About timgruar

Music Journalist and Graphics artist. I specialise in writing about New Zealand Bands and Broadcast on local radio here in Wellington and write for a free publication called The Groove Guide. Local Radio : www.groovefm.co.nz Press: www.grooveguide.co.nz

Groove Book Report – Roots, Radicals and Rockers: How Skiffle Changed the World – Billy Bragg (Faber)

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Originally appeared on http://www.groovefm.co.nz and 13thfloor.co.nz

“Skiffle is a music genre with jazz, blues, folk and American folk influences, usually using homemade or improvised instruments. Originating as a term in the United States in the first half of the 20th century, it became popular again in the UK in the 1950s, where it was associated with artists such as Lonnie Donegan, The Vipers Skiffle Group, Ken Colyer and Chas McDevitt. Skiffle played a major part in beginning the careers of later eminent jazz, pop, blues, folk and rock musicians and has been seen as a critical stepping stone to the second British folk revival, blues boom and British Invasion of the US popular music scene.”  – https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Skiffle

Told with joyous vigor, this book tells the story of jazz pilgrims and blues blowers, Teddy Boys and beatnik girls, coffee-bar bohemians and refugees from the McCarthy witch-hunts. Billy Bragg traces how the guitar came to the forefront of music in the UK and led directly to the British Invasion of the US charts in the 1960s.

This is quite possibly the first book to ‘properly’ explore the short-lived Skiffle phenomenon in any really depth.  On the surface, it’s a musical style that could easily be brushed aside as a post war hillbilly revival – A last gasp for Britain’s vaudeville performers whose careers have been swept aside by the tidal wave of Swing, Big Band Music and Jazz brought to UK by American troops stationed there during the war.  On the other hand, author and musician Stephen William “Billy” Bragg argues skiffle was the first and possibly the best example of British youth’s DIY ‘punk’ attitude which sparked a revolution that shaped pop music as we have come to know it.

Skiffle, as a style, if that’s the right word, emerged from the trad-jazz clubs of the early ’50s.  Initially it was another vehicle for novelty songs, skits and old time music hall – a tradition that British performers longed to revive but it’s simple style, often played on guitar, washboard, harmonica and piano meant that nearly anyone could pick up an instrument and play.  So skiffle was adopted by kids who growing up during the dreary, post-war rationing years. These were Britain’s first teenagers, looking for a music of their own in a pop culture dominated by crooners and mediated by a stuffy BBC.  With a reinvented version of a Leadbelly tune Lonnie Donegan hit the charts in 1956 with a version of Rock Island Line.  And soon sales of guitars rocketed from 5,000 to 250,000 a year.  It was that simplicity, Bragg argues, that likens the style to the punk rock that would flourish two decades later because, at the end of the day, skiffle was a do-it-yourself music.It’s no surprise that Bragg chose this topic because for nearly his entire 30-year recording career he’s been involved at the grassroots of political and social movements.  As he’s told the UK press on multiple occasions: “I don’t mind being labelled a political songwriter. The thing that troubles me is being dismissed as a political songwriter.”  And even more than before, he’s still searching for a New England.

Way back, before BREXIT, the country had another identity crisis.  As Orwellian Britain was recovering it desperately needed some kind of release from the blandness and drudgeries of a post war concrete-grey world.  Victory was not sweet.  It was harsh.  There were ration cards and shortages, laws and restrictions.  America had exported its glamour to Britain but it was all still black in white in Old Blighty.  And for the youth of the country, who’d grown up with the scars of the previous decades they were wanting to escape with nowhere to go.  As Johnny Marr wrote in his own biography, his play ground was the rubble of a bombed-out Manchester.  Not the glam of the Hollywood Hills.

