South Armagh’s Ben Reel: An artist comfortable in his own skin
There is a moment in Grant Gee’s seminal Radiohead documentary Meeting People Is Easy when their singer Thom Yorke says to guitarist Johnny Greenwood: “We should get out while we can, who gives a f**k about being the biggest band in the world?”
It is an idea that doesn’t enter the head of most musicians bar the one that won’t be named; most musicians are concerned with the work, their music and with the long game rather than some short term fame.
As many reading this will know I’m a big fan of all things Jinx Lennon and it is through the man himself that I was introduced to one Ben Reel, a songwriter from South Armagh who specializes in a kind of alt folk that incorporates musical styles from blues and rock to ambient country (even dare I say it, reggae) and everything in between. I’m sure Ben reel couldn’t give two hoots about being the biggest band in the world because on the sound of his new record his mind is firmly fixed on his music.
Ben, who in April of this year released his 8th album, is bringing his live show and his band to Dundalk’s Spirit Store on Saturday 9th June and they are very much worth your time.
For the uninitiated Ben Reel has been a constant on the Irish musical landscape now since the late 1990’s and if the sound of this his new record is anything to go by, he is getting better all the time.
The new release, entitled “Land Of Escape” presents us with a more stripped back sound then on his previous records, (his 7th album, entitled funnily enough “7th”) was released in 2015.
Since his debut album “This Is The Movie” back in 1999, Ben has reinvented himself from album to album, obviously steeped in the world of music he is influenced by different styles from rock, soul, blues, alt folk, Americana, country & reggae which fuses all these genres into a unique whole and when added to his own distinctive rich vocals the only thing that doesn’t add up here is why is Reel not better known? Though since I’ve been wondering that about the majority of interesting musicians my whole life it’s clear better known does not equate to “better”.
In a solo career which now spans almost 20 years Reel has been receiving critical acclaim the whole way through. He and his band have toured and played venues around the world with numerous high profile TV and Radio appearances thrown in there for good luck, like BBC and RTE, supporting names such as Jools Holland, Alabama 3, The Cranberries and many more.
Reel has also collaborated with such names as Hal Ketchum of the once Ian Drury fronted The Blockheads and has co written and performed songs with some of Nashville's finest country stars.
Clearly somewhat indebted to artists like Bruce Springsteen, Steve Earle and Neil Young, whose styles of playing you can hear at work here. However, like all proper artists Ben Reel takes these influences and makes them into something else.
There are even strong reminders of a young Van Morrison in the vocals. Produced by Reel in his home studio in South Armagh the album evokes the countryside it was composed in, this is the sound of an artist comfortable in his own skin and confident enough to plough his own furrow resulting in a record that is perfect company for late night listening with a nice dram of Irish Whiskey. Reel is the musical equivalent of someone who goes to a cafe and gets a fry at the weekend in their pajamas and slippers; he’s that level of at ease with himself and what he is at.
The opening title track gives a good example of what one should expect, lush strings and plaintive piano clash mix with swooning vocals and poetic lyrics, there is much to enjoy here and like the sea on a warm sunny day, the album begs you to jump in head first and lose yourself. The Beatles influence can be heard with a Harrison-like slide guitar on the single “Solider of Love”. The songs here sit mostly within an alt country style, and brought to mind American artists like the Willard Grant Conspiracy, a hint of Calexico and even Fitzgerald era Richmond Fontaine.
The musical arrangements stick to mostly piano, acoustic guitar, drums bass with harmonica, flutes and effects drifting in and out. The album cover has Ben himself on a mountainside shrouded in mist and like that image suggests, here is a landscape the listener will get lost in, though willingly.
There are many tracks I could single out here but a duet with his wife Julianne on the Misty Morning Rain is particularly beautiful and the closing tracks Paradise Found and Smoldering Simmering have a lovely somber, haunting, shimmering quality, which is present throughout the record and it’s a feeling that lingers long after the music fades.
Ben Reel and his band play the Spirit Store on Saturday 9th June 2018. Land of Escape is out now.