Old School Blues for the 21st Century…
“Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And when you look long into an abyss, the abyss also looks into you.” Friedrich Nietzsche
Half Deaf Clatch; aka Andrew McLatchie, aka Beelzebub Jones, aka Son of Dirt (hereon referred to as ‘Clatch’) is a 40-something musician from Hull (for non-UK readers, that’s a city in East Yorkshire in the north of England).
Listed no less than eleven times as a finalist in the British Blues Awards, and finalist in the UK Blues Awards 2018 and 2020; Clatch is a familiar figure on the UK Indie Blues circuit, and mainstay of many festivals, where his unique blend of foot-stomping percussion, howling slide guitar and a voice like a dead body being dragged across gravel has attracted a legion of followers across the planet.
Clatch got his first guitar for his 13th birthday, igniting his passion to create and perform music.
“I think I’ve been in around fifteen bands in my time, but it could be more than that. At one point I was in three bands at the same time <laughs>…”
“I played bass, but I wouldn’t call myself a bassist, and I can play drums to a moderately proficient level, good enough to be the drummer in a band for a couple of years…”
Since he went solo in 2010, Clatch has amassed a musical repertoire that reflects the many facets of his interests; from the writings of Poe and H.P Lovecraft, the music of the old blues legends and cinematic artistry of Sergio Leone, his catalogue encompasses traditional slide blues, dark musical theatre, gothic Americana, metaphysical wonderings, and even a trio of supernatural spaghetti-western concept albums.
Clatch’s latest album, Every Path Leads Here, to be released on May 11th is a deeply personal musical documentary of events leading up to his encounter with his own mortality a decade ago, the recovery from which triggered his solo career.
Publicly, Clatch remains tight-lipped about the circumstances that brought him to the edge of his personal abyss, preferring instead to speak through his music. In private, during the times I spoke with him to prepare for this review, he allowed me just enough information to give context to the album.
Suffice it to say, the reality is grim and the details don’t make comfortable reading. But the clues are there.
At this point, it would be all too easy to roll out the predictable, blues-cliché analogy of ‘arriving at a crossroads.’ In Clatch’s fable, the only deal to be done was the one that he made with himself.
Taking the positives from a harrowing situation, Clatch set about realigning his future.
“…May 11th 2010 was the start of my new life. I was lost at first; I went back to work, I started playing guitar in the band again, everyone was really supportive, but I knew there was something missing…”
“I decided I would teach myself something new. I was really into acoustic blues, but none of the bands I was in were blues or blues-based in the slightest, so I taught myself a bit of slide guitar and wrote some songs. In December 2010 a promoter friend bullied me into doing a solo show for him, he billed me as ‘Half Deaf Clatch‘ which was actually my MySpace username at the time, I enjoyed doing the gig just enough to want to continue and do a few more, and the rest is history…”
“And then in June 2014 the Fire Service decided to make my job as a cook obsolete, so I took voluntary redundancy instead of retraining and working in an office. To be honest if my job was still there, I wouldn’t have left, I just made the best decision for myself out of a bad situation. I didn’t leave a job to follow my dream of being destitute, it just sort of happened…”
This forced change of circumstance enabled Clatch to devote all of his time to making music, and also to explore other avenues of creativity.
When Clatch releases a new album it’s a masterclass in marketing and merchandising. Elaborate and imaginative videos precede Limited Edition packs, and finally links to ‘name-your-price’ downloads on his Bandcamp site. Everything created with such attention to detail and artistic quality that you wonder how he ever makes any money.
But this comes as no surprise to anyone who knows how Clatch works.
Having collaborated with Clatch on the Beelzebub Jones project, I know how much of himself he puts into every aspect of every piece of work. Nothing is ever as it first seems – everything he creates alludes to deeper, hidden meanings as he taps the rich seam of his dark imagination and turbulent life-history for inspiration.
Onstage, Clatch-the-performer is a force of nature, delivering consistently at each show a howling maelstrom of stomp, slide and holler, as if channelling juke-joint artists and carny barkers of yesteryear.
Offstage, he is a quiet, deep-thinker who lives a solitary life, the antithesis of his showman persona.
This paradox bleeds into his music. Behind the pomp and swagger of thumping stomp-board, banshee slide and that raucous voice you will often find fingerstyle pieces picked out on acoustic guitar, offsetting the ‘sturm und drang’ of the ‘Clatch sound’ with intricate, delicate and often quite beautiful melodies.
This juxtaposition of musical styles, perhaps symbolising the artistic sensitivity that lies behind even the loudest of performances, is a motif that weaves its way throughout all of his albums, but especially in Every Path Leads Here, where it adds an extra layer of poignancy to the backstory.
So, to the music:
“It’s been a difficult album to write. I’m hoping people get something out of it. At the end of the day I wrote it for myself, it’s been cathartic… The songs for the most part are either metaphorical or describe parts of the hallucinations/dreams that I had, but there are more literal songs on there too…”
Track 1 – A Change in the Season
“Sunlight’s melting away, just like the days, just like the days, Colours fade, skies turn to grey, all life decays, all life decays…”
A sinister minor chord acoustic arpeggio, a wailing slide guitar and a horror-movie organ riff set the mood for the first minute-and-change of the album, building tension and then resolving with the trademark Clatch stomp and growl over a pretty finger-picking melody that weaves itself through a brooding song that reflects the relentless march of time and, perhaps, one’s place within the cycle.
Track 2 – Too Poor To Die
“The Devil didn’t want my soul, wouldn’t make a deal Said, ‘it ain’t worth a bean, worth a bean...’”
