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"Pensacola" by Jack Blackman & Chessi O'Dowd

Review

Here's a slightly rhetorical question: what is better than a new release by one of the most respected & popular Coventry & Warwickshire artists? Yes, you guessed the answer: it's when two of them collaborate on a new track.  In this case it's Chessi O'Dowd & Jack Blackman who have joined forces on a cover of Joan Osborne's song "Pensacola" which is out today.

Having praised not just the performance skills but the writing abilities of each of these acclaimed artists often in this magazine, I was intrigued as to why they have decided to work together & why they chose this cover version as the vehicle for the collaboration. In fact the inspiration came from Chessi: Joan Osborne's ‘Relish' album of 1995 being a significant touchstone for her, this song evoked a powerful therapeutic response during an especially trying moment during the pandemic. Recruiting the mega talented Jack (they had worked together on the Street Arts Project "Isolation" initiative), they have reshaped the song into a duet to excellent effect.

All this is all well & good of course in theory, but any two voices, however great each independently might be, are not necessarily destined to work together to become more than the sum of parts. I'm sure you'll anticipate the next statement of mine though: that in this case they surely do.

Jack is clearly relishing his opportunity to craft some unusual sonic pictures (each worked independently at home with Joe Collier mixing Chessi's vocals in with Jack's various contributions) aiming for "Florida Swamp" to match the song. This included the deployment of guitars, bass, drums, Dobro, wah- wah clavinet and a jaws harp.

So add all these ingredients into the gumbo and you get something both rich & spicy, as evocative of the area in question as Dr John's ‘Gris Gris' It's moody, it's magnificent & we hear two musicians clearly having a ball with a song they love and playing off each other which actually adds a dimension to the song not present in the original, good as that is. The lyric is slightly mysterious in a Southern Gothic way and not only do the two voices bring the story into life in a slightly different (and it has to be said exuberant way) but it provides an interesting complement to Jack's 2020 single "Ballad of Clopton House": another dark narrative albeit set in a very different environment.

Quite where this will lead them next probably neither of them yet know: Chessi is currently working on a new EP with Dan Sealey (of Merrymaker/Ocean Colour Scene fame) while judging by the awesome & head spinning run of recent releases from Jack, one can only expect the unexpected while certain he's presumably working on several projects. However even as a "one off", this is a joyous artefact and certainly adds to the quality of our lives. I gather that they have already played together (outside) in Stratford and hopefully they'll get future opportunities to present "Pensacola" in a live form for our pleasure.

Check out the great video here:

https://www.facebook.com/chessiodowdmusic/videos/934889190658632

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"Whereabouts Unknown" by Jack Blackman

Review

After his most impressive prolific run of form since the music scene was turned upon its head, from "Self Isolation Song" (which is also on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Four') through  "Empty Beretta", (in September), "Hard Place To Be" & "Ballad of Clopton House" (both in October) and "Straight Up Genius" (November), culminating in his Christmas single (as "Jack Blackman and the Beautiful Wreck"), the marvellous "I Wish It Was Summer (At Christmas Time)", it's hardly surprising if Jack Blackman has paused for breath (and he's been doing a lot of teaching too) at the start of the new year.

 However he is back now with "Whereabouts Unknown" which comes out on February 19th. Written (as you'd expected) by Jack himself, it features him playing acoustic, electric, slide & bass guitars, percussion and keyboards as well singing and it was mixed by Joe Collier.

Quite apart from the innate qualities of each song in this sequence (and they are far from few), what is striking is the range of styles & themes within them: it simply isn't possible to pigeonhole his range of interests & areas of expertise, except possibly within the much broader category of "roots". It is this sense of authenticity which elevates what he writes & performs above the level of dazzling technical expertise (admirable as this is) to create genuine songs with real emotional connection, whether he is operating with folk, blues or even garage rock contexts as he has so recently.

"Whereabouts Unknown" in fact ventures into completely new sonic territory from its immediate predecessors & sits very much at the gentler & more vulnerable end of the spectrum of what Jack can offer the world. It demonstrates just what he can do with quieter tones & restrained playing and singing, creating impact through withholding the more jagged edges of his virtuosity & making our imaginations fill in the gaps for ourselves: thus giving us more of a stake in what the song is seeking to say. That's not to say that the track is timid nor lacking in power: it certainly possesses the rawness of spirit which characterises Jack's work: he just chooses to deploy his skills in a way which best serves what he writing about- in this case the loss of one's place in the world, which he pulls off in a most affecting manner.

As with "Ballad of Clopton House", this single has a beautiful stark and bleak video shot locally which can be seen here: https://youtu.be/J8OxCNtZJJQ

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"Straight Up Genius" by Jack Blackman

Review

Jack Blackman is not only on a rich run of form at the moment (the pandemic seems to be inspiring him to express his feelings through the medium of his artistry), but within his several recent releases he has been demonstrating a more broad set of examples of his influences & interests than perhaps many of us were aware.

Described online as "fast developing into one of the most accomplished and exciting young performers on the roots scene today", I believe that already on the evidence we now have, he has transcended that. While songs such as "Self Isolation Song", "Hard Place to Be", "Empty Beretta" or "Ballad of Clopton House" show the breadth of his writing & performance skills within the general "roots" field, his latest single "Straight Up Genius" kicks right through the barrier which fences genres in & enters territory which owes more to magnificent sixties pop (he cites The Kinks, The Small Faces and The Beach Boys), though of course all those bands to some degree owe their own debts to rootsier music.

