Wednesday, 21 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Rod Picott - The Musician, Leicester. Tuesday 20th March 2018

Rod Picott is the trusty troubadour whose art never subsides from a lofty plateau. Whether immersing in the creative process or presenting his material on the road, consistency has been the badge of honour proudly worn across the continents. Throughout a lengthy and humbled song-writing career, this Maine native has long defied the notion of heart and soul being the sole instigator of the moving song. Framing an image of muscle, toughness and a philosophical perceptive field has proved a fertile strand of influence across a conveyor belt of records and shows over many years. If anything, the output is likely to escalate, with the written word now spreading from literally hundreds of songs to poetry, screenplay and a fledgling novel. Amidst this prolific period, trips to regular haunts this side of the pond are still on the agenda, with the city of Leicester welcoming Rod Picott back after a few blank years.

Although his association with our country stretches back a lot further, the Musician hosted my first Rod Picott gig back in 2012. Collaborations have altered since that show with Amanda Shires, and it is the solo mode, which houses him these days. This latest visit to the UK coincides with the release of his latest double record, OUT PAST THE WIRES and a few tracks from it were shared among a string of old favourites.

Rod was certainly in a chipper mood, buoyed by the hotel upgrade and perhaps at ease in the comforting environment of playing songs to a familiar audience. Throughout the hour and a quarter stage time, relaxed anecdotes weaved in between the impassionedly strummed tunes, all wrapped in an industrial haze. The almost total lopsided tilt away from the happy song resonates well with serious song writing connoisseurs. There is almost a precedent of getting ‘Angels and Acrobats’ swiftly out the way, but it long remains a staple of a Rod Picott set and possesses a strong melody to retain its eminence.

It would be accurate to state that Rod has had some of his finest song writing moments to date in unison with his long-term pal Slaid Cleaves. We had an interesting insight to the brilliant and inspirational ‘Broke Down’ this evening with the revelation of it being in strong consideration for a Dixie Chicks cut in their heyday. Herein lays the consequence that Travelodge and Premier Inn still dominate the touring accommodation chat many years later. 

Much loved oldies like ‘Welding Burns’ and ‘Rust Belt Fields’ never lose their sheen and more recent material such as ‘Take Home Pay’, ‘Primer Gray’ and ‘On the Way Down’ are likely to ascend to such status given time. Introductions tended to border on the conversational irreverent rather than informed insights, maybe due to a perception of familiarity on both sides.

You get the impression that new fans find the work of Rod Picott as they enter a phase of maturity, not necessarily in age, but definitely in outlook. A rock solid reliability has been in place for a long time and trends find this artist rather than vice versa.

Other excellent songs to add to the evening’s enjoyment included ‘410’, ‘Until I’m Satisfied’ and the spiritually captive ‘Elbow Grease’. There was even time for a request in the encore slot in ‘Circus Girl’.

While the latter song referenced a slot opening for Alison Krauss, the bill this evening was enriched by the East Midlands tones of Paul McClure. In a familiar and popular style mixing wit and the articulate song, the warm up slot evolved into its own entity, appreciated by Rod as well as those wisely choosing the backstreets of Leicester for their Tuesday evening entertainment. The charity single ‘Baby That’s You’ rounded off an enjoyable set in true singalong fashion endorsing the good banter of rivalry.

You do not have to dig too deep to find the synergy between Paul McClure and Rod Picott; a staunch belief that the magic of song will ultimately win the day. Our stateside guest is forever appreciative of the opportunities that have made one dedicated artist able to make a move from a tough real world job to one which still presents challenges, albeit fruitful ones to scale. In a year where Sam Baker and Hayes Carll have already crossed my path in the first quarter, the reassuring compatibility of Rod Picott strengthens the touring American song writing fraternity considerably.

Monday, 19 March 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Courtney Marie Andrews - May Your Kindness Remain : Loose Music

Lucinda Williams framed the phrase ‘down where the spirit meets the bone’ in the title of her 2014 album. If you were to discover such a place, Courtney Marie Andrews would be there scribbling in her notebook before wrapping the words around her vocal chords. Those cast under the spell of her previous record will still be locked in a cavern of soulful song-writing bliss as MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN gets the album handover. It is a case of striking while the creative iron is hot as the antithesis to romanticised Americana feasts on the currency of kindness and hope. The intensity and capacity to move runs rapid across the ten tracks, without the slightest trace of being “overwrought”.

