14 Dec 2015

Half Deaf Clatch: The Life and Death of A.J Rail

I first caught Half Deaf Clatch live a year or so ago when he was riding high on the success of his terrific album 'A Road less Travelled'. It was, to coin a HatPhrase, 'true blues and no messin'. In his new album The Life and Death of A.J Rail, he is back on that dust road and has conjured up a charming, wry and raw tale of one man's journey long ago in the deep south.

His hero is a bit of a fatalist, resigned to his lot and as such, Clatch picks up on and sings about all the tough grittiness and injustices of a hard life. However, the evocative lyrics of the whole album take that shrug-of-the-shoulders stoical stance that is so very familiar of the whole chapter of tough blues that came out of the deep south at the time. There is always hope. The sentiment is 'Yep. It's hard but that's the way it is...I ain't complaining, I'm dealing with it'.

It may be no accident that Rail is an anagram of Liar and in our mind's eye perhaps the guy sitting on the porch with his guitar, banjo and ready audience may be getting just a bit fanciful with his stories. Tracks about the 1927 Flood and the 1930s drought tell of the river rising and hard, hard times and throughout we hear – in, for example, 'Singing with Old Scratch', 'Old Time Soul' and Make Your Own Way', his complaint that his life means nothing to him and that you 'shouldn't believe in nothin'. One suspects that they are meant to play on the listener's sympathy in the way that many old bluesmen before him have done and one recalls the infamous blues/folk singer Abner Jay who was often economical with the truth. There is the familiar 'Boneyard Bound' message - the Final Gig – and of course, there comes the warning that 'you can't outsmart The Reaper'...and there's The End. Ok Rail, thanks for the tip-off.

We have to wait for the title hooked song 'The Ballad of A J Rail' until we get the inevitable meeting with the Devil at the Crossroads. This is a great atmospheric track. The Devil appears in a 'strange red glow'; the soul is handed over with a shrug - 'I won't need my soul' and in a nice twist, Rail figures aloud that singing in Hell ain't so bad a deal. There is also a delightfully optimistic track 'Boxcar Bulldogs', where we share the boxcar jumpers dream that maybe one day he'll get to Paris, France and all will be ok.

Throughout, Clatch's clear and uncluttered picking and occasional resonating slide hit exactly the right economical and unobtrusive note. There are some subtle storm effects and over-dubs slipped into the production and on a couple of tracks, the banjo is well employed to emphasise the down-home feel. Across it all, his rasping, sometime growling vocals hold us firmly in their raw deep southern story grasp.

This is an accomplished and thoughtful blues and roots concept album crafted by a fine musician and story-teller. Some of you will know that Blind Willie Johnson's track 'Dark is The Night' is out in deep space somewhere playing for ever on a Voyager satellite. I'd like to think that sometime in the future, A.J Rail will still be telling his story somewhere in the universe. In the multi-faceted history of the blues, this album is a classy reminder of where much of it started – and long may it continue...