If you Google the word “risk,” don’t be surprised if Seamus Kelleher’s image stares you on the face on the computer screen. The guitarist left his comfort zone of Blackthorn, a legendary Irish American outfit that consistently sold out venues throughout the Philadelphia area, in order to pursue a solo career. His first album, Four Cups of Coffee, landed on Off the Record’s best of list a few years ago. His new disc, Another Side of Town, may well top this year’s list.
This Salthill native’s performances with Blackthorn have been steeped in the blues, a side effect of a lifelong obsession with the legendary blues great Rory Gallagher. The folksy acoustic picking that anchors the title track on Another Side of Town sets an agenda that something different is in the air.
“There’s a bell ringing out on the other side of town/it’s calling my way but I’m not going down/I recognize the tune but I won’t sing that song,” he sings, a possible sly reference to his commitment never to play it safe. He weaves an intricate acoustic tapestry on the instrumental “The Hugglinger Rag” that is the perfect accompaniment on a lazy Sunday when you have to get your butt in gear to make an editor’s deadline!
“I'm coming to the end of my first year as strictly a solo artist. I still do the crazy blues inspired by Rory Gallagher but I find myself on stage doing drawn to what you might call country blues where I still get to do my guitar work but where I can tell stories with the songs and where I can be a little more melodic with my guitar playing,” Kelleher explains. “Some of this is due to my evolution as a guitar player. I always played acoustic but up until recently, I think most everyone associated me strictly with the electric guitar.
I think The big change in the past few years is that my acoustic chops have improved. I've worked very hard to make that happen by attending multiple workshops and studying with some amazing people like Pete Huttlinger and Tommy Emmanuel. For the first time, I feel equally comfortable with both my electric and acoustic playing.”
For anyone worried that Seamus has dropped the electric guitar altogether, fear not! On the fiery instrumental “Guitar Dreams,” he weaves a moody guitar melody that soars in a way not seen since Mark Knopfler played with Dire Straits.
“You are right on the money,” he says when I mention this reference. “There’s definitely a Dire Straits influence on that track. Mark Knopfler is someone who I look up to a lot in terms of his songwriting and of course his beautiful guitar playing.”
After decades running around a stage with an axe strapped to your midsection, you would expect Seamus Kelleher to make a stellar guitar album and he does deliver. Another risk he’s taken is handling most of the vocals all by himself. There is a marked improvement in his voice from the first solo album, his confidence in that instrument producing a rich, warm tone on tracks like the pensive “Reno Winter’s Sky,” a mournful track about meeting a soldier at the baggage claim in Reno. “Did he leave behind a sweetheart?
Did he leave behind a friend? Did his mother stay awake at night? Did his daddy ever cry?” he wonders.
“I think this is the first time I really explored my vocal range to its fullest,” he says. “I go to extremes on each side of my range and I think it works with my guitar playing. People seem to like it but I was surprised how many people actually picked up on it.”
Seamus uses Another Side of Town to settle some scores, but not toward his old band. He tells of regret over not getting the title track of his last album right, so he took the opportunity to re-record the song “Four Cups of Coffee” with a wickedly playful gospel vocalist.
“I wanted to put a harmony on the chorus but I ran out of time and money,” he explains. “So there’s one reason for the redo. As I said earlier, I also felt my voice had evolved since the recording in Nashville five years ago. The studio owner Jim Salamone told me about Charlene Holloway. Google her and you will see that she has sung with some of the best R&B people in the business. She lives near me and I loved her voice so much that I delayed the release of the CD so I could get her on it. She nailed the harmonies first time around but there was something missing. I went in to the vocal booth and said, ‘Charlene, now I want you to give me one take where you are just having fun with the song.’ That's the take we used on the record.”
Seamus follows his own advice to have some fun on "House of the Rising Sun,” a wildly inventive cover of the Animals’ signature tune that gets an injection of reggae rhythms riddims in the hands of Seamus. “That was the first song I ever played and I have played many different versions of it over the years,” he explains. “Several months ago, I went to see my good friend Scott Wham perform at a club in Philly. He asked me up for a few songs. I did ‘Rising Sun’ and without even thinking about it, I did one verse in my baritone and he did the next verse with his crazy high powerful voice. I knew right then I had another song for the album.”
Seamus presides over a lovely brood of kids with his wife Mary Pat in a leafy Philadelphia suburb, and anyone with mouths to feed and kids to educate knows that there’s not a lot of money left over to pursue the dreams that feed the soul. Therein lies the biggest risk of all. To watch an artist stretch, refuse to walk down the predictable paths of life, and emerge with such a great album is sweet revenge on the naysayers.
“I went out of my comfort zone with this record with my vocals and my guitar playing,” he says. “There's a guitar solo called ‘The Huttlinger Rag which I almost dumped because I could never perform it to the level I wanted to in the studio. I was cursing myself for writing it. I went home and practiced it for hours on end and finally delivered a decent performance. The lesson there is that you need to be prepared when you go into the studio but also don’t give up.”
“I think I was trying a bit too hard with the vocals during the first week of recording. Maybe I was trying to sound like some other singers. After several weeks, I went back and did all the vocals over but this time in my own voice. It’s great to be influenced by people but there is only one “You” and that’s what needs to be heard.”
Seamus Kelleher’s talent demands to be heard. Take a risk yourself and drive to Another Side of Town-- you’ll be glad you made the trip!
Seamus Kelleher’s albums can be found on ITunes and CDBaby.com. For more information on gigs and video, check out www.seamusrocks.com
Susan Boyle’s third disc dropped this week. If I followed my mother’s advice to avoid saying anything if I didn’t have anything nice to say, I would stop my review right here.
But what fun is that?
On Someone to Watch Over Me, fans might question who is watching over their heroine nowadays. The disc is awash in syrup and her vocals sound phoned in on most songs. She takes on Depeche Mode’s electro-disco classic “Enjoy the Silence” by slowing down the heartbeat and over-emoting the words to create perhaps the worst cover version of a song ever committed to tape.
There are a couple of bright spots. When Boyle takes on Join Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now,” she is clearly in her element. There’s a soft, introspective story that builds into a crescendo that puts this lioness’s roar to the test. You would hope she would rise to the occasion on The Righteous Brothers’ “Unchained Melody,” but like most of Someone to Watch Over Me, her interpretation sounds dreary and uninspired.
Writing something bad about Susan Boyle makes you feel inhumane, like killing off animals that have been housed at a shelter for too long. The exuberance the audience feels when they first discovered her voice on Britain’s Got Talent, the rags to riches story, the effervescent personality that bubbles during interviews, and that megawatt smile all factor into a feeling of wanting to have this chanteuse win at this late stage career rise. She’s spunky and fun in the public eye, and I am hoping someone watches over her and encourages her to inject some of that next time she enters into a studio.