Tuesday, 9 February 2016

Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham, Monday 8th February 2016

Otis Gibbs coined the phrase ‘there are only two things that matter in music, the artist creating it and the listener receiving it; everything else is an artificial filter’. Well there was no artificial filter in the Kitchen Garden Café this evening as Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin created the perfect union between performer and audience. Although this was the third occasion seeing the duo at the venue, the stars must have been aligned tonight to surpass the high standards from the previous dates. From a countless array of instruments, the Devon-based duo worked their way through a couple of sets exemplary in showcasing the multi talents of Phil and Hannah spanning extraordinary musicianship and purposeful song writing.

The packed venue was testament to an act devoted to touring their show and being prepared for many repeat visits to grow an audience. They possess an incredible knack of leaving an impressive mark on the minds of gig goers. Specialist industry acclaim has shadowed the duo which has evolved to be the archetypical hybrid act in folk-Americana circles. From the perspective of preserving the past through song and Hannah’s pristine vocal style, they have wooed the British folk community leading them to award winning status. There is little doubt that musically, one foot is firmly placed in the Appalachia Americana sound, not only in the prevalence of numerous slide guitars, banjo, fiddle and extensive creative use of harmonica, but also in the synergy their music has to the American roots movement.

Although there are many intriguing facets to their act, Phil’s solo harmonica pieces seem to create an individual aura to themselves. The breath gasping ‘Underground Railroad’ has become a staple of a Henry and Martin show over the last couple of years and never fails to impress, even if you feel Phil needs a breather after evoking the train spirit that helped form 19th Century America. In the second set, Phil once again commandeered the harmonica to present ‘Keep Your Lamps Trimmed and Burning’. It was introduced as a tune tried out on a late night student crowd and it didn’t need much imagination to envisage even that audience mesmerised by the playing.

While on the subject of Phil’s instrumentation, the unveiling of a 4-in-1 ultra-impressive Indian slide guitar was enough to have serious pickers drooling. Announced as one tricky in the tuning department, it was only used for one song and emanated a beautiful string sound, as you would expect part sitar. Elsewhere Phil majored on a pair of more conventional Dobro’s, while Hannah was equally as adept flitting between banjo, fiddle and acoustic guitar. She proudly displayed a brand new guitar acquisition towards the end of the show and shared an excellent new song titled ‘Albatross’, which was the immediate result of connecting with this latest addition to the Henry and Martin extensive instrument collection.

Primarily, Phil and Hannah were touring their latest album WATERSHED which saw the light of day last autumn. The opening track also had the honour of opening the show and several others were shared with this fixated Kitchen Garden audience. Phil introduced his personalised contribution to the album and also sang lead on ‘Yarrow Mill’. Hannah’s impeccable vocal performance peaked on ‘January’. Amongst the others to feature, ’Tonight’ was hailed as their Glastonbury headline tune, while ‘Taxis’ referred to their perpetual status as travelling musicians.

Most of the rest of the songs were lifted from 2013’s MYND including the James Taylor cover ‘Close Your Eyes’ which is the duo’s usual encore number. ‘Silbury Hill’ opened the second set, which was brought to a close nearly an hour later with ‘The Nailmakers’ Strike’. Hannah commented that it was extra special to play this song so close to the origin of the story which was based on a 19th Century march from Halesowen to Bromsgrove in support of beleaguered workers. Two further story songs from this album made an appearance during the show with Hannah informatively explaining the background of ‘Last Broadcast’ and ‘Song for Caroline Herschel’.

Whether or not the term artificial filter includes those who relay the content and experience of live music, the sentiment of the quote existed while sitting barely five paces away from Phillip Henry and Hannah Martin while they shared the fruits of their craft. Connectivity was without blemish and for two hours in the Kitchen Garden Café nothing else mattered while a pair of exceedingly talented artists performed for this attentive listener. 

