Alt Country

CD Review: “Little Flame” by Max Savage

Genre: acoustic folk country

Reviewed by Phil Catley

5 Stars out of 5

Max Savage set aside his band “The False Idols” for a short time to record some stripped back acoustic songs with only occasional support from guitarist Lachlan Ridge on three of the eight songs. This EP “Little Flame” is the result.

This approach is brutal on songs that lack integrity or depth, as it exposes the bare bones of the shallow and the meaningless to the blinding light of public opinion. No doubt this occurred to Max Savage, for he has clearly invested time in crafting the lyrics and structure of these songs. They have lived with him, gathered tarnish, and carved their own meaning during long road trips before being dusted off and pressed him in a single studio sitting.

Armed with an acoustic guitar and a single microphone, Max is s storyteller with a style that brushes the likes of Dylan and Paul Kelly, but retains its own unique sound. A man and his acoustic can sometimes sound empty, but Max has harnessed the space woven into these songs to enhance the ambience and the story. Standout tracks for me are the opener “Caroline” and the closing track “You’ll Find Me”, both of which coincidently feature Lachlan Ridge. Max also features an uniquely South Australian song about “R M Williams Boots”.

This thoroughly enjoyable collection of musical stories is available for digital download at:

Little Flame cover art

Don Morrison – This Could Be Big. Fringe Show Review. 11 3 12

Don Morrison is a larger than life character who is smaller than he should be in terms of fame and success. He could have been Paul Kelly, or John Mellencamp, or Bruce Springsteen, and to some loyal followers he is in the same category as these well known troubadours. Circumstances have prevented Don from achieving similar levels of fame, but he is a local treasure none the less.

His 2012 Fringe show “This could be Big!” is a spoken and musical performance around his book of the same name. Assisted by “Dingo” on acoustic guitar, Don charmed the Sunday afternoon Wheatsheaf Hotel crowd with witty anecdotes and readings from the book, interspersed with a variety of songs ranging from Elmore James “Dust my Broom” to a song he had only just written for this show. Don plays harmonica like he tells a story; with passion and with flawless delivery. He also plays a DonMo Ukele and Guitar, made by Don out of old corrugated iron fencing.

The journey from his first folk Band in the mid 70s through the punk Blues of The Bodgies, the adventures touring the country supporting some of the biggest Australian acts, life working in a foundry, the tax office, to later life musicianship is wry, humorous, and at one point terribly sad. Don never gave up hope and is now a living treasure in the Adelaide music scene.

If you missed the show, get the book, or one of Dons CDs, or listen to him on 3D radio Fridays.


CD Review: The BordererS, 2011 Double CD “Tales of Love and Loss” + “Rise Up!”

Adelaide Celtic Folk Rock band The BordererS have been around the Adelaide music scene for some time and have an impressive catalogue of CD’s to their name. This release is their first double album, although it is really two distinctly different CDs released in one package.

The first disk “Tales of Love and Loss” has its roots in the grief Alex and Jim have for the loss of their teenage son Rowan, who sadly took his own life, and also in the loss of Jim’s mother, Betty. Understandably, the songs on this CD have an unifying theme and it’s a somewhat more sober CD than the second disk, “Rise Up!” which is a more traditional collection of songs originating from the daily experiences life serves up.

The band has enjoyed reasonable international success, particularly by Adelaide standards, yet they seem to defy trends and are difficult to pigeon-hole. A bit folk, a bit pop, a bit traditional, a bit Peter Paul and Mary, they just seem to write nice songs that could be sung in the back yard, the front bar, or on the world stage.

This CD opens with a cover of the classic “You’re My World”, one of three covers on this disk, the others being “Changing Fortunes” and the traditional “Danny Boy”. The other seven songs are BordererS originals which have mostly been unearthed from previously recorded but unused material. A couple of songs seem to have been written specifically for this release. Whatever the origin, these 10 songs all seem to belong and are appropriate to the theme.