The search for the album’s beacon stops abruptly at the jaw-dropping momentous ballad ‘Took You Up’, which has the capability to break each listener with every play. Right from the opening line ‘is it the journey or the destination’, the instant gift of song writing nirvana has been found and we are exposed to the starkest of relationship analysis. From ‘cheap motels, diners and dives’ to ‘wouldn’t trade love for a million bucks’, the analogies relentlessly flow amidst a stirring soundtrack awash with gorgeous melodic breaks. This song is up alongside Brandi Carlile’s ‘Sugartooth’ as the best track heard for ages and is in no danger of removal from a year-shaping list.

Courtney Marie Andrews may have come to prominence with the release of HONEST LIFE, but there is a lengthy trail of exposure to the world of a working musician over the last decade. Without doubt, this experience filters into the song writing process and she certainly has a priceless knack of capturing her feelings in the sung word. Evidence for the case of removing iconic namechecking is almost complete to the extent where artists in her tailwind will soon be citing the name Courtney Marie Andrews.

Four tracks have surfaced online in the run up to the album release headed by the title number ‘May Your Kindness Remain’. An extraordinary perception to draw positives from advancing flaws is a trait in the writing process, and this song leads the way. The most recent album leak was the ironic ‘I’ve Hurt Worse’, which sees the vocals slightly soar and the fortitude of the artist spill over. Doubling up on the kindness theme is another previewed piece ‘Kindness of Strangers’. This is probably one of the fuller sounding tracks on the album, complete with extra additional backing vocals and an instrumental accompaniment marrying keys, strings and percussion. Courtney’s lead vocals push a little harder here without losing any of the sculptured elegance.

My second favourite track on the record is ‘Two Nights in Buffalo’. This was heard first when featuring in the set at Moseley Folk Festival last September and made an instant impression. The availability of repeat plays confirms this initial promise. While every sympathy is offered to the city in question (the second time it appears in my collection after Amanda Shires’ ‘Detroit or Buffalo’), it is refreshing for somewhere else other than Cleveland to attract the song writing blues. Courtney does not refrain from dishing out some near clichés in ‘wrong side of the tracks’, ‘mom and pop, 5 and dimes’, but the vision painted from this punchier song portrays the message.  

Everything about the infrastructure to this album seems to fall into place: ten tracks, forty minutes, inspiring lead off title track and the essential climactic closer. ‘Long Road Back to You’ unveils as a mini epic in this role. Passion, feeling and a killer chorus all add to the mix as we get the perfect send off, or hit the repeat button if you have some sense!

Border’ and ‘This House’ were two songs Courtney presented to a live audience when she played a fabulous solo gig in Oxford recently. The first of these takes a social look at the immigrant attitude that blights parts of the States, in this case close to the Arizona home where she was raised. The second brings the theme back into the realm of the personal vicinity and how sometimes you just have to treasure what you have – warts and all. This is an aspect of Courtney’s writing in which she really excels.

Rough Around the Edges’ gets the widely used piano intro plus its major accompaniment, and rolls out as a trademark Courtney Marie Andrews piece. The piercing vocals convey the passion of the song and demonstrate that soul music can come in many different forms. It is just an innate trait that certain performers effortlessly pour into their musical art. ‘Lift the Lonely From My Heart’ is the final track mentioned, but could quite conceivably be the first in likeminded reviews. Here, organ and Wurlitzer makes a further soulful impression and the emotive spark off the album gets a touch fiercer.

MAY YOUR KINDNESS REMAIN is the perfect embodiment of the heartfelt song. It weaves in a thread of art and reality, tearing up the singer-songwriter genre in a similar vein to her iconic American predecessors. Its ability to convey a multitude of messages awash with life’s imperfections tints it with an anti-corporate stance. Delicately sung and immaculately presented, Courtney Marie Andrews is the architect of a record that should act as a country/folk blueprint in 2018. A journey, a journal, a lesson, this album is a classic.

