Western Skies

Around the very week that I fell in love with my wife Janice I bought an album by one of my favourite writers of the time. It was 1989. It was Deacon Blue, Aztec Camera, Lloyd Cole & The Commotions, Martin Stephenson & The Daintees, Prefab Sprout and The Bible!. The writer was Boo Hewerdine from The Bible! who had an exclamation mark to start.

What was interesting was that this was not a Bible! project but with some guy called Darden Smith. I knew nothing about Smith but soon I was leaving my beloved to her work in Wimbledon before catching the train into Waterloo and on to the second hand record shops, like Steve’s Sounds near Leicester Square and Cheapo Cheapo Records in Soho. It was indeed in the latter that I picked up that very Hewerdine and Smith record Evidence.

I’d sit on that train, a small town boy loving his first time exploring the big city, and press play on my walkman. I have vivid memories of the utter joy of new love and big adventure every time that Out Of The World came on - “Out of this world she sends me out of this world”.

Over half of my life later and I am listening to Darden Smith’s new record Western Skies and thinking that that man is soundtracking my life again.

Now he really shouldn’t be. Western Skies is Texas-centric and I have never felt a great affinity with that particular state. Here I am in Belfast, half a planet away. 

Western Skies is more than the songs on a new record. They come with a coffee table sized book of photographs, essays, poems and the lyrics of the songs. All are inspired and researched din the landscapes of that big huge state that rarely votes as I’d like. 

It seems that Smith found a Polaroid Camera in his garage in the midst of the pandemic. He’d venture out in his car and take snap shots of the landscape that formed him. It not being a digital camera he had to decide whether the shot he was about to click was worth the price of a coffee. 

All of this swirled around and suddenly we had a book and a record. It is a veritable bombardment of stimuli for eyes and ears and heads and hearts and souls. 

There’s a song on the record that might be a centre of the soul’s mapping in the project. Running Out Of Time puts it well:


If these days are really numbered

If there´s and end to the line

Then I´m gonna love you

Like I´m running, like I´m running out of time


If I am finding a conclusion in Smith’s deep dive into his Texas roots. It is about living the now to its fullest potential. An essay in the book called The Comet And The Train concludes thus:

“We make such a big deal of the present. Lost in our assumptions and wrong headed constructs that what is occupying our vision is a static, forever thing, when really there is always a grander motion. We’re surrounded by stars, a comet hangs in the sky, and we instead let ourselves be overwhelmed by the train.”

It sounds like a Psalm, more modern in format than Nick Cave’s Seven (Psalms). 

Of the album, it is such a solid body of craft. A fine mature wine of Americana. Loose arrangements with a precision of melody and Smith’s warm voice wrapping itself around that wisdom that this review suggests already. 

Most immediate of all is a meditation on Jesus wisdom in the Sermon on the Mount:


‘Cause it don’t make you taller to bring somebody down

Make me think of Jesus with his thorny crown

Talking about loving one another as you love yourself

Just keep reaching down to help the meek

Show a little mercy and forgiveness

In what you and what you say

And turn the other cheek”


Western Skies is wonderful stuff.


Every Shade Of Blue

People have likened The Head and the Heart to Avett Brothers meets Fleet Foxes and I just don't like those two bands quite enough but the blend spot bang jang in the middle of them is my sound and that is where The Head and the Heart live. 

Regular readers will be aware of my Damascus Road conversion to the band, the night that I heard them in concert at Calvin College, Michigan in 2014. Let's Be Still had just come out and I was smitten. The indie folk songwriting, the harmonies, the instrumentation, the down-home wisdom. 

Their last record, a kind of modern west coast update on Fleetwood Mac was even called Living Mirage. Though I liked it, Every Shade Of Blue delightfully mixes a little of that last two records sheen with that more organic sound of Let's Be Still and their eponymous debut.

They have just released two acoustic versions, one of the title track and the other of the album's highlight Virginia (Wind In the Night) perhaps the most intoxicating song of the year.

Hurts But It Goes Away is a song sung from heartache seeking hope. I would pair it with REM's Everybody Hurts on a radio show. Love Me Still is a simple slice of ear candy but with character. 

Don't think the album is a step backwards. Songs like Tiebreaker and Paradigm bring rhythms and basslines that show an eye on the future as well as the past. 

Every Shade Of Blue might be The Head and The Heart's best balanced record to date with a suite of songs that best reflect the varied personalities across the band members. That day at Calvin College I asked about a gig in Belfast. They said yes. What I would do!


