itself was rather boring. So returning to a focus on songwriting and his original inspirations of Chet Atkins, Merle Travis, John Fahey and Leo Kottke, Phelps reawakened the creative muse through tapping back into his faith.
The result is a collection of gospel, folk and blues all played and sung solo and captured (as the cover proudly announces), in glorious mono by Steve Dawson. With just resonator, or acoustic guitar and voice, it would be a mistake to call the songs simple. The deft picking of Pilgrim’s Reach for example amply shows that not all guitar technique is boring, as does the bottleneck of the instrumental Spit Me Outta The Whale. Indeed the whole thing is packed with licks, lines and flurries that are quietly stunning. Ry Cooder-esque, the genuine passion that drives the conviction behind the songs is obvious. Whatever your own religious opinions there is plenty to like here. [Reviewed by Simon]
Sam Carter – The No Testament (Captain Records)
Here’s another very talented guitarist. Sam has been described by Jon Boden as the finest English-style finger picker of his generation and Richard Thompson clearly rates him highly enough for Meltdown Festival billing. His talent is obvious throughout The No Testament and the jazzy lilt of No Other Side, suggests Carter’s a likely heir to Davy Graham’s crown. Sam also is a fan of Nic Jones, whose wonderful Ruins By The Shore he includes.
There is a very English air to much here, but Sam has broadened his listening, bringing in elements of gospel, sacred harp shape note music, spirituals and work songs from across the Atlantic into his songs. Mostly, however, it’s tied to secular concerns. Dreams Are Made Of Money speaks for itself, the highwayman Jack Hall is unrepentant on the gallows, The One and Separate Ways both pick at the bones of holy matrimony gone wrong. No Other Side and One Thought wrestle with troubles, suggesting the solution is within us. Garden Hymn is exactly that and changes the mood somewhat, only for the apocalyptic blues howl of Waves & Tremors and Nic Jones’ ode to the passing of time and the ultimately defiant title track to return us to earth. [Reviewed by Simon]
Michael “Iron Man” Burks – Show Of Strength (Alligator)
To complete a hat track of exceptional guitarists is a sadly posthumous release from Michael “Iron Man” Burks, as the Arkansas gentle giant passed away earlier this year while out on tour. Burks had the blues in his blood and his grandfather and father were both bluesmen and indeed his dad, Frederick, was his first teacher. Having put his musical career on hold for many years to prioritise his family life, the Iron Man probably hasn’t had the recognition of some of his peers, but his stinging, fat Humbucker tones are every bit as good as many and his voice is big and powerful. He forged a tough road-hardened reputation and his intense and often very long performances contributed to the nickname.
On this his fourth recording for Alligator, long-term band members Wayne Sharpe on piano and organ and drummer Chuck “Popcorn” Louden are joined by new recruit Terrence Grayson on bass duties. They power through tracks like the blistering Cross Eyed Woman, with Burks adding bottleneck thrills to his crunching riffs, but can also play it tender on the likes of Since I’ve been Loving You. His premature death is an undoubted tragedy, but this is a fitting legacy. [Reviewed by Simon]
Kris Drever, Eamonn Coyne & Megan Henderson (Reveal)
This engaging 5-track EP features new recordings from award-winning Scots songwriter Kris Drever (Lau), Irish tenor banjo player Eamonn Coyne (Treacherous Orchestra, Salsa Celtica) and Scots fiddler and vocalist Megan Henderson (Breabach, Salsa Celtica), showcasing their collective talents on a mix of lively tunes and heartfelt songs.
Eamonn’s crisp banjo picking and Megan’s sprightly fiddle playing provide the perfect complement to Drever’s rhythmic guitar style on the instrumentals, while the appeal of Drever’s lived-in vocals remains as strong as ever on the opening Parcel Of Rogues and Wild Hurricane. Megan’s harmony vocals come to the fore on a rip-roaring version of the popular folk ballad Shady Grove that closes the album and stands out along with the jaunty 20 Quid Remix (feat. J F Dickey) as album highlights.
[Reviewed by Sofi]