British broadcaster Bob Harris said Irish artist Brian Houston is “really, really special.” Down at the Crossroads agrees – here’s a short review of his new gospel-blues album and an interview with Brian.
For many Down at the Crossroad readers, it was probably a surprise to see Brian Houston’s Shelter album on our Best Blues Albums of the Year list for 2012.
But we honestly felt this album from this not-so-well-known Irish singer and songwriter was strong enough to sit up there with the efforts of well known rock and blues artists.
And here he is following it up with another stellar gospel blues album entitled Mercy. Shelter marked a change of direction from Houston to a more rocky, bluesy style. Well, in this new album, he’s really nailed it, delivering something that stands tall in the long line of gospel blues. Musically it’s terrific, driven along by guitar riffs that are by turns catchy and edgy, with blues to the fore and a good measure of gospel sounds thrown in. Lyrically, it stands firmly in the tradition of the spirituals and the blues, with references to Egypt, the promised land, Joshua, prayin’ mamas, fleeing devils, dying fathers and an anxious mind throughout. Heck, we’ve even got a “Gospel Train” song, which can stand its ground with any of the numerous gospel trains that thunder through the Americana-blues tradition. If there’s one stand-out song on the album – and, to be honest, it’s hard to choose – it’s this.
Everybody get on the gospel train
Gather in the weak and the poor and the lame
There’s a first class ticket held in your hand
Get ready for the promised land
This is modern blues at its best, clearly grounded in the tradition of the blues, but making it sound fresh and relevant. And like all good blues, there’s something upbeat and joyous about it. The consistent sense of hope rings through:IIn the darkness came a shining light
Into the darkness a new hope came in sight…
His name was Jesus
Down at the Crossroads caught up with Brian in North Carolina where he is now based:
DATC: Brian, congratulations on the new album. What has been the reaction to the new songs?
Brian: I’ve actually been quite amazed at the reaction, especially live. When you write a song and record it, it has a certain excitement and vitality which gradually you forget about over the weeks and months of tracking, editing and mixing. When you take them out live they suddenly get all that energy back in one big rush! Seeing folks respond to them then is really rewarding and encouraging. Its like a realisation of the original excitement you felt when you wrote them!
DATC: Last year’s album, Shelter, was the most bluesy, rocky thing you’ve done, but this time round with Mercy you’ve dived headlong into the blues, haven’t you? And you’ve really nailed it! What was it that made you to head in this direction in your music?
Brian: Well I think Gospel Road was the first step I’d taken in the direction of a new style. It was the first time I tried making an album of authentically linked music. Music that all came from the pure source rather than random jumbled up influences that usually informed my writing. I was very dissatisfied with albums I’d made because some of them sounded homogenized to me. For some reason the Black Keys were a missing link for me. They combined a sense of garage rock with traditional blues edge and modern production which I found very interesting as well as entertaining. It became a rabbit hole for me and I began to burrow into the roots of their music and discovered folks like Junior Kimbrough and RL Burnside. I also continued listening to hard Gospel and Muddy Waters and Howlin’ Wolf. I kinda became obsessed with these sources and listened to them none stop. There seems to be no end of artists to discover and every time I sit down to write that’s what pours out. It’s just the place I’m finding inspiration these days.
DATC: There’s a lot of great guitar work going on in the album – presumably a lot of this is you! Is this something you’ve made a point of focusing on in recent times?
Brian: I played and sang everything on the album except the drums. I’ve kinda rediscovered my guitar playing. When I was 19, a guy showed me how to play message in a bottle. I asked him how he learned it and he said he figured it out himself. When he told me that I thought, well, I just don’t have that skill, so I actually decided consciously not to be a guitar player but be a songwriter and put all my focus on that. Due to economics we recently began playing more shows as a trio, which is where I started out. This puts much more strain on your abilities and you can get away with much less bluffing. So I started to practice a lot more and invest time and money in my guitar skills. I guess it felt very natural to make this part of the music and not be afraid to allow songs to go longer and have solos and so on.
DATC: There’s a long line of what we might call gospel blues going back to the early days with Blind Willie Johnson, then people like Fred McDowell and Rev Gary Davis that has continued right up to last year’s Brother Jonah and the Whale by Kelly Joe Phelps. Are you conscious at all of hooking into that tradition?
Brian: I think I’ve been more in reaction to both white worship music and white blues. I perceive a lack of edge in that music and a tendency to smooth things over a polish everything and make it safe. That’s why the Black Keys were a missing link for me. They showed me that white people could embrace the spirit of the blues and the passion of the blues whilst avoiding the twelve bar formula and sound authentic at the same time. There’s an artist called Rev Charlie Jackson who I was introduced to by Mike Farris in Nashville and his music sounds like it comes from the 40s and yet it’s quite recent. I even found a clip of him on the Late Late Show in Dublin, which amazed me ‘cause I thought he was vintage and dead and gone. His music sounded that ancient to me. At this point I’ve not had the courage to go that far but I still love it!!!
DATC: You’ve even got a “Gospel Train” song on the album, which really taps into an Americana / Gospel / Blues tradition – the references to Egypt, the promised land and so on are very much part of the black spirituals and blues tradition. There have been so many of these type of songs written or covered over the years – yet here you are with a fresh one that sounds absolutely fantastic. As a songwriter, how did you manage to come up with something that, on the one hand, hooks right into the tradition, yet is so fresh?
Brian: Wow that’s kind of you to say. Thank you. That song is one of those gifts that just drops in your lap. A case of getting a flash of inspiration and having the space and time to sit down and write it in that moment. On reflection I think the promised land references etc., are about us leaving Ireland and moving to the States.
DATC: Yes, you’ve recently moved to be based in the United States. What prompted that and what sort of effect do you think being based there will have on your music?
Brian: In some ways Ireland has become my Egypt. Things have got very hard and it’s become very difficult to make a living with music. Many other doors have closed there too. Financial, spiritual and relational, and we just needed to make a fresh start, or at least take a break from our habits and ruts. Even if it doesn’t work out, we’ve at least given it a go.
I’m not sure what it will do to the music. Sometimes Irish people leave home and get even more Irish in their expression. That would be hilarious if I ended up writing diddly dee music (lol). North Carolina is closely associated with Bluegrass, so that may play a role but also many of the Hard Gospel groups came from here so who knows? Watch this space I guess!
Check out Brian Houston’s new album, Mercy at: http://www.brianhouston.com/listen/index.html
Get your copy at: https://itunes.apple.com/us/album/mercy/id727083629