Angel Air 2018
Most prominent moments of Scotland’s finest purveyors of Mississippi blues and its mighty spin-offs – majestically tragic and eternally vibrant.
They might be giants, yet this group’s career turned out to be short-lived – or, rather, cut short when guitarist Les Harvey died on-stage – and their tentative greatness, reverberating over the course of four studio records that saw the quintet coming on strong, didn’t have the chance to solidify into commercial success. Born under a bad sign, perhaps, because the band’s singer Maggie Bell, the best British blues belter to the North of Paul Rodgers, couldn’t hit the big time either, no matter how she, together with STC and alone, tried. That’s the story preserved here – spread across over two scores of tracks and two discs, one dedicated to the ensemble’s greatest numbers and the other to the choice cuts from the vocalist’s solo lore.
Quite possibly, only working class Glaswegians were able to feel this affinity with music from Southern states and adopt it on an immensely deep level, making it their own and charging it with Caledonian spirit, although the group’s creativity seemed to be much more varied than the appropriation of American idiom suggested. The band could combine such vigorous party pieces as “Good Time Girl” and progressive romantic excursions like “Sunset Cowboy” within a single context, these two tracks, nailed by Ronnie Leahy’s elegant ivories and smoothed by Jimmy McCulloch’s honeyed licks, hailing from "Ontinuous Performance" – the collective’s farewell missive which also houses “Penicillin Blues”: one of a few borrowed tunes on display – also given a Muscle Shoals treatment. Neither “Don’t Think Twice, It’s All Right” nor “The Fool On The Hill” ever sounded as passionate before, the songs’ warm alienation brought down to earth to have a field day in the rays of Maggie’s rasp.
There’s irrepressible energy to “Big Jim Salter” where Harvey’s guitar riff and Leahy’s organ roll reign supreme before psychedelic funk takes over yet, for all the electric attack the ensemble used to unleash, there’s exquisite acoustic discipline making “Blind Man” – where six-string lace and voice are laid bare – profoundly emotive. More so, molten balladry shone on the band’s debut that saw Jimmy Dewar supply “The Touch Of Your Loving Hand” not only with his supple bass but also with soulful vocals – and still, sharing the space with Bell would be too restrictive, so he left to find fame alongside Robin Trower. The band’s stylistic reach was widening with each new LP, Colin Allen’s drums driving the drone of “Ode To John Law” to delicious delirium which borders on avant-garde, while “Mad Dogs And Englishman” points to the cabaret aspect Bell added to her repertoire once the quintet had broken up.
Sadly, “Suicide Sal” – arguably, a pinnacle of Maggie’s mastery of vaudeville – is absent from this collection, but that’s par for the course, given the singer still has two unreleased albums laid down prior to “Queen Of The Night” with which she struck on her own. She may have dabbled with infectious funk on “Cado Queen” and came up with the best Leo Sayer and Ringo Starr covers ever when “In My Life” and “Oh My My” got her spark, yet the retro-styled reveries of “Trade Wind” reveal the chanteuse’s soft side, even though it’s “If You Don’t Know” – written especially for her by Pete Wingfield and spiced by Jimmy Page’s dramatic solo – that’s the epitome of her sensuality. She breathes life into “It’s Been So Long” and “Hold On” from her friends’ recent records, yet Bell’s brilliant “No Mean City” – a theme from the “Taggart” series – almost gets buried in the ’80s production gloss, and live take on “Only Woman Bleed” fails to replace sympathetic sarcasm of the original with a female perspective.
The country-tinctured “I Was In Chains” can be Maggie’s anthem for she never found the freedom required to carry on to stardom with STC or on her own, but whereas their legend keeps on thrilling new listeners, she’s still out there – still, belting out blues with the same vim. And these two CDs is a nice introduction to the world of those who might fly high yet didn’t have time to soar.