Tuesday, 30 June 2015

Edwina Hayes - Crescent Theatre, Birmingham. Monday 29th June 2015

Spend an initial evening in the company of Edwina Hayes and you will feel like you’ve known her all your life. While this was technically not the first time catching Edwina live, that experience was when she assisted The Kennedys for their Nanci Griffith tribute evening last year in Birmingham, it was a debut occasion for a full solo show. She is a well-known artist on the UK folk and acoustic scene, mainly through her extensive gig endeavours with more than a little help from a sprinkling of angelic dust that coats every note extracted from her vocal chords. Of course throw in the side dish of being one of the most warm, friendly and affectionate performers to share their songs in public and a wrong of being aware of Edwina for over ten years without encountering the full live experience has been corrected.

Her return to Birmingham was part of the Crescent Theatre’s Monday night music programme and the venue’s bar was packed with dedicated fans plus the odd newbie. The intimate setting was ideal for Edwina to wrap her sweet vocals around a bunch of songs designed to showcase her own writing skills as well as a discerning ear to choose some inspirational covers to display her interpretative talents. Her appetite for live music has taken Edwina to much bigger platforms than this evening but she always retains that personal charm to connect with her audience and there were numerous occasions of touching interaction during tonight’s show,

During the 21 years that Edwina has ventured down the performing road, she admits to not being a prolific song writing and recording artist, but this is more than made up by a magical ability to engage through the tale and anecdote. Humility and appreciation is abounding as she exudes gratefulness in being granted the opportunity to make music her living. This has led to trips far and wide including a recent one to Australia, which was a common theme to much of tonight’s inter-song banter. Closer to home Edwina continues to frequent a vast range of gigs stretching from house concerts and anniversary bookings to opening in large venues for artists such as Fairport Convention, Cara Dillon and Squeeze.

From her own songbook, Edwina’s signature tune is the delightful ‘Pour Me a Drink’, the title track to one of her albums and written in the honour of her somewhat eccentric and colourful late father. ‘Nobody’s Coming Around’, ‘Leave a Light on for You’, ‘Bend in the Road’ and ‘I Won’t Say Your Name’ were amongst the original compositions selected to populate the standard gig format of a couple of 45 minute sets. An added part to tonight’s show was Edwina inviting a young 15 year old singer-songwriter by the name of Eve Singleton to play two songs at the start of the second set and with plenty of evidence to support the view, Edwina was enthusiastic in her praise.

With such as beautiful voice, Edwina is born to sing the works of the great song writers without the baggage of being a formulaic covers artist. A fair number of the songs chosen for tonight’s show were pretty standard such as ‘Don’t Think Twice’, ‘Annie’s Song’, ‘Down Where the Drunkards Roll’ and the immaculate ‘Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow’. The left field cover was a song from American artist Jon Byrd (not to be confused with Jonathan Byrd who’s been currently touring) with his self-penned ‘Stay’, while Edwina does not shy away from the works of the more complex songwriters as shown in covering  Leonard  Cohen’s ‘Famous Blue Raincoat’. Perhaps the cover song that has opened more doors for Edwina is her version of Randy Newman's 'Feels Like Home'. 

As you would expect, virtually every song had an informative introduction with John Prine’s ‘Speed of the Sound of Loneliness’ being chosen on the basis of performing it live with members of Fairport Convention. Edwina’s adulation for Richard Thompson extended to several mentions of meeting him in Australia and an added version of ‘From Galway to Graceland’ was included in the first set. Staying on the contemporary UK scene but switching genders and moving down the age scale, Kate Rusby cropped up in conversation. Edwina spoke excitedly about playing at her festival later this summer, whilst serenely delivering the traditional number, ‘Botany Bay’, coincidently a song given a Kate Rusby re-working.

You would be hard pushed to replicate the love, affection and sheer down to earth persona as shown by Edwina Hayes in an intimate gig setting. Fame may be a fleeting visitor but to each one of her fans the most important thing is the personal connection and outstanding music experience. Over the years, folks who have not seen Edwina live are becoming a dwindling number and if you are one of those persons, there will be plenty of opportunities to amend the omission in the future.


