Andwella – Americana on an Ulster byway

by NJ McGarrigle


The southern United States provide such a hold on the imagination of so many musicians for its sense of place and mythology, that references to the Mississippi Delta, Memphis or New Orleans are sprinkled across any songwriter’s vocabulary, whether they have visited these places or not. The ghost of Robert Johnson or the singular sounds of Stax Records have seeped into our collective subconscious to become as familiar as any folk tale or brand. The same applies to the West Coast sound of the 1960s, the psychedelic scene of ‘Swinging London’ of the same decade, or Americana: place will pin music to its true essence.

I’ve often wondered, tongue-in-cheek, to friends if we might ever have the equivalent of Americana in Irish rock music – with shout outs to the Lagan River for example, or small villages such as Cullybackey (which means ‘wood of the river bend’ from the Irish Coill na Baice. How Americana is that for a song title?).

Perhaps some day in the future we could have tunes ‘Born on the Blackwater’ or ‘The Streets of Lurgan’ as part of a new music movement in the north of Ireland… Ulsteriana anyone?

Andwella came from Belfast but they encapsulated many of the influences already mentioned, with the three albums they made in the late ’60s and early ’70s. The original trio was initially known as Andwellas Dream, made up of multi-instrumentalist Dave Lewis, Nigel Smith (bass/vocals) and Gordon Barton (drums), which recorded their heavy psychedelic debut record ‘Love and Poetry’ for CBS in London in 1968. The album is stuffed with song writing that symbolises the slowly dispersing smoke clouds from the ‘Summer of Love’; influences from Cream, The Who and Traffic can be easily found in their sound.

Befitting the time it was produced, ‘Love and Poetry’ is a purposeful album: a smorgasbord of sound, with killer riffs sitting next to flute-laden instrumentals (such as ‘Sunday’ featuring jazz musician Bob Downes) and is regarded as a rough diamond by psychedelic music lovers. It’s an infectious LP well worth burrowing for and can now be found on vinyl courtesy of Sunbeam Records. Despite having instantly catchy tracks such as ‘Man Without A Name’, ‘Felix’ and the bluesy ‘Cocaine’, the album didn’t shift many units when it was released a year later in ‘69.

In one way, ‘Love and Poetry’ is a useful marking post for where psychedelic rock was at the time: stood at a fork in the road, one path leading to prog rock (Pink Floyd, King Crimson et al) and the other, folk rock (Pentangle, Fairport Convention etc).

The young Belfast group had to choose which way to go: Dave McDougall joined on guitar and vocals, they shortened their name to Andwella and they went a completely different road – one that may as well have been sign posted Woodstock.

‘Music from Big Pink’ released by The Band in 1968 was a tectonic shift in the rock world: musicians influenced by psychedelica were adding more and more layers to their sound, while ratcheting up the volume.

Through ‘Big Pink’ and their eponymous follow-up album a year later, The Band pulled the plug and stripped everything back.

Critics called it Americana, even though it was four Canadians with an Arkansan singing drummer inspiring the rudimentary ideas. But that did not lessen its impact. Consequently, Andwella’s sound jumped completely for their next albums ‘World’s End’ (1970) and ‘People’s People’ (1971), as they discarded their psychedelic attire.

Sophomore effort ‘World’s End’ has some excellent tracks such as the horn-drenched ‘Lady Love’, the elegiac ‘Back On the Road’ and plenty of ambition and invention with the grand, soaring instrumentation of ‘World’s End’ (parts 1 & 2) and ‘Shadow of the Night’. It’s a fine rock record.

Andwella’s next album ‘People’s People’ has a cover photo of the group that is pure homage to The Band’s eponymous 1970 album and songs such as ‘Mississippi Water’ and ‘Saint Bartholomew’ could easily sit beside ‘Look Out Cleveland’ and ‘King Harvest (Has Surely Come)’.

However it still stands on its own merits and has plenty of fine moments from Andwella’s creative force and main songwriter Dave Lewis. One example is the poignant ‘Behind The Painted Screen’ – a song referencing the purifying qualities and nostalgia created from a trip to Lough Erne (Someone should send Rod Stewart a copy, if he’s looking for new cover material). Despite moving inroads again to a more mainstream sound, yet again Andwella didn’t see much of a return on album sales and called it a day in 1972.

They deserved better back then. In the setting of Irish rock music, Andwella’s sun should not have gone down so easily or quickly. It’s time to put them in their rightful place. Go buy their albums.

*This article originally appeared in ‘The Irish News’ newspaper.