As far as Bragg is concerned Donegan is the hero of British skiffle but it all starts earlier with trumpet play Ken Colyer who boarded a ship in 1952 as a galley cook and landed in New Orleans.  There he gigged with local musicians.  Eventually he was kicked out of the USA, when his visa expired and for ‘consorting’ with black musicians, he set up shop in London with his own new sextet playing New Orleans-style jazz, with Chris Barber on trombone and Donegan on banjo.  Colyer also played guitar with a subset of the band – including his brother, Bill, on washboard – performed interval sets featuring folk, blues and country songs.  Ironically Colyer and his brother were eventually sacked from their own ensemble.  Re-labelled the Chris Barber Jazz Band the group recorded their first album in the summer of 1954, including the add-on Rock Island Line by the great blues singer Huddie Ledbetter (Lead Belly).  The record company pretty much ignored this tune for over a year until finally released, almost by accident.  And the rest is history.The hit parade dominated by ‘Old Men’ – crooners and novelty songs.  Music was for grown -ups.  So it was refreshing when that was all disrupted not just by Lonnie Donegan’s Rock Island Line (1954) but by the equally homespun Don’t You Rock Me Daddy-O by the Vipers and the Chas McDevitt Skiffle Group’s Freight Train (feat. Nancy Whiskey).  Skiffle was the natural replacement to the exotic Calypso styles.  Although it drew its roots from Blues it was ideally suited to British working class accents and certainly struck the right chords with the audiences.


Overall, Bragg acknowledges, the significance of skiffle is subject of heated debate.  For our hero, Lonnie Donegan, it probably became an albatross as much as an eagle’s wings.  It took him from obscurity to fame.  He didn’t do himself any favors, though.  Recording tunes like My Old Man’s a Dustman and Does Your Chewing Gum Lose Its Flavour On The Bedpost Overnight? relegated skiffle back down to the ranks of novelty music.  Although many bands and performers chose to return to the style later on.  Paul McCartney and John Lennon returned to their roots and borrowed heavily – You can hear it on When I’m 64 and Rocky Racoon, for instance.
For players, the appeal of skiffle was immediate.  All it took to create an approximation of the sound heard on a song like, say Rock Island Line was a bass made from a tea chest and a broom handle; a zinc washboard and a set of metal thimbles; and a guitar, uke or piano.  Someone also had to sing, of course, roughly in the southern blues and country styles.  Because there was no amplification rehearsals could go ahead in front rooms of terrace houses without annoying the neighbors.  Because it was a cheap and easy music to learn and play, guitar sales soared.  On a different level this was the parlor music that was once a vital part of British social graces, but perhaps more lively.

Bragg rounds off his book with a kind of Post-skiffle chapter, bringing the connections of Led Zeppelin, Van Morrison, The Who, The Bee Gees, all who owe their careers to their early interest in skiffle and it’s motivations to get them playing.  He then leaps ahead to remind us that the Sex Pistols, The Clash, The Damned and many others of the 70’s all played London’s 100 Club in 1976 with the same brazen attitude to “set out to democratize popular culture”.

Skiffle was a working-class music at best and even could be egalitarian at times, especially when the BBC got hold of it.  Many of Britain’s best rock musicians came from the streets.  You can see how Bragg makes the connection.  Not bad for a working-class kid who failed his 11-plus and missed out on a place in University.  His work, life and now this book speak volumes more than any professor, and with more color and relevance than some tedious talk in a dusty lecture.

Streamed live on Jul 21, 2017

The roots of skiffle as a musical genre and its influence on popular music is discussed in this book talk presented by singer and guitarist Billy Bragg at the Library of Congress in the Mumford Room, located on the sixth floor of the James Madison Memorial Building, 101 Independence Ave., S.E., Washington, D.C.

The Comet Is Coming – The 13th Floor Interview

This appeared last month as promotion for the upcoming Wellington Jazz Festival: http://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=88520

TCIC-by-Fabrice-Bourgelle-1

Playing the Wellington Jazz Festival this weekend are the London-based psychedelic funk-meisters The Comet is Coming. They mix sounds from the universe including snippets of Parliament, Sun Ra and Afro-funk pioneers like Fela Kuti – all channelled through a digital dashboard of synths and crazy sax.

The imagery associated with the band is based around outer space, science fiction and B-movies, as can be seen in the music videos for their wacky singles Neon Baby and Do the Milky Way. And to add to the mystery the band members go by the pseudonyms King ShabakaDanalogue the Conquerer and Betamax Killer; who are saxophonist Shabaka Hutchings, synth player Dan Leavers and drummer Max Hallett respectively.

The band are currently touring the world, so getting them to sit still long enough for and interview was out of the question. Still, that didn’t stop Tim Gruar from jumping on the keyboard for an email exchange to find out more about their cosmic capers and what to expect this weekend.

https://youtu.be/Bih6JQzbFY0

TG: Where did this crazy thing you call The Comet is Coming all come from?

