Tom Blackwell : Memphis Volume II

Around the start of the year I saw Tom Blackwell play live twice over the space of a few months. The first time was a remarkable gig at Blue Sky Bangor, distinguished by the rapt attention his wholehearted Americana drew from the crowd whilst he was playing, and the detonation of applause when he was not.

The second was when he supported Cedric Burnside in St Mary’s Church, Chester. Then, a strong memory was imprinted before the concert; I arrived a few moments behind Blackwell and watched as he walked ahead up the cobbled street to the venue. Moving quickly, he was still sympathetically leaning into a conversation with his wife, and idiosyncratically carrying his guitar case with infinite care, as if he were a craftsman taking a set of precious tools to work on the ancient church.

Blackwell has used that ever-so-carefully conveyed instrument on the three instalments of the Memphis series released so far. Each record is a mute but definite reminder of his talent, an incantation of understated gospel, soul, folk and blues. The triumph of the third edition is detailed here; Volume II is as impressive as that offering.

Compared to earlier work, such as Tyrone the Gun, Blackwell has further moon-shined his songs until all is left is their essence. His guitar playing is restrained but atmospheric. Harmonica is used sparingly for emotional emphasis.

His vocal weaves between the two - careworn, soulful and heartfelt. You don’t have to get far into this album to sense the combined effect, as the the plaintive harmonica of Trembling Hammer sets the scene for an essay of deeply felt regret.

After that opening, the set is richly consistent, with three certain peaks.

On The Way to See You My Lord’s muted swing and high register chorus add up to a classic sketch of immiseration.

With a gentle guitar strummed undertow and soul-aching vocal, Heavy Water is melancholy, intimate and sublime.

All the More is a song of palpable loss, as Blackwell uses voice and a minimal guitar line to paint emotion in the listener.

If this trio suggests to you Tom Blackwell’s sonic universe is not a place of immediate, unmitigated joy, you’d be right.

Apart from two bright instrumentals, Heavenly Train (Parts 1 & 2), Blackwell treads an emotional path that mostly runs from black dog blues to rueful remorse, and not a step further towards bliss than that - yet his music alchemically finds a place of transcendent redemption on a road of dejection.

Memphis Volume II ends with Cradle is Cold - and the doleful harmonica that opened the album accentuates a beguiling flow of sadness - closing another exceptional set of songs as elemental, exquisite and luminous as medieval stained glass.