Tom Blackwell : Memphis Volume III15 April 2019
The Japanese term 'ma' means gap or pause - the space between structural elements; ' an emptiness full of possibilities, like a promise yet to be fulfilled'. Isaac Stern was thinking of the concept when he described music as "that little bit between each note - silences which give the form" - a phrase that expresses what Tom Blackwell has found in distilling his innate feel for Americana into an outstanding new album.
Memphis Volume III has folk, blues and soul in its heart, and earth on its worn-out cowboy boots. The first three songs map out the musical terrain; the sublime, melancholic country of Memphis' Theme, the muted swing of The Way You Tell 'em and a doleful story of despair, The Vagrant Son of a Policeman (an old song subtly but superbly reworked), coloured with the lightest of brush strokes.
Of the ten tracks, one line in Southbound Otley Highway, "we surrendered like ghosts unto the clouds" exemplifies Blackwell's talent. The song has a compelling slow emotional twist, the specific phrase is a high impact visual image, but it is how he vocally delivers it, framed by the slightest of guitar backing, that creates the poetry.
There are two fine instrumentals in the set - the bright Rock Upon the Sand Rag, and statelier The Retreat to Clyde. The latter sets up the last song, The Man in the Iron Cage - a final, brilliantly written sketch of futility and powerlessness, delivered as a murmur of music and emotion.
Tom Blackwell has pared back his work to the fundamentals of vocal, guitar and harmonica. The lyrics are elemental, relying on natural metaphor and spare emotional phrasing to render their stories; the music has the intimacy of The Cowboy Junkies, Blackwell's voice the quiet emotional heft of Gavin Clark.
Memphis Volume III has a panoramic sweep and is unfailingly evocative. As needle hits the groove, in my mind Tom Blackwell is sat on a chair on the broken-down veranda of a house full of regrets, the building itself solitary on a dusty plain, the horizon distant and flat, the sky huge and cloudless. If that sounds a cliche, listen to this album and your own imagination will take you to a similar place, and a reverie of song and fleeting, fragile silence.