Hold Fast

I remember the Mondays back in the 90s. We called ourselves the Bargain Bin Fellowship. We hooked up and set off around the 9 or 10 or 11 record shops in Belfast City Centre.

There were the majors, the independents including the legendary Good Vibrations, of course. We were all eager for the new release CD singles and those extra tracks and that bargain in whatever format. The fingers of love turning CD and vinyl, hoking in the bargain bins.

About 20 years ago I lost record shops. Internet shopping. And good fellowship too, it has to be said.

So, the other week threw up a unique experience. We were in Reading, Berkshire visiting our daughter Jasmine. There's an HMV. In I walked, intrigued again by vinyl. And... there was a bargain bin. Nothing for £1 like the old days but cheaper than £24.99! 

Flicking through and an album caught my eye. Maybe the price first - £10.99!

Colin MacLeod. Never heard of him. Sound Scottish. So I picked it up thinking I'd maybe stumbled across the make Karine Polwart. It didn't seem so... but it looked fascinating. Sheryl Crow guested on two songs. Who is this guy? 

Back in the hotel room, I checked it out on iTunes.

Oh my, this was good. Great songs. Warm voice. Introspective lyrics. Driving rock like The Long Road to yearning soul of Old Soul. I was straight over the next morning to purchase.

Seems that the album is the story of a life seeking the point in that life. There's a lot of journeying. There is a lot of the heart and soul. There is a lot of conclusions about brokenness and need of something, maybe particularly others "like love and like hope and like home" as This Old Place puts it.

God gets a mention too. Maybe my favourite. Looking for God has insights that might not be Macleod's intention. I love the lines, "Let me hold your hand/Have you ever tried to pray?/It's really not that hard/You just have to know you're broken". So pastorally on it and then"Why you looking for God?/I didn't know that he was missing/I didn't know I should be looking/Is it really him that's lost?" God's the one who needs to find us. Isn't that the truth.

I haven't even told you yet! The most fascinating thing about Colin Macleod is that he is a Crofter on the Isle of Lewis in the Hebrides. A sheep farmer who can't tour in April because of lambing is writing songs and singing with Sheryl Crow. The album title is the clan motto! It is not only unique and utterly intriguing but there is a sense of that juxtaposition throughout his musical work.

A bargain bin find beyond most!




Staples helms 2

Here are my favourite albums of the first half of 2022. It is always interesting to see where they will find themselves on the eventual Records Of The Year...






















Get Back

Utterly magical.

That was my thought as I watched through almost eight hours of The Beatles documentary Get Back. It took Covid to give me the space to watch all of it and boy was that the silver lining of these days of great inconvenience.

It is utterly magical the way that director Peter Jackson dropped us into January 1969, this month in space and time. Like the Bible where we are always looking back through 2000 years of history and differing interpretations of what happened in the life of Jesus, so I have read every book about what happened to The Beatles. 

This however was like we jumped onto the time line. We were experiencing this history as if actually inside it. We were not having to surmise what happened because we were actually watching it happen. Even the events that would fill the next couple of years were prophetically here, alive and energised.

The magic of The Beatles as a group is captured. Indeed if you asked me where you could go to bottle the magic of The Beatles making music this might be surprisingly the perfect month. 

I say surprisingly because all the chat about these sessions in most of the books was about fraught relationships, tension and breakdown. There are hints of that for sure but overall this is The Beatles sitting around, like they maybe heard The Band and Bob Dylan did in Woodstock, jamming, creating and making music.

The way songs develop is magic. Conjured before our eyes and ears. This is where the looking back gets an eye opener. Instead of 50 years of listening to these songs completed we are parachuted in to when they were fragments of ideas. Watching these guys develop the ideas is utterly fascinating.

I mean Get Back starts in a morning warm up jam. I’ve Got A Feeling brings two songs together, genuine Lennon and McCartney. Don’t Let Me Down finds its harmonies as does Two Of Us. To the side we are eves dropping on Let It Be and The Long and Winding Road. To be a fly on the wall. Extraordinary. Magical.

The problems are there too. McCartney is bossing the band at this stage and Harrison cannot be bothered being his side man. Both John and Paul seem aware that George is getting better as songwriter but unaware of how good he has become. 

Harrison is like a butterfly straining to get out of the pupal skin of his caterpillar. I am watching it all and thinking about a triple record All Things Must Pass and the phenomena of My Sweet Lord and understanding why these guys needed to have a break to find themselves. 

