The live world premiere of a project which crosses the Atlantic, delves into roots music and offers insights into current events which blight the planet, is just about perfect fodder for Celtic Connections, a festival which prides itself on, well, connecting. So, conceived in Leith and in Nashville, gestated in New Mexico, and then finally delivered, fully formed, in Glasgow, Buffalo Blood is alive and kicking.
The band (Dean Owens from Leith, Neilson Hubbard, Joshua Britt and Audrey Spillman from Nashville) brought their collection of songs inspired by the injustices meted out to Native Americans to a wintry Glasgow for what transpired to be a stunning show. Augmented on double bass by another Scotsman, Kevin McGuire, they trouped onto the stage as the PA played mystical chants from the album, ‘Buffalo Thunder’ morphing into the opening album track, ‘Ten Killer Ferry Lake’, and a large screen behind them showed the first of several time lapse films capturing the magical landscapes and skies of New Mexico. The scene was set. Although they played around with the album’s running order a little, there was a tremendous cohesiveness to the set as they sang about the broken promises and brutal treatment accorded the Native Americans while also saluting their pride and aspirations. Owens was the ringmaster (as Hubbard said, when asked if he wanted to say a few words, “Dean, you’re the talker”), telling some of the tales behind the songs and describing their “desert Ninja” recording techniques, while Spillman spoke of her own Native American ancestry and also of her delight to be in Scotland for the first time.
The sound in the theatre was excellent with Hubbard for the most part playing softly malletted drums behind Owen’s guitar and Britt’s incredibly versatile mandolin playing. All four took turns at lead vocals but when they harmonised, especially in several a capella moments, they just took off. There were some stirring workouts as on ‘Comanche Moon’ and ‘War Among The Nations’ but for the most part the songs were reflective and subtly nuanced. ‘White River’ had a slight Laurel Canyon vibe to it as Britt’s mandolin added a wonderfully delicate filigree of picking under Spillman’s crystal clear voice while Owens offered up a bravura performance in his whistling on ‘Ghosts Of Wild Horses’. Some of this was spellbinding and as the songs tumbled out there was the abiding images cast on the screen with clouds rolling across the arid New Mexico desert and shooting stars speeding across dark skies. They closed with the powerful ‘Carry The Feather’ and a sublime ‘Vanishing World’, with Owens reminding us that the plight of the Native Americans is being repeated across the globe to this day. Aside from the sheer excellence of the night, the band carried across their message well and for the audience, the thought that this might be the only opportunity to see Buffalo Blood live (given the logistics), just made it that more special.
Prior to Buffalo Blood it was our first opportunity to catch the up and coming Lucas & King, two young women who won last year’s Fender Undiscovered Act Of The Year and who have been making waves in appearances at festivals across the UK. They’re a fairly unique act with Bo Lucas’ voice a vulnerable version of torchy femme fatales not far removed from that of Julee Cruise, and Hayleigh King’s supple guitar a beguiling mix of late night jazz, reverbed sixties twang and Chet Atkins finger picking. Together they inhabit a bit of a twilight zone which hovers between David Lynch like neon dreams and dreary south coast bedsits. ‘The Heart Is A Lonely Wanderer’ was a perfect example of their art but it was their “existential crisis song,” ‘Shop Girl’, which showed that they might be considered as a rangy update of Tracy Thorn.