In the pigeonhole-heavy 21st Century, ‘Americana’ now seems to relate to any would-be contender clad in a plaid shirt and a penchant for songs about how his girl done gone, but it wasn’t ever thus.
Back on the cusp of the 1990s, when indie kids were queuing up for their Andy Weatherall remixes and a greasy-haired whelp from Seattle called Cobain was about to tear down the walls of the mainstream, a small, but dedicated group of talented roots-rockers from the English north-west of England were quietly laying the foundations for a home-grown Alt. Country revolution that in a sprawling, intermittent kinda way still marches today.
The press, of course, completely ignored the Lancashire-based roots-rockers at the time. They could accept The Rockingbirds because they hailed from London, signed to Jeff Barratt’s Heavenly label (home to St. Etienne and Manic Street Preachers) and scooped an NME cover, but Red Moon Joe, Mirrors Over Kiev and Gary Hall & The Stormkeepers? Don’t be daft. They were square pegs in provincial round holes, never American enough to be considered authentic and never down with the hip kids.
In the end, all three bands made critically-acclaimed LPs for Devon-based Run River Records (also home to Steve Tilston and a pre-commercially re-appraised Bert Jansch), built up fiercely partisan followings and split during the mid-1990s, ironically just as the phrase ‘Americana’ was beginning to get bandied around as a respected critical buzzword.
Much more, of course, would come from this overlooked scene. Personnel from The Stormkeepers and Mirrors Over Kiev joined forces, spawning The Good Sons, while Gary Hall would head to the USA to receive further critical acclaim before returning to the UK around the turn of Y2K.
More recently, Hall has turned his hand to production, operating outta his Voodoo Rooms studio recording complex, overseeing fine studio LPs by consummate singer/ song-writer Ian Bailey and – more recently – an excellent return to the fray from Red Moon Joe. It would be 2011 before he would return to regular recording and performing in his own right, testing the water with the low-key but engaging ‘Songs From The Voodoo Rooms’ in tandem with Ian Bailey and then under his own steam with 2012’s sterling ‘That Old Brand New.’
Great though both that pair were, the major fanfare should be reserved for ‘Winning Ways On Losing Streaks’: Hall’s first fully-fledged, full-band solo LP in 15 years, again recorded with a tried’ n’ tested cutting crew including Ian Bailey, ever-elegant strings meister Richard Curran and Red Moon Joe personnel at the Voodoo Rooms.
‘That Old Brand New’ was a fine, intimate record (perhaps Hall’s own ‘Train A-Comin’) but this is the one he’s clearly been itching to make. The title’s sardonic - even perhaps a little self-deprecatory – and several of its best are steeped in the experience and wisdom gained from rolling from life’s relentless punches. Tinged with bleak, Townes Van Zandt-style fatalism, ‘A Country Mile From Shore’ is a bleakly impressive, nautically-themed twist on the country-folk of ‘That Old Brand New’, though it’s the punchy, roots-rock re-invention of the self-explanatory ‘The Enemy Within’ (“I was hoping that time would heal all these thoughts in my head/ but time’s running out and I’ve got no skin left to shed”) that sounds especially resonant in this context.
Elsewhere, there’s a wealth of riches to enjoy. Hall imbues the sonically elegant ‘Red Dirt Roads’ with a lyrical restlessness worthy of Guy Clark (“she left a child in Oklahoma in her mother’s arms/ she said there’s more to me than John Deeres and dustbowl farms”); reminds us how compelling a writer of heartstring-tugging ballads he is on ‘I Can’t Believe She’s Gone’ and casts the Dylan-penned/ Old Crow Medicine Show-recorded ‘Wagon Wheel’ in his own rousing, anthemic image. A healthy dollop of humour, meanwhile, further leavens the already infectious ‘Feel Good Factor’ wherein the genius couplet “I’ve been higher than Simon Cowell’s waistband and lower than my opinion of him” is surely one of the funniest (and wonderfully Northern) insights into the human condition this writer’s stumbled upon in many a moon.
‘Winning Ways On Losing Streaks’, then, is a worldly, emotionally-charged and highly convincing return from a grossly under-valued talent. Instead of the questing, ambitious young buck who made ‘Garage Heart’, it’s a record made by a man who’s been through the mill and bought the T-shirt, but it’s arguably all the stronger for that. If you still think the finest in roots-rock automatically remains an American preserve, listen to this and prepare to be amazed.
Gary Hall online