Jim Paterson steps up to the microphone on two songs. “Jesus by my Side” is a rollicking old-time, up-tempo, swing-blues song that you just have to clap along to. “The Meaning of Life” which is a hokey knee-slapping banjo tune which evolves into a southern church soul tune, infused with a touch of zydeco. Jim’s vocal contributions seem to have a bit of cheek to them and are sung with a mischievous grin.

The balance of the album is sung by Alex, except for the simple mood instrumental “Rowan’s Theme“, which has no lyrics. Sometimes there are no words to express how you feel.

Alex has a sweet voice which she uses to great effect on “One in a Million”, expressing the emotions and joy of a mother rejoicing in the birth of her son. She then plays the role of the daughter singing to her father of her enduring love on the uplifting ballad “My Fathers Love“. The generations are bridged by the song of a woman.

As much as this disk conveys messages and meaning borne from grief and loss, there is no pervasive cloud of darkness and sorrow here. The songs are still mostly upbeat, and if you were not aware of the context you might not make the link between these tunes and the loss of kin. It’s a fine line for an artist to tread, and The BordererS have got it just about right.

This disk serves up a collection of songs that lack the unifying theme of “Tales of Love and Loss“, but still sit well together as an album. Apart from the two traditional songs “Tell Me Ma/Africa” and “Ye Canny shove yer Granny Aff the Bus” these are all original BorderS tunes.

Tell Me Ma/Africa” is a freewheeling foot-tapper that fuses reggae, Celtic folk and Mbube around a traditional British song. As strange as it sounds, it actually works and you find yourself grooving along without knowing it. “Ye Canny Shove yer Granny Aff the Bus” is also a traditional number, sung to the tune of “She’ll be coming round the Mountain“. For this reviewer the Dixieland jazz style conjured up images of Keith Conlon drumming with his band on the back of a Christmas Pageant float – but don’t let that put you off! It’s all done with a large grin. And it’s a lot of fun.

“I’m a Work in Progress” and the title track “Rise Up!” are political statements, with the former referencing the Credence organization, and the latter taking up the cause of the Get Up! movement. (Wo)Man is a political animal, so artists searching their life experiences for material are going to touch on the subject of politics sooner or later. I’ve never been a fan of “shove it down your throat” political message bands, but two “message” songs in twenty is a fair enough ratio in my book.

“St. Antonin” a song about a town in France that has a bit of Gypsy feel, with the occasional nod to the Parisienne accordion, and a healthy dose of 80’s ska out of London. This is another unconventional song that seems to fit in because it’s fun.

There are a couple of songs that really do depart from mainstream BordererS material. “Gimme That Rhythm” is sung by Jim and is in the style of rockabilly. Whilst it rocks along and serves up a pretty authentic guitar solo, this genre does not really play to The BordererS strengths. The other variation is “Finding Your Own Way“, which stands unique in this collection as a piano ballad that could just as easily have been sung by Cold Chisel or Bruce Springsteen.

Overall the BordererS just seem to be having fun putting down tracks. “Temptation” is a live recording from the Woodford Festival where it is clear that the BordererS rock-out live. “Sober” is a classic Irish jig that belongs in the front bar, and “OI, OI, OI We’re Going Down the Pub” is a live recording of an up tempo drinking song, replete with a Clarence Clemens style sax solo and a chorus even the drunkest blarney stone kisser could wrap their lips around.

Emerging from the depths of sorrow “The BordererS” have put together a double album that says life is fun, let’s get on with it.


CD Review: The Black Diamond Band 2011 CD “Black Diamond Band”

Genre: Blues, Alt Country, Rock

The Black Diamond Band (BDB) hails from the IronTriangle region of South Australia and proudly proclaim themselves as “real live musicians from the great Southern State of Australia” on the rather rustic CD cover. The band is soaked in roots, blues, boogie and country music, blending growling male and lilting female vocals to deliver a collection of eclectic songs that will be of interest to listeners who enjoy this genre. Like me.

