Wednesday, 27 April 2016

Fred's House - Cookley Village Hall, Worcestershire. Sunday 24th April 2016

It didn’t take too long into this show for the peerless harmonies and enticing melodies of Fred’s House to take a grip. The five piece outfit from Cambridge are in the throes of playing a raft of dates around the country in support of their upcoming new album and there is ample evidence that the record will serve the band well in the near future. What Fred’s House do extremely well is lift the underlying quality of their recorded material and ensure a live audience unconditionally enjoys the best parts in the purest form.

Cookley Village Hall in Worcestershire has put on many good folk and roots gigs over the last couple of years with this evening’s show matching up well with the best. Fred’s House veer more towards the rock side of the folk genre and showed an acute understanding of how to balance the sound within the confines of an individual venue. Without the input of electric lead guitar, the frontier sound of Fred’s House was driven by the keyboards. Drums, electric bass and acoustic rhythm all play an important role ensuring the majestic songs get the instrumental support they deserve. These songs are primarily sung by Vikki Gavin who thrives in the role of band front person, while still preserving the collective entity of an equilibrium band.

The band’s onstage personality and heartbeat revolves around the roles of Vikki and song writing partner Griff Jameson. Griff supplements his guitar playing with a sidekick vocal part in support of Vikki with the pair being frequently joined by bassist Gafyn Jameson on three-part harmonies. On drums Paul Richards keeps time in a bright and breezy manner, leaving the keyboard skills of Alister Bunclark to sparkle at many an opportune moment. What is possibly the defining trait of Fred’s House at this moment of a fledgling career is the tremendous ability to pen a catchy song, free of soft pop pretense while capturing the essence of an iconic style.

FAULTLINES is the name of Fred’s House new album and unsurprisingly its near entirety was played across the two sets of this evening’s show. The second song in, ‘Face in the Water’, was a timely reminder to how good this record is and the cue to settle back for further riches to be unveiled in their live format. One of the few tracks where Griff takes lead vocal bolstered up the middle part of the first set with ‘Nevermind’ and it wasn’t soon after when one of the higher profile songs from Fred’s House’s repertoire made an appearance. ‘Shut Up and Dance’ was the first song that alerted me to the band when it appeared on a compilation album put out by the Folkstock folks nearly a couple of years ago. It has now re-surfaced for the first time on a wholly Fred’s House record and adds a feel good factor among grittier tracks. Perhaps with a view to injecting a touch of wider familiarity into the live show, the band selected a couple of popular covers to play and few balked at the opportunity to join in with the chorus of ‘Starman’.

After the break there was another opportunity for a singalong with ‘Gotta Get a Message to You’, but the real heart of the second set was four of the strongest songs from the new album. All four had their credentials strengthened with a live performance. ‘California for a Girl’ is a smashing song written as a parting gift to an ex-band member and brings some heartfelt sincerity to the proceedings. ‘Earthquake’ sees Fred’s House diving into a whirlpool of dreamy sensibilities, while ‘Ghost Town’ is decorated in retro glory and presents the pop tinge of the band with a streak of finesse. ‘Another Universe’ is a totally gratifying and rousing anthem, deserved of its climax position on both the album and this thoroughly entertaining show.

All that was left was the complimentary band introductions conducted by Vikki coupled with a soundtrack of ‘Somebody to Love’, popularised by Jefferson Airplane in the late sixties. There is an intrinsic resemblance of Fred’s House in full flow with the sounds synonymous of that iconic West Coast folk rock style, totally awash in lush harmonies and driven by a soulful keyboard output. This earmarks Fred’s House as a band to look out for on the UK indie circuit with a wide ranging appeal encompassing country, folk, rock and pop. More importantly than labels, they make damn fine music and effortlessly transfer this attribute to the live venue. FAULTLINES should be added to your ‘to get’ list and fast tracked to the top. The same sentiment can be applied if Fred’s House are ever in your vicinity. Take these statements as a valued recommendation.

Monday, 25 April 2016

Josh Harty - Thimblemill Library, Bearwood, West Midlands. Saturday 23rd April 2016

Josh Harty
In these challenging times for both public libraries and grass roots singer-songwriters, the answer may lie in closer collaboration. Although the sound level barrier will need to be torn down, the longer you think about it, the greater the synergy reveals itself in the multi-facetted world of the written word. This association was taken to its literal conclusion as a venue was sought for Josh Harty’s return to the Birmingham area. So step in Thimblemill Library, a community focussed organisation located in an art deco building and steeped in adopting an innovative approach to securing alternative streams of funding. The result was a partially surreal but wholly captivating night of acoustic music decorated by a backdrop of the science, religion and crime fiction sections.

