Nathan Bell : Adventures in God’s Own County (Yorkshire)

Live Review | Various Venues | Review by Keith Belcher

I first saw Iowa born, Chattanooga based Nathan Bell in January 2017. He was sandwiched rather inappropriately between two very loud bands at Oran Mor, Glasgow. Within 30 seconds of taking the stage with just one acoustic guitar and several harmonicas the audience were listening intently and hanging on his every word. Such was the power and presentation of the songs. For those not aware, Nathan was predicted to be one of the next big acts back in the 1980’s. He played alongside the likes of Townes Van Zandt, Ricky Skaggs and Emmylou Harris. His song writing is up there with Townes and Guy Clark. Nashville tried to mould him and failed. In the early 1990’s he left the music scene, going into middle management from 1995 to 2007. He even quit playing the guitar from 1995 until 2007. He was laid off in 2008. In 2009 he returned to performance and has released several self-penned albums reflecting considerably on blue and white collar America. Always very personal, some songs deemed political. In 2017 he was voted Male Artist of the year by Americana UK. Recently he did the (for these days) unusual act of releasing two albums at once. The studio album Loves Bones and Stars, Love’s Bones and Stars and a 2017 live recording from Wales, Er Gwatha Pawb a Phopeth. As would be expected the songs on the new CD Love’s Bones and Stars featured prominently at all gigs. This was the third time at Scarborough. Both Greystones and Hebden Bridge Trades Club were debut appearances. Scarborough differed in that it had local songwriter, performer and accomplished cake maker Lottie Holmes open the show, very ably I might add. Nathan’s familiarity with Scarborough possibly made that show a more relaxed, chatty, personal affair although the others didn’t lack in terms of intimacy. Nathan continues a very candid and entertaining on stage conversation with his audiences throughout his shows. His intro at Scarborough stated “He loves Great Britain..full stop!!”, very true! Nathan is a self-confessed Anglophile. Unlike most Americans he has played rugby, cricket (twice) and was and is a keen footballer (our style not the one that needs body armour!!). I can’t think of any other artists of any nationality that have made jokes and comparisons to Joey Barton and Sam Allardyce while touring. He mainly tours Europe rather than America. Back home he works as a guitar instructor and conducting seminars at University as well as managing his own business. As I said, he likes Europe. Nathan opened each show with the very introspective and revealing “Black Crow Blue” from 2011’s album of the same name. The song inspired by Glen Hirshberg’s Book of Bunk, each verse starting with a question “Have You Ever…?” and ends with the same answer an answer “I Have”. To my ears the most powerful being the last verse ‘Have You Ever Been Afraid to Touch Somebody/That You Love So Much I Have.’ The song is an ideal opener, fully engaging the audience. At all gigs “Black Crow Blue” was followed by the tale of the closure the oldest prison in Tennessee through the eyes of an inmate serving life, “Goodbye Brushy Mountain” from 2017’s Love>Fear (48 HOURS IN TRAITORLAND). “They’ll never let you go/Once they’ve got you they’ll never let you go/They get all that state money to store your soul”. On “Brushy Mountain Nathan” uses a looping device to overlay his guitar creating a very impressive sound by the end of the song. The looping and bass stomp box are never overused and only feature on a couple of songs throughout the shows. Next are three songs from, as he describes it, his family and love songs album Loves Bones and Stars, Loves Bones and Stars, the astonishingly beautiful “A Day Like This” with Dylanesque harmonica. “My Kid” and the title track “Loves Bones and Stars”. “A Day Like This” was written by request from a close friend but when finished he realised it applied to his own children. “My Kid” speaks of his pride for his son Colman but also examines various aspects of religion and morality ending with a question from his son, “He said Dad, Why when it’s so easy/to be kind and grateful/Do people work so hard/to be selfish and hateful, And I say let me think about it/and I think about it/And I say, good question”. It is also the nearest to profanity that Nathan gets in his shows