Harrison does not want to go back to that live thing. McCartney so does. Lennon’s in a transitional time with Yoko and art. Indeed, John is in a fallow, can’t be over bothered phase and brings little to the party. McCartney is bursting with songs. So prolific. Ringo is just content and to be there. The four personalities and the issues in their lives at the end of their decade are very visible.

Interestingly, Paul who has all the cards here took years to find his post Beatles mojo, John, George and Ringo would revel in solo projects first.

All of this is done in a studio full of comedy and the history of rock n roll. These guys are at the best together when they are mucking about with comedic versions of their songs and the songs that inspired them. You wonder at times how they were able to put the serious face on and get the job done! These are insights into The Beatles relationships that books cannot describe.

The roof. The last gig. The police. Again it’s magic. 

When those four guys (and Billy Preston) count in and go for it. Wow. George isn’t showing over enthusiasm but his playing is great. McCartney is in his element and John comes alive in that live setting. They all seem even more energised by the police arriving. Bless those policemen but they are dull boys to have lived through the 60s.

And it was gone… that was the last show. We did get another record Abbey Road, many of its songs birthed here, and the pulling together of these sessions on the Let It Be album produced by Phil Spector. 

The magic had dissipated. As I say it had to. George speaks of that record of all of his own songs. Paul needed a University Tour on a bus that he got with Wings. John needed to explore music and art and his own psyche with Yoko for a while. Ringo was already off immediately to act in the The Magic Christian movie. 

If it hadn’t been for Allen Klein though… maybe… maybe we’d have got more of this magic again. Yet, maybe they gave us enough magic for one lifetime. 



Jonny Rowen is from the family that Bono called an Old Testament Tribe on the sleeve notes of the U2 record Songs Of Innocence. There are a lot of Rowen brothers and a few sisters. The rest were either Virgin Prunes or speeding too fast on motorcycles and skateboards. 

Jonny seemed to me to be the sensible one. No Rowen is average or ordinary but Jonny seems closest to normal (sorry guys!!). 

At times when you listen to his new record under the moniker of his dad RS Rowen and named after his dad’s business Battery And Electrical you will see what I mean. This seems more traditional songwriting than his brothers post punk art or his neighbour’s stadium filling echoing guitar.

When you listen again though, and believe me you will listen again, there is so much more going on here than some traditional songwriter record. 

I don’t mean a guitar lick here or a piano ripple there. The beautiful Far Away begins with a benign hammond, a strum or two of acoustic guitar and then ends up, before you know it, turning slightly sinister and we are under layers of sounds and harmonies to a climactic glam rock crescendo. 

Like everything else here it’s intoxicating. It’s like Bowie and The Beatles got together in 1973 and gave a male Joni Mitchell some edge.  

Speaking of Bowie, listen to that piano outro on the haunting We Will Make It Through, echoes of Aladdin Sane or the church choir at the end of Photograph and its nod to Sgt Peppers.

Truth is from that same singer songwriter centre nothing on Battery and Electrical sounds like anything else. It’s driving on Waiting For You, country skiffle on Won’t Be Home, early Eagles doing Gospel on Already Gone (they even had a song called that!) and the lyric spitting opener These Tears will simply not remain inside the lines.

Jonny Rowen has had his moments. In 1998 he fronted the next big Dublin band Pelvis and showcased it on Later… With Jools Holland. But now might be his time. Not to be massive like U2 are massive but to be recognised as not the so normal Rowen but another brilliant one with as much risk and imagination as anyone else on Cedarwood Road.




Hlmes Staples

The names in big print on the front cover - MAVIS STAPLES LEVON HELM. Two legends side by side. The suggestion of quality, depth, breadth. 

The slabs of vinyl inside do not let the brand down. What a marvellous surprise of a new album over a decade after the recording. 

Now I am aware that happenstance has had me leave writing my review to what turns out to be Pentecost Sunday. How perfect. There is an explosive Gospel joy to this gathering in Levon Helm's home studio in Woodstock that he and his band, The Band, made famous in the late 60s. Part of his Midnight Rambler series this particular episode is full of country, blues, folk, rock, soul, gospel. Full being a good carefully chosen.

You Gotta Move could be the song written for Pentecost - “When The Lord gets ready, you gotta move.” Indeed. Then on a cover of that other Woodstock myth Bob Dylan’s You Gotta Serve Somebody Mavis takes Levon to Church with an improvised ending that could again have been thrown out in Jerusalem when the crowds thought that the apostles had got drunk a little early in the day.