Sarah Jane Scouten - Marr's Bar, Worcester. Sunday 28th June 2015

Almost twelve months since her appearance at the Maverick Festival, Canadian artist Sarah Jane Scouten has returned to have another crack at the UK market with a series of dates across the country. In the true tradition of roots performers from Canada proudly representing their country’s musical heritage overseas, Sarah Jane follows a lengthy line of distinguished artists and a superb performance at the Marr’s Bar venue in Worcester confirmed her status as a worthy ambassador.

For just over an hour in this intimate location, Sarah Jane cut a solitary composed figure on stage armed only with a faultless acoustic guitar, fleeting fiddle and a voice drenched to the core with an iconic country sound. At this point it is worth commending the superior musicality that emanated from her unplugged guitar amplified only by a vintage mic ripening the overall sound. These crisp clear tones helped transport a number of tracks from her two albums to a live setting in enriched measures. Inspired by the gut wrenching honesty of traditional country music and the artistic beauty of creative folk, Sarah Jane etched her own authentic vocal style on each song to show why her talents have attracted award nominations back home in Canada.

Sarah Jane’s revelatory on stage persona pictured a slightly nomadic character being brought up on Canada’s west coast before an eastward migration to cut out a career in Montreal’s music scene. Now residing in the province of Ontario, her observations from travelling and making ends meet form an integral part of the song writing. This began with the opening song of her set ‘Poverty Wind’ which was lifted from the 2011 release MAGPIE WALTZ and depicted the migratory homeless problem initiated by Vancouver’s temperate climate. Alongside tracks from the latest record THE CAPE and a yet to be named new song, the fiddle was the chosen instrument to demonstrate an intense love of American roots music with tunes from West Virginia and Alabama. At this point Sarah Jane proclaimed her love for the Old Crow Medicine Show, a bunch of guys useful to have as your inspirational heroes.

Prior to Sarah Jane taking the stage, local Worcester singer-songwriter Claire Boswell entertained those present with an impressive set of sweetly sung folk music heavily influenced by the classic sounds of early seventies American music. Citing Crosby Stills and Nash as her main point of inspiration, Claire mixed a handful of songs from her debut self-titled release with the odd cover which included a version of ‘Dreams’ by Fleetwood Mac. ‘Under the Bridge’ and ‘Reason to Believe’ were two originals which stood out from the pack, but the overriding memorable aspect of Claire’s set was a stunning beautiful voice which exceeded the expectation from 90% of opening acts you witness on the circuit. This attribute alone makes Claire Boswell an artist to look out for in the future.

So in contrasting styles it was an evening of two perfectly tuned voices which ultimately made this event a success. Sarah Jane Scouten showed a potential to establish herself as a perennial touring artist and will hopefully get the opportunity to play some more festivals next time including a return to Maverick. She was the perfect example of a classic country folk sound being in the capable hands of the next generation. 



Saturday, 27 June 2015

Gretchen Peters - The Assembly, Leamington Spa. Saturday 27th June 2015

There is certainly nothing like an appearance at the Glastonbury Festival to give Gretchen Peters an extra kick in her step. Two years ago she was still on a high after playing the prestigious event when rounding off her UK tour in Bromsgrove a day later. In 2015 it was another Midlands venue that hosted Gretchen, albeit this time on the eve of her festival appearance. The Assembly at Leamington Spa, with its excellent sonic environment, has been acknowledged by Gretchen as a particular favourite on the UK circuit to the extent that it was the scene of the infamous back stage Couch by Couch West video on their last visit. With the anticipation of the following day’s gig spurring the band and her on, Gretchen didn’t disappoint with an exemplary performance driven mainly by songs from her last two albums.