Recorded and mastered at Sody Pop studios, this CD could just as easily have been recorded off the mixing desk during a live performance at a working class pub in Whyalla. The overall sound of the CD is that of a very tight band playing to a lively and responsive audience, but without the added noise. The recording is excellent and the songs are well written and performed.

The band is nearly a family affair, with John Jagt on guitar and vocals, Julie Marie Jagt on vocals, and Alana Jagt on guitar and vocals. Friends Wayne O’Malley on guitar, Robert Ziegler on bass, and Mark Meyer on drums complete the band, with Brendan Williams joining the band for harmonica duties. There is a keyboard in the mix too, but I’m not sure who the musician is.

John and Julie share the song writing duties, and do a mighty fine job of constructing interesting tales from a down-to-earth character-driven region of this vast land.

With 16 songs and the lyrics included in the CD Cover, this is a good value release evoking touches of the growling Tom Waits, the swagger of The Cruel Sea, the guitar interplay of the Stones, the storytelling of Dylan…this release spits forth that which is born of the earth, forged in fire and sweat, and shouted from the corners of rooms where bourgeois urbanites and DJ’s dare not tread. These sixteen Vignettes explore life and the authentic characters that inhabit the parts more grim.

Half of the songs were written by Julie, and most of these have female vocals (I will assume its Julie), delivering a female perspective to life in the Triangle. The exceptions are the opening track Satisfied, and The Way it Is, both of which share vocal duties between John and Julie.

The six songs with female vocals tend to be a touch more mellow and make greater use of acoustic guitar in the mix. They include the bluesy ballad Burn, Gulf of Mexico with its slide guitar, and Dry Ground, which is the story of English immigrants (relatives) arriving in Perth.

John Jagt contributes six songs and takes vocal duties on all of them. His gravelly, growling, bluesy style is reminiscent of Tom Waits, but not to the point of imitation. It works perfectly with the stories, characters, and tunes served up by the BDB. The appropriately named Boilermakers Song tells the story of a foundry in Whyalla, complete with a collection of characters plucked from Bukowski verse or a Fante novel. The Napperby Song is a rolling blues tune about a small place outside Port Pirie, and Beyond Blues, Greenfingers, and Roger also deliver up more fine prose set against a growling blues background.

In a nod to the influence of Tom Waits, BDB performs one of his songs, Walkaway, which is sung by Julie rather than John. The female vocals work, and the song slots in with the original material such that it sounds like it could have been written by BDB. Rounding out the album is Brother, a slow bluesy ballad sung by Julie and written by K Steele.

Overall, this is a no-nonsense collection of gritty blues and compelling stories driven by authentic characters and experiences. A great release by the Black Diamond Band.


CD Review – The Worrymen 2010 CD “The Worrymen”

I found The Worrymen on CD Baby when searching for Alt Country music. I am a fan of Uncle Tupelo, Son Volt and WIlco, although I find Wilco is a bit too middle of the road and mellow for my tastes nowadays. I like guitar bands with gritty sounds, but not heavy, so the UT and SV sound is right up my alley.

I find that a lot of Alt Country artists hitch themselves to the UT, SV and Wilco post on CD Baby, but most of them are either the softer Wilco sound or twangy country rock.

I was so pleasantly surprised when I came across The Worrymen, a four piece band from Arizona. I know little about them; they have a Myspace page but it doesn’t reveal very much, and there isn’t much in the way of video.

They do have an excellent CD though. Sure its a bit raw at times and could do with a bit of remixing in parts, but that’s only really noticeable if you apply a critical ear. I applied my happy listening ear and was delighted with what I heard.

I hope The Worrymen record more songs, and I’m only disappointed that they are in Arizona and I am in Australia, otherwise I would be a regular at all of their shows.

Best of all, this is a $2 download, so shame on you if you don’t grab a copy and enjoy this little gem.

By the way, all of my CD Reviews are for local Adelaide bands. This is the first unsolicited review I have written for a band not in Adelaide. Needless to say, The Worrymen moved me to put pen to paper.