These songs of Soul redemption are blended and blurred with songs of protest at the broken world as it is. Curtis Mayfield’s This Is My Country and I Wish I Knew How It Would Feel To Be Free made famous by Nina Simone bring the 60s civil rights mantra into a contemporary America still dehumanising. 

Yet, it is the hopefulness of these songs that break in, the how it is transforming into how it is going to be. Pentecost. Staples is at the most authoritative her voice has ever been and Helm is driving the band to propel the saving sounds to a needy world.

No one knew for sure as they recorded that it would be the last time that Mavis and Levon would meet. The set list hints that they were surmising. When I Go Away and Buddy and Julie Miller’s Wide River To Cross are songs bound for glory and then there is the swampy cathartic This May Be The Last Time. Some one months later in June 2012 Helm would finally succumb to the cancer he was battling. 

Fitting then that the two long time friends finish with The Band’s most famous song The Weight. They trade voices, Helm weak in life’s pilgrimage and Staples strong in belief. She pulls Gospel power in that familiar chorus that near takes wings in the heavenly hinting harmonies:


Take a load off Fanny

Take a load for free

Take a load off Fanny

And (and) (and) you put the load right on me


As I say, perfect for Pentecost… or indeed any other day of the year!


Gauthier Dark

Mary Gauthier is a late developer. She made her first record in her late 30’s and now in her 60th year has released perhaps her most consistent record. Dark Enough To See The Stars is a collection of ten carefully honed songs. It has me thinking that Gauthier inhabits the songwriting space of a Bruce Springsteen and the country genre space of a Nanci Griffith.

Speaking of Nanci Griffith who passed away last summer has a ghostly presence across a lot of this collection, along with others that Mary, and indeed all of usrecently lost John Prine and David Olney. This is an album of loss and love in the midst.

Gauthier deals with it in How Could You be Gone, Where Are You Now and the title track. That title track is a quotation from Martin Luther King’s final speech. It is poignant for contemporary America and also for Gauthier’s raison d’être which looks darkness in the eye but always finds reasons to be hopeful. 

The loss songs are followed by one of four co-writes with Glenarm born songwriter Ben Glover and is most explicit of what is always impact in Gauthier’s work - the spiritual:


You and me and Mississippi, battled, beautiful, scarred

In need of forgiveness, and the grace of God


Likewise the closing Til I See You Again another Glover co-write is a prayer in the line of Bob Dylan’s Forever Young. 

Mary Gauthier doesn’t write for writing’s sake. Maybe it was coming to the game late but she has been determined to make every song count. For her it is important that songs are not just good in tune, lyric and honing but good for something. 

Something that her heart and soul needs said that the world might resonate with. She is ever finding stars in the dark, love and faith and hope in what the opening track here describes as “this broken heart fall apart world”. In such a world Mary Gauthier is a blessed gift!



Few other records have so saturated my life as Deacon Blue’s Raintown. In May 1987 I was smitten with it and played it to death pretty much over the following two years. I had the record shop publicity boarding on the wall of my lounge in Central Park, Antrim town.

No one who talked to me about music in that period left without being aware of this band and this record. Many people were convinced, or peer pressured, into buying it. That it took its place on perpetual rotation on my turntable just a matter of weeks after the release of U2’s Joshua Tree gives some perspective on its impact in my musical heart.

What was it that caught my attention and the deep affection? The simple answer is Ricky Ross’s songs. There might be better songwriters on the planet, and I am sure Ricky and I would agree on some of them, but Ross’s lyrics resonated with my head and heart and soul like no one else. I thought that if I could write good lyrics they would be very much like these.

I already had the 12” single of Dignity before the album was released. I had heard of Ricky Ross in the pages of Strait, the magazine of the Greenbelt Festival. He had the same name as my best mate growing up. I thought I would give it a try. 

Wow. The lyrics - “sipping down Raki/And reading Maynard Keynes”. The story of a street cleaner dreaming. This was about more than a boat and I was particularly caught by the idea of “a place in the winter for Dignity.” Then there was the: “And I'm thinking about home/And I'm thinking about faith/And I'm thinking about work.”

Home, faith and work. Deacon Blue were like the band next door. They were singing about the streets of their city, the working men and women of that city. These were subjective songs yet all dressed up in objectivity. There was sharp social observation and critique but it all felt personal. Though never explicit there was something about faith in there too. 

Then there were the stories. As well as the road sweeper of Dignitythere is the title track that gave you the mood of the Oscar Marzaroli’s grey bleak photograph on the cover. Chocolate Girl about the wrong kind of guy. Not confining it to Glasgow on Looks Like Spencer Tracy Now we got the atmospheric story of Harold Agnew, an American nuclear physicist who wanted to collect personal photographs of the Hiroshima bombing. 

