Back at the beginning of October last year, along with many others, I went to the Polish Club in Barnsley to watch a number of local acts perform in protest at the austerity measures being forced upon our public services and to raise much needed funds for our local foodbanks.
It was a great event and I felt proud to be there in support of the solidarity being shown. I recall being sat in the bar between performances that Sunday afternoon, when Chris Sammon grabbed me and insisted I watch the next artist due to perform in the acoustic room.
I was quite literally blown away by that individual – Serious Sam Barrett – a wickedly talented roots/folk/country musician and avid skateboarder hailing from Leeds. As Jules Winnfield might say, I had a moment of clarity, but more of him later.
Sam performed a blistering solo set that left the entire audience gazing in astonishment at his breathtaking guitar playing. After 30 all-too-brief electrifying minutes Sam left the stage, where I accosted him to buy his self-titled album. This album has rarely been far my turntable ever since.
It turns out that Sam was dubbed ‘Serious’ by his older skateboarding peers on account of his apparent moody demeanour when he was aged just 17. With a background not unlike Sheffield’s own balladeer Richard Hawley, Sam was born into a working-class family steeped in local music heritage, with his father and uncle – like Hawley’s – both stalwarts of the local folk music scene. He began performing his unique blend of Americana-tinged folk and country music in 2004 and quickly established himself on the local live scene as word of his credibility spread.
Sam’s recording career began in 2009, with the release of his critically acclaimed debut album on his own YaDig? Records. Since then he has built a fiercely loyal fan-base, not only in this country, but also in the United States, where his most recent dates see him playing alongside Al Scorch, James The Fang and his old buddies Pine Hill Haints.
Fast-forward to the beginning of January 2016, when Sam put out a press release saying he was planning to release his 3rd solo album entitled ‘Sometimes You’ve Got To Lose’. Being as Sam doesn’t pay pluggers and publicists and he determinedly holds true to the DIY ethos of independent music making, he used social media to invite reviewers, such as yours truly,
to get in contact with him to get their hands on a promo copy of his album.
So here we are folks, about to consider this latest collection of beautifully short, dazzling songs all about love, longing, travelling, skateboarding and God’s Own County of Yorkshire.
First up, it’s everything this reviewer was eagerly anticipating it to be. Sam has gone back to his trusted live recording method with little or no overdubs. He was aided and abetted by his engineer James Atkinson at Mutiny Studios, Bradford and it really does capture the awe-inspiring sound that grabbed me and dozens more and shook us senseless back in that tightly-packed room in Barnsley last October.
The album begins with three upbeat, catchy numbers that hit you and run, before leaving you dazed in wonderment. It’s just Sam, his guitar and a whole bucketful of melody, that reminds me of that pioneering blues maestro, Robert Johnson, as you find yourself listening intently for the involvement of a second guitarist, such is the intricacy and dexterity of his playing.
From here the songs become more plaintive and wistful, evoking memories of time spent on the road and a longing for the comforts of home where Sam yearns for the loving arms of another. Unlike his country and folk forebears though, he doesn’t seek to simply mine the misery and gloom all too often associated with this musical genre. His treatment of the subject matter is far more upbeat, celebratory even.
The theme of love and devotion pervades throughout the album, with Sam punctuating his metaphorical musings with some gorgeous, chiming instrumentation that serves to beautifully frame the lyrical wordplay on offer. ‘The Last Thing’ and ‘Single Drop Of Rain’ sit neatly in the middle of the album and both songs demonstrate his grasp of the subject matter quite masterfully, however nowhere does he capture this better that with the open love letter that is ‘My Last Sad Song’. Sure, he begins the song lamenting that the “good songs come from heartache and the pain of being alone”, but by the end Sam has found love and the journey he finds himself on is a joyous one with some delightful slide guitar employed to tremendous effect over the song’s uplifting coda.
On ‘I’ve Been Trying’, he stirs up echoes of Jules Winnfield (see I told you we’d get back to him) addressing Pumpkin and Honey Bunny in the diner at the end of Pulp Fiction, when he seeks to reassure his sweetheart that, yup you’ve guessed it, he’s been trying so hard despite the fact he’ll “never be a prince or a king”. In this instance, Sam provides the listener with some gentle respite between the simplistic verses by utilising his trusty old 12 string Stella guitar to weave in some delectably pretty ascending melodies, most notably during the bridge section of the song.
Time and time again, Sam blends mellifluous lyricism with his unique style of playing to conjure up stark sepia-like images of the lonesome highways of bygone America so redolent in the works of John Steinbeck, Jack Kerouac and Robert Pirsig.
It may be just 10 tracks and a little over 30 minutes long, but there’s plenty here to please the old and welcome the new. As I pointed out to Sam, the album has a real literary feel, with a clearly defined beginning, a middle and an end, with the final three songs really upping the game with the addition of some yearning and truly beautiful accordion playing courtesy of Robert Frost (aka Squeezebox Bob) on two of them. Sam told me that he purposefully placed these tracks towards the end to provide “the icing on the cake”. It’s a strategy that works perfectly. Indeed, my own personal favourite ‘New Bird, Needle And The Dustbowl (The Ballad Of)’ that provides the final bookend, as it were, is one of the finest original songs of its kind that I’ve heard in a long, long time. In fact, I would go so far as to say it’s worthy to stand alongside the best works of the established modern greats of the country and folk scene, such as Gillian Welch, David Rawlings, Laura Cantrell and more latterly, Jason Isbell.
I purposely asked Sam to talk me through ‘New Bird…’, so intrigued was I with the title, the lyrical beauty and the sheer musical majesty of the song. It turns out that it is a celebration of the culture of DIY skate park building that has emerged in the post-industrial cities of the North over the last 10 years, with New Bird, The Needle and The Dustbowl being nicknames for three of the parks that have been created. Sam also sought to draw romantic parallels between the construction of these parks, the indomitable spirit of his grandparent’s generation and the passion, defiance and cultural spirit that lives on in the North of England.
As a fellow northerner with first-hand experience of the subject matter, I can tell you that he nails it superbly with this song. “There’s something really fitting about skateboarders grafting away to build something they
love,” explained Sam, “that’s why I chose the line “The North is full of elbow grease”. It reminds me of how my grandparent’s generation came together to cooperatively build and run working men’s clubs and social clubs. A place for us, made by us, where we make the decisions.”
“A lot of those clubs are sadly dying out,” he mourns, “but what I’m trying to say in the song is that that kind of culture and spirit was too strong to be killed and it lives on in skateboarding.”
In summary then, this album delivers plenty. It rewards repeated listening and it is even more satisfying when the subject matter is revealed. It may be short – indeed all the songs are short – but when you’ve grown up with a passion for the music of Buddy Holly and the Ramones as Sam has, expecting him to serve up his take on ‘Desolation Row’ at this stage of his career may be pushing it a bit. What I would be intrigued to hear more of in the future
though, on the evidence of this showing, is Sam occasionally augmenting his signature sound with carefully placed elements of other instrumentation, such as mandolin, fiddle, glockenspiel and maybe even (whisper it) some subtle percussion.
My advice for now would be to grab a copy of this album and see what all the fuss is about. In addition, why not get yourselves along to one of Sam’s forthcoming promotional dates in this country.
Sam will be just one of the acts joining several others from the vibrant local music scene including our very own Black Lamps and The Hurriers at the inaugural May Day Festival of Solidarity at the Polish Club on Sunday 1st May 2016.