Saturday, 6 February 2016

Aoife O'Donovan + Robert Chaney - The Bullingdon, Oxford. Friday 5th February 2016

The highest praise you could give Aoife O’Donovan for this Oxford show is that Emmylou Harris and Joni Mitchell would have been proud of the way she covered two of their songs. Equally, pride would have also been  forthcoming in how Aoife is developing as a songwriter in her own right. With a highly successful album under her belt and a brand new one sure to gather momentum over time, she now has a plethora of good solo material to successfully fill any show. Apart from the quality of the songs served up, Aoife was in a flawless mode and radiated a glowing mood in conveying how she was comfortable with her own career at present. This was the third time catching Aoife live with the main difference on this occasion being her totally owning the spotlight instead of a bit part on the Transatlantic Sessions and a more significant role in the ‘I’m With Her’ trio alongside Sarah Jarosz and Sara Watkins.

Aoife referred to the last time she visited Oxford which was the church gig with the two Sara(h)’s last year. In contrast to the other two performers, Aoife doesn’t veer down the rootsy route of fiddle, banjo and mandolin, with the sole use of acoustic guitar giving her a more contemporary sound akin with the classic-influenced singer-songwriters who have emerged in the style of the two icons which opened this review. The added bonus of this UK tour was the trio format of Anthony da Costa on electric guitar and Steve Nistor on drums. Together they thrilled a packed Bullingdon crowd, although there was a memorable moment when Aoife played entirely solo for two songs which included the Joni Mitchell cover ‘You Turn Me On I’m A Radio’ and a popular tune from FOSSILS in ‘Beekeeper’ which she stated was being played on this tour for the first time. These two songs were the realisation of ethereal divinity and at least the equal to the fruitful band highlights.

Before elaborating further on Aoife’s set content, a notable and deserved mention is reserved for opening act Robert Chaney. Although this curfew stricken gig had an early start, plenty were in the venue to watch Robert stride onto the stage and deliver a strong batch of interesting songs in a striking style. He had impressed a significant number of music followers outside London with his set at the Maverick Festival last year and this further sortie outside the capital won over a few more. Robert, who hails from Florida but has settled in the UK over the last couple of years, is a singer-songwriter who uses every note in his vocals to portray the mood of his songs and these are no shrinking violets. He is certainly not kidding when introducing his work as story songs especially when launching into the dark engaging number titled ‘The Cyclist’.  Upon completion of this epic, Robert invited singing partner Laura Tenschert on stage to provide harmony on the interesting song ‘Corazones Amarillos’ and perform a duet on the audience friendly amusing ditty ‘Broken (Beyond Repair)’. Time constraints spared those present the gruesome ‘The Ballad of Edward and Lisa’, but I’m sure an open minded Oxford gathering would have warmed to the peerless graphical content of this curious song. Robert Chaney is an artist who needs a wider stage and his unique style of song delivery has a massive potential to engage those hunger for left field troubadour musings.

Aoife was also complimentary of Robert’s opening slot as she launched into her own set with a pair of songs from her brand new album IN THE MAGIC HOUR. In fact it was more than ‘a magic hour’ later when Aoife closed the main set with the record’s title track. After opening with ‘Stanley Park’ and ‘The King of All Birds’, we were periodically served with several delights from this new release. During the frequent inter-song chats which positively flavoured the evening, we learnt of the origins of ‘Magpie’ and the road sign in Cork which simply point to The West. This had a tenuous link to ‘Detour Sign’, also from the new record, which probably saw its evening highlight with the seamless segue between ‘Donal Og’ and ‘Porch Light’. ‘Hornets’ and ‘Not Leaving’ completed a healthy portion of the set being dedicated to an album which will continue to grow during the year.

Comparisons with 2013’s FOSSILS were always going to be forthcoming especially as Aoife’s debut solo release possessed a greater instant appeal. We were only a few songs into the set when the whole audience were invited to sing along to ‘Oh, Mama’. Another hugely popular number from this highly acclaimed record to warm the evening was ‘Red & White & Blue & Gold’. ‘Pearls’, ‘Briar Rose’ and ‘Thursday’s Child’ also represented the beauty of FOSSILS with the last of this trio being executed by just Aoife and Anthony immediately after the solo segment. Anthony was last seen on these shores when playing with Carrie Elkin last year and his sparkling performance this evening drew praise from members of the audience. Quite often rhythm in a trio associated with roots music comes in the form of a double bass, so it was interesting to see Steve Nistor’s presence on a full drum kit. However his input played a significant part and, as previously implied, there was a real contemporary feel to the sound, in the mould of Rosanne Cash, Lucinda Williams and Patty Griffin.