Saturday, 17 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Mo Pitney + Ashley Campbell + Ryan Kinder - O2 Institute, Birmingham. Friday 16th March 2018

A new venture for the Country-to-Country operation this year has been to take a few post-festival shows around the regions under the branded ‘roadshow’ motif. Two were located in Birmingham, building upon a recent upsurge of mainstream artists getting booked to play venues across the city. The Friday presentation pitted the contrasting styles of Mo Pitney, Ashley Campbell and Ryan Kinder, who convened in the upper reaches of the O2 Institute. An early start and the fact that this was the only gig going on in a spacious tri-room venue equated to a slightly eerie entrance and departure, but a healthy gathering for the allotted space gave the artists a warm response.

Ryan Kinder opened up well before the city centre rush hour had subsided. Without being too disrespectful to the performer, he is the type of act synonymous with the diluting of the tag ‘country’ and a recruiting agent for Ameripolitan and aspects of Americana. What he produced for half an hour with the help of two backing singers, a bassist and a percussionist on cajon was fairly standard fare, probably more enjoyable with the erasing of any genre thoughts. Nevertheless, this should not matter I hear you say. It does here! Probably the pick of the songs played was ‘Alabama’, the home state of the artist. Hailing from the other Birmingham, probably gave him open license to discuss name pronunciation, even though us gig goers hear it every month.

Having checked him out prior to the show, the set from Ryan Kinder offered no surprises. The two main reasons for attending this gig subsequently lifted the evening more in the realm of ‘three chords and the truth’ and confirmed that C2C can do things right when they put their mind to it.

Ashley Campbell is an artist making a concerted move to inch out of the shadow of her family name. Over the last couple of years, she has visited the UK a number of times and this is starting to reap rewards. The added bonus of this trip is, at last, a record to offer fledgling fans a reminder of their acquaintance. This was the third time seeing Ashley and her two sidekicks, brother, Shannon on guitar and Eli Bishop on fiddle. Without hesitation, she improves each time to the extent where the subsequent move to a full band show should be considered.

The banjo playing of Ashley comes across as perceptibly more effective each time seen. She was at least the equal to her highly talented guitar-playing brother this evening. The tempo, pace and thrust of the trio format is still driven by the exquisite fiddle playing of Eli. The pair even jammed to an Earl Scruggs tune ‘Shuckin’ the Corn’. Who’s going to object to a bit of bluegrass and there was more to come.

The debut album THE LONELY ONE is only a week old, although a few of the songs are already familiar pieces. There is a pop streak to the proceedings, but then her father did not shy away from crossover status. The pick of the new songs this evening was a luscious version of ‘What I’m Doin’ Here’, closely followed by the increasingly popular ‘Looks Like Time’. The latter is reminiscent of the Angaleena Presley song ‘Bless My Heart’ and eases itself comfortably into the ‘cutting revenge’ genre.

Apart from the opportunity to make a true stab at being an independent artist, the passing of her father seemed to hold back the emotive backstory to the song ‘Remembering’. There probably will not be an Ashley Campbell set without this song, and a piece of Glen will always be with her on stage. Likewise, his trademark hit ‘Gentle on My Mind’ remains a staple of her sets. In a twist to the famous Samuel Johnson quip, ‘when a man (woman) is tired of this song, they are tired of country music’.

Ashley departed the stage promising to return and kept her word for the finale. For the final fifteen minutes of the evening, she set up camp with Mo Pitney and a few of the pickers to share ‘Jolene’, ‘I Still Miss Someone’ and a final unnamed bluegrass jam to to send folks home totally countrified.

In contrast to the slight familiarity with Ashley Campbell, the music of Mo Pitney was more of an unknown entity prior to this event. The name had flickered in the distance and a few dates in the UK read about a couple of years ago. Getting into his 2016 release, BEHIND THIS GUITAR proved a useful taster for this show, and certainly laid the foundation, which saw Mo billed as the headliner. Although his trademark song ‘Country’ wanders into ‘tell them’ territory, the rest of his act is certainly rinsed in the spirit of country music. The voice, simplicity of the heartfelt song and humble sentiment portray a performer hell bent on lineage.