Just as exciting is that this song owes its genesis to a cross-media collaboration with the Artful Doodler (and regular readers will know how much I like it when cross fertilisation of artforms takes place). Aided by Adam Barry on Hammond Organ and Wurlitzer, David Vaughan on drums and James Maguire on bass and backing vocals, Jack has created this track for which the Doodler has then crafted an excellent video which you can see at

https://www.facebook.com/jackblackmansongs/videos/850140125788141

 

A cheery, witty  & heartwarming song which the keyboard parts really elevate (I'd love now to hear more collaborations between Jack & Adam), despite the pandemic theme, it generally concerns the experiences of those working from home & no longer feeling motivated to rise from their beds at the conventional hour to do so, yet as with all good songs it actually has a wider meaning & I think that it should continue to resonate long after COVID19 as it actually also tells of those creative types we all know, not temperamentally suited to the nine to five routine & convinced that their own genius will inevitably free them from the constraints of straight life.

What I particularly like is how I could have sworn I already knew the song: it settles instantly into the consciousness & memory and its catchiness is such that I'd hope it gets plenty of airings on radio etc.

As with a couple of recent reviews I have written about completely separate releases where different artists have simultaneously decided to write about "heading home", I find instances of apparent synchronicity between different musicians to be fascinating & in this case, I can't help thinking how "Straight Up Genius" is a sort of companion piece to Luke Concannon's recent "Doing Nothing".

At any rate, how good it is to have the weighty issues we are currently facing dealt  with such good humour & empathy.

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"Ballad of Clopton House" by Jack Blackman

Review

At the end of a month which began with the release of his excellent single "Hard Place to be Be", Jack Blackman is showing no sense whatsoever of resting on the laurels of the fine critical & popular reception of his recent songs by offering us his Hallowe'en single "Ballad of Clopton House" as unlike "Hard Place to Be", "Empty Beretta" or "Self Isolation Song" as you could imagine, demonstrating both his range of interests & his capacity to express them eloquently.

Based on stories which may be legend, or truth or something incorporating elements of both, it is based around the eponymous Stratford House and three sisters (also apparently called Clopton) who lived there & died locally. Each met a sad or even tragic fate, verging on the macabre, so the idea fits the season well, but so well does Jack tell their tales that I think rather than spoil the song for you, I'll leave you to listen to his telling.

As well as being good for All Souls' Night,  "Ballad of Clopton House" fits well with Jack's other work, whether the similarly Warwickshire based  "Ballad of Charles Walton" (dealing with the infamous 1945 Meon Hill "witchcraft" murder) or his tracks about the more gothic aspects of the blues country in America.

Much of the playing is by Jack himself, including multiple eerie guitar parts but remote contributions were made by players such as Jon Doran, Louis Scheuer, James Maguire, and David Vaughan while Joe Collier pieced it together from a safe distance.

The layered effects add up to something haunting for sure (it's fun picking out details such as the various guitar: one slide sounds like a George Harrison impression, intertwining voices, what sounds like an accordion and percussion emulating bones hitting each other) but although the lyrics emphasise the macabre well (at times with gleeful relish), there is also a sense of melancholy & sympathy for the lost girls. Touches such as key changes, tempo shifts & drop out help ratchet the tension up & turn the screw on our emotional responses.

Quite rightly there is already a fair bit of press coverage of this release and look out too for the video shot on the Welcombe Hills, near the house & a well which plays a significant part in the story & may have inspired a well known scene in a play by local playwright & lyricist William Shakespeare. You can watch it here: https://www.facebook.com/jackblackmansongs/videos/350708779355533

Personally, despite (or because of?) the narrative, I loved it & think you will too: evocative & effective, it has sufficiently light a touch to scare us enough for our delight but not to rob us of our sleep.

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"Hard Place To Be" by Jack Blackman

Review

Barely a fortnight after his last release, the chilling  "Empty Beretta", Jack Blackman (who is also represented on ‘Hot Music Live Presents Volume Four'  with the only marginally less recent "Self Isolation Song" ) today releases a new single in the shape of  "Hard Place To Be". Given the appalling damage to musician's careers, mental health & livelihoods from COVID19, it's hard to conceive of anyone being inspired or creatively motivated by it, but if anyone is, it might just be Jack. He certainly is hitting back hard with both fists at the circumstances, defying the constraints. Whatever his new material in 2020 might have been otherwise, I think we can safely say that these songs would never have been created.

 

"Hard Place To Be" very much contrasts musically with its predecessor. A really beautiful "train song" based upon an alternately picked & slide guitar, it is gentle & sympathetic where "Empty Beretta "  was more vicious. If the latter took on the world situation directly & railed against it, today's song regrets what we are obliged to contend with & presents our challenge within the metaphor of a journey we have little choice but to take.

That said, the power & subtlety of the analogy is such that the issues are addressed yet not named specifically and I have no doubt that "Hard Place To Be" will continue to work very well once this period of time is long gone: "this world is a hard place to be for anyone" is a timeless sentiment which will still resonate in 2030 just as the song would have applied & struck a chord with its listeners had it come out in 1930.

This era is provoking the very best out of Jack, from all points along the spectrum of his creativity. It may be that someone somewhere ("Hot Music Live Presents"?) creates a compendium of songs written and released in the "COVID Years": even on a local scale, using only Coventry & Warwickshire songs released between March & now, such a collection would tell me a most interesting tale for history to record & Jack might well have several tracks upon it.

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New monthly music at the Cross Keys, Alcester

Local blues master Jack Blackman will be hosting a new monthly music night at the Cross Keys Ancestor.
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