There was an indication beforehand that an interesting cover would close the show and Aoife didn’t disappoint with a version of Emmylou’s classic ‘From Boulder to Birmingham’. This was a fitting finale for an artist poised to take the standard of articulate singer-song writing well into the next generation. This gig exceeded expectations all round. Her vocals were immaculate, the sound system perfectly accommodating, a Friday evening audience impeccable in their attentiveness throughout and the presentation of a raft of quality songs, stunning in their magical structure. Shows like this are an absolute pleasure to attend, so commendations to the Empty Rooms team for promoting another successful gig, Robert Chaney for owning the opening role and Aoife O’Donovan for a blissful performance. 


Wednesday, 3 February 2016

David Berkeley - Cardboard Boat : Straw Man Publishing

If you are searching for the ultimate combination of the literary musician then look no further than David Berkeley. Instead of compartmentalising two of his no doubt many artistic strands, David has decided to merge the contents of his latest book and album. CARDBOARD BOAT is the musical offering and hits the market in the format of a ten track record. Its literary counterpart is the novella THE FREE BRONTOSAURUS which is a collection of ten interweaving stories running through similar themes and characters. You will not be surprised to see the blurb stating that both art forms can be enjoyed separately, although there is extra merit in multi-consuming your cultural intake. The only comment that can be made here is how the record shapes up as a stand-alone entity, although packages are available to purchase both simultaneously.

David Berkeley first crossed my path a couple of years ago via the release of his album THE FIRE IN MY HEAD and follow up UK live dates as part of the trio New American Troubadours. The concluding summary from that initial discovery was of an exceptional lyricist capable of spinning wizardry images with the beauty of words. With this endearing feature, it was of little surprise to see him tackle this type of project especially as his back catalogue consists of both recorded albums and published writing. What can be construed by getting to grips with this new record is that it can flourish as an independent album, but perhaps more surprisingly it blossoms more evidently on the musical side rather than the lyrics.

The ten songs fluctuate in the production intensity ranging from mellow offerings such as album opener ‘Setting Sail’ to grander pieces like the title track ‘Cardboard Boat’, which emerges as a mini epic. This latter has a three part composition involving a soft intimate beginning gradually evolving into a mid-song instrumental melange before an effective reduced tempo at the end. Many of the songs are underpinned by the banjo sound with trumpets, cellos and the usual affray of guitars, keys and percussion forever keeping the sound fresh and interesting. David’s vocals effectively convey the sincerity of his story telling and during the first half of the record these are ably assisted by Sara Watkins, of widespread roots acclaim in the guise of her solo work, Nickel Creek and the Watkins Family Hour.

Two upbeat songs which impressed in the record’s early stages were the critically tuneful ‘Coloured Birds’ and the rousing number with finale pretensions, ‘Last Round’. This last song had almost a shanty feel to it and throughout the entire record folk singer sensibilities are prevalent. Lyrically each song is a first person account of a different character featured in the novella. Grasping this side of the record wasn’t particularly forthcoming so going back to an earlier claim, perhaps the entirety of this project is the best position to enjoy its full potential.

However this does not detract from a sophisticated feel to a rounded and well-constructed album with the ability to impress on its musical merit. You feel this is just a stopping off point for an artist like David Berkeley and while his work could veer in a multiple of directions, it will always possess interesting facets to explore. CARDBOARD BOAT is an album worthy of checking out, but you won’t escape thoughts of the book. However there is no rule against just enjoying music rather than continually fully understanding all aspects of the component intricacies.  


Source for the book although try your local independent bookshop

Laney Jones - Laney Jones : Self-Released

Buried amongst the deluge of releases forever challenging the capacity of an independent blogger was this little gem which immediately rocketed up to the attention ladder. Considering where the music of Laney Jones fits is a curious activity, but one demanding multiple plays of a record embedding itself within your DNA. The press blurb hails Laney as an ‘Americana songstress’, while just prior to penning this review, Rolling Stone proclaimed her as ‘One of ten new country artists you need to know right now’. Neither really do her sound justice, but I’m going to join the fray by stating that if Courtney Barnett had an extended stay in the US then she may morph into Laney Jones. There is an appealing dead pan starkness portraying the reality of Laney which permeates every inch of this new record and appears set to draw plenty of attention.