The archetypal ‘ain’t got no money,’ blues theme, written and performed in the finest blues tradition with an ironic upbeat slide and crowd-pleasing stomp that puts a brave face on a life lived from paycheck to paycheck without ever catching a break. Written in 2020, but would sound just as authentic on a scratchy 78’ played through the horn speaker of a wind-up Victrola gramophone in a shotgun shack in 1930s Mississippi.
“Born Under a Bad Sign” for modern times
Track 3 – Soul Searching
“Don’t talk to me ’bout salvation, I ain’t got a great deal to save, And I give into temptation everyday…”
At first listen, any blues aficionado worth her or his salt will make the immediate comparison with ‘The Soul of a Man’ by Blind Willie Johnson.
“I was playing the chord progression and just humming along, then sang the line “Tell me, what good’s the soul of a man,” and I thought, ‘hmmmm that’s a little too close to Blind Willie Johnson,’ but then I thought, ‘people have done a lot worse to old songs.’ It was accidentally on purpose I suppose…”
“It’s an homage to, rather than a version of. An extension of the original question. I think it’s better to have ‘touch stones’ to the classics of the genre rather than out-and-out cover versions, carrying on a tradition without plagiarising the Hell out of everything. If finding out my song is in some way inspired by Blind Willie gets someone into his music, then mission accomplished in my book…”
If ‘The Soul of a Man’ is a spiritual repetition of the age-old question by a deeply religious musician, ‘Soul Searching’ is the anguished beseeching of a mind in torment.
Opening with a sparse, repetitive cry to the heavens, Clatch’s trademark growl drips with despair, piling on layer upon layer of tension for a full two and a half minutes until resolution, in the form of a menacing alternating thumb-picked bass line that precedes a heart-breaking slide riff delivered to thumping stomp-box percussion.
This in itself would be enough to make the song magnificent, but amidst all of this Clatch takes composition to another level with a delicate, understated fingerstyle melody that complements the raucousness of the slide riff so perfectly that it becomes one of the most beautiful and heart-breaking guitar pieces that I have ever heard. Ever.
Blind Willie Johnson meets Mississippi John Hurt, directed by Sergio Leone. Bleak, dark, heart-rending and powerful. Soul Searching is probably, in this reviewer’s opinion, the best song Clatch has ever written.
Track 4 – These Blackened Blues
“Is it all inside my head, Or is it reality? Dissonant, discordant dirge, Oh, reaching out to me…”
A change of pace in this upbeat and catchy tune that belies the darkness of the subject matter (earworms from hell), but also showcases Clatch’s talent for lyricism, as an alliterative description of a song, “Dissonant, discordant dirge” deserves a round of applause.
Track 5 – Bright Lights and Bedlam
“So I’ll sing these songs of woe Take a journey deep within my soul From this life I have to go Where the path it takes me, well I don’t really know…”
Another gear change in this haunting and beautiful song about social anxiety and the need to escape from the madness and chaos of modern living – by any means possible. Once again intricate guitar patterns complement aching slide guitar to deliver perfectly the pain written between the lines of Clatch’s words.
Track 6 – A Web Across The Heavens
“High on top, the mountain’s peak, I can see all of creation, So many people lost like me, Trapped by a web across the heavens…”
Inspired by a recurring fever-induced vision. Brooding, Ry Cooder-esque slide guitar permeates this dark visionary tale that has more than a nod to Poe’s ‘Dream Within a Dream’.
Track 7 – These Weary Bones
“It’s in my veins, Coursing through every part of me, Take away the pain, Drinking more and more, To help me survive the days…”
A sea-change in the album, the performer overshadowed by the troubled artist within, battered with the exhaustion of the daily struggle to cope with the bright lights and bedlam. Art reflects reality as, from this point on, the music becomes understated, almost incidental as the lyrical pain starts to bubble to the surface.
Track 8 – On Through the Woods
“Senses working overtime, Desperation’s now a friend of mine, Carve my name into the bark of a tree, Hoping someone will remember me, Oh, please remember me…”
A simple, reflective acoustic riff trickles like a winter stream in the background as Clatch stumbles through metaphorical woods. Symbolising life and time, the human need to make one’s mark on the world and the crippling self-doubt that no one will care.
“Oh, please remember me,” the heartrending plea of someone who knows their time is near.
Track 9 – The Endless River
“Navigate the endless river, Been away too long, I’m going home…”
Out of the woods we arrive at the bank of the Endless River. Clatch’s metaphor for everything in life that threatens to pull you under, and his struggle to overcome it. A couple of lines nod reverentially to Mississippi Fred McDowell in a song that’s awash (no pun intended) with blues / biblical themes of baptism and washing away old habits and starting anew.
Providing you make it to the other side, of course.
The track begins slowly, quietly, acoustic melody to the backdrop of water lapping at the riverbank. The calm before the storm, as the music builds and builds, the singing becomes staccato, repetitive, Clatch almost gasping for air as he fights the rip-tides, currents and undertows of life that threaten to drag him under for the third time.
Track 10 – Black and Blue
“Shaking every day, ain’t no goddamn way, To live life right, to live life right, If you’re feeling low, the bottle ain’t the way to go, Take your life back, take your life back…”
“The hardest song I’ve ever written from an emotional point of view, and extremely difficult to sing. If you listen closely you can hear my voice crack with emotion a couple of times, I did another take after that but it didn’t have the same feeling to it, so I used the first take, although it’s not perfect it conveyed the emotion much, much better…”
I can’t improve on Clatch’s words, except to say, just listen to it…
Every Path Leads Here releases on May 11th 2020, available from Speak up Recordings.
Tell your friends.