While a modest cover charge may have contributed to a healthy turnout, it is still a feat to attract folks on a Saturday night with all the inside and counter attractions of an urban environment on the Sandwell-Birmingham border. This was especially fitting considering that all three acts on the bill were by nature going to play a host of unfamiliar songs. True singer-songwriters rarely stray from the opportunity to expose the gifts of their own literary talents, whatever the turnout and situation. Of course CDs are on sale to convert the unfamiliar into the familiar and thus ensure the work of the recording singer-songwriter is rewarded and the creative process is financially re-fuelled.

Dan Hartland 
Opening performer Dan Hartland did comment on the gratitude artists have for people taking a chance on music they have previously not heard. While more ardent live music devotees thrive on this opportunity to discover, it can be a tough ask for others. Thimblemill Library did live up to its pre-requisite by presenting the ideal listening environment allowing both Dan and fellow support artist Mellow Peaches the prime platform for sharing their songs, music and stories. It helps that both are regular players on the West Midlands acoustic music circuit, albeit Dan returns to his hometown from a wider geographical base, previously Cheltenham and now Stafford.

The evening was billed as an Americana line up with Josh Harty all the way from North Dakota perhaps the neater fit of the three performers. Dan Hartland is more on the contemporary folk side of the acoustic spectrum matching his heartfelt songs with engaging stories and recollections. Mellow Peaches was organically presented as a duo on the evening cultivating an instrument based country blues sound merging the twang of finger picked guitar and mandolin. Periodically they became a trio with the addition of a guest percussionist on an intriguing washboard contraption complete with mini-cymbals. Their original songs were joined by an instrumental piece and a rendition of the popular gospel Americana anthem ‘Will the Circle be Unbroken’.

Mellow Peaches 
It was almost twelve months to the day since Josh Harty was last in the area when his 2015 UK tour with Kelley McRae called into the Kitchen Garden Café for a show. This time Josh was the sole representative from North America and the proud owner of a brand new record to add to his back catalogue. Among the tracks from HOLDING ON shared with the audience were ‘Wired’ and ‘English Rain’, coupled with an enlightening set of tales ranging from growing up in a small town in North Dakota to the perils of being a travelling musician touring a foreign land thousands of miles from home. Josh played the archetypical troubadour role to a tee and maximised every minute of his hour on stage. In line with the song writing theme of the evening, much of the content would have been totally fresh to a majority of the audience, with the exception of an encore version of Buddy Holly’s ‘It Doesn’t Matter Anymore’.

It was certainly a case of the contrasting worlds of words colliding in a setting which seemed fitting to the art which was on offer from the assembled stage. Survival for aspects of our literary culture is often reliant on instinct and the message from this evening is that innovation can work with respect to where you take music. Sometimes below the radar music has to work a little harder even to the extent of penetrating urban communities and exploring what’s in our very own vicinity.

Saturday, 23 April 2016

Friday Freedom Feature - Releases on 22 April 2016

"Pitched somewhere between the folk-blues of Karen Dalton and the epic soundscapes and storytelling of Joanna Newsom. The Other Sun is a stunning piece of work."

Get a copy of the new EP

“Climb the air” is an EP of traditional material recorded by Hatful of Rain in late 2015.The songs included here started as material played at live shows amongst original ‘Hatful‘ compositions. The idea for the EP came from a desire to demonstrate how the band’s musicianship and song-writing has been influenced and inspired by folk music coming from the British Isles, crossing the Atlantic and back again."

Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman + Kitty MacFarlane - Artrix Arts Centre, Bromsgrove. Wednesday 20th April 2016

You know the night is turning into a good one when the first act ends with a Tim Buckley song and the main artist opens with one from the Warren Zevon catalogue. Not that this was an evening of cover songs, although the work of Bruce Springsteen and Tim O’Brien was also celebrated before the final curtain came down. This show was entirely owned by the highly accomplished duo Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman ably supported by a bright new folk starlet in Kitty MacFarlane. Across what were effectively three sets both acts excelled in the power of song, whether interpreting the traditional, covering the influential or primarily sharing the fruits of their song writing output.