This self-titled release from the Florida raised Laney is a fully grounded and earthy album, organic in its content and roots orientated in the infrastructure. It calls at many genre points without outstaying its welcome, yet maintaining a plain speaking approach to song writing. There is a natural charm to this music, possessing cool and sultry elements while certainly being more suburban than country. Laney herself has been well-schooled at the prestigious Berklee College of Music and brings an uncontrived sophisticated edge to her song writing in an attempt to bridge the gap between the icons of the craft and her generation.

The track chosen to spearhead the release is a split choice as it far from represents the substance and sound of the complete record. While ‘Allston’ has an infectious vibrancy about its sound, it does mask the more refined moments which will entice fans of the wider Americana movement. The challenge is to seek the inner beauty of this song, but for those perhaps searching for a slightly lower key depth can choose any other three of the first four tracks. The indie-focussed ‘Bad Luck Charm’ stands out for me with its neat structure and a cool guitar bit at the end. It also planted the first likeness to Courtney Barnett, albeit without the crashing guitars. Album opener ‘Do You Want’ wastes little time in drawing you in and by the time ‘Who Could Love’ has sunk its teeth into you, the hook is complete. The repetitive strains of ‘who could love a fool’ adorned with oodles of subtle banjo make this track an integral piece of the album’s jigsaw.

Track #5 ‘Work it Out’ has previously surfaced in the 2014, but this version appears slightly re-worked and is a continuation of the good stuff as the record launches into its second half. The heavily roots influenced ‘Troubled Mind’ complete with harmonica kicks off side two when/if the album gets a vinyl issue and is an excellent continuation of the superb material guiding you through the early stages of a record maturing with each listen. If ‘Allston’ is Laney’s stab at pop then ‘Fire Walk’ sees her wander in a totally alternative direction with no less appeal and possibly a little clarinet detected. This diversity to Laney’s music has previously attracted the attention of roots aficionados No Depression. ‘Lonesome Soul’ and ‘The Simple Truth’ see Laney in contemplative mode in the album’s latter stages as the record really finds its groove fully sealing the deal of a release to be reckoned with. This chapter of Laney’s recording career closes with the age old theme of ‘Endless Summer’ and its dreamy vibes perfectly conclude a record that reveals different nooks and crannies with each listen.

With its March 11 release date approaching, Laney is still requesting a little help to finalise the unwrapping of this gem and giving it a small amount of assistance is the least to offer in light of the pleasure derived from endless plays of the advance digital copy. With a prevailing wind and the common sense approach of serious music fans, success is looming for Laney Jones and my parting advice is to check out all ten tracks at the earliest opportunity. 


Diana Jones - Live in Concert : Proper Records

Diana Jones was first caught live when playing a sold out show at the Kitchen Garden Café in Birmingham around the time of the release of her second main album BETTER TIMES WILL COME. Praise and acclaim had just started heading in Diana’s direction over here with her stunning show backing up this adulation. Subsequently Diana did return to the city for another show on a later tour and her sets were also immensely enjoyed at Shrewsbury Folk Festival and when the Big Sessions used to be held in Leicester. Now fans new and old of Diana can re-live her live magical experience via the LIVE IN CONCERT album being released on Proper Records in February.

The simple title of this release signifies Diana’s straightforward approach to music where often only an acoustic guitar and a voice breathing the Appalachian air is sufficient to convey the lyrical sophistication of her song writing. Of course it was not always the Appalachian air that supported the life of Diana Jones as was widely documented when she explained the family awakening discovered on a spiritual journey from suburban New York to rural Tennessee. Over the last decade she has fully come to grips with exploiting her genetic talent and this new release captures it most splendidly.

The danger of re-issuing many old songs is adding value for those who already have Diana’s back catalogue securely in their record collection. There are three new tracks subtly finding a recorded version for the first time which partially paves the way. You can check out ‘My Last Call’ in advance via a You Tube video along with the other newish songs ‘Happiness’ and ‘Prayer for My Brother’. The only other song fans may not be familiar with is ‘Rain and Cold’ which only appeared as bonus track on certain versions of HIGH ATMOSPHERE.