Mo started his set in solo mode before joined by his sister on backing vocals and brother on bass, making it a family affair to further cement country tradition. The song choice leapt around a little between tracks off the album, a few covers, a couple unknown and a preview of what he has up his sleeve when the opportunity arises to make the next record. It was inevitable that the Hag would feature and true to form, the reality of ‘I Met Merle Haggard Today’ co-habited alongside ‘If We Can Make It Through December’. Feeling the buzz for audience participation, the opening line of ‘trailer for sale or rent’ needed no introduction for vociferous help on ‘King of the Road’. Another song that proved a hit with the crowd was ‘Boy & a Girl Thing’ interestingly preluded by the ubiquitous story of a song’s origin.

To be rational, the overall feel of the show was a Mo Pitney/Ashley Campbell presentation and this made it an evening to remember. They are two performers who uphold many of the principles of the genre and retain an ability to connect with a wider audience. Perhaps both artists could consider how to evolve their overseas touring with a more extensive band presence; however, this is subject to further financing. It was curious to see ten performers on stage across the three evening sets without any sighting of an electric lead guitar. Admittedly, compensation was rich with plenty of banjo and fiddle. It wil be a positive move for these two artists to retain the UK on the touring agenda and they will be made increasingly welcome by fans who care about genre preservation.

Thursday, 15 March 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Scotty McCreery - Seasons Change : Triple Tigers Records/Sony Music Entertainment

In the week where the Nashville mainstream made their presence felt in the UK and Ireland with the Country-to-Country Festival, it would be remiss not to give a few column inches to a release embedded in this scene. Therefore, amongst the deluge of Americana, folk and singer-songwriter submissions to peruse, an interesting new record from Scotty McCreery landed to make a case. To insert a slight addendum, this is an artist on the rebound from given the boot off a major label, so in essence there is a little tale of the outsider in the story if not wholly to the sound. SEASONS CHANGE is the comeback album from an artist previously launched to big ideals on the back of ‘talent’ TV success, and an attempt to replicate the achievement of a recent #1 single from an industry position where he needed to pedal a little faster.

This album sits firmly in the mid region of the mainstream, with little pretence to attract back traditionalists or reach out to deeper non-country genres such as pop, hip hop, rock and r‘n’b. It shores up a core sound that has been a firm fixture within the genre for well over twenty years and does this particularly well. A strong entrenched country voice strides across the record presenting eleven tracks adhering to a high level of entertaining appeal.

The record is awash with formulaic traits, but to what extent you judge formulas is down to personal perception and intent. Much of the content is not earth shatteringly new, even extended to the theme of the title of the main track, ‘Five More Minutes’, most famously replicated in the shape of the song Lorrie Morgan took to the top of the charts nearly thirty years ago. In familiar country tradition, McCreery’s cut takes you through all stages of life with the inevitable conclusion. A song that does have that earworm knack of attracting repeat plays when the mood permits.

Wherever You Are’ , ‘In Between’ and ‘This is It’ immediately jump out as tracks to keep the album’s wheels moving and a pitch to cement some acceptance in the customer sphere that it is aimed at. They add to a background soundtrack that has a southern flavour peeping out from the multitude layers of studio influence. There are moments when you want to halt proceedings, or perhaps give Scotty a few records to listen to, so that the talent filters down an alternative route. However, let us not ponder too much on what a record is not.

Maybe the best approach to this record is to readjust the comparisons, tone down the intuitive analysis and accept the merits on face value. Armed with this agenda, SEASONS CHANGE comes across as a soundly constructed body of work, distinct in the model style of its aim and maybe makes an effort to stabilise a sound that has the potential to slip further away unless unchecked. Scotty McCreery is currently undergoing his second country life, seemingly harsh on somebody not yet 25; such is the cutthroat nature of having to sell records to feed an entity.

Tuesday, 13 March 2018

ALBUM REVIEW: Korby Lenker - Thousand Springs : Soundly Music

While the music always comes first, it is difficult not to take more than a passing interest in the artists who have contributed in some part to the latest album from Korby Lenker. Many of the featured artists are known in the UK for their work and likely form a close-knit network in the confines of East Nashville where they are frequently based. THOUSAND SPRINGS may have surfaced in the States a while back, but it is getting a renewal this side of the pond in conjunction with a set of upcoming tour dates. This is the seventh album from an artist best described as a mellow lo-fi folk singer bestowed with the troubadour trait of filling the world with oodles of thoughtful words. Find your space, block out the outside world, and the whispering tones of Korby Lenker will refresh your faith in the far away song.

