Friday, October 18, 2019

Mike Bowden & The A917 - Gravy Train

Regular readers may recall that Mike Bowden & The A917 got an honourable mention in my review of the Jock’s Juke Joint Volume 4 album last year.  So having picked up a copy of their album Gravy Train at a recent live show, it’s good to be able to report that it is also a positive listening experience.
Four of the tracks on the album were recorded live in Llangollen, which seems a bit incongruous when you consider that the band takes its name from a road that follows the coastline of the East Neuk of Fife (or Eastern Corner for non-Scots).  But then Mike Bowden hails originally from the North West of England, and has been knocking around on the British blues scene for years, in one guise or another.
The fact that their live set included covers of Dylan’s ‘It Takes A Lot To Laugh, It Takes A
Mike Bowden, adopted Fifer
Pic courtesy of Stuart Stott
Train To Cry’, Tom Waits’ ‘Heart Of Saturday Night’ and Dr John’s ‘Walk On Gilded Splinters’ should give you a good idea of what they’re about.  They swing effortlessly, with lots of slide guitar from Les Cowley and piano from Martin Rhydderch as embellishment.  ‘Poor Man’, the song that featured on the Jock’s Juke Joint cd, is a good example with its jazzy groove, bobbing bass from John Walker, and a hook that sounds like inevitable singalong territory.
Bowden himself, a grizzly old bear of a guy, contributes acoustic and cigar box guitar, but is most to the fore courtesy of his resonant, groaning voice.  Sometimes woozy, sometimes gruff, he knows how to deliver a story, which is a good thing because his lyrics, which explore darkness and comedy in equal measure, deserve to be put across with feeling.
‘Blood In His Pockets’ is a moody and reflective affair recounting an attack with Stanley knife, with sparse, shuffling drums from Colin ‘Big Vern’ Seymour and a weeping slide guitar undertow.  ‘Dangerous’, on the other hand, is a tongue in cheek ode to sexual exploration, featuring lines such as “No rights no wrongs, Let’s talk in tongues,” and “Like to see you tied to the railway track”, with bright piano from Rhydderch and, I reckon, some of Bowden's cigar box playing as adornment.  ‘Scratchface Lane’, meanwhile, tackles social deprivation and drug use in a grim locale where Bowden once lived, over jingling, pulsing percussion, Fender Rhodes-like piano and more emotive slide playing.
There’s a Gerry Rafferty-ish feel to the chord progression and yearning melody of ‘Runaway Child’, and the album closer ‘Sorry’ sounds like nothing so much as Tom Waits making another bid for the Great American Songbook, all the way from its piano intro to its lovely melody, delivered with precision and feeling by Bowden.
In fact Bowden’s songwriting is impressive across the whole of the Gravy Train, and the playing is on the money too, even if a bit more variety in the instrumentation might give proceedings the occasional lift.  But leaving that faint quibble to one side, if you like your blues laid back, subtle and rootsy, then this train is one to catch.

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