With the effects of the recent highly successful Blackbirds UK tour barely worn off, Gretchen, Barry, Christine and Conor were once again reunited as a quartet to replicate the magic of the two previous albums into a live interpretation. Understandably the songs from BLACKBIRDS took pride of place in the set list which spanned across an interval, on an evening dictated like so many weekend gigs by an early start. However this had no bearing on the ensuing quality that followed with the new songs getting bedded in more effectively as live numbers. They also have the added impetus of driving the older songs to higher limits and for nearly two hours tonight, Gretchen effortlessly moved into a raised sphere of performance revealing an artist still in the ascendancy some two decades since flirting with the bright lights of conditional fame.

What we get from Gretchen in 2015 is acres of unconditional brilliance as she ferments as a writer and visibly moves audiences with her stage rendition of a back catalogue framed for posterity in the annals of the vinyl and digital world. The band experience has uplifted the immortality of songs from HELLO CRUEL WORLD to now reside alongside her 90s classics. No doubt in time, the same will apply to many of BLACKBIRD’s tracks as even in the space of four months since an inaugural live listening, they seemed to acquire an enhanced stage dimension. Of course this is natural progression for the output from an artist now enshrined in the Nashville Songwriter’s Hall of Fame. No mean feat given the fantastic heritage of lyrical composers thriving in the creative surroundings of Music City.

For those who saw Gretchen on the recent tour, the set list this evening was almost identical to those successful shows with the John Prine and Rodney Crowell covers bringing the evening to an encore climax. There was the usual segment of Barry’s solo work with its stark film score appeal and the humble appreciation from Gretchen of being accepted in this almost second home of the UK. The energy and buzz from the stage was fizzing around song after song meaning that the bar was suitably raised from her last Midlands gig at the somewhat larger Birmingham Town Hall. The build-up to this show, and subsequent turnout, to what was effectively a solitary warm up gig for the big event, may have been lower key, but the warmth of the reception was no less forthcoming and a positive vibe infected all parties to a similar extent.

So Gretchen headed off to a field in Somerset with a bucketful of confidence and inspiration, alongside a thinly disguised desire to meet the Dalai Lama. Meanwhile a delighted audience lapped up a highly charged show echoing with subtle emotion, masterly musicianship and songs steeped with utopian ideal. Gretchen Peters is on top of her game in both a recording and performing capacity. The evolution, development and fulfilment of this artist’s career continues to move boundaries and being an active witness equates to sheer marvel and enjoyment.

Blackbirds (2015) - Blackbirds. Pretty Things. When All You Got is a Hammer. Everything Falls Away. The House on Auburn Street. Nashville. Black Ribbons. The Cure for the Pain.
Hello Cruel World (2012) -  Hello Cruel World. The Matador. Woman on the Wheel. Five Minutes. Idlewild
One to the Heart, One to the Head (2009) - Gualalupe
The Secret of Life (1996) - On a Bus to St. Cloud. Independence Day
Covers - I Ain't Living Long Like This (Rodney Crowell) In Spite of Ourselves (John Prine)
Silencio (2014) Barry Walsh - October Waltz

Thursday, 25 June 2015

The Delta Bell - Bow Out of the Fading Light : At The Helm Records

They say you shouldn’t judge a book (or album) by its cover. Yet if there is an image so symbolic to the content then the one adorning the sleeve of the new album by The Delta Bell heads all comers. The solitary pose of Kate Gerrard, the sparseness of a pale room and its sole possession of a turntable provide the perfect backdrop to a record that oozes with stripped back, unconditional organic class. BOW OUT OF THE FADING LIGHT is the debut release from Kate who adds mystique to the record with her implicit stage name and is set to project her wave of roots sensibility across the discerning ears of intelligent music followers.

A magnetic and warming sound reverberates around all eleven self-penned tracks from Kate who has adeptly assembled a fine team of players to complement her homely vocals and soothing songs. Whether utilising the harmonious sound of the harmonium, the magical twang of pedal steel guitar or the more luxurious string offerings of violin and cello, each selection adds vibrancy and life to track after track making this a record which refuses to leave your player, turntable or other device dependent on your preferred listening medium.

