American blues and rock

Ramona Depares reviews the launch of Martin McNeil & The Dissidents’ self-titled debut album.

Martin McNeil. Photo: Imagocentric

Martin McNeil. Photo: Imagocentric

Before the self-titled album launch at Coach & Horses in Birkirkara last week, I had only ever attended two gigs by Martin McNeil and his posse of (ever-increasing) ‘Dissidents’.

A debut that delivers on all the promises made by the previous singles and then some more

On both occasions I was charmed by these guys’ effortless confidence and easy-going charisma. Isn’t it great when a band somehow just slips into good music, making a performance seem like the easiest thing in the world? McNeil, Jimmy Bartolo (guitar) and Alex Alden (guitar and vocals) pull it off every time and their last performance was no exception.

This time it took a different format. Alden, a soloist in her own right, kicked off the evening with some of her own compositions. Even when singing solo, her style – blues with a hefty touch of rock ’n’ roll – fits seamlessly within that of The Dissidents.

The depth of her voice and the range of emotions that colour Alden’s tracks belie her young age.

This is someone who is just straddling the threshold of adulthood, singing her heart out about obsession and broken hearts, goinginto the darker spectrum ofhuman feeling.

Coming from someone else, the result might have been unconvincing. Not here. Alden’s voice is powerful enough and the pathos in her performance genuine enough that you forget just how young she is. I cannot wait to see what she is up to in five years’ time – I have a hunch that whatever she’s doing won’t be limited to our shores.

Detroit-born singer Alison Lewis was up next. Her song-writing is very particular, on the more raucous side of Americana. It is rather incredible what one woman and a lone guitar can achieve – Lewis’s tracks conjure the classic image of the roving American highways and the potential for freedom.

Finally, it was time for the new album itself. The band was joined on stage by Lewis for a number of tracks, which led to a very crowded stage but which also worked well, musicwise, as it gave a ‘fuller’ sound.

The set started out on a relatively mellow note with Apothecary – a very mellifluous take on good, old-fashioned country and touching the usual topics of broken hearts and failed love.

Last Stone on My Grave followed, an unassumingly catchy tune with softly-executed vocals that contrast effectively with the harsh riff ofBartolo’s guitar. Melquiadez, the band’s 2010 debut single, came next perceptibly altering the vibe inthe audience to match McNeil’s darker mood.

This mood was further heightened by the next track, a haunting cover of Sparklehorse’s Heart of Darkness. Sparklehorse is not an easy band to cover, mainly due to the late Mark Linklus’s ethereal voice, which was the band trademark. However, McNeil doesn’t try to be Linklus; he makes the cover his, with a deeper, darker version than the original.

With a flight of fancy, the first four tracks on the setlist can be described as an introspective indulgence into the musical psyche. The next two tracks, I’m Sorry Mama and Smallest Things, took the audience back to a more happy-go-lucky fusion of country, rock ’n’ roll and blues. Feet started tapping and Bartolo’s guitar-playing became more flamboyant (somehow, he gets away with it).

In a surprise and rather endearing twist, McNeil and his Dissidents decided to conclude their set with a spirited rendition of the self-penned Chicken Song.

Martin McNeil & The Dissidents is that rare gem, a debut CD that delivers on all the promises made by the previous singles and then some more. The whole album brings a new poignancy to the tried and tested themes of thwarted love and human pain, without getting sappy.


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