Betamax Killer: Me and Danalogue the Conqueror play as a psychedelic electro synths and live drums duo called Soccer96, he writes. We noticed this tall, shadowy figure hanging at some of our gigs. At one point he turned up by the side of the stage with his sax in hand and when he got up to play with us it created an explosive shockwave of energy that stunned us all. A couple of weeks later he calls me up and says that we should make a record. So, we booked three days and it all came together amazingly fast. We played and recorded with no pre-written material but by the end we had recorded hours of music.

TG: It struck me, watching your video for Neon Baby how far we’ve come with music making. Especially digitally, I notice, Yet the images you use in your vids are snippets from TV Sci Fi and B Movies (gotta love the Space 1999 and Battlestar Galactica cuts). Was that the vision of the future you had when you were growing up?

Betamax Killer: When I grew up, I was allowed to stay up late Friday night to watch Red Dwarf on TV. It was totally out of control story plots that were impossible to predict. At the same time, it was incredibly stupid humour. Later when I was at University we didn’t have a TV licence but a friend of mine had all the Red Dwarf episodes on VHS. And so, it was pretty much the only thing I could watch for a whole year. I don’t know if you had that show in New Zealand actually.

TG: Actually, we did. And its late night screening time was responsible for me sleeping in at least on 3 occasions, maybe more.

Because Betamax asks if we had red dwarf here in Nz and Im saying ‘yes’ .

TG: What guided your thinking, to model the sound and the visuals on this retro space theme vibe?

Betamax Killer: I’ve always enjoyed the creative freedom applied when imagining the future. We get to completely redesign anything we want about the world and see what happens. Old sci-fi appeals to me as it pulls you back into the past and whilst launching you ahead into the future at the same time. Everything feels strange but also familiar. I think this is also reflected in our writing and production. We record using tape machines and old mics and old instruments, but also attempt to travel into the unfamiliar.

TG: Your sound has that retro-future theme to it. Who were your early influences? I’m hearing Sun Ra Archestra, Manu Di Bango, Afrika Bambataa, Parliament, George Clinton and Funkadelic. Would I be right?

Betamax Killer: Personally I definitely had big George Clinton phase. I used to drum along with some of those albums, trying to get deep with the pocket, but also soak up the positive mushroomy vibes. He always seems to have a divine insight that feels enlightened and it’s very infectious. I always felt you are listening to a man who has done enough drugs to see through everything, and he’s letting me know that it’s basically all good if you stay funky. I think this is a very important lesson both in life and in music. To create positive intention and an honest musicality to bring all earthlings together.

TG: The band make their music in a small studio with the best name ever. Tell me about the ‘Total Refreshment Centre’ studio recordings that spawned Neon Baby? I think I can hear bottles clinking and people talking and dancing in the background – was this recorded live like a nightclub?

Danalogue the Conquerer: The Total Refreshment Centre is a very special place in Dalston, London. It is an old victorian warehouse that has been re-purposed as a live music space, along with a brilliant recording studio, co-run by Danalogue along with legendary electronic artist Capitol K.

The original sessions that spawned tracks from our Prophecy EP (2015) – including Neon Baby – and tracks from the LP Channel The Spirits (2016) were based largely on improvisation, played completely live, to tape, with the tape machine inside the room with us, engineered on the fly. Whilst the daytime sessions had yielded plenty of fruit, we had an inclination that a night session with people in the room, beers and good vibes might give an extra angle to our output, and an extra energy. Neon Baby is one of the few tracks from that session, and there are indeed bottles clinking and percussion being played off mic, which occasionally pops through. Watch the video (see below) to neon baby and you will see short exerts filmed in the moment!

 

TG: In fact, I have seen one of their videos of a recording session and was blown away by how ‘simple’ their set up is – yet how complex the sound is by comparison. What equipment are you using to make all that sound?, I ask.

Danalogue the Conquerer: The band is essentially comprised of a drum kit, a saxophone, and two synthesisers, both analogue, both Roland, one Mono, one Stereo. It is pretty simple, and I’d argue that you can get bands with far more members and instruments that don’t sound anywhere near as huge sounding. On record, we use a drum machine to stay in time which is sometimes added in the mix, but I guess part of why it sounds like a lot of sound is that we are often playing with a degree of intensity that fleshes it out.

