Reviewing Marcia Mello’s QUEEN OF PORTOBELLO
(Suriya Recordings 2022)
Marcia Mello’s Queen of Portobello enshrines rock music’s true royalty, which is of course the blues and the colours that are sourced from six strings. Her guitar and voice rule the air of the song streaked streets she rules over, with Youth accompanying on bass and harmonium, and producing, she speaks of realms past and future that are courted and caught as she sings.
From In the Company of a Lizard’s effects, cymbal wash and soulful plucking, to a cover of Guy Canon’s Poor Girl, the delta blues paints your doorway with shards that past skies may have sown. Mello’s slurring voice clarifies by mixing Baez with Dylan, and immediately you’re transported to a place the South sings of; as you see the dustbowl in sunlight, the song and sound seem familiar as another world soothes your own.
Blind Boy Fuller’s Walking my Troubles Away has a feel of slow Django Rheinhart at first, before giving way to the sound world of Dylan/Zimmerman’s Love and Theft, which also shifted the blues into a fresh form or context, as does the pluck and plodding of guitar and drums, bass and desk.
This gives way to Mello’s Dance of the Pixie which Youth’s harmonium sugars, mixing in with the stirring guitar playing, this enchanting instrumental is restorative tea for the testing, as it revives the lost land. A sense of communion has been set between Youth and Mello; two people united on a semi sainted quest for the future, achieved by revealing the pull of the past’s prized command.
A second instrumental follows on, the aptly named Guitar Waltz, in which Mello’s hands have a vocal, or resonance of their own; refined, detailed, subtle and in sifting through strings, clear as the crystal, as if she’s prospecting with each note or chord to source gold .
Elfin Rondo completes and is bells, key press, and string water; as the elegant phrases bubble like springs through the sand. This trio of original sound paintings incur all sorts of responses and broaden both range and palette, as if Portobello itself were a portal back to the pavements that only time’s ancient troubadours understand.
In My Dreams Tonight is part lullaby and part elegy as she searches for King Arthur with white Angels summoned and close to her bed. The guitar lines are her knights scouring each sensation as the vulnerable vocal speaks of French Painters whose pictures allow her to unify the night’s tender schemes for the dead.
Barcelona Sparrow is stomp that is both strong and dainty as the colours swirl fast about her and tiny synth trumpets play. Marcia creates worlds that come from her spirit background. Her Great Grandfather was a Pokanoket Chief and his father was the King of Massachussetts, so while here in London, there is a whirlwind of lives riding the air every day. Her instrumental pieces show this; as they are the rainbow from which her Blues songs find fresh purpose and so this musical artist makes of her album a canvas on which to behold each dream’s sway.
Tampa Red’s Love with a Feeling is a solo showcase in which song becomes manifesto for the greatest glue known to man. And to womankind, too, as it is a call for connection in which the things that are simple prove to be the most problematic to plan.
Venice Song is a strident near anthem in which Mello’s voice softens to seem young and girl like. The sense of jubilance in the music sweetens the air and your room. It is an irresistible little song that enchants and embraces; the kind of pop that has purpose and which in the right world should surely charm the charts soon.
Al Robinson’s Foggy Old London is a duet with Laine Haines who doubles on banjo, while the seminal soprano sax of Nik Turner dances on inbetween. On listening one is practically there at the dancehall, where an English night becomes southern, and where instead of chips, chicken’s frying, as the evening arrives to score dreams.
Lucille Bogan’s Tricks Ain’t Walkin’ is real walking blues. Youth’s drums power in, granting gravitas as they do so, as Mello capers, skipping the song along to sound true.
Memphis Minne’s classic When The Levee Breaks now breaks through, but not with Led Zeppelin’s portent, but with the kind of delight and lightness that only a lilt like tempo and small jew’s harp can pursue. This is far less a warning than it is rumination and the trickle and spring in the playing is while so different, instantly as persuasive as what Page, Plant, Bonham and Jones did to darken the onslaught and onrush of that deep river blue.
Washington Philip’s song What are They Doing in Heaven Today? is soon sanctified by Mello’s treatment. She dances with songs as she’s singing, catching them as a child might, when playing perhaps, with a kite. She parades these songs past, as she gently carouses, filling the spaces with flavour sauced by her style and sound and string flight.
Rolling Log is pure blues as Mello retunes Lottie Kimborough’s classic. Her voice here is as youthful as the young boys and girls in the yard who would have danced at the time that such songs were written. The drum shuffle siblings this sister of sound with soft shards.
Mello’s own Ship of Songs shows how well she mastered (or mistressed) such stylings to remake this classics and paint old Blues songs new. She fuses the American West with the West of London to make the 21st Century setting as ancient and appealing as the time scented streets’gumbo brew. It is as if she’s been there, as long as that particular Grove gained first glory; and yet she has also arrived fresh from corners in Idaho, Mississippi and naturally New Orleans.
Sun and Star shows this too, as she sparkles once more with her playing, to grant the Grove glory and command her special quest to quash rupture, by showing the stories in which rapture and ease achieve sheen.
The legendary Big Bill Broonzy’s Saturday Rub reveals a slow if somewhat stumbling dance round the lamposts, as notes howl and holler and Mello’s dexterous guitar interweaves. This is sound as song and adds once more to the portrait of this unique Queen who questions the places we’re part of as well as anything else we believe.
Your Baby Ain’t Sweet Like Mine is final old call from the past’ a Papa Charlie Jackson jaunt which she captures, but it is in her final original song, Merlin’s Cave, that Mello sums up this venture, as guitar and harmonium marry, the graces we want warm each song. For there is refinement, regard and an overview to the playing that concludes the tales she’s been telling, which in a weakened age remain strong. The Queen of Portobello rules well. As will you in attendance. This is the kind of court where old froggy and all of the colours to come still belong.
David Erdos 18/3/22
Produced by Youth and arranged by Youth and Marcia Mello, the Goya fronted and delightfully designed (by Katy Hearne) album was mastered by sound maestro Michael Rendall and engineered by Luke Fitzpatrick, James Grashion, Tom Grashion, Stan Manning, Edward Bonda and David Nock is available from Suriya Recordings.