with a couple of ‘Damns’. In these days when Anglo Saxon expletives are rapidly replacing adjectives and vocabulary it is a relief. Loves Bones and Stars is about Nathan and his values. Crow in Oklahoma from Black Crow Blue to my ears (and apparently many others) is reminiscent of vintage Peter Rowan circa late 1970’s. So far I have talked about the songs but should mention that Nathan is a very accomplished guitarist, starting out with a love of Sonny Terry and Brownie McGhee from early teens. His style varies immensely from song to song, a lot of fast picking at times, some finger picking, some plectrum, some strumming. Predominantly country blues with elements of bluegrass and jazz. He can imitate some of the best blues legends when he chooses to, demonstrating Lightning Hopkins chops with apparent ease. His singing style is lived in and worn and grizzled but very effective. At the Greystones and Hebden Bridge the first set finished with the Brownie McGhee inspired blues based “We All Get Gone” preceded by a song that could have changed the course of Nathan’s life “Gold Wedding Ring” (Please, Mister, Please). Said song was planned for a movie soundtrack way back when but Nathan’s then manager wanted twice what they offered for the song. What they offered was more than Nathan earned the year before. Nathan’s thoughts about that manager I’ll leave you to imagine. Who knows what might have happened had the song been used. Scarborough got “We All get Gone” but also the very popular “Whiskey You Win” from the current album. Deciding that was too downbeat to finish on “Stamping Metal” (Strike) from I Don’t Do This for Love, I Do This for Love finished the set. More up-tempo if not up-beat it tells the tale of the first successful strike in Detroit, an interesting tale. Set two opened with the first and only love song written for his wife Leslie “I Would Be a Blackbird” from the latest CD. He confesses he does not like being away from home for more than fourteen days or so. “Coal Black Water” from Love>Fear a cautionary ecological song concerning mountain top removal for coal and minerals followed. “North Georgia Blues” and the exquisite “Fragile” with its multiple guitar overlays continued the set. The very powerful “Names” featured at Sheffield and Hebden Bridge. A harrowing and powerful song inspired by Iowa’s use of dead servicemen’s names for bridges and roadside features. “You don’t know the things I’ve done…and will never do…for I am just a name to you…” At Hebden and Greystones Nathan’s paid tribute to 1968 Olympics athletes Tommie Smith, John Carlos and Peter Norman “Raise Your Fist”, just as relevant are the NFL’s Colin Kaepernicks more recent actions much despised by Orange 45. One of the highlights of the night everywhere was “I Don’t Do This For Love, I Do This For Love”, just simply a superb song that should have radio plays several times each week and catapult Nathan to where he rightfully belongs. It starts with a delightfully simple and catchy guitar riff leading into beautiful heartfelt lyrics. He segues the song with instrumentation and a monologue into his set closing song which is an unrecorded song based on a poem by Scottish poet William Hershaw “I Hae Lived” (I Have Lived), Nathan recites the poem and adds an additional verse. Throughout this he has built up several guitar overlays creating an intensely delicate and moving sound and atmosphere. He left to the stage to the guitar loop still playing. Not surprisingly everywhere there was rapturous applause. Returning to the stage he performed a gender free blues, again unrecorded “Snake Whiskey”, this inspired by the poor way women are represented in most blues songs. At Sheffield there was an additional encore of “Trouble in Mind” and at Scarborough “Molly Had a Baby”. Hebden Bridge did get a performance of the only song he has written that has generated death threat emails, the aptly titled “American Gun”, only recorded on the live Welsh album. Every gig was a very memorable night with a superb performance by a master troubadour. The audiences were not huge which I found difficult to understand, more at Scarborough than elsewhere. I booked early assuming all his gigs would be sell outs and several of them indeed were. He will probably (hopefully) be back sometime summer 2019. By then I hope that British music lovers are more aware and appreciative of this rare talent.