TG: No band likes to talk about their writing process. How does it get started – because when I hear your music it’s like divided equally into 3 parts and I can’t tell which parts leads and the rest are following. Normally, in jazz you have melody and a downbeat that directs the tune. The soloists play over the top and grab the glory by in Comet the it feels more democratic.

Danalogue the Conquerer: I don’t think we started out to make a jazz record, so in that sense our writing process has nothing to do with jazz. Betamax And I already had a writing and recording style from playing as Soccer96, and involved improvising onto tape in a recording studio, so when Shabaka joined us we were ready to roll. We also ran Shabaka through a giant guitar amp owned by Capitol K which took the saxophone to an electric guitar kind of place, and set a new, dirtier vibe particular to our group.

In terms of composition, Herbie Hancock said once that improvisation is composition, just in a very fast form, you compose in the moment, minute to minute, make your choices in a split second, and if you all listen together, and play with synergy and cooperation, you can even form structures, dynamics and arrangements in the moment. It takes a very special group of players to pull that off, and I knew in the first minute of the first recording session that what we had as a group dynamic was going to be explosive!

TG: From what I’ve read, this group came together when King Shabaka joined in from the sidelines. I ask Wasn’t this originally a two-piece called Soccer69? Can you explain the origins of the group?

King Shabaka: I liked the music of Soccer 96 so I asked to sit in on their set a few times. We decided after a while to book a studio and record some jams. We found structures out of hours of free improvisation and built an album from it. Then started to perform at parties, then festivals.

TG: Can you tell me about your sax (and clarinet) playing. How did you develop this sound? Why not, for example play like Bird or in a more traditional way? What spirits guided you in this direction? Have you got formal training or did you learn from the street or a club? I keep reading about Sons of Kemet and your group’s associations.

King Shabaka: I trained classically at the guildhall school of music on the clarinet predominantly. I’ve developed a way of playing that incorporates aspects of many types of music that I like outside of the parameters which usually typify genre-specific playing. I’ve been through many phases of assimilating various styles so at a point in my career I was playing more orthodox jazz, at a point I was more into free improvisation. At this time, I’m into how I sound now which feels like an amalgamation of lessons learnt from these and more styles. I’ve always enjoyed jamming and performance in clubs so outside my classical training I learnt jazz by trial and error in clubs and bars, and through studying books and albums.

Currently the ‘Comet’ has just landed at a jazz festival in The Netherlands.

King Shabaka: Generally, if the gigs are marketed to people who are up for a rave and are open to joining us in the energy then it’ll be an epic show regardless of geographical placement. Sometimes we’ll turn up to a small town somewhere and there just won’t be that (type of) demographic, though, so we feed of vibe that the crowd is giving regardless and as long as it’s an honest exchange on both sides I think there is potential for a great performance. (When you come to our gigs you have to) feel free to express yourself with integrity.

In other words: Party hard!

The Comet Is Coming play the Wellington Jazz Festival Saturday 10 June.

https://thecometiscoming.bandcamp.com/

https://www.jazzfestival.co.nz/

The Comet Is Coming: Wellington Jazz Festival, Wellington Opera House, 10 June 2017

The Comet is Coming

The Comet is Coming. Photo credit: Stephen A’Court/ Wellington Jazz Festival

The Comet is Coming came, saw and conquered, leaving an explosion of psychedelic dust in its wake and the uncontrollable urge for Festival goers to get down and boogie. Wellington was passionate about The Comet, nearly selling out the Opera House for their Jazz Festival performance. The Comet took off slowly with a couple of intense and deeply indulgent jams building up layers of funky Herbie Hancock styled futuristic keyboard loops – courtesy of Danalogue The Conqueror (aka Lan Leavers); vibrant counter-rhythms from Betamax Killer’s drum kit and swirly, punchy sax from King Sabaka.  They started this way and except for a short interlude where Danalogue played a short and quiet keys solo continued at full assault mode.  Some of their performance collapsed into deep percussion led rhythmic trances, punctuated by sax and drums which seemed to compete and compliment, simultaneously.
If the Comet’s music was a colour, then they’d be a psychedelic rainbow.  It’s impossible to finger a particular pantone but let’s just say that this was close to a Pink Floyd 60’s trip out.It was sometimes hard to tell where one ‘song’ began and the other finished but in there I noted their big singles Neon Baby and Do The Milky Way and a new single from an upcoming ep called Start Runnin’.  The first two drew huge cheers as they appeared out of the fog-jam of free jazz mixed with elements of Afro-jazz, Funk and even Soul, creating these recognizable hooks that got all shoulders moving and heads nodding in the seat.  The new single was more of a slow builder, very cinematic, and again referencing the avant-garde side of the jazz spectrum.