The jury can often be out on the worth of live albums as to whether they actually succeed in transferring a listener’s mind to the engrossing atmosphere of a venue setting. Essentially the substitution will always fall short so other redeeming features need to be sought. The eighteen tracks which have been captured for Diana’s live album come across as pristine recordings and closely resemble the studio versions. Although it has already been mooted that such is Diana’s organic approach to music, there is often only a fine line between the versions of her songs.

Diana at the Hare and Hounds Birmingham
While fully committed Diana Jones fans will instantly snap up the album, more casual observers will have to weigh up the pros and cons of such an investment as we wait for her next batch of new original songs. However if you are quite new to her music, this record will be the ideal introduction as it conveys a real feeling of what Diana Jones does best. It is packed with all her popular tunes including the beautiful ‘Pony’, the tearful ‘Henry Russell’s Last Words’ and poignant ‘Appalachia’. My personal favourite version on this album is the sublime ‘Drug for This’. There is a heavy bias towards the pair of album released in a period where her career was taking off namely MY REMEBRANCE OF YOU and BETTER TIMES WILL COME. Hopefully this does not reflect that the best of Diana Jones is behind us, just a momentarily look back at a time where the recognition came pouring in.

Diana Jones has been a frequent visitor to the UK and Europe to fluctuating degrees over the years and returns for an eight date tour in April where the songs from this album will no doubt be showcased. Attending one of Diana’s shows is highly recommended, but if the limited coverage does not extend to your area, the perfect substitute lies in this record. LIVE IN CONCERT may not quite replace the real thing but it achieves its goal of presenting what Diana Jones is all about. 


Sam Outlaw - Angeleno : Six Shooter Records

Heads have been turned in the UK over the last couple of months as the name and music of Sam Outlaw has begun to appear. Hailing from Los Angeles and preaching the virtues of the classic California country sound, Sam has now firmly landed over here with the eventual album release and a couple of tours to promote it. ANGELENO has been out in the US since last summer and with the eye of its distributor Thirty Tigers very much on the European market, the inevitable UK release appeared in mid-January just ahead of Sam’s visit in support of Aaron Watson. Rave reviews and radio play has accompanied the emergence of this album, a record successful so far in spanning the breadth of country music appeal.

Mixing the Latino feel of music from the City of Angels and the laid back West Coast country/folk sound, ANGELENO is brimming with catchy tunes exploring many facets of life associated with country music. Lashings of steel, often dressed in horns, strings and keys, echo right across the dozen tracks ensuring that the discerned ear is sumptuously rewarded throughout. Having Ry Cooder at the production helm was a bonus and the record has laid the foundations for what has the potential to be a prosperous career for Sam.

Of course, any left of centre country artist with the surname Outlaw has one segment of success in place and Sam was quick to point out at a recent show that it is no fake. Although his mother’s maiden name has creatively been adopted, the real talent behind Sam Outlaw – the artist - is the nous for quality song writing, an acute ear for a tune and the cool persona to sell the package. All these were in evidence when Sam recently played Birmingham as Aaron Watson’s opening act and trebly packaged for listening pleasure within the contents of this debut album.

Track after track fall into the impressive category starting off with the splendid Latino/country hybrid opener ‘Who Do You Think You Are?’ and concluding a stunning forty-odd minutes later with the foot tapper ‘Hole in My Heart’. It may be clichéd and inevitable but it is too tempting to describe ‘I’m Not Jealous’ as Gram singing Hank’s ‘Cold Cold Heart’, but what’s there not to like about that analogy. Sam’s song writing probably peaks at the mid-point when he adopts the role of a drunk (well it is country music) and pleads ‘Jesus Take the Wheel (And Drive Me to a Bar)’, a lot more tongue in cheek than Carrie Underwood’s namesake song minus the brackets a decade ago.

Sam at The Glee Club Birmingham 
Ghost Train’ has been the chosen track to be syphoned off for promotional purposes and the accompanying video has been successful in growing Sam’s online presence. The title piece ‘Angeleno’ is another prime effort worthy of top track contention with its strong chorus structure and another tip to the border sound which infiltrates Southern Californian music. One of the players on the album is guitarist Danny Garcia who accompanied Sam on his recent UK dates and contributes well to the Latino mix. ‘Country Love Song’ is another number to move the listener as Sam slows things down with this ode to the perils of a long distance romance. The ubiquitous relationship theme also surfaces on ‘Keep it Interesting’, one of many songs from the album to get a live airing on the recent tour.

