With the pandemic still heavy in the air and US acts stuck on a tightrope as to whether to tour or not to tour abroad, it was heart-warming to learn that Nathan Bell had been jabbed and vaxxed and tested, and was on our shores for his eagerly awaited tour. This was the first night of the tour and the first time Bell had played live in almost two years. He seemed happy to see us and we were certainly happy to see him. Appearing on the second night of The Glasgow Americana Festival, that two-year layoff was nowhere to be seen as Bell was sharp as a tack on guitar and voice, while his stage presence and banter was quite brilliant. At times the audience were in stitches as he regaled us with various tales, some of which displayed an astonishing command of local culture (including football) and the Glaswegian accent.
Jokes aside, Bell was promoting his new release, ‘Red, White And American Blues (It Couldn’t Happen Here)’, an album which, like its creator, has sat on the shelf for two years. It’s a hefty listen, weighted with songs which point to the heart of darkness in the present day USA, and that heft was immediate from the start as Bell opened with ‘Angola Prison’, the song that opens the album. The disc has Bell backed by a band but on stage there was certainly no need for them as Bell’s powerful delivery drove home the barbarism meted out to the unfortunate prisoners of this infamous jail – his voice, guitar and harmonica cut to the bone. Likewise, ‘American Gun’ and ‘American Blues’ were deadly in their take no prisoner delivery with the latter quite chilling as Bell’s lyrics prowled around a broken system ranging from Vietnam to police killings, clerical child abuse and Native American protests. Towards the end of his set and after gauging his audience, (“Is there anyone under 18 in here?”) he dedicated ‘Running On The Razor’ to a local buddy (an in joke as the buddy is a DJ and can’t play this song on the radio). Nevertheless, this southern gothic odyssey, peopled by motherfuckers, reverberated around the room as Bell took us into the dark underbelly of the rural south, no Dukes Of Hazzard here.
Not so deadly perhaps but powerfully performed was Bell’s tribute to Lightnin’ Hopkins on ‘Retread Cadillac’, another track from the new album as was ‘Lucky Man’, a beautiful song dedicated to his late father. His guitar strap was emblazoned with the legend, Family Man, and fittingly Bell sang a song written about his son and invited his wife onstage to sing harmony on ‘Jesus of Gary, Indiana’, a glorious song, originally from his ‘I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love’. It’s a song which allows one to mention Bell in the same breath as John Prine.
Freewheeling to the end of the show, Bell sang his anthemic ‘Raise Your Fist’ before delivering a fine version of ‘For What It’s Worth’ (including a fine Steve Stills joke) and then offering a bespoke ‘King Of The North’, tailored to tonight’s venue with a line about a local sports commentator which had the audience howling with laughter. He closed with a short diatribe about the airline which screwed up his flight to the UK, done in a Lightnin’ Hopkins manner and he stayed in blues mode for ‘We All Get Gone’, a reminder that, as Bell Says, he is essentially a blues man at heart.
Support Bell was Kirsteen Harvey, a young local singer songwriter who has been picking up traction with her inventive YouTube videos which showcase her snappy pop folk songs. While songs such as ‘Dance For Treason’ veer a bit too much towards the pop side, ‘No Life Is Quiet’ was an intriguing take on the rise of fake news. With nice warm reverb to her guitar and a fine voice, she might be a name to watch out for if she gets the right breaks.