This crew managed to do so much with so little, and this is impressive.  The poncho wearing hippy presence of Danalogue, leaning over two simple synth-keyboards was something of an illusion, given the myriad of sounds and loops he produced as he frantically twiddled knobs and consciously pounded keys over and over more like a drummer than a pianist.  Betamax’s drumming was just simply stunning.  Watching him was like a calm and gliding duck – on the surface he was tranquil, but underneath frantic rhythms and counter-rhythms are exploding.  His solo used a mixed of drum kit and a digitised tom to produce some unique and surprising sounds.  These weren’t the usual rolling and building constructions you get with jazz.  He’s like four drum machines all going at once – Drum and bass; Hip hop and syncopation (think Brubeck or Krupa) all at one!  Now while that was impressive, you can’t leave out the stunning energy exuded from King Shabaka’s sax.  Using a simple reverb tool he created layer upon layer upon layer of beats and punches.  His style is more like Fela Kuti than Bird.  The aim is to create these sophisticated patterns, like aural fractals.  It’s more like a texture than a melody that he’s creating.  But wow! What textures.

If I had a grumble, it’s a small one.  Comet’s music is probably more suited to a warehouse party than an Opera House, with many of tonight’s punters being, naturally younger, but feeling a little formality of the of the location.  Many threw off their twinset and pearls and headed to aisles to get down to the groove.  Lighting was adequate but again could have done with a proper video show.  Something with plenty of vintage sci-fi like their music vids.  But that’s just a minor point.  Hopefully, they’ll be back again and we’ll get to see that.

Originally featured: http://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=88630

Harold López-Nussa Trio – Wellington Opera House 11 June 2017

Photos by Lisa B Doyle/ Wellington Jazz Festival

What a treat, to finish this year’s festival with the Harold López-Nussa Trio. Beaming ear-to-ear, all three, which included Horacio Hernandez (electric bass) and ‘Harry’s’ brother Ruy Adrian (drums) exuded radiant energy, and a real sense of fun.

With a drum kit and a wonderful grand piano placed at the front of the stage it quickly became clear that this was not a single billing. The brothers played off each other all night. It was like they’d been doing this forever, probably with duelling spoons at the dinner table when they were young. Harry’s fingers literally flew across the keys with the subtlest of gossamer touches yet his music was complex and meaty. The rhythms were all based around well-known Cuban themes, mined from a rich boyhood sitting at the knee of his father Ruy Francisco and uncle — Ernán – both gifted pianists from Havana. Harry even played one of his uncle’s pieces tonight, based on a Chopin sonata. But he wasn’t just playing the standards, he was reinventing them. Still in his 20’s Harry plays as if he was born with a piano in the womb. He wiped his face with a towel several times, yet his body language showed a man calm and collected, in contrast to the frantic energy of his fingers.

Harry moves with ease between classical, popular and jazz styles but never shies too far from his Cuban heritage, or his family roots. A quick look at his experiences reveal a recording of Heitor Villa-Lobos’ “Fourth Piano Concerto” with Cuba’s National Symphony Orchestra (2003) but also winning the First Prize and Audience Prize of the Jazz Solo Piano Competition at the Montreux Jazz Festival, Switzerland, in 2005. But he’s done his time outside the jazz world with projects as diverse as Ninety Miles (a recording with David Sánchez, Christian Scott and Stefon Harris) and Esencial (an album of compositions by revered Cuban classical guitarist, composer and conductor Leo Brouwer). If you haven’t heard these then seek them out – the hunt is well worth it. He also did work on the Rhythms del Mundo album, which paired him with veterans from Buena Vista Social Club; and has toured with Omara Portuondo. No wonder the stage seems so natural to him!

