Thursday, February 29, 2024

Ten Top Tracks from . . . Ian Siegal

Roll up, roll up, for the second edition of Ten Top Tracks, a non-definitive, non-ranked overview of tunes by a Blues Enthused favourite – on this occasion the estimable roots troubadour Ian Siegal.
Ordinarily I might go for a vaguely chronological selection of an artist’s material.  But that ain’t so easy with Siegal, because you won’t find all of his output available on YouTube, my channel of choice for these here things.  So we’re going to be ducking and diving a bit, alighting on
Ian Siegal - sharp dressed man and guitar
renditions of certain tracks whenever happens to be convenient.  Watch out for the links to the various tracks on YouTube (or find the link to a playlist of all 10 at the bottom), and we’ll make a start with the first Ian Siegal album to cross my path – 2007’s Swagger.
 
‘Curses’ is a classic example of Ian Siegal’s love of word play – and his penchant for black humour.  It trundles along like a cart on a backwoods track, with flutterings of piano  and pluckings of banjo, fired up by sparks of slide guitar.  Meanwhile Siegal delivers a spoken, basso profundo character assassination of some fella, that evolves into a wish list of inventive curses to be brought down on him. "May he dig up his own father by moonlight, and make soup from his bones,” he suggests before drily concluding “I just don’t like that guy”.   There are several great songs I could have picked from Swagger, but ‘Curses’ demonstrates very nicely that Ian Siegal ain’t just a “my baby done left me” lyricist.
 
‘Sugar Rush’, from 2005’s Meat And Potatoes, finds Siegal getting down to business on a traditional brand of swingin’ R’n’B.  There’s nothing complicated about it, but Siegal and his buddies Matt Schofield on guitar, Jonny Henderson on organ, Andy Graham on bass and Nikolaj Bjerre on drums, inhabit the rhythmic groove brilliantly, while his vocal delivery and phrasing is as expressive as you could wish for.  Little wonder maybe, that he assembled the same gang to record Swagger.
 
Siegal likes to get around though, and at some point touched down in North Mississippi, which produced a series of collaborations starting with the 2011 album The Skinny, under the moniker of Ian Siegal and The Youngest Sons.  The sons in question were the Dickinson brothers, Luther and Cody, of the North Mississippi Allstars, plus other North Mississippi Hill Country scions Garry Burnside and Robert Kimbrough.  And ‘The Skinny’ itself does hint at the deeper, more hypnotic grooves typical of the hill country - without becoming derivative - while Siegal stirs some serpentine slide guitar into the mix.
 
Siegal sometimes likes to stir up a dollop of funk though, of which ‘Hard Pressed’ is a prime example.  It first popped up on his 2009 album Broadside, surfaced again on his collaborative outing Candy Store Kid with the Mississippi Mudbloods, and has been a mainstay of his full band
repertoire over the years.  Here’s the classic version that was available as a bonus download with his live album One Night In Amsterdam, recorded with his long-time band (who perform on their own account as The Rhythm Chiefs).
 
‘Hard Times (Come Again No More)’ represents a different side of Siegal’s repertoire.  He’s a regular “curator” of other people’s songs, of which this is a very old example, written by American folk composer Stephen Foster in 1855.  Musically it may not be a blues song, but it’s absolutely one in spirit.  Siegal often includes this in his solo acoustic shows, just “man and guitar” as one of his album titles has it.  But this version is my favourite, from the acoustic album The Picnic Sessions that he recorded with the Dickinsons, Jimbo Mathus, and Alvin Youngblood Hart, and which I picked up when it was originally available at gigs in Britain when he toured as a duo with Mathus.
 
As much as Siegal is a bluesman – and now and then he’s prone to deny it – he also has a soft spot for Americana, or country music if you prefer.  ‘Sweet Souvenir’ was co-written with Jimbo Mathus, and eventually cropped up on his 2018 full band album All The Rage.  But it’s well suited to a solo acoustic treatment, and here he is giving it just that in a 2019 performance.
 
All The Rage also found Siegal curling his lip at the state of the world on several tracks, and on the album cover too as if to underline the point.  ‘Ain’t You Great’ is a patient tune, with some Hispanic leanings and guitarist Dusty Cigaar digging out some big twanging.  But Siegal’s brooding vocal goes well with lines like “The asylum doors are open and we’re downupon our knees / They’ve found the biggest lunatics and handed them the keys”.  Released in2018, mid-Trump presidency and in the face of post-Brexit vote wheeling and dealing, there was plenty going on to encourage Siegal’s acidic wordsmithing.
 
Faced with the lack of live work created by the Covid pandemic and associated lockdown, Siegal combined with a bundle of other musicians under the quirky banner Birdmens, remotely
Life is too short to smoke bad cigars.
recording a one-off album titled Lockdown Loaded to try and keep the home fires burning, as it were. Given the circumstances, it’s a remarkably creative album, but one of the highlights is the back-to-basics blues stomp ‘Cat Drugged Up’, with Siegal digging out his patented Howlin’ Wolf-esque growl.
 
On his most recent album, Stone By Stone, Siegal got together with Robin Davey and Greta Valenti of Beaux Gris Gris & The Apocalypse, and managed to shake things up again, getting into a gospel/spiritual/work song groove on several tracks, interspersed with some seriously dark and downbeat Americana outings. But as an example of how to make roots music sound fresh I’d submit that the opening track, ‘Working On A Building’, is a masterclass. A work song sorta thing, given a loose and rhythmic treatment that sounds like a bunch of beer buddies having a good time, it’s irresistible.  
 
Siegal loves a good story, methinks. So for the final slot in this selection I’m going for ‘Gallo Del Cielo’, an atmospheric Mexicano-flavoured tale of a fighting rooster and his owner written by American songsmith Tom Russell. Siegal has been carting this pair of tragic heroes around in his set for years, whether he’s doing an acoustic set or playing with a band. Once again, it shows Siegal exploring a different vibe in evocative fashion.
 
Ian Siegal ain’t a predictable artist, trotting out the same sound year after year.  He’s a great songwriter in his own right, but also a terrific interpreter of other people’s songs.  And whether he’s serving up originals or covers, live or on record, you can bet he’ll deliver a characterful performance.

You can find a playlist of all 10 of the above tracks on the Blues Enthused YouTube channel, here.

Check out the Gimme 5 feature with Ian Siegal, in which he shares some of his inspirations with Blues Enthused, here.

1 comment:

  1. I tour managed for Ian in the Pacific Northwest twice (2006/2013). Undoubtably a force of nature. And you are right he can’t be pigeonholed.

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