The good news is that Sam is due back in this country in April and it is keenly noted that this time he has been booked by venues/promoters more interested in the Americana side of country music. This is where Sam’s style more comfortably fits in 2016, but that certainly, and rightly so, doesn’t preclude praise from anyone interested in country music. This next tour will see Sam headlining, so in addition to the songs from ANGELENO we may get a peek into the future as this album will be nearly approaching its first anniversary since initial release.

However let’s not get ahead of ourselves, and celebrate the dawning of a record to get excited with this side of the Atlantic. In 2015 we were introduced to the similar but more quirky style of Cale Tyson, and now less than twelve months later we are being spoiled with the emergence of the smooth operator known as Sam Outlaw. Without any hesitation ANGELENO gets a full recommendation here and unravels itself as a record to go the full distance. 


Carrie Rodriguez and the Sacred Hearts - Lola : Luz Records

The phrase ‘culturally blended music for the culturally blended world’ is brandished on the inside cover of the CD booklet and in a nutshell does the reviewer’s job. However now we’ve started proceedings let’s elaborate on a record glistening in both its inner and outer beauty enabling Carrie Rodriguez to fulfil a lifelong passion. If LOLA is a vanity project, it opens its heart for us all to share as Carrie and her team of highly accomplished players present a record perfectly formed to be a soundtrack for those lazy relaxed warm summer evenings. Embracing both her Texan and Mexican roots as long been an influence for Carrie, but this leap forward with a bi-lingual album represents her at her vocally best in conjunction with the acclaimed writing and fiddle playing talent.

Venture down to the southern parts of Texas and Tex-Mex music is an integral part of the Americana culture. Carrie has been a long time listener of Mexican music, inspired by her family background, and the record’s title is partially borrowed from the iconic singer Lola Beltran. It doesn’t take long to recognise her influence on Carrie especially when you reach Track 3 and ‘I Dreamed I was Lola Beltran’. This was one of the half a dozen songs on the album where Carrie had a writing input, thus complying with the intended strategy of mixing originals with some of her favourite Mexican songs. Possibly some understanding of Spanish may enhance the enjoyment of this album, but absolutely none is fine for admiring its marvellous pot of embracing sounds, luscious vocals and heart filling warmth.

Carrie and Luke on their last UK visit
Officially the credit for this album goes to Carrie Rodriguez and the Sacred Hearts. Apart from the expected contribution of Luke Jacobs, two other players immediately stood out in the guitar parts played by Bill Frisell (a key architect on Lucinda Williams’ latest album) and David Pulkingham (long term guitarist and touring partner for Patty Griffin). Guest vocals on the opening track ‘Perfidia’ come courtesy of the unmistakeable Raul Malo. Carrie and Luke have got together to co-write a few songs along with the lap and pedal steel that he exclusively supplies. Another interesting Luke contribution is the additional English lyrics and vocals he provides for a 1950’s Mexican song titled ‘Que Manera De Perder’.

Among the twelve tracks, technically eleven tunes as ‘Si No Te Vas’ gets both a sung and instrumental version, are just three with entirely English titles. The tribute to Lola Beltran has already been mentioned, while a song simply titled ‘Z’ stands out as being the most conventional straightforward American recording, making a tongue in cheek stab at the wider music industry. This song could be singled out for radio airplay, but the real soul and substance to the album is when Carrie gracefully eases into the Spanish language to deliver songs with such evocative and atmospheric pleasure. ‘The West Side’ is the other solely English song and is a stripped down effort, thought provoking and reflective in its content. 

LOLA has taken a modernistic route to market. Funded through crowd sourcing, recorded on the artist’s own label and subsequently taken on board by the multi-role organisation Thirty Tigers. There is little doubt Carrie’s pedigree will open doors with influential scribes, however glowing praise will be fully earned for pulling off a brave project with such elegance and panache. The lingering memory of this album is a perfect vision of sipping red wine in a late night cantina, eating fine food and a backdrop soundtrack to capture the moment. Full marks to Carrie Rodriguez for returning from a short break on top form and creating an idyllic piece of music to savour. We will give her a warm welcome back to the UK in November and look forward to the sharing of this latest project from an incredibly talented artist. 


Carrie Rodriguez: Lola from Luke Jacobs on Vimeo.