Good things were heard about Kitty MacFarlane prior to the announcement that she was going to open for Kathryn and Sean on this extensive tour. With a debut recording safely in a saleable format and literally minutes from hearing one of her tracks played on the BBC Radio Two Folk Show for the first time, Kitty was comfortably settled to maximise every minute of her half hour in the spotlight. She oozed with an air of confidence while delivering a bunch of softly sung and delicately played acoustic songs. In true song writing spirit, Kitty had an intuitive knack of capturing those ordinary moments and turning them into an articulate preserved memory. All five tracks from the recently released EP titled TIDE & TIME were shared with this Bromsgrove audience, of which four were original compositions. ‘Bus Song’ was probably the pick of these on first listen and this turned out to be the track that received the airplay. Kitty wasted little energy in wrapping her delightful vocals around each song in a reassuring way and displayed a stage poise showing a high degree of maturity for a performer still in her early twenties. There is a strongly felt suspicion that we are going to hear a lot more of Kitty MacFarlane and this short set was merely a taster for greater things.

No sooner had Kitty finished off her set with a sincere cover of Tim Buckley’s ‘Song to the Siren’ then Kathryn and Sean immediately appeared with the intent to deliver two sets leaving just one interval break for the audience. Right from the off, the vocal volume was raised with Kathryn having a more powerful song delivery style to Kitty. The choice of song opener in ‘For My Next Trick I’ll Need a Volunteer’ by Warren Zevon was an interesting selection, but set the tone well for the remainder of the acclaimed duo’s lengthy time on stage.  The centrepiece of their set list was a healthy dose of super tracks from the latest studio album TOMORROW WILL FOLLOW TODAY; an excellent record essential for any collection.

The attributes of Kathryn and Sean as a performing duo are extensive, ranging from an affable charm to merging the artistry of their individual musical talent. Sean uses his considerable guitar playing skills to provide a backdrop to Kathryn’s versatile vocals which are capable of matching the mood of the songs. Likewise when she moves to the piano, the canvas is filled with an evocative sound to pour emotion into the ballads that duly follow. A popular piece in this vein is ‘A Song to Live By’, and one designed for those moments when we all need a pick up. Aided by the innovative greetings card complete with song lyrics, this tune is fast becoming Kathryn and Sean’s most popular, but this is surely followed hot on the heels by the heartfelt account of a lonely whale in ’52 Hertz’.

By association, background and general sound, Kathryn and Sean are right at the core of the British folk scene, yet there exists a strong degree of versatility in their influence to project a range of styles. There is a definite transatlantic feel to some of the songs performed and Sean did comment on the amount of time Kathryn and he spent Stateside several years ago. Amongst the songs featured in their pair of sets tonight was a cover of Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Matamoros Banks’ and a country sounding version of Tim O’Brien’s ‘Safe in Your Arms’, which was a request and acted as the encore number. Another American influence was the Appalachian version of ‘The Lusty Smith’, albeit a folk song to cross the ocean and back.

Despite these observations, many of the songs come straight out of the folk mould, whether penning protest pieces like ‘Tomorrow Will Follow Today’, taking on the traditional in ‘Child Owlet’ or spinning a subject like Mrs Beaton’s cook book into a song titled ‘Dear Isabella’. There were dark numbers such as an alternative take on the mermaid mythology in ‘Rusalka’ and deep personal reflective songs like the ‘Wisdom of Standing Still’. The product of a Kathryn and Sean show is highly memorable, giving the audience plenty to think about and ponder long after the evening has been concluded. One of the evening’s more poignant moments was Kathryn spilling out memories of her youth in ‘The Ballad of Andy Jacobs’ and suggesting the mining community shifts of the eighties might well be replicated in the steel industry today.

This was the second occasion of seeing Kathryn Roberts and Sean Lakeman live in the last six months and they are fast becoming one of my favourite acts on the folk circuit. Perhaps being more informed about their songs helped a second time and they are successful at leaving a positive impression. This performance, coupled with being introduced to the music of Kitty MacFarlane, will linger long in the memory and the Artrix Arts centre in Bromsgrove commissioned a real treat for fans of quality folk tinged songs.