Now listening to Harry alone would have been a treat but measure this up against his brother Ruy, who replied to every note with his own interpretation. He performed several solos that totally upstaged his brother, mixing Latin beats with batucada, bongos and wood blocks. Harry had a turn too, making use of a foot pedal version that he played during one of his many solos.

Their repertoire was chosen for its colour and variety including the Afro fusion pieces including several pieces from his new album El Viaje, sadly without the trumpet and Senagalese vocalist and bassist Alune Wade. What is cool is how diverse the music is, moving from sow to full on grooves that are mesmerising and even funky in places. We also go his very cool Fantasmas en Caravana (check out the circus themed video) where his fingers fly at incredible speed.

To break it up there’s a quiet solo dedicated to his mother (Lobo’s Cha), which is so simple and sublime then it’s followed by the brothers playing a traditional 19th Century Cuban song taught to them in their youth. But this is no Chopsticks. Their party piece brought the house down as one brother (mainly Ruy) plays rhythm hands while his brother leads off on tangent after tangent. Then, mid song, and without skipping a beat the get up and swap seats and roles, and then again. It reminded me of Victor Borge, without the silly antics. Another tune, Bacalao con pan, provided yet another opportunity for the brothers to face off in friendly rivalry with Harry pulling out all the stops to blast us with an electric performance on his key board. Again, his fingers moving at lightning speed but somehow you could hear every note and nuance. Then in the other corner Ruy is blasting out endless drum pattern using sticks, brushes and his hands – sometimes all at once it would seem. All the time both are smiling with absolute joy. The audience had picked up on the mood and were soaking it all up. At the end they all stood and stomped loudly in appreciation.
Such was the energy and improvisation on the stage, punters may feel a little let down by the recordings. El Viaje, in particular, is a brilliant record but it just does capture the magic on the stage. There’s only one way to get some of that.

There was, sadly one encore, a very ‘straight’ version of Que Sas Que Sas (Perhaps, Perhaps) to finish the night, and a lone Cajón was left unused. Perhaps the mood, which was overwhelmingly one of fiesta, did not call for it. What a brilliant way to finish the Festival.

Jonathan Crayford Wins Tui for best Jazz Album

New Zealand Jazz Awards

Jonathan Crayford was awarded the Tui for best Jazz Album, at a cocktail party attended by Wellington’s jazz community and sponsors of the Wellington Jazz Festival.

Callum Allardice announces award at the Wellington Jazz Festival Photo: Stephen A’Court.
The event included Anthony Healey, Head of APRA and Damian Vaughan (Recorded Music New Zealand). Jonathan Crayford picked up the award for Best Album for East West Moon, which he recorded in New York with Ben Street and Dan Weiss. Crayford was up against some tough competition including veteran Jazzman Mike Nock (Vicissitudes) and new comer Myele Manzanza (OnePointOne).

Callum Allardice (of The Jac) managed to swing Best Composition for his piece Deep Thought. Festival favourites award went to The Brad Kang Quartet for their amazing concert at St Peter’s on Friday night.

Tim Gruar

Originally appeared at: http://www.13thfloor.co.nz/?p=88663

Reb Fountain – Hopeful & Hopeless (Southbound)

Reb-Fountain-Hopeful

First appeared on www.13thfloor.co.nz

As its title suggests, Hopeful/Hopeless is something of a tribute to those we’ve lost and those that remain. ‘Death’ is a common but never mournful theme running through these five beautifully crafted songs. This is also a fitting tribute to one of this country’s most innovative and supportive musicians, Sam Prebble.

Singer/Songwriter Reb Fountain, Sam Prebble (banjos, violin, guitar) and Dylan Storey (electric guitar) were part of a wee gang that I once met 10 years ago performing as Reb Fountain and The Bandits in Wellington’s former Happy (Blink’s old club) in Wellington. Simultaneously, Sam was pushing his own project, Bond Street Bridge. The band were officially there to promote Reb’s album, Holster, but that never stopped Sam from exploiting the opportunity.

