It seems like only yesterday that Nathan Bell was playing his first post covid gig here in the UK, after being laid off for two years, but on checking, it was in October last year. Time flies indeed but the year long gap finds Bell returning with a set which, while still based around his latest release, ‘Red, White And American Blues (it couldn’t happen here)‘, was a much more freewheeling affair.
While Bell remains pretty incandescent about the state of America – still recovering (and still in peril?) from the Trump years, much of his stage banter tonight took a more absurdist approach to life and life’s little oddities. He mused on reality TV programmes and the empty vessels used to populate them, on having to buy a record player to listen to the vinyl release of his latest album while mocking the cassette revival – “We got rid of cassettes for a reason,” and, Bell being Bell (“I guess you can tell I’m not your regular American”) dared to comment on the Queen. Actually, he commented on the absurdities he’s noticed such as a five mile queue to see her coffin. He also skewered the hypocrisy of the UK establishment when he sang a song, dedicated to Prince Andrew, called ‘Jim Will Fix It’. If nothing else, Bell is clued up on UK culture.
The ‘Jim Will Fix It’ song was quite hilarious and the Glasgow crowd lapped it up. There was more hilarity when Bell looped his guitar to play the backing as he read a series of snippets he had found in his email spam folder such as Nigerian scams, invites to view naked housewives, and quack remedies. Humour was peppered throughout the set but when it got down to hard tacks, Bell’s songs were serious and hard-hitting.
‘Goodbye Brushy Mountain’ opened proceedings with Bell looping his guitar giving the song a rich texture especially when he played an extended coda. ‘Angola Prison’ packed a grim punch, reminding one of the political message contained on the ‘Red, White And American Blues’ album which the liner notes describe as “a set of songs about a broken country and its broken people.” Bell returned to this mood on the Gill Scott Heron influenced slow burn of ‘American Blues’ with its refrain of burn baby burn reminding one of other tumultuous times in America’s history while ‘Running On The Razor’ delved into the dark underbelly of the American South. There was of course an excellent rendition of Bell’s tribute to Lightnin’ Hopkins, ‘Black Tread Cadillac’ while ‘New Cocaine Blues’ was introduced by Bell as being inspired by local lad John Martyn.
A couple of new songs were unveiled. There was a tribute of sorts to Del Amitri on a song inspired by listening to them on in the car touring the UK while ‘His Name Was Kid Blue’ was introduced by Bell with a lengthy story about a family trip to Spain and Morocco when he was 16 which ended back home with a trip to the cinema with his father to watch the eponymous Dennis Hopper flick. His telling of his teenage adventure, as entertaining as the song itself, proved ultimately to be about his bond with his late father. An older song which Bell has never recorded and rarely plays live, ‘White Sheets of Rain’, was featured in the encore. A maritime based folk song it required Bell to be more emotive in his singing, something he says he finds hard to do these days. Nevertheless the audience loved it.
Bell remains a powerful and hugely entertaining presence in his live performance. It was cool to see vinyl copies of the latest album, now blessed with a benediction from the dean of rock critics, Robert Christgau (a real feather in the cap for Bell), sell well at the merch table.
Another powerful presence was the opening act, Malcolm MacWatt, currently riding high on positive reviews of his latest album ‘Settler‘ which features Gretchen Peters, Laura Cantrell and Eliza Carthy singing with MacWatt. More couthy live than he is on the album, MacWatt at times reminded one of Dick Gaughan in his delivery. Whether singing about the clash between settlers and Native Americans on ‘The Crofter And The Cherokee’ or delving into folk idioms as on ‘The Miller’s Daughter’, MacWatt commanded attention with his strident guitar playing and strong vocals. MacWatt transported the audience to turn of the century America on the tale of a sailor down on his luck in ‘Letter From San Francisco’ and brought them fully up to date with his diatribe against the current state of our nation on ‘Trespass’. On a more reflective note ‘Selkie’ was dedicated to a late friend, while ‘Red River Woman‘, a song about the mainly unreported killings of Inuit Women in Canada was powerful and emotive.