Monday, 18 April 2016

Treetop Flyers + Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards - Kings Heath, Birmingham. Sunday 17th April 2016

Don’t bother looking in the diaries for this double bill show as it only existed in the world of two people. Due to the close proximity of the Kitchen Garden Café and the Hare and Hounds, it was always on the cards that the venues would be combined one evening and the opportunity finally presented itself. The main feature of the night was Treetop Flyers returning to Birmingham to promote their new album and it was initially unfortunate that this clashed with Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards playing the city on the same evening. However a touch of good fortune appeared when it was announced that Treetop Flyers would hit the Hare and Hounds stage at 9:45 and Laura’s first fifty minute set would end around 9:30. Hence a super gig evolved out of two venues barely twenty yards apart.

First of all apologies to Laura and her musical companions for not returning to see their second set after the break. However enough was seen in the first half to give the four piece band, assembled from right across the North American continent, a hearty plug in this write up. Laura was no stranger to this part of Kings Heath having played the Hare and Hounds with Session Americana only last October. This time the set up was wholly different as she fronted a quartet of two fiddles, cello and a double bass. Laura was paired in the fiddle department with Jenna Moynihan, leaving cellist Valerie Thompson and Winnipeg native Natalie Bohrn on bass to complete the band. From such an acoustic base the sound unsurprisingly had a folk and roots feel to it, although a contemporary twist was woven into the music. The set played to a responsive Kitchen Garden Café gathering was a mix of brand new material, traditional fiddle tunes and an opening instrument free song sprinkled with sparkling harmonies. Whilst being far from your usual acoustic roots combo, Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards came across as a zestful group of talented performers joining a lengthy list of traditional musicians confident enough to take their accomplished brand of music far and wide.

The trip from the London area to Birmingham was not exactly in the transatlantic realms for Reid Morrison and his merry bunch of Treetop Flyers. This five piece band on the Loose Music label have been racking up the exalted reviews for their brand new album PALAMINO and this headline show at the Hare and Hounds was the first extended chance for Midlands based fans to listen to most of the material live. The guys made a fleeting visit to the city last autumn to play a low key gig at the Sunflower Lounge and are due to return this September for a prestigious slot at the Moseley Folk Festival. This interim city gig was a headline scheduling preceded by three support artists, and perhaps one will never know how these acts would have matched up to Laura Cortese. One thing for certain is that Treetop Flyers were in blistering form as soon as they hit the stage and for an hour and a quarter they showed why they are being rated so highly on the live circuit.

A few teething problems with the sound did surface during the set, although the band masked the bulk of these in their ability to craft an abundance of wonderful guitar and keyboard based tunes. Pinpointing the sound of Treetop Flyers is a tough task especially if you want to avoid West Coast Americana clichés. Similarly labelling them an indie/alt-country hybrid is being too simplistic, so just leave it that they are one hell of a finely tuned rock ‘n’ roll band, rich in a plethora of mind splitting extended musical interludes. Of course it helps to have a front person so passionately involved in each song and Reid Morrison is such an intense performer that he hypnotises you with a well-stocked pile of excellent Treetop Flyers songs.

Having been sold on their live performance last time and ensuring PALOMINO has been on perpetual rotation since its release, tonight was the crowning interaction with the band, all witnessed from just a few paces away. Watching every ounce of emotion emanate from Reid’s face as he poured out ‘St. Andrew’s Day’ was inspirational. Likewise witnessing Sam Beer alternate between keys and lead guitar amidst contributing to loads of stunning tunes was worth the admission price ten-fold. The major candidate for set highlight was the scintillating ten-minute pre-encore version of ‘Dance Through the Night’. Although on ‘any given Sunday’, it could have been run close by ’31 Years’, ‘Sleepless Nights’, 'Wild Winds' and ‘You Darling You’. In truth you can pick any of the tracks from the new record and it has certainly been worth the wait since the previous release in 2013, and the band’s subsequent re-appraisal.

There will be a gross injustice if Treetop Flyers aren’t the live breakout band of 2016. If this isn’t the case, they are totally sold on me and any waxed lyrical musing is entirely based on foundation. Hopefully their live presence will continue to grow and subsequently their time on stage. However this improvised evening of fifty minutes of Laura Cortese and the Dance Cards and seventy five minutes of Treetop Flyers was a triumph of innovative good fortune, proving that brilliant live music is not normally that far away if you seek it out.