One evening in August 2014 they got together at Auckland’s Wine Cellar with Dave Khan (accordion), Brendon Turner (bass) and Cole Godley(drums) to record some tunes live at the venue. This turned out to be the last time they’d perform with Sam in the band. These recordings were completed and mixed. But never released. It took some time for Reb to come to terms with the tragedy of his passing or to revisit recordings he’d worked on but she knew intrinsically that the only way forward was to reconnect with him was by completing their unfinished projects. And so, we get not one but two releases.

This ep (Hopeful/Hopeless) is the first, followed in September by the Little Arrows album. The Truth About Us opens the ep with Reb’s usual upbeat mournfulness. It’s the kind of Americana that she’s been crafting for some time now. Her voice is so familiar and often reminds me of Karin Bergquist (Over The Rhine). It has just enough melancholy to feel disturbed but she never sways into the corny or cliché. It’s lilting and haunting, floating almost in dream state over the band as she sings of giving away her possessions, toiling for the bank manager, the ogre of inner city high rises and other everyday battles. The theme of death emerges early, with a wish to avoid all these irritations: “I just hope we die young.” This is really a song about honesty in a relationship but once you know about the ep’s backstory you can help rethinking this one.

You get a sense of desperation in the title track, with its references to passing and remaining. If ever there was a reference to the gap between poverty and prosperity, it’s in the opening lines: “So much doubt up here in the wasteland / Like we sinners come undone”. Is the ‘wasteland’ Auckland. Does she refer to those who sleep in cars and line up at food banks while some sail 30ft yachts and dine at harbour side bistros? Reb’s poetry touches on religious themes in the tradition of many Southern country singers. The gentle strumming beat feels a little like a Johnny Cash number but with a more forlorn outlook. What I really like about this song is the optimistic hook in the chorus. Rather than being a depressing song about fate’s fickle hand it’s something more. It has the rousing tone of a Salvation Army Corner Band. Confident in overcoming death, evil and tyranny.

The fourth track, Dance With Death Alive, is the most personal. Here Reb sings about a dead father and dancing to keep memories alive. It’s not clear if this is her father or another’s. Although it was made prior to Sam’s departure you can’t help feeling that this could be about him. At the start she talks about Pap’s music collection Interestingly, she juxtaposes the music he played (“I grew up on Cowboy Songs, Folk Tunes and Hymns of The Lord/I used to think that a song was made to help you feel” ) with the commercial (“Strange, how a song made for money, just a cog in the wheel feels kinda dirty”). That’s also a comment on her own industry and her own part in it, I guess. She’s almost saying how necessary it is to sell her music to pay for his funeral.

There’s a foreboding line about losing someone and moving on in this song. “Strange how we hold on to what we were and what we do and some of us don’t want to remember these things. As if an answer, Sam’s understated banjos chatter away in the background like faded conversations in bar. That’s offset by Khan’s accordion, which adds a spot of melancholy and sets the tone of the song. Her take on death is one of sorrow, here. It’s always common to think you’ve lost direction when someone passes. “When I wasn’t looking, I lost the meaning of my life/ Seems like it’s the only imprint I get to remind me I’m still alive”. And by that she could mean the father’s record collections, as if playing these will bring back life. “Papa I think I found it lying at the foot of my ghost/That dollar bill so I can pay the man to bring your body back home. When my records are playing will you dance with death alive?” Towards the end of the song, her direction changes, maybe to a boyfriend of even a friend, inviting them to dance along and keep the memories alive. This is by far, the most pertinent song on the ep, it’s hard not to feel affected.

The final song, Crazy Horse and Violence, is another trademark of Reb’s – the cowboy torch song. A sorry tale of a man destined to die. “Crazy Horse and Violence were destined to be lovers…his father cried when he discovered that he bore a child of war….at 19yrs he joined the forces”. Those lines say it all. This time Sam’s violin does much of the speaking, played in the traditional Southern fiddle style you are immediately transported to a shanty shack in Forest Gump territory and taken along for the fateful ride.

There’s no denying that this is a special record, not just because of Sam…the warm ambience of the recording is like an embrace of comfort. You don’t feel like there’s been a tragedy. Reb said it best: “Releasing a record is nothing in comparison to the experience of growing it from the earth up with your loved ones. I will always have that time in my heart.” This, essentially, is at the essence of what you can hear on this wonderful record.