Darren Watson: Getting Sober for the End of the World (Lamington Records/digital outlets)

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Darren Watson: Getting Sober for the End of the World (Lamington Records/digital outlets)
As with his previous, excellent Too Many Millionaires two years ago, singer-songwriter and guitarist Darren Watson again steps even further away from his previous incarnations as a fiery electric player and in a series of acoustic-framed songs – recorded at home with a few sympathetic fellow players -- touches some deeper and different places.

Attention will alight quickly on Ernie Abbott, the centrepiece about the still-unresolved '84 killing of the caretaker at Wellington Trades Hall by a bomb in a suitcase (which qualifies it as domestic terrorism).

But before that Watson offers the beautifully downbeat and aching ballad Love That I Had (written by Matt Hay) with Craig Denham on accordion and a lovely guitar passage, both of which locate this outstanding song and Watson's treatment firmly but gently in Tex-Mex territory.

It is as unexpected as it is utterly engaging.

The album opens with the gospel-blues title track – with piano by Dayle Jellyman – which is uncannily and unpleasantly timely given the apocalyptic warnings around us. But as with the best such gloom-blues this contains enough optimism to be uplifting, and with horns which take it straight to a street parade in New Orleans.

Getting sober and straight enough to dance into the end of days?

As with much of Watson's recent work – we remember the unnecessary kerfuffle and High Court proceedings around Planet Key – Watson's social commentary comes up early in the harmonica blues of Self Made which skewers corporate wankers (“got all the love he needs in the palm of his own hand”).

It's in a long tradition of such songs but in the first half here – despite its accomplished reading – it feels like a lesser and more obvious moment (“fake suntan” the bride bought off the shelf), in the company of the gorgeous Love That I Had, the rural blues of the aching loneliness and weariness of Another Day, and his pivotal Ernie Abbott.

The latter has a deliberately funereal pace and attention to visual detail (flowers, the casket, “a ratty old bag left behind by the door”) before opening out into a consideration of the ordinary life of Abbott and the cold case murder. With a discreet organ part, subtle dynamics and Watson's deeply felt delivery, it is a tribute to Abbott but also to working folk everywhere who go through life unacknowledged until death.

If Watson had released four of those first five as an EP it would be a remarkable document . . . but then in the second half he digs as deep on the swamp funk/Tony Joe blues of Alison James (with Rick Holmstrom on electric guitar) and the Spoonful riff of One Evil Man which is also timely in this Trump era and the pandemic of economic, politically divisive capitalism and self-interest (although there's a pertinent twist at the end)

Then there's the ancient Delta sound of Preachin' Blues crossed with Robert Johnson's Up Jumped The Devil where – as the originators used to do – addresses himself: “travel on DW, just can't turn you 'round” .

In this context his howlin' blues of Broken further reminds you of the dark spiritual and emotional truths of acoustic blues and how, in every era, this is an idiom which has addressed personal hurt, class distinctions and social evils.

Most attention on this album will be centred on Ernie Abbott because it allows for commentary and rightly so, but the most enjoyable highpoint here among many is Love That I Had.

Watson, who first came to attention decades ago with Chicago Smoke Shop (and later just Smokeshop) as a tough electric player, has increasingly found a genre which offers him the opportunity for more mature reflection and rage, and for his increasingly expressive and deeply-steeped vocals.

If it wasn't for the title of this album you might say these are songs which have been aged like a good whisky or a fine moonshine.

Although maybe it's too late for the new sobriety?

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To buy this album as a download or CD go to Watson's bandcamp page here.

THE TOUR POSTER 2020 (1)_1

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Mike Pearson - Sep 29, 2020

Bought a copy and Looking forward to it arriving. Been a fan of Darren since I saw Smokeshop in Christchurch in 1988. Great blues player.

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