In the end though it is a record set in Glasgow. It is not a concept album by any means but the way it is sequenced is a little artier than the normal debut album of the time. The slow little vignette of Born In a Storm was no hit them with a hit intro but it was creatively perfect and by the time you get into the second verse of the closing Town to be Blamed you feel a circle completing.

Then there is the sound. Raintown has a full energetic sound that shifts moods and styles. There is a pop sound immediacy but it has too much artiness and it rocks too. There are the wondrous Gospel harmonies on When Will You (Make My Telephone Ring), there are the hints of Springsteen and Morrison throughout.

Yet, in a sea full of Scottish bands like The Big Dish, Aztec Camera, Del Amitri, Blue Nile, Danny Wilson et al Deacon Blue’s sound might never be called unique but it had a pumping energy that carried you right through the entire piece.

That sound was built by a gathering of the best players in town. Dougie Vipond was the crack young drummer. Add the sophisticated bass playing of Ewen Vernal and you had a back beat like no other. Jim Prime was the experienced session man with Altered Images and John Martyn and his piano playing made Ross’s songs soar. Graeme Kelling was playing guitar with every cool band in Glasgow and every riff or fretboard dance added detail to every song. Lorraine McIntosh added her whirling dervish in sound and vision. These guys rocked. It would have been a more remarkable story of they hadn’t made it big!

It was immediate with me. From Ricky’s raspy “That hurricane day…” I was in but the general public needed more time and remixes! I felt like an isolated evangelist for maybe a year before the world caught on. I traveled to the Henry Wood Hall in Glasgow that November to be among the faithful for an hour or two as much as to experience the band live. 

Thirty five years later and the very cover of the album takes me back. Yet, don't leave these songs back in nostalgia. Dignity still has a poignancy. War and big bombs are threatening and Loaded is as good a commentary on Boris's Britain as you can find in a catchy piece of four minute rock music.

Ricky Ross would admit that this wasn’t the happiest time of his life. As he has done in his song writing throughout the last thirty years he was somehow able, in the midst of such a time, find hopefulness and even create joyful songs out of difficult times.

The old negro spirituals from the slave plantations did that. A mixing of emotions to dance while you grieve. To dare to hope in the dark. To look inside and be honest but look forward to what can still be. Raintown has all of that and more: -  

One day all of us will work

We'll stand outside this orchard and we'll talk

When all is said all is done

We'll still be thinking about home

They say that love might be the very thing

If only it could be…


Mike Campbell

Forgive me Mike Campbell. You have ridden faithfully side saddle to one of my main men Tom Petty for nearly fifty years and I have loved you that entire pilgrimage. BUT when you started a band called The Dirty Knobs I thought the name suggested a funny side project.

So, Mike, I confess I was wrong. It has taken about three weeks of dipping in and out but I have to conclude that this is an album to be taken seriously.

Not that it is not full of fun. This band loves to play and you can hear the fun they are having. Check out Rat City. However, that does not suggest it is not weighty in quality. Over all it is a guitar toting record, harder than those Petty days, full of stunning solos. On Rat City I was even hearing  Rossington and Collins duelling in Lynyrd Skynyrd days..

Campbell can be subtle and tender too. He did write Boys Of Summer for Don Henley and has just toured with Fleetwood Mac. In This Lifetime perhaps hints at why Petty was the voice of The Heartbreakers but it’s still a beautiful ballad.

The other ballad State Of Mind has the wonderful voice of Margo Price on a beautiful song of love, grace, loss and disorientation. 

Elsewhere there is rockabilly on Lightning Boogie, where old band mate BA rolls those keys. Legendary Mott The Hoople front man Ian Hunter becomes an honorary Dirty Knobs                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                                           on one of the many driving rockers.

Campbell has a lyrical touch too. I love his preach at the materialist Hersey of the age:


Blinded by love

In the back of a Southbound Greyhound bus

And blinded by greed

You better find out what you really need 


And I hear him loud and clear when he warns about how we are treating the planet and its effects on our children:


People are hurting

People of all ages

Mother Nature's angry and cold war wages

Gotta raise your fist, gotta raise your voices

It's time to make some hard choices.


With the hope of warmer weather and who knows maybe a summer, External Combustion will be a great wee driving album. It’s not Tom Petty and The Heartbreakers but It rocks.