CD Review – Emily Davis 2011 CD “Undone”

Emily Davis is a local Adelaide singer / song-writer with a bluesy voice and a silken touch. This CD “Undone” was recorded with her band “The Open Road”, and throughout the release the songs maintain the consistency you might expect from a well tuned unit.

Essentially an acoustic album interspersed with judiciously placed electric guitar, this CD often evokes the ambience of a sly juke joint; a band tucked in the dirty corner of a smoky room, a shuffling snare, the ungainly stand up bass, and a pile of instruments called in to play as the need arises.

“The Broken Machine” launches the CD with its violin and squeeze-box driven eastern European waltz, a somewhat spare song. The title track “Undone” sets the mood with acoustic guitar, double bass, violin, mandolin and banjo. Appropriately this song is melancholia in a minor key, a sad tale of a relationship undone. A theme perhaps echoed later with “Pick me”, a slightly bitter song about an arrogant man.

“Conjure Woman Blues” introduces a soft vibrato guitar, some wind with trombone and clarinet, and a slower shuffle. This slow bluesy tune with its 1930’s jazz overlay takes us back to the corner of the whiskey soaked juke joint.

Listeners will quickly sense that this is very much a personal album, written from the heart, driven by deep emotion, loss, emptiness, and redemption through song. Lyrically the collection describes circumstances from the girl’s perspective, which is hardly surprising as they were written by Emily, but you feel that they are truly autobiographical tales (although the CD cover notes implicate yarns from Emily’s Grandmother’s may be contributing sources).

There are quite a few slow-paced songs on the CD: the uplifting acoustic ballad “Revolver”; “Arrow” featuring the dobro; “Bring forth the Queen of Mexico” which features Emily on ukele; “A Seafaring Song” with violin and acoustic guitar; and “Spartacus” with its battle-march snare.

These are appropriate vehicles for expressing strong emotions of loss, sadness, and a life that has seen (and will see again) better times.

Emily Davis and the Open Road should be pleased with this release. The songs are strong and have depth and significance. The performances are appealing in their simplicity, and Emily Davis has a lovely voice with some real personality. All in all, a great CD.


CD Review – Where there’s smoke… 2011 CD “Where there’s smoke…

Genre: Alt Country

On the CD cover is a photograph of a lone guitarist, cast in semi-darkness with his country check shirt, Fender Telecaster and a buckled old Billy-Bob hat. This clearly stakes out the musical genre as some kind of Country, but all Country ain’t Country no more. Like the Labor Party with its millionaire celebrities and ex-wharfies, the Country Music genre has broadened and now ranges from the syrupy commercial sickness of the Lee Kernaghan’s, to the corny the Good Old Boys to the grating dust bowl rock of Son Volt and the like.

Where there’s smoke… is a five piece Alt Country band, no corn, just good listening songs; two guitars, keyboard, bass and drums, and some harmonica thrown in to add colour.

Matt Ward has a distinctive voice which would have suited many of the punk-ska bands I used to see in the early 1980’s, but it also fits perfectly into the pocket created by the Where there’s smoke… rhythm section.

The three opening tracks are rolling upbeat country tunes, along the lines of our own Paul Kelly, and they provide a nice foot-stomping introduction to the band. For this reviewer “Opal Inn” is the pick of the tunes with its simple but infectious chorus, a nifty bridge, and a middle eight that just rattles around your brain for days. I couldn’t get it out of my head, and didn’t really want to either. The opening track “Red Church” is also a head-catcher, and “Kiss in the Rain” isn’t far behind it.

“Cowboy Shirt” thumbs its nose at the Johnny-cum-lately would-be country music devotees who have jumped on the bandwagon of the latest musical trend. This is the kind of irreverent mockery that Skyhooks built a career on, and it’s a great Australian tradition adopted by bands who are genuine but don’t take themselves too seriously.

The ballads “Something about the Weather” and “Desert Rose” round out the album showing that Where there’s smoke… can produce a nice slow number too.

If you like your alt country music (like me) you will like this release from Where there’s smoke… I know I do.