Of course this contemporary link to a misty eyed past is ideally suited to the vinyl format as depicted on the cover and is perfectly exhibited in two tracks that emerge as co-firsts among equals. ‘Wasted’ is a jolly rolling pedal steel infused number with a positive persona disguising the sad sentiments of a parting song. It is a song that has emerged as the focal point of the album, but is given a great run in the race for top track by the unashamedly retro pop piece ‘Forever Yours’, sweetly flavoured by fabulous numerous ‘sha la las’ and memories of a bygone age where the music of the masses was seemingly untainted.

Portions of the album and the ensemble’s name offer up Americana connotations, but there is an idyllic Englishness richly running through the record. This is no more in evidence than the harmonium intro to the opening track ‘Carry Me Home’ which leads into an emotive number possessing all the endearing features of a gospel piece. This is immediately followed by a cello led adorable ballad titled ‘Phosphorus’ which has had previous exposure on one of the Fatea Showcase Sessions. The first half of the album contains another dose of harmonium on the nautical feel to the dreamy and slightly eerie track ‘Of Mist’. Like so many of the songs, Kate’s melting vocals resonate perfectly with the keen ear and conjure up images of music in its most simplest and evocative form.

Elsewhere steel returns to add more country spice to ‘I’ve Seen the Way’, while brass offers an alternative slant to the opening of ‘Churches’. ‘The second half of the album is anchored by the repetitive splendour of ‘Lay Him Down’ and the acoustic ballad ‘Until the Night’ is an ideal choice to close the record with a climactic feel to it, while leaving the door open to what next Kate has to offer next. ‘Every Tonight’, possessing a heady mix of violin and glockenspiel, is a spritely number at the core of the record, while ‘Strings’ wraps up the album’s content and goes a long way to symbolising the creative simplicity that accompanies the 41 minute listening time.

BOW OUT OF THE FADING LIGHT is a record embedded with excellence, occasionally aches, often soothes but always impresses. It has the drive of alt-country and lure of iconic pop. In essence it brings the talents of The Delta Bell to the fore and the music environment is a better place for its presence.


Stevie Ray Latham - Modern Attitudes : At The Helm Records

Stevie Ray Latham has seemingly been around for a while now and first crossed these paths with a set at Palmfest in Brighton a couple of years ago. Well now Stevie can be heard more extensively away from his South Eastern base with the eventual release of his debut album and MODERN ATTITUDES exemplary replicates the promise that was on display during the initial acquaintance. One man, his guitar, harmonica and a fistful of songs is a trusted and well-worn formula but Stevie brings something different to the table as he successfully blends the slightly aged in a style that acts as a bridge to his peers. That immediate first impression when listening to Stevie straight away will relate to the giants of his genre and while the similarities are abound, this record has far more substance than just a mere tribute project.

MODERN ATTITUDES evolves into a raw reach out to the soul of acoustic folk blues with perpetual strains of both rough and worn elegance. All eleven self-penned tracks are explicitly driven and perfectly harness into a symbolic sound. They are beautifully constructed, while containing traces of basic tendencies alongside subtle sophistication. For a song writer with so much to say, it is hardly surprising that most of the songs are lyrically laden and at times the onslaught of almost alt-poetry challenges your aural senses. Yet persistence to tune into the wavelength of Stevie will pay off.

A self-set target of avoiding any Dylan comparisons has sadly failed when it comes to defining ‘It Feels Alright’ and ‘It’s Been a Long Time’, but clichés apart, it’s not a bad thing especially when Stevie delivers both songs with such interpretive panache. The album also gets off to a flying start with the opening track ‘Get Out and Run’ immediately throwing an acoustic avalanche, vocal volley and timeless tirade into the mix. Occasionally, the relentless pace eases a little, such as in ‘Melissa’s Song’ and the emotive second track ‘Sunday Blues’. The latter shows a heartfelt side to Stevie’s writing and a fair stab at composing a memorable chorus.

The title track ‘Modern Attitudes’ is another lyrical onslaught and lays down a marker for individual interpretation. Whether ‘South Coast Blues’ is autobiographical or not is in the mind of the writer but we all know slightly sad longing themes make the better songs. ‘I’ll Wait for Morning to Come’ is one of a number of tunes to be laced with a blast of harmonica to give the song a rich folk coating and give the listener a temporary pause from digesting the artillery fire of poetry and prose.

