Forty-eight years on from their debut album, Iain Matthews has reconstructed his first project after leaving Fairport Convention, putting together a new line-up, or, to be more accurate, the same Dutch line-up from 2010 but with acoustic guitarist Eric De Vries replacing Elly Kelner on vocals alongside multi-instrumentalist Bart Jan Baartmans and keyboard player Bart de Win. All three of them have a hand in co-writing material, De Vries’ contribution being to the late night jazzy vibe musing on modern life, The Age of Isolation. Likewise, de Win shares credits on the equally mellow Chasing Rainbows, a love song to California which, featuring electric sitar, references both Daydream Believer and Good Vibrations. Baartman has three co-writes, the first being album opener The Thought Police, a moody observation of today’s Big Brother society built around acoustic guitar and eerie background electronics. While Phoenix Rising is a melodically gentler affair, an accordion-coloured number with Baartmans delivering a resonator guitar solo, about a singer who found fame but is now, in the eyes of the world, a faded memory “with nothing of substance to say.” The third, which comes as one of three bonus tracks, is A Heartless Night, a West Coast-suffused laid-back ballad about a predatory femme fatale “working the room like a bitch in heat.”
There are three other shared credits, frequent collaborator Egbert Derix his co-writer for Been Down So Long, a mid-paced, bluesy five and a half minute number about oppression and exploitation that starts and ends by referencing Cortez’s invasion of the Incas. It expands to take in a wider picture of how disenfranchisement and intolerance will eventually spill over into unfocused retaliation. A post-relationship slow country waltz, Right As Rain teams him with Austin-based songwriter Michael Fracasso while the title track is another lengthy blues-tinged number about a toxic relationship, which, built around piano and clicking percussion, and sounding somewhat different from the material usually associated with Clive Gregson.
Matthews takes the solo credit on a number of tracks: the uptempo, playful, brushed drum, jazzy and woozy Jive Pajamas, a swipe at over the top Los Angeles lifestyles. The slow blues bonus track state of the world closer Your Cake and Eat It and Bits and Pieces, electric guitar and mandolin bringing a rockier sound to a number about displacement rewritten and reworked from its original form fifteen years ago as Plainsong number called A Fool For You.
The remaining three tracks also come with MSC history, a revisitation of songs from the band’s second two albums released, as was the debut, in 1970. From the sophomore release, Second Spring, comes Darcy Farrow, here recast as a sedate piano ballad to reflect the downbeat nature of the lyrics, a far cry from the jaunty, pedal-steel led original. The remaining bonus track, an electric guitar restyling of James Taylor’s Something in The Way She Moves, is taken at a slightly slower pace but with less of the original’s airy touch. While I may be imagining it, there’s a musical hint of George Harrison’s Something, the opening line of which borrowed Taylor’s title.
Finally, from the aptly titled Later That Same Year comes its opening number, Goffin and King’s To Love, reworked from the original surfing rock ‘n’ roll arrangement into a slightly slower, swampy guitar blues and country groove that more readily conjures the Everly Brothers. The band and the sound have, like the bourbon, mellowed warmly with age, but the kick is still there.
Matthews Southern Comfort did a show with Magna Carta in the Robin2 on October 30th. For the full review visit: Midlandmania.wordpress
This is also, interestingly enough, the second time I’ve seen Matthews Southern Comfort: I did admittedly once work with Iain solo in my former capacity as promoter (something for which he’s long forgiven me, thankfully) but never dreamed- until the announcement of their London Borderline show in 2013, anyway- that I’d actually see the songs from 1970’s unsurpassable trilogy of MSC albums (count ‘em, THREE in one bloody year) played live. And even after I had done so, the majesty of the event was sullied not long after by the announcement of the great man’s impending “retirement”, making me think I’d never see them again. Of course, I should have known better- rock, blues and folk musicians don’t retire in the 2010s, they simply keep going and going until they can go no more- and thankfully for us all, this is evidently what Matthews (although admittedly now backed by three younger players, technically making the band ‘MSC’ in name only) has since elected to do.
Not, I should stress, that they’re the only youthful-looking people onstage: at 72, IM still looks about 45, the only immediately visible difference between him and myself being the colour of his hair. Mind you, mine would be that silver if I didn’t vainly dye it every month. More to the point, his shimmering alto vocals have remained undimmed by the passing of the years: the only slight change is in the addition of an oak-aged gravitas and venom (especially on newer, more lyrically bitter compositions like Bits And Pieces or Age Of Isolation) that was sometimes absent from his earlier work, and it’s no bad thing. Moreover, in structuring the set so that new songs rub shoulders with old classics like And Me (Say A Prayer), Darcy Farrow or Mimi & Richard Farina’s Blood Red Roses, Matthews- these days a Dutch resident, surrounded by an entirely Dutch lineup who undoubtedly bring a flavour of that country’s ownpop heritage to the group’s already potent blend of English folk and Americana- deftly highlights the continuity between both eras, thus also drawing attention to their finest elements.