The album broke the rules of a studio origin and arose from an impromptu wanderlust to roam the land filing inspiration from any put down point. Obviously, background knowledge informs this, but add it to the listening mix and you sink deeper into the spirit of the album. The eventual production adds a fuller element that edges it away from just a raw acoustic record. Each of the twelve tracks create a little ripple with perhaps two spreading a greater distance.

Book Nerd’ is a buoyant ditty acting as the record’s marker post and weaving some iconic names into an amusing piece. Authorship is another bow to Lenker’s creative arm and the literature theme shines a light on the song’s curious character. The tune possesses shades of Slaid Cleaves’ ‘Hard to Believe’, another great piece, so the association is a high compliment. Pushing this track close is album opener ‘Northern Lights’ sending you on a starry trip to Chicago in an ethereal haze.

Pretty quickly, the sound begins to evolve with fiddle and mandolin taking hold by the time we get to the third track ‘Nothing Really Matters’, which presents itself as a roots infused effort. The pacier ‘Last Man Standing’, a historical piece detailing ‘the leader of the one Sioux nation’, injects a fierier sound into the proceedings, although it does not alter the holistic feel of the album.

Caroline Spence’s vocals on ‘Uh Oh’ commence the name-check, which eventually extends to familiar artists in Molly Tuttle, Amy Speace and Robbie Hecht getting co-write credits. Chris ‘Critter’ Eldridge (Punch Brothers) and Anthony DaCosta are two of the players to visit our shores in various guises, while Angel Snow, Anna Tivel and Carrie Elkin add their vocals to different songs across the record.

Father to the Man’ is probably the track that anchors the second half of the record and is yet another example of a catchy melody rising from a wealth of inspired lyrics. Maybe in an act that brings Lenker back to his existential core, ‘Wherever You Are’ closes things out as a gorgeous single take solo effort. Almost implying, thanks to all those giving a helping hand, but now it is time to go back to solitary folk singer status. As always seeking inspiration from within their own bubble. 

THOUSAND SPRINGS succeeds in balancing the tender and delicate with the watchful and witty. It has the legs to give Korby Lenker momentum in taking this strand of his art forward. This allows listeners to explore its many crevices, while not losing sight that engaging hook lines play a major part in securing attention. Learning more about this record via the live shows is likely to be the perfect addendum, but not wholly essential to enjoying the album as it is more than capable of hoisting itself into listening spheres.

Monday, 12 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Emmylou Harris + Margo Price + Midland - C2C Festival, O2 Arena, London. Sunday 11th March 2018

Emmylou in ambidextrous mode!
First of all apologies for missing off Little Big Town from the headline, but the 9:10 from London Marylebone to Birmingham Snow Hill won the day. However, a curtailed day trip to North Greenwich still brought great riches as the process of cherry picking Country-to-Country (C2C) kicked back into gear. Resistance to catch a rare glimpse of the legendary Emmylou Harris drifted away as the secondary ticket market reversed its much disputed overpricing policy. The twinning with Margo Price was also a shrewd move for an event making gestures to reach out. Throw in the curious enigma of Midland, and the scene was set for a splendid afternoon/early evening’s entertainment.

Contrasts from all three acts were in abundance, although these were not necessarily all from a negative viewpoint. The allotted stage times for all three (Midland 40 mins, Margo 55 mins, Emmylou 60 mins) were entirely adequate in the context of the overall presentation and to ascertain the extent of their presence. Reports of sound issues from the Friday evening show gladly did not appear to surface, although location in the cavernous O2 Arena probably creates a disparity. Sitting in an upgraded seat on the Level 1 sideline did present an apparent distant echo from the rear of the arena if you strained one ear, but it was easy to block out and focus on the crispness emanating from the stage. This much sonically maligned ‘barn’ probably had one of its better days.