For 42 minutes, Stevie Ray Latham will pound your senses with a barrage of legendary singer-song writing in a style quite unique from someone of his generation. MODERN ATTITUDES takes its place as one of the year’s more unique records and announces Stevie Ray Latham as an artist not afraid to imitate, but also able to mould it into a modern vision. 


Richard Thompson - Still : Proper Records

For a 66 year old iconic performer who has been professionally active for close to half a century, the album title STILL is an ironic timely reminder that there’s plenty of juice left in the string tank of Richard Thompson. Never a person to rest on his laurels, this much lauded artist has continued to push personal boundaries and for this latest project he has hooked up with pioneering alt-country musician Jeff Tweedy to deliver a record packed to the hilt with Richard Thompson traits. So expect an artisan at work stretching his finger picking muscles, a master lyricist outpouring his thoughts and a distinctive vocalist appealing to tuned-in ears.

Perhaps in order of universal acclaim the first of these three traits probably exceeds the third and if you are relatively new to his talents, the guitar playing is advisably the first port of call. Having witnessed Richard play live a few times, it is impossible to feel anything but mightily impressed, whether the performance is acoustic or electric, or band or solo. The tour to support the release of the new album hits the UK towards the end of the summer via the festivals, before moving onto the nations’ grand halls and is billed as the trio format. No doubt many long term fans will lap up the Richard Thompson classics but the tracks from the new album will stand up well to live scrutiny.

Under the production guidance of the ex- Uncle Tupelo and Wilco frontman Tweedy, all twelve tracks purvey an air of high quality consistency with just enough diversity in style to eliminate the complacency of similarity. From a personal perspective the production numbers with a little more tempo surface as the key moments on the record, probably because they allow the guitar playing to be more prominent and showcase what Richard Thompson does best. Therefore ‘All Buttoned Up’, ‘Long John Silver’ and ‘Patty Don’t You Put Me Down’ hold more credence through the early listens than the more complex tunes like ‘Broken Doll’ and ‘Josephine’. However individual mood will dictate personal preference and omnipresent merit is in evidence to enhance the choice.

A pan Atlantic appeal has long been attached to Richard Thompson. Lengthy stints living in the US, eventual lifetime recognition by the Americana Music Association and the fact that this album was recorded in Chicago reaffirm one half of this assertion. However Thompson will always remain a quintessential British folk rock legend and this firmly underpins all acclaim. There is a chance that die hard folk fans will latch onto ‘Pony in the Stable’ and the engaging album opener ‘She Never Could Resist a Winding Road’. On the other hand, ‘Dungeons for Eyes’ has the potential to raise eyebrows of those seeking a touch of Americana.

Lyrically, the album peaks in the second track, with the enigmatic ‘Beatnik Walking’ referencing Amsterdam and its associates alongside Mr Murdoch’s news. A serious case for the musical high is the album’s climax and a near eight minute track aptly named ‘Guitar Heroes’. If the initial irony of this record was in the title, the fact that Thompson indulges in a track paying homage to his heroes belies the notion that he himself is a hero to so many. Anyhow few will begrudge the acclaim laid at the feet of Django Reinhardt, Chuck Berry, Les Paul and The Shadows in this outage of personal tribute.

There is a regal grandeur about Richard Thompson as an artist and STILL is yet another chapter in a career full of influential highs. There is no sign of the stellar work flowing from his guitar letting up, as well as opportunities to savour his talents. With every new release from a legendary older artist, there is the increasing opportunity for the younger generation to latch on and this could prove to be the lasting legacy of Thompson’s 2015 release. 


Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Jonathan Byrd + Natalie Gelman - Kitchen Garden Cafe, Kings Heath, Birmingham. Monday 22nd June 2015

They may reside a continent apart but Jonathan Byrd and Natalie Gelman are bound by the passion and love of song. In a venue built for the power of the beautifully sung word, both artists exhibited their inimitable styles to present an evening saturated in verse suitably fired up from the inspiration of urban and rural surroundings. This was an explicit outpouring of American folk music, engineered by the guitar and driven by the soul. The contrasting façade of each performer masked an inner desire to communicate, enthral and entertain via their gifted medium of music.

Experience, enhanced profoundness and previous UK awareness enforced the seniority of Jonathan on the bill as he built on his impressive performance at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival a couple of years ago. 2015 is shaping up to be a year of major British incursion for Jonathan as this is the first of three visits including a return festival date at the end of August. He also has a new album out over here soon recorded with his band The Sentimentals and we were afforded a trio of tracks to preview the release as part of his twin set approach to headlining the evening.

However prior to Jonathan sharing his wares with the audience, the stage area was owned by Natalie for forty minutes as she set about establishing herself in the UK. A native of growing up in New York City, or to be more precise the West Village, Natalie now resides many miles from the east coast in Southern California but still retains that air of a schooled and archetype urban singer-songwriter. Unravelling a few guitar hitches was a minor hindrance for an artist possessing the temperament, grandeur and skill to exploit the fruits of her gift. These include the vocal range to sprinkle the air with a flurry of beauteous notes, the adeptness to mould her songs into that iconic acoustic sound and an ear for a tune to spin the thoughts of her inner mind into a palatable product. Having been recently acquainted with the music of Natalie via her 2013 EP STREET LAMP MUSICIAN, it was a pleasure to listen to the title, and strongest track, live.

Hopefully Natalie will be in a position to expand on her back catalogue in the forthcoming months with songs heard on the evening such as ‘Some People’, ‘I Feel like a Photograph’ and ‘The Answer’ being ripe for the recorded format. By the time she concluded her set with a soulful and exquisite version of the Goffen/King classic ‘One Fine Day’, many Kitchen Garden Café folks had warmed to the confident, charming and alluring presence of Natalie. The intention to return to these shores next year was the parting shot of Natalie Gelman, an artist you have got a fair chance of hearing more about in the future if the winds of fortune blow in a rightful direction.

With the evening being more than suitably warmed up from Natalie’s opening set, the poise, stature and exuded panache of Jonathan Byrd hit the traps immediately with a string of popular tunes from his 2010 album CACKALACK. ‘Chicken Wire’, ‘I Was an Oak Tree’ and ‘Wild Ponies’ led the way from this release which was later followed up by the emotive, deeply personal and somewhat topical song ‘Father’s Day’. As previously mentioned, the new record is due to get a UK release on Fish Records soon and from MOTHER TONGUE, Jonathan chose ‘On the Edge’, ‘Love is the Law’ and ‘Supernatural’ to preview its content. The latter was one of many songs on the evening to invoke audience participation, while the middle of this trio is one of the picks on the album.

Following in the footsteps of Natalie, and as you would expect from your model singer-songwriter, the stories were aplenty. Valuable background information flowed during the song interludes including historical tales, experiences at the Kerrville Folk Festival, offshore oil spills and some lighter family insights. The song content from Jonathan was wholly diverse in the true folk tradition of an artist steadfastly proud of his Chapel Hill, North Carolina home. Frequently he will infuse the country song style into his music artillery and perhaps more profoundly a very gospel flavour to the stunning a cappella delivered ‘Poor Johnny’ towards the end of his second set. This segment of the show saw an uplifting of the emotive atmosphere with valuable contributions from the powerful ‘Diana Jones’, the mighty ‘You Can’t Outrun the Radio’ and the memorable ‘A Big Truck Brought It.’

Having caught Jonathan previously at the Shrewsbury Folk Festival and being suitably impressed, this more intimate surrounding leapt him up the appreciation scale. He is an artist born to perform and forever sealed to a platform designed to share his songs with a willing audience. The Kitchen Garden Café is made for evenings like this and credit to all concerned for bringing two outstanding artists to Birmingham in Jonathan Byrd and Natalie Gelman for one memorable show.