Of course, even back in ‘69, MSC were never a one-man show: indeed, by way of demonstration that this is and has always been a band (with, might I add, six fine studio albums in total under its belt) there’s not one number from the vocalist’s extensive solo catalogue in the set tonight, nary a Biloxi or a Morgan The Pirate to be found. Nor is their time for any Plainsong, Hi-Fi or Fairport stuff: and even within the group itself, the emphasis (though its past should never be ignored) is very much on presenting the band as it exists now, both as composers and interpreters of others’ material (a balance Matthews has repeatedly favoured since the 60s) Thusly, acoustic six-stringer Eric Devries- in addition to his contributions to the ensemble’s already exceptional four-part harmonies – also asserts himself with a fine lead vocal on Mare, Take Me Home: meanwhile, electric guitarist/mandolinist/ all-rounder Bart Baartmans (leave your tedious Simpsons jokes at the door please) is a revelation, letting rip with several tasteful solos throughout that call to mind both his fellow countryman Chris Koerts (Earth & Fire) and a more restrained version of Matthews’ former bandmate Richard Thompson.
Sadly, there’s nothing in the set tonight from the original band’s much-underrated eponymous third album, but further “golden greats” surface late on in the shape of To Love and (obviously) Joni Mitchell’s Woodstock, the sole UK no 1 hit ever enjoyed by any former Fairport Convention member (now there’s a top music quiz trivia fact for you) Recognised as radically different from its creator’s original version even at the time of its release, it’s since been reworked yet again, its new vocal refrain and tempo showcasing yet another unexpected development in the fascinating history of this most iconic “hippie dream” composition: if anything, it actually now resembles its writer’s Miles Of Aisles version more than anything else, albeit with the funky backbeat replaced by the thrumming piano and Rhodes sounds of keyboardist Bart De Win. Yet another concealed weapon in the band’s already resplendent armoury, he also excels on further newies Like A Radio and (by way of unexpected encore) Crystals On The Glass: so much so, in fact, it almost seems a shame to cut him off in his prime.
Forever destined to remain two of this country’s best-kept insider secrets, both Matthews and Simpson are gracefully gliding through their 70s with all the poise and invention of the true artists they are: though outwardly different, both are capable of stealing the listener away from the mundanity of everyday life and into a mystical fireside land of song, and for my own part, I’m overjoyed that glad this gig- allegedly cancelled and rebooked about five times- finally went ahead. And, from the 300-plus turnout tonight, it would seem the West Midlands’ folk-rock fanbase in general shares my enthusiasm. Verily and indeed, and with a hey nonny nonny tooralay.
By Darius Drewe
Matthews Southern Comfort (from the album Like a Radio)
Over a long career, Iain Matthews has changed the delivery method for his music, keeping the Roots touch in his tracks, the warm Folk Rock, and a blend of electric and acoustic instruments. A founding member of Fairport Convention, and bandmate for their first three albums, Iain Matthews departed the group to form Matthews Southern Comfort and Plainsong in the 1970’s. Bands and solo work offered the words and music of Iain Matthews as frequent album releases, and on his recent album, Like a Radio, Iain Matthews goes to his early 1970’s group concept, Matthews Southern Comfort, to back his songs. Feeling that the short-lived band never got the sound Iain Matthews was hearing, he uses Like a Radio to complete the journey of Matthews Southern Comfort.
From a homebase in the Netherlands, Matthews Southern Comfort dip a memory in psychedelic west coast Folk Rock as “Chasing Rainbows” steps into the California sunshine. Delicate guitar notes announce “The Thought Police” to open Like a Radio as a sad Country tale says goodbye in “Right as Rain”, a sharp-edged melody guides “Crystals on the Glass”, and “Darcy Farrow” glides in on melancholy piano rambles. An all Dutch lineup backs Iain for the new incarnation of Matthews Southern Comfort as they wander down a percussive trail into “The Age of Isolation”, channel an island breeze for the rhythms of “Phoenix Rising” and walk through a dreamy shuffle with “Jive Pajamas” while Like a Radio dials Jazz into the title track.
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