Midland emphatically scaled the sound threshold to make a bold statement as a live band with intent. Not surprisingly, Big Machine’s two-fingered gift to the critics went down a storm with a majority of the audience, and the vibrancy of their songs relayed much of the acknowledged accomplishment of the ON THE ROCKS album. While they crossed one bridge with their charisma, the reluctance to embrace the true country sound still puts a question mark against their credibility. Maybe it was just a safer option to ditch any remnants of fiddle, steel or keys, and hit C2C with a fully-fledged guitar, bass and drum attack.

Admittedly, this did not overpower a host of good songs including ‘Drinkin’ Problem’, ‘Altitude Adjustment’ and ‘More Than a Fever’, but left food for thought of what it will probably take to ultimately silence the critics. You only had to witness the different league that the bands supporting the other two acts were operating in to ram home the point. Yet Midland did many things right, and only a staunch cynic could dismiss them. The future may be revealing, but the present was appealing.

Margo: More than a front person
One perceptive observation was the contrasting covers delivered across these three sets. Midland adopted a predictable stance with trademark Petty and sampling Mellencamp, while Margo roamed into similar territory, though a slight alternative take on CCR and a little snippet of timely Willie. Emmylou trumped them all with Billy Joe Shaver, Ralph Stanley and some Bill Monroe.

Margo’s drift into ‘Whiskey River’ was entirely in accord with being joined on stage by a Nelson junior in the shape of the rapidly advancing Lukas. The pair served up the duet ‘Learning to Lose’ off her latest album, proving that ‘like father like son’ is not some overused cliché. Early into her set, Margo commented that the journey from playing the Slaughtered Lamb in the not too distant past was incredible. Having seen her both in The Exchange in Bristol and The Bullingdon in Oxford, it was a huge transition jumping into an arena, but she made it effortlessly to remove any apprehension.

Backed by a momentous band ensuring keys and steel were going to play some part in C2C 2018, Margo kept mainly to the upbeat songs from her two albums lifted to international status by the wily arm of Third Man Records. ‘Tennessee Song’, ‘Cocaine Cowboys’ and ‘Hurtin’ (On the Bottle’) played a significant part in this rousing set. Clad in a distinguished suit to match the Midland boys, Margo even rose to the challenge of a mid-set costume change. When also factoring in the genre-pushing pair ‘Do Right By Me’ and ‘A Little Pain’, there was more than a touch of show biz panache and a suggestion that traditional evolvement can work in positive ways.

No introduction required
While post C2C, Margo Price will most likely ease back into a mid-venue role, the mark made on a wider audience will have some bounce. Undoubtedly, the duet with Lukas Nelson will be fondly remembered by a large number. From a personal perspective, it was seeing her rise to the occasion that brought the greatest smile. The band was pretty good as well!

The good news about Emmylou Harris is that those shows with Rodney Crowell of a couple of years ago were not the farewell feared. An opportunity to share her distinguished class with a British and Irish audience was too good to miss across a hectic weekend. She looked every inch the statesperson as she glided through an iconic set list, especially showing that there is still mileage in the voice as she enters her septuagenarian years.

The Red Dirt Boys, Emmylou's regular band, can certainly show the younger generation how to ‘pick’ an exemplary sound, proving that amped up bass is not the only way to fill an arena. When you have such expert players as Will Kimbrough, Chris Donohue and Phil Madeira the results are only going one way. English mandolin and fiddle player Eamon Mcloughlin probably stole the instrumental show of the weekend with his sublime performance of stringed elegance and brilliance.

As mentioned earlier, Emmylou paid tribute to some great artists, with her version of Billy Joe Shaver’s ‘Old Five and Dimers Like Me’ proving the pick. Of course, there are a couple of tribute songs where introduction is superfluous. Emmylou has almost a strong claim on ‘Pancho and Lefty’ as Townes, and all the others who have covered it. It also transpired that the gem of a set closer London had in ‘Boulder to Birmingham’ might have been impromptu, with Glasgow missing out and this set seaming to finish a few minutes early before the prompt to do one more. However, there was no complaints here with the most glorious of send offs.