Saturday, 16 April 2016

The Black Feathers + The Rosellys - Tower of Song, Birmingham. Friday 15th April 2016

The Black Feathers 
It was a case of similarities and differences with the dual line up presented at the Tower of Song in Birmingham this evening. Both artists appeared in the duo format and set about demonstrating why they are accumulating acclaim in the UK indie Americana sector. The promotion gave The Rosellys and The Black Feathers roughly equal stage time with the latter awarded the prestigious headline slot, although the evening had a double bill feel to it. The contrasts began with The Rosellys informing folks that this was in effect the launch date for a set of forthcoming gigs, while The Black Feathers announced that this return to Birmingham was effectively the final date of their album launch tour, with an upcoming American trip soon on the horizon for this Gloucestershire based couple.

Musically each artist arrives on the Americana spectrum from a different perspective. The Black Feathers is heavily influenced by a folk style delivery, sprinkling a stripped back simple acoustic sound with the sparkling precipitation of gold dust harmonies. Aside from a number of studio contributions, The Black Feathers is entirely the vehicle for Ray Hughes and Sian Chandler to project the enormous depth of their talent. While being active on the circuit for a little longer in terms of shows and releases, The Rosellys hop from being the core duo of Simon and Rebecca to a bona fide band complete with drums and pedal steel, and an emerging role in backing a number of touring American artists on the shared Clubhouse roster. Musically they adopt the oxymoron moniker of British Americana and rarely shy away from a deep rooted US influence. Even going back to their duo roots for this evening’s show, Simon flitted between fiddle and guitar, while a family member played cello on a couple of songs. Needless to say, The Black Feathers was quite simply Ray’s acoustic guitar and Sian’s wonderful voice.

The Rosellys released their latest album THE GRANARY SESSIONS in the late summer days of 2015 and have spent a considerable amount of time promoting it via numerous live dates. A couple of songs from this record impressed during the fifty minutes they spent on stage this evening in ‘Asheville 1784’ and ‘A Thousand Miles’. Although The Rosellys have fleetingly crossed my path on the circuit over the last half a dozen years, this was probably the most focussed observation. Among their attributes are the evolving vocal range of Rebecca and the added diversity of Simon’s enhanced fiddle playing. The songs are generally ripe with ear pleasing melodies and this was extended to at least one new composition previewed during the evening. The profile of The Rosellys has notably increased in the wake of their tie up with Clubhouse Records and one of their upcoming high profile projects is to once again support the excellent Don Gallardo on a fair few of his UK dates this spring.

The Rosellys 
The Black Feathers was first seen at this very venue a couple of years ago when they played a short set after a lengthy open mic session. Happily this follow up consisted of a longer time in the spotlight and a step up in the overall quality of the evening. The duo’s debut album has courted some serious praise since its release earlier this year and SOAKED TO THE BONE is set flourish in the foreseeable future. A decent selection of tracks from the album made the set list headed by the unconventional opener ‘Goodbye Tomorrow’. A popular upbeat song from the record in ‘Down By The River’ was not surprisingly well received, but I felt it was jointly eclipsed by the delightful ‘Arc Light’ and the mesmeric ‘All For You’. This last number contains a remarkably catchy guitar riff which goes a long way to exemplify Ray’s acute skills in being the sole architect of The Black Feathers live instrumental sound.

The real crux of what makes The Black Feathers tick is the intuitive harmonious chemistry between Ray and Sian. This straddles the standard and innovative, while being constantly engaging. Sian was slightly under the weather during this show, but this failed to mask the inner beauty of her vocals. The highest compliment is to eulogise how her vocals melt into each song and to categorically state that she extracts direct influence from the depth of her soul. Sian continues to develop the role of the stage voice-piece, cultivating a persona in the mould of Josienne Clarke. This slightly dark and ironic image fits perfectly with the theme of many of the songs and led to the duo covering the iconic classic ‘Spirit in the Sky’ in a creative harmony-packed gothic style. Twice Ray and Sian ditched the amplification to step off mic and complete the removal of any artificial barrier between artist and audience. The first occasion was to deliver ‘You Will Be Mine’ off their debut EP, and buoyed by this experience, duly repeated it for an encore version of Joni Mitchell’s ‘Big Yellow Taxi’.

This crowned a highly enjoyable evening where both bands played a valuable role. The Rosellys are set to continue to pursue their almost evangelical trail of playing a brand of music very dear to their hearts and exploiting every opportunity that comes their way. The Black Feathers will continue to astound new admirers with their innate ability to merge the proverbial two into one and portray a talent in an enlightening way. In either case, Americana tinged music in the UK continues to roll along in healthy proportions.