Prior to that stupendous hair rising finale, we were treated to unblemished songs such as ‘Red Dirt Girl’, ‘Orphan Girl’ and ‘Making Believe’. All perfectly accompanied by a seasoned band in impeccable form. This Emmylou Harris set was worth any degree of investment and is firmly locked away in the treasure trove of privileged gig memories.

Over the duration of its six-year existence, Country-to-Country has divided opinion across the country music world, and is likely to continue to as long it re-convenes each March. Periodically, they get the scheduling spot on and this afternoon/early evening was such an occasion. Little Big Town may have thrilled the masses at the close, but a certain homage to Gram Parsons hummed in the head of one person on a Chiltern train service at the corresponding time.

Thursday, 8 March 2018

GIG REVIEW: Pokey LaFarge - 02 Institute, Birmingham. Wednesday 7th March 2018

Few could remember the last time Pokey LaFarge played Birmingham; a situation now suitably remedied after a packed Institute rocked to the core of American roots music. In a vibrant haze of the sounds of the South floating north to where it gets a touch more rusty, bands getting close to the authenticity of our headliners tonight are rare on the ground. The line-up may be slightly impeded with the temporary side lining of one of its main players, but an exuberant audience rose to the challenge to fill the gap. It helped that Pokey and his three accomplices turned in a scintillating performance of rip-roaring music. Throw in smidgeons of old time country, blues, jazz and rock ‘n’ roll take you into Pokey LaFarge territory, but it is how these styles are executed that gets folks fully on board, a successful formula keeping the band firmly in prime time exposure over the last decade.

For an hour and half this evening, the art of rocking, serenading, rejoicing and participating filled the air, all orchestrated by the charisma of Pokey. It helps if you have an ace guitarist as good as Adam Hoskins at your right hand side and a rhythm section in the guise of Matt Myers (drums) and Joey Glynn (upright bass) keeping impeccable time. Filling the gap left by the accident recovering fifth member Ryan Koenig has been a critical task facing the band on this return to European venues and the success can only be measured by the reception given to the remaining quartet playing their hearts out.

Right from the opening bars of ‘Better Man Than Me’, taken from the latest album, through to classic Pokey in the crowd engulfing ‘La La Blues’, the pace only frequently dipped, and that was for songs packed with a slice of privileged sensibility. A key moment occurred straight into the encore when the uplifting chorus of ‘Cairo Illinois’ threaded through an enthralled gathering. Earlier Pokey had given his band members a brief breather to allow him the space to deliver ‘Josephine’ in all its emotion. However, this proved a solo exception as the entity of the unified band decorated the evening that few would argue peaked with a rousing version of ‘Central Time’.

Other notable tunes on the evening came in the waltzing melody of ‘Goodbye, Barcelona’, the indulgent ‘Drinkin’ Whiskey Tonight’ and the smart lyrics making ‘Something in the Water’ more than just a supreme album lead off title track. Pokey does not leave too much gap between records, and with last year’s release, MANIC REVELATIONS still finding new homes, hot off the press material is getting a preview as exemplified by this evening’s playing of a song titled ‘Rotterdam’

Whatever number played, a dedicated fan base lapped up every moment of their hero playing a full-length performance in a Midlands town. From a personal perspective, the delights of seeing them play festival sets at Cambridge in 2014 and Forecastle in 2016 were blown away by a sparkling performance that totally ruled a venue.

Opening for Pokey LaFarge on this tour is New Orleans-based country singer-songwriter Esther Rose, who accompanies her own acoustic guitar with a lap steel playing sidekick. Together, they blend a contrasting sound formed of atmospheric twang and a vocal style capable of bringing any remote dive bar to heal. Whereas Pokey takes the southern sound north, Esther took it further west. More the wide open spaces of New Mexico than the tightly knit semi-urban communities of southern Illinois. The title track from her recent album ‘This Time Last Night’ proved the consensus pick of the half hour set.

Consensus on Pokey LaFarge was rock solid on the overall appeal and only likely to be open to debate on which song proved the crowning moment. No doubt, a school of thought put the whole evening on a pedestal and that would be an assessment difficult to oppose. Winners were all round though: a band having a ball of a time; an audience grasping a rare opportunity to see a true American roots band in full glory and maybe just a city showing that it can come to the fore with supporting this type of music.